All You Need to Know About African Tribes

Women and Children African Tribe Traditions

Table of Contents

The African continent is known to be the birth of mankind, with the first men appearing here over 2 million years ago. How many tribes are there in Africa today? The best vestiges we have left from long ago are the 3000 tribes scattered all over the map of Africa that carry with them remnants of the Paleolithic age. Unfortunately, the contact with the outside modern society has meant destruction for some of these African tribes that lost many of their values and traditions. 

What tribes were brought to America?

The slave trade was another disastrous series of events that affected these communities. It’s believed over 12 million people were taken from Africa and forcibly transported to other parts of the world, half a million arriving on the American shores. Some prominent african ethnic groups from the 45 taken to the New World were Bantu, Mandé, Akan, and Yoruba. 

Knowing about the culture, traditions, and history of some of the greatest African tribes is not just important from an educational point of view, but also from a social one. 

1. The San Tribe

Known as the Bushmen, the San tribe is one of the oldest in the world, and the oldest one in Africa, with its history traceable to over 30,000 years ago. Its people are said to be direct descendants of the first men on the continent. The indigenous community inhabits Southern Africa and counts around 100,000 individuals. 

The San people used to be nomadic hunters before settling, and in the 20th century, they were forced to abandon their ways and become farmers. However, they have managed to keep many of their traditions despite being exposed to modernization, and they still practice a great deal of hunting and trapping to support their community.

The tribe believes in multiple deities, one supreme God and many lesser ones, and some of their important rituals revolve around the deities presiding over special moments, such as marriage, death, first kill, or puberty. Dancing is a big part of their tradition, and they still mostly rely on shamanic healing. Even though their ways might seem primitive to the Western world, conserving them is extremely important for the survival of the community as a whole.

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2. The Zulu Tribe – Largest tribe in Africa

Catching roots after the great Bantu migration, Zulu became the largest tribe in Southern Africa and is one of the most famous ones, due to often being mentioned in pop culture and literature. Its members are known to be warm and friendly and open to visitors. The tribe’s way of life was greatly affected by modernization, but its people kept much of their old cultural heritage. 

If you’ve ever heard the word Ubuntu, which refers to the idea that “we are one” then you’ll understand why they are so open to the outside world. Their colorful bead crafts have been the inspiration for many works of art and styles of fashion, but their authentic beadwork sold in local markets is a feast for the eyes of anyone visiting their community.

The Zulus are mostly Christians, but they blended this fairly new belief with their old deity, uNkulunkulu, as well as the belief in spirits of the ancestors. Their traditional rituals to these deities involve a great deal of earth magic, potions, animal sacrifice, and dancing.

3. The Himba Tribe

This small tribe inhabits a portion of Namibia and southern Angola and unfortunately is on the brink of extinction. Its name means “beggar” in Otjiherero. There are barely 50,000 individuals left, who live their life herding and trading cattle. 

This community is uniquely known for the red body paint and hair women use to distinguish themselves from men. They obtain the paint by grinding ochre stone and turning it into a paste they apply all over their skin and their hair to stop the hair from growing and to protect the skin from sunburns. The women aren’t allowed to bathe in water, so they use a special smoke bath from burning charcoal and herbs.

The Himba believe in a deity called Mukuru which they venerate daily by burning a holy fire at the entrance to the village. 

4. The Maasai Tribe

One of the most famous tribes, one that was often portrayed in documentaries, is the Maasai. There are close to 1 million people living in Kenya and Tanzania that are part of this community, and they have one of the best-preserved African cultures. Even though they’re friendly to foreigners, these African tribals have worked hard to preserve their old customs and heritage. They live in one of the most inhospitable areas, but they try to protect nature and wildlife.

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Among their many traditions, the Maasai build their own houses out of wood plastered with a mix of mud, cow dung, water, and human urine. Cattle are sacred for the people, and they avoid sacrificing them by drinking their blood mixed with milk. This way, the animals heal and there is no lasting harm. 

5. The Samburu Tribe

The members of the Samburu tribe are related to the Maasai but fewer by two-thirds, they have the same preference for colorful clothing and speak Maa and Swahili. However, they live in even harsher conditions in north-central Kenya and survive solely on their cattle and goats. Like many other African tribe names, theirs also has a meaning, “samburr” referring to the leather bag that most of them carry.

The Samburu people are led by a group of elders, and they venerate Nakai, a god that is said to send them prophecies. 

6. The Ndebele Tribe

The Ndebele people are related to the Zulu and share some similarities, even though it’s easy to distinguish the two. They inhabit a portion of Southern Africa and have a unique clothing style that gets more elaborate and colorful with age. Their artistic side is not only displayed by their clothing, but also by their houses and fences, which the Ndebele love to paint with colorful geometric shapes. Beadwork is an important part of their trade, women spending countless hours creating wearable works of art for the local economy. 

Even though a small percent of the tribal population has turned to Christianity, most of the members of this tribe believe in the old magic system, where spirits control the fate of men. 

7. The Karo Tribe

The Karo in Ethiopia is a very small and fascinating tribe that has only around 1000 individuals. They stand out through the white face and body paint which sometimes makes them look ferocious. Unfortunately, the tribe is in danger of going extinct because of the lack of land and water caused by their government. 

Karo tribals are one of the examples of cultures that have been preserved for centuries and need to keep being preserved by the authorities. Even though they are related to the Hamar tribe which is much bigger, their individuality is palpable. 

The Karo relies on farming and hunting, and they live in small wooden huts. Aside from painting their bodies, they also practice scarification rituals during specific rites of passage. 

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8. The Hadzabe Tribe

The Hadzabe community lives in caves close to Lake Eyasi, and they are one of the few tribes to preserve their ancient customs for millennia despite modernization. There are only around 2000 of them left, and they are a race of skilled hunters, both men and women being taught it from the time they are children. A unique fact about them is they remain nomadic and move from place to place in order to find food. 

Even though they live secluded from society, they are happy to give hunting demonstrations and show visitors their day-to-day life. They can’t read or write, but they can tell old stories passed to them by their ancestors. However, not many understand their language, because it’s formed by a series of clicks, so it’s best to travel with a guide that is able to translate for you and explain their history and tradition.

What to know before visiting an African tribe

No matter if you want to take a small trip to a village or if you want to live with a local tribal community for a few days, you must follow some rules of socialization with communities that are far from the way you’re used to. 

Not all of them receive many foreign visitors. Some might not be used to cameras, or might simply not like having their photo taken. Even if you want to take general shots of the place, ask the locals if you can, or ask if you can take pictures of them.

These communities have been trying to preserve their culture for centuries, even for millennia. Don’t treat them as primitives but try to understand their traditions, respect them, and ask questions when you don’t understand something. They’re proud of their heritage and might be eager to share interesting stories. You can even join in their celebrations and be a part of their world for a while.

Thank them, smile, be friendly, respect their elders, and don’t do anything in mockery. Positive communication through words and body language is important in the African culture. And remember to never point at anything; it could be seen as offensive. 

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