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Top Ten African Tribes and Their Population

A Tribe is a social group composed chiefly of numerous families, clans, or generations having a shared ancestry and language. There are an estimated 3,000 African tribes spread across the continent but we will be examining the most well known and iconic tribes.


Hadzabe, Tanzania

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The Hadzabe of Tanzania is a tribe of hunter-gatherers living in Tanzania mostly based in southwest Karatu District of Arusha Region. They live around Lake Eyasi in the central Rift Valley and in the neighboring Serengeti Plateau. There are, as of 2015, between 1,200 and 1,300 Hadza people living in Tanzania. The Hadzabe is a relatively egalitarian society, with no governing hierarchy or status differences between individuals, and where children are reared cooperatively. Much time is spent on foraging and hunting. Women forage in larger groups for berries, fruit, and tubers, depending on availability. Hadza men usually forage individually, feeding themselves and bringing home fruit or honey when they can. They also hunt game using a bow and poisoned arrow, lying in wait overnight at watering holes.

Karo, Ethiopia

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Living on the banks of the Omo River in Southern Ethiopia, seemingly untouched by the outside world, is the small Karo (or Kara) tribe. For sustenance, they practice flood retreat cultivation, growing beans and maize, breeding cattle and goats, and fishing. They are highly regarded for their practice of intricate face and body painting, using a combination of white chalk, charcoal, yellow rock, and iron ore to create some truly dramatic body artworks. The tribe also practice ritual scarification, cutting themselves with a knife or razor, then rubbing ash into the cut to produce a raised effect over time, there are estimated to be about 2000 Karo people.

Hamar, Ethiopia

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The 2003 national census reported 46,532 people in this ethnic group, the Omo Valley in southwest Ethiopia is a fertile region that’s home to the Hamar. They are a pastoral tribe with a culture that places a high value on cattle. During the dry season families move to live with their herds in grazing areas, and survive primarily on milk and blood from the cattle. The Hamar are known for their unique custom of “bull jumping,” which initiates a boy into manhood. First, female relatives dance and invite whipping from men who have recently been initiated; this shows their support of the initiate, and their scars give them a say on who they marry. The boy must run back and forth twice across the backs of a row of bulls or castrated steers, and is ridiculed if he fails.

Himba, Namibia

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An estimated population of about 50,000 people living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene Region (formerly Kaokoland) and on the other side of the Kunene River in southern Angola. The iconic status of the Himba tribe comes in large part from the appearance of the women, with their red-tinged complexion and thick, red hair in elaborate hairstyles. Hair for Himba women signifies age and status, starting with shaved heads for young children, then braids and plaits, and graduating to a leather ornament called an Erembe for women who have had children.

Their unique red color comes from a paste made from ochre, fat, and butter, applied each day to their skin and hair, to protect them from the sun and insect bites, and to beautify themselves.

San Bushmen, South Africa

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The San people are one of the world’s oldest tribes, and traditionally hunter-gatherers, known as the first people of South Africa. Today their descendants are a population of over 100,000 people across Botswana (63,500), Namibia (27,000), Angola(<5,000) , Zimbabwe(1,200), and South Africa(10,000). The San’s tracking skills are renowned, and they have the skills to hunt and survive in the seemingly barren lands of Southern Africa’s deserts. They are easily recognized by the unique clicking sound they make when speaking. It is the San – also known as the Kalahari bushmen – that were responsible for the cave and rock art found across the region, some of which dates back thousands of years.

Samburu, Kenya

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The Samburu tribe lives north of the equator in the geographically fascinating Samburu County of Northern Kenya. The Samburu people are closely related to the Maasai tribe who also live in East Africa. Both these tribes speak a similar language, derived from Maa. As at 2019 were about 310327 Samburu people.

The Samburu tribe, just like the Maasai are a semi-nomadic people. Only the Samburu people are still very traditional and have not parted with old customs as compared to the Maasai. Cattle, as well as goats, sheep and camels, play a vital role in the Samburu way of life and culture. The Samburu are highly dependent on their livestock for survival. Their diet comprises mostly of milk and occasionally blood from their cows.

Southern Ndebele, South Africa

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In the 2011 census were 1,100,000 southern Ndebele people who are found in South Africa’s north-eastern provinces of Gauteng, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga, sharing some language with the Zulu. They have unique culture and beliefs, however, that sets them apart from other African ethnic groups.

The Ndebele believe that illness is caused by spells or curses, an external force inflicted on a person. To cure illness a sangoma (a type of traditional healer) needs to do battle with these forces using traditional herbal medicines and bone throwing. Whilst these shamanistic traditions are interesting, what truly makes the Southern Ndebele unique is their artistic style. Not just clothes and bodily adornments, but homes too are decorated in striking geometric patterns filled in with color.

Masai, Kenya & Tanzania

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Are Possibly the most famous of all African tribes, the Maasai live along the semi-arid Great Rift Valley in Kenya and Tanzania. These expansive homelands are close to many of Africa’s top game parks, meaning the tribe is often in close contact with international tourists.

The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting northern, central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the best known local populations internationally due to their residence near the many game parks of the African Great Lakes, and their distinctive customs and dress. The Maasai speak the Maa language a member of the Nilotic language family that is related to the Dinka, Kalenjin and Nuer languages. Except for some elders living in rural areas, most Maasai people speak the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili and English. The Maasai population has been reported as numbering 1,189,522 in Kenya in the 2019 census

Xhosa, South Africa

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The Xhosa ethnic group is one of the largest in South Africa 8,104,752 (2011 Census), with their homelands in the southeast of the country, in the forested Eastern Cape Province. The Xhosa have South Africa’s second most spoken language, after Zulu. This language is used to maintain their strong oral tradition, full of stories of ancestral heroes, with the teachings of elders handed down through the generations by speech alone.

Zulu, South Africa

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With a population of around 10-12 million people, Zulu is the largest ethnic group in South Africa, and one of the continent’s largest tribes. The Zulu are a warrior tribe descended from East Africa, and migrated south centuries ago to find a home in KwaZulu-Natal on South Africa’s Indian Ocean Coast. In the early 19th century the Zulu ethnic group rose into a formidable empire under the leadership of King Shaka, developing a fearsome reputation that is still acknowledged to this day. Modern-day Zulus are modern and progressive though. While traditional clothing is saved for special events like weddings and funerals, the Zulu maintain strong connections with their tradition and historical roots by giving sacrifices to the ancestral spirits to influence their lives on a day to day basis.

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