Tribes of Kenya
The tribe remains an important aspect of a Kenyan’s identity: upon meeting a fellow Kenyan, the first question on anyone’s mind is, ‘What tribe do you come from?’ Although we have divided Kenya’s tribes into geographical areas, this is a guide only, as you’ll find Kenyans from most tribal groupings well beyond their traditional lands. In the same way, distinctions between many tribal groups are slowly being eroded as people move to major cities for work, and intermarry.
Rift Valley & Central Kenya
Kikuyu (also Gikikuyu)
Gusii (also Kisii)
Akamba (also Kamba)
Feature: The Maasai & their Cattle
The Maasai tell the following story. One of the Maasai gods, Naiteru-Kop, was wandering the earth at the beginning of time and there he found a Dorobo man – ‘Dorobo’ is a derogatory Maasai word used to describe hunter-gatherer groups – who lived with a snake, a cow and an elephant. The man killed the snake and the elephant, but the elephant's calf escaped and came upon Le-eyo, a Maasai man to whom he told the story of the Dorobo.
The elephant calf took Le-eyo to the Dorobo man’s compound, where Le-eyo heard Naiteru-Kop, the Maasai god, calling out to the Dorobo man and telling him to come out the next morning. Having heard this, it was Le-eyo who emerged first the following morning and asked Naiteru-Kop what to do next. Following the god’s instructions, Le-eyo built a large enclosure, with a little hut of branches and grasses on one side. He then slaughtered a thin calf, but did not eat it, instead laying out the calf’s hide, and piling the meat high on top. He then built a large fire, and threw the meat upon it.
A great storm swept over the land. With the storm clouds overhead, a leather cord dropped from the sky into Le-eyo’s compound, and down the cord came cattle until Le-eyo’s compound was full of these animals. One of the cattle stuck its hoof through the hut’s wall, and Le-eyo called out, frightened. Upon Le-eyo’s cry, the cattle stopped falling from the sky. Naiteru-Kop called out to Le-eyo: ‘These are all the cattle you will receive, because your cry stopped them coming. But they are yours to look after, and you will live with them.’
Since that day, the Dorobo have been hunters and the Maasai have herded their cattle, convinced that all the cattle in the world belong to them.
It can be hard work being Kenyan. While most are proud to be Kenyan, national identity is only one way among many in which Kenyans understand their world. Unlike in neighbouring Tanzania, where being Tanzanian is placed above all else, in Kenya family ties, tribal affiliations, the pull of religion and gender roles are all prominent issues and each plays a significant role in the daily lives of ordinary people. The result is a fascinating, if complicated, mosaic.
Traditional Cultures, Modern Country
Traditional cultures are what hold Kenya together. Respect for one’s elders, firmly held religious beliefs, traditional gender roles and the tradition of ujamaa (familyhood) create a well-defined social structure with stiff moral mores at its core.
Extended family provides a further layer of support, which is increasingly important as parents migrate to cities for lucrative work, leaving their children to be cared for by grandparents, aunts and uncles. This fluid system has also enabled many to deal with the devastation wrought by the HIV/AIDS epidemic – Kenya has the 12th-highest HIV prevalence rate among adults (5.4%) in the world.
Historically the majority of Kenyans were either farmers or cattle herders with family clans based in small interconnected villages. Even today, as traditional rural life gives way to a frenetic urban pace, this strong sense of community remains.
Grafted onto these traditional foundations of culture, family and community, education is also critical to understanding modern Kenya. Kenya sends more students to the US to study than any other African country, and adult literacy stood at an impressive 78% in 2015. The generation of educated Kenyans who came of age in the 1980s is now making itself heard: Kenyans abroad have started to invest seriously in the country, Nairobi’s business landscape is changing rapidly and a new middle class is demanding new apartment blocks and cars.
One Country, Many Tribes
Kenya is home to more than 40 tribal groups. Although most have coexisted quite peacefully since independence, the ethnocentric bias of government and civil-service appointments has led to escalating unrest and disaffection. During the hotly contested elections of 1992, 1997 and 2007, clashes between two major tribes, the Kikuyu and Luo, bolstered by allegiances with other smaller tribes like the Kalenjin, resulted in deaths and mass displacement.
One positive step came with the adoption of the 2010 constitution, which recognises the rights of ethnic minorities and even calls for the cabinet to 'reflect the regional and ethnic diversity of the people of Kenya'.
Some analysts point out that election violence and ethnic tensions have more to do with economic inequality than with tribalism – they insist that there are only two tribes in Kenya: the rich and the poor.
Christian Interior, Muslim Coast
As a result of intense missionary activity, the majority of Kenyans outside the coastal and eastern provinces are Christians (including some home-grown African Christian groups that do not owe any allegiance to the major Western groups). Hard-core evangelism has made some significant inroads and many groups from the US have a strong following.
In the country’s east, the majority of Kenyans are Sunni Muslims. They make up about 11% of the population.
Women in Kenya
During Kenya’s struggle for independence, many women fought alongside the men, but their sacrifice was largely forgotten when independence came. At the Lancaster House conference in the early 1960s, where Kenya’s independence constitution was negotiated, just one out of around 70 Kenyan delegates was a woman and the resulting constitution made no mention of women’s rights.
Under the 2010 constitution things improved, at least on paper: women are described as a disadvantaged group, and the bill guarantees equal treatment for men and women, protects against discrimination on the basis of gender, calls on the state to undertake affirmative-action policies and sets aside 47 special seats for women in parliament – as a result, 19% of MPs in 2014 were women, compared with 1% in 1990.
Even so, major discrepancies remain in the ways in which women and men have access to essential services and resources, such as land and credit, while traditional gender roles still largely prevail.
Kenyan women are increasingly able to access educational opportunities and, particularly in the cities, are slowly coming to play a more prominent role in public life. In rural areas traditional gender roles are observed, although women are accorded status and respect as mothers, wives, healers and teachers.
Feature: The Indian Influence
Kenya’s first permanent settlers from the Indian subcontinent were indentured workers, brought here from Gujarat and the Punjab by the British to build the Uganda Railway. After the railway was finished, the British allowed many workers to stay and start up businesses, and hundreds of dukas (small shops) were set up across the country.
