Africa is the world’s second largest continent and the only continent that spans both the north and the southern hemisphere. Colonized and pillaged for more than 300 years, Africa is a rich and diverse place. Africa has over 50 independent countries and accounts for about 16% of the world’s population. That translates to over 1.2 billion people.
Now, while it is easy to homogenise and talk about ‘African people’, the truth is that within these 54 separate and unique countries, there are in fact over 3000 diverse tribes! Perhaps South Africa best reflects this diversity through its constitution with all 11 official languages recognised by law. I’ve picked out 6 of my favourite African tribes to showcase Africa’s fascinating tribal traditions and the vibrant cultures of Africa.
6 African Tribes with Traditional African Cultures
Population: +/-840 000
Savannahs, lions, safari vehicles and a red-robed Maasai, standing elegant and slender against the infinite horizon… The red-clad Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania are synonymous with the Great Plains and savannahs of Africa. They are renowned warriors and pastoralists who for hundreds of years roamed the wild of East Africa.
Maasinta, the first Maasai, received a gift of cattle from Ngai – the sky god - who lowered them to earth on a leather thong. Since that time, cattle have been viewed as sacred and their value is rivalled only by the value of their children, indeed, a large herd and a large family are the mark of a truly successful Maasai.
The savannah land that makes up the famous parks of Ngorongoro, Amboseli, Serengeti, the Masai Mara and Tsavo was all once the nomadic range of the Maasai people. Despite the pressures of the modern world, the Maasai have fought to preserve their way of life and as a result, any east African safari is awash with the sight of colourful Maasai, herding their cattle, walking along roads or dancing the adumu.
Amongst the most famous Maasai traditions are the jumping dance, the wearing of colourful shuka, spitting and the drinking of blood.
The adamu is the jumping dance which is performed as part of the initiation right when young adults become men. Accompanied by song, pairs of men take turns to see who can jump the highest. The ritual is performed to show prowess and fitness and it forms a part of the celebration when the boys become eligible bachelors. He who jumps the highest attracts the best bride.
The vibrant coloured cloth worn by the Maasai is known as shuka. Red is considered to be a sacred colour and represents blood and is the basic colour for all shuka. In addition to these qualities, it also protects the Maasai from wild animals. Orange is for hospitality, warmth and friendship, blue is for the sky which provides the rains for the cattle. Green is nourishment and production and yellow is for fertility and growth. Together, these vibrant African clothes, are what make the Maasai so distinctive in East Africa.
While in western traditions saliva is a strictly private and personal matter, in Maasai culture and tradition it is considered extremely good luck to be shared. When shaking the hand of an elder, it is important to spit in one's palm and to ward off evil spirits, one must spit onto a new-born babies head. Spitting is one thing, drinking blood completely another.
That’s right, the Maasai are hematophages, meaning that they drink blood for nourishment. It is curious because while they drink cow’s blood, often mixed with milk, they are opposed to eating wild animals, and the consumption of beef is reserved for special occasions only. The Maasai revere their cattle and for this reason, the letting of blood causes no lasting harm to their bovine companions.
Tanzania and Kenya Tours to meet Maasai Tribes:
- Tanzania Northern Circuit & Serengeti Lodge Safari
- Masai Mara & Serengeti Exclusive Overland Safari
- Masai Mara & Serengeti Family Camping Safari
- Kenya & Tanzania Camping Safari
Population: +/- 50 000
The desolate Kunene region of northwest Namibia is home to a resilient people called the Himba. Hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, the Himba descend from the southward migrating Herero of Angola.
Life for the Himba revolves around the holy fire called Okuruwo. Okuruwo, via the smoke, symbolizes a connection with their ancestors, who are in direct communication with their God Mukuru. The fire burns at the centre of the village and is never allowed to go out and each family has a fire-keeper whose job it is to tend the sacred blaze.
The Himba are a nomadic African tribe and traditionally travel from waterhole to waterhole tending their cattle and goats. Day to day tasks are traditionally split between the sexes with the women doing the hard tasks of carrying water, milking cows, building homes and raising children while the men handle politics and tend livestock. This division even extends to the use of water for bathing which is reserved exclusively for men. Women use herb-smoke from fire to cleanse their pores and maintain personal hygiene.
