Kenya’s People

Kenya’s population is about 40 million, nearly all of African descent. The largest minority groups are Asians, Europeans and Arabs, together representing less than one percent of the population. Kenya’s tribes are descendent from three language groups. The smallest of these groups are the Cushites, who arrived about 2000 BC from Somalia and Ethiopia followed by the Nilotes from Sudan and Egypt around 1000 BC, and lastly the Bantu who began moving into Kenya from West Africa in 500 BC. The majority of Kenya’s 42 tribes are descendents of the Bantu and Nilotic language groups. Within these tribes are numerous sub-tribes. The Kiswahili language developed from the Arabic/Bantu language mix.

The Bantu
The Bantu-speaking people, consist of the Kikuyu, Meru, Gusii, Embu, Akamba, Luhya (or Luyia) and Mijikenda. The are found around Lake Victoria and Mount Elgon, between Mount Kilimanjaro and the Indian Ocean coast and around Mount Kenya. The Kikuyu have a strong sense of cultural identity.

The Nilotic groups moved from the area west of Lake Turkana sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries AD and moved in different directions southward into Kenya. These consisted of the Maasai, Luo, Turkana, Samburu and Kalenji people. The Maasai moved into the highlands and eventually settled in the Rift Valley area by the 18th century. The Kalenjin people, especially the Nandi, began to expand into the Western Highlands at the expense of the Maasai.

Maasai People
The Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers and are linguistically most directly related to the Turkana and Kalenjin people who live near the original Maasai homeland around Lake Turkana in west central Kenya. All Maasai tribes share the Maa language. They are pastoralist people and herd cattle, sheep and goats. A Maasai family or extended family lives within a fenced enclosure called a kraal. Men construct the fence from acacia thorns, to protect the cattle from lions. The Inkajijik, or Maasai house, is traditionally constructed by women from mud, sticks, grass and cow dung. Women are also responsible for caring for children, fetching water, collecting firewood, milking the cows and cooking the family’s food.

Samburu People
The Samburu developed from one of the later Nilotic migrations from the Sudan, while the larger group of the Maa-speaking people (including
the Maasai) continued moving south. The Samburu people now live south of Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya. Their population numbers are estimated at 142,300. The Samburu have traditionally herded cattle, goats and sheep in an arid region with sparse vegetation, and are a nomadic people. They have added camels to their culture, further differentiating them from the Maasai. The Samburu live in small settlements called manyatta, inhabited by five to ten families.   The Samburu language is also related to Turkana and Karamojong, and more distantly to Pokot and the Kalenjin languages.

The Turkana are the second largest group of pastoralists in Kenya, numbering about 200,000. They are a Nilotic people distantly to the Maasai; their
Turkana language is also related to the language of the Maasai. They inhabit the dry northwest corner of Kenya, primarily the Turkana District. The
Turkana have traditionally lived in harsh conditions; however, the extended droughts of the late 1970’s made their living conditions even more
difficult. The Turkana people are nomads who make walk great distances in a day. Livestock are essential to the Turkana culture. They raise cattle,
camels, sheep and goats, which are their primary source of food.

The Luo people are the third largest tribal population in Kenya. They live along the shores of Lake Victoria from the Central Highlands to the coast
and the Tana River area. The Luo are known for their traditional ways of fishing for tilapia and other fish.

The Cushites arrived in western Kenya around 1000 A.D. The largest cushitic group was the Somali who migrated from southern Ethiopia and northern Somalia into the horn of Africa. By the 10 century AD, they reached the Indian Ocean coast and lived around Mogadishu. Their present homeland is in the northeastern part of Kenya along the northern and coastal deserts. The Cushites are a very small portion of Kenya’s population, the most populous tribe are the Somali with just a few thousand people. The El Molo are the smallest tribe in Kenya. They eat fresh and dried fish, but also hunt crocodiles and an occasional hippo for food.

Other Groups
The remaining two percent of Kenya’s population consists of Arabs, Europeans and Asians. Along the coast the name given to this mix of people is Swahili. They are descendants of Arab and Persian immigrants, and are well known for their shipbuilding and woodworking skills. The Asian community in Kenya is predominantly Indian with a small population of East Asians, including Chinese.