Kenya - Contexts

Kenya's People

See also the separate pages on the Bantu, Cushites, and Nilotes. For a more general overview, see Kenya’s history and Kenyan religions and beliefs. For an intelligent and perceptive view of the problematic concept of 'indigenous' in Kenya (with particular reference to nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples), see Indigenous Peoples In Kenya - An Overview, by Dr. Naomi Kipury [the link points to a copy at, as the original site is no more].
In this page:
The major ethno-linguistic groups
The Hunter-gatherers
The Cushites
The Nilotes
The Bantu
The Swahili
A note about the word 'tribe'

The Major Ethno-linguistic Groups

Mwana ti wa muciari umwe -
A child does not belong to one parent
Embu proverb

Although little is known of the prehistory of the peoples currently inhabiting Kenya, it is believed that the land has been more or less continuously inhabited since the birth of mankind, something like 4.5 million years ago, as the numerous fossil finds around the edges of Lake Turkana, up in the far north of the country, elegantly testify. These discoveries of early hominids have earned Lake Turkana the sobriquet, 'The Cradle of Mankind', although still older finds were subsequently made in Ethiopia, to the north.

Of Kenya's present-day tribes (the number depends on how you count them; 42 were named in the 1989 census, and one source mentions 45 distinct languages as opposed to dialects), some have been there for over a thousand years, perhaps much more; while others only arrived fifty years ago. Their size varies greatly: some number barely a few hundred people and are on the brink of extinction, whilst others number several million, and constitute the country's economic and political elite. Each have their own languages as well as numerous dialects, and traditionally also had their own religions, customs, rituals and ways of life, many of which have been broken down by the modernization which swept through the twentieth century.

Within this multiplicity of tribes, the main distinctions that have been made by anthropologists, and to a lesser extent by Kenyans themselves, are based on broad ethno-linguistic classifications, which use the existence of common root languages as a basis of defining cultural (and racial) differences and similarities between peoples. The logic is simple in theory, if not in practice: in the same way that Europeans make a distinction between Romance, Celtic, Latin, Nordic and Slavic tongues, and thus peoples, so it is in Kenya that distinctions are made between Bantu, Cushitic and Nilotic-speaking peoples.
   Like the European ethno-linguistic groups, these tend to occupy distinct geographical areas. The cattle-herding Nilotes occupy the plains of the Rift Valley in the west of the country, which cuts across the whole of Kenya from north to south; the camel-rearing Cushites live in the desertic northeast; and the agricultural Bantu are in the more fertile highlands of central and southern Kenya, as well as in a few highland areas near Lake Victoria. The Swahili, who are sometimes also classed as a distinct ethno-linguistic group, occupy the coast.

The arrival of each of these groups can be sequentially dated, although ascribing precise dates to particular migrations and tribes is difficult if not impossible. It should be borne in mind that these classifications, and the names that are used, are almost entirely academic, and moreover were coined by European scholars rather than by Kenyans themselves. Periodic disputes arise among researchers as to the precise meaning of the classifications, and many alternative labels crop up. The labels below are the ones currently in use, and I've made no attempt to find better alternatives.

The Hunter-gatherers

The people who have inhabited Kenya the longest, and who might thus be called Kenya's aboriginal or indigenous people (a somewhat pointless term, really, given that every human society on earth has migrated at some time in its history), were various small groups of hunter-gatherers who lived in scattered groups throughout the country, though mainly in forests (most of which have been felled over the last century). They relied on hunting, bee-keeping for honey, and the collection of wild fruits and vegetables, although some also practised limited agriculture, which is believed to have begun as early as 3000 years ago.
   Most of these hunter-gathering cultures have now all but disappeared, having been either annihilated or assimilated by the larger tribes in the plains and hills surrounding them (see the paragraph about the Okiek below, whose plight exemplifies that of other surviving hunter-gatherer populations in Africa).

The Cushites
(see Kenya's People: the Cushites for more detail)

Of the major ethno-linguistic groups, the first to arrive in Kenya were the Cushites, the first of whom (ancestors of the present-day Somali, Rendille and Wa-Boni) are believed to have entered north and northeastern Kenya around 2000-1000BC from Ethiopia. Some sources quote a figure of 9000BC for this, although it appears to confuse them with the hunter-gatherers. Needless to say, there's little evidence linking any particular ethno-linguistic group to any archaeological finds dating from that time. Many migrations have occurred subsequently, the latest in the mid-1900s, so that tracing the ancestry of any of these peoples is a confusing and probably pointless exercise.
   Cushitic-speaking peoples in Kenya include the Borana, Burji, Gabbra, Orma, Rendille and Somali.

