The Samburu: A Study of Gerontocracy

The Samburu: A Study of Gerontocracy

The Samburu: A Study of Gerontocracy

The Samburu: A Study of Gerontocracy


Samburu society is a gerontocracy in which power rests with the older men; men under thirty may not marry or otherwise assert their personal independence. This nomadic tribe from the arid regions of northern Kenya cling to their traditional way of life despite the rapid change throughout Africa. The author spent more than two years during the 1960s amongst the Samburu, and as an adopted member of one of their clans, he perceived how their values and attitudes are closely interwoven with a social system that resists change.


The Samburu was first published in 1965 and this new edition is linked to a reprint of The Maasai of Matapato (1988) by Routledge and the publication of a further volume on the Maasai entitled Time, Space, and the Unknown (2004). These follow in a logical sequence to form a set of three works that span my involvement in this area.

When I first started along this track, there had been an upsurge of interest in the age-based pastoral societies of East Africa. Anthropological studies on this topic were few, and each newcomer was expected to seek out an unclaimed group—a tribe—as uncharted territory. in 1957, I was at the tail-end of this trend and had at first proposed to study the Maasai, only to find that there were already two other social anthropologists in the area: Alan Jacobs among the Maasai proper and Philip Gulliver among the Arusha, both in Tanzania. This led me to turn my attention to the Samburu of Kenya, where the field was quite empty.

The Samburu were the most northern group of nomadic pastoralists within the Maa-speaking cluster. in effect, they could be regarded as upcountry cousins of the Maasai proper, sharing traditions of joint ancestry and just managing to survive into colonial times over a period when the Maasai dominated the plains further south. the Samburu were an idyllic society for an anthropological novice and this switch in focus from the political centre of this group to the periphery was a stroke of good fortune. the literature on this area was fragmentary compared with the Maasai, presenting an open pasture for research, and, as it turned out, an altogether less elaborate and confusing set of practices.

The present volume focuses on the Samburu age system as a gerontocracy. a number of people—including some well-seasoned colleagues—have suggested that it is a book about old men; and I have been tempted to congratulate them for getting as far as the subtitle. Some reviews even substituted the term ‘gerontology’ in the title. the point to stress is that this work is not primarily about old or middle-aged men, but about young men who are trapped in the vacuum created by a gerontocratic regime, where their alternative lifestyle has a mesmerizing quality. It concerns the social construction of

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