by Laura C. Rudolph
Located in East Africa near the equator, the Republic of Kenya measures 224,960 square miles (582,650 square kilometers). It is bordered to the north by Ethiopia and Sudan, the Indian Ocean to the east, Somalia to the northeast, Tanzania to the south, and Uganda to the west. The capital is Nairobi is Kenya's largest city, with close to 2 million people.
Kenya has a total population of just under 29 million people and represents a mixture of over 40 indigenous ethnic groups. The groups fall into one of four categories that comprise over 98 percent of the entire population: the Bantu, Nilotic, Nilo-Hamitic, and Hamitic peoples. The Bantu peoples are comprised of the Kikuyu (22 percent), Luhya (14 percent), and Kisii (6 percent); the Nilotics include the Luo (13 percent) and the Kalenjin (12 percent); the Nilo-Hamitics include the Masai, Samburu, Kipsigis, and Nandi; and the Hamitics include the Tugen and Elgeyo. Asians, Arabs, and Europeans compose the remaining 2 percent of the population.
The majority of Kenyans are Christians, including Protestants (38 percent) and Roman Catholics (28 percent), while others practice indigenous beliefs (26 percent). Other religious denominations include Muslim (6 percent), and smaller numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, and Bahais. The country's official languages are Kiswahili and English. Kenya's national flag consists of three horizontal bands of black, green, and red, and contains a shield with crossed spears in the center.
The history of Kenya may be that of humankind. Toward the end of the twentieth century, excavated bones and artifacts convinced many archaeologists and scientists that human evolution began in Kenya. Throughout the first few centuries A.D. , Kenya was the destination of numerous migrating tribes, such as the Luo and the Bantu peoples. The tribes spread across the country and established themselves in various areas. The Kalenjin settled around the western part of what became Kenya, while the Kikuyu covered the fertile ground of the Highlands and the Rift Valley. Each group was a self-contained community with its own language, customs, and beliefs.
During years of drought or other natural disasters, tensions increased between tribes as they vied for fertile ground. The Bantus, particularly the Kikuyu, established a stronghold in Kenya's interior around Mount Kenya, largely as a result of their sophisticated tools and weapons. The Kikuyu prospered and established a rich agricultural economy, developing a sound economic and political infrastructure. However, in the nineteenth century, the Masai peoples, famous for their hunting and fighting skills, challenged the Bantu domination and eventually exerted a great influence on customs and styles before severe droughts and disease ended their reign.
Arabs settled on the Kenyan coast as early as the tenth century, and the Portuguese contested for the coast during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Arabs regained control during the eighteenth century, and by the early-to-mid nineteenth centuries, Sayyid Said of Oman loosely controlled the coast. By this time, Africa's largely untapped wealth attracted scores of Europeans, and in 1885 Africa was partitioned into several sectors controlled by various European nations.
Great Britain received control of Kenya and Uganda, and the British Empire lost little time in issuing a commercial license in 1888 to The Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA). The IBEA, headed by Sir William MacKinnon, attempted to establish trading centers and a unified control across the regions. However, the British government was not altogether satisfied with their efforts and formally established Kenya as a British protectorate in 1895 and a crown colony in 1920.
British rule was not kind to native Kenyans. Although they quickly built a railroad that promoted economic development by linking the regions together, the rights of Africans were restricted, while white settlement was encouraged. The Africans were overtaxed, undereducated, and lacked political representation. In addition, they were not allowed to grow certain exportable crops, and could not settle in the Highlands and the Rift Valley, regarded as the richest farmland in the country. In many instances, tribal peoples were forced to relocate to designated areas in Kenya.
During World War I, a large number of Kenyan soldiers were recruited to fight for the British. Following the war, many Africans, particularly the Kikuyus, who had lost much of their land, began organizing to lobby for reform. One such group, the East African Association (EAA), encouraged protests and demonstrations. Although the EAA dissolved shortly thereafter, the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) quickly took its place and continued the fight against white supremacy. The KCA lobbied for political representation, lower taxes, and the right to inhabit restricted lands. Although the organization enjoyed some success, it was unable to achieve its goals before it was banned in 1940, shortly after World War II began. However, the KCA helped pave the way for future organizations, which would ultimately achieve independence for Kenya.
