Well known as excellent traders, Muslims came to East Africa (from the 8th century on wards) for what they knew best – commerce. They sailed with their dhows from the Arabian Peninsula to settle on the coast, on the virgin soil of what is now known as Kenya. They eventually intermarried with the Africans, resulting in relatively affluent and Islamic – influenced towns, which acted as entry points for the crossing Indian Ocean trade. Even today, Kenya’s richest history can be felt in the coastal towns.
The Portuguese decided that they would back expeditions to this part of Africa, in the hope that they would break the Ottoman Turks’ grip on trade with the Far East. The rule of the Portuguese was combination of economic exploitation and drives to convert the local population to Catholicism. Nevertheless, by the 1720’s their bitter hand was no longer felt and their rule came to an end.
British Colonialism (19th and 20th centuries)
With the whole of Africa being combed by the European explorers, Kenya wasn’t going to escape the fate of its neighbors. There was internal strife, and the British were able to negotiate a treaty with their former warrior enemies, the Masai, and construct the Mombasa to Uganda railway through the heart of the Masai grazing lands.
On the 12th December 1963, Kenya finally became an independent state, free from British hands, and chose Jomo Kenyatta as the first elected President.
Equator and the Great Rift Valley
Kenya straddles the equator on the eastern coast of Africa; covering an area of about 586,600km sq. of which 10,700km sq. consists of water bodies. It lies on the Equator and is bisected lengthwise by the Great Rift Valley, which runs from Jordan in the north to Mozambique in the south.
Kenya shares borders with five other nations. It is bordered by Somalia and Ethiopia to the north the Indian Ocean to the east, Sudan to the northwest, Uganda to the west and Tanzania to the south. It has a 550km long coastline.
Mountains, Rivers and Lakes
Kenya is home to Mount Kenya (5,199) the second largest peak in the African continent, and it is traversed by a number of rivers, notably Tana and Athi rivers, and the Galana River and the notorious Mara River, which run through the Maasai Mara Reserve.
Kenya also houses some incredible lakes such as the wild Lake Turkana (home of the cradle of humankind), Lake Turkana (home of more than 1 million flamingoes) and the Lake Baringo/Naivasha (home to the notorious “happy valley set”) to mention only a few.
The country is mostly known for its flat, vast and wild savannah country, but its terrain ranges wildly from deserts in the north, to bush land in the South, coastal areas in the east, and the fertile lands west, while central Kenya houses luscious highlands.
Kenya’s natural vegetation is equally diverse.
Afro – alpine moorland
Afro-alpine moorland occurs above c. 3,000 m, on Mt Kenya and Mt Elgon, the Cherangani and the Aberdares Mountains. Highland grassland occurs above c.2, 400 m on either side of the central Rift Valley. Highland moist forests are found between c.1, 500 m and 3,000m in areas that receive rainfall of more than 1,200 mm per year.
Relicts of Guineo-Congolian rain forest that once extended across equatorial Africa occur in western Kenya, in and around Kakamega Forest. Typical tree species include Celtis, Aningeria, croton, Fagara and Manikara. The North and South Nandi Forests are transitional between the Guinea-Congolian and Montane forest types.
Bush land and woodland
Coastal evergreen bushland also occurs, in a mosaic with cultivated land. Coastal palmstands, often in tall grassland, are a rare vegetation type covering less than 3.1% of the land area. Thorn bushland and woodland are the most extensive vegetation types in Kenya, running from Amboseli in the south through the Tsavo parks to north-east and north-west Kenya. Characteristic tree species are Acacia, Commiphora ssp., while grasses include species of Hyparrhenia, Digitaria and Themeda.
Papyrus swamps, consisting largely of stands of cyperus papyrus, are found patchily around the shores of Lake Victoria, mainly along river inflows.
