There are an estimated 3,000 African tribes spread across the continent… but what is a tribe, and which are the most well known and iconic tribes in Africa?
When visiting Africa for a safari it can be easy to complete your trip without actually experiencing anything of the local cultures or customs outside your safari lodge. This is to miss out on a big part of what makes Africa such a unique continent, and special place to visit.
The African continent has 54 countries and around 1.3 billion people. Much of the African population belongs to one of the estimated 3,000 tribes, each with their own dialect and culture. In South Africa – the Rainbow Nation – Africa’s diversity is reflected in the constitution, with the recognition of 11 official languages!
With over 300 years of colonization in recent African history, the continent’s population and cultures have been marked by immense change. Colonial powers took little notice of tribes and tribal areas when they drew up the new national borders, resulting in current day countries that in many cases bear no resemblance to tribal lands. As a result, some tribes have died out, some have joined together, or been split, and some new African tribes even been formed due to the continent’s colonization.
What exactly is a tribe?
Though discussing the definition of a ‘tribe’ or ethnic group would keep social anthropologists busy for many days, the common understanding of the word, and concept of ‘tribe’ is a community of people who share the same culture and dialect, and are linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties.
In the days when African life was largely rural, few members moved away from their tribal areas. The growth of cities through the 20th century began to change that, as increased numbers of people moved to towns and cities to find work instead of living a subsistence lifestyle. In many parts of Africa (particularly rural areas) tribal influences are still a dominant force in how people live, communicate, and behave.
With this context in mind, here’s our pick of 10 of the most iconic tribes in Africa, with a focus on the key safari regions of East and Southern Africa:
10 Iconic African tribes
Hadzabe man hunting with a bow and arrow.
The Hadzabe of Tanzania is a tribe of hunter-gatherers living in north-central Tanzania, and perhaps the last true nomadic tribe in East Africa.
Since first European contact in the late 19th century and then through various independent Tanzanian administrations there have been attempts to settle the Hadza. These efforts have largely failed, and the Hadza pursue the same way of life today their ancestors have for hundreds of years.
The Hadzabe is a relatively egalitarian society, with no governing hierarchy or status differences between individuals, and where children are reared cooperatively. Much time is spent on foraging and hunting. Women forage in larger groups for berries, fruit, and tubers, depending on availability. Hadza men usually forage individually, feeding themselves and bringing home fruit or honey when they can. They also hunt game using a bow and poisoned arrow, lying in wait overnight at watering holes.
A Hamar mother with her children.
The Omo Valley in southwest Ethiopia is a fertile region that’s home to the Hamar. They are a pastoral tribe with a culture that places a high value on cattle. During the dry season families move to live with their herds in grazing areas, and survive primarily on milk and blood from the cattle.
They are easily recognized for their body adornment with multitudes of colorful beads, necklaces, and bracelets, and for their distinctive hairstyles, curling their hair with a mixture of ochre and butter.
Controversial practices include ritual flogging of women by their husbands to prove devotion, and the initiation rite of ‘bull jumping’ performed by boys to allow them to marry.
Ochre-coloured Himba ladies singing.
In north-west Namibia is the Kunene region, home to hunter-gatherers and pastoralists the Himba tribe. The tribe has been successful in maintaining their culture and traditional way of life, not least because Kunene is in a remote and desolate part of Namibia.
Central to the Himba’s culture is Okuruwo, the holy fire which symbolizes their connection to their ancestors, who are in direct communication with Mukuru, their god. There is a permanent fire at the center of each village to signify this connection, tended to by a fire-keeper from each family.
The iconic status of the Himba tribe comes in large part from the appearance of the women, with their red-tinged complexion and thick, red hair in elaborate hairstyles. Hair for Himba women signifies age and status, starting with shaved heads for young children, then braids and plaits, and graduating to a leather ornament called an Erembe for women who have had children.
Their unique red colour comes from a paste made from ochre, fat, and butter, applied each day to their skin and hair, to protect them from the sun and insect bites, and to beautify themselves.
