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The power of youth

Musical practice and the construction of authority among the Samburu (Kenya)
Giordano Marmone
Traduction de Margaret Buckner
Cet article est une traduction de :
Le pouvoir des jeunesses [fr]


Instead of attempting to understand “young people” and “youth” through categories considered universal, it seems more fruitful to examine local productions of age categories. Among the Samburu—pastoralists of northern Kenya, where age is the foundation of individual categorisation and of an egalitarian sociopolitical organisation—youth is “non-existent,” and political authority is among the skills instilled early through training, in the same way as economic tasks. In the very particular context of musical training and the rivalries it provokes for the position of soloist, leadership skills stand out in certain cases. Musical activity, with its ability to bring distinguished personalities to light from before the age of circumcision, occupies a very central place in this power-assertion process at the individual level. As a member of a society sometimes characterised as “gerontocratic,” the Samburu young person actually appears to be the protagonist of a self-generated process of personal political authority creation, much earlier than previously imagined.

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1The classic questions “what is a young person?” or “what is youth?” should be considered with caution. In ethnology and anthropology, the first inclination is to ask whether these labels, deemed universal, fit a particular context. The population under study may perhaps not be content with a simple opposition between young and old to grasp the effect of time on bodies, persons, and social status, or to conceive of life stages. Not one but several forms of youth could succeed each other, either with or without clear boundaries.

2In this article, I examine diverse forms of “youth” in relation to “young people’s” access to political power in communities where the notion of age is at the base of the social and political structure. This is especially the case in the pastoral and agro-pastoral societies of East Africa. Here, men (and more rarely women) are ranked on a scale of age grades differentiated by a combination, unique for each individual, of physical (biological) age and social age (Spencer, 1978). Passing from one grade to the next brings about an often radical change in the position of individuals in community hierarchies, accompanied by changes in roles, obligations, and privileges. The process of building political power, which peaks when a man reaches the rank of elder, does not, however, depend solely on aging within the age-grade system. The important political role men play in decision-making dynamics also results in the emergence and development of individual competencies even prior to circumcision. In this context, vocal music, because it exercises and highlights the oratory skills of “young people,” plays a crucial and unsuspected role, which is the focus of this article.

Elusive youth: age-grade and generation-set societies

  • 1 The adjective arrari (old) is sometimes used with a mocking tone to refer to warriors who are the f (...)
  • 2 For an in-depth look at this central question, cf. Peatrik, 1995a and b, 2003; Bernardi, 1985.

3It may seem paradoxical, but “youth” per se is not always understood in the same way in so-called “age-grade” societies. Indeed, there are no formally recognized life stages or statuses that define the category. For example, the recruitment period for the generation-sets of the groups that speak languages of the Karimojong language family—including the Turkana, Jie, and Karimojong, but not the Samburu, which this article concerns—is so long (up to 40 years or more) than many men, already having wives and children, die before their generation reaches the political status of Fathers of the Land (Tornay, 1995). Do they die as “youth,” or does the fact that they are married automatically make them “elders”? In fact, this line of questioning—based on Western concepts—distorts our understanding of local realities. Among the Samuburu, the Nilotic pastoralist community in northern Kenya studied here, the local labels for “young” (lellerie) and “old” (arrari) are most often used to indicate the position of men within their own generations or to describe their age status, not to distinguish a “class” of youth from a “class” of elders. The terms “young” and “old” are moreover used to specify the relative age of elders (e.g., one would speak of a “young elder” or an “old elder”), while to distinguish individuals of different physical ages in the warrior status (lmurran), one would use the adjectives “small” (kini) and “big” (kitok).1 Neither recruitment into the age-grade system, nor marriage, nor even physical/biological age (up to a certain point2) constitutes in and of itself a discriminating factor in demarcating the conceptual and social boundaries between youths and elders, or between youths and children. Under these conditions, how can this human development phase be understood in age-grade societies?

  • 3 Let us recall that the Samburu age-grade system, from the men’s perspective, is composed of three a (...)

4First, we must stop thinking of “youth” as a life stage or a social status defined by one or more “rites of passage” and instead think of it as a series of steps taken through individual and collective action in the economic, ritual, musical, and political arenas, and, on another level, in the area of sexuality. In other words, in these societies, the quality of “youth” is not merely a question of “age” in the calendar sense, with age being calculated, as in the West, by the number of years that have passed since a person’s birth, but is based instead on what an individual does, or has the right to do, according to his affiliation with a particular generation-set and age grade.3 I refer here to tasks that are assigned to him, to tasks that he thinks he can accomplish, to his potential to manipulate his community’s political and ritual machine, to the portion of his community over which he could exercise some degree of authority, and, finally, to his position in the local agro-pastoral economy. It should also be emphasized that the criteria for legitimizing and shaping the social age of individuals, determined by their belonging to a particular generation-set or a particular age grade, vary greatly from one society to another, from one territory to another, and, to a certain extent, from one historical period to another. In the same age group some men could be considered “old” while others could be considered “young” based on complicated judgements involving marital status, the age of their children, the authority they have in their community, etc.

5The series of ceremonies that sanction the passage of the young and the less young from one grade to another, up to the acquisition of full political and religious powers—ceremonies that also vary greatly depending on the population and the historical context—obviously play a central role in the local construction of ages in life. However, they cannot be defined by or reduced to the sole process of aging in the Western sense.

  • 4 Young circumcised men, or, to use a more familiar but less exact term, warriors. The word lmurrani (...)
  • 5 The lmuget le nkweny is repeated as long as there are newly circumcised novices. Circumcisions are (...)
  • 6 In some lowland communities in the southern Samburu region, a man who, for whatever reason, is unab (...)

