Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, colonized and pillaged for more than 300 years; Africa is a rich and diverse place. Africa has over 50 independent countries and accounts for about 16% of the world’s population.
Now, while it is easy to homogenise and talk about ‘African people’, the truth is that within these 54 separate and unique countries, there are in fact over 3000 diverse tribes. Here are the most popular tribes in Africa.
Zulu from South Africa
Zulu is one of the most popular tribes in Africa. With an estimated population of 11 million people, Zulu is known to be the largest ethnic group in South Africa. They are descended from East African origins and over centuries, migrated south during what is a called the great Bantu migration.
The Zulus of today are modern and progressive. While traditional clothing is reserved for special occasions, the Zulu retain strong connections with their ancestral and historical roots. As a people, the Zulu are said to be warm-hearted and hospitable.
The Zulu are also renowned for their skilled craftsmanship from earthenware pottery to weaving but most notably their beadwork. Bright coloured beads are woven into intricate patterns which are highly decorative but also functional.
The patterns and colours have meaning. For example, a triangle is the symbol used for a girl while an inverted triangle indicates a boy. Joined triangles tip-to-tip indicates a married man, while triangles joined base-to-base is a married woman.
African Mother by artist Ashley Bunting
Each colour comes replete with the duality of life and has both a negative and a positive connotation; red is for love and passion but can also represent anger and heartache, similarly, blue is the colour of faithfulness and request but also of hostility and dislike.
The Himba from Namibia
The most identifiable feature of the Himba tribe is the bright red colouring of their skin. Their skin is rubbed with red ochre to achieve this look. They are a semi-nomadic and pastoral tribe known to breed cattle and goats. Their population is estimated between 20,000 to 50,000 people.
Life for the Himba revolves around the holy fire called Okuruwo. Okuruwo, via the smoke, symbolizes a connection with their ancestors, who are in direct communication with their God Mukuru. 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 is to tend the sacred blaze.
Day-to-day tasks are traditionally split between the sexes with the women doing the hard tasks of carrying water, milking cows, building homes and raising children while the men handle politics and tend livestock.
Their hairstyles signify status, age and social standing. From young children with clean-shaven heads to braids and plaits facing forwards and backwards and finally to the Erembe – a sheepskin leather ornament – worn by women who have had children.
Silver by artist Carla Heilig
The red ochre body paint of the Himba – called otijze – is made from butter, animal fat and a naturally occurring earth pigment that contains iron oxide. The Himba women apply this mixture to their skin to protect them from the harsh sun and insect bites, lock in moisture and to beautify themselves. The Himba tribe of Namibia has become known as the “Red People of Africa”.
The Maassai from Kenya and Tanzania
The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting northern, central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. It is estimated that 1 million Maasai people live in Kenya and Tanzania.
The red-clad Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania are synonymous with the Great Plains and savannahs of Africa. They are renowned warriors and pastoralists who for hundreds of years roamed the wild of East Africa.
The tribe is nomadic in nature, choosing to stay in smaller homesteads. They build their way of life around their cattle, which they insist are a gift from their god Ngai. They use the cattle primarily as a measurement of wealth as well as a source of food.
Gold by artist Carla Heilig
Amongst the most famous Maasai traditions are the jumping dance, the wearing of colourful shuka, spitting and the drinking of blood. The adamu is the jumping dance which is performed as part of the initiation right when young adults become men. Accompanied by song, pairs of men take turns to see who can jump the highest. The ritual is performed to show prowess and fitness and it forms a part of the celebration when the boys become eligible bachelors. The one who jumps the highest attracts the best bride.
Women of the Savanna by artist Ashley Bunting
The vibrant coloured cloth worn by the Maasai is known as shuka. Red is considered to be a sacred colour and represents blood and is the basic colour for all shuka. In addition to these qualities, it also protects the Maasai from wild animals.
Orange is for hospitality, warmth and friendship, blue is for the sky which provides the rains for the cattle. Green is nourishment and production and yellow is for fertility and growth. Together, these vibrant African clothes are what make the Maasai so distinctive in East Africa.
San Bushman from Southern Africa
Known as the first people of South Africa, the Khoisan are renowned for their close connection to nature, their nomadic lifestyle and their language that comprises of clicking sounds. Their territories span Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and South Africa.
The San people are one of the world’s oldest tribes and very probably the first inhabitants of southern Africa.
Sadly, they are also synonymous with the plight of minorities in Southern Africa and have been variously hunted, exploited and pushed off their land. Today, the survival of the San and their way of life hangs precariously in the balance.
The Bushmen were the great artists of southern Africa and their charming rock art – dating back thousands of years – can be found in caves and rock overhangs all over the country. The San used pigments made from mineral deposits, ochres, blood and egg to fashion delightful imagery of humans and animals.
Listen to your Heart by artist Nina Norden
For many years it was believed that the paintings were merely representations of everyday life, and it is from caves in the Drakensberg Mountains that we know the area was once home to leopard and elephant, which are now extinct in the area. However, modern theories attribute the paintings of this African tribe to a much more exciting idea: it is believed that the caves were sacred sights, a little bit like cathedrals, used by shamans as an interface with the spirit realm.
The Southern Ndebele from South Africa
The Ndebele tribes are considered to be cousins of the Zulu and as such share linguistic similarities. The Ndebele are, however, unique in the expression of their culture and their beliefs.
In traditional Ndebele society, illness is believed to be caused by spells or curses. They are considered to be an external force inflicted on an individual. The traditional healer or sangoma, is required to do battle with these forces using medicines like herbs or by throwing of bones. All izangoma (men and women) are able to commune with the ancestral spirits. However, it is their ability to defeat illness that defines their success or failure.
Issa celebrating culture 2 by artist Janine Riches
While the Ndebele traditions of shamanism and initiation are interesting, what really sets them apart is their unique artistic style. Women are responsible for decorating the homestead and often the façade and sides of buildings are brightly painting with striking geometric patterns filled in with colour.
While traditional designs made use of earth-ochres and muted dyes, modern Ndebele designers use a much more vibrant and vivid palette.
Which tribe of Africa do you prefer?
Reference: African Budget Safari
Credit Photos: Canva