The People of Kenya

Of Kenyas population of 37 million people, about 3 million live in the capital Nairobi, almost 1 million in Mombasa and almost half a million people live in Kisumu. The rest of the population live in the countryside – the central province and western region being the most fertile and most populated.

African woman
As in most of Subsaharan Africa women are is often seen balancing goods on their head when walking longer distances

There are forty two different tribes in Kenya – most of them having their own language and strong cultural traditions. Some of the most commonly known tribes are the Kikuyu, the Luo, the Luhya, Meru, Kamba, Turkana, Kamba, Taita, Digo and the Samburu – the latter sharing the same language as the Masai – Maa. Kiswahili and English is the official languages in kenya and a huge part of the population speaks both languages fluently as well as tribal tongue(s) as a third or fourth language.

Man working out with home made weights

Man working out with home made weights

Generally speaking most Kenyans outside the coastal and eastern provinces are Christian of one sort or another, while most of the people on the coast as well as in eastern Kenya are Muslim.

Man and birds competing for food
Fishermen in Lake Naivasha compete with the pelicans about the fish

Kenyans love dancing
There are a wealth of places to go out in kenya and most people love to dance

Mobile phones are widely used in kenya

Man in a kiosk in Butere checks an sms with a smile. Photo by Mikkel Alexander Grabowski

Many Kenyans love to go out and mobile phones have become widespread in Kenya. People generally takes great pride in their appearance and the nightlife in big cities like Nairobi and Mombasa is very lively and you will find it hard to resist the funky, sweaty and groovy beats from the local DJ’s.

Both Masai and Samburus seem to fashion their traditional outfits more than many of the other tribes in kenya and they attract the attention when walking around in a town dressed in strong red colors, wearing lots of bracelets, a sword, a runku (a club made out of hard wood). In former times eg. the Kikuyus also had quite exotic looking attires where the leaders of the clan wore capes made from the fur from Black and white Colobus monkeys over their shoulders, but nowadays most urban living Kenyans tend to like to wear either the conservative “officelook” or maybe a more streetsmart and hip clothing style.

Musicians in Kisumu

Music is everywhere in Kenya and it is often heard from many of the small shops in the street, from a ghettoblaster on a wheel-barrel on the market, inside almost every Matatu or live. The West African Lingala music is very popular as is local artists like Tony Nyadundo. Above is some local musicians in Kisumu playing on self-made electric guitars that are wired to a radio for amplification

Part of many safaris is a visit to a nearby village outside the national park and this is a great way to get a chance to see how the local people live their life. For instance, the Masai villages in the outskirts of Masai Mara are often visited by tourists are offered a tour around their manyatta, a peek into their private homes and the option of taking as many pictures as they like for a fee of about 30 USD per person.

Masai warriors showing off their vitality and strength by jumping high into the air to the rhythmic voices from the embracing crowd

When living amongst big predators like lions the Masais needs to be able to defend themselves and their livestock from attacks – here a Masai warrior reversed his spear in order not to damage the sharp blades when demonstrating his throwing technique

Tourists often wants to know if the Masais are really dressed like that every day or if they’ve just put up a show to meet the tourists expectations. The truth is yes and no. Many Masai still in 2010 take great pride in wearing a traditional dress while maybe carrying a Nokia cellphone underneath it. Traditionally young Masai men had to kill a lion in order to become a warrior (moraan) and from that practise the lions have come to fear humans and they will most often shy away when they see men in red dresses like the Masais.

Masai morans
The warriors have great fun when dancing and jumping the highest

Nowadays their red fabrics are mostly produced in factories and few bother to weave a dress by hand when they can be bought along the roadside for quite cheap. Others use wigs to mimic the looks of the traditional morans (meaning masai warrior), and a few might even own a university degree. Yet most of the people you will encounter in their manyattas actually do sleep on a cow skin, cook over a small fireplace inside the house and live from a mixture of milk – sometimes mixed with blood and some beef and vegetables.

Traditional masai dance
A group of Masai warriors preparing for a traditional dancing and singing ceremony – the leader blowing a horn from a kudu while wearing a hat made out of a lions mane

Also their traditional weapons such as spear, sword and a rungo are not carried to impress the tourists – they are crucial for personal protection and to fight off lions on the lookout to have a feast on their beloved livestock. Since hunting in kenya is illegal, the number of Masais killing a lion as part of the initiation ceremony for the boys to become morans have declined dramatically, but still fatal encounters arise between man a beast when sharing the same territory and in most incidents it is the lion that will be the looser. The huge amount of tourists coming to the Masai Mara this way bring the nomadic Masai a small supplement of cash and inevitably there is a cultural exchange taken place making some kind of impact on their traditional lifestyle.