6The body of lmuget ceremonies, the backbone of the Samburu age grade system, illustrates this proposition well. The lmugeti (plural) consist of a series of six male ceremonies following circumcision that punctuate the lives of men up to the grades of junior and senior elders (Spencer, 1965; Stewart, 1977), after which there are no more changes in status and thus no more “rites of passage.” Aside from the first of these rituals, the lmuget le nkweni (the ceremony of birds) that marks the passage from newly-circumcised to the status of lmurran4 and that must be celebrated approximately four days to one month after each circumcision,5 the five other lmugeti take place only once for each generation-set, that is, every twelve to fifteen years.6 Though these ceremonies are directly linked to the grades and sets of the Samburu age-grade system, these lmugeti “aging” ceremonies only vaguely correspond to the Western notions of youth, old age, or elderhood. The aging process referred to here should instead be interpreted as a social itinerary that leads first away from uninitiated status and then towards the gradual acquisition of political and economic powers and responsibilities. The lmugeti le watanta and le sikiya—the second and third celebrations in the life of a Samburu man, respectively, one month to one year, and two to four years, approximately, after the initiation of the first members of the new generation-set—have nothing to do with “aging” per se, but mark and set in motion the progression through time and the social system. The goal of these two ceremonies is to purify the lmurran, still considered too close to the impure state of the uninitiated they have only just left when they were circumcised. The smoke produced at the culmination of the ceremonies by burning leaves and branches of eight plant species has the power to “wash” (aituk) the bodies and persons of the lmurran and to eliminate the last vestiges of their “degrading” uncircumcised past. The following lmuget, that of the name (lmuget le nkarna)—celebrated approximately seven years after the opening of a generation-set and five to eight years before its closure—allows the lmurran to be officially proclaimed “defenders of the community.”

  • 7 The vernacular term lpayan (plural lpayani), which in Samburu refers to members of the status of el (...)

7With the first of the final two lmugeti, the lmuget le laiŋoni, or ceremony of the bull, the Samburu celebrate the end of the recruitment period for a generation-set and the beginning of its members’ progress towards elderhood. Fifteen years later, through the lmuget lo kule o mbené, or ceremony of milk and leaf (still called lmuget le musho, the final ceremony), the members of a generation-set pass from the grade of junior elders to that of senior elders. Of the six total lmugeti, the lmugeti le laiŋoni and lo kule o mbené (the final two) are the only ones explicitly tied to ideas that could be referred to as youth and elderhood. It is not by chance that, during the planning assemblies for these two final ceremonies, discussions most often focus on themes associated with what would correspond to the Western notion of “adulthood,” such as access to sociopolitical responsibilities, respect for institutions and persons considered vulnerable (girls, women, and children), and consequently the prohibition of lmurran-like behavior. Speeches about changes in status leading to the grade of “senior elder” convey a distinction between “youth,” in the sense of “not elders,” versus “elders,”7 responsible and honorable. The characteristics that distinguish one from the other are explicitly analyzed and verbalized; for the first time during an important ceremony, the theme of life ages, in the sense of the passing of time—which shapes and differentiates bodies and persons—is rendered manifest.

8A closer look at the second and third lmugeti reveals an implicit characterization of “youth.” The main objective, which is to “wash” the lmurran, suggests that the uncircumcised state is considered “dirty” (cf. Spencer, 1985b). The ceremonies therefore have nothing to do with youth, which contemporary Western thought associates instead with “purity” and innocence (Ticktin, 2017). By adopting an emic perspective, one realizes that, for the Samburu, the dirtiness of which men are cleansed is also indicative of what youth means: being uncircumcised means being dirty, and, to paraphrase a bit, being dirty implies being young, in the sense of “immature,” since maturity is associated with cleanliness and the body’s sweet odor (lorropili).

9In short, carelessly applying notions of youth and elderhood among the Samburu can cause confusion. A boy considered “young” from the standpoint of physical appearance may already have crossed the threshold to the status of elder and, therefore, have acquired the political rights and powers befitting his advanced grade. In contrast, a man who is physically an “adult” (at the peak of his manhood, one could say), could be socially considered a “youth” if he holds the status of lmurran or that of junior elder. George Paul Meiu (2015) thus demonstrates that some men of warrior status employed in the tourist industry on the Kenyan coast (and who have developed romantic relationships with Western women) are able to accumulate large sums of money that offer them a lifestyle and financial well-being that rival or even surpass those of the most well-established elders. These “youths” can then, like their fathers, marry, accumulate cattle, and establish a household before their peers can do so. Inversely, in the same context, some of the most impoverished elders may choose to wear the attire of the lmurran to try to seduce Western women staying at coastal resorts and in this way find a source of revenue, while their well-established peers who have several wives have long since consolidated their political and economic position in their age grade. Such reversals in the age-grade system, more and more common in the present day, make the identification of “young people” and youth from an emic perspective even more complicated.

10Biological youth (based on physical appearance) and social youth can either coincide or be at odds. Of these two ways to identify and categorize men, social age—tied to circumcision, aging ceremonies, and the statutory position of each generation-set—is, in spite of the significant exceptions described below, the more important in the Samburu age hierarchy. Nevertheless, there should not be too much of a discrepancy between the social categories of reference (uncircumcised boys, lmurran, elders, etc.) and individuals’ physical/biological age, for this would result in their marginalization and de facto exclusion from activities involving members of their status.

11Samburu men who do not have elder status—“non-elders” who could be considered “youth”—can be divided into two large categories separated by a boundary that is not only symbolic but branded into their flesh. Circumcision marks that important boundary between the uncircumcised boys and the lmurran, literally “those of circumcised penis” (cf. note 2). Through this operation (in reality, more elaborate than a simple circumcision), boys are officially integrated into age institutions: as lmurran, they are charged with caring for large livestock and defending the community. These two broad categories—uncircumcised boys and lmurran—thus relate to Samburu social organization in different ways: the former is outside or peripheral to the age-grade system, while the latter, in contrast, is inside and even integral to the system. For the Samburu, “youth” includes different ways of being young. Juveniles are characterized by the care of small livestock, the lack of self-control, and the notion of being dirty, while youths are characterized by circumcision, raids, licit sex, the care of large livestock, and entry into the political arena. Although a simplification, this perspective brings us closer to how the Samburu see and enact the various ages of life.

