A visit with the world’s most ancient tribal civilizations is a highlight of any safari to Africa. The traditions these tribes still practice today were created by the forefathers of all of humanity, and the chance to explore their music, language, traditional garments and ancient cultural ceremonies gives travelers a rare glimpse into our collective history and shared origins.
Suri: This southwestern Ethiopian tribe is comprised of about 30,000 members. Body decoration is an important marker of beauty in Suri culture. During adolescence, most girls have a plate inserted in their bottom lip as an indicator of attractiveness. Scars are also considered desirable, and the Suri practice scarification rituals to create as many as possible.
Himba: These northern Namibian tribespeople are semi-nomadic and pastoral. They primarily breed cattle and women typically perform the physical tasks, while men are responsible for political and legal matters. Due to the little clothing they wear, the women are known for the thick mixture they use as sun protection, called ‘otijze’ which is made of butter fat and ochre.
Hadzabe: Out of 1,000 tribespeople, about 400 Hadzabe still thrive as hunter-gatherers and live according to ancient nomadic practices. Oral tradition influences many of their lifestyle choices, such as the custom of sleeping under trees in the dry season, following age-old stories about the habits of their giant, hairy ancestors called the Akakaanebe. Genetically, the Hadzabe are not closely related to any other tribe and are located in north-central Tanzania on reservation lands.
Samburu: The Samburu, or ‘Lokop’ as they call themselves, are distant relatives of the Maasai, and reside in north central Kenya. They operate as a gerontocracy, and their leaders are the eldest members who are believed to have the ability to curse younger tribespeople. The Samburu are extremely religious, however, and consider their God Nkai to be the ultimate source of punishment—the tribal elders simply do his bidding.
Karo: Between 1,000 and 3,000 Karo people live on the Omo River in Ethiopia, depending on it for their livelihood. Annual flooding makes the area’s biodiversity rich and therefore plentiful for collection, which the Karo use to their advantage.
Mursi: Surrounded by mountains and the Omo River on either side, the Mursi live in one of the most isolated areas of Ethiopia. Men and women undergo many rites of passage during their lifetime to prove themselves to their tribe, such as ‘thagine’, a violent duel between men. The Mursi are religious, believing there is a force bigger than themselves which materializes in the form of something found in the sky, like a rainbow or a bird.
Hamar: As of 1994, there were over 45,000 people in southwestern Ethiopia who identified with this tribe. As a semi-nomadic people, they move their cattle to greener pastures and live in round huts assembled nearby. The Hamar follow special marriage rituals, such as the well-known bull-leaping ceremony, during which a man must leap over a line of cattle to gain the right to marry, have children, and own livestock.
Maasai: The Maasai are known for their friendliness and eagerness to welcome visitors to their villages in Kenya and Tanzania. Despite living in close proximity to modern amenities, the Maasai have resisted a great deal of outside influences and have been able to maintain many of their traditional values. When warriors come of age, they are expected to fulfill certain tasks such as the adumu, which involves ten or more days of singing and dancing.
San Bushmen: Known as Bushmen, the San people span across Southern Africa, including Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. These indigenous hunter-gatherers prefer to be identified using the names of their individual nations, because each holds a unique identity. They speak a variety of languages, which involve a clicking sound.
Nyakyusa: The Nyakyusa people, who live in southern Tanzania and northern Malawi, believe they descend from Nyanseba, a Nubian Queen who was abducted by herdsmen who turned her reign into an emperorship. To honor her, Nyakyusa boys take their mother’s clan name, while girls will take their father’s.