Laikipia District, kenya
Samburu girls, Ol’Doinyo – Laikipia District in Kenya

Nomadic life has been a fundamental circumstance to survive in mostly arid Kenya. Nevertheless the different tribes have specialized knowledge about how to survive in the most harsh conditions. Nonregarding which part of the country they are from, the Kenyans will most likely greet you with a big smile and say “Karibu” meaning welcome in Kiswahili.

Herders outside Kalacha waving to tourists passing by
Nomads in Turkana region waving to tourists

The people of Northern Kenya

One of the most remarkable tribes your will meet when travelling into Kenyas Northern Frontier District is the Samburu. Related to the Masai, the Samburus have many similarities regarding cultural practices, adornments and language but while the masais are easily recognizable from red cloaks, the Samburus wears white, red or blue cloaks.

Making fire with sticks
Samburus making fire by rolling a stick in a small hole in a special kind of wood

The first adornment for any Samburu in life is a Lkereti or wrist belt for the newborn. Lkereti means dewclaw and it is the degenerated finger just above the hoof and it is worn on the right wrist.

Samburu women dancing
Samburu performing a traditional song and dance

Plate-shaped beaded necklaces Lkiripa are a most prominent adornment of both Masai and Samburu women and many wear several Lkiripa of different sizes at a time as well as combining them with wired beads necklaces Marinai twisted together. Hung over the piled beaded bundles, the Nkarawa or beaded plate chest adornments adds more colors to the already strikingly colorful adornments of the Samburu.

Samburu warrior with feather ornaments
Samburu moran (warrior) with a traditional headdress in Ol’Doinyo, Laikipia District

The adornments reflects the gender, age and social status of the person wearing them. For example the Samburu consider it unsuitable for uncircumsized boys to be well dressed because boys should not care much about their appearance. When they are about to be circumcized the boys start singing a circumcision song called Leberta and during this period they wear special black cloaks and other ritual adornments. The flowers Maawa are artificial flowers made out of cloth or plastic. They are placed on the head of Moran with a small comb and sometimes charms made of plastic or even tiny lights working on small batteries are used instead of the artificial flowers. The feather or Sirayo often comes from a guinea fowl and it is worn by the Moran and uncircumcized boys

Turkana girls in front of a traditional house

The newly circumcized boys are called Laibartani and they change adornments, but still wear the black cloaks. For one month after circumcision they carry a bow and arrow and shoot birds in the bush, after which there is a ritual called Imuget lo nkwenyi at which point the become moran. During this ritual, they change the colors of their attire by smearing their whole body with red ocher Lkaria and removing the black cloak.

Traditional hut on the shore of Lake Turkana
A local style house outside Loiyangalani

This dramatic change of colors from a dull black to vivid red metaphorically represents a change from chrysalis to butterfly and when the boys become moran, they suddenly start caring about their appearance and decorate themselves with beaded adornments provided by senior moran. The Turkana occupate some of Kenyas hottest and most arid places, mainly around Lake Turkana – the Jade Sea which is situated at an altitude of only 300m above sea level.

Aside from the colorful people, one of the most prominent features of Northern kenya is the camels

Camels are incredibly sturdy animals and therefore perfectly adapted to the harsh conditions in the desertlike Northern Kenya. The camels seem to wander about on their own, but most often the owners will be nearby and if they recognize a tourist photographing their animals without their permission, they might see this as an opportunity to ask for huge amounts of money for compensation. As when aiming your camera towards people in Kenya, it is a good idea when photographing livestock, to always ask for permission in advance.

Samburu village
Inside a Samburu Manyatta

At the coast the Arabic influence have been strong during centuries and due to the construction of the railway between Mombasa and Nairobi, a big number of Indians came to Kenya and decided to stay there after the railway was built.

Muslim man in Isiolo
Muslim man sitting in the street, Isiolo

The coast of Kenya is part of the Swahili Coast and there’s a myriad of influences from countries all around the Indian Ocean and from Europe which is reflected in both the food, spices, ships, houses and ethnic manifestation and appearance.

Old canons from the colonial era can still be seen on Lamu
The Kenyan coast is sometimes being called the Swahili Coast and there are strong influences during centuries from Arabia, India and Europe