World War II provided the impetus Kenya needed to achieve independence. Many Kenyans fought in the war and they learned both organizational and military skills. In 1944, the Kenyan African Union (largely comprised of Kikuyus) was formed to continue the fight against white supremacy. In 1947, Jomo Kenyatta was elected the president of the KAU. Although most members were Kikuyus, they encouraged all ethnic groups to join together to achieve independence.
Other Africans, frustrated with the slow response to their demands, turned to more violent means. The Mau Mau uprising of 1952-56 was characterized with numerous acts of violence and terrorism against the colonial government and settlers. Brutally suppressed, the uprising left thousands of Africans dead, while only a handful of British were killed.
However, the uprising was not wholly unsuccessful. In response to changes occurring throughout European-dominated countries across Africa, the colonial government was ready to capitulate in Kenya. Africans were allowed representation in the government, and they continued to lobby to gain autonomy. In 1960 they formed the Kenya African National Union (KANU). However, political infighting between the dominant Kikuyus and other groups led to the formation of a rival party, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU).
In 1962, the two parties laid aside their differences and united to form a coalition government. Jomo Kenyatta was elected the first prime minister. Kenya was officially declared independent on December 12, 1963, and became a republic in 1964. Shortly thereafter the KADU dissolved, and Kenya was ruled chiefly by the KANU until 1966 when the Kenya People's Union (KPU) was formed.
From the start, the KPU was at odds with the KANU and did not gain much support beyond the Luo peoples. The group was ordered to disband after an important member of government personnel was assassinated, a crime that was attributed to the KPU. The Kenyan government, largely under Kikuyu control, turned its attention to ongoing social and economic problems. In an effort to boost their flagging economy, they welcomed foreign investors, and Kenya rapidly became the most prosperous country in East Africa.
Although Kenya was fearful that its political stability would be shaken by the death of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, Daniel arap Moi succeeded without challenge. In 1982 the Royal Air Force staged a coup attempt, but Moi remained in office. In 1991, largely at the urging of foreign investors, Moi pledged to further address social and economic problems and encouraged the formation of a multi-party system, which prevailed through the end of the twentieth century.
Kenyans have a recorded presence on American soil for over 300 years. The earliest Kenyans were not voluntary immigrants, but were victims of the American slave trade that was not outlawed until 1808. Partly as a result, voluntary migration remained negligible until the last decades of the twentieth century. Between 1980 and 1990, Kenyan immigration more than doubled.
Several factors contributed to increased Kenyan immigration to the United States. Many Kenyans were already exposed to different facets of American culture because of the close relationship between Kenya and the United States. American cuisine and entertainment had become commonplace in Kenya. Exposure to American culture encouraged Kenyans to take advantage of numerous economic and educational opportunities available in the United States.
Kenya's depressed economy and high unemployment rate (over 35 percent), coupled with the importance the country places on education, resulted in more qualified and educated workers than available skilled positions. Toward the end of the twentieth century, Kenyan immigrants were particularly attracted to technology-oriented careers in the United States, an occupation virtually impossible to pursue in Kenya where over 75 percent of the jobs are agricultural-based.
The main areas of Kenyan settlement in the United States include Washington, D.C., where 50 percent of Kenyan Americans can be found, Texas, California, and parts of the Midwest. A number of Kenyans also settled in Georgia and North Carolina, two states with important technological centers.
For the most part, Kenyan Americans have enjoyed a fairly smooth assimilation process. Many Kenyan immigrants are well educated and possess specialized job skills. They have little trouble finding employment in the technological and health care professions, where they are most numerous. In addition, Kenyan immigrants enjoy a linguistic advantage over other immigrants because English is widely spoken in Kenya. Within a short amount of time, many Kenyan Americans achieve a relative degree of financial security.
Although Kenyans enjoy a smooth transition, their assimilation has not been completely free of difficulties. Unfortunately, Kenyan Americans are sometimes subject to the same prejudice that other African Americans often face. Although blatant discrimination is socially frowned upon, a covert bias is frequently directed toward those of African heritage. Kenyan immigrants often expressed disappointment in this aspect of their assimilation into the larger American society.
