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Traditional Entertainment of Kenya

Traditional Entertainment of Kenya

With 42 tribes in Kenya, defining a specific entertainment as ‘traditional’ is nearly impossible without going into an excessive treatise on the subject.  Each tribe has song, dance, costumes and musical instruments particular to their area.  This article gives a brief overview of the types of entertainment, some examples from various tribes and where you can find traditional entertainment when you come to Kenya.

Song is a form of traditional entertainment almost globally so it is no surprise to find Kenyan tribes also singing.  Each of the 42 tribes has their own language, so it is simple to tell where the song is from…. so long as you can recognise the language!  Across the tribes one thing is the same: there are different beats and words for songs associated with the various ceremonies.  This means that when a Kikuyu returns to his village and hears singing he can tell what is happening.  It doesn’t mean however that if a Taita goes to the Kikuyu village he will also be able to tell what is happening, unless he understands Kikuyu.  So each tribe has circumcision songs, party songs, wedding songs, funeral songs, new baby songs and so on.

Along with singing comes dancing and, again, movements differ across the tribes.  Kikuyus wear bells on their ankles with men and women pairing up, putting palms together and swaying.  In Luhya culture, the dance is all about the shoulders and for Luos it’s about the hips.  The Maasai men jump and it is a show of manliness if they can jump higher than their peers.

Dance is complemented by the traditional costumes which are made from materials found in a tribe’s area.  Luo men wear grass skirts from the reeds by Lake Victoria and cow hide on their back.  Towards the coast, Taita men wear kangas from the Swahili culture while the women wear grass skirts.  In the central highlands, the Kikuyus’ costumes are a bit more substantial to protect against the cold, with sheepskin hats confusing many travellers as they look similar to the typical Russian hats!  The men generally wear white and the women a brown-beige colour.  Kikuyu men also carry swords and have a belt made of animal skin to carry the sword.

Musical instruments often accompany the singing and dancing and most people are familiar with the African drum.  But there are even differences in how the drum is used across Kenya.  For example, the Kamba sit with the drum between their legs while the Luhya hold the drum under their arm.  Kamba also use a whistle to signify a beat change.

Story-telling is common with the old men teaching lessons through stories to the young boys.  Nowadays comedy is becoming popular, with sketches performed between music sets.  The stories and sketches are usually set in everyday situations that Kenyans can easily relate to.

Bomas of Kenya put on a lengthy performance every afternoon which showcases singing, dancing, costumes and musical instruments from each of the tribes.  Shade Hotel in Karen also does a more informal afternoon of traditional entertainment every Sunday and on public holidays.  If you visit a Maasai village on your safari, the villagers will perform a welcome dance for you.  The Samburu villages do the same in northern Kenya.  Finally, the Lake Turkana Cultural Festival might be the best opportunity to see a variety of traditional entertainment.  A gathering of 14 tribes from northern Kenya, this Festival is a celebration of different cultures living together.  They sing, they dance, they build huts, they cook, they dress traditionally – it’s fantastic!  It is held every May in Loiyangalani on the shore of Lake Turkana and well worth the journey.

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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, www.ota-responsibletravel.com

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

Turkana

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.

Samburu

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, www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Cushitic Groups

Dassanach

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.

Borana

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.

Burji

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.

Konso

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.

Rendille

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.

Gabbra

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.

Wata

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 tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com for more information.

OTA's Lake Turkana Festival Tour www.ota-responsibletravel.com Kenya Safari

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