POPULATION: 28 million

LANGUAGE: KiSwahili; English; regional ethnic languages

RELIGION: Christianity; Islam; traditional indigenous beliefs; independent Christian churches; small numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Bahais, Jews


Kenya is a multiracial society of about 28 million people. The overwhelming majority are indigenous (native) ethnic groups; the rest are Asian, Arab, and European. Europeans in Kenya are mostly of British heritage. Their ancestors came to Kenya during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in search of commercial and agricultural opportunities. The original British colonizers created the White Highlands, areas with large, commercial farms. The indigenous Africans were displaced from their own extremely fertile land.

Kenya's Land and Freedom Movement (called Mau Mau) won independence from Britain in 1963. The following year, Kenya became a republic under the leadership of President Jomo Kenyatta (1894–1978). Currently, Kenya is a multi-party democracy. Its government consists of a president and a legislative assembly of twelve members nominated by the president, 188 elected members, an attorney general, and a speaker. Kenya is divided into eight provinces (including the Nairobi area, which has a special status), all of which are under the authority of the president. Several villages form what is known as a sublocation, which is part of a unit called a location. Several locations form a division, divisions form districts, and districts are included in provinces.


The Republic of Kenya is located in East Africa on the Equator. It borders the Indian Ocean to the east, Ethiopia and Sudan to the north, Somalia to the northeast, Tanzania to the south, and Uganda to the west. Kenya measures 225,000 square miles (583,000 square kilometers). There is considerable variation in landform, ranging from the permanent snow of Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro to tropical shores with palm trees. Some areas are desert, but most of the country is forests or rolling grasslands. The major geological feature, the Rift Valley, stretches from Zimbabwe (to the south) to the Red Sea (to the north). It is 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide and 9,000 (2,745 meters) feet above sea level in some places. Numerous lakes are found along its base. Kenya's Lake Victoria is the second largest fresh water lake in the world.

Kenya's climate has two rainy seasons. Evenings can be quite chilly in the Central Highlands, and the coastal areas are typically hot and humid. Kenya's capital, Nairobi, although close to the Equator, is 5,449 feet (1,661 meters) above sea level, making it comfortable most of the year.


The official national languages of Kenya are KiSwahili and English. English is spoken in government, courts, universities, and secondary schools. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television are predominantly in English. Nevertheless, KiSwahili is widely spoken in everyday life as a lingua franca (common language), especially in commerce and by those who do not know English. KiSwahili is the dominant language along the coast, particularly in the major port city of Mombasa. Nowadays, KiSwahili is usually taught along with English in schools throughout Kenya. Regional ethnic languages spoken at home are typically used for elementary school teaching along with English and KiSwahili. Major ethnic languages in Kenya include Kikuyu, Luo, Kiluyia, Kikamba, Samburu, Maasai, and others. Major Asian languages are Hindi and Gujarati. Kenyans are typically multilingual (speaking several languages).


Folklore historically told of a group's history and offered wisdom about everyday mysteries and dilemmas. Riddles, proverbs, and sayings that describe proper behavior for both young and old Kenyans are still common. Questions such as, Why do cats like to stay by the fireplace?, Why do hyenas limp?, How did circumcision come to be practiced?, and What is the origin of death?" are answered in folktales. Examples of proverbs include: The eye you have treated will look at you contemptuously; A cowardly hyena lives for many years; The swimmer who races alone praises the winner. Riddles are also commonly heard. For example: "A lake with reeds all around? The eye." Another is: "A snake that breathes out smoke? A train."


The majority religion in Kenya is Christianity; about 37 percent are Protestant (including Quaker) and 25 percent are Roman Catholic. About 4 percent of Kenyans are Muslim (followers of Islam). The remainder practice traditional native beliefs or are members of other Christian churches. Small numbers of Kenyans are Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Bahais, and Jews.

Traditional religions generally believed in a High God, spiritual forces such as respected ancestors, and evil forces such as witches. The Creator God was known by different names, but was always thought to be kind and forgiving. For example, the Abaluyia people believed that the god Were created Heaven first and then Earth. He created humans so that the Sun could have someone on whom to shine. Were created plants and animals as food for humans.