The vast majority of Kenyans do become naturalized citizens; less than two percent return to Kenya. The strict immigration quota creates obstacles for many of the immigrants desiring to become citizens and the process can be long and difficult. A small number of Kenyans become U.S. citizens through marriage to Americans. Although many Kenyan Americans would eventually like to return to Kenya after they have completed their education or achieved financial goals, the instability of Kenya's economy deters them. They do maintain contact with their Kenyan relatives and make frequent trips to Kenya.
Kenyans have a variety of traditions, most of which are connected to indigenous religious beliefs and thus vary from group to group. Many customs and beliefs originate from an agricultural lifestyle and contain special prayers, dances, and rituals to encourage different natural events. During droughts, for instance, the Masai strip the bark off of tree, bury a skin around the root of the tree, and pour water over it while placing charms and praying for rain.
Other traditions stem from hunting and warring practices, where prayers and rituals would be performed before and after the hunt or raid. The Masai sacrifice a sheep before a raid. Reverence of various animals plays a role in other customs. The Suk revere snakes and if a snake were to enter a hut, the animal could not be killed but was to be fed milk. Traditions also centered around life events, particularly the initiation of a child into adulthood or the birth of a baby.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, traditional Kenyan customs and beliefs were gradually fading despite attempts to preserve them. Many agricultural and hunting traditions were not easily transferable to the United States and disappeared as Kenyans immigrated. Although Kenyan Americans maintain a close connection to their cultural heritage, they have abandoned many of the older customs that are no longer relevant to their life in the United States.
Many proverbs from Kenyan culture have survived through the generations. They include: Even when the shield covering wears out the frame survives; When a drum has a drumhead, one does not beat the wooden sides; When a scorpion stings without mercy, you kill it without mercy; A man does not rub backs with porcupines; Rooster, do not be so proud. Others are: Your mother was only an eggshell; The canoe must be paddled on both sides.
Traditional Kenyan cuisine reflects the agricultural products of the region. Kenyan recipes are generally inexpensive and nourishing, relying heavily on potatoes, rice, and maize. Maize is found in a variety of recipes, especially a porridge called ugali, which is cooked with meat (chicken, goat, or beef) or greens and is eaten nearly every day. Other dishes include: karanga, a stew cooked with goatmeat, carrots, onions and potatoes; pillau, a spiced rice dish that sometimes includes meat; sukima wiki, a fried dish with chopped spinach, onions, tomatoes or other vegetables; kienyeji, a dish with mashed corn, beans, potatoes, and greens; and michicha, which contains spinach, onions, and tomatoes.
Fruits are an important part of the Kenyan diet. People commonly eat bananas, mangos, pineapples, and avocados. Snacks include roasted maize; samosa (fried mincemeat and vegetables); kitumbuo (fried rice bread); and mandaazi (fried dough cakes). Like most regions of the world, Kenyans also eat at international and fast food restaurants.
Ngoma, the traditional form of Kenyan music, is generally used to describe both music and dance centered around the drum. Many Kenyan dances and songs serve specific purposes and have a variety of themes such as agricultural (for example, harvest, rain, or fire), mourning, jubilation, fertility, war, and peace. Most of the dances include stamps, hops, squats, slides, and hip swivels, reflecting the occasion for which it is intended. For instance, the battle dance of the Samburu contains fierce jumping motions, which simulate actions of a raid. There are numerous traditional Kenyan instruments, including the drum; bow harp; lute; lyre; instruments made from animals' horns; wood trumpet; flute; rattle; bell; gong; and the pit xylophone. Some songs are sung in unison, while others are call-and-response, in which one person shouts a line and the others respond.
The traditional clothing of Kenyans varies from region to region. Although the clothing of each ethnic group can appear similar, they are actually unique representations. For example, the traditional clothing of the Masai men, who were known for their fierce warrior status, includes headdresses of lion's mane and ostrich feathers. In addition, their faces are painted with white and red paint.
The Suk men wear elaborate shoulder-length chignons, jewelry from animals' horns, capes made of skins, lip plugs, and pierced nose discs. Turkana women shave their hair at the sides and twist the top into strands, and wear oval-shaped plate earrings. Their shoulders are covered with disc-shaped ornamentation chipped from ostrich eggs. Married Turkana women also wear an apron decorated with beads, which is held with a beaded belt.
During special events, particularly those related to the life cycle, clothing serves a special purpose. When girls and boys undergo initiation via
Kenyan Americans celebrate Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas Day along with American holidays such as New Year's Day, Labor Day, and other secular holidays. Specific Kenyan holidays include the anniversary of the country's independence (December 12) and Kenyatta Day (October 20), which honors Kenya's first prime minister, Jomo Kenyatta. The small number of Kenyan immigrants in the United States prohibits lavish celebrations in honor of these events, but Kenyan-American organizations sometimes hold a special event in honor of these holidays.
Despite recent efforts to address health issues, Kenyans have a fairly low life expectancy (47 years for males and 48 years for females) and a high percentage of infant deaths (59.38 per 1,000 births). Poor living conditions increase the risk of disease and several diseases are particularly troublesome to Kenyans: poliomyelitis, schistosomiasis, intestinal parasites, malaria, respiratory ailments, and, increasingly, HIV infection. Most Kenyan Americans conform to the rules established for immigrants and are in good health when they enter the United States. Like most Americans, Kenyan Americans are able to take advantage of the medical insurance offered as a benefit of employment.
Most Kenyans are multilingual and speak at least three languages. Kiswahili and English are the official languages of Kenya. Each indigenous group has a fully developed language of their own. Kiswahili, a Bantu language that gradually incorporated Arabic words over the centuries, serves as a common language for the various regions in Kenya. Although everyday activities are conducted in Kiswahili, government and court business continue to use the English language. Other ethnic languages include Luo, Kikuyu, Kamba, Luyia, Gusii, and Kalenjin, which are usually spoken at home. In addition, English words have become incorporated into Kiswahili, which has led to a hybrid language composed of Kiswahili and English called Sheng. Since most Kenyans speak English, Kenyan immigrants generally do not face linguistic obstacles, and are comfortable switching to English as their principal language.
Common Swahili greetings and other expressions include: Jambo —hello; si jambo —no problems; habari —how are you doing?; nzuri —fine; karibu —welcome; kwaheri —goodbye; asante —thank you; tutaonana —see you; ndiyo —yes; hapana —no; jina langu —my name is; zuri —good; baya —bad; si mbaya —not bad; sawa —ok; kabisa —perfect; samahani —sorry; hebu —excuse me; inshallah —if God wills it; and tafadhali —please.
Kenyans place a high value on family relationships and the importance of kinship. Close attention is paid to the maintenance of ancestry and lineage, particularly along the paternal lines. The individual is considered less important than his or her community, which centers around the extended family. Households normally contain at least one extended family member. Often several generations are present. Children sometimes refer to their cousins as "brother" or "sister," and call their aunts and uncles "mother" and "father." Grandparents and great-grandparents are revered for their wisdom.
Because of the emphasis placed on the survival of lineage, marriage is a sacred duty. Men are often allowed to marry more than one woman in order to ensure the continuance of the patriarchal line. Women are expected to raise large families. Women who do not have many children often face public derision. Large families are rewarded in many instances, both financially and through the elevation of their status. Kenyan homes are traditionally conservative and strictly patriarchal. Husbands work outside the home while the women are expected to stay within the boundaries of the household.
As a result of strict immigration laws, many Kenyans initially immigrate alone and are separated from their families for a long period of time. Kenyans often have a difficult time adjusting to American values, which they perceive as antithetical to their own, especially individualism, competitiveness, and materialism. Most Kenyan immigrants are accustomed to a closely-knit community surrounded by many family members, and they sometimes feel isolated when they first arrive.
