Five Fascinating Tribes of East Africa

By Asilia Africa News | 07 August 2018

By Warren Glam – Content Writer

From the cloud-draped slopes of Kilimanjaro to the vast grasslands of the Serengeti, East Africa’s people have enriched the region with stories and traditions that date back to the beginning. Be it through warriors, medicine men, bullfights or sacred totems, the tribes of Kenya and Tanzania are, without question, among the most fascinating in the world. Here’s a look at why five of them have captivated visitors for generations.



The Luhya live in the western part of Kenya and divide into 18 small tribes. Traditionally, they believe in one god called Were, who they worship through intermediaries. The spirits of dead relatives act as intermediaries and have considerable power to help or harm. Luhya people sacrifice goats, chickens or cattle to calm the spirits.

Photo credits: Soft Kenya

Also, there are nearly 750 clans within the tribes. Each one of them has a totem; a bird, animal or plant they won’t touch, much less eat. If a Luhya clan swears by its totem while telling a lie, the totem’s price is bad luck or death.

Bullfights are another important aspect of Luhya society. They take place several times a year and begin with opposing villages feeding their bulls traditional beer. Then, the rivals grow loud to provoke their bulls into locking horns. When one of them retreats, the victorious village wins the honour of taking a victory lap.


Renowned as Kenya’s running tribe, the Kalenjin bring their young folk into the tribe through an initiation ceremony. According to tradition, the Kalenjin hold these ceremonies every seven years, so that the initiates become members of an age-set.

Photo credits: Zuru Kenya

The ceremony sees males getting circumcised and going into seclusion to learn adult skills. Afterwards, their role is to protect the tribe as warriors. These days, age-sets have lost their military function, though they still help men of the same set develop bonds. Female age-sets aren’t as important as they once were.

Burial among the Kalenjin has also changed. In the past, the tribe would only bury people who had borne children and leave the rest in the bush for hyenas to claim.


The Chagga are the third largest ethnic group in Tanzania. They live on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, in the north of the Maasai Steppe and in a few villages near Moshi. They rely on medicine men to look after their spiritual health.

Photo credits: Face2Face Africa

Unlike Christians, the Chagga believe that they must purify the wounded person rather than the sinner so that the negative force does not stay with the victim. Medicine men use ingredients such as skin, dung, rainwater from a hollow tree and snail shells for the cleansing. Their method is to paint victims with a mixture of the ingredients twice daily over four days.


For the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, life is a series of tests through which they learn to endure pain.

Photo credits: pinimg

Tattooing and having their teeth removed by knife are early rites of passage, though circumcision and excision are the most important rituals in their young lives. A father’s ultimate duty is to ensure his children undergo them.

Photo credits: zoede

Circumcision is extremely painful and tests a boy’s courage. If he flinches during the act, he will shame himself and his family. The penalty is, at best, to be mocked by his peers and to pay a fine of one head of cattle. He will receive gifts of cattle and sheep for bravery. Excision, the ritual for girls, is even longer and more painful. Women who pass it say they are afraid of nothing.

This is a practice that is slowly being phased out, you can read more about this here. One of our social development partners, The Maa Trust, is also doing a lot of great work to help the situation.


The Kikuyu are the largest tribe in Kenya. Their mythology begins with the Supreme Creator, Ngai, leaving heaven for the snowy summit of Mount Kenya, where he made Gikuyu: father of the Kikuyu people.

Photo credits: swinkeltoes

Ngai gave the lands around the mountain to Gikuyu before sending him to a grove of fig trees. While there, Gikuyu met a woman named Mumbi. The nine daughters she bore him would become the mothers of his tribe’s nine clans.

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