Kenya celebrates the religious holidays of Good Friday and Easter Monday (in March or April), Christmas Day (December 25), and the Muslim festival Eid Al-Fitr (which depends on the sighting of the new moon after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan). Secular (nonreligious) holidays include New Year's Day and Labor Day (May 1).

The most significant secular holidays unique to Kenya are related to their struggle for independence from colonial rule. Madaraka (June 1) celebrates internal self-government day, and Independence Day is celebrated on December 12. Kenyatta Day (October 20) is celebrated annually in honor of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president and an important leader in Kenya's struggle for independence.

During all holidays in Kenya, schools and businesses are closed. Many Kenyans who live in cities travel to rural areas to visit and celebrate with family members. Celebrations include eating, drinking, and dancing in homes, bars, and nightclubs. On such occasions, Nyama Choma (roasted meat) is a common treat. Goat or beef is consumed. On secular holidays, the Kenyan military is on parade and politicians give speeches in public and on radio and television. Newspapers typically honor past and present political leaders.


Most births take place in hospitals or small rural clinics under the care of a midwife. Infants are commonly breast-fed and carried in a sling of cloth. An older sibling often helps the mother care for infants or toddlers. For this reason, a special bond prevails between a caretaker and her "follower" in the birth order. If no girl is available, a boy can also be a caretaker. Parents value the birth of both boys and girls. Boys are valued because most groups in Kenya trace descent (family line) through males (patrilineal), who then inherit land. Girls are valued because upon marriage, future in-laws give gifts—known as bride wealth—to the girl's family. Although women may now own land, bride wealth is still common and is a sign of prestige for highly educated women.

Many groups in Kenya mark adolescence with initiation rites such as male circumcision or female clitoridectomy. Young men who undergo circumcision at the same time become part of a social group that lasts for a lifetime. There are, however, many societies in Kenya that do not circumcise, including the Luo, Kenya's second largest ethnic group.

Most ethnic groups do not practice clitoridectomy (female circumcision), although it is found among the Gusii, Pokot, Gikuyu, and a few other societies. Unlike circumcision, this practice is very controversial and the subject of considerable national and international debate, even when undertaken with modern medical precautions. It is often referred to by outsiders as "female genital mutilation" and is considered a human rights issue. Many folk explanations for this practice, such as the control of female sexuality or the enhancement of female solidarity, are discounted in modern Kenya.

Land is a strong symbol of family bonds; consequently, regardless of where a person lives in Kenya, there is a strong pull to return home whenever possible. A high priority is placed on being buried in one's homeland so that both body and soul will be at peace.


Ethnic groups each have elaborate greeting patterns. The simplest and most common Kiswahili greeting is Jambo (hello), to which a person replies likewise. Jambo or Hujambo , Bwana is said to a man (You have nothing the matter, Sir?) while a woman is addressed Jambo, mama. If addressing more than one person, the greeting would become Hamjambo. The reply to this is Sijambo, or Hatujambo if with others. These greetings are usually followed by additional exchanges depending on social context, time of day, weather, and so forth.

Politicians frequently try to mobilize Kenyans for development projects by encouraging a national slogan meant to appeal to group bonds. The late President Kenyatta initiated Harambee (Let's pull together) as a national symbol. Individuals "pulled together" to raise money for construction of schools, hospitals, and other public works. Today, political leaders and other prominent people attend harambee functions and donate large sums of money. Some Kenyans do not approve of the custom, although it is difficult to trace how widely it is practiced since harambee requests are not made in public.

Young people have many opportunities for social interaction, especially in the cities. In rural areas, dating is supervised by family members. Funerals, where several days of ceremonies end in feasting and dancing, are popular occasions for courtship. Secondary schools and churches, both in towns and in the country, also sponsor social events where teenagers may interact. Dating in the city of Nairobi may involve outings to nightclubs, restaurants, movie theaters, malls, and drive-in movie theaters.