12One final point remains to be made clear. We have just said that, among the Samburu, the different ways of being young are determined by behavioral codes, collective and individual modes of action, rights and duties, relations with the pastoral economy, and, from an institutional point of view, ceremonial ranking. Essentially, this framework includes economic, physical-military, and ritual skills and know-how. In which domains, then, do inexperience, and the need to learn, to train, and to prove one’s worth—which characterize a youth as a novice—materialize? In what way are Samburu youth subordinated to their elders? How are practical and conceptual asymmetries (Sperber, 1974) specific to relations of seniority—and not just birthright, strictly speaking, which stems from lineage logics that do not apply here (cf. Peatrik, this volume)—manifested?

13The Samburu age-grade system shapes a political structure that is egalitarian and “of collective power.” In each of the region’s territorial units, it falls upon the junior and senior elders assembled together to make decisions about economic matters, herd management, aging ceremony organizing, etc. But the efficiency of the elders’ authority over the uncircumcised boys and lmurran derive as much from the intrinsic ritual seniority due to the position of their generation-set as from their mastery of the art of rhetoric and their virtuosity with words, means by which a mere opinion can be transformed into a rule of collective life. However, and this is the goal of our discussion here, the mastery of leadership skills and the ability to shape politics are the object of early training.

14To speak of leaders in a society “of collective power” may seem paradoxical. This is one of the most interesting aspects of these political systems, which limit pathways of individual emergence and allow for a form of individualism that has nothing to do with Western individualism. Numerous examples show that, within the so-called “age-grade” societies of East Africa, the potential for prominent figures to influence decision-making processes is not only seen as legitimate but is an integral part of a society’s governance (Dyson-Hudson, 1966; Stewart, 1977; Almagor, 1978; Tornay, 1989).

  • 8 My present goal is to shine light on the complexity of the notions of authority (the capacity of so (...)

15Though this observation has often been made by ethnographers working in these societies, the process by which individual leadership is established and shaped over time remains poorly understood. Political authority among the Samburu is not the specific prerogative of elders and does not depend exclusively on age-grade system hierarchies. Political authority is also the fruit of a long selection process that starts off almost imperceptibly among uncircumcised boys by way of an activity that, at first glance, seems distant from political affairs: singing. The preeminent role of musical practice in the individual pursuit of authority by those who, by convention, are called “young people” is one of the most original features of the Samburu social system.8

16Once they become lmurran, men more consciously take control of their progress towards the acquisition of political power that will reach its peak after they attain the status of elder. But though political aptitude manifests itself at the onset of “warrior” youth, it really begins to appear much earlier. The two broad categories of “youth” identified here are thus, remarkably, the true protagonists in the construction of future hierarchies within the status of elder. And, as we will now see, competition for power will play out to some degree in the musical arena.

Children who sing like warriors: budding leaders

17A man’s cursus honorum begins well before circumcision, when boys split their activities between caring for livestock and playing and dancing with their comrades. There are three categories of uncircumcised boys: children (nkearai, sing., nkeara, plural, from birth to about 6–7 years of age), small uncircumcised boys (layyeni, sing., layyok, plural, from 6–7 to 12–13 years of age), and big uncircumcised boys (larteni, sing., lartak, plural, from 12–13 years of age until circumcision, theoretically between 15 and 20 years). The oldest boys, those who will become senior lmurran after the opening of the new generation-set, are usually the first to emerge as leading figures among the uncircumcised boys. What are the activities of these budding leaders?

18The group of uncircumcised boys of a given territory or village—the same that will form the core of the future group of local lmurran—can count on only one form of structured interaction that unites all its members at more or less regular intervals: dance. Night hunts for dik-dik (a small antelope whose flesh is much relished by the boys) could constitute another such activity. Carried out by both layyok and lartak, this type of hunt, however, does not assign roles to participants. The ability to throw stones and strike sticks and the possession of a torch to blind the dik-diks seem to be the only conditions required of participants in these “expeditions,” which, moreover, are not without parallels to the lmurran raids.

19During their days of caring for family herds, the uninitiated boys (at least those who do not attend school) have almost no opportunity to join together in common activities. And dancing during the day could be costly for them, since the lmurran consider music to be a privilege of theirs and a powerful tool for courting girls. They would never allow their younger brothers to become direct competitors in dance and would not hesitate to use violence to punish the insolence of the uncircumcised boys. The lmurran are all the more vigilant because of their constant worry about the developing musical prowess of the lartak. The skill of uncircumcised boys in reproducing more and more faithfully the dances and songs of the warriors can be attributed to growth that is as much musical as personal. This growth marks the passage of time and reminds the lmurran that the opening of a new generation-set and their passage to elderhood approaches inexorably (Spencer, 1996). For all these reasons, the dance sessions of uncircumcised boys take place exclusively at night and are often organized in hidden places, far from the villages and the ears of the lmurran. This is especially true for the layyok and the lartak, who generally hold joint dances.

  • 9 The sound that corresponds to the letter « l » at the beginning of any Samburu word represents the (...)

20Children (nkeara), on the other hand, also try to imitate the warriors’ dance during sessions held more or less regularly, but because of their physical age the warriors do not see them as a real threat, so they can carry out singing and dancing activities during the day. Nkeara (children) is a feminine9 word used for both small boys and small girls, as opposed to layyok and lartak, which are clearly masculine words. This linguistic ambiguity with regard to children carries over into musical practice, and both small girls and small boys participate in dance interchangeably.

21As a general rule, the nocturnal dances of the lmurran, which are also the dances imitated by the uncircumcised boys, are based on choreographies that meet musical and aesthetic requirements. Furthermore, the positioning of dancers and singers both reflects and reproduces a hierarchical distribution of roles: one or more soloists (who alternate in singing) are usually accompanied by a small choir of four or five singers. The soloists and the choir are surrounded by a circle of dancers performing vocal ostinati that intertwine with the singing to produce a complex polyrhythmic and polyphonic texture of voiced and unvoiced exhalations, short melodic fragments, and sung phrases, either improvised or composed earlier by the soloists themselves. When unmarried girls in turn join the lmurran, the musical performance becomes even more elaborate: the male soloists alternate with female soloists and there are now two choirs, one of male voices the other of female. Interactions with the larger group, including the dancers, becomes even more complex due to the active presence of the girls.

