Tribes of Kenya

There are more than 70 tribal groups in Kenya, although distinctions between many of the groups are becoming increasingly blurred, largely as a result of migration to the cities and encroaching Western cultural values. Many smaller tribes have also come in under the umbrella of larger tribal groups to gain protection in intertribal disputes.

Even though many Africans have outwardly drifted away from tribal traditions, the tribe is still the most important aspect of a Kenyan s identity: upon meeting a fellow Kenyan, the first question on anyone's lips is: 'What tribe do you come from?'

Although most Kenyans are nominally Christian, a surprising number still practise traditional religious customs.


The region east of Nairobi towards Tsavo National Park is the traditional homeland of the Akamba people, which they call Ukambani. Their ancestors were Bantu-speaking, and the Akamba migrated from areas further south several centuries ago. The Akamba became great traders in ivory, beer honey, iron weapons and ornaments, covering the region all the way from the coast to Lake Victoria and up to Lake Turkana. They traded for food stocks from the neighbouring Maasai and Kikuyu, as their own low-altitude land was relatively poor and couldn't sustain their increasing population.

During colonial times, the Akamba were highly regarded by the British for their aptitude and fighting ability, and were drafted in large numbers into the British Army. After WWI the British tried to limit the number of cattle the Akamba could own (by confiscating them) and also settled more Europeans in Ukambani. In the 1930s the Akamba responded by marching en masse to Nairobi to squat peacefully at Kariokor Market in protest. After three weeks, the administration gave way and the cattle were eventually returned to the people.

All adolescents go through initiation rites to adulthood at about the age of 12. Young parents are known as 'junior elders' (mwanake for men, mwiitu for women) and are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the village, later becoming 'medium elders' (nthele) and then 'full elders' (atwnia ma kivalo), when they take on the responsibility for death ceremonies and administering the law. The last stage of a person's life is that of 'senior elder' (atwnia ma kisuka), when they are charged with responsibility for maintaining holy places.

The Akamba are famous for their makonde-stjle (ebony) carvings. Subgroups of the Akamba include the Kitui, Masaku and Mumoni.


The Borana are one of the cattle-herding Oromo peoples, indigenous to Ethiopia, who migrated south into northern Kenya in the early years of the 20th century. They are now concentrated around Marsabit and Isiolo. Life revolves around a family's animals - traditionally cattle, but also goats, sheep and sometimes camels. The Borana observe strict role segregation between men and women, men being responsible for care of the herds while women are in charge of children and day-to-day life. Borana groups may pack up camp and move up to four times a year, depending on weather conditions and available grazing land. As a nomadic group their reliance on oral history is strong, with many traditions passed on through song.

Many Akamba lost their lives during WWI fighting for the British Army.

Women of the El-Molo tribe from Lake Turkana.

Women of the El-Molo tribe from Lake Turkana.

Borana Herders

Like their neighbours the Rendllle, the El-Molo worship a god called Wakand bury their dead under stone cairns.

Cattle-rustling is still commonplace among the Gabbra and Pokot, and these days is carried out with automatic weapons.


This tiny tribal group has strong links with the Rendille, their close neighbours on the shores of Lake Turkana. The El-Molo rely on Lake Turkana for their existence, living on a diet mainly of fish and occasionally crocodile, turtle and other wildlife. Hippos are hunted from doum-palm rafts with harpoons, and great social status is given to the warrior who kills a hippo.

An ill-balanced, protein-rich diet and the effects of too much fluoride have taken their toll on the tribe which, over the centuries, has become increasingly vulnerable to disease and attacks from stronger tribes. At one stage there were just 500 El-Molo, living in two small villages on islands on the lake.

Intermarriage with other tribes and abandonment of the nomadic lifestyle has helped to raise their numbers to about 4000, who now live on the mainland near Loyangalani. Traditional costume is now uncommon and the traditional dome-shaped huts of the El-Molo are slowly being replaced by permanent concrete homes.