Interestingly, the traditional clan structure of the Himba is bilateral – evident in only a handful of traditional peoples around the world. Bilateral descent means that every clan member belongs to two clans, that of the mother, and that of the father. Under this unique arrangement, the sons live with the father’s clan as do the wives, however, inheritance passes from the maternal uncle. Living in such a harsh environment, it is believed that this bilateral descent provides a better chance of survival.
The most distinctive characteristic of the Himba is their unique adornment. The distinctive red ochre body paint and elaborate hairstyles have become synonymous with any safari to the Kunene region of Namibia. Hairstyles signify status, age and social standing. From young children with clean-shaven heads to braids and plaits facing forwards and backwards and finally to the Erembe – a sheepskin leather ornament – worn by women who have had children, the often red-ochred hairstyles are both otherworldly and gorgeous.
The red ochre body paint of the Himba – called otijze – is made from butter, animal fat and a naturally occurring earth pigment that contains iron oxide. The Himba women apply this mixture to their skin to protect them from the harsh sun and insect bites, lock in moisture and to beautify themselves. Because of the striking appearance that this red paste creates, the Himba tribe of Namibia has become known the “Red People of Africa”.
Tours of Namibia for Himba Cultural Encounters:
- Northern Namibia Lodge Safari
- 10 Day Explore Namibia Budget Camping Safari
- Explore Northern Namibia Safari Adventure
- Complete Namibia Camping Safari
Population: between 10 and 13 million
The Zulu people are the largest ethnic group in South Africa. They are descended from East African origins and over centuries, migrated south during what is a called the great Bantu migration. The Zulu rose into a formidable empire under the leadership of Shaka in the early 19th century. Under his leadership, the Zulu kingdom expanded and played an important role in the history of South Africa. Over time, the Zulu developed a fearsome reputation that is still evident today.
The Zulus of today are modern and progressive. While traditional clothing is reserved for special occasions, the Zulu retain strong connections with their ancestral and historical roots. As a people, the Zulu are said to be warm-hearted and hospitable and it is to them that we owe the concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu states that we are people, not because of our individuality, but by virtue of our connections to other people, thus underlying the importance of relationships.
The Zulu, while predominantly Christian, have retained the belief in their supreme being, Unkulunkulu, who is the creator of all life. While Unkulunkulu is remote and detached, all fortune, misfortune, good or bad luck is attributed to ancestral spirits or amadlozi. Simply put, the ancestral spirits are the spirits of the dead, specifically, of people who were respected and successful in life. By giving sacrifices to the ancestral spirits, the Zulu people seek to influence their lives on a day to day basis and all marriages or births are marked by sacrificial offerings.
The Zulu are also renowned for their skilled craftsmanship from earthenware pottery to weaving but most notably their beadwork. Bright coloured beads are woven into intricate patterns which are highly decorative but also functional. The patterns and colours have meaning. For example, a triangle is the symbol used for a girl while an inverted triangle indicates a boy. Joined triangles tip-to-tip indicates a married man, while triangles joined base to base is a married woman.
Each colour comes replete with the duality of life and has both a negative and a positive connotation. For example, red is for love and passion but can also represent anger and heartache, similarly, blue is the colour of faithfulness and request but also of hostility and dislike. The symbolism is complex and unique while also being functional and beautiful. It is no wonder then that curio shops from airports to cultural villages and tourist attractions around the country are all stocked with Zulu beadwork curios.
The Zulu nation is a proud one. They have opened cultural villages such as Shakaland in KwaZulu Natal, where you can experience their culture first hand. From traditional houses and dress to dancing, pottery and beadwork, you can even help to brew traditional beer. But don’t forget, the real Zulus are the ones you’ll meet at lodges, as guides and on the South African streets.
