Kenya's Ethno-Linguistic Groups

The Bantu

Bantu-speaking peoples that are or will be included in this website: Chuka, Embu and Mbeere, Gusii, Kamba, Kikuyu, Kuria, Luhya, Makonde, Meru, Mijikenda, Pokomo, Taita.
In this page
Bantu origins
The Kenyan Bantu
Bantu society


Kenya's Bantu-speaking peoples account for around two-thirds of the country's population, yet they occupy less than one third of the national territory. Their land, however, is among the country's most fertile, and supports a mainly agricultural existence, with only limited animal husbandry. The word Bantu itself, incidentally, simply means "human beings".

There are three main clusters of Bantu in Kenya: those near the coast and in the plains a short distance inland (Pokomo, Taita, Makonde, Taveta, and the 'nine tribes' of the Mijikenda); the central highlands Bantu (erroneously called Kikuyu-speaking peoples) of around Mount Kenya and the Nyandarua (Aberdare) Range (Chuka, Embu and Mbeere, Kamba, Kikuyu, Meru and various related tribes); and those in and to the north of the Lake Victoria basin in the far west of the country (Gusii, Kuria, and the various Luhya sections).
   Although each of these tribes shares Bantu as a root language, their own languages (of which there are usually many dialects and variations) are not necessarily mutually intelligible.

Bantu origins

The Bantu ethno-linguistic group is most commonly said to have its origins in western Cameroon, although how it's possible to be so certain over migrations that date back over four millennia, I really don't know.

What is certain is that the Bantu certainly came from the region of central Africa, from where they and/or their culture began expanding to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa around 2000 BC. The cause of these migrations are believed to have been the result of an increasingly settled agricultural lifestyle: although needing little land (far less than herding cattle would), land had to be fertile and well-watered for cultivation to be a viable alternative. Population pressure in central Africa may therefore have prompted the first Bantu migrations.
   Several successive waves of migrations over the following millennia followed on the tracks of the first. They were neither planned nor instantaneous, put took place gradually over hundreds and thousands of years, allowing plenty of time for Bantu culture to spread and be influenced by other cultures it came across, either through assimilation or - more rarely, it seems - conquest.

Bantu culture most likely reached Kenya from the west, and possibly the south, sometime between 200-1000 AD, having passed through what is now Congo (formerly Zaïre). By 600 AD they had dispersed over enormous areas, covering what is now Tanzania and Mozambique on the east coast of Africa, south as far as the southern African coast and west into parts of Angola. The result of all this migration and integration was over five hundred Bantu-related languages sprinkled around this area of Africa.

The Kenyan Bantu

The history of the Bantu migrations in Kenya itself is somewhat confused, not least because the on-going process of fusion and mutual influence with neighbouring peoples meant that the tribes we know today did not actually emerge as distinct groups until about five hundred years ago at the earliest. And as the Bantu people met and absorbed other peoples, they also adopted some of the assimilated peoples' histories and traditions...

As cultivators, the Bantu sought out abundantly watered areas, often in the highlands, and were the first to begin large-scale forest clearance for cultivation, with the result that even today many Bantu areas suffer enormous losses of topsoil each year through erosion.
   Although the new-comers were frequently displaced, and sometimes fused with previous Bantu immigrants, Cushitic peoples (from whom some pastoral practices were adopted) or the hunters and gatherers they came across, the essence of Bantu identity remained the same, namely the reliance on agriculture, and hence a relatively settled way of life. Other pan-Bantu cultural elements which have survived, and not just in Kenya, are cosmological beliefs, such as the belief in a single creator God, and the belief in the survival of ancestors as spirits or intermediaries between the living and God.

The Gusii, Kuria and Luhya of Lake Victoria are the descendants of possibly the earliest Bantu groups to have arrived in Kenya, and are believed to have introduced iron smelting and the use of iron tools to the region.
   Although it's obvious that the Bantu must have moved north to populate the areas they cover today in Kenya, the oral legends of the central highlands Bantu invariably point to the north - usually the Nyambene Hills which lie north of Mount Kenya - as their place of origin (ie. some five hundred years ago).
   From there, say their oral histories, the ancestors of the present-day Kikuyu, Meru, Embu, Chuka and Kamba, and possibly others as well, migrated south into the foothills of Mount Kenya itself, where they eventually dispersed to their present locations.

This would indicate that once in Kenya, the Bantu headed much further north than their present territories, and were pushed back by either the Nilotes or Cushites. This theory is backed-up by other oral histories which state that the central highlands Bantu came not from the north or west, but from the Indian Ocean coast to the east.

The coastal Bantu themselves - the 'nine tribes' of the Mijikenda, together with the Pokomo - are unanimous in that they came from a semi-mythical place called Shungwaya in the north, which is likely to have been in what is now Somalia.

Bantu society

A long time ago, it seems that many Bantu societies were organised along matrilineal lines, and were governed by women; a whole heap of oral legends testifies to this, and female founding ancestors - where they exist in tradition - are as venerated and respected as their male counterparts.

Being a settled culture, the Bantu were inherently at risk of attack from the mobile nomadic Nilotic and Cushitic cattle and camel herders such as the Maasai, Borana (Oromo) and Somali, and as a result many Bantu societies became characterised by their defensive nature. None of the Kenyan Bantu groups lived on open land (ideal territory for the herders), having preferred, for both economic (agricultural) and defensive reasons, to occupy the less accessible highland regions.
   Settlements were built with the greatest attention to defence, and were also well concealed: Europeans found they could be walking only metres from a settlement without knowing of its existence.
   Some tribes, like the Kikuyu, became experts at adapting and adopting to new realities, and rarely resorted to conflict. Others, like the Chuka, developed an array of inventive defensive measures, ranging from ingenious traps to tree houses and fortifications. Almost all the Bantu groups also adopted a rigid system of age-sets (an idea possibly borrowed from the Nilotic or Cushitic peoples they came across), in which all people of similar age were initiated into an age-set, which together progressed through clearly defined phases of social responsibilities, functions and status, from initiation, through warriorhood, marriage and elderhood to death.
   The system ensured the cohesion of society, as well as enabling the development of the warrior system, by which all the young men of a given society would, shortly after initiation to adulthood and their age-set, take up the role of defending the entire society.

For the Mijikenda in the coastal hills, the situation was similar. Having been pushed south by the Somali/Oromo expansion, they settled on hilltops which offered more protection against the nomadic herders than the lowlands. There they developed specific defensive settlements, called kaya, to protect people and property from raiders.

Nowadays, the Bantu reliance on agriculture and latterly trade has meant that they are by far the richest of Kenya's people, at least in monetary terms. The downside is that their settlements are inevitably densely populated, a problem which has grown acute over the last few decades.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography