Encompassing savannahs, Lakelands, the dramatic Great Rift Valley, and mountain highlands, Kenya is a country in East Africa with coastline on the Indian ocean. It is the world’s 48th largest country by total area with a population of over 52.2 million people. While the complexity surrounding Kenya’s ethnic diversity is overwhelming, Kenya is home to several indigenous tribes, each with a fascinating culture and history. These tribes also contribute to the overall safari experience for travelers and getting to meet them is an educational experience unlike any other. Some of these tribes include:
The Maasai Tribe
Over the years, despite education, civilization and western cultural influences, the Maasai tribe have preserved their culture and clung to their traditional way of life, making them a unique symbol of Kenyan culture. Residing along the border of the two countries, the Maasai people reside in Kenya and Tanzania. Their dress style, distinctive culture and strategic territory along the game parks of Kenya and Tanzania have made them one of East Africa’s most internationally renowned tourist attraction.
Migrating south along the Nile valley and arriving in northern Kenya in the middle of the 15th century, the Maasai ancestors originally thought to have originated in North Africa continued southward conquering all the tribes within their path extending through the Rift valley and arriving in Tanzania at the end of the 19th century. Today, the Maasai Mara game reserve, Samburu, Lake Nakuru, Amboseli national park, Nairobi national park and Tsavo national parks in Kenya and Manyara, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Serengeti parks in Tanzania, all stand on what used to be the territory of the Maasai tribe.
What They Are Known For
Due to the strategic location of their lands along with the game parks of Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai territory overlaps with the Serengeti plains in Tanzania and Maasai Mara national reserve in Kenya(famous for the great annual wildebeest migration). You can see the Maasai people and experience their culture while on a safari tour in Kenya or Tanzania, as their authentic and intriguing culture is a tourist attraction on its own.
The Maasai led a semi-nomadic life and their houses are loosely constructed and semi-permanent. Their houses are built by the women, usually circular and small using mud, grass and cow dung. The fences and sheds for animals are built by the men.
Kenya’s safari tours do not only enable visiting tourists and native Kenyans enjoy the countries wildlife, but also allows tourists explore the Maasai’s rich cultural heritage by paying visits to their homes and attending Maasai’s cultural shows. An ideal opportunity for tourists to take part in the Maasai dance and buy traditional Maasai jewelry, arts, and crafts.
The Kikuyu Tribe
Also known as Gikuyu, the Kikuyu tribe are known as the biggest ethnic group in East Africa, and the make up 22% of Kenya’s population. They are known as the largest and most influential tribe and are mainly concentrated around Mount Kenya, a highland area in the south-central part of Kenya.
It is said that their ancestors migrated from West Africa, but it is not known in which part in particular. The Kikuyus are said to have a founder, Gikuyu, and his wife Mumbi who were created by God and put in a sacred place full of wild fig trees. Gikuyu and Mumbi gave birth to nine daughters who got married and started families from which the nine clans of the Kikuyu tribe originate from.
What they Are Known For
Known for their industrious nature, the Kikuyus main economic activity is agriculture. They are also business minded and are seen as a pillar of the Kenyan economy. Besides agriculture and business, the Kikuyu people have great taste in art-like statues carved by the use of hands, artifacts, and jewelry made of beads and African sarongs which they sell locally to tourists and internationally.
Each family resides together in what is commonly known as a homestead. A house called Nyumba is built for a married woman in her husband’s homestead, as men and women live in different houses. Although Kenya has two national languages, English and Swahili, the Kikuyus language is considered to be the third due to its popularity. Mugithi, Ketebul, and Benga are some of the most prominent Kikuyu music. They have a council of elders who are leaders in the community and give direction in matters concerning their culture and values.
The Embu Tribe
Also known as Aembu, the Embu tribe are a Bantu tribe closely related to the Kikuyu and Meru. They inhabit Kenya’s Embu district, a fertile agricultural region located off Mount Kenya. The Embu tribe are believed to have come from central Africa during the Bantu migration. The origin of the Embu tribe can be traced to the regions around the Nyambene hills, north of Mount Kenya.
