Kenyan Culture

Core Concepts

  • Industriousness
  • Hospitality
  • Diversity
  • Respect
  • Education
  • Warmth
  • Reciprocity

 

Kenya is located in eastern Africa, bordering Somalia and Ethiopia in the north, Uganda and South Sudan to the west and Tanzania in the south. The country is situated directly on the equator and contains an abundant and diverse set of wildlife and landscapes. Kenya’s population is also ethnically diverse. Throughout Kenya's history, various African ethnic groups and sub-ethnic groups have interacted with one another. Kenya has also had interactions with various non-African countries and people. For instance, during the mid 18th century, Arabs ruled the Kenyan coast from the island of Zanzibar. Just under  200 years later, Kenya became a colony of Great Britain. The British introduced Christianity and brought people from India and other parts of the empire.

 

Kenya gained independence in 1963 after a period of violent revolts known as the Mau Mau Uprising (1953-1960). Although this was not a bloodless transition to independence, the Mau Mau Uprising was a more peaceful transition than a lot of other countries on the African continent experienced. The legacies of such historical events remain visible in contemporary Kenyan society. Today, there are at least 40 different Kenyan ethnic groups, along with Asian and European groups. Moreover, most of the country identifies as Christian (82.1%). Overall, Kenyans are generally warm and friendly and place a high value on their connections with their family, friends and community.

 

Geographical Distinctions

The population of Kenya is concentrated in the southern parts of the country, where most people live in rural towns and villages. Nearly three-quarters of the population (73.5%) reside in rural parts of the country. The type of housing varies between ethnic groups. Some ethnic groups, such as the Maasai and Pokot, retain a nomadic lifestyle whereby houses can be dismantled and packed away when the inhabitants leave in search of better pastures for their livestock. However, this has shifted to only males moving with the herds. For other ethnic groups, extended families live in small compounds with fixed housing. The percentage of the population living in rural areas has been gradually decreasing with more Kenyans moving to cities in search of employment and education opportunities.

 

In the cities of Kenya, housing varies depending on one's socioeconomic status. For example, those in the upper class have large, secure complexes while those in the middle to upper class reside in modern apartment blocks. People of lower socioeconomic standing often live in shanty towns located within or on the outskirts of Kenya's cities.

 

It is important to bear in mind that the experiences and lifestyles of those in Nairobi or other urban areas differ considerably from that of people residing in rural parts of the country. Those in rural areas and villages tend to practise a more traditional Kenyan lifestyle. Conversely, people in urban areas reflect the changing face of Kenya and the influences of globalisation and multiculturalism. In Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, it is common to see the modern and traditional elements of Kenyan culture blended together.

 

Ethnic Groups and Languages

Kenya has incredible ethnic diversity. More than half of the country's ethnic groups have Bantu origins. The largest ethnic group in Kenya is the Kikuyu people (22%). Other major ethnic groups include the Luhya (14%), Luo (13%), Kalenjin (12%), Kamba (11%), Kisii (6%) and Meru (6%). Each tribe is further divided into clans or sub-tribes, sometimes understood as a family. For example, there are approximately 18 clans in the Luhya tribe. Kenyans tend to associate certain social qualities with different ethnic groups. Keep in mind that some of these associations may be based on outdated or inaccurate stereotypes. For instance, the Luo are often seen as being proud of their language and culture. Similar distinctions of social characteristics are made within ethnic groups as well. For example, among the Kikuyu people, those living in Nyeri are commonly seen as industrious or entrepreneurs.

 

It is important to understand that ethnic categories in Kenya are complex and sometimes overlapping. Previously, there were strong tensions between ethnic groups, partly due to the legacy of colonial rule by the British. During this time, different ethnicities were confined to specific geographic areas, and some ethnic groups were prioritised above others. This was on the basis of whether the ethnic community collaborated or rebelled against colonial rule. Today, the stratification between ethnicities has diminished and Kenyans generally coexist peacefully. Ethnic group and clan distinctions were considered very important in past generations. Indeed, ethnicity was often the basis for selecting a spouse and, at times, one’s friends. However, younger generations of Kenyans tend to pay less attention to ethnic distinctions.