The Nilotes
(see Kenya's People: the Nilotes for more detail)

The next major linguistic group to arrive were the Nilotes who, as their name suggests, originally came from the Nile Valley, probably in southern Sudan. The first of these peoples are believed to have arrived around 500BC, although Nilotic migrations only became substantial some five hundred years ago, with the arrival of the Luo and Maasai. Their main direction of movement was southwards along the plains of the Rift Valley, which favoured both their cattle-raising lifestyle, as well as their rapid, all-conquering advance into the country. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they had reached Tanzania, where their advance was finally stopped.
   Nilotes who have kept to their nomadic way of life, namely the Maasai, Turkana, Rendille and some sections of the Pokot, nowadays consider themselves as oppressed, dominated and discriminated against by the state and by the more numerous agriculturalists.
   Nilotic-speaking peoples in Kenya include the agricultural Luo (14% of the population, and Kenya's second-largest tribe), various tribes who came together in the last century to form the Kalenjin (Kenya's fourth-largest, at 11%), the Maasai (1.5% of the national population), the Pokot, Samburu and Turkana.

The Bantu
(see Kenya's People: the Bantu for more detail)

The last major group to arrive (excluding the numerically-small but all-powerful Europeans in the nineteenth century), were the Bantu-speakers, the first of whom probably arrived some two thousand years ago.
   Bantu-speaking peoples in Kenya include three of Kenya's five largest tribes, namely the Kikuyu (largest, with 21% of the national population), the Luhya (third-largest at 13%), and the Kamba (fourth- or fifth-largest, with around 11% of the population). Other Kenyan Bantu include the Chuka, the Embu and closely-related Mbeere (covered in the same section), the Gusii, Kuria, Makonde, Meru, Mijikenda and the Taita.

The Swahili

The mostly Muslim Kiswahili-speaking people on the coast are sometimes classed as a separate ethno-linguistic group, although their history and ethnicity is much more complex than that of the groups mentioned above, and involves many recent migrations and influences from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Sub-continent, as well as influxes from Bantu and Cushites.

The thing that distinguishes the Swahili (which in Kenya includes the Shirazi and Bajuni peoples) is their long period of contact with other cultures, notably through commerce with Arabs, Persians, Indians and even Chinese. Contact with Europeans began in 1498, with the arrival of Vasco da Gama en route to India, but European influence was minimal until the period of British colonisation. The first cities and towns are believed to have developed quickly along the Kenyan coast in the first few centuries AD, of which Lamu, Malindi and Mombasa survive to the present-day.
   Some sources even mention Roman settlements, though these were almost certainly Phoenician. The long period of contact with both Arabs and Persians from Shiraz, especially between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, led to the early diffusion of Islam among the Swahili (and indeed, the word Swahili is believed to derive from the Arabic term for coast, Sahel). The Swahili language - Kiswahili - developed primarily from a mixture of Arabic and local Bantu languages, though it also included elements of Persian, Portuguese, Hindi, and English. It is now Kenya's official language, spoken as a second language by the majority of Kenyans (their first language is generally that of their tribe).


Aside from the arbitrary borders that define modern-day Kenya, the thing that unites all of Kenya's tribes is that they successfully adapted themselves to their new environment when they arrived. In doing so, they kept many of their old ways whilst also changing some other ones, and adopted other practises from neighbouring tribes who had ways and methods that were perhaps more suitable or efficient in the new context. As a result, no tribe -with the exception of a few numerically small groups - is culturally or linguistically homogeneous.

In the fertile and well-watered lands in the highlands and around Lake Nyanza (Victoria), nomadic cattle-herders became farmers. In the forests around Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, hunter-gatherers began trading honey and natural poisons with their larger and more powerful neighbours, by whom they were gradually assimilated. In the deserts of the far north, people adopted the camel and learned how to survive drought, which contrary to popular belief was not a cruel anomaly, but a constant if unpredictable feature of life and climate.
   On the coast, people learned ship-building and built cities to receive a flourishing trade with Arabs and others from across the Indian Ocean. In the coastal hinterland, many people became merchants, and others worked as guides on the ivory and slave caravans which passed from the coast towards Lake Nyanza in the far west. Others, like the Maasai, kept cattle as almost their only means of sustenance; to feed their ever-growing herds, they needed large tracts of grazing lands - so they wandered south, raiding neighbouring tribes, and being raided in turn, thereby introducing cattle to other people.