The majority of Kenyans live in rural areas where electricity and running water are often not available, and roads are not paved. Homes are constructed of waddle and daub (woven sticks and mud) with thatched roofs. Wealthier people generally live closer to towns and have access to electricity and running water. Their homes are usually constructed of stone or brick. A growing number of Kenyans (about 25 percent) live in cities.

Nairobi is by far Kenya's largest city; other large cities include Naivasha, Nakuru, Mombasa, and Kisumu. A significant portion of Kenyans are middle class or richer and live in comfortable homes or even mansions in suburban areas. Nevertheless, Nairobi has many shantytowns where homes are little more than shacks built out of discarded items. Many who reside in these shantytowns are squatters with no ownership rights, so they can be forcibly evicted at a moment's notice.

Health problems are generally more severe in shanty towns. These include gastrointestinal problems and diarrhea afflicting children, and respiratory infections, cholera, typhoid, and typhus afflicting adults. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a growing problem. In addition, most Kenyans experience periodic bouts with malaria.


Families tend to be quite large. For all ethnic groups in Kenya, an extended family (including aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents) is common. Several generations may live in the same compound or neighborhood.

Marriage laws vary for the different cultural groups. The European heritage is recognized in one legal code, which allows only monogamous marriages (one man wed to one woman). Under customary law, which recognizes indigenous (native) customs, plural marriages such as polygyny (multiple wives) and wife inheritance (where a widow automatically marries her deceased husband's brother) are allowed. Religiously contracted marriages are recognized for Muslim and Hindu unions under separate legal codes.


European and Arabic clothing are now commonplace throughout the country. In rural areas, women wear multicolored cotton dresses or skirts and blouses. Large shawl-like cloths are commonly worn as protection from rain, sun, and cold. Babies are carried in a sling on the back or side. Scarves are worn on the head. Flat shoes or bare feet are standard. Men generally wear Western-style trousers and shirts with jackets and ties for special occasions. Styles of clothing in cities reflect social class differences. The most stylish and expensive clothes are available for those who can afford them. Long pieces of colorful cloth are often worn as skirts, wrapped around shorter dresses, or by themselves along with matching headpieces. Arabic influences are strong, especially along the coast where the fez (a type of hat) and turban are commonplace. Asian dress is the sari for women, and white cotton shirts and pants for men. Secondary school children usually wear uniforms to school, but dress similarly to American and European young people at home and at play. Nevertheless, ethnic and religious variations also exist.

12 • FOOD

Indigenous (native) African crops include sorghum and finger millet. Some 2,000 years ago, crops such as bananas, yams, rice, and coconuts reached east Africa from southeast Asia. About 400 years ago, crops from the Americas such as maize (corn) and cassava spread to east Africa from west Africa. Many crops grown in Kenya were imported from Europe during the colonial era. These include white potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and many others. Native fruits such as papaya and mangoes are especially popular throughout the country.




  • 1 cup milk
  • 1¼ cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup water


  1. Measure 1 cup of milk into a bowl. Slowly add ¾ cup or cornmeal, beating constantly, until the mixture is like paste.
  2. Heat 1 cup of water in a medium saucepan until it boils. Using a wooden spoon, stir cornmeal and milk paste mixture into the boiling water. Reduce heat.
  3. Slowly add remaining ½ cup of cornmeal, stirring constantly. The mixture should be smooth, with no lumps.
  4. Cook for about 3 minutes. When the mixture begins to stick together and pull away from the sides of the pan, remove from heat.
  5. Pour mixture into a greased bowl and allow to cool.

Serve at room temperature. The traditional way to eat ugali is to pinch off a piece of the dough with the right hand. An indentation pressed into the wad of dough is used as a scoop for sauce or stew.

Adapted from Lois Sinaiko Webb, Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students, Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1995 p. 2.

Pastoralism, or cattle herding, has a long history in Kenya. Cattle provide meat, milk, butter, and blood. Other livestock includes poultry, sheep, and goats. Many societies in Kenya combine agriculture with raising livestock.