 

The fact that the country is host to large refugee populations from surrounding countries also contributes to Kenya’s diversity. As of January 2018, UNHCR estimates there are 486,460 refugees and asylum seekers residing in Kenya (most of which are Somalian and South Sudanese).1 There is also a presence of non-African ethnicities in Kenya. For example, ‘Wazungu’ (directly translates as ‘White Person’) refers to the white population in Kenya. The Wazungu are widely associated with British settlers. Today, the dwindling Wazungu is a mix of third-generation European-Kenyans, business persons and members of international aid organisations. There are also some Asian communities in the country, with many being descendants of indentured labourers from India during the British colonial era. Both the Wazungu and Asian groups make up approximately 1% of the population.

 

Personal and National Identity

Many Kenyans identify with their tribe or ethnic group. Many Kenyans follow traditions that relate to their ethnicity, from the name they give their children to the way they serve their food. People are often especially proud of their native language as it tends to be correlated with their ethnic identity. There are occasional tensions between ethnic groups. Such tensions tend to flare up during election season in Kenya, such as the 2007 election and the recent 2017 general election. This is in part due to historical circumstances where specific ethnic groups, such as the Kikuyu, were more represented in the independence movement as well as more favoured by the political elite. Thus, some ethnic groups dominate the political sphere.

 

Nevertheless, there is still a strong sense of national identity. Many are proud of their cultural heritage, accomplishments and the country’s successful efforts to achieve independence and economic growth. Moreover, overt expressions of tribalism are becoming more taboo in the country.

 

The language of Swahili (also known as ‘Kiswahili’) has also helped shape a common national identity that transcends ethnic boundaries. Almost all Kenyans can speak Swahili, which was selected as the national language of Kenya after independence partly due to its linguistic commonality with other Bantu-based languages in the country. English is also an official language and is mainly used for business, education and official purposes. Hence, many Kenyans also speak English at a high proficiency. Along with Swahili and English, each ethnic group speaks its language as a native tongue. Most languages in Kenya fall into one of two categories: Bantu or Nilotic. Swahili is commonly used when Kenyans communicate to other Kenyans from a different ethnic group.

 

Society and Social Structure 

Kenya has quite a hierarchical society. This is noticeable in the pronounced differences in wealth. Land ownership is a valued indicator of one’s socioeconomic status. In rural parts of Kenya, most people have access to small plots of cultivable land known as ‘shambas’. These plots are gradually diminishing in size as each generation divides the land among typically the adult sons. Today, it is common for men to purchase land in addition to their inheritance. For some ethnic groups, the ownership of animals such as cattle, goats and sheep is an important indicator of wealth.

 

Education is also highly valued and respected with regard to one's socioeconomic status. In Kenya, many view education as a way to transcend their socioeconomic status as well as a way to demonstrate one's abilities. Many Kenyans work in a sector known as the ‘Jua Kali' (‘hot sun') sector. This sector primarily refers to trades jobs in areas such as car repair, woodwork, welding and construction. It also includes less physically laborious trades such as handicrafts and plant nurseries. The Jua Kali sector enables people to generate income along with providing social support networks for women engaging in the sector.

 

Collectivism and Interactions

Kenya is highly collectivistic, meaning people are highly interdependent on their social and family circles. Individuals often feel a sense of responsibility to those around them and are expected to be willing to sacrifice their interests for the group. In Kenya, the ‘group' is often defined as one's family. An individual is usually expected to assist less-fortunate fellow family members, often through financial assistance. For example, someone with adequate finances may be expected to help pay their less-fortunate sibling's children's school fees. Failing to uphold ties with one's family is considered rebellious. This collectivistic attitude is also evident among friends. Underlying friendship is the notion of reciprocity and willingness to share with one another. When a friend asks for a favour or assistance, one is expected to provide it.

 

Kenyans generally do not find the idea of living alone very desirable, and having a high level of privacy is not highly valued. A tradition in some ethnic groups known as ‘baraza’ (a community meeting in which everyone is invited to speak) reflects the communal nature of Kenya’s society. On the local level, Kenyans deeply respect one’s right to speak and will be patient in allowing someone to express themselves. In turn, talking over someone, cutting in or otherwise depriving someone the opportunity to speak is frowned upon. Kenyans also tend to be warm and friendly when interacting with others. Indeed, it is common to hear laughter during conversations.

 

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1 UNHCR, 2018
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