Meet the tribes of Kenya – A cultural safari guide!

14 May 2024

When you think of Kenya, the regal and statuesque image of Maasai men jumping high into the air in their distinctive red ‘shuka’ has become a world-famous symbol of Kenyan culture. However, when it comes to the tribes of Kenya there are in fact over 40 of them.

Meet the tribes of Kenya

Dating back centuries the stories and traditions of the Indigenous peoples of Kenya are some of the most fascinating in the world. They have each enriched the country socially, economically, politically and culturally.

Learning about the history and of the many fascinating tribes before you visit this beautiful part of Africa, will give you a deeper understanding and insight into Kenya’s rich and diverse culture.

Every tribe has their own distinctive history, culture, values, lifestyle, religions and rituals and you’ll also find that most Kenyans speak three languages: English (official language), Swahili (national language) and their tribal language.

Today 44 communities are recognized by the government and are classified into three ethnic groups: Bantu, Nilote and Cushite with each ethnic group occupying specific areas within Kenya where they provide unique products and services to the country as a whole.

Journey with us as we explore the Indigenous tribes that have left an indelible mark on this beautiful country.

1. Bantu Ethnic Group

This group has by far the biggest population in Kenya, which is spread out over various regions. Unlike Kenya’s nomadic tribes the Bantu are unique to other Kenyan tribes because they are stationary. Their main occupation is farming and provide the highest contribution to Kenya’s agricultural industry, including the world-renowned Kenyan coffee and tea along with other products such as maize, beans, rice and sugar.

The tribes in the Bantu ethnic group include the Kikuyu, Meru, Embu, Luhya, Kamba, Kisii, Taita, Mijikenda and Swahili.

Kikuyu

The Kikuyu people are situated in Central Kenya and make up the largest contingent growing crops such as coffee, maize and sugar. Having adapted more quickly to Western culture and technology they have since become a business-oriented tribe. You’ll therefore find many Kikuyu in and around Nairobi in the business city of East Africa. Many of the modern Kikuyu people are now Christians, but their traditional Kikuyu religion is the belief in Ngai, the creator, who resides at the top of Mt. Kenya. Ngai is believed to have created the sky, earth, animals, plants and the mountains.

Meru

The Meru traditionally occupy the northeastern side of Mt. Kenya with approximately 1.5 million people and like all Bantu tribes, the Meru are traditionally farmers. You can learn more about the Meru at the Meru Museum in the town Meru, northeast of Mt Kenya. The Meru are monotheistic believing in a single creator called Arega Kuthera while mostly resisting the spread of Christianity. The Meru believe in spirits: the spirit-ancestors, evil spirits, and the spirit-protectors.

Embu

The Embu currently live on the southeastern side of Mt. Kenya, numbering approximately 500,000 people. Much like the Kikuyu, the Embu have been converted to Christianity but traditionally worship Ngai as well. Due to the difficulty of herding animals on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, the Embu take advantage of the fertile soils to grow crops for their use. You can learn more about the Embu by visiting the town Embu south of Mt. Kenya

Luhya

The Luhya makes up approximately 14 percent of the country’s population. The traditional territory of the Luhya tribe is western Kenya, between Lake Victoria and the border of Uganda, but more of the community is moving to the country’s larger cities. The Luhya traditionally worship a god called Were along with the spirits of dead ancestors. In the present day, most Luhya have converted to Christianity, but continue to incorporate many of the old beliefs such as the fear of witches and spirits.

Kamba

The Kamba accounts for over 10 percent of Kenya's population. The Kamba people are highly skilled in basketry and woodcarving, and they are also excellent hunters, pastoralists, and farmers. A sizeable number of Kamba are Christians, but a few still strongly hold onto their beliefs in traditional religious ways.

Kisii

The Kisii live in the Kisii highlands and sections of Western Kenya where the land supports vibrant agricultural practices thanks to its fertility and the adequate rain in the region. Some of the crops grown in the Kisii region include coffee, bananas, pyrethrum, and tea. The Kisii people are well-known for their soapstone carvings, pottery, and basketry. Over three-quarters of Kisii people are Christians, with a few sticking to traditional religions.

Taita

The Taita reside in Taita hills in the southwestern parts of Kenya along the Tanzanian border. They are renowned gemstone miners. The tribe identifies with Christianity and Islam, with a few people sticking to their traditional religion. It is also widely considered to be one of the most beautiful tribes in Kenya.

Mijikenda

Kenya’s coastal tribes grow a variety of foods which were introduced by merchants and traders many centuries ago such as coconuts and bananas. Arab settlers married into the Mijikenda tribe which gave rise to the Swahili dynasties. The Mijikenda people practice agriculture as their primary economic activity, growing crops such as coconut palm to obtain wine and oil extracts. The tribe members are also skilled in making mats, roofing, fishing, and weaving baskets.