Today, the major staple throughout Kenya is maize (corn), which is an important cash crop as well. Maize is made into a thick porridge called ugali and is eaten with meat, stews, or indigenous greens ( sukuma wiki ). Many Kenyans eat this combination on a daily basis. It takes much practice to cook the mixture of maize meal and boiling water to the right consistency without burning it. Sukuma wiki is a combination of chopped spinach or kale that is fried with onions, tomatoes, perhaps a green pepper, and any available leftover meat. This is seasoned with salt and pepper. A recipe for ugali follows.

Modern Kenyans enjoy eating in a variety of international restaurants and fast food chains. Asian restaurants are very popular. In rural areas, children snack on roasted maize and sugarcane. Manufactured candy and bottled drinks such as orange soda and colas are very popular at birthday parties and other festive occasions. Bottled beer brewed in Kenya has largely replaced traditional beers made from millet or maize; however, coconut wine is popular on the coast. Modern eating utensils are common; nevertheless, most Kenyans prefer eating their ugali with their hands.


Schools throughout Kenya educate young people from nursery school through university and professional training. Primary and secondary schools vary in size and quality, and education can be costly. Both secular (nonreligious) and religious schools operate on a daily or boarding basis. Harambee schools, which are maintained through an informal network of prominent political and civic leaders, often do not have the same resources as those with international connections through church or the state. Scholarships are available on a competitive basis for both boys and girls. Competitive sports such as football (soccer), swimming, and track and field are common.

The literacy rate (percentage of the population able to read and write) in Kenya is about 69 percent.

A system similar to that in the United States (eight years of elementary school, four years of secondary school, and four years of university) recently replaced a British system of Ordinary and Advanced levels of secondary and advanced education following the primary years. The American system includes more attention to practical subjects and local culture than did the British system, which included more European history and literature.

Graduates of secondary schools in Kenya who do not go on to university or teacher training colleges seek technical or secretarial schooling. Training in computer technology is of growing importance.

Post-secondary education includes a wide variety of vocational and technical schools and a growing number of national universities and teacher training institutions. Post-graduate education includes academic subjects, law school, and medical school. There is much competition in Kenya for limited places in educational institutions; consequently, many students go abroad to the United States, Europe, and Asia for their education.


Kenya's rich cultural heritage is a mixture of ethnic and cultural traditions. The Muslim tradition is embodied in archaeological and written sources from the coastal region. The historical monument at Gedi, located between Malindi and Mombasa, was founded in the late thirteenth century. Its tombs, monuments, and other remains indicate that an urban Muslim civilization, combining native African practices with those from Arabia and India, existed for many centuries at Gedi and elsewhere along the coast. This civilization produced music, dance, and literature.

The European (primarily British) heritage in Kenya is noticeable in Nairobi and some of its suburban areas such as Karen. The Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi opened in 1904 and was featured in the movie Out of Africa, an account of the life of Isak Dinesen, who lived on a coffee estate in Kenya during the colonial period. Elspeth Huxley's writings (including Flame Trees of Thika ) give another account of Kenya's social life and customs from a European perspective.

Kenya's greatest contemporary writers are world-renowned for their short stories and novels. Ngugi wa Thiong'o is the author of such books as Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross. He writes in his traditional Gikuyu language rather than English, stressing the importance of communicating with members of his society in their own language, which the colonists had suppressed. His novels criticize the social inequality in Kenya today. Grace Ogot, in books such as The Other Woman, has developed the short story to a high standard.

Music and dance competitions are held frequently in the schools. These are heavily influenced by native styles. The National Theatre regularly hosts competitions among students who come from all over Kenya to display their skills in indigenous dance and song. Radio and television shows commonly feature programs of ethnic music and songs as a popular form of entertainment. Music from the United States is popular today, especially among teenagers.


