Kenyan Tribes: everything you need to know before you travel to Kenya
When you think of a trip to Kenya, you think of safari and envision the local Maasai Tribesmen wearing the distinct red robe, called the Shuka, wrapped around their tall and slender bodies. And jumping high in the air. Well, at least that what I do 😉
And with modern technology and tourism, the Maasai and the closely related Samburu tribe have become the symbol of Kenyan Culture. However, there are 42 different Kenyan tribes.
When I travel to a country, I love to know more than just the best things to do and where to go. I love getting to know the culture and meet the locals. So that’s why we created this blog. To inform you about different Kenyan tribes and the three big ethnic groups in Kenya you need to know.
After reading this blog, you will have a more in-depth perspective of the Kenyan Tribes before you travel to Kenya. And I included great travel tips for your travel adventure in Kenya as well. Let us know below in the comments why you want to travel to Kenya.
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You might want to consider reading our other blogs about Kenya:
– Kenya Travel Guide
– 20 awesome things to do in Nairobi
– 13 mindblowing things you need to know about the Maasai Tribe
– The 10 most beautiful beaches in Kenya every traveller should know
Kenya is the melting pot of Africa. Groups from all over the continent have been travelling to Kenya for over centuries and that’s why there are so may Kenyan Tribes. They are united with the national flag with the green, black and red stripe. Green is for the country, black is for the people, and red represents the blood from the fight for independence. Most Kenyans speak three languages: English (official language), Swahili (national language) and their tribal language.
All the Kenyan tribes have their unique history, culture, values, lifestyle, religion, rituals and more. To best understand the Kenyan tribes, we must first consider the presence of three ethnic groups in Kenya. Each ethnic group occupies its portion of the countryside and provide unique products and services to the country as a whole.
#1 Ethnic Group: Bantu
The Bantu ethnic group makes up roughly 70 per cent of the countries population while only physically occupying slightly less than 30% of the countries land mass. The Bantu community in Kenya live across the central portion of the country ranging from the Coast to the western part of the country on the border of Uganda. The Bantu’s are unique to other Kenyan tribes. They are mainly stationary and provide the highest contribution to Kenya’s agricultural industry, including the world-renowned Kenya coffee and tea along with other products such as maize, beans, rice and sugar. The following are the four main Kenyan tribes that make up the Bantu Ethnic Group.
The Kenyan tribe Kikuyu represent the largest Kenyan tribe, with 22% of the nation’s population. The origination of the Kikuyu are not entirely understood, but it is most likely they originated in Western Africa and arrived in Kenya after travelling through Tanzania. They predominantly hold the territory around Mt. Kenya and the major towns of their territory are Nyeri, Muranga, and Thika. The term Kikuyu comes from the Swahili form of the word Gĩkũyũ.
Kikuyu unique features
The Kikuyu speak the Kenyan language of Kikuyu, consisting of 4 separate dialects which are dependent on specific Kikuyu territory. Many of the modern Kikuyu people are now Christians. Their traditional Kikuyu religion is to believe in Ngai, the creator, who resides at the top of Mt. Kenya. Ngai created the sky, earth, animals, plants and the mountains. A lot of Kenyan Tribes have Ngai as their god but with different variations to the story.
The Kikuyu Kenyan tribe was the most significant contributor to the Mau Mau revolution, which ultimately led to the independence of Kenya from British Colonialism (1963). And because of their early involvement with the fight to freedom, the Kikuyus always had a dominant role in the politics and commerce of Kenya. The most famous Kikuyu is the first President of Kenya: Jomo Kenyatta whos nickname is: ‘Mezee’= the respected elderly.
The Kikuyu tribe adapted more quickly to the Western culture and technologies compared to other Kenyan Tribes. Their role in the economic commerce of Kenya is significant. The best chance to meet Kikuyu’s is to walk around Nairobi. Because the Kikuyus are a business-oriented tribe, you will find a lot of Kikuyu’s in the business city of East Africa. The rural Kikuyu continue to combine small-scale agriculture with the cultivation of tea, coffee and pyrethrum.