Swahili

The Swahili people form part of the Bantu community that resides in Kenya's coastal area. Close interaction between the Mijikenda, Arabs, Persians and Portuguese traders later gave rise to the Swahili language and culture now common along the Kenyan coastline. Swahili art has significant Arabian design influences which reflected in the making of jewellery, carpets, porcelain, and rugs.

2. Nilote Ethnic Group

The Nilotes are the second ethnic group of Kenya who reside in the Rift Valley region, around Lake Victoria. The tribes in the Nilote ethnic group include the Luo tribe– forming the River Lake Nilote group, the Maasai, Samburu and Turkana tribes forming the Plain Nilote group and the Kalenjin tribe which falls in the Highland Nilote Group.

Luo

More than four million strong, the Luo traditionally reside in western Kenya, but they can also be found throughout East Africa as agricultural labourers, tenant farmers and as urban workers. Besides sugarcane and cotton farming, the Luo’s are skilled fishermen and are known to favour ugali and fish as their staple food. Most Luo’s have now embraced Christianity, but a few of them still hold to traditions such as rainmaking dances, among other rituals.

Maasai

The Maasai live in the grasslands between Kenya and Tanzania known as the Maasai Mara and are nomadic herders and warriors The Maasai are Kenya’s most traditional tribe; having rejected western lifestyles in every way. The Maasai people are easily recognised by their bright red clothing, colourful beaded jewellery and large plate-like necklaces worn around women’s necks. The Maasai Mara is a stopping point on every tourist’s itinerary for wildlife sightings making it the perfect opportunity to visit a Maasai village and learn more about the Maasai culture.

Samburu

The Samburu tribe is one of the smallest of Kenya’s tribes, representing only 0.5 percent of the population, around 150,000 people. They are closely related to the Maasai tribe, having migrated with the Maasai from their roots in Sudan. Upon their arrival in Kenya, they split from the Maasai who wanted to head further south. Culturally the Samburu tribe is like the Maasai, dependent upon their cattle and with milk being the centre of their diet. Like the Maasai, the Samburu tribe is among the most traditional of Kenyan tribes in Africa who have rejected Western life. The Samburu are more secluded than the Maasai, so the best chance to meet them is in and around the Samburu National Reserve.

Turkana

The Turkana tribe have only about 350,000 members, and together with the Samburu and Maasai tribes the Turkana people have been minimally impacted by western civilisation, choosing to stick to their traditional way of life. Like the Maasai and Samburu, the Turkana are nomadic and dependent on livestock and cattle for food supply and wealth. To meet the Turkana tribe is an adventure, you’ll travel to the remote north of Kenya, where you you’ll experience Kenya off-the-beaten-track and witness the world’s largest desert lake: Lake Turkana.

Kalenjin

The Kalenjin people reside in Kenya’s western highlands and are renowned for pastoralism and arable farming. They are also known around the world for their athletic abilities. The Kalenjin are sometimes considered as a tribe made up of many clans, c0mprised of eight distinct groups with varying beliefs, dialects, and cultures. These groups are the Kipsigis, Tugen, Marakwet, Pokot, Keiyo, Sabaot, Terik and Nandi. Kalenjin love their cows and land, and grow millet, maize, tea and sorghum. Traditionally Kalenjins built round homes of sticks and mud plaster, with pointed thatch roofs. Nowadays homes are commonly wood and stone with modern facilities, though traditional homes are still common.

3. Cushite Ethnic Group

The Cushites or Cushitic people make up the third, and smallest ethnic group, in Kenya, occupying the arid and semi-arid eastern and northeastern parts of Kenya. Due to this arid environment, the Cushitic people are mainly nomadic and keep large herds of cattle, camels, goats and sheep. Most are Muslim and speak languages originated from the Cushites in Ethiopia and Somalia. The Cushitic people tend to stay in close contact with other Cushitic communities in the neighbouring country of Somalia. The Somali and Rendille are the major Kenyan tribes that make up the Cushite ethnic group.

Somali

The Somali Kenyan tribe is predominantly Muslim due to the extensive contact with Arabs along the eastern coast of Africa and as such many of the customs and traditions formed over the last one hundred years align with the Islamic faith.

Rendille

The Rendille Kenyan tribe traces its origin to Somalia and occupy the very dry Kaisut Desert as nomadic camel herders. They are unique and completely isolated due to the harsh almost impossible conditions of the Kaisut Desert. In the Northern portion of the territory, they favour camels for the durability in dry climates, and the milk is the centre of the Rendille diet. The Rendille Kenyan tribe have shown some of the highest resistance to the spread of Christianity and continue to practice their traditional religion. They worship a god called Wakh while utilising fortune tellers who cast stones and bones to predict the future.

When you travel to Africa, one of the most rewarding experiences is learning about the culture and meeting the local people. If you are keen to explore the cultural heritage of the many communities that make up the great nation of Kenya, contact us today and we’ll create a bespoke itinerary that includes many fascinating and inspiring cultural experiences. Call UK 01233 80 27 27 or visit our website www.bestofsouthafricatravel.co.uk

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