Kenya's industries include processed foods, textiles, glass, and chemicals. However, agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, employing about three-fourths of the population and generating a significant amount of export earnings. Coffee and tea are the main exports; both men and women work on coffee and tea estates. Women work as subsistence farmers (producing enough food to live on but with little or no extra to sell). Typically, men clear the land and help in harvesting. Women also collect wood for charcoal and go to the markets. Young people experience difficulty in finding jobs because Kenya has limited work outside of agriculture.

Tourism is the principal source of foreign money and provides jobs for men and women in the hotel and game park industries. Men work as bus drivers, taxi drivers, and factory workers and play important roles in agriculture, primarily with cash crops (crops raised for export).

In the urban shantytowns, small-scale commercial activities such as vegetable stalls, food stores, carpentry, and tailoring abound. Illegal activities such as brewing of beer, prostitution, and petty theft are common.


Kenyans in urban areas often become members of clubs where sports such as billiards, squash, swimming, and tennis are played. Golf is available at some clubs and hotels. Cricket is another popular sport. Automobile races are common. Over the Easter weekend, the Malboro/Epson Safari Rally attracts an international audience. On many Sunday afternoons, horse racing is held with legalized gambling at the Ngong Road Race Course.

Football (soccer) is a national pastime; teams of various ethnic groups compete against teams from industries, armed forces, and the police. Boxing is another popular spectator sport. Schools sponsor competitive sports for boys and girls, including soccer and track and field.


Sports, theater, television, reading, and cultural activities such as dancing and music are popular forms of entertainment and recreation. Modern movies, television, and radio cover global subjects and are popular among young Kenyans. Radio and television also regularly feature traditional folklore as part of their programming.

On weekends and in the evenings, walking, window shopping, and shopping in malls are frequent pastimes for all Kenyans. The most popular form of entertainment, however, is visiting with friends and relatives. Food, drink, and news are exchanged, mixing people of all ages. Visits between rural and urban relatives are occasions for the exchange of food from rural areas for money and material goods from urban areas.

In rural areas, a game of strategy known in KiSwahili as Bao is popular. This game involves a wooden board with a varying number of holes and seeds. A player attempts to capture the seeds of an opponent through a series of complex plays whereby the opponent's seeds end up on his side of the board. National Bao competitions are held, and children play a simplified version of this game.


Carvings, batiks, basketry, jewelry, ceramics, and other indigenous crafts are made largely for sale to tourists. Local cooperatives manufacture baskets, women's purses, and mats for sale.


Wildlife management and conservation are major concerns of the Kenyan government and tourist industry. As a result, commercial artifacts made from wild animals that are endangered or are living on game reserves have been banned. Tourists are now limited to photographic rather than hunting safaris. In spite of these limitations, poaching (illegal hunting) continues to be a problem. Some conservationists have expressed concerns that the elephant population (the source of valuable ivory) has grown too large in certain regions, where farmers have been killed by elephants rummaging for food in their gardens. Finding a balance between animal and human needs continues to be a challenge.

Street children can be seen in cities and large towns of Kenya. These children come from poor, often alcoholic, families in rural areas. They earn money by begging, collecting waste products for sale to wholesalers, who resell them to recyclers. Street girls often earn money through prostitution or begging. Glue-sniffing is a widespread addiction among the younger street children.

Due to the large volume of tourists and the relatively poor quality of Kenya's highways, death by motor vehicle accidents has become a major problem in the country. Crashes with wild and domesticated animals are common in rural areas.

From its independence until the early 1990s, Kenya had a one-party democratic system. It is now experiencing a transition to multi-party democracy, but members of opposition parties believe that their political rights are not respected. Members of the ruling party, however, claim that multi-party democracy promotes tribalism. Young people commonly complain that all political parties are led primarily by very old men, leaving little visible leadership by younger adults or by women.


Arnold, Gay. Modern Kenya. New York: Longman, 1981.

Dinesen, Isak. Out of Africa. New York: Random House, 1972.

Kenya in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.

Stein, R. Kenya . Chicago: Children's Press, 1985.

Themes in Kenyan History. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.

Webb, Lois Sinaiko. Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1995.


Embassy of Kenya, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. Kenya. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available , 1998.

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