After WWII the Indian community came to control large sectors of the East African economy, and still does to some degree. However, few gave their active support to the black nationalist movements in the run-up to independence, despite being urged to do so by India’s prime minister, and many were hesitant to accept local citizenship after independence. This earned the widespread distrust of the African community. Thankfully, however, Kenya escaped the anti-Asian pogroms that plagued Uganda.
Feature: Female Genital Mutilation
Female genital mutilation (FGM), often termed ‘female circumcision’, is still widespread across Africa, including throughout Kenya. In some parts of tribal Kenya more than 90% of women and girls are subjected to FGM.
The term FGM covers a wide range of procedures, from a small, mainly symbolic cut to the total removal of the clitoris and external genitalia (known as infibulation). The effects of FGM can be fatal. Other side effects, including chronic infections, the spread of HIV, infertility, severe bleeding and lifelong pain during sex, are not uncommon.
FGM is now banned in Kenya for girls aged under 17, but the ritual still has widespread support in some communities; attempts to stamp out FGM are widely perceived as part of a Western conspiracy to undermine African cultural identity. Many local women’s groups, such as the community project Ntanira na Mugambo (Circumcision Through Words), are working towards preserving the rite-of-passage aspect of FGM without any surgery.
Kenya is arguably the leading cultural powerhouse of East Africa, with Nairobi in particular one of the most dynamic spaces for the arts. Often these arts provide not only a powerful medium for expressing African culture but also a means for expressing the dreams and frustrations of the poor and disenfranchised, and that's where Kenyan artists and performers really find their voice. Kenyan musicians and writers are particularly worth watching out for.
With its diversity of indigenous languages and cultures, Kenya has a rich and exciting music scene. Influences, most notably from the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, have helped to diversify the sounds. More recently reggae and hip-hop have permeated the pop scene.
The live music scene in Nairobi is excellent and a variety of clubs cater for traditional and contemporary musical tastes. A good reference is the Daily Nation, which publishes weekly Top 10 African, international and gospel charts and countrywide gig listings on Saturday. Beyond Nairobi, take what you can get.
The Congolese styles of rumba and soukous, known collectively as lingala, were first introduced into Kenya by artists such as Samba Mapangala (who is still playing) in the 1960s and have come to dominate most of East Africa. This upbeat party music is characterised by clean guitar licks and a driving cavacha drum rhythm.
Music from Tanzania was influential in the early 1970s, when the band Simba Wanyika helped create Swahili rumba, which was taken up by bands like the Maroon Commandos and Les Wanyika.
Popular bands today are heavily influenced by benga, soukous and also Western music, with lyrics generally in Kiswahili. These include bands such as Them Mushrooms (now reinvented as Uyoya) and Safari Sound. For upbeat dance tunes, Ogopa DJs, Nameless, Redsan and Deux Vultures are popular acts.
Kenyan bands were also active during the 1960s, producing some of the most popular songs in Africa, including Fadhili William’s famous Malaika (Angel), and Jambo Bwana, Kenya’s unofficial anthem, written and recorded by the hugely influential Them Mushrooms.
Benga is the contemporary dance music of Kenya. It refers to the dominant style of Luo pop music, which originated in western Kenya and spread throughout the country in the 1960s, being taken up by Akamba and Kikuyu musicians. The music is characterised by clear electric guitar riffs and a bounding bass rhythm. Some well-known exponents of benga include DO Misiani (a Luo) and his group Shirati Jazz, which has been around since the 1960s and is still churning out the hits. You should also look out for Globestyle, Victoria Kings and Ambira Boys.
Contemporary Kikuyu music often borrows from benga. Stars include Sam Chege, Francis Rugwiti and Daniel ‘Councillor’ Kamau, who was popular in the 1970s and is still going strong.
Taarab, the music of the East African coast, originally only played at Swahili weddings and other special occasions, has been given a new lease of life by coastal pop singer Malika.
Rap, Hip-Hop & Other Styles
American-influenced gangster rap and hip-hop are also on the rise, including such acts as Necessary Noize, Poxi Presha and Hardstone. The slums of Nairobi have proved to be particularly fertile for local rap music. In 2004 Dutch producer Nynke Nauta gathered rappers from the Eastlands slums of Nairobi and formed a collective, Nairobi Yetu. The resultant album, Kilio Cha Haki (A Cry for Justice), featuring raps in Sheng (a mix of KiSwahili, English and ethnic languages), has been internationally recognised as a poignant fusion of ghetto angst and the joy of making music.
Kenya pioneered the African version of the reggaeton style (a blend of reggae, hip-hop and traditional music), which is now popular in the US and UK. Dancehall is also huge here.
Other names to keep an eye or ear out for include Prezzo (Kenya’s king of bling), Nonini (a controversial women-and-booze rapper), Nazizi (female MC from Necessary Noize) and Mercy Myra (Kenya’s biggest female R&B artist).
Feature: A Kenyan Playlist
- Virunga Volcano (Orchestre Virunga; 1984) Samba, sublime guitar licks, a bubbling bass and rich vocals.
- Nairobi Beat: Kenyan Pop Music Today (1989) Regional sounds including Luo, Kikuyu, Akamba, Luhya, Swahili and Congolese.
- Guitar Paradise of East Africa (1990) Ranges through Kenya’s musical styles including the classic hit ‘Shauri Yako’.
- Journey (Jabali Afrika; 1996) Stirring acoustic sounds complete with drums, congas, shakers and bells.
- Amigo (Les Wanyika; 1998) Classic Swahili rumba from one of Kenya’s most influential bands.
- Nuting but de Stone (1999) Phenomenally popular compilation combining African lyrics with American urban sounds and Caribbean ragga.
- Kenyan: The First Chapter (2000) Kenya’s home-grown blend of African lyrics with R&B, house, reggae and dancehall genres.
- Necessary Noize (Necessary Noize 2; 2000) Hip-hop, reggae and R&B that produced numerous hits.
- Nairobbery (K-South; 2002) The landmark hip-hop album that launched the careers of this popular band.
- Yahweh (Esther Wahome; 2003) The hit 'Kuna Dawa' from this album improbably crossed over from gospel song to nightclub hit.
- Kilio Cha Haki – A Cry for Justice (2004) Groundbreaking rap in Sheng (a mix of Kiswahili, English and ethnic languages).
- Mama Africa (Suzanna Owiyo; 2009) Acoustic Afropop from the Tracy Chapman of Kenya.
- 82 (Just a Band; 2009) Experimental Afro-fusion that Kenya fell in love with.
- Magic in the Air (Mayonde; 2015) Debut pop album from a talent to watch.
- Tusk at Hand (Parking Lot Grass; 2015) Hard-rock protest songs sung in Swahili.
There are plenty of novels, plays and biographies by contemporary Kenyan authors, but they can be hard to find outside the country. The backlist of the Heinemann African Writers Series offers an accessible collection of such works.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938–) is uncompromisingly radical, and his harrowing criticism of the neocolonialist politics of the Kenyan establishment landed him in jail for a year (described in his Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary; 1982), lost him his job at Nairobi University and forced him into exile. In 2004 he returned to Kenya but he and his wife were injured in a home invasion in Nairobi and he returned to the US where he now lives.
His works include Petals of Blood (1977), Matigari (1987), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), Devil on the Cross (1980) and Wizard of the Crow (2006), which was shortlisted for the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. As a statement about the importance of reviving African languages as cultural media, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote Wizard of the Crow in Gikuyu and then translated it himself into English. His latest works are memoirs: Dreams in a Time of War (2010), In the House of the Interpreter (2012) and Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Memoir of a Writer's Awakening (2016). All his works, whether fiction or nonfiction, offer insightful portraits of Kenyan life.
Meja Mwangi (1948–) writes both for adults and children with a focus on social issues and urban dislocation. He has a mischievous sense of humour that threads its way right through his books. Notable titles include The Return of Shaka (1989), Weapon of Hunger (1989), The Cockroach Dance (1979), The Last Plague (2000) and The Big Chiefs (2007). His Mzungu Boy (2006), winner of the Children’s Africana Book Award in 2006, depicts the friendship of white and black Kenyan boys at the time of the Mau Mau uprising.
One of Kenya’s rising stars on the literary front is Binyavanga Wainaina (1971–), who won the Caine Prize for African Writing in July 2002. The award-winning piece was the short story 'Discovering Home', about a young Kenyan working in Cape Town who returns to his parents’ village in Kenya for a year. His One Day I Will Write about This Place: A Memoir (2011) is a fascinating portrait of a middle-class Kenyan upbringing.
In the aftermath of the 2008 postelection crisis, Wainaina helped form the Concerned Kenyan Writers (CKW) group. CKW aims to inspire and unite Kenyans and show them that there is a pay-off in peace and nationhood; it also seeks to counter the ‘Dark Continent’ reporting by the international media in the wake of the violence. In 2014 Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Contemporary Women Writers
The first female Kenyan writer of note in the modern era was Grace Ogot (1930–2015), the first woman to have her work published by the East African Publishing House. Her work includes Land Without Thunder (1968), The Strange Bride (1989), The Graduate (1980) and The Island of Tears (1980). Born in Nyanza Province, she set many of her stories against the scenic background of Lake Victoria, offering an insight into Luo culture in precolonial Kenya.
Another interesting writer is Margaret Atieno Ogola (1958–2011), the author of the celebrated novel The River and the Source (1994) and its sequel, I Swear by Apollo (2002), which follow the lives of four generations of Kenyan women in a rapidly evolving country.
Other books of note:
- Marjorie Magoye’s The Present Moment (1987), which follows the life of a group of elderly women in a Christian refuge.
- The Man from Pretoria (1975) by Kenyan conservationist and journalist Hilary Ngweno.
- Moraa Gitaa's Crucible for Silver and Furnace for Gold (2008) follows the relationship between an HIV-positive African woman and an Italian tourist; her Shifting Sands (2012) is also worth tracking down.
Kenya’s underfunded film industry has struggled to establish itself, but the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) in neighbouring Tanzania, one of the region’s premier cultural events, has helped to bring East African filmmakers to the fore. One such auteur is Kibaara Kaugi, whose Enough is Enough (2004), a brave exploration of the Mau Mau uprising, garnered critical praise.
In 2005 the government established the Kenya Film Commission (KFC; www.kenyafilmcommission.com), which aims to support and promote the Kenyan film industry. One notable success since its inception is Kibera Kid (2006), a short film set in the Kibera slum, written and directed by Nathan Collett. It tells the story of 12-year-old Otieno, an orphan living with a gang of thieves, who must make a choice between gang life and redemption. Featuring a cast of children, all of whom live in Kibera, the film played at film festivals worldwide.
Kenya has a diverse artistic heritage, and there's a wealth of artistic talent in the country, practising both traditional painting and all manner of sculpture, printing, mixed media and graffiti. Nairobi has a number of excellent galleries; for an overview of the local scene, visit the Go-Down Arts Centre in Nairobi.
Textiles & Jewellery
Women throughout East Africa wear brightly coloured lengths of printed cotton cloth, typically with Swahili sayings printed along the edge, known as kanga. Many of the sayings are social commentary or messages, often indirectly worded, or containing puns and double meanings. Others are local forms of advertising, such as the logos of political parties.
In coastal areas, you’ll also see the kikoi, which is made of a more thickly textured cotton, usually featuring striped or plaid patterns, and traditionally worn by men. Also common are batik-print cottons depicting everyday scenes, animal motifs or geometrical patterns.
Jewellery, especially beaded jewellery, is particularly beautiful among the Maasai and the Turkana. It is used in ceremonies as well as in everyday life, and often indicates the wearer’s wealth and marital status.
Woodcarving & Sculpture
Woodcarving was only introduced into Kenya in the early 20th century. Mutisya Munge, an Akamba man, is considered the father of Kenyan woodcarving, having brought the tradition from Tanzania’s Makonde people to Kenya following WWI. Kenya’s woodcarving industry has grown exponentially in the century since, although recent shortages of increasingly endangered hardwoods have presented major challenges to the industry. While woodcarvings from Kenya may lack the sophistication and cultural resonance of those from Central and West Africa, the carvings’ subjects range from representations of the spirit and animal worlds to stylised human figures.