Fun facts Kikuyu
- Number 10 means bad luck for the Kikuyu. They rather don’t say 10. Instead they say ‘full 9’.
- Kikuyu women are strong women. They are hard working and don’t accept abuse from their husband. They provide for their family and children, and often the Kikuyu women are the breadwinners of the family.
- The Kikuyu don’t have time for funerals. It is supposed to take the shortest time possible because time is money. And as Kikuyu’s are businessmen/ women: Time is money and they always run on a ‘tight’ budget, so they won’t buy an expensive suite for the dead or go the extra mile.
The Embu Kenyan tribe currently live on the southeastern side of Mt. Kenya, numbering approximately 500,000 people. The Embu used to share the land with the Mbeere tribe; however, due to Embu violence during a training fight, the Mbeere were forced further down the mountain. To this day, the Embu and Mbeere share very close ties.
Embu unique features
The Embu speak the Kenyan language of Embu. 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.
A unique feature of the Embu people is that the family unit is not as large or extended as most other Kenyan tribes. Upon marriage, kids do not typically continue to reside with parents; they will build their own home for their new family. Additionally, the Embu Kenyan tribe is broken down into age groups, which creates generations and defines the group of elders, who are the leaders of the tribe.
You can learn more about the Embu tribe by visiting the town Embu south of Mt. Kenya or if you’re an adventurous traveller hike Mt. Kenya and you will surely learn more about the Embu tribe along with it and meet people from the Embu tribe.
The Meru Kenyan tribe traditionally occupy the northeastern side of Mt. Kenya with approximately 1.5 million people. There are seven groups within the Meru Kenyan tribe, and each has its dialect of the Kenyan language called Meru. All dialects of Meru, Embu and Kikuyu are very similar and understood across all Kenyan tribes and subgroups.
Meru unique aspects
A unique aspect of the Meru people is they were the only Kenyan tribe to incorporate a democratic system before the colonisation by the British. The Meru Kenyan tribe boasts a long history of an elected council of elders providing governance of the Kenyan tribe. Like all Bantu Kenyan tribes, the Meru are traditionally farmers, but unlike some, the Meru people are starting to become represented in the larger cities where they are seeking out further employment opportunities.
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. They sacrifice animals to please the spirits, but there’s also evidence the Meru sacrificed humans as well up to a few years ago. It’s called “the seventh year sacrifice” and was practised during the circumcision ceremony of boys. They used a poisoned knife to circumcision a boy to appease the spirits.
Meru National Park
You can learn more about the Meru Tribe at the Meru Museum in the town Meru, northeast of Mt Kenya. Or spot lions, elephants, cheetahs, leopards, black rhino, zebras, hippo’s gazelle’s in one of Kenya’s most beautiful national parks the Meru National Park.
This park is famous because in this park is where Joy Adamson and her husband George raised and released their pet lioness, Elsa. If you haven’t heard of this story, you should read the best-seller ‘Born Free’ or watch the Acadamy award-winning film. Joy and George house, Elsemare, is now a popular tourist attraction where you can enjoy lunch or tea overlooking Lake Naivasha and learn more about this incredible story and the Born Free Foundation that was started in honour of Elsa. Note: Elsemare is a 6-hour drive away from the town Meru.
The Luhya Kenyan tribe is the second largest Kenyan tribe, making up approximately 14% of the countries population. The traditional territory of the Luhya Kenyan tribe is western Kenya, between Lake Victoria and the border of Uganda, but more and more of the community is moving to the larger cities.
Luhya people originally are believed to have migrated from Egypt, but the various oral histories from each subgroup tend to provide just enough conflicting information to prevent confirmation of pinpointing a true origination. The Luhya Kenyan tribe is spread out amongst many villages, typically of 10-15 families connected by relation and clan. A headman or shaman head each Luhya village.
The Luhya traditionally worship a god called Were along with the spirits of dead ancestors. In the present day, most Luhya converted to Christianity, but continue to incorporate many of the old beliefs such as the fear of witches and spirits.
