Mombasa Travel Guide: Top 10 Communities & Cultures in Kenya
The communities and cultures in Kenya are among the most unique in the world and date back many centuries. Each community has its own beliefs, dances, music, festivals, food, lifestyles, etc. The Bantu, Nilotic, and Cushitic speakers make up the 44 communities that the government officially recognizes. While many cultural traditions are still embraced today, some are influenced by modern changes in society. This article celebrates the country’s rich heritage through the top 10 communities in Kenya.
Each major city like Mombasa in Kenya has its own cultural identity that depends on the dominant tribe in the area. Looking for the best Mombasa beach hotels? Explore Mombasa and its rich cultures and people by staying at Travellers Beach Hotel & Club – one of the best hotels in Mombasa Kenya.
Stay at Travellers Beach Hotel & Club in Mombasa to Experience the Cultures in Kenya
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It is one of the top hotels on Mombasa’s north coast. You can choose from a variety of lavish garden and sea view rooms and suites with swaying coconut trees and ocean breeze across your private patios and balconies. With custom furnished and modern amenities, the inter-connected family rooms or stand-alone units make for a perfect beach getaway.
Being one of the best beach hotels in Mombasa, it has many indoor activities. Get in a friendly battle of beach volleyball or water polo. And if you are an indoor person, try snooker, foosball, and the dart game or play a game of squash. Guests can head to the spa for a massage, enjoy the pool, or sweat at the gym in Mombasa before dining at one of the hotel’s bars and restaurants as well.
Searching for places to go in Mombasa? Past visitors raved about the delicious cuisine and fun ambiance of having a meal alongside crashing waves. From local Swahili dishes to Italian, Indian, and more global cuisines, our trained chefs will take you on a savory adventure.
Do you want to go to the best restaurants in Mombasa? Want to discover cultures in Kenya? You can dine at the Safina Restaurant, Sher e Punjab, Suli Suli Grill for the best seafood in Mombasa, and La Pergola Italian Corner or dip your toes in the sand and sip drinks at Pwani Kofi Bar, Msafiri Bar, and Kisima Bar.
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Major Communities & Cultures in Kenya
1. The Samburu
Image credit – Zhao Yingquan/Xinhua
Globally known as ‘The Butterfly People’ for their vibrant jewels, clothes, and hairstyles, the Samburu community were cattle farmers. They speak the Maa dialect and belong to the ethnic group of the Nile region in Africa.
They used animal skin, beads, shells, and metal to create clothing and jewels. Men used red ochre to color their hair. Warriors (Morans) wore more vibrant clothing than other members of the tribe like a skirt while dancing during festivals and braided their long hair. The women wore stunning neck pieces made of elephant tail hair and colorful beads and beaded earrings.
Image credit – Photo: Hangout Kenya
Lake Turkana in the Kenyan Rift Valley is home to Samburu. Music, singing, and dancing are a major part of their culture and can be seen at the annual Lake Turkana Festival. If you want to explore the cultures in Kenya, this three-day event has traditional dances, a trade fair, a market, and shows.
The Samburu people are closely related to the Maasai people, and they have unique cultures, traditions, and rituals that have been depicted in many Hollywood films like ‘Mogambo’ (1953). The most iconic Nike ads from the 1980s featured the Samburu. The phrase ‘I don’t want these. Give me big shoes’, has turned into Just Do It.
Looking for tourist sites in Mombasa? Go for a tour of cultures in Kenya instead.
2. The Ogiek
The Mau and Elgon forests of Kenya are home to the Ogiek community and they belong to the River Nile region in Africa. They have a unique way of life and are mainly farmers and beekeepers in the forest. These people hunted wild animals for food in the past. Since hunting is illegal in Kenya now, they grow vegetables, beans, potatoes, etc., and keep cows, sheep, and goats.
Image credit – National Museums of Kenya.
Beekeeping has been their source of income for hundreds of years. To build bee hives, harvest honey, and collect it was once thought of as a man’s job. The honey is then stored in pots or baskets made using many trees by women. Honey is a staple meal for them and has great value. They eat honey, trade it with nearby communities and use it to make traditional beer (Rotikap Gomek).
Image credit – National Museums of Kenya.
The women of this tribe are skilled artists who make clothes and jewels. While the men dressed in wild animal skins and adorned them with plumes. These attires are worn by the people of this tribe during the festivities like weddings, hunting, etc.
3. The Swahili
Mombasa is one of the best places to see the Swahili culture. Arabs and Bantu people married to create the Swahili community. The Swahili people are Muslims found in urban areas like Mombasa, Lamu, etc. along the coast of East Africa. The Swahili speak Kiswahili, Kenya’s national language that is globally popular. It has taken words from Arabic, Portuguese, English, and others.
The Swahili people were engaged in trading and farming for a living. They became middlemen and used dhows to move goods from the African coast to the Middle East and India. Items of trade were timber, ivory, and slaves among others. They were known for fishing, growing spices, coconut palms, and mangoes, and keeping livestock.