This small pastoral tribe of striking Arabic-looking people lives in the far north of Kenya, from the eastern shore of Lake Turkana up into Ethiopia. Many Gabbra converted to Islam during the time of slavery. Traditional beliefs include the appointment of an abbra-olla (father of the village), who oversees the moral and physical wellbeing of the tribe. Fathers and sons form strong relationships, and marriage provides a lasting bond between clans. Polygamy is still practised by the Gabbra, although the practice is becoming less common as old attitudes to women - as status symbols and unpaid workers - are being eroded.

Gabbra men usually wear turbans and white cotton robes, while women wear kangas, thin pieces of brightly coloured cotton. Although nagaya (peace) is a core value of the Gabbra, tribal wars with the Samburu were once common. The Gabbra are famous for their bravery, hunting lion, rhino and elephant in preference to 'weak' animals such as antelope.

The Gabbra lost many of their cattle herds to drought and rinderpest epidemics in the 19th century, and were decimated by malaria and smallpox before being driven into the Chalbi Desert from their lands in

Ethiopia by the army of Emperor Menelik. Somehow the Gabbra survived this and today continue to live in the harshest environment in Kenya.


The Gusii inhabit an area in the western highlands, east of Lake Victoria, forming a small Bantu-speaking island in a mainly Nilotic-speaking area. They were driven from their original territory near Mt Elgon to the Kisii highlands about 200 years ago, as the Luo, Maasai and Kipsigis advanced into their lands. The Gusii strongly resisted the British advance and were later conscripted in large numbers into the British Army.

The Gusii family typically consists of a man, his wives and their married sons, all of whom live together in a single compound. Initiation ceremonies are performed for both boys and girls, and rituals accompany all important events. Traditionally, the Gusii are primarily cattle herders and crop cultivators, and some also brew millet beer.

As is the case with many of Kenya's tribal groups, medicine men (abanyamorigo) have a highly privileged and respected position. They are responsible for maintaining the physical and mental wellbeing of the group - performing the combined role of doctor and social worker. One of the more bizarre practices was (and still is) trepanning: the removal of sections of the skull or spine to aid maladies such as backache or concussion.


The term Kalenjin was formulated in the 1950s to describe the group of peoples previously called the Nandi by the British. The Kalenjin comprise the Nandi, Kipsigis, Eleyo, Marakwet, Pokot and Tugen (former president Moi's people) and occupy the western edge of the central Rift Valley area. They first migrated to the area west of Lake Turkana from southern Sudan around 2000 years ago, but gradually filtered south as the climate became harsher.

Although originally pastoralists, most Kalenjin groups took up agriculture. Beekeeping is still a common activity and the honey is used in trade and for brewing beer. The Kipsigis, on the other hand, have a passionate love for cattle and cattle-rustling continues to cause friction between them and neighbouring tribes.

The Nandi, the second-largest of the Kalenjin communities, settled in the Nandi Hills between the 16th and 17th centuries. They had a formidable military reputation and, in the late 19th century, managed to delay the construction of the Uganda railway for more than a decade until Koitalel, their chief, was killed.

As with most tribes, Kalenjin have age-sets into which a man is initiated after circumcision. Polygamy was widely practised in the past. Administration of the law is carried out at the kok (an informal court led by the clan's elders). The Kalenjin doctors, who are mostly (and unusually) women, still use herbal remedies in their work. Other specialist doctors still practise trepanning.


The country's largest tribal group, the Kikuyu make up 20% of the population. Due to this and the influence of Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, the Kikuyu remain the most politically influential tribe in Kenya. The original Kikuyu are thought to have migrated to the area from the east and northeast from the 16th century onwards. Their heartland now surrounds Mt Kenya. Famously warlike, the Kikuyu overran the lands of

Among the Gusii, death is considered to be the work of 'witchcraft' rather than a natural occurrence.

Many Kenyan athletes are Nandi or Kipsigis.

The Kikuyu are renowned for their entrepreneurial skills and for popping up everywhere in Kenya (the Kikuyu name Kamau is as common as Smith is in Britain).