Carvings rendered in soapstone from the village of Tabaka, close to Kisii in the Western Highlands, are among the most attractive of Kenyan handicrafts. These sculptures take on numerous forms, but the abstract figures of embracing couples are the genre’s undoubted highpoint.
Kenya's natural environment is at once inspiring and troubled. The country is home to some of East Africa's most beautiful landscapes, from its signature savannah to palm-fringed coast with sky-high mountains, parched deserts and dense forests in between. But Kenya faces a slew of environmental issues that challenge the very sustainability of its future, with impacts upon everything from food security to the viability of protected areas. Like so many things Kenyan, it's a complicated, fascinating story.
National Parks & Reserves
Kenya’s national parks and reserves rate among the best in Africa. Around 10% of the country’s land area is protected by law – that means, at least in theory, no human habitation, no grazing and no hunting within park boundaries. The parks range from the 15.5-sq-km Saiwa Swamp National Park to the massive, almost 21,000-sq-km Tsavo East and West national parks. Together they embrace a wide range of habitats and ecosystems and contain an extraordinary repository of Africa’s wildlife.
The idea of setting aside protected areas began during colonial times, and in many cases this meant authorities forcibly evicting the local peoples from their traditional lands. Local anger was fuelled by the fact that many parks were set aside as hunting reserves for white hunters with anything but conservation on their minds. In 1946 Nairobi National Park became the first park in British East Africa. Now, there are 22 national parks, plus numerous marine parks and national reserves – the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) administers 33 protected areas in total.
Many of the parks came under siege in the 1970s and 1980s when poaching became endemic. In response, President Moi grabbed international headlines when, in 1989, he set fire to a stockpile of 12 tonnes of ivory in Nairobi National Park and appointed Richard Leakey to the head of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WMCD), which became the KWS a year later. Leakey is largely credited with saving Kenya’s wildlife, but his methods were hugely controversial: he declared war on poachers by forming elite and well-armed anti-poaching units with orders to shoot on sight.
Things are much quieter these days in the national parks, although poaching remains a problem.
Visiting National Parks & Reserves
Going on safari is an integral part of the Kenyan experience, and the wildlife and scenery can be extraordinary. Even in more popular parks such as Masai Mara National Reserve and Amboseli National Park, which can become massively overcrowded in high season (July to October and January to February, although KWS maintains high-season prices into March), this natural splendour is likely to be your most enduring memory.
The widespread conversion of private cattle ranches or community lands into wildlife or community conservancies adds a whole new dimension to your safari experience in Kenya.
In the case of private conservancies, many are open only to those who pay to stay at one of the (usually exclusive) lodges or tented camps within the conservancy's boundaries. Such restrictions sometimes, but don't always, apply to the community conservancies. Most also charge a conservation fee – often around US$100 per person per day – whose proceeds go directly to wildlife conservation or community development projects.
One exception is Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is open to the public (adult/child US$85/42) – it's the closest conservancy experience to visiting a national park, but with fun activities thrown in.
In all cases, these conservancies are free to set their own rules, and these are invariably far less restrictive than those imposed by the KWS. The two most obvious examples are that both walking safaris (usually accompanied by an armed guide or ranger) and night game drives are permitted on the conservancies. Other activities – including, in some cases, horse riding – are also possible.
Kenya, as the cliché goes, is Africa in microcosm, and in the case of its landscapes, the cliché happens to be true. Within Kenya’s borders you’ll find astonishing variety, from deserts to tropical coast and snowcapped mountains, from sweeping savannah grasslands to dense forests. And running through the heart of it all is the Great Rift Valley.
Great Rift Valley
The Great Rift Valley is one of Africa’s defining landforms and this great gouge in the planet cuts a swathe through the heart of Kenya. It was formed some eight million years ago, when Mother Earth tried to rip Africa in two. Africa bent, Africa buckled, but Africa never gave in.
The Rift Valley is part of the Afro-Arabian rift system that stretches 5500km from the salty shores of the Dead Sea to the palm trees of Mozambique, passing through the Red Sea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi en route. A western branch forms a string of lakes (Albert, Edward, Kivu and Tanganyika) in the centre of the continent, joining the main system at the tip of Lake Malawi. The East African section of the rift ‘failed’ and now only the Red Sea rift continues, slowly separating Africa from the Middle East. The Rift’s path through Kenya can be traced through Lake Turkana, the Cherangani Hills and Lakes Baringo, Bogoria, Nakuru, Elmenteita, Naivasha and Magadi.
The Rift created Africa’s highest mountains – including Mt Kenya, Mt Elgon, Mt Kilimanjaro (across the border in Tanzania) and the Virunga Range (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; DRC, formerly Zaïre) – most of which began as volcanoes. Most of the volcanoes that line the valley are now extinct, but no fewer than 30 remain active and, according to local legend, Mt Longonot erupted as recently as the 1860s. This continuing activity supports a considerable number of hot springs and provides ideal conditions for geothermal power plants (in Hell’s Gate National Park and the Menengai Crater, for example), which are increasingly important for Kenya’s energy supply, if controversial from an environmental perspective.
The African savannah is a quintessentially African landform, so much so that it covers an estimated two-thirds of the African land mass. In Kenya, the most famous sweeps of savannah are found in the country’s west (particularly in the Masai Mara National Reserve) and south.
The East African savannah was formed during the Rift's great upheavals, when volcanic lava and ash rained down upon the lands surrounding the Rift's volcanoes, covering the landscape in fertile but shallow soils. Grasses, that most successful of plant forms, flourished as they needed little depth for their roots to grow. The perfectly adapted acacia aside, however, no other plants were able to colonise the savannah: their roots were starved of space and nourishment.
The result is sweeping plains that are home to some of the richest concentrations of wildlife on earth. The term itself refers to a grasslands ecosystem sustained by an annual cycle of wet and dry seasons. While trees may be (and usually are) present in savannah ecosystems, such trees do not, under the strict definition of the term, form a closed canopy.
Along the coast of East Africa, warm currents in the Indian Ocean provide perfect conditions for coral growth, resulting in beautiful underwater coral reefs.
Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse marine ecosystems on earth, rivalled only by tropical rainforests on land. Corals grow over geologic time – ie over millennia rather than the decades that mammals live – and have been in existence for about 200 million years. The delicately balanced marine environment of the coral reef relies on the interaction of hard and soft corals, sponges, fish, turtles, dolphins and other marine life forms.
Coral reefs also rely on mangroves, the salt-tolerant trees with submerged roots that form a nursery and breeding ground for birds and most of the marine life that migrates to the reef. Mangroves trap and produce nutrients for food and habitat, stabilise the shoreline and filter pollutants from the land base. Both coral reefs and the mangrove colonies that support them are under threat from factors such as oil exploration and extraction, coastal degradation, deforestation and global warming.
Kenya’s forests border the great rainforest systems of central Africa, and western Kenya once formed part of the mighty Guineo-Congolian forest ecosystem. Few vestiges remain and just 6.2% of Kenyan territory is now covered by forest. The process of clearing these forests began with Kenya’s colonial rulers, who saw in the land’s fertility great potential for the vast tea plantations that now provide critical export revenue to Kenya. The clearing of the land has continued apace ever since as Kenya’s population soars and the need for land for agriculture has increased. The Kakamega Forest has been protected just in time and shows what most of western Kenya must have once looked like. Other important forest areas include those covering 2000 sq km of the slopes of Mt Kenya, the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve (the largest surviving tract of coastal forest in East Africa), Mt Elgon National Park and Aberdare National Park.
Much of northern Kenya is extremely arid, with rainfall of less than 100mm a year. A number of contiguous deserts occupy the territory between Lake Turkana’s eastern shore and the Ethiopian and Somali borders. The largest and best known of these is the Chalbi Desert, centred on North Horr and Kalacha, and formed by an ancient lake bed. Other deserts of northern Kenya include the Kaisut Desert (between Marsabit and South Horr) and the Dida Galgalu Desert (close to the Ethiopian border, near Moyale).
Parts of southern Kenya are also considered arid or semiarid, thanks largely to the looming hulk of Mt Kilimanjaro, which diverts rain elsewhere. One of these is the Nyiri Desert, which lies roughly between Lake Magadi and Amboseli National Park.
Lakes & Wetlands
Lake Victoria, which is shared between Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, is Africa’s largest freshwater lake (and the second largest by area in the world after the USA’s Lake Superior). Its surface covers an area of over 68,000 sq km, with only 20% of the lake lying within Kenyan territory. Water levels fluctuate widely, depending largely on the rains, with depths never more than 80m and more often lower than 10m.
Most of Kenya’s section of Lake Victoria is taken over by the Winam Gulf, a 100km-long, 50km-wide arm of the lake with a shoreline of almost 550km and an average depth of 6m. A fast-growing population around the gulf’s shoreline has caused massive environmental problems, such as siltation, sedimentation and toxic pollution (primarily pesticides and untreated sewage), although the major issue has been the invasion of water hyacinth since the late 1980s. The millions of dollars ploughed into solving the problem largely rid the gulf of hyacinth by 2005, but the gulf remains highly susceptible to the the plant's clutches.
Aside from Lake Victoria in the west, Kenya has numerous small volcanic lakes, as well as a sea of jade, otherwise known by the more boring name of Lake Turkana, which straddles the Ethiopian border in the north. The main alkaline lakes in the Rift Valley include Bogoria, Nakuru, Elmenteita, Magadi and Oloiden. These shallow soda lakes, formed by the valley’s lack of decent drainage, experience high evaporation rates, which further concentrates the alkalinity. The strangely soapy and smelly waters are, however, the perfect environment for the growth of microscopic blue-green algae, which in turn feed lesser flamingos, tiny crustaceans (food for greater flamingos) and insect larvae (food for soda-resistant fish).
Not all of the Rift Valley’s lakes are alkaline; freshwater lakes include Baringo and Naivasha.
In 2011 the global significance of Kenya’s Rift Valley lake system (primarily Lakes Nakuru, Elmenteita and Bogoria) was recognised when it was inscribed on Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites. Five of the Rift Valley’s lakes – Baringo, Bogoria, Elmenteita, Naivasha and Nakuru – have also been listed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, and represent important habitats for wintering waterbirds from the north.
One of Kenya’s most important rivers is the Athi/Galana River system. The Athi River passes east of Nairobi, joins the Tsavo River (which passes through the Tsavo West National Park), and the two then feed into the Galana River, which cuts Tsavo East National Park in two. The Athi/Galana River then empties into the Indian Ocean close to Malindi. The Tana River is the country’s other major river, rising northeast of Nairobi and emptying into the Indian Ocean between Malindi and Lamu.
Kenya faces a daunting slew of environmental issues, among them deforestation, desertification, threats to endangered species and the impacts of tourism. In response, Kenya's private conservation community has taken matters into its own hands with, in many cases, exceptional results.
More than half of Africa’s forests have been destroyed over the last century, and forest destruction continues on a large scale in parts of Kenya – today, less than 3% of the country’s original forest cover remains. Land grabbing, charcoal burning, agricultural encroachment, the spiralling use of firewood and illegal logging have all taken their toll over the years. However, millions of Kenyans (and the majority of hotels, lodges and restaurants) still rely on wood and charcoal for cooking fuel, so travellers to the country will almost certainly contribute to this deforestation, whether they like it or not.
Native hardwood, such as ebony and mahogany, is often used to make the popular carved wooden statue souvenirs sold in Kenya. Although this industry supports thousands of local families who may otherwise be without an income, it also consumes an estimated 80,000 trees annually. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Unesco campaigned to promote the use of common, faster-growing trees, and many handicraft cooperatives now use wood taken from forests managed by the Forest Stewardship Council. If you buy a carving, ask if the wood is sourced from managed forests.
Northern and eastern Kenya are home to some of the most marginal lands in East Africa. Pastoralists have eked out a similarly marginal existence here for centuries, but recurring droughts have seriously degraded the land, making it increasingly susceptible to creeping desertification and erosion. As a consequence, the UN estimates that the livelihoods of around 3.5 million herders may be under medium- to long-term threat.