One of the greatest concerns of Kenyan immigrants is their inability to foster a sense of Kenyan identity in their children, who are born and raised in the United States. The gap between immigrants and their children often fosters tensions as the children have a more difficult time understanding the importance of ancestry and lineage. While Kenyans usually marry within their own ethnic group, the children of Kenyan immigrants are much more likely to marry outside of it. Many Kenyan American parents are involved in Kenyan American organizations that sponsor events to help expose their children to Kenyan culture.
Through the end of the twentieth century, Kenyan households maintained rigid rules concerning women's roles within the patriarchal household. Wives and daughters were expected to stay strictly within the domestic sphere, except for designated agricultural tasks. The importance of these responsibilities is attested by the custom of paying bride-price, which compensated the parents for the loss of their daughters.
From the moment they were considered ready for betrothal, women were under an enormous amount of societal pressure to marry. Married women were under the protection of their husbands and forced to obtain permission from them to open a bank account or acquire a driver's license.
Families were always traced from the father's line and all children from a marriage "belonged" to the father. The frequent pregnancies of Kenyan women further reduced their opportunities to break out of traditional domestic-related roles. Contraception remained difficult to obtain and was regarded with suspicion by communities. During the last two decades of the twentieth century, the emerging women's movement began lobbying for changes in educational, health, and other matters.
Kenyan American women are appreciative of the opportunities they find in the United States. Unlike their native-born country, immigrants are able to obtain contraception, driver's licenses, and bank accounts without permission from their husbands. Since Kenyan women are usually well educated, they do not have difficulties finding employment and enjoy the freedom of pursuing a career outside the home.
Since much emphasis is placed on family relationships, Kenyan marriages are taken very seriously and must be met with approval by both families. After it has been granted, there is an engagement period, before the marriage ceremony takes place. The vast majority of Kenyans are Christians and their weddings usually conform to the dictates of their religion.
There are also traditional indigenous customs that vary from group to group. For instance, the Kikuyu men choose their wives after carefully examining their personalities, integrity, and sociability. However, it is not customary for women to accept a marriage offer immediately, but to hesitate and refer the question to her father.
After she does accept, the bridegroom presents his bride with gifts, which are termed bridewealth. In addition to more practical items such as cattle or livestock, the gifts sometimes include a mukwar (leather strap), neguo ya maribe (woman's dress made out of skins and beads, presented to the mother of the bride), a ruhiu (sword), and an itimu ria nduthu (a man's coat made out of skins, presented to the father of the bride). Other indigenous groups practice similar marriage customs, which are sometimes performed in addition to the Christian ceremonies.
An important life cycle event that takes place in Kenyan culture concerns the initiation of boys and girls into adulthood. This event is traditionally marked with male circumcision and female clitoridectomy rituals. Although male circumcision is regularly practiced fairly among many different groups, the practice of female circumcision (clitoridectomy) is less common. These initiations are an important event for those involved as well as the entire community. Although the customs vary from tribe to tribe, circumcision usually occurs between the twelfth and sixteenth birthday of a boy or girl.
Before undergoing the ceremony, the initiates spend up to a year in preparation, undergoing a series of rituals. For instance, Nandi boys are circumcised around their thirteenth birthday. Their preparation includes learning their groups' folklore, shaving their heads, passing courage tests, and wearing certain garments. After the event, they are placed in seclusion and not allowed to eat with their hands for the first week. After undergoing another series of rituals, they take an oath of secrecy about what they have learned. They are then considered part of Nandi manhood and wear certain clothing to indicate their new status.
Nandi girls undergo a similar process. During their preparation, time they wear certain garments and enter into seclusion. They are generally not allowed to see men during this time. At the end of the initiation period, following the clitoridectomy, the girls can wear different clothing to display their new status. They are then eligible for marriage. Both girls and boys are expected to undergo the experience without complaining.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, these customs were gradually abandoned. Clitoridectomies, in particular, were heavily criticized, in part due to the unhygienic conditions under which they were performed. Kenyan immigrants generally do not observe the practice of male or female circumcision in the United States.
The majority of Kenyans practice Christian burials and funeral services. Their reverence of ancestry dictates proper respect for the dead and funerals are carefully performed. There are also many indigenous beliefs regarding the afterlife and the spirit world, which are reflected in older customs of burial and funeral services.