All of which led to rich, complex, adaptable and therefore lasting social structures, where man was inextricably bound-up with his destiny, and where his ancestors were ever-present in oral tales, songs and dances. And through these people's religions, which emphasized the role of ancestors in having forged and defined their societies, there existed an unbroken continuity between the present, the past and the future, no matter how much things changed.
   No matter how much things changed, that is, until the arrival of the British, late in the nineteenth century, with their explorers, missionaries and promises of 'free' land for those back in the old country who wanted a new life. Barely a century on, that continuity has in many cases not just been broken, but positively obliterated, buried under the inexorable advance of Western-style civilization and Christianity. Cultures that could trace their lineages back over dozens of generations, and with it had created wonderful cosmologies, complex notions of space and time, creation myths, and rituals to celebrate the stages of life -from birth to death, through childhood, initiation, warriorhood, adulthood, marriage, and old age - have been swept away.

One of the more depressing experiences as an outsider in Kenya was to hear people talking of their own tribal customs as though they were shameful. More than once I heard people describe their ancestor's rites and rituals, dress or occupations, as "primitive". These were not just the young men lost in the colonial cities of modern Kenya without work, without - to be honest - much hope. They were also the men and women in suits in Nairobi holding down precious office jobs. They were bar tenders, waiters and taxi drivers who wanted nothing more than to be like me, to go to Europe or America. For them, Kenya was a place to escape from - it seemed that their ties with the past had ended.
   And as for those who are still proud to be what their forefathers were, some now rely on hand-outs from tourists by posing for photos or selling trinkets for a few hundred shillings, which subsequently turn up on the Internet selling at eighty times that amount (I'm not joking - I've seen woven baskets which cost $5 in Kenya on sale for $400).
   Perhaps I exaggerate the point (especially if one considers nomadic tribes such as the Turkana, who have kept their tribal identity almost completely intact), but one thing is clear - the old tribal structures and cultures have in most cases all but been destroyed by "Progress", and with it, the music.

Tribalism: a Lament and a Prayer

The lament...

Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first President following independence from the British, was sadly unable to put into practice the good words and intentions he had so often talked out when in detention or exile. For all his qualities and his vision of justice for all, for all the time during which he was the primary focus of anti-colonial hopes, for all his dreams, and for all his struggle for the young nation's liberty - Kenyatta was unable to live those ideals as President. Although he had helped assure the independence of Kenya from the oppressive and racist British regime, he never once applied those same ideals to ALL Kenyans themselves, but instead was seen to favour his own people, the Kikuyu, as the recipients of the new government's benevolence.
   And so, after fifteen years of increasingly tribalistic and divisive rule, almost wholly in favour of the Kikuyu at the expense of other tribes such as the Maasai and Kalenjin, he was replaced by the Kalenjin President Daniel arap Moi who, it turned out, did nothing other that start his own brand of favouritistic tribalism. In the meantime, any pretence of multi-party politics, which had already been lost with Kenyatta, became fact. Even the two 'multi-party' elections of the 1990s, forced upon Moi by Kenya's international 'donors' (lenders), were a farce: Moi won fairly and squarely, one might say, on the back of mass intimidation and fear, in much the same way that Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe scraped home in 2000.

In all this din of hatred, ignorance and prejudice - which one finds all over the world - what has happened to the rhythms of life that dwell in all and which surround us all and join and ultimately claim us all?
   I fear that the music of life has become a cacophony of competing cries, the cries of the exploited and downtrodden, and the gloating of the successful and victorious. But most of all, the music of life now plays to the deafening silence of the complacent and disinterested. That means us, who are ultimately the ones to profit from Africa's distress.

