There are two official languages in Kenya: English and Swahili (Kiswahili).
Many different languages are spoken across the country as each population has its own dialect. The most common are Kikuyu, Dholuo and Kamba. Sheng, a Swahili-based slang mixed with English is widely spoken in Nairobi.
The majority of Kenyans are Bantu (among them, the Kikuyu, Kamba, Luhya). Then come the populations of Nilotic origin (Maasai, Kalenjin, Luo, Samburu, Turkana) and Cushitic (Rendille, Somali). Minorities include Indians, Europeans and Arabs, to complete the picture. The largest ethnic group is the Kikuyu, who account for around 20.7% of the population, Luhya make up 14.3%, Luo at 12.3%, while the Maasai represent only 1.7% of the whole. Religion Around 75% of Kenyans belong to Christian churches; 10% are Muslim and the remainder are split between Animist and Hindu.
On the following days, banks, government offices and shops are closed:
- January 1: New Year's Day.
- In late March and early April: Easter.
- May 1: Labour Day.
- June 1: Madaraka Day (commemoration of autonomy).
- October 10: Moi Day.
- October 20: Kenyatta Day.
- December 12: Jamhuri Day (Independence Day).
- December 25: Christmas.
- December 26: Boxing Day.
Every ethnic group has its own calendar and festivals.
Swahili culture, which took shape in the early centuries AD, is the fruit of commerce by Bantu people from the east coast of Africa and Arab traders – Mombasa and Lamu were founded in the framework of exchanges. At the end of the fifteenth century, in a climate of crusades, the Portuguese landed and took control of the traffic of gold. They re-embarked a century later driven by Arab revolts. Omanis then exerted a religious and commercial guardianship over Kenya; they developed the slave trade from Zanzibar and countries along the coast. In the nineteenth century, Europe unfolded again and English control stifled German ambitions in the region.
In 1890, the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty defined two zones of respective influence in eastern Africa. In 1895, the British East Africa was established and spread across most of present-day Kenya. Colonists settled on the land and the native African people were kept out of the business management. Under British pressure, trafficking was abolished in 1873; traditional leaders were maintained, subject to the authority of the imperial administrators. The Protectorate of Kenya (which also included the future Uganda) became a colony in 1920. An encroachment of European settlers and a global economic crisis resulted in the degradation and exploitation of indigenous people. Kenya was nevertheless a key ally during World War II. But in 1952, the Mau Mau movement, originating from the Kikuyu people of Kenya, began an uprising against English colonists, which ultimately resulted in thousands of deaths and their defeat. Jomo Kenyatta was imprisoned for complicity with the Mau Mau. The British attempted to calm the situation by promoting the integration of Africans in the political administration of the colony. Parties multiplied and the pressure for independence mounted. The Kenya African National Union (KANU), with Jomo Kenyatta as its head, replaced the Kenya African Union in 1960.
The following year, the British gave way and formal independence was declared in 1964. KANU’s Jomo Kenyatta formed the first government and became Prime Minister. After his death in 1978, Daniel Arap Moi took his place and, in 1982, the one-party rule was established. This lasted until 1991. KANU remained as ruler until 2002. Kibaki was inaugurated as Kenya’s third president on 30 December 2002. In December 2007, the disputed re-election of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki put the country on the brink of civil war.
Kenya is an independent republic within the British Commonwealth. The 1963 Constitution (revised in 2001) established a presidential regime. The President, elected for five years by universal suffrage, chooses a vice president and appoints members of the government. These are members of the National Assembly (a room of 210 deputies), which holds legislative power. The country is divided into eight provinces, each managed by an advisory board whose members are appointed by the President of the Republic. Each province is divided into forty districts with local boards. Broad autonomy is granted to local authorities, who raise their own taxes to provide health spending, equipment or teaching. The Nairobi region has special status.
- Jomo Kenyatta (1938-1978). Born Kamau wa Ngengi, Kenyatta was a politician and anti-colonial activist who is often labelled as the ‘father of the nation’. At the forefront of Kenya’s struggle for independence, he was the secretary general of KANU. After the British withdrawal, Kenyatta lead the country in a way that was realistic and attentive to national unity.
- Karen Blixen (1885-1962). A Danish author who celebrated the beauty and harshness of the Kenyan plateaus in her work. Blixen’s most famous book, Out of Africa, was adapted to film.
- George Adamson (1906-1989) and his wife Joy (1910-1980), born Friederike Victoria Gessner. Kenyan naturalists, conservationists and writers who devoted their lives to animals and their protection. Their book, Born Free, tells the story of Elsa the lioness, an orphaned cub they adopted and later released. It was a best-seller known around the world and was later turned into a film.
- Ngugi wa Thiongo (born 1938). An award-winning writer whose political work resulted in his imprisonment and exile.
When visiting Lamu, the majority of the population are Muslim and tourists are encouraged to adopt a more modest dress code. When meeting the Maasai people, it’s best to wait until your guides have obtained permission before taking photos. When it is granted, be discrete in your photo taking. In Kenya, tipping is generally expected and many workers rely on the additional income tips provide. Currency is the Kenyan shilling and it’s best to tip with this – £1 is roughly 132 shillings. A service charge is never usually included in a bill, except occasionally at a restaurant. The general rule is to add on 10% of the invoice amount. Staff at hotels will appreciate a gesture on your part if their service has been good. A guide will expect between 600 and 1000 shillings per day per person and it is customary to give a tip at the end of a safari. If you’re eating in someone’s home, always use your right hand and it’s polite to leave a small amount of food on your plate at the end of a meal to indicate your satisfaction. Greetings are important to Kenyans – it’s customary to swap pleasantries before launching into your reason of business.
Handicrafts in Kenya vary from region to region, but their universal beauty is a common element. Materials used to craft objects include metal, leather, braided or woven fabrics and wood. The production of basketry is popular (baskets, bags, baskets) as well as gorgeous printed fabrics. Artisans use soapstone to shape objects and statues. Many semi-precious stones are also found in Kenya, including green malachite, hematite, tiger’s eye and rose quartz. Gold and silver are used to craft intricate jewellery.
Kenyan food is simple and each tribe has its own specialities. Ugali is hugely popular and is a cooked starchy paste made from flour and water. Grilled meats of goat and sheep are also favourites on the national menu. International cuisine is available in many hotels and lodges, where you can also enjoy good quality meat, vegetables and fruit. Kenyan cooking on the coast is some of the best in the country, where various Africa, Indian and Arab influences have infused dishes with various spices. Fish and shellfish are also distinguished here.
We recommend that you avoid drinking tap water during your stay in Kenya and to be cautious when consuming ice and washed fruits and vegetables. Soft drinks and fruit juices are available everywhere. Tea and coffee with milk and sugar is in plentiful supply. Beer is very popular and sold in bottles of 50cl – Tusker, Pilsner, White Cap and Castle are the most common. Kenya produces wine in Lake Naivasha.