In Summary
  • While the 1999 National Census opted not to publish ethnic data, the 2009 count provided codes for no less than 111 ethnic groups.
  • The Nubians, for example, argued that, while their forefathers had come to Kenya from Sudan as soldiers during the early colonial period, they now know of no other home and are as indigenous to Kenya as the country’s other ethnic groups, who nearly all have histories of migration into the state’s current territory.
  • The negotiability of ethnic identities complicates analysis and policy-making, since it is impossible to agree on exactly how many ethnic groups exist.

It is often said that Kenya has 42 tribes or ethnic groups. At the same time, it is common for marginal communities to claim that they are Kenya’s 43rd ethnic group — think, for example, of the Ogiek, Nubians, Endorois, or Yatta.

Indeed, instead of being a hard fact, the number 42 stems from a particular moment in time and significantly underestimates the complexity of the country’s ethnic makeup.

This reality is reflected in the fact that when efforts are made to establish a list of the country’s ethnic communities, the number quickly increases. For example, in 2003, when delegates at the National Constitutional Conference were asked to compile a list of Kenya’s ethnic communities (with a view to including the list as an appendix to the new constitution) additions resulted in the number of “indigenous African” communities increasing to 94 within a couple of weeks.

Given this rapid proliferation, organisers scrapped the idea of a list for fear that it would not be conclusive and would cause grave offence to any missing community.


In turn, while the 1999 National Census opted not to publish ethnic data, the 2009 count provided codes for no less than 111 ethnic groups.

So where does the number 42 come from? As Samantha Balaton-Chrimes notes in her forthcoming book on Kenya’s Nubians, it comes from the number of options available to people when answering the tribe question in the 1969 National Census.

However, this number has been far from stable over time. For example, the 1962 census coded 40 groups, while the 1979 census recognised 38 ethnic groups.

This lower number under President Moi resulted from the addition of several groups and simultaneous collapsing of the Kalenjin sub-groups (for example, Nandi, Kipsigis, and so on) under a single code.

In contrast, the most recent census provided codes for a number of previously unrecognised groups and for sub-groups of some of the country’s larger ethnic groups.


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