Although I have gained much from Africa, and my last six-journey in Kenya was one of the most enjoyable as well as instructive trips that I have had the fortune to undertake, a feeling of great impotence and pessimism has also grown in me, one which increasingly saps any hope I once had for a better future for all mankind.
   The more I learn of the riches of traditional African societies, their intricate beliefs and cosmologies, their fantastic music, their ways of life, customs, stories, histories, legends and heroes; people who, far from merely surviving in a hostile environment, had lived lives full of meaning, rich with the ties of friendship and kin, and to rhythms which bound the past and the present with the future. The more I read and learn about these 'old ways', the keener is my lament for their disappearance. For in their place lies not a seamless new world cosmology, nor even a new version (or vision) of the old ways, not fairness or justice, and not even hope for so many; but rather a vast rupture, a broken continuity, with no more past than it would seem to hold a bright future.
   People argue that the new things will take time to properly take root and flourish. New things, like centralized national government and the cash economy, still need time, they say, to become successful.
   I disagree. Aside from the indisputable fact that most Kenyans are nowadays actually poorer in monetary terms than they were at independence in 1963, you should remember that the ruling axiom of capitalism is competition. And competition, for all its positive effects, of necessity also creates losers as well as winners. The long-industrialised Western world is, in economic terms, almost three centuries in advance of Africa. While African economies struggle to set-up the barest necessities, such as half-decent infrastructures, health care, education, sufficient food supplies and primary industries, the West has already moved on to a more 'sophisticated' - and thus exploitative - level.

Think for a minute about the IMF (the International Monetary Fund). Ostensibly set-up to help 'developing countries' attain a higher state of 'development', don't forget that the money the IMF gives to countries - such as Mozambique in 2000, to help overcome the effects of the devastating floods - are just loans. And like all loans, such as the ones banks give you to buy a house or a new car, there is interest to pay.
   The perversity is that, for many African countries, the cost of servicing the interest on these debts accounts for more than their total earnings from exports. For some countries, the interest on debts even accounts for the majority of their Gross National Product (GNP). In the long-term, far from being a help, the loans made to African nations are, in fact, a poverty trap of the first magnitude.
   The question of the industrialised world simply giving assistance to Africa with no strings (or interest) attached is never even considered, other than at times of widespread famine when it becomes politically advantageous to be seen to be helping those poor souls seen dying nightly on the television news. For to do so - to get Africa to a similar stage of economic development as the West - would adversely affect the interests of Western industry and the multinationals, and thus of Western nations themselves. Most people would be hard-pressed to voluntarily forego their extra TV, their second car, and all those other things that they really don't need.
   Unfortunately, the spirit which fired colonial ambitions of the last few centuries, and which permitted flagrant injustices such as racism, colour bars, segregation, forced labour, and slavery to flourish, was not just an unexplained one-off of the past. Those ideas are still very much alive.

And meanwhile, witness the effect of all this on the societies themselves.
   Since the European colonisation of Africa began, traditional cultures and ways of life have been decimated. Unique religions and cosmologies have been replaced by Christianity; small-scale agriculture and herding in which entire families were involved has given way to poorly-waged employment on the estates or in cities, or more likely unemployment. You see streetkids in the towns and cities who ran away from home, or whose parents died from AIDS, or whose families can no longer afford the dollar a day it costs to feed them. And on the TV news, you see well-fed politicians with oily faces and bodyguards denying irrefutable proof of their own corruption, who issue threats against accusers and journalists alike, and who then walk away with impunity.
   Social structures have been swept away: old systems of government by councils of respected elders have been replaced by the rule of too-often corrupt politicians and untouchable 'big men', whose interests, far from being those of the people whom they supposedly represent, are bought by multinationals and others who possess the means to pay for power.

Since 1900, Kakamega rain forest in Western Kenya - whose ecosystem is unique in East Africa - has been reduced to 5% of its former extent, primarily to make way for foreign-owned tea plantations.
   With the establishment of the plantations has come the extinction not only of plant and animal species (the last leopard, for example, disappeared a decade ago), but that of an entire forest people, who are now scattered in the surrounding towns fending as best they can in a world of poverty and unemployment. Meanwhile, the tea plantations - mostly owned by foreign multinationals such as Brooke-Bond and PG - grow ever richer whilst paying their workers the equivalent of around one and a half dollars a day.

The situation is the same in many other parts of Kenya. Multinationals, former colonists, foreigners and corrupt politicians own vast estates which barely a century ago were communally-owned land, used and managed by entire peoples for their own as well as for their descendants' benefit. A case in point is the current plight of the Okiek hunter-gatherers, who have just (March 2000) been legally evicted from their ancestral home in the Mau Forest on the outrageous grounds that they were destroying their own environment! To my knowledge, a forest-dwelling people has never in the whole history of mankind voluntary destroyed its own habitat. Cue the inevitable bulldozers and chain saws, barbed wire fences, luxury developments and private police forces. For more on their plight, and on how you can help them, see the websites of Survival International and


... and the Prayer

There is no doubt that Kenya is in a mess today. Apart from all its material woes, the meaning of society has been degraded, morals and values discarded, and the past - in large part - forgotten.

