Our Daily Bread: The Traditional Livelihood of Kenya's Communities

A glimpse into the sources of sustenance for Kenya's traditional communities...

Lake TurkanaNational Museums of Kenya

The livelihood of Kenya's communities

With 44 unique ethnic communities living within its borders, Kenya is blessed with a rich and vibrant cultural heritage. Understanding the livelihood of those communities, both in the past and today, gives a glimpse into Kenya's fascinating history and culture.

The Maasai by Francis NjoguNational Museums of Kenya

Environmental influences on livelihood choices

The main means of livelihood among traditional Kenyan communities included hunting, farming, nomadic pastoralism, fishing and trade – but these differed between communities, depending on their environment and socio-cultural preferences.

Maasai MoransNational Museums of Kenya

Hunting for food and glory

In the past, hunting and gathering of wild animals and wild fruits was an important aspect of life – not only as a means of securing food resources, but also a social event. While hunting was mainly a man's job, women were the main gatherers.

Bushman hunting by E. M. KuriaNational Museums of Kenya

The evolution of weapons

Hunting provided the main source of animal protein, and professional hunters occupied a highly respected position in their societies.

Bird arrowNational Museums of Kenya

Ogiek bird arrow: training to become a hunter

Arrows like these were used by boys to practice and test their skills in preparation to become hunters. They would kill birds of small sizes, and the blood of the bird would be smeared on the arrow as evidence of a kill.

Maasai Warrior Headdress by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Brave hunters

This Maasai man is in a lion-mane headdress, symbolizing his bravery. Only a man who had hunted down a lion was allowed to wear this headdress.

Fish lined hookNational Museums of Kenya

Hunting weapons and tools

The early hunter gatherers used simple tools, such as sharpened stones for cutting, before developing the hand-axes and, later, more specialized hunting tools including fishhooks, bows and arrows, and harpoons, as well as domestic tools like bone and ivory needles.

Basket TrapNational Museums of Kenya

Fishing trap used by the marine communities

Traditionally, communities who lived along the coast, lakes & rivers used traps to catch fish. This hexagonal fish trap was made of bamboo interwoven with reeds. The trap would be set at night, using bait to lure fish – mostly tilapia – into the trap. Once they entered they would not be able to escape. The trap was weighted with stones to keep it from floating.

Boni Beekeeper by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya


This Ogiek man is carrying honey harvesting equipment. Some communities like the Ogiek had complex traditions surrounding beekeeping and the preservation of ecosystems where bees thrive.

Albizia gumifera by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The Ogiek have preserved the forests around the Mau region for decades and actively protect certain trees, which are known to be a source of nectar for bees.

TrapNational Museums of Kenya

Small-scale farming

Farming societies practiced subsistence farming, a form of farming in which nearly all of the crops or livestock raised are used to maintain the farmer and the farmer’s family, leaving little, if any, surplus for sale or trade.

HoeNational Museums of Kenya

Farming tools

Kenya has a rich variety of agricultural tools, including finger knives, sickles, hoes and axes, which were used in bush clearing, planting, weeding or harvesting. Some farmers still use traditional tools, and have them made and repaired by village blacksmiths.

Kamba Metal Working by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya


Some communities like the Kamba, Konso and Ilkunono (among the Maasai) had blacksmiths whose area of expertise was forging and molding metal into the required shapes for use as tools, weapons or ornaments.

Depicted are Kamba blacksmiths using goat-skin bellows to light a fire for working metal.

Pounding maize by Samuel Githuku NjengaNational Museums of Kenya

Post-harvest processing of food

This is a lively scene depicting women processing grain for storage after a bountiful harvest. Most of what was produced in the homestead was consumed at home, and the surplus was stored for later consumption.

HerdingNational Museums of Kenya

Livestock production

Pastoralists produced food in the country’s harshest environments, which in total comprise the largest area of the country. Pastoral communities were dependent on the milk, blood and meat of their herd, and had trade relations with agriculturalists (cultivators) to supplement their diet.

By Hank WalkerLIFE Photo Collection

Most of the material culture of nomadic pastoralists was light in weight to enable easy transportation during migrations.

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curators: Immelda Kithuka, Archivist.imuoti@museums.or.ke and Mercy Gakii,Cultural Expert, Cultural Heritage Department.

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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