Tribal identity is still important in Kenyan life though this is changing as more people move into towns and tribal groups become scattered. Polygamy is still practised, though it is not officially condoned. The custom of a man taking more than one wife is only recognized in the traditional systems, and not by official Kenyan family law. There is much resistance to Western censure of polygamy. However, the practice is dying under the twin influences of economic realities and social pressure. Few men can now afford to take more than one wife. Among the better off, it is frowned upon for anybody in public life as it causes embarrassment when mixing with the international community. The Christian churches strongly disapprove.


Kenya has long been a meeting place of population movements from around the continent. This has resulted in there being as many as 40 different tribes living in Kenya, and many more sub-groups, with an estimated overall population of 38 million people. There are three main groupings based on the origins of these groups. The Bantu came from West Africa in a migration, the reasons for which are not clearly understood. The Nilotic peoples came from the northwest, mostly from the area that is now Sudan. They were mainly pastoralists, and moved south in search of better grazing on more fertile land. Finally there is the Hamitic group, made up of a series of relatively small communities such as the Somali, Rendille, Boran, Ogaden and others, all pastoralists, who have spread into Kenya in the north and northeast from Ethiopia and Somalia.

Kikuyu (Bantu)

Primarily based around Mount Kenya, this is the largest ethnic group with 22% of the total population. They are thought to have originated in East and Northeast Africa around the 16th century. Land is the dominant social, political, religious and economic factor of life for Kikuyus and this soon brought them into conflict with colonial interests when settlers occupied their traditional lands.

The administration of the Kikuyu was undertaken by a council of elders based on clans made up of family groups. Other important members of the community were witch doctors, medicine men and the blacksmiths. The Kikuyu god is believed to live on Mount Kenya and all Kikuyus build their homes with the door facing the mountain. In common with most tribes in Kenya, traditionally men and women go through a number of stages into adulthood including circumcision to mark the beginning of their adult life, athough it is almost unheard of for women to be circumcised today.

It is said the Kikuyu have adapted more successfully than any other tribe to the modern world. Kikuyu are prominent in many of Kenya's business and commercial activities. Those still farming in their homelands have adapted modern methods to their needs and benefit from cash crop production for export, particularly coffee and tea. They have a great advantage in that their traditional area is very fertile and close to the capital, Nairobi.

Kalenjin (Nilotic)

Kalenjin is a name used by the British to describe a cluster of tribes; the Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen, Elgeyo, Keiyo, Pokot, Marakwet, Sabaot, Nyangori, Sebei and Okiek, who speak the same language but with different dialects, and in total make up about 12% of Kenya's population. They mainly live in the western edge of the central Rift Valley and are thought to have migrated from southern Sudan about 2000 years ago. Most Kalenjin took up agriculture though they are traditionally pastoralists. Bee-keeping is common with honey being used to brew beer. Administration of the law is carried out at an informal gathering of the clan's elders. Witch doctors are generally women, which is unusual in Africa. In the modern world, the Kalenjin are renowned for their prowess as athletes and are often dubbed 'the running tribe' for their success in long distance running .

Kamba (Bantu)

The Kamba (more correctly the Akamba) traditionally lived in the area now known as Tsavo National Park. They comprise 11% of the total population. Originally hunters, the Kamba soon adopted a more sedentary lifestyle and developed as traders because of the relatively poor quality of their land. Ivory was a major trade item as were beer, honey, ornaments and iron weapons, which they traded with neighbouring Masai and Kikuyu for food. In common with most Bantu tribespeople, political power lies with clan elders.

The Kamba were well regarded by the British for their intelligence and fighting ability and they made up a large part of the East African contingent in the British Army during the First World War.

Kisii (Bantu)

The Kisii (also known as Gusii) are based on the town of the same name in the west, south of Kisumu. Traditional practices have been continued, with soothsayers and medicine men retaining significant influence, despite the nominal allegiance of most Kisii to Christianity. They occupy a relatively small area, and population densities are the highest anywhere in Kenya's countryside, with plot sizes becoming steadily smaller with the passing of each generation.

Luo (Nilotic)

The Luo live in the west of the country on the shores of Lake Victoria, and are the third-largest ethnic group with 13% of the total population. They migrated from the Nile region of Sudan in around the 15th century. Originally the Luo were cattle herders but the devastating effects of rinderpest on their herds compelled them to diversify into fishing and subsistence agriculture. The Luo were also prominent in the struggle for Independence and many of the country's leading politicians, including Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga, were Luos. The Luos had a different coming-of-age ritual to other tribes in the region, which involves extracting the bottom four or six teeth, though this practice has fallen into disuse.

