Cultural Diversity


Tribes and Cultural Expression in Kenya

The atypical Maasai Manyattas.  Image Courtesy of Exploring Africa
The atypical Maasai Manyattas (Village). Image Courtesy of Exploring Africa

Brief Overview of Cultural Diversity in Kenya

Much of the fascination, in studying the cultures of Kenya, is trying to establish which of all the types and variants of tribes may be said to be more closer to the approximate root-stem? And it has not been satisfactorily deduced.  The survey of tribes in Kenya, and East Africa in general, is one of consuming interest.  The variations are quite engaging. Take the Swahili of the Coast Region for instance, whose vernacular has now spread throughout Eastern Africa and compare them with Kamba, Abagusii, Luhya or Kikuyu, all from the same Bantu subset. Better still, compare them to the Maasai, who on racial origin, build and language are far removed from the the Bantus and whose customs seem more reminiscent of the Zulu and Swazi tribes of South Africa. Or again, take the tribes living around Mount Kenya, that remain solidly confident, maybe because their languages are just a slight variation of the next. One may imagine in the hitcher and thither of the city life in Kenya, sending each person upon his or her own business, that these traditions have been covered up with inches of dust.  Only they have not.  Just past the horizon of city skyline are traditions burning brightly in the rural countryside.  Traditions which once spelled out life and death for the ancestors.

The Constitution of Kenya recognizes culture as the foundation of the nation and as the cumulative civilization of the Kenyan people and nation. Culture plays a pivotal role in peace building, eradication of poverty and development. It is essential to her civilization, social prosperity and future of her 44 tribes.

An Ethnography of Cultural Diversity in Kenya

“The presentation of the Maasai and other cultural groups as timeless and ahistorical is not unique to Kenya. It is perhaps more widely recognized here because this perspective is reinforced by Kenya’s significant tourist industry”. But surely, even they must have come from somewhere. The tribes of Kenya are largely divided ethnologically into three main classes – those of Cushitic origin, Nilotic origin and Bantu origin. In the beginning, the country which we now call Kenya was no more than a jungle running from east to west. Gradually, in the course of many hundreds of years, these main classes slowly migrated into the lands.  The first to arrive were the pastoral Cushitic, who entered from Ethiopia and Somalia, around 2000 BC.  The second group to migrate in were the Nilotic tribes, around 1000 years ago, from Egypt and Sudan.  The last group to arrive were the agriculturally oriented Bantu from West Africa, around 700 years ago. 

The very nucleus and origins of the Bantu, who are the most widespread, can be traced back – racially and philologically – from the Congo. “The Niger-Congo family includes speakers of Bantu languages, by far the largest single language family in Africa. The Bantus, moving across the middle of Africa from the rain forest in the west, appeared in Eastern Africa during the early years of the first millennium” – Neal Sobania. Over the next hundreds of years the people slowly drifted into divergent environments. During all this time, each group invented certain habits that helped them survive their environment.  Some of the groups were happiest on the lake shores and they began making the best of their new environment.  Around the Great Lakes, appears to be, according to Sir Harries Johnston, the very nucleus of that widespread Bantu type and language which may be traced from the eastern countries of the Congo to Zanzibar, from the headwaters of Zambezi River.  Others preferred to live in the rolling farmlands.

Still other found themselves in the harsher arid and semi arid regions, where fishing and farming were quite difficult and soon discovered a nomadic way of life depending on their livestock and continually moving from place to place in search of food and water.  Meanwhile, one community which had made it to the south-eastern tip of the country found itself on the east coast of Indian Ocean.  Guided twice a day by the torrents of the ocean, these group would play host to traders from all over the world in a trading post that thrived for many hundred of years. Their interaction with numerous other people would also give rise to one of the most popular and celebrated coastal community, that of the Swahili.