22It is noteworthy that this same distribution of roles can be found among the nkeara (children): soloists, the small choir, and the larger chorus of dancers are all present. However, there are also noticeable differences between the dance and musical performance of the lmurran and that of the nkeara. The musical interventions of the child soloists do not articulate true song lyrics, but are made up of meaningless syllables. Moreover, as was mentioned above, with the lack of perceptible sex boundaries, the girls imitate with no problem the dance steps and the singing style of the lmurran as they perform vocal ostinati—a technique considered uniquely masculine—and take on the role of soloists in the group of boys.

23The children who regularly step forward as soloists during musical sessions with their peer groups are not exceptional. In fact, the seed of “musical authority” probably emerges even earlier than was previously thought (cf. Spencer, 1965). Certain children clearly show musical competence and observational and imitational skills superior to those of their comrades. Elders and lmurran call these small boys larriyan, using affectionately—and perhaps a bit grandiloquently—the term used for soloists among circumcised men and older uncircumcised boys. Their superior abilities are thus recognized as much by adults as by other children. However, in the absence of a longitudinal study, which is impossible to carry out at this time, it is difficult to know whether the hierarchies observed among boys at this stage are indicative of future musical and political leadership skills. We cannot positively state that child soloists, like the boy portrayed in Figure 1, constitute the first stage of the long road to acquiring prestige and authority as discussed in this article. The unpredictable trajectories of individual lives can take a person far from his initial potential. Nevertheless, we shall now see that musical leadership, no longer in children but among the small and big uncircumcised boys (layyok and lartak), is tied explicitly to the stage that follows, when the political role of the lmurran spokesmen is affirmed.

fig. 1 – A child soloist about 4–5 years old leads a song tied to a circular dance

fig. 1 – A child soloist about 4–5 years old leads a song tied to a circular dance

Photo Giordano Marmone, Simalé, 2013

“Leswom doesn’t know how to sing!” Political-musical selection among uncircumcised boys

  • 10 Cf. Almagor, 1978: 75, for the formation of similar groups of children among the Dassanech.

24As they grow up, the oldest layyok begin to form more and more defined bands, made up of boys from the same territorial unit. These local bands of small and big uncircumcised boys, which will later form lmurran groups, are exclusively male.10 The mixing of the sexes that occurred as children is no longer permitted at this stage: girls of the same age as the layyok, and especially of the lartak, leave their peers and turn towards warriors, thus establishing a new relationship with the male world. As for the lmurran, as soon as the girls begin to enter their sphere of influence, the lmurran no longer allow the uncircumcised boys to dance or have friendly relations with the girls. The antagonism that will eventually exist between adjacent generation-sets begins to take hold.

25The band first takes shape as a group of small uncircumcised boys without an internal hierarchy or anyone in charge. The situation evolves rapidly as membership increases (up to twenty boys) and the age gap between the newer members and the group’s original core widens. As has already been mentioned, the economic activities assigned to uncircumcised boys do not generally allow them to meet up during the day. Only at night can the boys join together for collective activities, primarily dik-dik hunts and dance. The practice of dance and music offer the only true arena for peer confrontation, where individual skills are put to the test with an aim to establish lasting personal authority.

  • 11 Among the Samburu, dance is always accompanied by singing. Linguistically, the two activities are d (...)

26With the exception of the ndiké, a singing dance11 reserved for uncircumcised boys, all of the musical dances of the layyok and the lartak are inspired by the dances of the lmurran of the same territorial unit. The earliest efforts to reproduce the repertoire of their elder brothers are tentative and imprecise, but as time goes by, at about four or five years from their own circumcision, the young boys are expert enough to introduce original musical elements and to compose new song lyrics. During this period of autonomous musical apprenticeship, uncircumcised boys of the same band enter tight competition for the most coveted position in the musical hierarchy, that of soloist. Not everyone has access to this privileged position. The necessary qualities for this role are so numerous that, in any given group of boys, those who could reasonably aspire to such a position could be counted with the fingers of one hand. A soloist must have a clear, powerful voice; be a good observer and a good listener; have the patience to learn the lyrics and the composing techniques of the lmurran; know his own territory and community; and be able to identify the proper themes to be developed and how to develop them. These are only some of the personal characteristics necessary for a soloist to lead his comrades in song. Other essential qualities are a mastery of language and the ability to formulate utterances that are effective and credible and can be understood by the audience.

27Competence, quickness in learning, patience, a good ear, eloquence—these are the qualities of a good soloist. But, as should be obvious by now, they are also the qualities of a good leader. The uncircumcised boys who compete with one another for the position of soloist trigger a selection process that begins with music and has potential repercussions in politics. This competition is completely self-started. At this stage, elders express no preference and give no indications. During hundreds of nocturnal dance sessions in the years preceding their passage to the status of lmurran, uncircumcised boys confront and observe each other and eventually exclude less-talented singers by means of teasing and gossip.

28Leswom, a boy about 11 or 12 years old from the village of Simalé, participates as soloist in several dance sessions between March and September 2013. Little by little, it becomes apparent that he only superficially knows the words to the lmurran songs. As he is singing one evening, he loses track and gets stuck first once, then twice. He tries without success to get back into the rhythm of the song. He laughs, seeking his comrades’ complicity, but the latter laugh at him. From one session to the next, the mistakes and inaccuracies accrue. After yet another failure, a voice rises from the group of young dancers. It resounds as a condemnation with no room for appeal: “Leswom doesn’t know how to sing!” He smiles, lowers his head, and lets another soloist take over. Several days later, a young boy from his band—one of his most formidable rivals in the competition for the role of soloist—shares a detail with me: “You know, Leswom smokes cigarettes in secret. He’s not a good person!” His reputation as soloist and possible future leader is questioned by his own comrades. To put an end to the teasing of the other uncircumcised boys, he gradually gives up singing, then even decides to stop participating in the dances. He continues to smoke in secret.