What They Are Known For
Embu is home to Mwea national reserve, which is renowned for its diversity of bird species. Ancient caves can also be found in Embu and they are commonly referred to as “Ngurunga ya Ngai” by the locals. Due to its proximity to Mount Kenya to the north, it is a tourist attraction with many foreigners and local people visiting its slopes. A huge hill towering along the Embu-Meru highway made of huge crested rock with two unique eucalyptus trees can be spotted. Nearby the hills are waterfalls close together which colour the sky white as their water falls down.
The Embu tribe lives together in what is commonly known as a homestead. Embu and Mbeere tribe share many customs and rituals. Traditionally, they had jointly owned sacred places called Matikiri. Among the Embu tribe and Mbeere tribe, the extended family had less influence on family life than in other Bantu tribes. An Embu man builds his own home away from his father’s home and manages his family almost independently.
The Kamba Tribe
Also called Akamba, the Kamba tribe are a Bantu ethnic group residing in the semi-arid eastern province of Kenya, with their homeland stretching east from Nairobi towards the Tsavo and Northeast to Embu. The Kambas were involved in the long-distance trade during the pre-colonial period. A large number of Akamba pastoral groups moved Eastwards towards the Tsavo and Kibwezi areas along the coast in the mid-eighteenth century. This migration was as a result of the extensive drought and a lack of pasture for their cattle, so they finally settled in the Mariakani, Kisauni, and Kinango areas of the coast of Kenya, creating the origins of urban settlement.
What They Are Known For
The Akanbe tribe is renowned for its exceptional wood carving and basketing skills. Their weave sisal baskets and unique sculptures are sold to tourists in art galleries, open-air markets, and gift shops in Kenya’s major cities and abroad. The carving is done by the men, while the women weave and decorate the fine work in baskets and pottery. Another spectacular manifestation of the Kamba culture is the traditional dance characterized by some exceptional leaping, flipping dancers in the air and acrobatics.
Although towns and villages have greatly improved in number and proportion, a traditional pattern of family homestead persists. Their houses were once round and thatched to the ground, but now, round or rectangular structures often constructed of brick and thatched only on top of or roofed with corrugated metal stands in the midst of household land. The family is central to the life of the community in Kamba culture. A man must pay a bride price made in the form of cattle, sheep, and goats to the family of the bride before marriage. Their love for music and dance is evident in their impressive performances throughout their daily lives and special occasions.
The Kalenjin Tribe
Located on the western edge of the central Rift valley area, the Kalenjin tribe comprise the Nandi, Kipsigis, Eleyo, Marakwet, Poket, and Tugen. The Kalenjin were said to have migrated to the area west of Lake Turkana from southern Sudan 2000 years ago but gradually migrated south as the climate became harsher. Oral tradition is very important among the Kalenji and prior to the introduction of writing, folktales served to convey a sense of cultural history.
What They Are Known For
The Kalenjins are famous for producing Kenya’s Olympic runners (approximately 75% of all the top runners in Kenya are Kalenjins). The famous sisal bags are manufactured by the Kalenjins and marketed worldwide. Women are also known to make and locally sell decorated calabashes (sotels) from gourds. Tourists can also visit the highland farms of the Luhya and Kalenjin communities.
Kalenjin houses are traditionally round with the walls constructed using bent saplings anchored to larger posts and then covered with a mixture of mud and cow dung. The roofs were thatched with local grasses. Nowadays, however, houses are square or rectangular, built with timber walls and roofs of corrugated sheet metal. Music and dance served many functions traditionally as songs accompanied many work-related activities, ceremonial occasions such as birth, initiations, and weddings.
Kenya is home to dozens of indigenous tribes and these ones listed above are but a fraction. Other tribes worth mentioning include:
If you would like to visit these tribes, learn more about them, and experience their culture, schedule a safari visit to Kenya or get more information with us by calling or filling out our contact form.
You might also want to check out these cultural tours!