Few Luo today wear traditional costume-they have a reputation for 'flashiness', often carrying two mobile phones.

the Athi and Gumba tribes, becoming hugely populous in the process. The Kikuyu also fiercely resisted the British, spearheading the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s that was a major catalyst for the end of British rule.

The Kikuyu territory borders that of the Maasai, and intertribal raids on property and cattle were once common. Despite this, intermarriage between them has resulted in many cultural similarities between the tribes today.

The administration of the clans (mwaki) - made up of many family groups (nywnba) - was originally taken care of by a council of elders, with a good deal of importance being placed on the role of the witchdoctor, the medicine man and the blacksmith. An important tool of the witchdoctor is the mwano, a gourd filled with bones and pebbles, used for divination.

The Kikuyu god, Ngai, is believed to reside on Mt Kenya (Kirinyaga -which means either the 'mountain of brightness' or 'black-and-white peak spotted like ostrich feathers'), which accounts for the orientation of Kikuyu homes with the door facing Mt Kenya.

Initiation rites for both boys and girls are important ceremonies and consist of ritual circumcision for boys and female genital mutilation for girls (although the latter is slowly becoming less common). Each group of youths of the same age belongs to a riikaan (age-set) and passes through the various stages of life, and their associated rituals, together.

Subgroups of the Kikuyu include the Embu, Ndia and Mbeere.


The Luhya are of Bantu origin and are made up of 17 different groups. They are the second-largest group after the Kikuyu, but occupy a relatively small area in western Kenya centred on Kakamega, where they settled around the 14th century. Population densities here are incredibly high.

In times past, the Luhya were skilled metal workers, forging knives and tools that were traded with other groups, but today most Luhya are agriculturists, farming groundnuts, sesame and maize. Smallholders also grow large amounts of cash crops such as cotton and sugar cane.

Many Luhya are superstitious and still have a strong belief in witchcraft, although to the passing traveller this is rarely obvious. Traditional costume and rituals are becoming less common, due mostly to the pressures of the soaring Luhya population.

The Luo people are Kenya's third-largest tribal group, making up about 12% of the population. They live in the west of the country on the shores of Lake Victoria. Along with the Maasai, they migrated south from the Nile region of Sudan around the 15th century.

The Luo's cattle herds suffered terribly from the rinderpest outbreak in the 1890s and most Luo switched to fishing and subsistence agriculture.

During the struggle for iihurii (Swahili for 'national independence'), many of the country's leading Kenyan politicians and trade unionists were Luo, including Tom Mboya (assassinated in 1969) and the former vice president Oginga Odinga, who later spearheaded the opposition to President Moi's one-party state.

The Luo are unusual among Kenya's tribal groups in that circumcision is not practised for either sex. The Luo traditionally extract four or six teeth from the bottom jaw, although this is uncommon today. The family group consists of the husband, wife (or wives) and their sons and daughters-in-law. The house compound is enclosed by a fence and includes separate huts for the man and for each wife and son.

The family unit is part of a larger grouping of dhoot (families), several of which in turn make up an ogandi (group of geographically related people), each led by a moth (chief). As is the case with many tribes, great importance is placed on the role of the medicine man and the spirits.

The Luo, like the Luyha, have two major recreational passions, soccer and music, and there are many distinctive Luo instruments made from gourds and gut or wire strings.


For many, the Maasai are the definitive symbol of 'tribal' Kenya. With a reputation (often exaggerated) as fierce warriors and a proud demeanour, the tribe has largely managed to stay outside the mainstream of development in Kenya and still maintains large cattle herds along the Tanzanian border.

The Maasai first migrated to central Kenya from current-day Sudan, but in the late 19th century they were decimated by famine and disease, and their cattle herds were plagued by rinderpest. The British gazetted the Masai Mara National Reserve in the early 1960s, displacing the Maasai, and they slowly continued to annexe more and more Maasai land. Resettlement programs have met with limited success as the Maasai scorn agriculture and land ownership.

Maasai women are famous for wearing vast plate-like bead necklaces, while men typically wear a red-checked shuka (Maasai blanket) and carry a distinctive ball-ended club. Blood and milk are the mainstay of the Maasai diet, supplemented by a drink called mursik, made from milk fermented with cow's urine and ashes, which has been shown to lower cholesterol.