29The process of identifying the band’s best singers can be painful and merciless, but the bases of the selection mechanism are rational. Leswom, after several tries, was unsuccessful in demonstrating either the competence or the perseverance necessary to establish himself as soloist in the context of such fierce competition. Moreover, according to his comrades, his weaknesses were apparent not just in music but also touched on moral qualities.

Good leader, bad leader: success and failure in choosing lmurran spokesmen

30The opening of a new generation-set is always preceded by the designation of spokesmen for those who will be the newly circumcised young men. The elders have been observing the uninitiated boys for years to identify the most worthy and the most dependable boys in the band, but in fact the selection of the future lmurran spokesmen—key political figures in Samburu society—takes place among the future lmurran themselves. It is indeed they who, over the course of many assemblies, suggest to the elders the names of members of their group they judge apt to assume this role, one of great responsibility.

31The fact that uncircumcised boys have the right to select the individuals who will occupy prestigious institutional positions clearly shows that, among the Samburu, individuals who are not yet elders can seize opportunities for political action even before they enter the age-grade system, though, in Western terms, they are only adolescents or young people. Nevertheless, the elders do not remain outside the selection process for the warriors’ spokesmen. In fact, the uncircumcised boys, as they make their selections, also submit their “nominations” to the elders, who, in theory, can potentially exclude individuals they deem irresponsible.

32The spokesmen are necessarily chosen from among the oldest lartak, since, as they are the first of their set to be circumcised, they will immediately be able to carry out their duties upon becoming lmurran. The selection of these spokesmen is not based explicitly on musical skills developed during the passage to the lartak category, but, from a purely statistical perspective, and for reasons we already know, the soloists among the uncircumcised boys are often the favorites. However, choosing from among inexperienced boys the leaders that will guide their local groups of lmurran for about fifteen years in often difficult and dangerous situations, such village defense and cattle raids, is an extremely complex process, and the decisions made by the lartak themselves as well as by the elders can, in the long run, turn out to be unfortunate or simply ineffective.

33The spokesmen for the lmurran of a given village or territory are commonly called larikok (sing. larikoni) in Samburu, from the verb arik, “to guide.” The larikok—there are usually three or four—do not all have the same amount of authority and are ranked from most to least important. The context in which the larikok’s authority is demonstrated in its full magnitude is debates with elders or between lmurran during assemblies. However, representing the warriors of one’s territory cannot be reduced to defending them from the demands and reproaches of the elders. As the word itself indicates, the larikoni is a guide and an example for his comrades and peers. He must be able to resolve internal group conflicts, punish antisocial behavior, and stand at the forefront in politics, military affairs, and often music. He must also show great respect for his community’s institutions, master the art of oratory, and know the rules and inner workings of the age-grade political system. The right to speak in the name of the lmurran gives him exceptional individual authority as well as the power to directly influence decisions made in assemblies and in all other situations of formal or informal confrontation. Once they become elders, the former larikok do not lose their prestige or political appeal, but they must also face, in assemblies, other experienced men who are also heads of families and owners of herds and who are less inclined to allow themselves be influenced by more-or-less charismatic figures.

  • 12 In 2019, the lkishami in turn passed to the status of elders. A new generation-set, called lkiseku, (...)

34In 2005, the members of the generation-set called lmooli leave behind the status of lmurran to become “junior elders.” The recruitment period—which will last about fifteen years—for a new generation-set called lkishami opens up and its candidates begin to be circumcised.12 In Simale, one of the northernmost villages in Samburu County, the new larikok were selected the previous year, while they were still lartak. The choice made by the local band of older uncircumcised boys, approved by the elders, fell upon three young men with very different personal characteristics. Their names are Romis, Kadisho, and Lamile (the latter two are pseudonyms). We will now look briefly at their life histories.

35Romis, born in the early 1980s, was already over twenty years old when his generation-set, lkishami, opened for recruitment, and was about 36 or 37 years old when his set graduated from the status of lmurran to that of junior elder in 2019. While he was a member of his band of uncircumcised boys, he was by far the best soloist. Thanks to his thoughtful and decisive attitude, to his authority over his comrades, and to his extraordinary debating skills, he was always able to make his point of view heard and bring about consensus. He was thus the ideal candidate to be the first larikoni of the lmurran of his village. It was no surprise when he was chosen.

36Kadisho was over thirty years old in 2019, married with several children. In theory, he held the position of second larikoni, but in reality he was rarely heard in assemblies of elders and lmurran. A reserved, peaceful young man, not very talkative, he guided his family with wisdom and serenity but was never able to get the other lmurran to recognize his authority or to assume any political role in his village. He was never particularly interested in singing as a soloist. While uncircumcised, he sang only occasionally during nighttime dance sessions and did not really stand out among his comrades. Once he became lmurrani, he promptly stopped stepping forward as soloist. His measured personality, his respect for elders, and, according to some, his friendship with Romis, led the lmurran and the elders to choose him for the role of larikoni. This decision, based mainly on his moral qualities, ended up not paying off. Kadisho’s lack of charisma and oratory (and musical?) skills rendered him an absent and ineffective larikoni who never really felt at ease in his role as lmurran spokesman.

37The personal history of the third larikoni of the band of young circumcised men of Simale is probably the most complex. As opposed to Kadisho, Lamile was able to hold over the uncircumcised boys a level of authority comparable to that of Romis. Nevertheless, while the latter demonstrated even before he was circumcised the characteristics of a true political leader, opting for mediation and discussion, Lamile was admired by his comrades for the opposite reason. He was afraid of nothing and could brave the forcefulness of the lmurran and the authority of the elders. He did not hesitate to fire a gun in the direction of a group of lmurran of his own village who threatened his friends, who were guilty of inviting girls to dance with them. His ambiguous, if not conflictual, relationship with the hierarchy of the age-grade system and with political institutions in general should have alerted the elders. That being said, Lamile was influential in his band and a talented soloist. His leadership potential was thus obvious. Elders and lmurran alike, awed by his charisma, probably closed their eyes to his antisocial tendencies. However, as in the case of Kadisho, everyone became rapidly disappointed when he did not meet their expectations. When he became a lmurrani and a larikoni, Lamile’s attitude towards the fundamental principles of life in his community continued to be problematic. The elders and the other lmurran criticized him more and more often until Lamile decided to withdraw and no longer exercise his role as spokesman and leader.