Image credit – National Museums of Kenya.
The Swahili people are known for their Kangas, traditional cotton cloth with Swahili sayings printed on it. These people make beautiful products like baskets, wooden jewels, home décor items, and more.
A basic Swahili staple dish is rice cooked with coconut milk. They serve tea many times a day with their meals like fruits, vegetables, and spices. While chicken and goat meat is popular for holiday feasts, fish is also a staple of the diet.
The Swahili spend their leisure time with many activities. Swahili music and dance are secular and religious. It is performed during weddings and other festivities. Taarab is famous Swahili music that talks about life issues and grief.
Want to discover cultures in Kenya? Every year, the Maulidi Festival which celebrates the birth of Prophet Mohammed, and the Lamu Festival which celebrates the rich cultural heritage of Kenyan communities are hosted in the coastal region.
4. The Kikuyu
The Kikuyu are a central Bantu community. They were among the Kenyan groups that supported the Mau Mau movement in the country’s fight for independence and formed the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi, the first president of Kenya – Jomo Kenyatta (1963–1978), Wangari Maathai – a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and more are notable members of the Kikuyu community.
Image credit – Priya Ramrakha/ Time Inc/LIFE
They were hunters, made iron, baskets, pottery, and used honey products. Today, they trade, keep livestock and grow potatoes, bananas, beans, tea, rice, etc. Githeri (maize and beans), Mukimo (mashed green peas and potatoes), and Mutura (sausage made with goat meat) are some of the popular meals among the Kikuyu.
They made Ndome – shields for dancing. They were carved out of a single piece of wood. These shields became family heirlooms. The designs are repainted age after age as the boys prepare to become warriors.
By singing and dancing, these people marked special occasions like marriages, initiations, and the arrival of a new family member. They used musical tools like drums (Kihembe), large rattles (Kigamba), horns (Coro), etc.
5. The Maasai
Just like the Samuru people, the Maasai community speaks Maa language and belongs to the Nile region in Africa. Today, they live near East African game parks. For ages, the Maasai have been cattle farmers, and their sub-group (Ilkunono) was also known to make cowbells and weapons. They are known to make beaded jewels like neckpieces, earrings, etc., and leather bags with beadwork.
All Maasai sub-groups can be spotted by the color scheme of their beaded jewelry. Their occasions include Eunoto – when warriors return to their villages as mature men, marriages, initiations, the birth of a new family member, etc.
They are globally known for their unique rituals like a high jumping dance – to jump the highest is a show of strength to impress single women, colorful dresses, beaded jewels, and strong warriors. You can see their inspiring culture at the annual Esiankiki Night Festival and the Eunoto ceremony. Some well-known members of the Maasai community are David Rudisha, Oloibon Lenana, and more.
Image credit – National Museums of Kenya
The Maasai warriors had braided hair, dyed with red ochre and wore beaded necklaces, cowhide capes or red blankets (shukas), Imotonyi headdresses made of ostrich feathers and cow skin, and other jewels. They wore aprons as well made of cow skin with metal and colorful beads. They protected their cattle and community with long spears, and buffalo skin shields in red, white, and black color. Women wore traditional beaded and metallic jewels to show their age and marital status.
6. The Giriama
The Mijikenda is the largest community in Mombasa, with almost 35% of the total people in the county. Coastal Bantu people make up the Mijikenda community. They live in the region from the Tanzania border to Umba and Sabaki rivers. It means nine villages – Giriama, Duruma, Digo, Rabai, Kambe, Jibana, Chonyi, Kauma and Ribe. Each community has its own unique dialect. They settled in southern Somalia in the 17th century in hidden villages (kaya) with sacred sites. Today, 11 ‘kaya’ have been added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Visit a kaya to see the cultures in Kenya.
A statue of Mekatilili Wa Menza, a heroine of the freedom struggle at the former Malindi Uhuru Gardens now named Mekatilili Garden.
The Giriama make up most of the Mijikenda people and are Christians and Muslims. Today, they live in Kilifi county in the coastal region of Kenya and speak Kigiriama. They raised cows, sheep, and goats and practiced farming. They grew peas, cotton, coconut, etc., and were fishermen. They traded goods like iron for beads and clothes with the Swahili and Arabs.
They were skilled craftsmen who made useful iron tools, finely woven mats (Kitseka), food bowls (Muvure), flour baskets, and beautiful aluminum and ivory jewels like neckpieces, earrings, bangles, etc. A rattle produces a sound when shaken. It was played by men during dances and women when they drank palm beer. The men of the tribe also played flutes mainly for dances.
7. The Somali
Image credit – Zineb Boujrada / Culture Trip
The Somali people are Muslims and Cushitic speakers. In the northernmost regions of Kenya, the counties of Garissa, Wajir, Mandera, Isiolo, and Marsabit are home to the majority of Somalis. Some are settled in Mombasa as well. After the collapse of Somalia, the Somali people moved from the Horn of Africa and came to Kenya as refugees. They kept camels, goats, and sheep for wealth and status and adopted farming for food.