A Look Into Selected Tribes of Kenya

A Portrait of the Maasai

The Maa or Maasai

The Maasai of South-western Kenya are known world over for their unscratched culture. They have some the most-guarded traditions – famous as herders and warriors who once swayed the savanna plains of East Africa.

A Portrait of Turkana Tribe

The Turkana People

Against many odds, the Turkana People have developed means of surviving in the desert and have maintained these ways of life for centuries in a place where many could not. The Turkana are one of the pastoral tribes who inhabit the arid North-Western Kenya.

A portrait of the tribes of Northern Kenya

Tribes of the North

Certainly Kenya has scarcely any record of abstruse tribal relations than those of the multiplex clan system of Mandera and tribes of Marsabit County. All in all, they are over 20 unique tribes in these two counties, each to their own.  


The Distinction of Tribes of Kenya

If there’s a numeral Kenyans cannot agree on – going through many debates – it’s this: the sum-number of tribes in Kenya, and what constitutes a tribe. The July 22, 2017, presentation of a charter by Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary to the Kenyans of Indian descent, recognizing them as the 44th tribe in Kenya, wasn’t quite enough to convince skeptics, unless that number was broken down. “That rare recognition, under the presidential proclamation, came just days of President Uhuru Kenyatta granting a similar recognition to the members of the Makonde Community, originally from Mozambique and now living in the Coast Region of Kenya, as the 43rd tribe – Nation Media. Some researchers who have taken an in-depth look at the composition of tribes in Kenya have come up with almost 70 tribes. It’s true that coming up with 44 does not need a deep analysis, yet, even arriving at this magical number is a science in and by itself. Of course, the government’s portfolio is better informed, which makes this a good time for them to share the listing. The notion of the 70 tribes lends itself more to unique languages as a primary criteria. In any case, anyone looking at this discrepancy next to one another to see where they overlap and if they need to be recounted is likely to discover that both are correct. Indeed, the cultural diversity is broad.

Today, the largest population group in Kenya, the Kikuyu, represent, along with the Luhya and the Kamba, the greatest number of speakers of Bantu languages. They make up 20%, 13%, and 11% of the population, respectively. The Nilotic-speaking Luo, numerically the second-largest culture in the population, make up, together with the Kalenjin tribe, 14% and 10% of the population. The rest of Kenya’s people are found in communities that are much smaller in size. One of the most interesting intents of travelling to Northern Kenya is to discover the humorously nicknamed “Lost Tribes of Kenya”. It’s akin to travelling through a living museum of cultures, to a region hosting over 35 tribes, all differing from one another to a greater or lesser degree in customs and language. Principally of Cushitic origin, these tribes are better known for their fierce aggression, that is key for their survival, to rule their territories with a hard organization and a rough justice. Most of these groups live in semi-nomadic settlements, where domestic livestock are herded in home territories. Although ethnically distinct, they all share intertwined histories of inter-migration and assimilation as well as competition, warfares, sharing an unlimited almost desert wasteland, long-term drought and systemic neglect by the Government. This is reflected in the well-known Somali proverb,“I and my clan against the world. I and my brother against the clan. I against my brother”. The make up 14% of Kenya’s population.



The Composition of Kenyans in Tribes

Bantu-speaking tribes:

  • Central Bantu: Agikuyu, Akamba, Ameru, Aembu, Tharaka, Ambere
  • Western Bantu: Gussi, Kuria, Luhya, (Bukusu, Maragoli, Banyala, Banyore, Batsotso, Gisu, Idakho, Isukha, Kabras, Khayo, Kisa, Marachi, Marama, Masaaba, Samia, Tachoni, Tiriki and Abawanga)
  • Coastal Bantu: Miji-Kenda (Giriama, Digo, Chonyi, Duruma, Jibana, Kambe, Kauma, Rabai and Ribe), Swahili, Dahalo, Pokomo, Segeju, Taveta, Taita

Nilotic-speaking tribes:

  • Plains Nilotic: Maasai (Loosekelai, Laikipiak and Purko), Samburu, Teso, Turkana, Elmolo, Njemps
  • Highland Nilotic: Kalenjin (Kipsigis, Nandi, Keiyo, Marakwet, Sabaot, Pokot, Tugen, Terik and Ogiek)
  • River Lake Nilotic: Luo

Cushitic-speaking tribes:

  • Eastern Cushitic: Rendille, Somali (Garre, Murulle, Degodia, Marehan), The Corner Tribes (Shirmogge, Shekhal, Gobawein, Shabele, Leisan, Waraabeeye, Ogaden, Herti, Ashraf, Hawadle), Boran, Gabbra, Orma, Dasenach, Dorobo, Burji, Sakuye
  • Southern Cushitic: Boni (or Aweer), Bajuni, Kore

Special categories:

  • Indians
  • Makonde (originally from Mozambique)

Turkana Cultural Festival 2018 – hosted by Ajuma

The Music Festival of Culture

First held in April of 1959 and funded by the Government through the regular budgetary allocations to the Ministry of Education and by huge sponsorships from private corporations, the Kenya Schools and College Music Festival is the longest running music festival in Kenya and perhaps the most adored guardian of cultural diversity. So much so, that every President of Kenya so far has been The Patron of this institution that carries a national outfit and outlook. In 2018, it run its 92nd Kenya Music Festival edition. It is now widely-popular through out the country and beyond, as a great program in promoting cultural diversity in Kenya. “The Kenya Music Festival has enabled some of its participants to link up with producers after school and have made careers from their creativity”. The programme through competition starts from the local level to get entry to the national level – a structure that allows for as many learners as possible to participate in the competition.  At the national level, a most spectacular 14 days of performances, over 150,000 participants wow the judges and the audiences through folksongs and dances from all corners of Kenya, and music from across Africa and beyond. The categories at the Kenya Music Festvals are broken down to more than 1000 classes to choose from, which range from solo set-piece, folk songs from any nation, special composition on current agendas, Kiswahili verse speaking, Kenyan folksongs, negro spiritual, recitals in an any African language, mixed arrangements of African tunes, original compositions, secular music and instrumental music. “The festival remains an important forum for highlighting and overcoming the barrier and socio-cultural vices that affect access to quality and inclusive education for every child in Kenya” – Werner Schultink, UNICEF.

President Uhuru Kenyatta at the Kenya Music Festivals

A Look Into Selected Tribes of Kenya

A Portrait of the Bajuni Tribe of Lamu

The Bajuni of Lamu

Most visitors to the Lamu island, usually for a weekend getaway, in their few moments in Lamu can scarcely fathom out let alone get to participate in many of her rich centuries old traditions. Lamu is big on traditions and ceremonies.

A Portrait of the Agikuyu People of Central Kenya

The Agikuyu, or Kikuyu

Agikuyu, spread over the whole of Central Province, are the most populous people in Kenya. Their traditional system is essentially based on 9 clans and the core of the bantu-Agikuyu society is the ‘nyumba’, the elementary family

A Portrait of the Miji Kenda People of the Coast Region of Kenya

The Miji-Kenda People

The nation of the Miji-Kenda, made up of 9 (kenda) miji’s or tribes a group of nine related Bantu ethnic groups inhabiting the Coast Region of Kenya and between River Sabaki and River Umba. The mijis are all related.


