Kenya Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Kenya is a diverse nation, but what does this mean for the nation today? In this lesson, we'll look at ethnicity in Kenya and talk about some major ethnic groups who call it home.


On the coast of East Africa is a nation called Kenya. You've probably heard of it. Kenya is a major player in pan-African politics, and has the largest GDP of East African nations. Like so many other parts of Africa, Kenya's borders were largely defined by European empires that set out to colonize the world in the 19th century. Kenya was incorporated into the British Empire in the late 19th century, and became a former colony in 1920. Kenya maintained this role in the British Empire until 1963, when it finally gained independence. But, then what? The nation of Kenya was independent, but was there really a unified Kenyan people? The borders of Kenya did not reflect any sort of cultural borders, within which lived a people with a shared identity. In fact, to this day the nation of Kenya formally recognizes 32 major ethnic groups indigenous to the nation. Some scholars claim that with minor groups included, the number may be as high as 70. This is common throughout Africa, and while Kenya has achieved greater economic and political stability than some nations, ethnic conflict still exists.


The Kikuyu

With such ethnic diversity, no single ethnic group in Kenya holds a clear majority of the total population. Obviously, we won't have time to discuss all of these groups, but we can talk about some of the biggest. The largest ethnic group in Kenya, in terms of population, are the Kikuyu. The Kikuyu are members of the Bantu ethno-linguistic family, which is true of most of Kenya's ethnic groups. The Kikuyu make up about 22% of the total population, but despite this tend to be underrepresented in Kenyan politics. This is likely a result of the role they played in the violent independence struggles against the British, and the subsequent choice of the British to grant political authority to other ethnic groups. They are mostly farmers and live predominantly around Mount Kenya, which they call Kirinyaga. The idea of owning property is very important in Kikuyu culture, and families maintain their property through complex systems of kinship.

The Luhya

Next, we've got the Luhya. The Luhya people can mostly be found in western Kenya, although in recent years more have moved to major urban centers like Nairobi. Luhya people also tend to be farmers, and are particularly involved in the production of sugarcane. Due to sharp increases in population density amongst Luhya populations, their farmlands have been undergoing increased stress and overuse. About 14% of people in Kenya identify as Luhya.

The Luo

Of the non-Bantu people, the largest ethnic group in Kenya are the Luo, who make up about 13% of the total population. The Luo are one of the Nilotic groups, or those that ancestrally descended from people along the Nile region of Sudan and moved to East Africa millennia ago. Today, most of the Luo population live around Lake Victoria in western Kenya. While the Luo were also pretty heavily involved in the independence struggles, they managed to hold onto some political power, and several notable Kenyan politicians across the decades were ethnically Luo.

Fishing is another major industry for the Luo
Luo fishermen


Coming in at 12% of the total population, the Kalenjin are another major Nilotic group. This term is actually used to describe a collection of ethnic groups who all share a common language, although it is spoken in widely-varying dialects. Despite only being 12% of the total population, the Kalenjin have made a major impact on Kenya. Many of Kenya's famous Olympic runners were Kalenjin, and many Kenyan politicians were as well. In fact, the Kalenjin have maintained a lot of political power throughout the years, especially after a Kalenjin man named Daniel Toroitich arap Moi rose to power as Kenya's president in 1978. He held that position until 2002, continually strengthening Kalenjin political power over those years. To this day, there is some resentment in Kenya against the Kalenjin for their political dominance.

Daniel Toroitich arap Moi was president of Kenya from 1978-2002

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