the nilotic people

The Nilotic people of Africa

If meeting an indigenous tribe whilst on safari in Africa is your wish, the Nilotic people are some of the people that have kept their ancient traditions in modern times and worth visiting. You can take a cultural tour or walking safari in some of East Africa’s remote destinations such as Masai Mara Wildlife Reserve and Samburu in Kenya, Serengeti and Ngorongoro in northern Tanzania or Kidepo Valley National Park in Uganda. While at any of these places, it’s possible to visit a local homestead and meet members of the family, learn about their way of life and discover the cultural differences between yourself and them. City tours as well especially Nairobi city tour offers a chance to learn about the cultural diversity of the indigenous African tribes at several museums including the Nairobi National Museum and Karem Blex Museum. Most lodges also organize campfire where visitors gather for traditional entertainment and storytelling.

Who are the Nilotic people?

The Nilotic people are native to the Nile River basin area including the present-day countries of Ethiopia, South Sudan, northern of Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania. There are several Nilotic ethnic groups each with a number of tribes that belong to it but all have a common ancestry that they came from ancient Abyssinia the modern-day Ethiopia known as the “Land of Origins. This is to justify the belief that a highly advanced civilization started there and spread southwards from the earliest times across the African Great Lakes Region. Anthropologists agree on that the Nilotic of Africa speak about 29 to 50 languages which are part of the larger Nilo-Saharan language family. The Nilotes are subdivided into three groups based on those languages rather than the geographical areas they presently live in. However, most of the tribes also share many things in common such as the way of life including dress code, food, beliefs and customs.

The Nilotic language family groups

The western Nilotic language includes the Neur, Dinka and Luo who are egalitarian in nature – a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people. They have no kings but are organized into clans and tribes where succession is based on paternal lineage. Unlike Dinka who are concentrated in South Sudan’s Bahel Gazel and the Neur who live both in South Sudan and Gambella region of west Ethiopia, the Luo who originated from South Sudan are now found across a wide geographical range including areas around Lake Victoria basin, northern Uganda as well as DR Congo and Ethiopia. A few Luo notables include former US president Barack Obama, Rail Odinga former prime minister of Kenya.

The Southern Nilote Language family

The southern Nilote languages are spoken by the Kelenjin who live in the highland regions of north-west Kenya, north-east Uganda around Mount Elgon. The Karamojong are also part of this grouping along with the Matheniko and Pian in north-east Uganda around Kidepo Valley National Park. The Kelenjin are further divided into several tribes such as Pokot and Nandi. The Datooga on the other hand live in a small area within the Great Rift Valley of northern Tanzania around Lake Manyara National Park and Arusha town.

 The eastern Nilotic languages

These include the most well-known Masai, Samburu and Turkana mainly found in Kenya and Tanzania. Both of these tribes speak the Maa language, and traditionally lived in harmony with wildlife in the open savannah and semiarid plains within the East African arm of the Great Rift valley. They are great cattle herders and warriors that when men hold their spears and sticks, they have power to chase lions away from a carcass of a cow.

Note: The above-mentioned Nilotic language groupings overlap each other in terms of geographical distribution given that they are further categorised as the plains Nilotes, highland Nilotes and river lake Nilotes. This could be attributed to several factors such as external contact with other tribes, civil wars, natural calamities, establishment of protected areas, education systems among others. These factors to a large extent are responsible for the disruptions in the original traditional settlements which have significant implications for cultural preservation in the 21st century.

Cultural interrelations between the Nilotes

They depend on livestock for survival and livelihood. Most of the Nilotes are predominantly semi-nomadic pastoralists who prefer to live in small homesteads together with their domestic animals including cows, goats, sheep and donkeys. As a matter of fact, they depend on their livestock for survival. For instance, the Masai, the Karamojong of north-east Uganda, the Dinka and Mundari of South Sudan drink blood and urine of their cows. As such as cows are more valuable than money and used to measure wealth and status of men in society. The animals are used to pay bride price, so the more the man owns, the higher the chances of stable marriage and family. For instance, among the Dinka of South Sudan, men give about 30 heads of cattle for the girl to marry her. However, this tradition is slowly changing given that tourism now acts a source of income for instance to the Masai.

Music is part of their life

Music and dance in almost all the Nilotes is a rite of passage handed down from generation to another. For instance, the high jump dance is a traditionally practiced among the Maasai, Samburu and Karamojong. The same dance however has different names according to each tribe’s dialect and in particular the Maasai call it “Adumu.”