38The life histories of the three Simale larikok of the lkishami set, briefly summarized here, reveal the complexity of the self-selection process within a group of uncircumcised boys, and of how spokesmen are designated when a new generation-set opens. The two selection processes can converge, as they did for Romis and Lamile, or diverge, as in the case of Kadisho. The choices and the selection made by the lartak can be based on the hierarchies that appear during musical and verbal contests or, conversely, be based on political and moral criteria of a different nature. This is illustrated by Kadisho’s case. Why confer the role of second larikoni on a boy who never proved his leadership capacity? The answer is simple: on one hand, his name was strongly supported (even proposed) by his friend Romis, who enjoyed, and still enjoys, great authority in his village. On the other hand, the elders accepted in good grace the “candidacy” of a boy of irrefutable moral virtue who, from their perspective, would have trouble influencing the warriors’ opinions, but who would above all be a good ally of the elders themselves. In a way, Kadisho would serve as spokesman of the elders among the lmurran rather than the reverse.

39It is impossible to generalize, but the choice of Kadisho did not lead to the desired outcomes. The same can be said of the choice of Lamile, but for different reasons. While his oratory and musical skills and his charisma were known and renowned, his difficulty in submitting to authority and his arrogant attitude, sometimes openly violent, were the most explicit proof of a personality incompatible with this kind of political-institutional role. Perhaps it was not by chance that he was named third larikoni, in spite of the fact that his authority among the uncircumcised boys was comparable to that of Romis.

fig. 2 – Romis gives a speech during the “Peace and Reconciliation Meeting 2014” on the conflict between Samburu and Turkana

fig. 2 – Romis gives a speech during the “Peace and Reconciliation Meeting 2014” on the conflict between Samburu and Turkana

Photo Giordano Marmone, Tuum, 2014

  • 13 He had to yield the position back to Romis whenever the latter attended a dance session.

40Romis, the only Simale larikoni who met the expectations of both sides, was, for this very reason, able to acquire, over time, considerable individual power. As opposed to his group’s other two larikok, he had both the moral qualities and the oratory skills (demonstrated also by his singing abilities) that, among the Samburu, constitute the condicio sine qua non for achieving the role of spokesman of the warriors. His authority now extends beyond the boundaries of his own village. A young man respected by the elders and by the lmurran of the region as well as an acclaimed orator, he is still one of the best soloists in his territory. As a warrior, he was ever present at assemblies and his opinion was held in great regard. Now that he himself has become an elder, there is no doubt that the power and prestige he enjoys will only grow. Romis is unquestionably a leader, a first among equals, in this political system of collective power. During his final years of warrior status, overwhelmed by political and economic duties, he could no longer lead his comrades in singing as he used to. In his absence, Lamile served as first soloist of the Simale lmurran.13 He perhaps tried to show in the musical arena the authority still acknowledged by his peers, but he was not able to transform it into political action.

First among equals: young leaders in an egalitarian society

  • 14 According to Spencer, musical practice among warriors induces a regression to childhood, which woul (...)

41In his most famous work, The Samburu, based on fieldwork carried out between 1957 and 1963, British anthropologist Paul Spencer describes a political-social system dominated by elders in which both male ceremonies and musical practices constitute the collective activities that reinforce the authority of the elders, the only authority that exercises true normative power over the community and, in particular, over the lmurran (1965). In the last fifty years, the context has much changed; my fieldwork findings reveal a considerably more complex reality. In actual practice, warriors—young men of about 15–30 years of age—occupy large spaces of political action; and singing and dancing, instead of being mechanisms of control and coercion that uphold the power of the elders as Spencer thought (1965, 1985a),14 appear, on the contrary, to be platforms where authority emerges.

  • 15 Recorded interview (23/08/2015).

42Ldannekan L., both soloist and larikoni (which shouldn’t be surprising) of the Ltoijo clan of a southern village, explains simply that the reason why the best singers are often political leaders is that they “understand [master] the language when they speak, they know how to talk”15 (keniŋ ngutuk teneiro, keiyolo airoro). In previous paragraphs, several parallels were drawn between the personal and vocal qualities associated with singing as a soloist and the skills that allow men to convey their points of view in the political arena. It is obviously not a coincidence that lmurran spokesmen are often the most prominent men in their local group. In his explanation, Ldannekan identifies the mastery of linguistic and oratory skills as a necessary condition for acquiring both musical and institutional authority.

43Among the Samburu, in most cases singing means improvising words that describe real events that the soloist has usually witnessed firsthand. When composing and executing the songs, the soloist must respect aesthetic, rhythmic, and melodic rules that require profound knowledge—developed over many years of practice—of music and also of spoken language and its lexical complexity. A soloist must be able to construct “sung speech” that is consistent, engaging, and understandable for his audience. He must avoid repeating the same phrase more than twice and be frugal with meaningless syllables in order to devote the most time possible to developing his narrative. A soloist who cannot stimulate the interest and emotions of his audience or who, short on inspiration, repeats himself too often is promptly interrupted and replaced with another soloist. This pattern of interaction between different orators (in this case musical) who take turns expressing themselves in front of a public consisting of an audience and other soloists ready to jump in resembles in many ways the rhetorical and dialogical exchanges that take place during assemblies. The meaning of Ldannekan’s words can now be better understood: to be a good singer, one must be a good lyricist, and, it could be added, the better the lyricist, the more opportunities one receives to weigh in on community decisions.

44Having the necessary moral qualities and temperament to put oneself at the head of one’s peers in a context of collective action; learning how to express oneself, to choose the most relevant phrases and to develop logical and well-organized discourse that also touches the audience emotionally—these are some of the conditions that must be fulfilled in order to secure personal authority… and to become a renowned soloist. Lamile’s case shows that the two positions can be interchangeable: lmurran who possess charisma and first-rate rhetorical skills and yet are unable to succeed in the political arena often choose to devote themselves to musical activities in order to deploy their oratory skills and increase their prestige.

