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People of Kenya

Different ethnic groups from all over the continent have migrated to Kenya for centuries, each bringing with them the distinctive features of their own culture. As a result, Kenya has over forty distinct ethnic communities, speaking close to eighty different dialects; all united under the striped green black and red national flag (green for the land, black for the people and red for the blood spilt during the struggle for freedom). Kenyan unity is expressed in the national motto ‘Harambee’, which translates as ‘let’s all pull together’. 

As of today, the official Kenyan population figure stands at around 40 million (though the actual figure may be much larger), and the annual forecast growth rate is 2.69% (2010 est.), which reflects the expected increased death rate due to AIDS (over 1.2 million Kenyans are infected with the HIV virus). 42.5% of the population is under 14 years of age, while the urban population stands at approximately 25% of the whole, and is concentrated in a few large cities such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru. 67% of the people live in rural areas, mostly in the high-rainfall arable areas of the central highlands, and western Kenya. In the north and east of the country 20% of the population lives on 80% of the land. 

As to the ethnic or tribal mix (the word ‘tribe’ is still used both officially and in casual Kenyan conversation), around 22% of the Kenyan population are Kikuyu, 14% Luhya, 13% Luo, 12% Kalenjin, 12% Kamba, 11% Kisii 6%, Meru 6% and other Africans 15%. Asians, Europeans and Arabs account for about 1% of the population. 

  • The Bantu and Nilotic groups

Two linguistic groups dominate Kenya: the Bantus and the Nilotes. Of these the Bantus are the single largest group.The term Bantu denotes widely-dispersed but related peoples that speak South-Central Niger-Congo languages. Originally from West-Central Africa, Bantus began a millennium-long series of migrations referred to as the Bantu expansion that first brought them to East Africa about 2000 years ago, a region from where they had previously been absent. Most Bantu are agriculturalists. Some of the prominent Bantu groups in Kenya include the Kikuyu, Luhya and the Meru. The second largest group, the Nilotes speak Nilo-Saharan languages, and came to Eastern Africa by way of Southern Sudan, though their ultimate place of origin is believed to be in West Africa. Most Nilotes in Kenya are pastoralists, and are famous for their fearsome reputations as warriors and cattle-rustlers. The most prominent of these groups include the Maasai, the Samburu and the Kalenjin. 

  • Cushites

Cushites form a significant minority of Kenya's population. They speak Afro-Asiatic languages, and originally came from Ethiopia and Somalia in Northeast Africa. Most are pastoralists and Muslim. The Cushitic-speaking peoples are divided into two groups: the Southern Cushites and Eastern Cushites. The Southern Cushites were the second earliest inhabitants of Kenya after the indigenous Bushman hunter-gatherer groups, and the first of the Cushitic-speaking peoples to migrate from their homeland in the Horn of Africa about 2000 years ago. Responsible for having introduced irrigation and composting techniques to East Africa, they were progressively displaced in a southerly direction and/or absorbed by the incoming Nilotic and Bantu groups until they wound up in Tanzania. The Eastern Cushites include the Oromo and the Somali. Of these, the Somali are the most recent arrivals to Kenya, having first come from Somalia only a few centuries ago. After the Northern Frontier District (North Eastern Province) was handed over to Kenyan nationalists at the end of British colonial rule in Kenya, Somalis in the region fought the Shifta War against Kenyan troops to join their kin in the Somali Republic to the north. Although they ultimately lost the war, Somalis in the region still identify with their kin in Somalia, and see themselves as one people. 

Ethnic Groups: There are too many ethnic groups in Kenya to write about them all. So here follows a brief insight into some of the ‘tribes’ that the visitor to Kenya is most likely to come across. 

  • The Maasai

Perhaps the best known of Kenya’s tribes, the Nilo-Hamitic Maasai are a nomadic people whose style of life has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. The daily rhythm of life revolves around the constant quest for water and grazing for their cattle. Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai are distinguished by their complex character, impeccable manners, impressive presence and almost mystical love of their cattle. The latter is based on the Maasai belief that the sky god, ‘Enkai‘, was once at one with the earth. When the earth and the sky were separated, however, Enkai was forced to send all the world’s cattle into the safekeeping of the Maasai where, as far as the Maasai are concerned, they have remained. Brave and ruthless warriors, the Maasai instilled terror in all who came up against them, most especially the early explorers. ‘Take a thousand men’ advised the famous explorer Henry Stanley when speaking of the Maasai, ‘or write your will’. 

Today, cattle are still the central pivots of Maasai life and  ‘I hope your cattle are well’ is the most common form of Maasai greeting. The milk and blood of their cattle also continue to be the preferred diet of the Maasai people, while the hides serve as mattresses, sandals, mats and clothing. Cattle also act as marriage bonds, while a complex system of cattle-fines maintains the social harmony of the group. Visually stunning, the Maasai warrior with his swathe of scarlet ‘Shuka’ (blanket), beaded belt, dagger, intricately plaited hair and one-legged stance remains the most enduring icon of Kenyan tourism. That said, many a modern Maasai dons a suit for work, but come the weekend, and he’ll be back in his beloved traditional dress. 

