The vast expanse of the African continent spans many different climatic regions and contains everything from dry deserts to swamps to rainforests to glacier-covered mountaintops. Its fifty-four countries are home to over 3,000 different tribes and ethnic groups and include some of the most colourful and flamboyant on Earth, many of them still living off the land just like their ancestors did many centuries ago.
Africa is home to many of the most resilient tribes on Earth. Surviving colonisation and new national borders created across many tribal lines in the 19th century, the irrepressible and strong sense of cultural identity of Africa's tribes is remarkable. All across the continent, tribal communities preserve practices that have come to shape their respective cultures; traditions that have been passed down over centuries, even millennia.
For the adventurous cultural traveller, spending time with Africa’s fascinating tribal communities offer some of the most intriguing and captivating travel experiences.
The enchanting tribes of Ethiopia's Omo ValleyThe southwestern corner of Ethiopia is home to eight primary tribes and another ten or so sub-tribes who coexist with varying degrees of peace. This is the home of the lip plate-wearing Mursi, the body-painting Kara and Surma, and the bangle- and leather-wearing Hamar. Their land is largely dry savannah; the Omo River snaking over 700 kilometres to Lake Turkana on the Kenyan border. Many of them lead lives unaffected by the modern world, oblivious to the existence of anything outside of their immediate environment. The tribes have different languages, customs and traditions, and are distinguished by colourful body and face paint, elaborate headpieces, red-ochre hair, beautiful beaded jewellery, and, in some tribes, distinctive lip plates.
The nomadic Himba of northwest NamibiaThe Himba are a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribe that travels from watering hole to watering hole tending to their cattle and goats. They live mostly in Namibia's desolate Kunene region and are descendants of the Herero people of Angola. Life for the Himba revolves around the holy fire called Okuruwo, which symbolises their connection to their ancestors. 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 to the sacred blaze. The most noteworthy characteristic of the Himba is related to their unique adornments - the distinctive red-ochre body paint and the elaborate hairstyles that signify status, age and social standing. These red-ochre hairstyles and body coating are a spectacular sight, with Namibia's otherworldly desert as their backdrop.
The fascinating San People of southern AfricaMade famous by ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’ films, the San are the first people of southern Africa, spread across the arid deserts of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. They are best known for their deep connection to their environment, as well as their distinct language which includes unique clicking sounds. Traditionally hunters and gatherers, modernisation and the creation of national parks have forced the San to survive in a small area around the Kalahari and the grasslands along the Makgadikgadi salt pans. The San Bushmen are well known for their rock art, which anthropologists believe is a pictorial representation of their famous trance dance. The San’s magical trance is a ritual where the whole community comes together for a ceremonial dance, chanting and clapping to induce themselves into a trance-like state to enter the spirit world.
The brave Maasai warrior tribe of Kenya and TanzaniaStanding tall and slender against the backdrop of East Africa's savannahs, the red-robed Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania are icons of Africa. They are warriors and pastoralists who have roamed the great plains of East Africa for hundreds of years. According to legend, Maasinta, the first Maasai, received a gift of cattle from Ngai – the Sky God – who lowered them to Earth on a leather thong. Cattle are viewed as sacred, with a large herd being the mark of true success. The vibrant cloth worn by the Maasai is called a 'shuka', and red is a sacred colour as it represents blood and protects them from wild animals. The Maasai drink blood for nourishment, only drinking from their cattle, but never slaughtering them. Probably the best known Maasai tradition is called the “adamu” – the jumping dance. It is performed as part of the initiation when boys become men, as pairs take turns to see who can jump the highest with their heels never touching the ground.
The colourful Samburu pastoralists of Northern KenyaThe Samburu tribe of northcentral Kenya are pastoralists who hail from the great plains of the Samburu region. They primarily raise cattle but also keep other livestock such as goats, sheep and even camels. Due to the arid environment that they inhabit, they are nomadic, constantly in search of pastures for their cattle. They are closely related to the Maasai and speak a dialect of the Maasai language. The Samburu also exist on a diet of milk and animal blood, with meat reserved for special occasions. They are renowned for their colourful clothing, and men wear pink or black cloth in a manner similar to the Scottish kilt, and adorn themselves with bracelets, anklets, and necklaces. The women keep their heads shaven and wear two colourful cloths, one around the waist and the other around their chests.
The hardy Toubou and Wodaabe of ChadThe Toubou are a nomadic desert-dwelling tribe that travels from oasis to oasis along the vast Sahara Desert in northern Chad, as well as parts of southern Libya, Niger and Sudan. They are a clan-based society and live in camps with their extended family members. Toubou men wear loose-fitting drawstring pants under long-sleeved robes. Their clothing is usually white, and they often wear turbans or small Muslim caps. The women traditionally wear long wraparound dresses and head coverings, and modesty requires that they cover their arms, legs and heads. Although the Toubou women are not required to wear veils, they often wear them for protection against the sun, dust, or cold weather.
The Wodaabe are known as ‘the vainest tribe in the world’ because of their famous Gerewol festival. They are Fulani people who have migrated along a sliver of Central Africa for centuries, grazing their cattle through the Sahel desert from northern Cameroon to Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Crossing countries riven by drought, poverty and war, they shelter in the most basic of structures with few possessions and are totally dependent on their animals for survival. And despite the harshness of their environment, it is beauty that the Wodaabe prize above all else and they consider themselves the most beautiful people on Earth. The Wodaabe must be the only African culture which allows girls to take the lead in choosing their respective partners. Even married Wodaabe women have the right to take a different man as a sexual partner.
The resourceful pygmy tribes of the Congo BasinFew people on Earth have as close a connection to their environment than the tribes of the Congo Basin. These so-called ‘forest people’ are Africa's original hunters and gatherers, and they have been living in the thick rainforest for over 50,000 years. Most of the tribes that inhabit the rainforest, such as the Mbuti, Mbenga, Twa and the Batwa, are more commonly known as “pygmies”. These people are considered the smallest people on Earth, rarely exceeding 1.5 metres, and usually much shorter. Their small stature is thought to enable them to move about the forest more efficiently. The pygmy tribes live in communities that range in size from 15 - 70 members and are nomadic, moving to new parts of the forest several times throughout the year and carrying all their possessions on their backs. Their nomadic lifestyle is less damaging to the rainforest ecosystem because it allows the group to move without over-exploiting the local resources. The best places to see them would be in the Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Gabon and Cameroon.
The proud Zulu of South AfricaThe Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa. They trace their origins from East Africa, and became a formidable force in South Africa during the early 19th century under the leadership of Shaka. They have a fearsome reputation as fierce warriors but are also well known for their skilled craftsmanship, from earthenware pottery to weaving, and most notably their beadwork. Bright coloured beads are woven into intricate patterns which are highly decorative but also functional with strong symbolic meaning. The Zulu are predominately Christian; however, they have retained their traditional belief in their supreme being, Unkulunkulu, who is the creator of all life. They also believe that everyday occurrences, good or bad, are attributed to ancestral spirits, and so are often giving sacrifices to these spirits to gain favour in their daily lives as well as for significant life events such as births and marriages.
Our Tribal Journeys focus exclusively on private and non-commercial experiences away from the tourist circuits. These intimate, and often life-altering interactions offer travellers a much deeper connection with the tribespeople, where we can ensure that we interact with them in a way that does not change or pollute their ways of living. Thus, our tribal visits must be pre-arranged in advance.
Related Activities in Tribal Africa
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