The number of tribes in Africa exceed 3,000. To understand the various cultures of Africa it’s easy to focus on the largest tribes and overlook the smallest tribes in Africa.
There are many tribes in Africa that are very small, but no less diverse in their culture than the larger ones. Here are 10 of the smallest tribes by population in Africa. This list is not exhaustive. It is simply a sample of the smallest tribes in Africa.
10. The Dogon Tribe
The Dogon Tribe consist of an estimated four to eight hundred thousand people, living in Mali and in Burkina Faso, thus being among the smallest tribes in Africa.
The origins of the Dogon are taken from their oral traditions. It says they came from Mande which is located South West of Bandiagara in Mali. Archaeological studies of the area seem to confirm this origin story. The Dogon migrated to escape from Islamization between the 11th and 15th century. The Dogon speak the Dogon Languages which are independent languages of the Niger-Congo family. The Dogon also have their own religion which they follow to this very day and live in small villages, as they did in times past. Their refusal to adopt Islam made them dar al-harb (lit. territory of war) according to Islamic law, making them legitimate targets for enslavement by Muslim neighbouring states.
An astronomical chart of the Dogon Tribe
The Karamojong Tribe consist of around three hundred and seventy thousand people, living in North Eastern Uganda. According to studies, the Karamojong are a group of people that migrated to Uganda from present day Ethiopia around 1600 AD. They speak their own language which is known as the Karamojong language.
They are a pastoral tribe and their main occupation is still herding livestock with crop cultivation being another occupation taken up in areas not conducive to the herding of livestock. They are a dwindling tribe.
One of the occupational hazards of their occupation is protecting their property – cattle – from cattle raiders. It is therefore common for the Karamojong to carry guns. Until 2014 in Uganda, the military provided law enforcement in areas dominated by pastoralists, as the police were not sufficiently trained to deal with the Karamojong. It took decades to reach that point of sufficiently disarming pastoralists, so that police could take over law enforcement.
The second challenge of reliance on herding is that children from the Karamojong have lower levels of education and school attendance. A survey by the Ugandan government in 2011 found that 45% of young males had no education at all; for females it was 54%. Children in charge of cattle are often too busy to attend school classes. Lower educational attainment often has its own consequences such as lower lifetime wealth, lower lifetime income, lower protection from climate change, and struggling to influence the political, social and economic life of the country. Families who want their children to attend school tend to give up herding and take up farming. The downside of farming is a larger exposure to the risk of periods of drought.
The Karamojong have the biggest traditional settlement in East Africa. It’s a mega village called Nakipelemoru.
8. San Tribe
The San tribe have a population of around 105,000 people and are spread out in Southern Africa. The San tribe can be found in Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. They are one of the smallest tribes in Africa.
The San are also one of the oldest tribes in the world, with a unique hunter-gatherer culture that lives on till now. Due to their history, they are the most genetically distinct tribe in all of Africa. The San have traditionally been an egalitarian society and have a unique kinship system.
It is believed that the San may be responsible for creating the oldest piece of art in the world and the first known use of paint at Blombos Cave, which is an archaeological site found east of Cape Town. The oldest maternal line of DNA of Homo Sapiens was also found in the San from genetic research, indicating their roots go back 200,000 years.
The Kgalagadi tribe have a population of around 65,000 people and can be found in Botswana. The history of the Kgalagadi is drawn entirely from the oral traditions of the tribe. The different clans of the Kgalagadi have different histories, but they all seem to agree with each other. They trace their origins to Ngwato county.
Their primary language is Kgalagadi, which is called Shekgalagari in their own language. The Kgalagadi language is an endangered language and has around 40,000 speakers.
The Himba are an indigenous tribe that have a population of around 50,000 and are among the smallest tribes in Africa. They are found in Northern Namibia in the Kunene region and on the other side of the Kunene river in Angola. They are an indigenous tribe that have lived in Namibia for over 500 years now. They are predominantly livestock farmers. They are a small tribe, but they still maintain their cultural practices and operate under a structure that is known as bilateral descent. Under bilateral descent, every tribe member belongs to two clans: one through the father and one through the mother, also known as oruzo and eanda. Sons live with their father’s clan but inherit from their mother’s clan. The Himba speak Otjihimba, which is a Bantu language.
A Himba settlement.
The Ik tribe have a population of around 10,000. They live in North East Uganda. The Ik tribe are one of the first settlers in the Karamoja region in Uganda, having migrated there from Ethiopia via Kenya thousands of years ago. They speak their own language, which is the Ik language (a member of Nilo-Saharan languages). The tribe lives in several small villages, and is among the weakest tribes in Africa. The Ik tribe is now transitioning from their traditional subsistence farming lifestyle to a more Westernized way of life.
The Mursi tribe are a Surmic group that number around 7,500 and are found mostly in Ethiopia and South Sudan. They are among the smallest tribes in Africa. They were a cattle herding people who migrated into the Ethiopian highlands. Since then, they have undergone a series of migrations due to the Omo basin drying out. They speak the Mursi language and have two different orthographies for writing it. They also have their own religion which is a form of Animism.
The Vonoma live in Uganda and are the smallest tribe there. They are one of the smallest tribes in Africa with a population of 2,613. They are an indigenous tribe that are at danger of becoming extinct. They speak their own language and have their own tribal customs that they hold on to this day.
The Kara have a population of around 2,500 and live in Ethiopia. They are one of smallest tribes in Africa. They speak their own language which is known as the Karo language. The Kara and Hamer tribes have a common history, having once been united as a single tribe before they separated as they migrated in a search for better lands and pasture. The relations between the two tribes are cordial to this day. They subsist on agriculture and fishing, having their own unique way of fishing using a pointed stick.
1. El Molo
The El Molo are the smallest tribe in Kenya and consist of only 200 tribespeople living on the shores of Lake Turkana. They migrated from Ethiopia around 1000 BC, so over 3000 years ago. Coming to the lake, they abandoned their agricultural practices in favour of fishing. They speak their own language which is known as the El Molo language. They also follow their own tribal religion.
Language Diffusion and survival
Languages are a keystone of any culture, but in today’s world, many of the languages we have today are undergoing a major shift, with some becoming more popular as a result, while others are moving towards extinction. This shift is known as a language shift.
Some languages become lingua francas as a result of this shift. Such languages tend to serve as a bridge between two or more civilizations that speak the same language. French has become a Lingua Franca in parts of Africa due to the colonization of Africa by the French, thereby spreading the language and diffusing it among the local population. Similarly, in today’s world, English has emerged as a Lingua Franca.
As the dominant languages spread due to this process, those languages spoken by the small tribes or minority languages start to retreat. This process is basically the diffusion of language and is called language diffusion for this reason. The reasons for this are manifold. With a more global world, there emerges the need of a common language for people from different civilizations. This helps in trade, and in the use of modern technologies and in modern research.
Sadly, this also leads to local languages being spoken less and less, and eventually going extinct. As the occupations that these cultures practice become less and less feasible, the languages themselves die out. As many of these cultures are agricultural or pastoral, climate change also leads to these languages dying out when the next generation abandon either farming or herding for urban life.
The smallest tribes in Africa may not be the greatest in terms of their numbers, but they hold a culture that has been passed down for generations and languages that should not be allowed to die out. These tribes may be small, but they are rich culturally and genetically. In the case of the San, in them we have been able to trace back the genetic history of mankind.