  • The Kikuyu

The largest of Kenya’s tribes, the Kikuyu live in the area around Mount Kenya where, at the dawn of the colonial era, they came into violent conflict with the European settlers, to whom large tracts of Kikuyu homeland had been apportioned by the colonial government.  Since the possession of land is one of the key tenets of Kikuyu social, religious and economic life, this conflict rapidly spiralled into war, and it was the Kikuyu’s formation of a political association against the British that sparked the infamous Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, which eventually led to Kenya winning her independence. As a result of their early involvement in the fight for freedom, the Kikuyu have always played a dominant role both in Kenyan politics and commerce, their most famous politician being Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who even today is referred to affectionately as ‘Mzee’ (respected elder). Perhaps more successfully than any other Kenyan tribe, the Kikuyu have adapted to the challenges posed by Western culture and technology, and their role in modern day Kenyan commerce is significant. Traditionally agriculturalists, however, the rural Kikuyu continue to combine small-scale farming with the growing of cash crops such as tea, coffee and pyrethrum. The rural Kikuyu also prefer to build their houses with the door facing Mount Kenya, because they believe their ancestral God, ‘Ngai’, to live there.  So entrenched is this believe that The Kenya Wildlife Service, guardians of Mount Kenya National Park, still report finding elderly Kikuyu men wandering high on the snow-clad slopes of the mountain in search of ‘Ngai’. 

  • The Swahili or Shirazi Peoples

The most prominent of the coastal people, the Swahili are not a ‘tribe’ but the product of centuries of inter- marriage between indigenous Kenyans and incoming waves of Persian, Portuguese and Omani conquerors. First, around the 7th century, came Arab traders from the Persian Gulf, who plied the Kenyan coast in their dhows and gradually intermarried with the local people. Next, in the 16th Century, the conquering Portuguese arrived, establishing an empire, and intermarrying with the locals. Finally, in the 18th century, the Sultans of Oman took over as rulers, and their people intermarried with the locals just as their predecessors had done. The result was a colourful mix of ethnicity and language, which came to be known as ‘Swahili’, which literally translates as ‘of the coast’.  Although the majority of Kenya’s coastal people are Muslims, their relaxed way of life is worlds away from the stricter Islamic practices of the Middle East. Enjoying a colourful culture, they excel in literature, art, and architecture while the Swahili craftsmen are famous for their beautiful triangular-sailed dhows. Swahili cuisine, meanwhile, is a glorious mix of cultural influences; exuberantly spiced, steeped in coconut and cooked with fresh lime and coriander. 

  • The Asian Community

The Asian community is important because of the influence it has had on the Kenyan economy. It is a common misconception that the so-called ‘Asian’ community of Kenya is the sole result of the importation of some 32,000 indentured labourers from Gujarat and Punjab by the British to work as ‘coolies’ on the Uganda Railway (1896-1901). In fact, there were people of Indian descent living on the Kenyan coast for thousands of years before this time, as evidenced by the introduction of both bananas and coconuts to the economy. That said, the majority of the present Asian population are descendants of the 6,000 workers who elected to stay in Kenya after the railway was completed. Hard working, economically aggressive and highly skilled, the migrant Indians soon established a burgeoning commercial community in Kenya, which still controls most of Kenya’s retail trade. Initially functioning very much as an economic ‘colony’ of India, whose members tended to send most of their earnings back to India, the Asian community is still self-contained, tending to nurture its own rich and diverse culture while remaining largely impervious to African cultural influences. Officially referred to as ‘Asians’ since the partitioning of India in 1947, the present community is made up of three main groups: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

  • The European Community

Though small in number, the European community (largely British) is important because of the effect it has had both on Kenyan development and culture. Referred to by Kenyans as ‘Muzungu’ (singular) or ‘Wazungu’ (plural), a Swahili word which roughly translates as ‘European’ but can also be translated as  ‘something strange and startling’, the European community is largely synonymous with the British settlers, who began arriving in the so-called ‘colony’ of Kenya after it was declared a British protectorate in 1895. 

An eclectic mix of landless aristocrats, big-game hunters and ex-service men, they rapidly acquired much of Kenya’s best farming land. They also achieved notoriety thanks to the riotous lifestyle of a very small group of wealthy sybarites who settled in the so-called ‘Happy Valley’ area of central Kenya, and inspired the book (and later the film) ‘White Mischief’. Unlike previous ethnic migrants, all of whom had intermingled with the local population, the British came with the express intention of introducing cultural change, rather than participating in cultural exchange.  Thus, though a resourceful and industrious community, the effect of the arrival of the British settlers upon Kenyan culture was profound. British dress, language, architecture, farming, manners, religion and leisure pursuits were imposed, whether the Kenyan people liked it or not. Today the dwindling ‘Muzungu’ community is a blend of third generation ‘white Kenyans’, temporary business folk and members of the international aid community, many of whom are actively engaged in preserving or celebrating Kenya’s traditional cultural heritage. Approximately half of Kenya’s European population lives in Nairobi, many of them in the select suburb of Karen, which was named after Karen Blixen, author of the famous novel (and later film) ‘Out of Africa’. 

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