This website is a celebration of the old ways. It is my sincere hope that the old ways will not only not be forgotten, but that they may be revived and embraced, in whatever new form, and by all Kenyans.

Ironically, it is in these times of such change and modernisation, that there has never been a greater need for the wisdom of the past to help in directing the future.

A note about the word tribe

First off, I mean no offence to anyone in using the word "tribe", although I know that there are some people who will take umbrage at it. I trust that the respect in which I hold all of Kenya's people will be judged by the content and tone of this website, rather than by my use of one or two words which may have become insulting to some.
   In using the word "tribe", I do not mean to imply that a people are primitive in any sense. Quite the contrary: if truly primitive people exist on this planet, then it is those politicians of all nations who persist in stealing, destroying and lying their way to power and wealth, always at the expense of the vast majority of common people (who in Kenya are called wananchi - the word is usually preceded with the phrase 'long-suffering'). The truly primitive are also those global multinationals who by their wealth can effectively do whatever they please, and habitually exploit people, ransack resources, and pollute and destroy the environment with impunity. Primitive, in short, is a society or organisation which values profit more highly than the welfare of the people it affects.

I have taken both "tribe" and "people" to mean a group of people who consider themselves as a united group, related by common ancestry, customs, traditions, religion, geographic location and so on. In other words, they share a common identity. This group may be divided into various clans, moieties, sections or whatever, but they still hold themselves to be one people. In short, I have followed the distinctions made by Kenyans themselves in deciding what's what.
   I should point out that I have used both the words "tribe" and "people" more or less interchangeably, unless the context required something very specific. The terms "ethnic group", "ethno-linguistic group" and "ethnicity" have in my mind broader definitions, and include all the peoples/tribes either related by common ancestry, or who speak related languages (for example the Nilotes, the Cushites or the Bantu, who are comprised of many smaller groups, who I would call tribes).
   I am aware of the semantic anthropological distinctions based on relative group size (thanks to Chap Kusimba for pointing this out to me), but on reflection I find this an unacceptable solution. The problem with this notion can be stated simply: in the Kenyan context, this would entail calling the El Molo (population 500-5000, depending on who you count as El Molo) a "tribe", but the Kikuyu - who number several million - a "people". Yet the sense of identity that binds Kikuyu to Kikuyu, and El Molo to El Molo, is exactly the same for either people.
   I am also aware of the distinction made by language, in which the language spoken by a particular people is taken to define their identity. For the most part, this works well, but it's not perfect: the Chuka, whose language has 70% linguistic similarity with Kikuyu, will still say that they are Chuka, and will never say that they are Kikuyu. The same applies to the Samburu, who speak what many linguists consider to be a dialect of the language spoken by the Maasai. It doesn't make them Maasai, though.

The problem with the word "tribe" in the Kenyan context is not that Kenyans might find it offensive. On the whole, they don't, and it is in fact the word most commonly used to describe a person's own identity. The use has nothing derogatory whatsoever, unless the speaker is one of those rare souls who considers himself to be a Kenyan above and beyond any tribal or ethnic distinctions. The real problem is that many non-Kenyans have decided that the term is negative and should be scrapped. On the face of it, these people are correct, as even my dictionary (Collins, 1990) comes up with "a social division of a people, especially of a preliterate people, defined in terms of common descent, territory, culture etc." I certainly don't accept the preliterate part, but find that the rest of the definition accurately describes the case in Kenya. Kenya is an artificial construction, its borders defined not by ethnic groups, languages, or even geographic boundaries, but by the arbitrary drawing of lines on maps by Western countries at the onset of colonisation. For better or worse, the many different groups of people living inside those boundaries came to be called Kenyans, whether they liked it or not. In England, people don't ask from which people you come from, but from where - to which they'll probably tell you the name of a city or town, because English identity is generally determined by geographic location.
   But in Kenya, people won't ask you from where you're from, but from which people you come from. And to say that, they say "tribe". Some people would even ask me my own tribe, to which I'd reply English. In Kenya, the national social structure is based on anything between 40 and 60 major groups of people, who for the most part have little in common with each other except for sharing the same government (and the same deepening poverty).

Ultimately, the question should not be a quantitative one, but qualitative: what is it that binds a people together that makes them feel they share a common identity? This is a question that is impossible to answer in only a few words (and I am nowhere near to finding the answer myself). I hope that this website gives some clues to this, but ultimately it's surely the people themselves who are to decide to what or where they belong. In Kenya, they say "tribe" to do this, and that - quite honestly - is good enough for me.


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