  • 16 Laigwanani (plural laigwanak): those who speak most often during assemblies. The word is derived fr (...)

45Along these lines, the case of lmurran called lbarnot (literally, the shaven ones) in Samburu is very revealing. Having been circumcised from a few months to several years after their predecessors, from whom the larikok have already emerged, the lbarnot are far less likely to become spokesmen for their age grade. Indeed, at the time of their own initiation, these positions have already been filled. Being designated a lmurran spokesman is of course not the only path to important institutional posts. However, these lbarnot, who arrived rather too late in the game, are clearly at a disadvantage in the competition for the rank of larikok. Those who may have all the assets to become a spokesman or leader but who, because of their late recruitment, will not be able to achieve those positions before their generation-set reaches the status of elders often choose to use music to “climb” the internal hierarchies of their group, earning credit as soloists. During the later years of warriorhood, when the more experienced singers begin to abandon the dance sessions to devote more time and energy to their families and herds, the younger lmurran have a certain amount of leeway to access more attractive positions in the musical sphere. The credibility thus acquired can, once the lbarnot become elders, be reinvested in the process of gaining personal political prestige. A lmurrani who is circumcised belatedly can eventually become an esteemed and influential laigwanani,16 even though he never held the position of warrior spokesman in his local group.

46In the word-centered society of the Samburu, the life of each individual is, in one way or another, conditioned by decisions that issue from dialogic confrontations during formal and informal assemblies. The constant flow of persons, authority, and know-how from music to politics and vice-versa originates, at least in part, in the fundamental importance accorded to the mastery of speech. The congruence of these two domains encompasses the styles of action and expression they share that transform the practice of music into political and intellectual action requiring specific skills. For those who arrive too late, the journey of training and personal affirmation in the art of solo singing can represent a path to the highest positions in Samburu institutions and to controlling and even orchestrating assemblies of elders and of lmurran.

47Other comparable—and instructive—avenues exist for the older lmurran who were not chosen as spokesmen. They can build a reputation based on their experience, on their knowledge of age-grade system politics, and on the trust the elders have in them. They will never be larikok, but the prestige they earn “on the ground” allows them to become very influential in lmurran assemblies (less so in those of the elders) and to be able to harangue younger men on morality, commitment to the pastoral economy, military strategy, etc. The structures and hierarchies created and legitimized at the opening of a generation-set are thus neither indisputable nor immutable. Certain officially designated larikok may abandon their position, and their authority may be discredited, while the power of other lmurran may increase over time on its own, with no intervention on the part of their peers or the elders.

48The notion of “collective power” is better suited than the usual “diffused power” to define the Samburu power system as long as we agree on what “collective” means. In this context, the “collectivity” of power has nothing to do with the absence of leaders, charismatic individuals, or persons capable of asserting their opinions (which this term often implies), but instead refers to the localization of political authority among several hierarchized centers of government (age grades and generation-sets) that take charge of the different sectors of Samburu society. The lmurran, while unquestionably subordinate to the authority of the elders, manage the internal affairs of their age status by means of self-governance through assemblies organized independently and directed by local leaders (whether officially designated or not). The “youths” can thus rely on an independent and structured system for administering power and building authority that starts to take shape even before their initiation. Nevertheless, and as opposed to the assemblies of elders (and this is a fundamental difference), they do not have the right to make decisions directly involving individuals outside their age group or to participate in decision-making regarding initiation or the economic management of livestock.

fig. 3 – At an assembly of lartak (big uncicumcised boys) organized for the opening of their generation-set, the boys listen to a speech by one of their comrades (standing)

fig. 3 – At an assembly of lartak (big uncicumcised boys) organized for the opening of their generation-set, the boys listen to a speech by one of their comrades (standing)

Photo Giordano Marmone, Simalé, 2018

49This leads to one final question. What remains of the selection process and training carried out during the uncircumcised and circumcised stages once the men in these groups reach the status of elders? On one hand, one could say that the authority developed during the earlier periods is maintained in spite of the change in status. Nevertheless, the elders—both junior and senior—evolve in a socioeconomic framework much more stratified and complex than the environment of the lmurran. In a single village, dozens—sometimes hundreds—of men belonging to four or five different generation-sets, each with his own herds, wives, and children, test and confront one another other every day to defend the interests of their family, their clan, and their age grade. They must ensure that the “law” is respected by community members while at the same time using their own authority to obtain or retain various economic and social advantages. The heads of family and herd managers (to avoid using the convenient but misleading term, “adults”), whether or not they are former larikok, must take charge of their own fate and learn to make better use of formal and informal discussion in order to actively participate in assemblies and in local government administration. Those who were leaders during the “circumcised warrior” stage will always be admired orators and may be able to impose their views on their peers by seducing them with polished speech or with irony and sarcasm, the marks of experienced men. At this stage, however, the eloquence of “first among equals” of earlier times, though still effective, may have to face a chorus of discordant and otherwise forceful voices.

fig. 4 – A former larikoni (center) of the lkuroro generation-set (1976-1990) continues to perform as a soloist

fig. 4 – A former larikoni (center) of the lkuroro generation-set (1976-1990) continues to perform as a soloist

Photo Giordano Marmone, Simalé, 2013


* *

50This article has sought to bring to light modalities and strategies for building political authority among Samburu men before their promotion to the rank of elder, as well as the unexpectedly dynamic categories of “children,” “uncircumcised,” and “circumcised” in age-grade societies, where directly applying the terms “young people” and “youth” would be meaningless.

