Skip to main content

Migration and settlement patterns of Kenyan communities


Kenyan history begins with critical analysis of the emergence of contemporary human society. The history of Kenya is as old as archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates. However there are limited sources to help historians to reconstruct the history of Kenya from the period 500000 years ago to the 1st century A.D. In this hub, I am going to discuss about the migration and settlement of Kenyan communities during the free colonial era. I shall also discuss about the significance of the migration history in modern Kenya. I shall start by discussing the Kikuyu community.


Kikuyu are the largest ethnic group in Kenya. They speak the Bantu Gikuyu language as their mother tongue. Gikuyu literary means a huge sycamore tree and Agikuyu thus literary refers to the children of the huge sycamore.

Mythically the nation of the Agikuyu came from two original parents who were created by God, namely Gikuyu and Mumbi. Mumbi refers to the creator who happens to be a life companion to the sycamore, the sacred tree from where the nation originated from. Kikuyu people are of Bantu origin. They constitute of the single largest ethnic group in Kenya and they are concentrated on the vicinity of Kenya.

Besides the mythical version of Gikuyu settlement and migration history, there are other two versions. The first version is that they moved into central Kenya from the lower Tana River. Initially the Gikuyu lived in Sigwaya in Northern part of Lamu together with the Mijikenda. From Lamu they moved up the Tana River into the present environment in central Kenya. The Mijikenda moved to the west and settled into their present environment.

In central Kenya, where the Gikuyu moved, they found the indigenous people called the Athr or Gumba whom they intermarried and developed the Gikuyu culture. The current age sets namely Maina and Kirugu were born from Athr. It is possible that Athr could have been moved out and confide into the forest areas of Mount Kenya and Abaderes. They could be part of the Okiek or Orobo societies that inhibit the foreign regions of Kenya.

The second version states that their original homeland was in Muranga at Mukuria wa Gathanga. There they dispersed into Kiambu, Nyeri, Nyandarua and other parts of central Kenya. Professor Godefry Muriuki argues that it is possible that the Gikuyu came into central Kenya from the lower Tana. But could also be a possibility that some Gikuyu clans could have migrated from Nyanza into central Kenya.


People came from Meruwards and crossed by Igambang’ombe ford. They settled at Gikuuri near Maranga hills. They had come from Igembe and came to Tharaka where they also settled. They left Tharaka to come to Embu.

The first people were very few but found the present Embu-land completely empty and so occupied it. These were the founders of the two clans, Kina and Igamuturi.

Igamukira followed from the same place sometime later. The Igamuturi and Kina reproduced and their children who were mainly hunters following animals found themselves getting into forest. That is how many ancestors came here (Nvuvooriaren).

The two original clans, the Kina and Igamuturi, specialized in different rites each. The Kina became the priestly group for all rites. The Mbugu medical art of Kina called for a Kina man to stay by the Munyu wa Gicoya or the mineral water of Gicoya, by Thambana stream. He was to be sacrificing around here. When more and more waves of migrants came to Embu, the Kina, Igamuturi and Igamukira adopted them. Later these formed their own clans. Consequently there are many clans in Embu and hardly anyone knows the number. An example of the late comers is Kithami who also came from Meru. Later the clans merged into two multiple clans. These are Gatavi (Ukima) or Irumbi and Ngua Migoyo or Thagana. Irumbi are the majority numerically.

Some people came from the Meru direction led by Kaviu and Muturi. Some like Kaviu were left and died at Weru while the rest moved ahead. Among these were the Gatuamata and Murimi who came following animals. Gatima and Matumburu went to settle at Nthatari. Muturi went between Ruvingali and Kii rivers. Mugwe of Gitiiri clan settled by Riango’mbe. Others were Njoka of Andu-a-mbogo, Kavara of Kaburunge. Most of these places were inside the forest.