The Nilotes are a society governed by old people

The traditional social structure among the Nilotes is designed in such away that the elders are the ones that rule and dominate within communities. They are patriarchal in nature and lineage comes from the paternal side. The senior members have the authority to make decisions including distributing land to the young ones.

The Nilotes are some of the tallest humans on earth

The tallest man on planet ever recorded is Robert Wadlow an American with a height of 8ft 11inc (2.7m). According to the Guardian people in the western world including U.S and the Netherlands were much taller than the rest until recently that the Nilotes of Africa are among the tallest people in the world. In particular the Tutsi of Rwanda and the Dinka of South Sudan of which almost 99% of their population have an average height of 6- 7 feet. The average number of tall people within the Nilotes not only is higher than those in the Dutch and the western world but it has given them the edge and greatness in sports such as running and basketball. For instance, Manuto Bal a Dinka from South Sudan at 7 ft 7 inches was the tallest player in the history of American NBA basketball. Most recently, the highland Nilotes from Ethiopia, Kenya and north-east Uganda have shown great ability in long distance runners including Joshua Cheptegei from Kapchorwa, “Uganda’s Land of Running Champions.” A scientific study published in the Royal Society’s biological journal Proceedings B asserts that genetics and environmental factors influence the height of people. Among the Dutch, height has been increasing due to increase in wealth and good diet. But for the case of the Nilotes, extreme weather and harsh climatic conditions such as drought and floods are attributed to their great height and ability to perform well in sports.

Nilotic tribes you can visit on Safari in Africa

Here are some of the places to visit in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to get you started if you’re looking for specific ways to add a cultural tour to your itinerary.

The Maasai

The Maasai are plains Nilotes and live in Kenya and Tanzania close to the savanna protected areas including Serengeti and Tarangire National Parks and Masai Mara Wildlife Reserve. There are about 1.8 million of them according to the 2019 census and speak Maa language which is related to the Neur of Omo Valley Ethiopia and Dinka of South Sudan. Religiously, the Maasai believe in Engai as their deity god who gave them the cattle which has traditionally been the main livelihood for survival. However, due to conservation of protected areas and land reforms which encouraged them to move away from their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, they have adopted other lifestyles. For instance, they take their children to school, speak Swahili and English and cultivate maize and vegetables despite being vegetarians. Others now work in safari lodges such as Four Seasons in Serengeti. Nevertheless, the Maasai have kept their old-age traditions including the dress code, music and dance which attracts tourism which they now depend as an alternative source of income given that their cattle can no longer sustain them as it used to in the past. Therefore, some of the Maasai villages are open to visitors including in Ngorongoro crater and around Serengeti and Masai Mara National Parks.

The Karamojong and Ik in Kidepo Valley National Park – north-Uganda


Uganda’s most remote area Karamoja contains semi-arid savanna and flat terrain punctuated by volcanic mountains and rock kopjes. Situated in the north-east part of the country bordered by Mount Elgon in the south, South Sudan in the north and Turkan in Kenya. Moroto is the largest town in Karamoja located 460 (8-hour drive) north of Kampala capital city. Visits to the Karamoja are available at Apoka visitor center in Kidepo Valley National Park which is 251 (4-hour drive) further north of Moroto. You can reach the park by air through Apoka airstrip by charter Uganda flying safari.

The Karamojong with a population of over 371713 people are the largest of the semi-nomadic pastoral tribes in Karamoja region. The Ik on the other hand are the smallest tribe in Uganda with about 13,939 people bush men who now live on the slopes of Mount Murongole outside the Kidepo park. Both of these tribes can be visited whilst in Kidepo valley National Park home to cheetahs, lions, elephants, large hers of over 4000 buffaloes as well as giraffes and over 500 species of birds. Despite the social crises going in Karamoja which you can read here, this park is safe to visit especially in June to September when wildlife stays most of the time along the Narus river valley.

The Samburu in Samburu National Reserve – northern Kenya

The northern part of Kenya is semi-arid and not so popular with tourists when compared to Masai Mara or Amboseli National Parks. The Samburu is one of the tribes that inhabit the area and still remote and traditional. They speak Maa language same as Maasai and share traditional lifestyle including cattle keeping, music and dance and dress code.

Tourism is now one of the ways through which culture can be preserved. This is true for the Nilotes in particular, the Maasai, Samburu that live near protected areas in Kenya and Tanzania. Cultural safaris offer opportunity to visit these tribes and thereby contribute to the local economy in which their traditional culture is gradually diminishing due to modern life.

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