Luyha (Bantu)

The Luhya are based around Kakamega town in Western Kenya, and make up 14% of the total population. They are Kenya's second largest grouping after the Kikuyu and the Luo. They are cultivators, and small farmers are the mainstay of sugar-cane growing in the west.

Masai (Nilotic)

The Masai are probably the best-known tribe to people outside Kenya with their striking costume and reputation as fierce and proud warriors. They comprise 2% of Kenya's people. The Masai came to central Kenya from the Sudan around 1000 years ago, where they were the largest and one of the most important tribes. Their customs and practices were developed to reflect their nomadic lifestyle and many are still practised today, though change is beginning to be accepted. The traditional basic Masai diet is fresh and curdled milk carried in gourds. Blood tapped from the jugular vein of cattle is mixed with cattle urine and this provides a powerful stimulant. Cattle are rarely killed for meat as they represent the owners' wealth.

Meru (Bantu)

Arrived to the northeast of Mount Kenya around the 14th century, following invasions by Somalis in the coast, this group is not homogenous being made up of seven different groups of people, accounting for 5% of Kenya's population. Some of the Meru were led by a chief known as the
until 1974 when the chief converted to Christianity and ended the tradition. A group of tribal elders administer traditional justice along with a witch doctor known as a
, which is the only traditional judicial system recognized by Kenya.

The Meru occupy some of the country's richest farmland which is used to produce tea, coffee, pyrethrum, maize and potatoes. Another highly profitable crop grown by the Meru in this region is
, a mild stimulant particularly popular amongst Islamic communities and Somalis.

Swahili (Bantu)

The Swahili dwell along the coast, and make up less than 3% of the total population. Although they do not have a common heritage, they do share a common language, religion and culture. Ancestry is mainly a mixture of Arabic and African. Today the majority of coastal people are Muslims. The language is Kiswahili, which about 90 million people speak in East Africa.

Turkana (Nilotic)

Like the Masai, this group has retained its rich and colourful dress and has a reputation as warriors. They comprise less than 1% of the total population. They are mainly based in the northwest part of Kenya living in the desert near the Ugandan border. This is the most isolated part of the country and as a consequence the Turkana have probably been affected less by the 20th century than any other tribe in Kenya.

The Turkana are pastoralists whose main diet consists of milk and blood. Cattle are important in Turkana culture, being herded by men. Camels, goats and sheep are also important and are looked after by boys and small girls. Recently some Turkana have begun fishing in the dry season.

The traditional dress of the Turkana is very eye-catching and is still fairly commonly worn. Men cover part of their hair with mud which is then painted blue and decorated with ostrich feathers. The main garment is a woollen blanket worn over one shoulder. Women wear a variety of beaded and metal adornments many of which signify different events in a woman's life. Women wear a half skirt of animal skins and a piece of black cloth. Both men and women sometimes insert a plug through the lower lip. Tattooing is still fairly common. Men are tattooed on the shoulders and upper arm each time they kill an enemy. Witch doctors and prophets are held in high regard.

Music and dance

Most traditional Kenyan music and dance are centred on drums (
), and there is a variety of drums used throughout the country that are played for people to dance to. Other instruments include reed flutes and basic stringed instruments, such as the
, which is similar to a medieval lyre and is usually played by a solo singer. Inland, the colonial period gave rise to
singing; very long narrative songs with strong elements of social commentary and political criticism. On the coast, the Swahili culture saw the growth of a unique style of music called
, which fuses African percussion with Arabian rhythms and is performed by a large group of musicians playing violins,
and singing in Kiswahili. It was thought to have its origins from the 19th century when the Omanis traded on the coast. In modern times, these instruments are being replaced by electric guitars and keyboards but the scales of the notes are still distinctively Arabian. Most of the singers are female and the songs these days are very similar to the music that accompanies Bollywood movies. Since the 1970s pop music has been popular in Kenya, especially imported West African music such as
or highlife, or Congolese rumba, which are all very infectious and danceable. Today Congolese music (Lingala) is extremely popular and the type you are most likely to hear on
, in the streets, in bars and clubs, in fact anywhere and everywhere. Many of the musicians that play this music have actually relocated to Nairobi because of their success there. Also today, thanks to radio, young Kenyans are listening and dancing to, as well as playing, the same sort of chart topping music as their contemporaries in the rest of the world. Rap has become increasingly popular among young Kenyans, and there are several Kenya-based rap bands. Whilst the style of music is virtually indistinguishable from US-based rappers, the lyrics are most definitely Kenyan and have much to say about life in modern Kenya. Since the late 1990s, two young Kenyan musicians, Joseph Ogidi and Jahd Adonijah who call themselves Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, have become one of Kenya's most successful rap bands, not only in Kenya but in South Africa. Their style of music is a fusion of contemporary rap and African music in Dholuo, their mother tongue. One of their most famous songs is
(Unbeatable) a danceable and politically flammable song that became an anthem for opposition politics and reached its peak during the 2003 change of government in Kenya. The rise of Christianity greatly increased the popularity of gospel and choral music and many Kenyans sing in church each Sunday. Acrobatics have also become increasingly popular in Kenya. A growing number of young performers have taken to this art of traditional dance combined with modern gymnastic technique. In Nairobi's poorest suburbs, acrobatics has become a popular form of exercise, entertainment, and a low-cost and accessible form of performance art, and these acts are beginning to feature as entertainment in the tourist hotels.


Although Kenya has less formal art galleries than many other countries, it has an invaluable artistic wealth easily seen in the many curio and craft markets and shops. Going right back in time there are a few locations in the country with examples of rock art painted by early man when they still lived in caves. Many of Kenya's tribes have traditionally held a great significance on decoration of both functional objects such as pots and baskets, weapons, and musical instruments, and also the body. You only have to see a proud Masai or Samburu warrior wrapped in vivid robes and intricate jewellery to see evidence of how important adornment is in these societies. In fact the Samburu who pay a great deal of attention to their appearance with their ochre-stained skin and elaborate hairstyles, were named, perhaps a little scornfully, by the other tribes - Samburu means butterfly.

For the Masai, the use of decorative beading is very significant as it is used to emphasise social status and to record stages of initiation and passage. Wood carving all over Kenya was at first used for decoration of personal items, but today of course anything that might be attractive to tourists is carved out of wood; a lucrative trade that employs a number of talented carvers in Kenya. Some of the best carvers are found on the islands of Lamu, who produce excellent doors, brass inlaid boxes, picture frames and small replica

The Kisii of Western Kenya are also well known for their carving in stone, using local soapstone in various shades. Most are small items such as goblets, chess pieces or ash trays. Sisal baskets usually produced in Kikuyu areas are usually used as handbags, although their traditional use is being carried by Kikuyu women behind the head, with the strap across the forehead. Painting and drawing in the formal European sense was introduced in Africa by colonialism. Probably the best known artist in Kenya was Joy Adamson, who as well as being known for her work with the conservation of big cats she was also commissioned by the Kenya government to pay a series of portraits of Kenya's tribes in the 1940-1950s. Even today these are a great testament to the people of Kenya, especially as these days younger people are choosing not to follow their tribal traditions. Today Kenya has a number of young modern artists and the Nairobi galleries exhibit contemporary art, whilst the curio markets continue to find a steady stream of customers for crafts.


The Constitution of Kenya guarantees freedom of worship and there are hundreds of religious denominations and sects in the country. The population in Kenya generally follows three major, modern religions: 38% is Protestant, 28% Roman Catholic, and 10% are Muslim. The remaining people are followers of tribal religions, plus a few Hindus and Sikhs. Most of the Christian population lives in western and central Kenya, while Islam is the main religion for most of the coastal communities and the Somali community. Islam arrived along the East African coast in the eighth century, as part of the trade routes from the Persian Gulf and Oman. Kenya's Christian churches are the outcome of early missionary activities, which assisted in the administrative of the country during colonial times. In Kenya today there are still many mission churches and many worldwide religious groups have a strong presence, including US-style evangelism, which has become very popular in Kenya in recent years. Although traditional beliefs and practices vary among Kenya's ethnic groups, they share many general characteristics. Almost all involve belief in an eternal creator. For example the Kikuyu's god is named
, who is represented in the sun, moon, thunder and lighting, stars, rain, the rainbow and in large fig trees that serve as places of worship and sacrifice. In many traditional religions, ghosts of ancestral spirits are thought to return to seek revenge on the living so they too must be paid homage.

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