At around the age of 14, males become el-moran (warriors) and build a small livestock camp (manyatta) after their circumcision ceremony, where they live alone for up to eight years, before returning to the village to marry. Morans traditionally dye their hair red with ochre and fat. Female genital mutilation is common among the Maasai, despite the best efforts of various human rights groups.

Tourism provides an income to some, either through being guides and camp guards (askaris), selling everyday items (gourds, necklaces, clubs

Mursik Kenya

There is a strong Maasai taboo against 'piercing' the soil, and the dead are traditionally left to be consumed by wild animals.

Maasai men dancing.

The Meru are particularly active in the cultivation of miraa, the stems of which contain a stimulant similar to amphetamines and are exported to Somalia and Yemen.

After giving birth to their first child, Rendille women adopt a clay head decoration known as a doko, which resembles a rooster's comb.

and spears), dancing or simply posing for photographs. However, the benefits are not widespread. In recent years, many Maasai have moved to the cities or coastal resorts, becoming doormen for restaurants and hotels.


The Meru arrived in the area northeast of Mt Kenya from the coast around the 14th century, following invasions by Somalis from the north. The group was led by a chief (mogwe) up until 1974, when the last incumbent converted to Christianity. Justice was administered by a group of tribal elders (njmiri), along with the mogwe and witchdoctor, who would often carry out summary executions by giving poison-laced beer to an accused person. Other curious practices included holding a newly born child to face Mt Kenya and then blessing it by spitting on it. Circumcision is also still common.

The Meru now live on some of the most fertile farmland in Kenya and grow numerous cash crops. Subgroups of the Meru include the Chuka, Igembe, Igoji, Tharaka, Muthambi, Tigania and Imenti.


The Pokot are Kalenjin by language and tradition, but their diet is dominated by meat, supplemented with blood drawn from cattle, milk and honey. Pokot warriors wear distinctive headdresses of painted clay and feathers, similar to those of the Turkana. Flat, aluminium nose ornaments shaped like leaves and lower-lip plugs are common among men. Circumcision is part of the initiation of men and many Pokot women undergo female genital mutilation at around 12 years old.

The pastoral Pokot herd their cattle and goats across the waterless scrub north of Lake Baringo and the Cherangani Hills. Cattle-raiding, and the search for water and grazing, has often brought them into conflict with the Turkana, Samburu and the Ugandan Karamojong.

Pokot hill farmers are a separate and distinct group who grow tobacco and keep cattle, sheep and goats in the hills north of Kitale, on the approaches to Marich Pass. These hill farmers have a strong craft tradition, producing pottery and metalwork, as well as snuffboxes from calabashes or horns.

A woman of the Rendille tribe from Loyangalani. The Rendille are nomadic cattle and camel herders.


The Rendille are pastoralists who live in small nomadic communities in the rocky Kaisut Desert in Kenya's northeast. They have strong economic and kinship links with the Samburu and rely heavily on camels for many of their daily needs, including food, milk, clothing, trade and transport. The camels are bled by opening a vein in the neck with a blunt arrow or knife. The blood is then drunk on its own or mixed with milk.

The colonial administration in this region found the Rendille to be a thorn in its side, as they managed to avoid taxation and forced labour through indifference and outright

Rendille Neck Pieces

hostility. Rendille society is strongly bound by family ties, and these centre around monogamous couples. Mothers have a high status and the eldest son inherits the family wealth. It is dishonourable for a Rendille to refuse a loan, so even the poorest Rendille often has claims to at least a few camels and goats.

Rendille warriors often sport a distinctive visor-like hairstyle, dyed with red ochre, while women may wear several kilos of beads.


Closely related to the Maasai, and speaking the same language, the Samburu occupy an arid area directly north of Mt Kenya. It seems that when the Maasai migrated to the area from Sudan, some headed east and became the Samburu.