And desertification, at least in its early stages, may even begin to encroach upon the most unlikely places. The fertile lands of Kenya’s Central Highlands rank among Africa’s most agriculturally productive, but therein lies their peril: here, around three-quarters of Kenya’s population crowds into just 12% of the land, with the result that soils are being rapidly depleted through overexploitation – one of the early warning signs of desertification.
Many of Kenya’s major predators and herbivores have become endangered over the past few decades, because of poisoning, the ongoing destruction of their natural habitat and merciless poaching for ivory, skins, horn and bushmeat.
Private versus Public Conservation
The use of renewable energy has been slow to catch on in Kenya. Many top-end lodges attempt to pursue sound environmental practices – the use of solar energy is increasingly widespread – but these remain very much in the minority. And many of these top-end lodges suggest that you travel to them by air, which surely cancels out any gains of having solar-powered hot water in your shower. Expect fossil fuels to continue to drive Kenya’s economy.
Feature: Rift Lakes Rising
Whether alkaline or freshwater, Kenya's lakes have experienced an as-yet-unexplained rise in water levels. For some lakes, these rises have been by metres, engulfing shorelines and beyond, forcing some businesses to close, maps to be redrawn and reducing the salinity of the lakes in some cases; the latter problem has caused the flamingos to go elsewhere. Hardest hit have been Baringo, Bogoria, Elmenteita and Nakuru, with Lake Naivasha also experiencing rising water levels.
The most likely explanation is that tectonic plates well below the surface have shifted, causing changes in water flows, although nobody knows for how long these new watery boundaries will remain as they are.
Feature: Wangari Maathai, Nobel Laureate
On Earth Day in 1977 Professor Wangari Maathai planted seven trees in her backyard, setting in motion the grassroots environmental campaign that later came to be known as the Green Belt Movement. Since then more than 40 million trees have been planted throughout Kenya and the movement has expanded to more than 30 other African countries. The core aim of this campaign is to educate women – who make up some 70% of farmers in Africa – about the link between soil erosion, undernourishment and poor health, and to encourage individuals to protect their immediate environment and guard against soil erosion by planting ‘green belts’ of trees and establishing tree nurseries.
For decades, Maathai’s activism came at a cost. The Moi regime consistently vilified her as a ‘threat to the order and security of the country’, due to her demands for free and fair multiparty elections – throughout the years her public demonstrations were met with acts of violence and she spoke of receiving death threats. She also won few friends in powerful circles for working extensively with various international organisations to exert leverage on the Kenyan government.
In addition, she was also heavily involved in women’s rights (her first husband divorced her because she was ‘too strong-minded for a woman’; the judge in the divorce case agreed and then had her imprisoned for speaking out against him!). President Moi himself once famously suggested that Maathai should be more of a proper woman in the ‘African tradition’.
Later, however, Maathai served as assistant minister for the environment between 2003 and 2005, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 (the first African woman to receive one) for her tireless campaigning on environmental issues. In 2006 she was one of the founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which aims to bring justice, peace and equality to women.
Maathai died of cancer in a Nairobi Hospital in 2011 at the age of 71, but the Green Belt Movement (greenbeltmovement.org) she founded is still one of the most significant environmental organisations in Kenya. Maathai’s book Unbowed: One Woman’s Story was published in 2006.
Feature: Ecotourism Kenya
Established in 1996, Eco Tourism Kenya (ecotourismkenya.org) is a private organisation set up to oversee the country's tourism industry and encourage sustainable practices. Part of that involves a helpful eco-rating certification scheme for Kenya's hotels, safari camps and other accommodation options.
Under the scheme, a bronze rating is awarded to businesses that 'demonstrate awareness of and commitment to environmental conservation, responsible resource use and socio-economic investment'.
The silver standard goes to those businesses who 'demonstrate innovation – progress towards achieving excellence in environmental conservation, responsible resource use and socio-economic investment'.
To attain the much-coveted gold rating, tourism concerns must 'demonstrate outstanding best practices, ie they have achieved superior and replicable levels of excellence in responsible resource use, environmental conservation and socio-economic investment'.
As of late 2017, just 13 places had received the gold certification, 54 had silver status and 30 were bronze rated. To find out which properties made the cut, click on 'Eco-rated Facilities' under 'Directory Listings' on Eco Tourism Kenya's home page.
Feature: Cattle-free National Parks?
Nothing seems to disappoint visitors to Kenya’s national parks more than the sight of herders shepherding their livestock to water sources within park boundaries. In the words of former Kenya Wildlife Service head Dr Richard Leakey: ‘People don’t pay a lot of money to see cattle’. The issue is, however, a complicated one.
On the one hand, what you are seeing is far from a natural African environment. For thousands of years people, and their herds of cattle, lived happily (and sustainably) alongside the wildlife, and their actions helped to shape the landscapes of East Africa. But with the advent of conservation and national parks, many of Kenya’s tribal peoples, particularly pastoralists such as the Maasai and Samburu, found themselves and their cattle excluded from their ancestral lands or water holes of last resort, often with little or no compensation or alternative incomes provided (although, of course, some do now make a living through tourism and conservation).
Having been pushed onto marginal lands and with limited access to alternative water sources in times of drought, many have been forced to forgo their traditional livelihoods and have taken to leading sedentary lifestyles. Those that continue as herders have little choice but to overgraze their lands. Such policies of exclusion tend to reinforce the perception among local peoples that wildlife belongs to the government and brings few benefits to local communities. This position is passionately argued in the excellent (if slightly dated) book No Man’s Land: An Investigative Journey Through Kenya & Tanzania (2003) by George Monbiot.
At the same time, tourism is a major (and much-needed) source of revenue for Kenya and most visitors to Kenya want to experience a natural wilderness – on the surface at least, the national parks and reserves appear to provide this Eden-esque slice of Africa. It also remains questionable whether allowing herders and their livestock to graze within park boundaries would alleviate the pressures on overexploited land and traditional cultures, or would instead simply lead to the degradation of Kenya’s last remaining areas of relatively pristine wilderness.