Image credit – Zineb Boujrada / Culture Trip
Known for their crafts, the Somali men made attractive artifacts and objects for daily use like aluminum oval pendants (Mavasa), wooden spoons and combs, and carved stools. The Somali women made necklaces from large colored ivory beads, charms used to prevent sickness, and weaved baskets, food trays, and mats (Duful) to build houses.
The men of the tribe used a sword and a crude spear to protect the community. While the women made portable houses. The Somali people were divided into clans headed by religious leaders called Sultans, who were in charge of major clan decisions like law and order, disputes, etc. Shiekhs and medicine men were also special members of the clan known to advise on crucial matters.
Some unique rituals of the Somali include incense pots with hot charcoal and spices used by women to keep their bodies, clothes, and houses smelling nice. An 18-inch cane with goatskin, string and a metal stick was specially made to confirm the marriage.
8. The Tugen
The Nilotic tribe called the Tugen speaks the Tugen language. The Tugen are found in the Baringo and Nakuru counties in Kenya. Most Tugen people are farmers and grow maize and wheat or raise cattle, goats, and sheep. Former Kenyan president Daniel Toroitich arap Moi and 800m world champion Paul Tergat are some of the most well-known Tugen people.
Different jewels were worn by women for many purposes. A belt with one row made of cowhide and cowrie shells was worn by a girl, with two rows was worn she became a mother, with three rows was worn by the grandmother and so on. A special earring (Mwanikabitik) with beads and zip was worn by married women of the tribe. A pair of anklets made from monkey skin, and white, orange, and green beads were worn at dances.
Men and boys were involved with farming and herding tasks, while women and girls handled the majority of domestic duties. The Tugen have engaged in playing many musical instruments and dancing. A wooden lyre with a tin top and bottom is a traditional musical instrument made and used by young men to sing and entertain in the evening.
Image Credit – National Museums of Kenya
Unique things used by Tugen include a thong (Riguita) used to tie cows, a shield used for defense, carved wood food bowls (Tubei), and an iron blade (Mogombe) fitted with a wooden haft used by women for digging in the fields.
9. The Luo
There are many cultures in Kenya and the Luo make up Kenya’s fourth-largest ethnic group. They speak ‘Dholuo’, a part of the Nilotic language. They came from Sudan and are now settled around Lake Victoria in Kenya and are known for their musical skills and instruments. Some people from the Luo community settled in Mombasa as well. Notable people like Former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and former American President Barack Obama belong to the Luo community.
They were originally cattle farmers and fishing people. They hunted birds and small animals for food, skins, and horns and harvested honey. They used feathers from birds to decorate their headdresses, horns for musical instruments, and skins for clothes. Today, they practice agriculture due to fertile soils and ample rainfall around Lake Victoria.
The women of the tribe played a great role in the family. They carried out domestic chores and taught their language and traditions to the children. They wore goat skin and headdresses adorned with feathers and beads. In the Luo community, witch doctors and medicine men were powerful as well. They used cobra bones to heal a sick person or relieve their pain.
They have unique traditional music that is vital to their way of life. Music is played on all special occasions. In the past, diviners and medicine men used music to heal the sick, bring rain, and drive away evil spirits. Their music instruments include rattles, drums, horns, fly whisk, the fiddle, the eight-stringed Nyatiti, and the Abu played during festivities that
10. The Njemps
The Njemps live around Lake Baringo and speak the Maa language like the Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana communities. What better way to see the cultures in Kenya than visiting Lake Baringo? Farming and fishing have long been practiced by the Njemps. They raise cattle, goats, and sheep and gather honey. Chewing tobacco and music were popular activities. A flute (Masilingi) was played by young men while herding livestock or as a form of leisure.
They use leather, beads, brass, copper, and other materials to make clothes and jewels similar to other Maa-speaking communities. Members of the community wear different clothes and jewels to indicate their status. The children wore wooden earplugs at the age of six. Colorful beaded earrings sewn on leather were worn by married women. Women wore skirts (Olekesena) from animal skin and beads as well. Old men wore earrings made from copper wire. Men wore cowhide sandals (Nkamuka) with double soles every day as well.
Your Virtual Tour of Cultures in Kenya Ends Here
When you experience the people and cultures in Kenya, it not only helps you to know your own but also removes any doubts you have over others. You get to know why people behave in a specific way, what makes them unique, and what you can learn from them. In this case, you learn to value your family and community.
Mombasa is one of the best places to experience many cultures of Kenya. Mombasa city is a fusion of local and migrant communities. The local communities are the Swahili, Kenyan Arabs, and Mijikenda. The Mijikenda is the largest community in Mombasa county and the migrant Kamba community is the second largest. Other vital migrant communities are the Luo, Luhya, and Somali communities.
Planning a staycation in Mombasa? Looking for the best hotel rates in Mombasa? Come stay at the Travellers Beach Hotel & Club – one of the best hotels in Mombasa to explore its rich cultural heritage. Get in Touch Today!