For Kenya’s forty-plus ethnic groups, the most important social marker is language and the best definition of a tribe (a term with no pejorative connotation) is people sharing a common first language. It’s not uncommon for people to speak three languages – their own, Swahili and English – or even four if they have mixed parentage.
The largest tribe, the Kikuyu, based in the central highlands, make up about 20 percent of the population; the Kalenjin from the Rift Valley 15 percent; the Luhya of western Kenya 14 percent; the Luo from the Nyanza region around Kisumu 12 percent; and the Kamba from east of Nairobi 11 percent. Many people from these big ethnic groups have had a largely Westernized orientation for two or three generations and their economic and political influence is considerable. Which isn’t to say you won’t come across highly educated and articulate people from every tribal background. “Tribes” have never been closed units and families often include members of different ethnic background, nowadays more than ever. Politics still tends to have an ethnic dimension, however: people retain a strong sense of whether they are locals or newcomers. Inter-tribal prejudice, although often regarded as taboo, or at best an excuse for humour, is still quite commonplace and occasionally becomes violent.
Smaller ethnic groups include the closely related Maasai and Samburu peoples, who make up little more than two percent of the population. Well known for their distinctive and still commonly worn traditional dress and associated with the national reserves named after them, they herd their animals across vast reaches of savanna and, when access to water demands it, drive them onto private land and even into the big towns. Many Turkana and some of the other remote northern groups also retain their traditional garb and rather tooled-up appearance, with spears and other weapons much in evidence.
Kenya has a large and diverse Asian population (perhaps more than 100,000 people), predominantly Punjabi- and Gujarati-speakers from northwest India and Pakistan, mostly based in the cities and larger towns. Descendants in part of the labourers who came to build the Uganda railway, they also include many whose ancestors arrived in its wake, to trade and set up businesses. There’s also a dispersed Christian Goan community, identified by their Portuguese surnames, and a diminishing Arabic community, largely on the coast.
Lastly, there are still an estimated 30,000 European residents – from British ex-servicemen to Italian aristocrats – and another 30,000 temporary expats. Some European Kenyans maintain a scaled-down version of the old farming and ranching life, and a few still hold senior civil service positions. Increasingly, however, the community is turning to the tourist industry for a more secure future.