Things get even more complicated when talking about private and community conservancies. Many Laikipia and Mara conservancies – Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Segera Ranch are two prominent examples – consider livestock to be an important part of habitat management, arguing that well-maintained livestock herds can help reduce tick infestations for wildlife. Carefully controlled grazing can also, they argue, actually assist in the regeneration of grassland ecosystems.
Feature: Poaching's Return
A recent upsurge in the poaching of both elephants (for their tusks) and rhinos (for their horns) has conservationists worried we may soon be facing a return to the dark days of the 1980s.
Talk to many in the conservation community and they'll tell you that it was in 2009 that the crisis again began to take hold. It was in the following year that Lewa Wildlife Conservancy lost its first rhinos to poaching in almost three decades and Africa has lost more than 30,000 elephants a year since 2010. In 2014, for the first time in decades, a critical threshold was crossed when more elephants were being killed on the continent than were being born.
While numbers of poached animals in Kenya remain relatively low, all of the major rhino sanctuaries – Nairobi National Park, Lake Nakuru National Park, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Solio Game Reserve, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo West National Park – have lost rhinos to poachers in recent years. Most worrying of all is that each of these have extremely high security and sophisticated anti-poaching programs.
For elephants, poaching hotspots include the northern half of Tsavo East National Park (which is off-limits for travellers), the community lands just outside the southern boundary of Tsavo West National Park, and the lands surrounding Samburu National Reserve.
The Kenya Wildlife Service, while denying that poaching has reached crisis levels in Kenya, remains on the frontline in the war against poaching, but other organisations are also active.
Feature: The Battle for Lake Turkana
A number of the world's leading oil companies have been conducting exploratory drilling in the area between Lake Turkana and the Ethiopian border. In 2012 Britain's Tullow Oil struck it lucky, prompting much celebration in the Kenyan media that Kenya could soon be a major oil-producing country-in-waiting. Although the oil is still to begin flowing – commercial production is due to commence in 2020 – Lake Turkana is widely considered by industry experts to be one of the more promising onshore oil exploration areas in East Africa.
At the same time, plans are well developed for the Lake Turkana Wind Power project (www.ltwp.co.ke), which finally became operational in 2017. When completed, the project will use 365 wind turbines across 16,000 hectares around 50km north of South Horr to provide the equivalent of 20% of Kenya’s current power needs. It is one of Kenya's largest-ever private investment projects.
Feature: Invasive Plant Species
There are many well-known threats to the ecosystem of Kenya’s iconic Masai Mara National Reserve – poaching, overdevelopment and growing human populations. But one of the most dangerous threats comes in the form of a simple plant: a foreign weed called parthenium (Parthenium hysterophorus). The toxic weed, which is not native to Kenya, first appeared around Nairobi, the Athi River, Naivasha and Busia, but its rapid growth in the Mara has led to it being designated a noxious weed by Kenya’s government. Known to grow along the banks of the Mara River and some tracks through the reserve, parthenium (which is unpalatable to the Mara’s herbivores) is spreading at an alarming rate, and in some areas is even replacing the fabled grasslands of the Mara. A single parthenium plant can produce up to 25,000 seeds and its chemical composition is such that it inhibits the growth of other plants, prompting concerns that the weed could pose a long-term threat to the Mara.
Feature: White Giraffe
In mid-2017 a herder was walking through the bush in the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy, in Garissa County in northeastern Kenya, when he came across a ghostly apparition in the bush: a completely white giraffe. It was far from Kenya's well-worn tourist trails – which probably explains why it has only just been discovered – but conservationists rushed to the site to shoot what is believed to be the world's first video footage of a completely white giraffe. With the adult white giraffe was a calf that, too, was almost completely white.
The giraffes, which belong to the reticulated giraffe subspecies, are thought to not be albinos (which produce no melanin in their bodies and have red eyes) but demonstrate the genetic condition known as leucism, which suppresses pigmentation in skin cells.
Reports of white giraffes are rare but are not unheard of. Most recently, a sighting was reported in April 2016 from elsewhere in Garissa County and in January of the same year in Tanzania's Tarangire National Park.
Feature: Which Field Guide?
Having trouble telling a dik-dik from a klipspringer? A serval from a caracal? Field guides, apart from being damned interesting to read, can be invaluable tools for identifying animals while on safari. Our favourites:
- A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World (Luke Hunter; 2011) Wonderfully illustrated and filled with fascinating detail.
- The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (Jonathan Kingdon; 2nd ed, 2015) The latest edition of the classic field guide covering over 1150 species. There's also the travel-friendly Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals (2016).
- The Behavior Guide to African Mammals (Richard Despard Estes; 1991) Classic study of the behaviour of mammal species. Estes' follow-up The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals (1993) is an excellent, slightly more accessible alternative.
- Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania (Dale A Zimmerman, David J Pearson and Donald A Turner; 2005) The birding field guide of choice for East Africa.
- Jonathan Scott's Safari Guide to East African Animals and Jonathan Scott's Safari Guide to East African Birds, both published first in 1998 but updated since, are wonderful safari companions with fine photos by Angela Scott.
In the UK, an excellent source for wildlife and nature titles is Subbuteo Natural History Books Ltd (www.wildlifebooks.com), while in Australia, check out Andrew Isles Natural History Books (www.andrewisles.com); both accept international mail orders.
Feature: Banning Plastic Bags
At the end of August 2017, Kenya introduced one of the world's strictest laws against the use of plastic carrier bags. The law, which survived a High Court challenge and warnings of 80,000 job losses in the plastic-bag-production industry, allows for those who break the law to be sentenced to four years in prison or face a US$38,000 fine. In practice, in the first months of the law's implementation, police were instructed to warn those who violate the laws and confiscate the offending bags.
No-one who has travelled in Kenya could doubt the need for such a law, with plastic bags filling the countryside and vacant plots of land, especially in Kenyan cities. In addition to being an eyesore, plastic bags have the potential to impact upon public health: for example, grazing cattle feed on the bags, with up to 20 polythene bags pulled from the stomach of just one cow in one Nairobi abattoir The government estimates that before the ban Kenyans used 24 million plastic bags every month. And travellers are certainly not exempt – if you're arriving by air with duty-free plastic shopping bags, the bags will be taken from you before you leave the airport.