51In contrast to what has been previously written on the subject (Spencer, 1965, 1985a), we now see that the egalitarian ethos of the Samburu social system renders possible the early development of individual skills and leadership capacity through musical practice in a way heretofore unreported. The practice of “sung words,” a veritable classroom to learn how to enact political decision-making and express oneself during assemblies, especially as a soloist, is at the heart of the construction of political authority. The process certainly does not end when men become elders. Indeed, leaders continue to mature throughout their lifetime. The most enlightened men, the most skilled orators, will always face new challenges, engage in debates they cannot win, and encounter wiser elders from whom they can learn how to make peace with enemies or orchestrate a ceremony. Nevertheless, it is during the earlier stages that one becomes a leader, that one grasps the importance of words, both sung and spoken, as the means par excellence to exercise power. “Youth” build their present and future authority as they learn to conceive of and describe their world by composing songs and by elaborating persuasive speech. These are skills that one develops very early or will not develop at all. A man must learn how to become an influential leader at a very early age. Afterwards, it will be too late.

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1 The adjective arrari (old) is sometimes used with a mocking tone to refer to warriors who are the first of their generational class to be intitiated, who are older than those who follow.

2 For an in-depth look at this central question, cf. Peatrik, 1995a and b, 2003; Bernardi, 1985.

3 Let us recall that the Samburu age-grade system, from the men’s perspective, is composed of three age statuses (uncircumcised boys, warriors, and elders) and of generation-sets that are formed every twelve to fifteen years on average. There is a required minimal time lapse between the generation-set of the father and that (those) of his son(s). A son is recruited into a generational-set after he is circumcised and while the generation-set is at the status of warriors. Once it closes, the generation-set passes to the status of elders, and a new generation-set is recruited at the warrior status, which must not remain empty. As for the status of elder, the generation-sets pile up and are differentiated by their progression from junior elders to “sponsor” elders to senior elders until the last member of the oldest generation-set dies.

4 Young circumcised men, or, to use a more familiar but less exact term, warriors. The word lmurrani (plural lmurran) is derived both from lmurra (circumcised penis) and muratare (circumcision). A more correct translation for lmurrani/lmurran would thus be “he/those of the circumcised penis.”

5 The lmuget le nkweny is repeated as long as there are newly circumcised novices. Circumcisions are organized on a case-by-case basis, depending on the rate boys in a family grow.

6 In some lowland communities in the southern Samburu region, a man who, for whatever reason, is unable to participate in a lmuget celebration, can organize his own lmuget to reach the same level as his class mates. This possibility is unthinkable in the rest of the region, especially in the northern highlands where, except for the “ceremony of birds,” the lmugeti can only be celebrated once per generation-set. Those who cannot participate in these ceremonies must wait twelve to fifteen years to celebrate them with the members of the next generation-set, all the while remaining affiliated with their original set.

7 The vernacular term lpayan (plural lpayani), which in Samburu refers to members of the status of elder, could be translated as “father.” The same root, pa, is indeed present in words with similar meanings in other languages of the Nilo-Saharan family. For example, Serge Tornay (2001) translates the Nyangatom word apa as “father” and the expression taapa ka a-kop as “fathers of the land,” which refers to members of elder status. Lpayan is thus not directly linked semantically to the concepts of “elderhood” vs. “youth” in the Western sense. In Anglophone scientific literature, lpayan is consistently translated as “elder.” But the use of the English term “elder” is a source of constant confusion because there is no distinction in English between “being older than,” as in “elder brother” (French aînesse), and “being an elder” (French séniorité).

8 My present goal is to shine light on the complexity of the notions of authority (the capacity of some individuals to be listened to and obeyed) and of power (the ability to exercise direct influence over the behaviors and decisions of others; cf. Weber, [1922] 1978; Arel, 2007) in East Africa. Pathways to training in the ars retorica from the early stages of childhood and “youth” have rarely been the subject of in-depth analysis. Even in Marcel Detienne’s very interesting book, Qui veut prendre la parole? (Who wants to speak?) (2003), this topic is paid only marginal attention.

9 The sound that corresponds to the letter « l » at the beginning of any Samburu word represents the masculine gender prefix. Le sound “n” indicates the feminine gender.

10 Cf. Almagor, 1978: 75, for the formation of similar groups of children among the Dassanech.

11 Among the Samburu, dance is always accompanied by singing. Linguistically, the two activities are designated by the same verb, arany, which indicates the action of both song and dance. The use of the verb “to music, musicking” suggested by Gilbert Rouget (2004), among others, seems to be especially appropriate in the Samuru context.

12 In 2019, the lkishami in turn passed to the status of elders. A new generation-set, called lkiseku, was opened. Its members are now the new lmurran.

13 He had to yield the position back to Romis whenever the latter attended a dance session.

14 According to Spencer, musical practice among warriors induces a regression to childhood, which would suppress their desire to get married prematurely or to seduce the elders’ wives. This would allow the elders to reinforce their exclusive access to polygyny (1965, 1985a).

15 Recorded interview (23/08/2015).

16 Laigwanani (plural laigwanak): those who speak most often during assemblies. The word is derived from the verb aigwan, which means “give one’s opinion.” In the southern part of the region, the word laigwanani is sometimes considered to be a synonym of larikoni.

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Table des illustrations

Titre fig. 1 – A child soloist about 4–5 years old leads a song tied to a circular dance
Crédits Photo Giordano Marmone, Simalé, 2013
Fichier image/jpeg, 380k
Titre fig. 2 – Romis gives a speech during the “Peace and Reconciliation Meeting 2014” on the conflict between Samburu and Turkana
Crédits Photo Giordano Marmone, Tuum, 2014
Fichier image/jpeg, 608k
Titre fig. 3 – At an assembly of lartak (big uncicumcised boys) organized for the opening of their generation-set, the boys listen to a speech by one of their comrades (standing)
Crédits Photo Giordano Marmone, Simalé, 2018
Fichier image/jpeg, 440k
Titre fig. 4 – A former larikoni (center) of the lkuroro generation-set (1976-1990) continues to perform as a soloist
Crédits Photo Giordano Marmone, Simalé, 2013
Fichier image/jpeg, 521k
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Giordano Marmone, « The power of youth »Ateliers d’anthropologie [En ligne], 47 | 2020, mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2020, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Giordano Marmone

PhD in Ethnology, LESC-CREM-UMR 7186, CNRS/université Paris Nanterre; post-doctoral fellow of the Fyssen Foundation (African Studies Center, University of Michigan)

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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