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Peoples & Cultures

What is language?
Language is a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area or the same cultural tradition.

What is culture?
The Encyclopaedia Americana International Edition defines culture as a term used to describe the “complex whole” of ideas and things. It is the most general concept to describe human behaviour and history. It is a much broader term than society, for example, for which is used technically to describe an organised group of people interacting in a structural system and carrying out the activities necessary to produce and sustain life. These different definitions of culture can be attributed to the fact that culture is heterogeneous.

What is an ethnic group?
An ethnic group (or ethnicity) is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, a common culture (often including a shared religion) and an ideology that stresses common ancestry or endogamy (the practice of marrying within a specific ethnic group, class, or social class, rejecting others on such bases as being unsuitable for marriage or other close personal relationships). An ethnic group is also defined as “a highly biologically self-perpetuating group sharing an interest in a homeland connected with a specific geographical area, a common language and traditions, including food preferences, and a common religious faith”.

An ethnic group is a social group or category of the population that, in a larger society, is set apart and bound together by common ties of race, language, nationality or culture.

An ethnic group is a group of human individuals who share a common, unique self-identity. Some words used to refer to a group as a separate ethnic group are: tribe, clan, nation, lineage, family, society, community and heritage.

Language and culture
Languages, understood as the particular set of speech norms of a particular community, are also part of the larger culture of the community that speak them. Humans use language as a way of signalling identity with one cultural group and difference from others.

The fact that different groups speak different, unintelligible languages is often considered more tangible evidence for cultural differences than other less obvious cultural traits. A community’s way of using language is part of the community’s culture, just as other shared practices are, it is a way of displaying group identity.

The use of language has become deeply entrenched in human culture and, apart from being used to communicate and share information, it also has social and cultural uses, such as signifying group identity, social stratification and for social grooming and entertainment.

Ethno-linguistic is a common technical term for an ethnic group. The “linguistic” part of this two-word combination indicates that language is always part of an ethnic identity. Language is a primary characteristic that separates groups of humans who speak different languages and identifies speakers of the same language as related in some way.  “Ethno” refers to other aspects of culture that make up “ethnicity”. These include: a common self-name, a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group, a common history, customs, family and clan identities, marriage rules and practices, age-grades and other obligation covenants, and inheritance patterns and rules.

How many languages are there in Kenya?
According to SIL Ethnologue there are 69 languages spoken natively in Kenya. Ethnologue: languages of the World is a web and print publication of SIL International, a Christian linguistic service organisation, which studies lesser-known languages, primarily to provide speakers with bibles in their native language. The 16th edition of the Ethnologue contains statistics for 7,358 languages. It is currently the most comprehensive existing language inventory, along with the Linguasphere observatory Register.

Kenya is a multilingual country. The Bantu Swahili language and English are widely spoken as the lingua franca, and are the two official languages. The major language families spoken in Kenya are the Bantu and Nilotic groups. There is also a Cushitic minority, besides Arab, Hindustani and British immigrants.

SIL Ethnologue (2009) reports the 12 largest communities of native speakers in Kenya as follows:

  • Kikuyu 7.18 million
  • Kamba 3.96 million
  • Ekegusii 2.12 million (2006)
  • Kimîîru 1.74 million
  • Oluluyia (listed as a macrolanguage) > 1 million
  • Kigiryama 0.62 million (1994)
  • Kiembu 0.43 million (1994)


  • Dholuo 4.27 million
  • Kalenjin (listed as a macro-language) > 1.5 million
  • Maasai 0.69 million
  • Turkana 0.45 million (2006)

Cultural/Ethnic/Linguistic groups in Kenya
The indigenous tribes of Kenya fall into three ethnic groups, namely: the Bantus, the Cushites and the Nilotes.

Bantus are the single largest population division in Kenya. The term denotes widely-dispersed but related people that speak south-central Niger-Congo languages. Originally from West-Central Africa, Bantus began a millennium- long series of migrations referred to as the Bantu expansion that  first brought them to East Africa about 2000 years ago. The Swahili people descended from Bantu people that intermarried with immigrant Arab and Persian traders.

The Bantu include the Kikuyu, Meru, Kamba, Embu, Mbeere who inhabit the Central region of the country; the Luhya, Kuria, Kisii who inhabit the Western region; the Mijikenda, Taita, Pokomo, Giriama, and Duruma who live in the Coastal region.

The Bantu ethnic group is the largest ethnic community in Kenya. They make up about 70% of the country’s population. They live mainly in the coastal, central, western and eastern regions of the country.

Nilotes are the second largest group of peoples in Kenya. They speak Nilo-Saharan languages and came to Eastern Africa by way of Southern Sudan, although their ultimate place of origin is believed to be West Africa from a population they share with the Bantus.

Kenyan Nilotes reside in the broad Rift Valley region of Kenya, and around Lake Victoria. They are comprised of three distinct groups: the River Lake Nilotes – the Luo, who live along Lake Victoria and practice fishing; Plain Nilotes – who include the Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana- and practice nomadic pastoralism; the third group is of the Highland Nilotes which comprises of the Kalenjin who live in Kenya’s Western Highlands. They practice both pastoralism and agriculture.

Cushites form a significant minority of Kenya’s population. They speak Afro-Asiatic languages, and originally came from Ethiopia and Somalia in north-east Africa. Cushites are concentrated in the northernmost North Eastern Province (formerly known as Northern Frontier District -NFD), which borders Somalia.

The Cushitic people’s form a small ethnic minority of about 2%, mostly represented by Oromo and Somali speakers.

The Cushitic-speaking peoples are divided into two groups: the Southern Cushites and Eastern Cushites.

The Southern Cushites were the second earliest inhabitants of Kenya after the indigenous Bushman hunter-gatherer groups, and the first of the Cushitic-speaking people to migrate from their homeland in the Horn of Africa about 2000 years ago. They were progressively displaced in a southerly direction and/or absorbed by incoming Nilotic and Bantu groups until they wound up in Tanzania. As a consequence of these movements, there are no longer any Southern Cushites left in Kenya.

The Eastern Cushites include the Oromo and the Somali, of which the Somali are the most recent arrivals to Kenya, having first come from Somalia only a few centuries ago.

Cushitic languages are a branch of Afro-Asiatic language family spoken in the Horn of Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Egypt. The most populous Cushitic language is Oromo with about 35 million speakers, followed by Somali with about 18 million speakers, and Sidamo in Ethiopia with about 2 million speakers.

The Cushites include the Rendille, Gabbra and Borana.

Cushites, or Cushitic people, live in the arid and semi-arid eastern and North-Eastern parts of Kenya. They reside along a very large area of land that runs from the east of Lake Turkana, stretches to the north of Kenya, and through to the Indian Ocean. Cushites include Somali, Rendille, Borana and Oromo tribes. Due to the dryness of their habitat throughout most of the year, Cushites are mainly nomadic pastoralists  who keep large herds of cattle, camels, goats and sheep. Cushitic people maintain very close ties with their kinsmen – the Cushites of the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia

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