Kenya is an excellent place for souvenirs, although much of the cheap stuff is mass-produced for the tourist trade. Nairobi and Mombasa are the main souvenir centres and the former in particular has some exceptional places to buy quality handicrafts. Many top-end lodges and tented camps have their own curio shops, many of which specialise in hard-to-find souvenirs from local communities.
Kiondos (sisal baskets) are a very popular Kenyan souvenir. They come in a variety of sizes, colours and styles with many different straps and clasps. Expect to pay a few dollars for a basic basket, and up to US$30 for a large one with leather trim. Some of the finer baskets have baobab bark woven into them, which bumps up the price. Reed baskets, widely used as shopping bags, cost less than KSh50.
Fabrics & Batik
Kangas and kikois are the local sarongs and serve many purposes. Kangas are colourful prints on thin cotton that are sold in pairs, one to wrap around your waist and one to carry a baby on your back. Each bears a Swahili proverb. Biashara St in Mombasa is the kanga centre in Kenya, and you’ll pay upwards of KSh700 for a pair, depending on quality. Kikois, traditionally worn by men, are made with thicker, striped cotton, and have more basic patterns and brighter colours. They are originally from Lamu, which remains the best place to buy them – prices start at around KSh600 each, more for the thicker Somali fabrics.
Batik cloth is another good buy and there’s a tremendous range, but the better prints are not cheap. The tradition was imported from elsewhere. You can expect to pay KSh1000 and upwards for batiks on cotton, and much, much more for batiks on pure silk.
Cotton Maasai shukas, the blood-red blankets worn by Maasai men, are easily found both inside Maasailand and beyond, and make a wonderful souvenir of your visit.
Most jewellery on sale in Kenya is of tribal origin, although very little is the genuine article. The colourful and distinctive Maasai beaded jewellery is the most striking and the most popular. Necklaces, bangles and wristlets are widely available and beadwork is used on all sorts of knick-knacks, from hair slides to wallets. Prices are high, but there’s lots of work involved in making them. None of the ‘elephant hair’ bracelets sold by hawkers in Nairobi are the real thing – most are simply plastic wire or reed grass covered in boot polish.
Easily carved soapstone is used to make popular chess sets, ashtrays or even abstract organic-looking sculptures. Kisumu on Lake Victoria is the best place to buy it, although soapstone souvenirs are sold and produced across the country, most notably in Kisii. The only problem is that soapstone is quite fragile and heavy to carry around, so it’s probably best to stock up on these souvenirs towards the end of your trip.
Traditional tribal art is very popular. Maasai spears are particularly sought-after, and come apart into several sections, making them easy to transport. But, like the painted leather shields, most are mass-produced for the tourist market. Turkana wrist knives and Maasai knives forged from car shock absorbers are also high-kudos souvenirs.
Decorated Maasai calabashes, traditionally used to store mursik, a type of drink, are eye-catching but tend to pong a bit if authentic. All sorts of masks are available, although few are used in rituals today. The three-legged African stool is another very popular souvenir, and shoes made from old car tyres are cheap, unusual souvenirs.
These are easily the most popular Kenyan souvenir – a painted wooden giraffe is an instant marker of a trip to East Africa! Much of the stuff on offer is of dubious taste, but there is also some very fine work available.
The most famous woodcarvings found here are the makonde-style effigies (made by the Akamba people from southeastern Kenya), which are traditionally carved from ebony, a very black, heavy wood. They often feature wildlife, towers of thin figures and slender Maasai figurines. However, be aware that ebony is a threatened wood.