African tribe walking together

10 African Indigenous Tribes That Still Maintain Their Ancestral Culture

african karo woman
Karo Woman

The continent of Africa is home to a diverse range of different countries and some of the world’s most ancient cultures. These countries have many tribes that have existed for thousands of years, giving Africa the title of the cradle of humankind.

Despite modernization, colonization and countless atrocities, many tribes spread all across Africa have managed to preserve their culture and traditional practices.

1. Karo

The Karo tribe is one of the smallest indigenous tribes in Africa. It is settled in Southern Ethiopia in the Lower Omo Valley. They live in huts and eat corn, sorghum, beans, and fish from the Omo River. The 2,000 people strong tribe continue to practice their traditions and cultures. One of these traditions is the practice of body art, a pivotal part of their identity.

The Karo people use white chalk, other mineral colorings, charcoal, and other natural resources to draw symbols and patterns on their skin; the women primarily use these markings to symbolize beauty while men typically used it to leave an impression on their enemies.

2. Mursi

The Mursi tribe in Ethiopia live in one of the most isolated areas of the country. They move twice a year between summer and winter months due to the climate and herd cattle and grow crops along the Omo River. The Mursi men carry light scars on their shoulders as a sign of victory in a battle and have geometric patterns on their shaved heads.

Mursi women wear lip plates and their lower lip is pierced when they reach the age of 15 or 16. In the Mursi tribe, bigger the lip plate, more cattle the bride’s father will receive during the girl’s marriage. To win a woman’s hand in marriage, a Mursi man has to beat an opponent in a stick fight, also called a “Donga”.

3. Himba

The Himba tribe has settled in Namibia since the 16th century and is currently leading a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Based in the Kaokoland of Namibia, one of the country’s last regions of wilderness, they are pastoral nomads who raise sheep and goats. There are an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Himba people.

The Himba women are famous for their unique hairstyle and use a paste of butter, fat, and red ochre called “otjize” to smear over their bodies as a way to protect themselves from the sun. The paste helps protect them against sun radiation, keeps the skin moist and is also said to prevent hair growth. The Himba women don’t use water for bathing, instead, they use smoke as a way of maintaining personal hygiene.

The Himba people believe in a god named Mukuru and use a holy fire called “okurowo”  to communicate with their god and believe it as a way to communicate with their ancestors as well. The Himba people consume a lot of porridge as they use maize flour and pearl millet flour which is known as Mahangu. 

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4. Kavango

The Kavango tribe in Namibia is made up of five sub-ethnic groups. They live mostly in Northern Namibia and are said to have migrated from warring Angola in 1999. The interesting fact about the Kavango people is that they follow a matriarchal line of succession. Everything from marriage, inheritance, family matters and religious rites is done from a matrilineal point of view. 

Despite this, the tribe as a whole is governed by male chiefs.

5. Turkana

The Turkana are Nilotic people based in Kenya. They’re the third-largest Nilotic ethnic group in Kenya with a population of around 855,000. The Turkana tribe worships Akuj, who they believe to be the creator. Turkana men and women wear wraps made out of rectangular woven material and animal skins. Women will wear necklaces and shave their heads completely and attach beads to loose ends of hair. Men carry traditional stools known as ekicholong as makeshift chairs.

6. The Karamojong

The Karamojong is a semi-nomadic tribe that is originally from Ethiopia and now primarily resides in Uganda. They avoid wearing modern clothing and prefer to wear their traditional clothing that is a shawl, usually in either red or black color. They continue to maintain their religious beliefs. The Karamojong people actively worship their God, Akuj and hold the belief that their cattle are a gift from God.

Like many other tribes in Africa, the Karamojong tribe have a strong bond with cattle and cattle herding. They also practice cultivation but only in lands where it is possible and treat it as a secondary activity. They move their cattle to neighbor areas for 3-4 months in search of better pasture.

A young Karamojong man has to wrestle a woman as a rite of passage into manhood and as an engagement requirement. If he defeats the woman, he is considered to be strong enough to take care of her and is also strong enough to be a man. A typical Karamojong settlement is typically littered with mud huts except for a few brick houses.

7. The Maasai

The Maasai are perhaps the most well-known and well-documented tribes in Africa. They are currently settled in Kenya and Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley. They are also among one of the largest indigenous tribes in Africa with 840,000 Maasai in Kenya and 340,000 in Tanzania. 

The Maasai are famous for their traditional way of dressing. Men wear red “shuka” or robes and women adorn red garments called “kanga” and accessorize with colorful beads. Their way of living is also very traditional, wherein they live in huts and each homestead is surrounded by thorns. Just like the Karamojong people, the Maasai also believe that their cattle are a gift from Ngai, their god.

In the Maasai culture, cattle are an important source of food and is valued as a form of currency and a symbol of wealth. 

Related: 8 Powerful Photos That Tell a Story

8. Samburu

The Samburu tribe resides in Kenya, specifically the Samburu County in Northern Kenya and has a lot of similarities with the Masaai. They also speak a similar language derived from Maa. The Samburu are semi-nomadic people who heavily rely on livestock such as cattle, sheep, camels, and goats for survival. Their diet too is based on vegetables, roots, and tubers along with milk and sometimes blood for cows. 

In the Samburu culture, meat is reserved for special occasions only. The Samburu men are placed into age sets and throughout their lives, they move from one age set to another. The men look after the cattle while women gather vegetables and take care of the family and chores.

9. Nama

Nama is an ethnic tribe based in southern Namibia. They are perhaps the largest Khoekhoe ethnic group making for one-eighth of the entire Namibian population. The Nama are traditionally shepherds and they believe in communal land ownership, in which a single person doesn’t have a claim to any land and everyone is free to use however they see fit. The Nama tribe has a great oral tradition and their culture is kept alive through folklore and music to this day. 

The Nama women are master artisans, the Nama embroidery and applique along with their unique dress called ‘lappiesrok’ is made from scrap cloths in a patchwork design that is widely renowned. They live in huts that are easy to dismantle and easy to carry wherever they move, these huts are called ‘Haru Oms’. 

10. San

The San people are one of the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa and have lived there for at least 20,000 years. They are also said to be the descendants of early stone age ancestors. The San people currently live in Namibia and Botswana. They don’t have a central authority figure and make decisions based on group consensus. 

Their diet includes antelope, zebra, porcupine, wild hare, lion, giraffe, fish, insects, tortoise, flying ants, snakes (venomous and non-venomous), hyena, eggs and wild honey. In the San culture, a boy becomes a man when he hunts and kills a large antelope.

The San people continue to retain most of their ancient rituals to this day.

11. Owambo

The Owambo consist of eight tribes, namely the Ndonga, Kwambi, Ngandyela, Mbalantu, Nkolonkadhi, and Unda tribes. They represent over a third of the total population of Namibia and are mainly involved in agriculture and cattle. They take great pride in retaining their cultural identity and practices. Many continue to live in Kraals, which are villages of traditional houses that have a fence around them for protection.

Owambo women are responsible for cultivating the land and raising children. They also are expert artisans and skilled in the art of pottery, basketry, dressmaking, etc.

Have a Piece of Africa

African Karo Girl in full makeup and headress
Karo woman, Southern Ethiopia

Africa is a beautiful continent, rich in culture, history and indigenous tribes. Check out my travel photography and have a piece of Africa with you, wherever you are.

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