In June, ten ethnic groups from northern Kenya will come together to present the Lake Turkana Festival. The festival is a celebration of culture and provides visitors with the opportunity to learn and experience traditional songs, dances, foods, and rituals from this remote corner of the world. Groups living in this region include the Borana, Turkana, Samburu, Wata, El Molo, Rendille, Dassanach, Gabbra, Konso, and Burji. This article will describe some of these major groups, their languages, religions, and industries.

Kenya is home to 52 tribes descended from three broad language groups: Bantu, Nilotic, and Cushitic. Bantu subgroups make up the majority of Kenya’s population and include the largest tribe, the Kikuyu, as well as the Luhya, Kisii, Kamba, and others. Nilotic subgroups make up about 30% of Kenya’s population and include the Luo (the second largest tribe in Kenya), Kalenjin, and Maasai. Only 3% of Kenyans are Cushites, but more Cushites live in southern Ethiopia.

Nilotic groups


The Turkana are the 10th largest tribe in Kenya with a population of 988,592, which is about 2.5% of the country’s total population. They follow the Christian religion or their traditional beliefs. Living in northwestern Kenya, near Lake Turkana, they are semi-nomadic herders who raise camels, cows, sheep and goats. The Turkana are known for their colorful baskets and beads. They are closely related to the Maasai and Samburu and have a reputation for being fierce warriors. Their diet is mainly milk and blood from their cattle. Although polygamy is normal, a Turkana wedding ceremony lasts three years and ends after the first child is weaning.


Occupying north-central Kenya around Maralal are the Samburu, closely related to the better known Maasai. The Samburu follow traditional beliefs or the Christian religion. They are semi-nomadic herders, herders of cattle, sheep, goats and camels. His diet included milk, vegetables, and meat. Young men wear red blankets and use red ocher to adorn their heads, while women wear sparkling beaded jewelry.

Cusitic groups


The Dassanach people can be found scattered 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 pastoralists, but when they lost their land (especially in Kenya) they also lost their herds and are now trying to farm to survive. The Dassanach who live on the shores of Lake Turkana hunt crocodiles and fish that trade for meat. Women wear pleated cowhide skirts with necklaces and bracelets, while men wear plaid fabric around the waist.


The Borana are shepherds, herding cattle and donkeys. While they are a minority in Kenya, they are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, numbering around 7 million in total in 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, trading livestock for food crops and handicrafts. The Borana are part of an ethnic group called the Galla that also includes the Wata, Gabbra, and Sakuyu.


Migrating from Ethiopia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Burji Kenyans are found primarily in Moyale and Marsabit. However, most of the Burji still live in Ethiopia. They are widely believed to be 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 therefore they were quite successful in northern Kenya, which is dominated by herdsmen, as they had something different to trade.


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


The Rendille are nomadic herders and have camels as their main industry. They inhabit the northeast region concentrated in the Kaisut desert and Mount Marsabit. In 2006, Rendille had 34,700. They migrated from Ethiopia and the northern Horn region to northeastern Kenya. Most of the Rendille practice their traditional religion, while a few have adopted Islam or Christianity.

The Molo

The small tribe of El Molo numbers 5-700 people and only a handful of pure El Molo remain. They are hunter / gatherers, living in the northeast region of Kenya. They migrated from Ethiopia and the northern Horn regions, but now live almost exclusively in Kenya.


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


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

Do you want to meet all these tribes in an incredible weekend? Join OTA on their nine-day Lake Turkana Festival Tour, traveling the region and stopping at Maralal, Marsabit, and Samburu to meet communities and experience the three-day festival. Contact [email protected] for more information.

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