On sandy shorelines are often beds of sea grass (some twelve species are recorded), beyond the littoral zone or in deeper channels within it. Coral reefs and islands make up some 59,000 ha, or 0.1% of the land area. Human-modified habitats, created at the expense of the natural vegetation, occur throughout the country but especially in the highlands. These include cultivated land under a wide variety of crops, plantations of exotic trees, secondary thicket and scrub, eroded and de-vegetated woodland and bush land, and overgrazed pastureland.
The variations in altitude and terrain in Kenya create sharp contrasts in climate. The coast (Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu) is hot and often humid.
Mornings and evening in the central highlands (around Mount Kenya) can be cool, verging on cold, during Kenya’s winter (July – August), while in the north and northeast (close to the Sudanese border) the days are dry and very hot.
As it is on the equator, day and night are almost equal in Kenya the whole year around; sunrise is 6 – 6.30 a.m. and sun downs 6.30 – 7 pm. Even though the climate is beginning during the day, it is wise to use a pullover in the evenings since temperatures drop considerably at night.
Over most of the country there are two major rainy seasons. The short rains normally occur from late October to November and the long rains from the late March to early June. July and August are the coolest months; November to February are the hottest.
Kenya has a melting pot of different nationalities, tribes and ethnic groups, making it tolerant, accepting and colourful country. It currently has a population of 38 million people (based on 2009 Census count), which include over 40 tribal groups.
The main tribal groups are the Bantu, Cushites and Nilotes and the main ethnic composition of the tribes of Kenya is formed from these groups:
The Bantu Group
The Bantu-group include the Kikuyu, Meru, Gusii, Embu, Akamba, Luhya (or Luyia) and Mijikenda.
The Nilote Group
The Nilote group include the Maasai, Luo, Turkana, Teso, Samburu and Kalenjin people
The Cushite Group
The Cushite group include the Borana, Somali, Orma and Rendile
Each group has its own language and some 45 languages (not dialects) are spoken in Kenya. Most Kenyans speak three languages: their tribal language, also called their mother tongue, Kiswahili (national language) and English (official language).
As Kenya has a large Asian population, descendants of workers who arrived to build the railway from Mombasa to Kampala, various Indian languages are still spoken. Nevertheless, they are not considered official languages as they are only spoken within the Indian community.
Sheng is the language of Kenyan youth and is a mix of Swahili and English – be sure that you and many Kenyan elders, will be unlikely to understand it.
Considering the mix of people, histories and ethnic groups, it is no wonder that there is a great variety of religion in Kenya. As a result there is a very open and non biased society, which is rare in today’s intolerant world.
The British brought with them the monotheistic religion, which they imposed onto the Kenyan peoples, sending increased numbers of missionaries. Today Christianity is the main religion in Kenya and is very much present in the everyday life of Kenyans. A large percentage of them are Catholic, but other Christian creeds (Anglican, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventists, Evangelical and so on) are also prominent. A number of Christian sects are deeply rooted in Kenya – it is not an uncommon sight to see groups of newborn Christian rapt in singing on Sundays either on the streets or in public parks.
The Arab influence is mostly felt on the coastline, where mosques can be seen almost on every corner and most women wear veils, but in a more relaxed manner than in any strictly Islamic country. Islam was brought by Arab traders, and firmly established, thanks to the strong influence of the sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar. The Sunni branch of Islam is the predominant one in Kenya.
The Indians brought to Kenya by the British to construct the Mombasa – Uganda railroad have become a prominent community in the country. Together with their traditions they have also brought their own millenary cults. There are a number of beautiful traditional Hindu temples in the main urban area of the country.
Started as a spin – off of Hinduism, Sikhism celebrated the 300th anniversary of its creation in 1999. Together with the Hindus, a number of Sikhs came to Kenya at the turn of the century to help construct the railroad. There are fewer Sikhs than Hindus, but their economic importance is considerable.
Judaism is not very prominent in Kenya, but there are a few synagogues in Nairobi, the Israeli embassy deals with religious holidays and festivities.