#2 Ethnic group: Nilotes
The Nilotes are the second ethnic group of Kenya who resides in the Rift Valley region, around Lake Victoria. The Nilotes are the second largest ethnic group in Kenya and can be divided into three groups; The River Lake Nilotes, the Luo, who live along Lake Victoria and primarily fish. The Plain Nilotes who are pastoral Kenyan tribes that still practice many of the traditional ways of life, and the Highland Nilotes who live in Kenya’s western highlands and have the ideal climate for agriculture and livestock production. The following are the three main Kenyan tribes of the Nilote ethnic group.
Maasai Tribe – Most famous of all Kenyan Tribes
The Maasai are Kenya’s most traditional tribe; they have rejected western lifestyles in almost every way and have become the most famous Kenyan tribe. The Maasai people will easily be recognised the bright red clothing, eccentric beaded jewellery and large plate-like necklaces around women’s necks. The Maasai live in the grasslands between Kenya and Tanzania known as the Masai Mara. This National Park is a stopping point on every tourist’s itinerary for wildlife sightings. And it’s very easy to visit a Maasai village and learn more about the Maasai culture.
Meeting Maasai Tribe
We all know the Maasai as being the tall African men who can jump very high, but there are more things about the Maasai that will blow your mind. And visiting a Maasai village is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When you travel to the Masai Mara National Park, you will have plenty of opportunities to hire a local guide who will take you to a Maasai Village. A lot of Maasai work within the travel industry of the Masai Mara so you will meet the Maasai very quickly. And because the Maasai Tribe is the most famous Kenyan Tribe, they get a lot of visitors so a visit it can feel a bit commercial. They are keen on making money so at the end of your village tour they will try to sell you jewellery are other African crafts. Here’s where your bribing skills will come in handy 😉
One of the smallest Kenyan tribes, representing only 0.5% of the population; around 150,000 people, is the Samburu tribe. They are closely related to the Maasai Kenyan tribe in Northern Kenya. The Samburu migrated with the Maasai from their roots in Sudan and upon arrival in Kenya, they split from the Maasai because the Maasai desired to head further south, a move that spared the Samburu Kenyan tribe from European colonisation.
Culturally the Samburu is very similar to the Maasai in which the entire society is dependent upon their cattle and milk is at the centre of their diet. Also, the Samburu tribe is among the most traditional Kenyan tribes in Africa who still live the same way and don’t look like there is any intention of changing that any time soon. The Samburu language also comes from the Maa group like the Maasai, but the Samburu speak a lot faster.
Meeting Samburu Tribe
I have worked in Kenya as I tour leader and had the extraordinary experience to visit a traditional remote Samburu village. The Samburu are more secluded than the Maasai, so changes for you to visit a village are less compared to visiting a Maasai village. But if you have the change go for it.
The best chances are in and around Samburu National Reserve where you can also spot amazing wildlife. In this semi-desert park, you can spot rare species like the long-necked gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and the Beisa onyx. The elusive Kenya leopard also visits the park often but mostly in the evenings. It is a bit of drive, but worth the effort.
Turkana Kenyan Tribe
The Turkana tribe have only about 350,000 members, and together with the Samburu and Maasai Kenyan tribes, they have stick to their traditional standards and unchanged lifestyles after many generations. The Turkana people reside near the shores of Lake Turkana in the arid region of Northwest Kenya. With a quick rainy season and only two rivers that run through this territory, this environment can be very harsh and creates a great deal of tension between Kenyan tribes, as such the Turkana Kenyan tribe has developed into a fierce, aggressive people.
The Turkana territory is divided into the northern and southern portion. They both speak Turkana, but with a slightly different dialect. The Turkana Kenyan tribe migrated into this region of Kenya about 400 years ago from northeastern Uganda. Since their settling in Kenya, the Turkana people have had a minimal impact by western civilisation.