More Cultural Diversity Festivals in Kenya

If the above Kenya Music Festival was not sufficient, the festivals in Kenya are an easy-to-follow exposition of her fascinating cultural diversity. Kenya is the land of festivals.  In almost every county, major city and town, there’s a festival of some kind which brings together people of all ages from all over Kenya and beyond. There is something for everyone, from the wildly traditional to the best outdoor events. Some of the biggest festivals of global repute are to be found at the Island of Lamu – Lamu Painters Festival, Lamu Food Festival, Mauludi Festival, Lamu Yoga Festival, Lamu Fishing Competition and Lamu Festival, among others. In Northern Kenya, there are many traditional festivals the likes of Tobongu Lore, Lokiriama Peace Festival and Lake Turkana Festival. At the centre of it all, Nairobi, the capital city and melting pot of Kenya, rightly plays host to some of the best afro-chic and vibrant traditional festivals, often spiced-up with urban culture traits, like the Koroga Festival, Safaricom Jazz, Blankets and Wine Festival, and the Nairobi Fashion Week. In all, Kenya has 94 festivals.


Experience Kenya’s Cultural Diversity

From Uhuru Gardens it’s a 4.5 kms drive to Galleria Mall Roundabout, going past Langata Cemetery on the right. Exit 1 (left) takes to Magadi Road which goes past David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage through Magadi Town to Lake Magadi. Exit 2 (straight) continues Langata Road to Karen, which sits on the western frontier of Nairobi, bordering Kiambu and Kajiado Counties. Exit 3 (right) takes to Forest Edge Road and to Bomas of Kenya, set at the edge of a narrow patch of forest that connects Nairobi National Park to Ngong Forest Sanctuary. It was established in 1971 with the overall mandate to preserve, maintain and promote the rich and diverse mosaic of ethnic groups in Kenya. Bomas of Kenya has been the go-to cultural passage for people of all ages and from all walks of life. The popular cultural centre is an exhibition of abounding traditional culture. Visitors get to enjoy guided walks through the cultural village, with representation, in the traditional homesteads, of the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Taita, Maasai, Luo, Kuria, Kisii, Kamba, Mijikenda, Embu, Meru, Meru, Samburu, Turkana, Ilchamus, Teso, Borana, Rendile, Sakuye, Gabbra, Somali, Sengwer, and the Pokot. The tour culminates in enjoying the traditional dances and a medley of local dishes at their Utamaduni Restaurant.

Tribes and Cultural Expression in Kenya

Tribalism Versus Nationalism in Kenya

So far so good, on both accounts. The assertion that ‘tribalism will be the death of Kenyan’ often reemerging during elections in Kenya, is terribly overreaching and dramatic, for in any case, the tribes of Kenya have many examples in their fore-minds from across Africa of just how dreadful these conflicts tend to wend off. ‘Nationalism, tribalism and class are themes which cumulatively delineate a vast tract of inquiry, and have for the most part functioned as separate modes of discourse, each attaining its own school of analysts’. Before the British Empire’s rule of East Africa, the tribes of Kenya had lived more or less homogeneously, each tribe living in one general area. The pastoralists like the Maasai occupied expansive areas, but nevertheless were trading and interacting with several of their neighbouring groups.  Now and then, there would be skirmishes and wars, as would be expected of such an ecosystem. During the British Era, the Royal Boundaries Commission believed that it was prudent to keep rival tribes within their own administrative and political boundaries – ‘for the sake of peace’, and thus the first forty districts of Kenya, clustered in nine provinces, were created.

In political terms, the struggle for independence in Kenya brought with it the concomitant transcendent emphasis on nationalism, and the earliest political movements in Kenya (1919-1939) – Kikuyu Association, the Young Kavirondo Association, Ukamba Members Association, the Taita Hills Association, Coast Africa Association and Northern Frontier District Movement – all took regional outfits, strengthened by the regional unity of the tribes in each region of Kenya. “Nationalism as a field of inquiry emerged in intimate symbiosis with the rise of independence movements”. The key point of definitional reference, in colonial reference, was clear enough, and with little effort everyone rallied behind these early movements. Soon enough, history supplied the movements the quietus of debating how the “national cake” was to be shared, mostly regionally, but more disruptively by three major tribes – Kikuyu, Kalenjin, and Luo – who are now perpetually embroidered in a power race. Then and now, the three, and others, have on several occasions been used as ammunition to engender political goals.  


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