Tribes in Kenya - Introduction

An introduction to the tribes in Kenya. Here's also a general article about the Kenya people.

The Masai are the most famous tribe not only of Kenya, but of Africa as a whole. They have become an international symbol of African tribal life. But they are not the only one: there are between 40 and 70 tribes, depending on how you count.

masai warrior


One reason is that tribes have never been closed units: language, culture and appearance often overlap. Families often consist of members of different tribes, and it’s a matter of tradition whether a person’s tribe is determined by their fathers or mothers line. Another reason is that some ethnic groups are seen as subtribes and others as ‘main’ tribes. For example, the Rendille, Orma, Boran and Gabbra tribes are sometimes seen as a single tribe: the Oromo. To complicate matters further, different people use different spellings: Agikuyu instead of Kikuyu or Gikuky, Kamba instead of Akamba.

Click here to watch a short video about the Masai:




The separation between tribes has also diminished because most tribes have adopted Western life styles. This especially goes for the biggest tribes: the Kikuyu (22%), Luo (11%) and Akamba (8%). The Kikuyu dominate politics and the economy. Especially the Masai, Turkana and Samburu peoples have largely kept their traditional lifestyles.

But to which tribe you belong is still the most important factor in social life. Political parties, for example, are largely based on tribe and less on ideology.

kikuyu woman

Language

Language, however, is the main criteria for a tribe. There are three main language groups in which the tribes in Kenya can be divided:

Bantu-speaking tribes:
Central Bantu: Kikuyu, Akamba, Meru, Embu, Tharaka, Mbere
Western Bantu: Gussi, Kuria, Luhya
Coastal Bantu: Mikikenda, Swahili, Pokomo, Segeju, Taveta, Taita

Nilotic-speaking tribes:
Plains Nilotic: Maasai, Samburu, Teso, Turkana, Elmolo, Njemps
Highland Nilotic: Kalenjin, Marakwet, Tugen, Pokot, Elkony, Kipsigis
Lake River Nilotic: Luo

Cushitic-speaking tribes:
Eastern Cushitic: Rendille, Somali, Boran, Gabbra, Orma
Southern Cushitic: Boni

However, most Kenyans speak at least three languages: their tribal language, Swahili (which has become a ‘lingua franca’ among a large part of East Africa) and English. Swahili (or Kiswahili) and English are the official languages of Kenya.



Search all the tribe articles on this site:

 

Short descriptions of the main tribes

I've considerably expanded the pages with short descriptions of Kenya tribes. Find them below. Please note that the beliefs and customs described in there, are the original customs. Some are still practiced while others are dissapearing in modern Kenya, where Western influences are on the rise like elsewhere.

Short descriptions of Kenya tribes: A to H - Featuring the Akamba, Aweer, Bajuni, Bukusu, Dahalo and Embu tribes;

Short descriptions of Kenya tribes: I to K - The Isukha, Kalenjin, Kamba, Kikuyu, Kisii, Kore and Kuria tribes;

Short descriptions of Kenya tribes: L to M - The Luhya, Luo, Maragoli, Marama, Masai, Meru and Mijikenda tribes;

Short descriptions of Kenya tribes: O to R - The Ogiek, Orma, Oromo, Pokomo and Rendille tribes;

Short descriptions of Kenya tribes: S - The Samburu, Sengwer, Somali, Suba and Swahili tribes;

Short descriptions of Kenya tribes: T to Z - The Tachoni, Taita, Taveta, Watha and Yiaku tribes.


Longer articles about the major tribes

I've also uploaded longer articles about the 15 biggest tribes in Kenya - expansions of the short descriptions:

Embu tribe: The Embu tribe numbers around a half million people, and their territory is located on the south-east side of Mount Kenya.

Kalenjin tribe: Numbering about 3 million people, their territory is in the Great Rift Valley.

Kamba tribe: Also called the Akamba, this tribe lives in the east-central area of Kenya. The practice many trades.

Kikuyu tribe: They live in the fertile central highlands. They dominate the country politically and economically.

Kisii tribe: The Kisii live in a very heavily populated area in the western corner of Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria.

Luhya tribe: They are the second biggest tribe of the country and make up 14% of Kenya's population. They live in West Kenya.

Luo tribe: The third largest of the tribes in Kenya (over 3 million people or 12% of the population). They are now settled farmers and also keep cattle.

Meru tribe: The north-eastern side of Mount Kenya is the home of the Meru tribe. Their population is about 1.5 million strong.

Mijikenda tribe: Nine different Kenya tribes came together to create the Mijikenda, who migrated to Kenya 300 years ago. Their territory is along a heavily forested ridge in from the coast.

Rendille tribe: They are semi-nomadic camel herders who mainly inhabit the dry regions of the Kaisut Desert. They originally came from Somalia.

Samburu tribe: They are closely related to the Maasai and they live in northern Kenya. They are one of the smaller tribes in Kenya, forming only 0.5% of the population.

Somali tribe: Only a small portion - half a million from 20-25 million - of the Somali tribe lives in Kenya, the others mainly in Somalia. They are Muslim.

Swahili tribe: This is mainly a trading tribe. They live along the coast of the Indian Ocean and have had contact with the Arab and Persian traders since the 9th century.

Taita tribe: They have become thoroughly modernized and none of the tribe live in their traditional or rural way anymore. They live in the overpopulated Taita-Taveta district, in south-eastern Kenya.

Turkana tribe: They number only around 350,000. They are a very traditional tribe, with most of their people still living rural lives as they have for generations.


Special Masai section

Finally, because the Masai are clearly the most well-known and popular of the tribes in Kenya (and Africa!), here's an extra set of articles about the Masai tribe:

Masai - Main page
Masai culture, religion, traditions

Maasai warrior tradition

The White Masai (movie review)

Their history

Maasai jump dance

Their lands

Importance of their cattle

Maasai safaris

Holiday tours

Masai Mara National Reserve

Maasai translation

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