Culture Tribes

all about kenyan tribes

The ethnic tribes of Kenya

There are 42 Kenya tribes, each contributing to the country's diverse and rich culture and heritage.

The tribes of Kenya are known for their unique history, culture, values, lifestyle, language, religion, food and more.

Most visitors to Kenya can easily recall the Maasai tribe and their close kin, the Samburu people. Kenyan tourism has made the Maasai and Samburu tribes the most famous because of their long preserved culture.

By resolutely clinging to their traditions, the Maasai and Samburu have remained two of the few cohesive and culturally authentic ethnic tribes of Kenya. They are thus recognized world-wide as a symbol of Kenyan culture and are favorites among tourists.

 Kenya's Ethnic Groups

The indigenous tribes of Kenya fall into three ethnic groups, namely: the Bantus, the Cushites and the Nilotes.
The Bantus

The Bantu ethnic group is the largest ethnic community in Kenya. They make up about 70 percent of the country's population, but they occupy less than 30 percent of the Kenyan land base. The Bantu people in Kenya live mainly in the coastal, central, western and eastern regions of the country. The Kikuyu tribe forms Kenya's largest single ethnic group.
Their closest kin are the Embu and Meru tribes. These are followed closely by the Luhya, who live in Western Kenya, the Kamba people of Eastern Kenya, the Kisii tribe from the Rift Valley region, and the Swahili, Taita and Mijikenda people from Kenya's coast.

Unlike the Nilotes, rural Bantus are agriculturalists who grow much of Kenya's cash crops, including the popular Kenya coffee, tea and other agricultural products such as maize, beans, rice and sugar.

The Cushites

Cushites, or Cushitic people, live in the arid and semi-arid eastern and northeastern parts of Kenya. They reside along a very large area of land that runs from the east of Lake Turkana, stretches to the north of Kenya, and through to the Indian Ocean. Cushites include the Somali, Rendile, Borana and Oromo tribes. Due to the dryness of their habitat throughout most of the year, Cushites are mainly nomadic pastoralists who keep large herds of cattle, camels, goats and sheep. Cushitic people maintain very close ties with their kinsmen - the Cushites of the neighboring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia.

The Nilotes

Kenyan Nilotes reside in the broad Rift Valley region of Kenya, around Lake Victoria. They are comprised of three distinct groups: the River Lake Nilotes; the Luo, who live along Lake Victoria and practice fishing; and the plain Nilotes, who include the Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana people. The plain Nilotes are pastoral tribes who have defied modern trends to retain most of their traditional ways of life. They mainly reside in the Rift Valley where they practice nomadic pastoralism.

The plain Nilotes roam from one part of their territory to another in resonance with the rainfall and in search of water and fresh food for their large herds. The Highland Nilotes are the Kalenjin people who live in Kenya's Western Highlands. Due to their geographical positioning and good climatic condition, the Kalenjins are able to practice both pastoralism and agriculture.

Kenya's other, smaller tribes are independent or sub-tribes of the larger tribes. Just like the large tribes, each of Kenya's small tribes is culturally unique. These tribes are spread out across the country, residing in different parts of Kenya.


References: This information has been gathered from a number of sources. The best general sources about Kenyan culture are Andrew Fedders & Cynthia Salvadori's excellent "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya" (1979: Transafrica, Nairobi), and the equally good series of booklets produced by the Consolata Fathers in Nairobi, sadly now out of print. Specific sources that have been of help in writing this site are credited where appropriate.

Religion: The only figures available have 75% traditional religion, and 25% Christian (which seems a lot).

Way of Life: Traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists, herding primarily cattle for their milk, with lesser numbers of sheep and goats for meat. Donkeys are kept as pack animals. The restriction of their grazing lands has reduced their reliance on cattle raiding, and has encouraged (forced) some to engage in limited cultivation, growing maize for food, some vegetables, and barley for selling to Kenya Breweries Ltd. Tourism is becoming a major source of income as the Maasai set up "Group Ranch" schemes, which charge hefty admission fees to visitors. Sale of beadwork and other 'ethnic' material, and posing for photos, is a not insubstantial source of income for those near the wildlife parks.

Location: Southern region of the Great Rift Valley in both southern Kenya and north central Tanzania. In Kenya, they inhabit Kajiado and Narok districts in Rift Valley Province, an area of approximately 16,000 square miles. Mainly open semi-arid plateaux north and south of the string of Rift Valley lakes west of Mount Kenya. Annual rainfall is 500-800mm; high evaporation rates and shallow soils. Most of their territory however is in northern Tanzania, but the majority of the population are in Kenya. Their main towns are Kajiado, Namanga (on the Tanzanian border) and Narok.
   They have been excluded from their best traditional grazing lands, which are now gazetted as Maasai Mara National Reserve, Amboseli National Park, and various protected forests.

Population: Most estimates of the Maasai population in Kenya vary from 350,000 to 453,000, though one has it as low as 155,000, which seems most unlikely. They comprise about 1.5% of Kenya's people. The total Maasai population, including the Tanzanian Maasai, is approaching 900,000.

Language: Maa (Ol Maa, Kimaa, or simply Maasai). This is a Nilotic language which is shared with the Samburu people (up to 89% lexical similarity), the Njemps fishermen of Baringo district, groups of Okiek/Ndorobo hunter-gatherers, and the semi-pastoral Arusha and Baraguyu (or Kwafi) of Tanzania. Kenyan dialects include Kaputiei, Keekonyokie, Matapo, Laitokitok, Iloodokilani, Damat, Purko, Loitai, Siria, and Moitanik (Wuasinkishu or Uasin Gishu). Tanzanian dialects include Arusa (Arusha), Baraguyu, and Kisonko. Purko is the largest dialect in Kenya and centrally located.
   18% literacy among settled Maasai, 5-15% among nomads.

Neighbouring tribes: Kenya: Samburu, Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Kamba, Taveta, Taita, Kuria. Tanzania: Chagga, Meru, Pare, Kaguru, Gogo, Sukuma.

Ethnic group: Plains/Eastern Nilotes, also called Nilo-Saharan, Eastern Sudanic, Nilotic, Nilo-Saharan (Chari-Nile branch), Lotuxo-Maa, Ongamo-Maa. The Maasai were in the past classed as Nilo-Hamitic (the Hamites came from north Africa, and have been proposed as one of the lost tribes of Israel), but this definition is no longer widely accepted. Closely related to the Samburu, from whom they split a few centuries ago, and more distantly to the Turkana.

Also known as: Masai, Massai, Maasaï, Masi(?). Subgroups include Kaputiei, Keekonyokie, Matapo, Laitokitok, Iloodokilani, Damat, Purko, Loitai, Siria, Moitanik (Wuasinkishu), Kore and Kisonko. There are also other peripheral Maa groups such as Baraguyu, Ilkunono, Ilarusa (Arusa or Arusha) and Ilkurman; the last two are semi-pastoral and subsist mainly on agriculture.

Facts & Figures