Kenya is one of the most diverse countries in the world. It has over 150 ethnic groups. However, Kenya is commonly recognised to have only 42 official tribes. The existence of official tribes has both advantages and disadvantages. Going forward, the notion of tribes can be used to make minority ethnic groups feel included as Kenyans.


Kenya is a multi-ethnic state. This means many ethnic groups live there. An ethnic group is defined as a social group with a common cultural tradition. This means they often share behaviours such as the food they eat, the languages they speak, and the way they relate to other people.

Kenya has over 150 ethnic groups, making it one of the most diverse countries in the world. The Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, make up less than a fifth of the total population. There are 69 languages spoken in Kenya. However, the country has two official languages that can be used to speak to anyone; English and Swahili.


Many Kenyans refer to their ethnic group as a tribe. Confusingly, a tribe is defined the same way as an ethnic group. However, in Kenya, it is commonly acknowledged that there are strictly 42 tribes. It is unclear where this number came from, which tribes make up the list, and whether a list actually exists. Indeed, the number of tribes officially recognised on the census changes every time one is conducted. Regardless, many ethnic groups value being officially recognised as a ‘tribe of Kenya’.

Advantages of Tribes

One benefit of having an official list of tribes is creating a stronger sense of national unity. Identifying as a ‘tribe of Kenya’ allows some groups to feel closer to Kenya and therefore to the other ethnic groups in the country. Another benefit is that the government is more aware of the presence of minority groups in certain regions and can give targeted support to them if necessary.

Disadvantages of Tribes

A major problem within Kenyan politics is tribalism. This is when people display strong loyalty to their tribe, sometimes at the expense of other tribes. Tribalism in Kenya is partly a result of colonialism. It was used to divide the Kenyan people and make it easier for the British to maintain power over them.


While tribalism can be a problem, it can also be turned into a force for good. The idea of tribes allows Kenyans of all ethnicities to maintain strong cultural identities while uniting together as Kenyans. A vague and mysterious list of tribes that expands with each census can be a useful tool in making all marginalised communities feel like they are ‘tribes of Kenya’.



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