Later in 2017, the government announced a further ban, this time on taking plastic water bottles into Nairobi National Park and the nearby Karura Forest. It seems likely that the ban will be extended to cover all national parks in the not-too-distant future.
Feature: Good Wildlife Reads
- The Tree Where Man Was Born (Peter Matthiessen; 1972) Classic, lyrical account of wildlife and traditional peoples in East Africa.
- A Primate's Memoir: Love, Death and Baboons in East Africa (Robert M Sapolsky; 2002) Wonderfully told memoir of working among the baboons of East Africa.
- Ivory, Apes & Peacocks: Animals, adventure and discovery in the wild places of Africa (Alan Root; 2012) Picaresque tale of the life of the late Alan Root, one of the pioneers in wildlife documentary film-making.
- The Big Cat Man: An Autobiography (Jonathon Scott; 2016) Jonathon Scott has been the companion to a generation of safari goers and armchair travellers. His autobiography is typically warm-hearted.
- Don't Run, Whatever You Do: My Adventures as a Safari Guide (Peter Allison; 2007) Light-hearted romp through adventures and misadventures of a safari guide. Set in Botswana but could easily be Kenya.
Feature: Wildlife Watching – The Basics
- Most animals are naturally wary of people, so to minimise their distress (or aggression) keep as quiet as possible, avoid sudden movements and wear subdued colours when in the field.
- Avoid direct eye contact, particularly with primates, as this is seen as a challenge and may provoke aggressive behaviour.
- Good binoculars are an invaluable aid to observing wildlife at a distance and are essential for birdwatching.
- When on foot, stay downwind of animals wherever possible – they'll smell you long before they see or hear you.
- Never get out of your vehicle unless it's safe to do so.
- Always obey park regulations, including traffic speed limits; thousands of animals are needlessly killed on African roads every year.
- Follow your guide's instructions at all times – it may mean the difference between life and death on a walking safari.
- Never get between a mother and her young.
- Exercise care when boating or swimming, and be particularly aware of the dangers posed by crocodiles and hippos.
- Never feed wild animals – it encourages scavenging, may adversely affect their health, and can cause animals to become aggressive towards each other and humans.
Feature: The Hunting Debate
Hunting has been banned in Kenya since 1977, and it appears unlikely that this will change in the foreseeable future. But commercial or trophy hunting is a major industry in a number of African countries – Tanzania, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe all have active hunting industries – and contributes significant revenues to government coffers. Some conservation groups in Kenya even argue that lifting the ban on commercial hunting in Kenya could help to reverse the decline in Kenya's wildlife population numbers.
While abhorrent to many, controlled hunting can, many conservation groups recognise, play an important role in preserving species. According to this argument, tourism revenues (whether national park fees or lodge revenues) have too often failed to reach local communities, reinforcing a perception that wildlife belongs to the government, with little benefit for ordinary people forced to live with wildlife that can kill their livestock or trample their crops. Hunting on private concessions, however, generally attracts massive fees (lion licences in Southern Africa can sell for US$20,000), of which, the theory goes, a significant proportion is fed back into local community projects, thereby giving wildlife a tangible economic value for local people.
Hunting, the argument continues, also makes productive use of land that is considered unsuitable for photographic tourism, either because of its remoteness or lack of tourism infrastructure. If controlled strictly – through the use of quotas and killing only a limited number of solitary male lions who are past their prime, for example – hunting can, according to its proponents, play a part in saving species from extinction.
Opponents of hunting argue that the whole debate is premised on the failure of governments and private operators to fairly redistribute their revenues from non-lethal forms of tourism – why, they ask, should we expect that hunting be any different? They also argue that the solution lies in a fairer distribution of tourism revenues and greater community involvement in conservation rather than in killing the very animals upon which tourism depends. And finally, some critics point to the double standards of arresting and imprisoning locals who hunt wildlife (whether for commercial or subsistence reasons), while permitting rich (and usually white) hunters to shoot animals during short visits to the continent.
For more on hunting's pros and cons, and the fascinating case of Tanzania, read Craig Packer's excellent Lions in the Balance (2015).
The debate continues.
Feature: Concrete & Sand
Driving around Kenya, especially along the southern and eastern outskirts of Nairobi, it can feel as if every second factory is a cement factory. This highly competitive industry is a major player in Kenya's rapidly developing economy, but the industry's demand for sand – especially with so many major infrastructure projects under way, such as the expansion of the national railway – is causing concerns among conservationists. In particular, the dredging from sand has already begun to impact upon the beaches of Tiwi and the sea turtles that nest in the area, while a number of rivers have been seriously degraded as well. The Kilome Ikolya River in Makueni County in southeastern Kenya has been particularly affected with massive erosion, dying trees, disappearing water and violence – in 2011 a police officer who tried to confront illegal sand harvesters was killed.
Feature: Trouble in Laikipia
Laikipia has long been held up as a shining example of a partnership between conservation and local communities, balancing the needs of local livestock herders with wildlife protection. But this reputation has been shaken recently. In March 2017, founder of Offbeat Safaris and respected guide and conservationist Tristan Voorspuy was killed while inspecting his Sosian Lodge in Laikipia after an arson attack. The following month, renowned author, conservationist and Laikipia resident Kuki Gallmann, who wrote I Dreamed of Africa among other books, was shot and critically injured while patrolling her Ol Ari Nyiro ranch, also in Laikipia.
While no tourists have been caught up in the violence, the developments are deeply concerning for other ranches and conservancies in the region. The violence has been largely blamed on a crippling drought that has prompted armed cattle rustlers and ordinary herders to drive up to 200,000 head of livestock onto the Laikipia Plateau in search of grazing. Although it can be difficult to disentangle the various parties involved, it has been widely reported that the violence has been led more by armed gangs from beyond Laikipia than by local communities.
Worryingly, the violence in Laikipia became a political football during the August 2017 presidential campaign. In June of that year, leading opposition candidate Raila Odinga struck fear into the hearts of ranch owners in the area when he told the London Times newspaper, 'These ranches are too big and the people don't even live there; they live in Europe and only come once in a while…There's a need for rationalisation to ensure there's more productive use of that land.'