Karo men sitting with weapons.
Living on the banks of the Omo River in Southern Ethiopia, seemingly untouched by the outside world, is the small Karo (or Kara) tribe. For sustenance, they practice flood retreat cultivation, growing beans and maize, breeding cattle and goats, and fishing.
They are highly regarded for their practice of intricate face and body painting, using a combination of white chalk, charcoal, yellow rock, and iron ore to create some truly dramatic body artworks.
The tribe also practice ritual scarification, cutting themselves with a knife or razor, then rubbing ash into the cut to produce a raised effect over time. Women create intricate scarring patterns on their chests, stomachs, or backs to be considered mature and attractive, whilst men scarify their chests to reflect the killing of enemies or deadly animals.
Like their tribal neighbours the Hamar, the Karo also practice a ‘bull jumping’ ceremony to signify the coming of age of young men.
Masai, Kenya & Tanzania
Masai men walking to a jumping ceremony.
Possibly the most famous of all African tribes, the Maasai live along the semi-arid Great Rift Valley in Kenya and Tanzania. These expansive homelands are close to many of Africa’s top game parks, meaning the tribe is often in close contact with international tourists.
The Maasai are warriors who trace their ancestry to the northern Great Rift Valley in Sudan. Today the tribe are semi-nomadic and herd cattle, which they believe were a gift from the sky god Ngai, who lowered them to earth on a leather thong. Cattle are sacred, and used as both a measure of wealth and a source of sustenance, with the Maasai diet fortified by drinking a mix of cow milk and blood.
Along with drinking blood, Maasai culture includes a jumping dance, the wearing of colourful robes, and ceremonial spitting:
- The jumping dance is an initiation right for young men, with whoever has this highest jump being able to claim the best bride.
- Their colorful clothing is cloth called shuka, which comes in a range of symbolic colours – red to protect from wild animals, orange for friendship and hospitality, blue for the sky, and rains for cattle, yellow for fertility, and green for nourishment.
- Saliva is a fluid Massai share at certain times, such as spitting in the palm when shaking the hand of an elder or spitting onto a new-born baby’s head.
San Bushmen, Kenya
San people sitting around a fire.
The San people are one of the world’s oldest tribes, and traditionally hunter-gatherers, known as the first people of South Africa. Today their descendants are a population of around 100,000 people across Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and South Africa.
The San’s tracking skills are renowned, and they have the skills to hunt and survive in the seemingly barren lands of Southern Africa’s deserts. They are easily recognised by the unique clicking sound they make when speaking.
It is the San – also known as the Kalahari bushmen – that were responsible for the cave and rock art found across the region, some of which dates back thousands of years. They used pigments made from minerals, ochre, eggs, and blood to paint their iconic images of hunters and various animal prey.
Today the traditional lifestyle of the San bushmen is restricted to small areas around Botswana’s epic Makgadikgadi Pan, as they’ve lost the ability to cover large ranges by the creation of large national parks and increased land given over to farming and mining.
Samburu women in colourful beads.
The Samburu tribe from north and central Kenya are pastoralists from the great plains of the Samburu region. They primarily herd cattle but also keep other livestock such as goats, sheep, and camels.
They are closely related to their southern neighbours the Maasai, sharing the common Maa language, but are semi-nomadic, wandering in remote, arid areas for pastures. Like many East African pastoral tribes, they have a diet that includes cow milk and blood.
The Samburu are renowned for their unique social structure and colourful clothing, indeed the word Samburu means ‘butterfly’, which refers to their many colourful adornments. Men wear black or pink robes in the style of a Scottish kilt, along with headdresses, anklets, bracelets, necklaces. Women have their head shaved and wear two blue or purple cloths – one around the waist and one around their chest, adorning their bodies further with ochre, similar to the Himba of Namibia.
Their social structure is known as a gerontocracy, a system where the leaders are the eldest members of society. They make all the decisions and have the final say in all matters.