Tours of South Africa for Zulu Cultural Experiences:
- Durban to Swazi & Kruger Accommodated Overland Safari
- St Lucia, Swazi & Kruger Park Overland Camping Safari
- South African Coast & Kruger Exclusive Overland Safari
- Southern Africa Small Group Adventure Safari
Population about 80000 between South Africa, Botswana and Namibia
Known as the first people of South Africa, the Khoisan are renowned for their close connection to nature, their nomadic lifestyle and their language that comprises of clicking sounds. Sadly, they are also synonymous with the plight of minorities in Southern Africa and have been variously hunted, exploited and pushed off their land. Today, the survival of the San and their way of life hangs precariously in the balance.
Traditionally, the San people were hunter-gatherers who lived off the land, roaming vast tracts of bushveld all over southern Africa. For various reasons including mining, farming and the creation of national parks, the Bushmen have been forced into ever smaller ranges. Today, they are restricted to small clusters around the Makgadikgadi Pan.
The Bushmen were the great artists of southern Africa and their charming rock art – dating back thousands of years – can be found in caves and rock overhangs all over the country. The San used pigments made from mineral deposits, ochres, blood and egg to fashion delightful imagery of humans and animals.
For many years it was believed that the paintings were merely representations of everyday life, and it is from caves in the Drakensberg Mountains that we know the area was once home to leopard, eland and elephant which are now extinct in the area. However, modern theories attribute the paintings of this African tribe to a much more exciting idea. It is believed that the caves were sacred sights, a little bit like cathedrals, used by shamans as an interface with the spirit realm. The depictions are both access points to these realms as well as records of the encounters. What anthropologists believe is that rock art is a pictorial representation of the famous trance dance.
The magical trance dance is integral to the customs and beliefs of the Bushman. Also known as the healing dance, this ritual brings together the entire community. While the community members maintain rhythm through clapping and chanting, the healers and elders, who lead the ceremony, dance around the fire, stamping, clapping and mimicking animals. The exertion, accompanied by hyperventilation, induces a powerful trance-like state in which they can enter the spirit world. The dance has a number of functions from healing sickness to dispelling what they call “star-sickness” which causes ill-will, anger, arguments and jealousy.
Southern Africa Tours for San Rock Art & Culture:
- Kalahari & Bushman Botswana Camping Safari
- Kalahari Bushman, Okavango Delta & Savuti Safari
- 13 day Namibia, Chobe & Vic Falls Lodge Safari
- South Africa, Namibia & Botswana Overland Camping Safari
- Namibia Desert & Botswana Delta Safari
Population about 1.1 million
The Southern Ndebele are widely distributed through the north-east provinces of South Africa; Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Limpopo. The Ndebele tribes are considered to be cousins of the Zulu and as such share linguistic similarities. The Ndebele are, however, unique in the expression of their culture and their beliefs.
In traditional Ndebele society, illness is believed to be caused by spells or curses. They are considered to be an external force inflicted on an individual. The traditional healer or sangoma, is required to do battle with these forces using medicines like herbs or by throwing of bones. All izangoma (men and women) are able to commune with the ancestral spirits. However, it is their ability to defeat illness that defines their success or failure.
Both boys and girls go through initiation rites and initiation schools are held every four years. When Ndebele boys are about 18years old, they are grouped into a regiment or indanga. The regiment is given a name that comes from a cycle of 15 or 13 names, depending on the tribe but the initiation rites – which include circumcision – are shrouded in mystery.
For their initiation rites, Ndebele girls must wear an array of colourful beaded hoops or izigolwan around their limbs, waist and neck. They are kept in isolation and trained to become matriarchs and homemakers. To celebrate their ‘coming out’, the izigolwan are traded for hard leather aprons called amaphephetu.
To emphasise the importance of this occasion, relatives and friends gather during the initiation period. They take part in activities and celebrations that mark this important event which symbolises the transition of a person from childhood to adulthood.
While the Ndebele traditions of shamanism and initiation are interesting, what really sets them apart is their unique artistic style. Women are responsible for decorating the homestead and often the façade and sides of buildings are brightly painting with striking geometric patterns filled in with colour.