The Embu people also have got a mythical story about their migration and settlement. It states that the very first Embu people were a man and wife called Kembu and Werimba respectively. They came from the direction of Kirinyaga and settled at Muthiru (upper North Embu, present day (Nvuvoori). They bore sons and daughters. One daughter was Wakina who was impregnated by her brother. The two were cast away to find a home of their own. Another daughter was Wamuturi who had the same fate. Many others had the same fate until Embu land had many people in it. Clans originated from naming the people ‘children of Wamuturi or Wakina’ and hence came the clans of Igamuturi and Kina respectively. Others followed. Since people were hunters/trappers, the lands where they laid their traps became later their clan lands or Ngamba by right of prior occupation. Mbeere people are the daughters of Muembu who on getting married to a Mukamba were asked to build towards the direction of the husband.

Citation: H.S.K. Mwaniki (1974) Embu Historical Texts. East African Literature Bureau. Nairobi. (Page 42-43)

Maasai people dancing

Maasai people dancing


Archaeological evidence suggests that the area now occupied by the Kipsigis, and the surrounding lake basin was inhabited during the same Stone Age. Those early people depended mainly on hunting and gathering. The place of those hunters in the history of the area has not been properly recognized. Instead we have ‘hamites or ‘cushites’ as the main factor in the history of the area.

Since the Kipsigis were previously classified as Nilo-Hamites, and by Hamites was meant cushites, something should be said about the supposed Cushitic occupation of this general area. Some of those who have postulated the Cushitic hypothesis trace the origin of the people to Ethiopian. G.Murdock for example, assumes the movement of his Caucasoid ‘magahitic cushites’ from Ethiopia into East Africa. On the other hand C.Ehret contends that the rift valley marked a major ethnic divide in the development and spread of southern Cushitic speakers over the Kenya highlands over the last millennium B.C. He further postulates that the interaction between these cushites and the highland Nilotes forms a continuing theme in Western highland history from the end of last century B.C down to as recent as perhaps four of five hundred years ago.

There argument is the basis of the well known Nilo-Cushitic theory. Not recognized in this equation of ethnic interaction is the role of Okiek (hunters) or that of Bantu.

The key to the understanding of the Kipsigis history is to be found not in Nilotic-cushitic interaction, where both Nilotes and cushites are intruders from the north, but in the interaction between the Okiek and the Bantu speakers. Both groups are left out of the history of western highlands except as raiders as conceived Ehret, Sutton and others.

The Okiek unfortunately, have not been studied to the same extent as the Bantu. We therefore encounter problems when we attempt to determine their history and what language they speak. It is in recognition of this fact that Blackburn observes, “until comparative linguistic studies of all Okiek groups are made, no conclusions can be made in view of the possible.” Tentative conclusion can be made in view of the role played by Okiek in the evolution of societies in East Africa. “One of the few facts agreed upon by all is the occupancy of the Kenyan highlands by Okiek prior to the present day Kalenjin and Maasai occupation of these areas,” writes Blackburn.

Although this has been the case, the Okiek have been miscalled “Dorobo,” and this has led to confusion about Okiek identity. Dorobo is a Maasai word which means a poor person, that is to say one without cattle. This has at times led some to deny the Okiek an ethnic identity by arguing that “Dorobo” is anyone who loses his cattle, becomes poor and takes to the forest to hunt.

Scroll to Continue

Available evidence however, suggests that the Okiek are an ethnic group which has been one of, if not the earliest known inhabitants of East Africa. It also suggests that they are mostly gatherers and hunters who inhibited the forested areas of East Africa. Representation of this group are today found scattered over various parts of Kenya, but probably the majority of them are to be found in Mau forest, in the proximity of Kipsigis country.

The scattered nature of human existence has been explained by J.W.Gregory in two ways: The first way is that discontinuous existence such as this is in biology suggestive of great age. This has led to the view that the Okiek and related people are survivors of a race that once occupied the whole African continent south of the Sahara. The second point is that people such as the Okiek may have arisen independently from the degeneration of other communities. This second view leads to the position referred to already of regarding Okiek as simply those who lost their property and took to hunting.

Blackburn then goes on to state that both the Kipsigis and Okiek recognize a feeling of commonality. He concludes from all this that they may both derive from the same parent stock. However, not all the Kipsigis derive from the Okiek stock.

Kipsigis country seems to have been occupied by Bantu speakers in the early centuries of the first millennium A.D. Hobley was probably the first person to imply that the area had been a Bantu settlement in the past. Before the arrival of the modern inhabitants, the whole of the Nandi and Kericho plateaus were occupied by Nyamwezi. The story of Nyamwezi is corroborated by one tradition connected with Kapchebokolwolek clan who claim descent from Sirikwa and who inhabited mainly Bureti and Sot (Sotik) areas in Kipsigis country.

