Kenya counts more than 40 different tribes and communities of different ethic and religious backgrounds. Although all of these tribes have different languages, Swahili is the most common, spoken widely alongside English. You’re likely to elicit a warm reaction if you try speaking a few words in Swahili, from jambo (hello) to asante sana (thank you).
The popularity of Maasai Mara National Reserve has helped make the Maasai Kenya’s best-known tribe, and they tend to speak Swahili and English, as well as their own Maa language. They live primarily in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania and are pastoralists, meaning that their lifestyle and primary source of income is all tied up in their livestock.
A number of immersive experiences are available to visitors looking to gain a deeper understanding of the Maasai people, including with the Maasai Association, which organizes overnight stays in Maasai villages, walking safaris with Maasai warriors, and meetings with village elders.
For a more in-depth experience, Responsible Travel offers a 12-day itinerary including an authentic Maasai homestay. Leleshwa Camp in the Mara also organizes walks with local herders, and staying at many camps in southern Kenya will allow interaction with the Maasai people who work there. At Porini Amboselli, for instance, most of the staff are Maasai warriors, who wear traditional tartan attire and can tell tales of jumping ceremonies.
Still, in a country of about 30 million people, the Maasai are only one of many major tribal groups. For a deeper understanding of the varied meaning of being Kenyan, consider the Kikuyu, a traditionally agricultural and well educated people; the Luo, who traditionally reside around Lake Victoria and work as fishermen; and the Samburu, a pastoralist community closely related to the Maasai who reside in northern Kenya.
One of the best ways to experience the coming together of a range of Kenya’s tribes is at the annual Marsabit-Lake Turkana Cultural Festival, held in late spring each year. Here, the 14 ethnic communities from the north gather in Loiyangalani in Turkana to perform their unique cultural traditions and celebrate peace in the region. Some of these 14 ethnic communities include the Samburu, Gabbra, El Molo, and Rendille tribes; Responsible Travel offers a 14-day itinerary visiting each of them throughout the year.
There are many more options like this. African Spice Safaris offers a 10-day itinerary featuring lunch and a school visit with the Njemps tribe on the banks of Lake Baringo in northern Kenya, and a meeting with the Abagusii people in Kisii countryside, who traditionally grow cash crops of tea and coffee, and maize.
Although it would take years to truly understand each of Kenya’s ethnic groups, jumping in with any of the above experiences is a great place to start—with memorable stories guaranteed.