The Suk traditionally buried their dead so that their stomachs were tilted toward the Seker, the sacred mountain of the Suk. The Maragoli give a widow her husband's spear and shield. During the funeral she would carry them before handing them to his eldest brother immediately afterwards. The Taveta bury their dead in a sitting position. Men were buried with their left arm positioned on the knee to support the head while the women were buried near the door of their hut in a sitting position with their right arm positioned on their knee. Kenyan American funerals usually do not vary greatly from the funerals of other Americans of their same religion.
Over 60 percent of the Kenyans are Protestant or Roman Catholic, while six percent are Muslim. There are also numerous tribal religions. For example, the Suk believe in a god called the sky ( terorut ) whose his son is the rain ( ilat ). This traditional religion demands regular rituals and sacrifices that demonstrate their loyalty to their god.
The Maragoli believe in a god named Nyasaye who is aided by spirits. The Maragolis make offerings to these spirits in a shrine made out of a pole surrounded by eight stones. Once a year, followers drink a brew of water and millet and spit the mixture on the heads and feet of women and children. Blood from a dead chicken is smeared on the heads and feet of women and children as well as the eight stones. The beak is cut off from the dead chicken and put around the neck of the youngest child. The rest of the chicken is roasted and mixed with the millet, cooked to a paste, and then arranged on the stones. If the necessity arises, for example illness taking hold of the group, the Maragoli repeat the ritual.
Most indigenous groups also believe in witchcraft and spirit matter. Witch doctors are commonly called upon during times of distress from illness, drought or other natural disasters, and other disruptive events. The last part of the twentieth century saw a decline in the practice of older customs.
The vast majority of Kenyans that immigrate to the United States are Protestant or Catholic. They generally maintain the practice of these beliefs. Kenyan immigrants look for churches in which they feel comfortable with both the congregation and the manner in which their faith is practiced. The immigrants often find that their church helps ease the adjustment process to their new country, particularly if other Kenyan immigrants belong to the same church.
The high value that Kenyan Americans place on education has allowed them to find skilled positions. Even during the initial adjustment period, Kenyan Americans are less likely to need assistance than other immigrants, and they tend to have an overall high employment rate. Because most Kenyans are already fluent in English, they have an even greater advantage over other immigrant groups. Over 50 percent of Kenyans gravitate toward technology fields. There is also a large number of Kenyan Americans in the health care professions, especially nursing. Smaller numbers of Kenyan Americans work as doctors, lawyers, college professors, and business owners and managers.
Kenya and the United States have maintained good relations since Kenya declared its independence in 1963. The United States has provided both political and financial support to Kenya. Kenyans and Americans alike were shocked when the U.S. Embassy was bombed in Nairobi in 1998, and during which both Americans and Kenyans lost their lives.
Not surprisingly, relations with Kenya are important to the Kenyan American immigrants. Most Kenyan Americans have left family and friends behind and they are sensitive to the situation that Kenya's floundering economy has produced. Kenyan Americans actively lobby to increase aid to Kenya. There are a number of organizations designed to provide such support. One such organization is the Kenyan-American Chamber of Commerce (KACC, Inc.), which was formed in 1999 from the existing
A similar organization is the American-Kenyan Educational Corporation. The corporation raises money to purchase textbooks and other items for primary school children and to help secondary school students pay their tuition. The corporation has also set up a sponsor program in which individuals or businesses provide for the needs of an entire classroom.
Kenyan-American Chamber of Commerce (KACC).
Established in 1999, the KACC is devoted to the development of communities in Kenya through educational, technical, and other sectors. In addition to providing assistance to Kenyan immigrants, the KACC provides links to cultural, linguistic, academic programs, and news of interest to Kenyan immigrants.
Contact: John Gakuha.
Address: 13829 South Darnell #307, Olathe, Kansas 66062.
Telephone: (913) 491-7388.
Adamson, Joy. The Peoples of Kenya. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.
Azevedo, Mario. Kenya: The Land, The People, and the Nation. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1993.
Ochieng, William R, ed.. Themes in Kenyan History. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.
Whiteley, W. H., ed. Language in Kenya. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.