Therefore in conclusion to the Kipsigis migration and settlement pattern the Kipsigis country lay in the region of early Bantu settlement. The whole lake basin and the region surrounding it experienced a back and forth movement which affected the events to the west and to the East of it. The Gusii, Kuria and other Bantu people who occupied the present Kipsigis country at some stage in the past were just an offshoot of this complicated movement.

The evidence also points to the conclusion that the Sirikwa were Bantu speaking people. Thus the Bantu speakers and the Nilotic Okiek were the two earliest ethnic groups to inhabit the country. It was largely the interaction between the two groups that produced the Kipsigis society. Other people, for example the Maasai were to join them at various periods as the society expanded.

Citation: Henry A. Mwanzi (1977). A History of the Kipsigis. General printers’ ltd. Nairobi, Kenya. (Page 22-35)

The Luo

A detailed study of Luo tradition indicates that the Kenya Luo came into their present homeland in four large groups. The first was Joka-Jok which came from Acholiland, the second, Jok’owiny which separated from the Alur, the third Jok’omolo, which broke away from the Padhola and finally, the heterogeneous group, known as the Luo-Abasuba of south Nyanza who consisted of refugees from Buganda, Busoga, the Sese islands and Tanzania.

According to Ogot, the Luo settlers arrived in central Nyanza between 1490 and 1600A.D. This claim is further substantiated by the sacred spear which was found by W. E. Owen in Alego in 1934. Owen estimated the spear was between 350 and 400 years old, which suggested that the Alego clan must have been founded between 1504 and 1584.

Further migration to south Nyanza by the Luo was estimated by Southhall to have taken place between 1730 and 1760. The new comers seem to have concentrated on the regions of the modern Gwasi, Gembe (changed from Kasgunga in 1962) and Kaksingri. The Luo were led to south Nyanza by the Jokea-chuanya group which hived off from the Luo division of Joka-Jok. More immigrants arrived from Uyoma and the Kanyamwa settlement became overcrowded.

The Luo settlement in South Nyanza was bounded on the south by Masai, on the East by Gusii, on the Kano plains and on the West by Suba-Kuria. From this time on the history of the settlement in South Nyanza became one of conflicts and wars among the Luo, Masai, Gusii, and suba-Kuria.

In the midst of these wars another heterogeneous group arrived from Buganda, Busoga, the Sese Islands and related mainland regions of present locations of Gembe, Kakisingri, and Gwasi. The group, which was not big enough to warrant a separate name, was referred to by the Luo as the Abasuba. Most of the Abasuba spoke either Luganda or Lusoga and could communicate in either language because they are related. When these groups adopted the Luo language and traditional values, they became known as the Luo-Abasuba.

Citation: Henrry.O. Ayot (1979). A history of the Luo-Abasuba of Western Kenya. Kenya Literature Bureau. Nairobi.

The Gusii

The Gusii who call themselves “Abagusii” are a small Bantu tribe who occupy the most south-west portion of the cool fertile Western section of the Kenya Highlands. Between them and Lake Victoria is the Nilotic Luo. To the East and South-East, they are bordered by the Kipsigis and the Maasai. To the south, though separated by a corridor of Luo, are the closely related “Tende,” who call themselves “Abakuria.”

The traditions of the Gusii people as stated by William Robert Ochieng indicate that in the distant past they were the same people as the Kuria, the Logoli, the Suba, the Bukusu (Kitosh), the Kikuyu, the Meru, the Embu, and the Kamba. They further state that on their way south, from a country which they identify as “Misiri,” they were together with the Ganda and the Soga. The Ganda and Soga are said to have branched off from the rest of the migrants around Mount Elgon, in a south-westerly direction.