Turkana Tribe unique aspects
Like the Maasai and Samburu, the Turkana are nomadic who are very dependent on livestock and cattle for food supply and wealth. A unique characteristic of the Turkana is their very flexible social structure. Families will typically travel together as individual social units rather than collectively larger villages or clans. They will usually continue to grow, and sons will bring in wives and children.
The Turkana have not had an impact by Christianity like most Kenyan tribes; the Turkana still worship their god Akuj who they pray to directly or through the spirits of ancestors. Religion, however, is not a large part of Turkana life; prayer and sacrifices, are only utilised during periods of drought.
Meeting Turkana Tribe
To meet the Turkana tribe is an adventure. You have to travel to the remote and north of Kenya, which isn’t the easiest thing to do. It’s a long trip but it can be very rewarding. You will experience Kenya off-the-beaten-track and witness the world’s largest desert lake: Lake Turkana. Lake Turkana and next door Sibiloi National Park, are a UNESCO world heritage site due to its home of unique fossil and archaeological discoveries. In this area, they discovered so much that has contributed to our understanding of human evolution.
You can visit the biggest town in the Turkana region: Lodwar, (with an airport) and visit the Kenyatta House. This place functioned as a detention camp during British colonisation, and it’s the place where the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was held captive for many years before he became President of Kenya.
#3 Ethnic group: Cushites
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. Cushites occupy a large area of land that runs from Lake Turkana to the north of Kenya, all the way down to the Indian Ocean, which tends to be the driest portion of the country for most of the year.
Due to this arid environment, the Cushitic people are mainly nomadic who keep large herds of cattle, camels, goats and sheep. Most are Muslim and speak languages originated from the Cushites in Ethiopia and Somalia with which the Kenya Cushites keep close ties. The Somali and Rendille are the major Kenyan tribes that make up the Cushite ethnic group.
Somali Kenyan Tribe
The Somali has a unique background than most Kenyan tribes. It’s because the most significant part of the tribe doesn’t live in Kenya. The Somali Kenyan tribe is about 20-25 million strong, with about 500,000 people living in Kenya as the Ajuran and Ogaden subgroups. Interestingly, the Somali tribe refers to a tribe, not a nation, as the existence of this Kenyan tribe long predates the formation of a Somali nation.
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. Women’s head and body are covered, and pork is not part of the diet. The Somali tribe speak the Kenyan language of Somali with fewer dialects than many Kenyan tribes.
The Somali Kenyan tribe is rooted in conflict as the tribe expands beyond the borders of Somalia into both Ethiopia and Kenya. Somalia and Ethiopia fought the Ogaden war in 1977 as Somalia sought to control lands under Somali control in Ethiopia. A similar situation happened in Kenya in the Shifta War, from 1963 to 1967 in which the Somali population tried to secede from Kenya into a greater Somalia. This war eventually ended in a cease-fire, but Somalis in the region still maintain very close ties to Somalia.
Rendille Kenyan Tribe
The Rendille Kenyan tribe traces its origination 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. This tribe was very minimally impacted during European colonisation as there was little to no desire for the Kaisut Desert lands.
Rendille Kenyan tribes are unique because they live in large settlements that may have entire clans in the hundreds of people living together at any point in time. It facilitates two or three tribal migration movements per year in a particular pattern as it allows for all clans to have equal access to the water sources and prime pasturing areas. 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. In the southern portion of the territory, camels are still present. However, the environment becomes a little less dry, so cows are also part of the Rendille cattle.
Rendille unique aspects
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. The Rendille also participate in sacrificial rituals to bring rain. In draught, they sacrifice goats or little limbs asking the moon (=represents god) for rain.
Within every village, there’s a place called: nahapo. This is a fire that never burns out and where every night at 8 pm all the men from the village meet and pray.
Men get married after their circumcision around eighteen to twenty years old, and young girls are often “booked” at a very early age by older men. They marry as young as ten or twelve years. When a person dies, the Rendille tribe has a celebration day where the clothes and belongings of the deceased are given away as gifts to those attending.
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