Southern Ndebele, South Africa
Colourful Ndeble women.
The Southern Ndebele tribe is found in South Africa’s north-eastern provinces of Gauteng, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga, sharing some language with the Zulu. They have unique culture and beliefs, however, that sets them apart from other African ethnic groups.
The Ndebele believe that illness is caused by spells or curses, an external force inflicted on a person. To cure illness a sangoma (a type of traditional healer) needs to do battle with these forces using traditional herbal medicines and bone throwing. Whilst these shamanistic traditions are interesting, what truly makes the Southern Ndeble unique is their artistic style. Not just clothes and bodily adornments, but homes too are decorated in striking geometric patterns filled in with colour.
While traditional designs made use of earthy colours, modern taste has evolved to a more vibrant and vivid palette. One Southern Ndebele artist, Esther Mahlangu , is now internationally renowned, having designed British Airways plane tail art and a BMW art car, putting her in the company of David Hockney and Andy Warhol.
Xhosa, South Africa
Xhosa boys during a circumcision ceremony.
The Xhosa ethnic group is one of the largest in South Africa, with their homelands in the southeast of the country, in the forested Eastern Cape Province. The Xhosa have South Africa’s second most spoken language, after Zulu. This language is used to maintain their strong oral tradition, full of stories of ancestral heroes, with the teachings of elders handed down through the generations by speech alone.
The idea of ubuntu (essentially humanity towards others) comes – at least in part – from the Xhosa, who have a strong concept of iziduko (clan). It is the iziduko that is central to Xhosa identity, more important even than ones’ name. When two strangers meet for the first time they share their iziduko ahead of their names.
Zulu, South Africa
A Zulu ceremonial dance.
With a population of around 11 million people, Zulu is the largest ethnic group in South Africa, and one of the continent’s largest tribes. The Zulu are a warrior tribe descended from East Africa, and migrated south centuries ago to find a home in KwaZulu-Natal on South Africa’s Indian Ocean Coast.
In the early 19th century the Zulu ethnic group rose into a formidable empire under the leadership of King Shaka, developing a fearsome reputation that is still acknowledged to this day. Modern-day Zulus are modern and progressive though. While traditional clothing is saved for special events like weddings and funerals, the Zulu maintain strong connections with their tradition and historical roots by giving sacrifices to the ancestral spirits to influence their lives on a day to day basis.
The Zulu are also skilled crafters, particularly their beadwork which is woven into intricate, colourful patterns that are both decorative and display meaning. The number and shape of triangles relate to the sex and parenthood status of the wearer. The colours have symbolism too, around the duality of life – for example, red signifies both love and passion, and anger and heartbreak.
Visiting a tribe? There’s some etiquette for that…
If you’re interested in finding out more about these African tribes, and even experiencing their way of life, modern-day tourism makes this possible. There are a large number of safari companies that can include a visit to a tribal village on your safari itinerary. This could be anything from an hour or two to an overnight stay or longer.
If you do decide to experience local African culture in this way it’s important that you follow a few basic etiquette rules before interacting with an African tribe:
- Try to stay aware of the fact that you are a guest in someone else’s country, village, and home. Be respectful of everyone and their customs.
- Get involved. Don’t make assumptions, but ask questions to your guide, or directly to your hosts. If there’s singing and dancing happening sing your heart out and dance like no one’s watching.
- Ask before taking photos. Most of the time taking pictures is fine, even expected, but it doesn’t hurt to ask before you stick a lens in someone’s face.
- Be patient, and try not to worry about the time. Different cultures deal with time differently but try to focus on the moment and the people you are with, rather than the schedule.
- Keep on smiling! This universal gesture can cut through any lack of language skills. If you’re not sure what to do or feel awkward or embarrassed, just smile!
And that’s your lot for our pick of the East and Southern Africa’s most fascinating tribes. What do you think – did any surprise you? Or have you seen any of these tribes on a trip to Africa?
Please let us know your thoughts or any experiences you have of these African tribes in the comments section below!