The kikuyu, Meru, Embu, and Kamba are said to have travelled East into what is now the central Highlands of Kenya, while the Bukusu appear to have remained around Mount Elgon. The remaining cluster; the Gusii, Kuria, Suba, and Logoli are said to have migrated southwards and following the course of River Nzoia arrived on the Eastern shores of Lake Victoria, some fifteen to sixteen generations ago, presumably sometime around A.D 1560. Turning east they travelled along the lakeshore and eventually they erected their settlement around Goye in Yimbo location, and from Goye their homesteads appear to have stretched across present day Urima, Ulowa, Sare and Ramogi. It was in this general area that the first wave of Luo immigrants into west Kenya found them.

The Gusii themselves speak of Mogusii as the founder of their society and the person after whom their tribe was named. They also say that Mogusii’s father was called Osogo, son of Moluguhia, son of Kigoma, son of Ribiaka, who was son of Kintu. It was Kintu they say who led the migration from “Misiri” to Mount Elgon, and there they appear to have stayed for about three to four generations, before they finally dispersed.

Gusii traditions also indicate that Molughia, the grandfather of Mogusii, had a number of sons who founded the various Baluyia sub-tribes or clans, and that among his remembered sons were Osogo and Mogikoyo. Osogo’s descendants are said to have founded the Gusii, Kuria, Logoli and several suba tribes, while the descendants of Mogikoyo became the Kikuyu, the Meru, and the Embu tribes and according to a few elders the Kamba tribes as well.

Citation: William Robert Ochieng (1974). A Pre-colonial History of the Gusii of Western Kenya (A.D. 1500-1914.). East African Literature Bureau. Nairobi.

A part of the Gusii land

A part of the Gusii land

I am now going to discuss the significance of migration and settlement history of Kenyan communities in modern Kenya

TRADE: Due to migration and settlement in Kenya, trade has intensified over the years. This is because communities have been able to come together with a common goal of trade. The Gikuyu people are known for their trading personalities. They are the leading ethnic group in business in Kenya. Kikuyu people are found almost everywhere in Kenya. This is because of their trading power. Kikuyu people settled on the central region of Kenya. This has been the contributing factor behind their business success. The Kamba as well are known for their trade with Kikuyu. All this has helped the economy of Kenya to grow at a very high speed.

INTERMARRIAGE: As a result of migration and settlement, people in modern Kenya are able to marry from different communities. For example the Luo people are able to intermarry with the Meru people. This in turn has enabled national unity. National unity ensures the stability of Kenyan economy as people will be friendly to each other and therefore will work and live without much conflict. Conflicts arise as a result of misunderstanding between people. Intermarriage therefore ensures that there is a bond between people that hinder them from misunderstanding each other or in other words getting into conflicts with one another.

NATIONAL LANGUAGE: Before the colonial era, few people used to live in Kenya. One of them being the Kalejin people. Therefore there was no need for a common language. In the modern Kenya however, there needs to be a common language. This is because there are so many communities which speak different tongues therefore making it difficult for people to understand each other. As a result the Kenyan government decided that Kiswahili language is to be the national language. This enhances communication between people of different communities. Therefore the running of daily national activities like jobs and normal interaction is simplified.

UNDERSTANDING OF KENYAN COMMUNITIES: Many communities’ migration and settlement history is written in many Kenyan books. As a result the modern Kenyan student is able to learn different communities’ migration and settlement history. This enables the students to understand the different Kenyan communities better. Understanding of the Kenyan communities helps the students to live in unity with each.


One of the salient issues raised in this paper is the issue of migration and settlement in Kenyan communities. Though most of the Kenyan pre-colonial history lacks sources, in this, paper I have brought out some communities’ migration and settlement history. I have also been able to discuss some of the importance of this migration and settlement in modern Kenya. It is important to note that the history of migration and settlement of Kenyan communities is quite a thrilling one and deserves much appreciation.


Henry A. Mwanzi (1977). A History of the Kipsigis. General printers Ltd. Nairobi, Kenya.

Henry O. Ayot (1979). A History of the Luo-Abasuba of Western Kenya. Kenya Literature Bureau. Nairobi.

H. S. K. Mwaniki (1974). Embu Historical Texts. East African Literature Bureau. Kampala, Nairobi, Dar es Salam.

William Robert Ochieng (1974). A pre-colonial History of the Gusii of Western Kenya (A.D. 1500-1914). East African Literature Bureau. Nairobi.


dancan on November 01, 2017:

the gusii

Related Articles