While traditional designs made use of earth-ochres and muted dyes, modern Ndebele designers use a much more vibrant and vivid palette. The designs have become synonymous with South Africa and one artist, Esther Mhlangu, has gained international fame. Her designs have appeared all around the world on the tails of jumbo jets to museums and private art collections. She even became, not only the first woman but also the first African to be asked to do the prestigious BMW ‘art car’, thus putting her in the company of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Hockney!
Southern Africa Safaris with Cultural Experiences:
- Cape Town, Kruger Park & Zimbabwe Safari
- Kruger Park & Private Reserve Overland Safari
- Best of Southern Africa Budget Lodge Safari
- 4 Day Pilanesberg Malaria-Free Budget Lodge Safari
- South Africa, Swaziland & Lesotho Safari
Population about 160 000
The Samburu tribe from north-central Kenya are pastoralists from the great plains of the Samburu region. They are closely related to the Maasai people of Kenya and are said to have migrated south from the Nile region of North Africa. The Samburu people speak a dialect of the Maa language which they share with the Maasai. The Samburu are however considered to be even more remote as the region that they inhabit is dry and arid and so can support less life.
Pastoralists, the Samburu raise primarily cattle but also keep other livestock like goats, sheep and even camels. Because of the arid environment that they inhabit, this African tribe is traditionally nomadic. Constantly in search of pastures for their cattle, much of the conflict in their ever-shrinking range is caused by the search for land. The Samburu diet, like the Maasai, consists of milk and animal blood, while eating is reserved for special occasions.
The Samburu are renowned for their colourful clothing and their unique social structure. The men wear pink or black cloth in a manner similar to the Scottish kilt and adorn themselves with bracelets, anklets and necklaces. The warrior age-group or Moran, are known to wear their hair in long braids. The women, on the other hand, keep their heads shaven and wear two cloths, one around the waist and the other around their chests. The cloth is usually blue or purple and the women adorn themselves further by applying ochre to their bodies in a fashion similar to the Himba of Namibia.
What sets the Samburu apart, however, is their gerontocracy. A gerontocracy is a social structure which is governed strictly by the elders who make all the decisions. The leaders are the oldest members of the society and they have the final say in all matters as well as possessing the power to curse younger members of the tribe. The ultimate source of power for the deeply religious African tribe of the Samburu is their God Nkai. The elders, responsible for law and order are devout and follow his guidance in all matters.
Kenyan Tours to Encounter Samburu Tribes:
- Lake Turkana & Northern Kenya Camping Safari
- Masai Mara, Samburu, Nakuru 4x4 Kenya Lodge Safari
- Lake Turkana, Chalbi Desert & Samburu Camping Safari
- Kenya & Tanzania Camping Safari
- Masai Mara & Northern Kenya Game Parks 4x4 Safari
African Tribes, Travel and Etiquette
We live in an amazing age where global travel is relatively quick and easy. You no longer need to be an anthropologist to visit these incredible African tribes and to make memories that will last a lifetime. Here are a few tips on local etiquette and culture to help you on your way.
- Look before you leap. Be conscious of the fact that you are a guest in someone else's country, province and home. Be mindful of them and their traditional customs, ask questions, and don't assume anything. Often taking pictures is fine but it doesn't hurt to ask first, taking the time to check will make you a welcome guest wherever you go.
- When in Rome... not everything you encounter will be to your taste, but that is the whole reason we travel. A double dose of flexibility and patience will go a long way. Sing your heart out, dance the dance, allow yourself to be lead on a beautiful journey.
- Smile. If you are not sure what to do, smile. Smiling is a universal language of goodwill, use it liberally and use it well. There will be uncomfortable travel, bad food, tiredness and many other less than desirable situations, these are inevitable, what we can choose is what we give to the world and the cultures we visit, so smile at the driver, at your host, at the women, the children, the shopkeepers and the passers-by.
- Be in time, not on time. In Africa, it is more important to be in the moment than to count the seconds on the clock. People in the present are more valuable than appointments in the future. Focus less on the timetable and more on the people you are with, Africa's people are really what makes it such an amazing place and it is well worth taking the time to be with them.
Speak to one of our African Budget Safari experts to find out more.