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Ethnic Groups of Northern Kenya

Ethnic Groups of Northern Kenya

In June, fourteen ethnic groups of northern Kenya will come together to present the Lake Turkana Festival.  The festival is a celebration of culture and provides opportunity for visitors to learn and experience traditional song, dance, food and rituals from this remote corner of the world.  The groups that live in this region include Borana, Turkana, Samburu, Wata, El Molo, Rendille, Dassanach, Gabbra, Konso and Burji.  This article will describe a few of these main groups, their languages, religions and industries.

OTA's Lake Turkana Festival 11-19 June, Kenya,

Kenya is home to 52 tribes that are descended from three broad linguistic groups – Bantu, Nilotic and Cushitic.  Bantu sub-groups make up the majority of Kenya’s population and include the largest tribe, the Kikuyu, as well as Luhya, Kisii, Kamba and others.  The Nilotic sub-groups account for about 30% of Kenya’s population and include Luo (Kenya’s second-largest tribe), Kalenjin and Maasai.  Only 3% of Kenyans are Cushitic, but greater numbers of Cushites live in southern Ethiopia.

Nilotic Groups


The Turkana are the tenth-largest tribe in Kenya with a population of 988,592, which is approximately 2.5% of the country’s total population.  They follow either the Christian religion or their traditional beliefs.  Inhabiting the north-west of Kenya near Lake Turkana, they are semi-nomadic pastoralists herding camels, cattle, sheep and goats.  The Turkana are known for their basket weaving and colourful beads.  They are closely related to Maasai and Samburu and have a reputation of being fierce warriors.  Their diet is mainly milk and blood from their cattle.  Although polygamy is normal, a Turkana wedding ceremony lasts three years, ending after the first child is weaned.


Occupying north-central Kenya around Maralal are the Samburu, closely related to the better-known Maasai.  The Samburu either follow traditional beliefs or the Christian religion.  They are semi-nomadic pastoralists, herding cattle, sheep, goats and camels.  Their diet comprises milk, vegetables and meat.  The young men wear red blankets and use red ochre to decorate their heads, while the women wear bright, beaded jewellery.

OTA's Lake Turkana Festival 11-19 June, Kenya,

Cushitic Groups


The Dassanach people can be found spread across Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan.  In Kenya they inhabit the northern end of Lake Turkana.  They are also called Merille by the Turkana people.  Traditionally the Dassanach were pastoral but as they lost their lands (especially in Kenya) they also lost their herds and now try to grow crops to survive.  The Dassanach living on the shores of Lake Turkana hunt crocodiles and fish which they trade for meat.  Women wear pleated cowskin skirts with necklaces and bracelets, while men wear a checkered cloth around their waist.


The Borana are pastoralists, herding cattle and donkeys.  While they are a minority in Kenya, they are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and number about 7 million in total across the two countries.  Some Borana follow Islam and others follow their traditional religion.  The language is also called Borana.  They trade with Konso and Burji, exchanging cattle for food crops and handicrafts.  The Borana are part of an ethnic group called Galla which also includes the Wata, Gabbra and Sakuyu.


Migrating from Ethiopia in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Kenyan Burji are found mostly in Moyale and Marsabit.  Most Burji however still live in Ethiopia.  It is widely believed that they are closely related to the Amhara people of Ethiopia as they have a similar language.  The predominant religion is Sunni Islam.  They are agricultural people and so became quite successful in northern Kenya, which is dominated by pastoralists, as they had something different to trade.


The majority of the 250,430 Konso live in south-central Ethiopia, with a small number in northern Kenya.  They are agriculturalists, growing mainly sorghum, corn, cotton and coffee.  They keep cattle, sheep and goats for their own food and milk.  The Konso largely follow their traditional religion and are famous for their carvings which they make in memory of a dead man who has killed an enemy.  They are erected like totems in a group to represent the man’s wives and family as well.


The Rendille are nomadic pastoralists, keeping camels as their primary industry.  They inhabit the north-eastern region concentrated in the Kaisut Desert and Mount Marsabit.  In 2006 Rendille numbered 34,700.  They migrated from Ethiopia and the northern Horn region into north-eastern Kenya.   Most Rendille practice their traditional religion while a few have adopted Islam or Christianity.

El Molo

The tiny El Molo tribe numbers 5-700 people with only a handful of pure El Molo left.  They are hunter/gatherers, inhabiting the north-eastern region of Kenya.  They migrated from Ethiopia and the northern Horn regions, but now live almost exclusively in Kenya.


The Gabbra’s primary occupation is herding camels, goats and sheep.  They live north of Marsabit, grazing their animals amongst the gravel and stones of the Chalbi Desert and Dido Galgallu Desert in the eastern region.


The Wata are one of only a few small tribes that are hunter/gatherers.  Their language is similar to that of the Bushmen found in Southern Africa.

Do you fancy meeting all these tribes in one incredible weekend?  Join OTA on their nine-day Lake Turkana Festival Tour, travelling through the region and stopping in Maralal, Marsabit and Samburu to meet communities as well as experience the three days of the festival.  Contact for more information.

OTA's Lake Turkana Festival Tour Kenya Safari

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