Like the Rendille, Samburu warriors often paste their hair with red ochre to create a visor to shield their , eyes from the sun. Age is an important factor in assigning social status and a man passes through various stages before becoming a powerful elder in his 30s. Circumcision heralds a boy's transition to a moran, while female genital mutilation is performed on the day of marriage for girls (usually at around 16 years old). After marriage, women traditionally leave their clan, so their social status is much lower than ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ that of men. Samburu women wear similar colourful bead necklaces to the Maasai.

Samburu families live in a group of huts made of branches, mud and dung, surrounded by a fence made of thorn bushes. Livestock, which are kept inside the fence perimeter at night, are used for their milk rather than for meat.

Northern Massai Samburu girl in wedding attire.


Nomadic, camel-herding Somali have long lived in the arid deserts of Kenya's northeast. Indeed, the Cushitic-speaking peoples, amongst whom the Somalis are numbered, arrived in Kenya before any of the Bantu-speaking peoples. The northeastern towns where Somalis are in the majority are now largely off limits due to security concerns, but you will also encounter Somalis in most large Kenyan towns, where they often run hotels, general stores and mechanical workshops.

Somalis are generally tall and thin with fine aquiline features, and all hail from the same tribe, which is divided into nine clans. The clan in particular and genealogy in general is of tremendous importance to Somalis. Most Somalis are adherents of Islam, although their version of Islam is markedly low key and, as a nomadic people, storytelling and poetry are considered highly.

Many Somalis claim to have originated in the Arabian Peninsula, but historical and linguistic evidence disputes this.

Somali cuisine often features spaghetti, a legacy of the Italian colonisation of southern Somalia.

The website www is a brilliant source of information about the arts and various peoples of Kenya.

A surprising number ofTurkana men still wear markings on their shoulders to indicate that they have killed another man.

Turkana women in traditional dress.


Although the people of the coast do not have a common heritage, they do have a linguistic link: Kiswahili (commonly referred to as Swahili), a Bantu-based language that evolved as a means of communication between Africans and the Arabs, Persians and Portuguese who colonised the East African coast. The word swahili is a derivative of the Arabic word for coast - sawihil.

The cultural origins of the Swahili come from intermarriage between the Arabs and Persians with African slaves from the 7th century onwards. The Swahili were to become one of the principal slaving forces in Africa. Islam is practised by almost all Swahili, although it usually takes a more liberal form than that practised in the Middle East.

Swahili subgroups include Bajun, Siyu, Pate, Mvita, Fundi, Shela, Ozi, Vumba and Amu (residents of Lamu).


The Turkana are one of Kenya's more colourful (and also most warlike) people. Originally from Karamojong in northeastern Uganda, the Turkana number around 250,000 and live in the virtual desert country of Kenya's northwest.

Like the Samburu and the Maasai (with whom they are linguistically linked), the Turkana are primarily cattle herders, although recently, fishing on the waters of Lake Turkana and small-scale farming is on the increase. The Turkana are one of the few tribes to have voluntarily given up the practice of circumcision.

Traditional costume is still commonplace and Turkana men cover part of their hair with mud, which is then painted blue and decorated with ostrich and other feathers. Despite the intense heat of the region, the main garment is a woollen blanket, often with garish checks. Turkana accessories include a pillow-come-stool carved out of a single piece of wood, a wooden fighting staff and a wrist knife. A woman's attire is dictated by her marital and maternal status; the marriage ritual itself is quite unusual and involves the kidnapping of the bride.

Tattooing is also common. Men were traditionally tattooed on the shoulders for killing an enemy - the right shoulder for killing a man, the left for a woman. Witchdoctors and prophets are held in high regard and scars on someone's lower stomach are usually a sign of a witchdoctor's attempt to cast out an undesirable spirit using incisions.

Enneagram Essentials

Enneagram Essentials

Tap into your inner power today. Discover The Untold Secrets Used By Experts To Tap Into The Power Of Your Inner Personality Help You Unleash Your Full Potential. Finally You Can Fully Equip Yourself With These “Must Have” Personality Finding Tools For Creating Your Ideal Lifestyle.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment