12 Reasons To Celebrate Ethnic Diversity In Kenya
Let’s start by saying we can find more than 12 reasons, but let’s start with the top 12 reasons to celebrate ethnic diversity in Kenya.
Each reason highlights a distinct trait of a well known tribe in Kenya that is colorful, popular and full of rich cultural meaning.
When we all put our differences aside and appreciate this wonderful ethnic diversity, violence of all sorts will end in our country once and for all.
42 Tribes With Rich Cultural and Ethnic Diversity
Kenya is really blessed.
To put it in the words of my grandmother, “We are a giant tasty honey pot.”
A Melting Pot Of Diverse Cultures
With over 42 wonderfully rich and diverse cultures, Kenya is one of the most colorful, distinct and forward-thinking populations in the world.
You will find people proud of their ethnic heritage working together.
Factories employ Luhyia’s, Kikuyu’s, Kamba’s and Asians side by side.
Our hospitals employ Luo’s, Kalenjin’s, Giriama’s and Maasai’s who all work together.
Their children go to the same school, we go on holidays all over the country.
Indeed, when you lift the veil and speak to today’s modern generation, you see no trace of ethnic hatred.
It makes you wonder why violence always occurs at election time.
There are over 42 major tribes in Kenya and we are known for our unique language, foods, lifestyle, traits and value.
Most visitors to Kenya easily distinguish the Masai and Samburu tribes because of their culturally appealing and colorful heritage.
Ethnic diversity is what makes this country so beautiful, different and unique.
Every tribe boasts a unique heritage and set of traits that leaves you marveling at the incredibly rich ethnic diversity that makes Kenya.
Let’s explore 12 of these unique ethnic traits from our major tribes that make our country so appealing.
12 Reasons To Celebrate Ethnic Diversity In Kenya
Kikuyu’s are known for an incredibly hard working nature and talent for business.
Most of the instantly recognizable Kikuyus are experts in one form of business or another.
It has given rise to a popular remark when you are talking to Kikuyus…
Mbecha ni mbecha.”
That means ‘money is money.’
They have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Most of them will tend towards self employment.
Tracing The Origins Of The Kikuyu
The Kikuyu trace their origins back to a single couple, Gikuyu and Mumbi.
It is this fiercely protected history that combines all Kikuyu’s together regardless of age, clan, or background.
The Kikuyu number about 5.2 million and form Kenya’s largest tribe about 20 percent of Kenya’s population of 25 million. They share common historical roots with the Kamba, Embu, Mbere, Tharaka, and Meru.
All of these groups date back to a prototype population known as the Thagicu. Migrating from the north, the Thagicu settled in the Mount Kenya region sometime between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries.
As splinter groups formed, one of the groups migrated south and settled on the southwestern slopes of Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya).
The greatest trait of the Kikuyu, as we mentioned above, is a talent for business.
The former President of the country, Hon Mwai Kibaki, was one of Kenya’s longest serving Finance Ministers under the Moi government.
It is widely accepted that it was under his leadership as President that the economy performed its best and the country experienced rapid growth.
KRA also witnessed its highest ever revenue collections under Kibaki’s watch, leading to a lot of infrastructural development across the country.
Famous world renowned Kikuyu personalities include the likes of Prof Wangari Maathai, environmentalist, Nobel Peace Laureate winner and activist; as well as John Michuki, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, GG Kariuki, and world record 800 meters holder David Rudisha.
The Swahili culture is one of the most celebrated cultures in the world.
For at least a thousand years, Swahili people, who call themselves Waswahili, have occupied a narrow strip of coastal land extending from the south coast of Somali to Mozambique in the south.
Our national language is thanks to the Swahili culture, a wonderfully beautiful fusion of Arabic and local languages.
The word “Swahili” was used by early Arab visitors to the coast and it means “the coast”.
Actually, no one can converse in Swahili quite like the Swahili. Their tonal dialect is different, their culture unique, their manner of dressing even more spectacular.
A lot of people will say if you really want to learn Swahili, you need to go down to the Coast and be taught by one of their own.
This stems from the centuries of contact between inhabitants of the eastern coast of Africa and Arabic traders. It was under Arab influence that Swahili developed to become the primary language of influence across East and central Africa.
The Swahili Culture is a mix of various traditions, religions, local beliefs and commercial contacts, although the main religion is Islam.
If there is one thing that most people would argue marks the defining trait for the Waswahili, it would be cuisine.
Other than language, the Swahilis from Coast are most known for some of the most delicious dishes in the country ranging from chapati to biriani, samosas, mahamri and more.
Dressing well but modestly is highly valued. Women wear long, black, floor-length dresses with intricate designs also known as buibuis.
The ladies also decorate themselves using an art form called ‘henna’, where they use striking colors to elaborately paint their hands, nails and feet for special occasions.
The Swahili are also known for some of the most beautiful woodwork in the country.
When you head up north to Lamu, you see intricate carved designs on the large 10 foot oak doors of most houses and mosques. That intricate detail also extends to ornaments like chest of drawers, cabinets, and mantlepieces.
Indeed, you probably know someone who owns a ‘Lamu chest of drawers.’
This skill contains a lot of Portugueese influence and is one outstanding cultural trait that the Swahili are fiercely proud of.
The region has brought some of Kenya’s greatest language and literary scholars like Professor Al Mazrui and Professor Calestous Juma.
The Kalenjin are an ethnic grouping of eight culturally and linguistically related groups: the Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen, Keiyo, Marakwet, Pokot (sometimes called the Suk), Sabaot (who live in the Mount Elgon region, overlapping the Kenya/Uganda border), and the Terik.
They number about 2.7 million. At just lower than 3 million, they form the fourth largest ethnic grouping in Kenya.
The Kalenjins are famous for producing the top world-record breaking long distance runners in the world like Paul Tergat, Kipchoge Keino and Wilson Kipsang.
Wilson Kipsang won the 2003 Berlin Marathon in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 23 seconds — an average of 4:42 per mile. It was easily the fastest marathon time ever recorded. What’s more interesting is that there were four Kenyans bagging the four positions behind him.
Unique Naming Customs
One of the Kalenjin’s unique traits is their naming custom.
For example, the name ‘Chemesunde’ means one who is born in deep darkness due to absence of the moon. Cheruyot is a female name for a girl who spends the night in the same hut with the mother.
Chepkeitany is a boy’s name for one born during the milking of the cattle.
Other than long distance running, the Kalenjin are probably best known for their stunning bead work.
The Kenyan Luo tribe is a subgroup of the larger Luo community that spans across Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Congo and Ethiopia.
The Nilotic Luo community have produced some of the top scholars in Kenya, as well as some of the most influential individuals in Kenyan history.
Even today’s generation know about Robert Ouko and Tom Mboya, two of Kenya’s most eloquent and influential political leaders, despite the fact that both of them were assassinated over 20 years ago.
You’ll find top Luo Professors in all Kenya’s major Universities.
Some of the world top scholars include Professor Bethwell Allan Ogot and Professor Peter Amollo Odhambo, a thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon.
Jaramogi Oginga Odinga
Being the first vice president of Kenya, he arguably was the biggest force in the Luo political landscape at the time.
He was deemed to follow a communist approach and was an exact foil of the founding father Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
His differences with the president later led him to pioneer the birth of opposition politics in Kenya.
Interestingly, the Luo community still continues to stage opposition politics today. He died in 1994.
He was a trade unionist and active minister during the post-colonial period. His short political career saw him accomplish many feats.
He had an overwhelming support across the country.
He was assassinated in 1963.
The Merus are known for their enterprising spirit, pride for their local language and the cash crop miraa.
The Meru are a Northeastern Bantu group composed of nine different subtribes: the Igembe, Tigania, Imenti, Miutini, Igoji, Tharaka, Chuka, Muthambi, and Mwimbi.
Since 1956 these subtribes have been separated from the Kikuyu and Embu to form the Meru Land Unit. At the end of the twentieth century the Meru subtribes occupied four adjoining districts in Eastern Province: Meru South, Meru Central, Meru North, and Tharaka.
The Mugwe, Njuri Ncheke and the Origins of the Ameru
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Meru is the record of their origins.
It resembles the famous story of the Israelites in Egypt.
The story goes like this…
In the 18th Century, their spiritual leader was the “Mugwe.”
The Mugwe was akin to what Moses was to the Israelites.
The story goes that they were colonized by an Arabic people and exiled to Pemba island in the Indian ocean. After years of painful slavery, the people cried out for deliverance.
God, or Murungu, as the Meru’s call Him, gave the Mugwe instructions for redemption.
In the middle of the night, the Mugwe led his people through the sea to the banks of East Africa – present day Dar Es Salaam.
From there, the Mugwe led them westwards to a large mountain to the west of Kilimanjaro.
Mount Meru And The Migration Up North
They named that Mount Meru, as it is still known today. A sub-tribe of the Meru community still reside in northern Tanzania today.
At that point, the tribe broke into factions and fought against each other. One faction led by the Mugwe decided to continue traveling north, reaching present day Machakos.
They rested there a little while. Having found the Kambas in that region, they peaceably asked the Kamba’s for permission to travel through their land to a final home.
The Kamba’s granted them permission and the Meru’s traveled north until they reached the northern tip of Mount Kenya where they settled and became farmers.
After the death of the Mugwe, a spiritual Council of Elders was formed by ‘divine appointment’ called the Njuri Ncheke.
These are the ones who governed the Ameru until the break of independence.
The Njuri Ncheke are still considered the Spiritual leaders of the Ameru today, although their influence has largely eroded due to the modern forms of government today.
The Samburu tribe are a Nilotic tribe that inhabits Kenya’s northern plains. They are a Maa-speaking group, and are very similar to the Maasai tribe.
Samburus are known to have originated from Sudan, settling north of Mount Kenya and south of Lake Turkana in Kenya’s Rift Valley area.
Upon their arrival in Kenya in the 15th century, the Samburu parted ways with their Maasai cousins, who moved further south while the Samburu moved north.
The Samburu were not very affected by British colonial rule since the British did not find their land particularly attractive.
The Samburu tribe speaks the Maa language, as do the Maasai. However, although they share a vocabulary, the Samburu speak more rapidly than the Maasai.
Together with the Maasai and Turkana tribes, the Samburu are among the few African tribes who have remained culturally authentic by clinging to their traditional way of life.
The Samburu dress is so similar to the Maasai that it is hard to distinguish between the two tribes.
Both Samburu men and women dress in brightly colored traditional shukas, which they wrap loosely around their bodies.
Samburu men also dye their hair with red ochre, while the women adorn themselves in beautiful, multi-beaded necklaces and other traditional jewelry.
Samburu warriors, or morans, keep their long hair in braids and dress in more colorful attire than other members of the tribe.
The Maasi are colorful, resilient and fiercely proud of their culture.
No other culture save for the Samburu, have protected their culture, customs, language, and way of life quite like the Maasai.
It’s no wonder that the whole world easily recognize the Maasai.
The Maasai are predominantly warriors whose lives revolve around cattle that play a very important role in Maasai life.
It’s symbolic attributes about the cow that define some of their strongest traits.
For example, their main food is cow blood.
Their cultural color is red.
They paint themselves with red orchre paint for festive occasions.
Like the Samburu, they have an amazing eye for intricate bead work. Many of the Maasai beaded necklaces and kitenges have made their way to the catwalks of Paris, Berlin and London.
A man’s wealth is measured in terms of cattle he owns and children he has. They are semi-nomadic which is a result of their raising cattle and the need to find new grazing land.
By far, one of the impressive and easily distinguishable traits of Maasai culture is their homestead. There is a very elaborate and systematic design to the Maasai homestead.
Families live in an enclosure called a Enkang which typically contains ten to twenty small huts. The enclosure is protected by a fence or bushes with sharp thorns.
Maasai huts are very small, with usually only one or two rooms and not high enough for these tall people to stand.
Luhyas are Kenya’s second largest ethnic tribe following the Kikuyu, and they account for 14 percent of the Kenyan population.
Avid Sports Fans
Luhya people are great sports enthusiasts, especially when it comes to rugby and soccer.
Many of you will remember the grand decade of the 80’s when AFC Leopards used to dominate local football for years on end.
The club was formed in the early 1960s under the name Abaluhya Football Club, and has traditionally had a bitter rivalry with Gor Mahia FC, a club associated with the Luo.
In Kenya’s football history, AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia FC were, for a long time, the best soccer teams in the country.
Luhyas produced most of the players on Kenya’s national soccer team, the Harambee Stars.
One common trait attributed to the Luhyia is their love for chicken. It is said give a Luhyia chicken and he will be loyal to you for the rest of your life.
Whether that’s true or not, is not the point.
The Luhyia are one proud people and their most defining attribute is the fact that they consist of 18 sub-tribes, each speaking a different dialect of the Luhya language.
The Bukusu and Maragoli are the two largest Luhya sub-tribes.
Others include the Banyala, Banyore, Batsotso, Gisu, Idakho, Isukha, Kabras, Khayo, Kisa, Marachi, Marama, Masaaba, Samia, Tachoni, Tiriki and Wanga.
If there is one trait that has gotten Luhyia’s more recognition than anything, it is the annual bullfighting occasion. The entire community turns out on this day to witness the men battling for pride and glory through their bulls.
The Taita tribe actually consists of three separate but closely-
They are known for being very polite and well mannered.
The Impressive Taita Hills
Voi, 100 km from Mombasa is the heartland of the Taita people. From a distance, you can spot the high altitude 2,650 meter-high Taita hills.
Other than their well mannered nature, the Taita are best known for the beautiful scenic three-twinned hills: Dawida, Saghala, and Kasighau, also commonly called the Taita Hills.
Dawida is by far the most massive, fertile, and densely populated areas of the Taita tribe.
The Wadawida living on the slopes of this hill practice different forms of agriculture, with the bulk of the food they produce being sold to the residents of Coast Province, especially Mombasa town.
The Kamba people are colorful and love to portray color in the way they dress. They are also a very happy lot.
Probably more importantly, they are also known for elaborate woodcarving skills. Their unique sculptures and weaved sisal baskets are sold in curio shops, gift shops and art galleries. The men do the carving while Kamba women weave and decorate the fine work in baskets and pottery.
They constitute the fifth largest tribe in Kenya.
What may escape a lot of people is the Kamba’s role in long distance trading at the turn of independence. Although, they are now involved in various forms of trade, back then they were the Kenyan powerhouse of long distance trading. One of their key specialities was international trade in ostrich feathers.
The Kamba community is famous for producing the first female candidate to vie for Kenyan presidency, Mrs Charity Ngilu.
11. Miji Kenda
The Miji kenda make it for noteworthy mention thanks to their fascinating history.
Mijikenda literally means nine homesteads. The tribe is made up of nine sub-tribes that include the Giriama and the Digo who are the most dominant along the Kenya coast.
The other seven sub-tribes are Chonyi, Duruma, Jibana, Kambe, Kauma, Rabai and Ribe. Their culture revolves around clans and age-sets.
A Mijikenda clan consists of several family groups which have a common patriarchal ancestor.
Prayer, Sacrifice and Rituals
It’s in the area of prayer, sacrifice and ritual that the Miji kenda carve out their distinct mark.
Each Mijikenda clan had their own sacred place known as kaya, a shrine for prayer, sacrifices and other religious rituals.
The Mijikenda, and more particularly the Digo, are considered some of the best cooks among the Kenya tribes.
One Kenya food, a staple of the Mijikenda tribe is wali, that is rice prepared with coconut milk, giving it a sweet taste. Fish and other seafood also form part of Mijikenda cuisine.
12. Kenyan Indian Community
We would not do justice if we failed to mention the Indian community. They, more than anyone else, have influenced trade and politics in Kenya more than anyone else.
One of President Jomo Kenyatta’s greatest CID chiefs was an Indian.
Since the time the British brought them to Kenya in 1900 to build the railway, the Indians have played a defining role in the development of the Nation as well as leaving an indelible mark on Kenya’s road to independence.
Few cannot avoid mentioning Pio Gama Pinto, one of Kenya’s most prolific sons.
Perhaps their greatest defining quality today is their penchant for industrialization. Many of the top industries in Kenya today can trace their origins back to an Kenyan Indian.
The Shah family, famous for the multi-million Bidco group of companies, comes to mind as does the Chandarana family.
One of the most successful rally drivers in the late 1970’s and 80’s was Shekhar Mehta.
Yusuf K Dawood is a prominent dentist and author who has written over 21 books. The current generation was probably taught by the great educationalist, Malkiat Singh.
Another Singh, Makhan Singh, was a prominent freedom fighter. Fitz R S de Souza was a member of parliament and deputy speaker, 1963-1970.
Indeed, one of the most discerning traits that we can all relate to is the naming of certain neighborhoods in Nairobi, all which had an Indian influence.
Places like Parklands, Pangani, Kariokor (which is a mispronunciation of the British English phrase ‘Carrier Corps’) Dagoretti and Westlands all had significant Indian/Asian
Now we cannot possibly list the beautiful ethnic traits that list each one of Kenya’s main 42 tribes, but this is a start.
It gives us enough reason to celebrate one another and protect this rich fabric that makes us one people.
With this, we now have 12 reasons to celebrate ethnic diversity in Kenya.
How about you? What do you like the most about your tribe?
Let us know by leaving a comment below.