Kenya - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Kenya: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Kenya, republic in East Africa, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Kenya has a varied landscape of plateaus and high mountains and is home to many different ethnic groups. Formerly a British colony, Kenya gained independence in 1963 and has been a republic since 1964. It is bounded on the north by Sudan and Ethiopia, on the east by Somalia and the Indian Ocean, on the south by Tanzania, and on the west by Lake Victoria and Uganda. Nairobi is the country’s capital and largest city.


Kenya has a total area of 582,646 sq km (224,961 sq mi). The equator passes through the middle of the country. Kenya’s maximum length from east to west is about 890 km (about 550 mi); from north to south it is about 1,030 km (about 640 mi).

Natural Regions in Kenya

Kenya is covered with volcanic rock that is split by faults, especially in the west. The Eastern Rift of the Great Rift Valley appears in Kenya as a massive depression, as wide as 50 to 65 km (30 to 40 mi) in some places, with cliffs reaching 900 m (3,000 ft) in height. The country falls into several topographical zones extending from sea level upward to lofty mountain ranges with elevations of more than 3,000 m (10,000 ft).

In the southeast, Kenya’s coastline measures 536 km (333 mi) in length and is fringed with coral reefs. It is bordered by a narrow coastal plain dotted with tropical forests. From the coast, the terrain rises to a series of low plateaus that cover most of eastern and northern Kenya and range in elevation from about 150 to 1,000 m (about 500 to 3,000 ft).

The region west of the plateaus, known as the Kenya highlands, consists of a series of higher plateaus, ranging from about 900 to 2,000 m (about 3,000 to 5,000 ft). Bisected from north to south by the Eastern Rift Valley, the Kenya highlands are divided into the Mau Escarpment on the east side of the Eastern Rift Valley and the Aberdare Range on the west side. These ranges are marked by numerous extinct volcanoes, the highest of which are Mount Kenya (5,199 m/17,057 ft) in central Kenya, and Mount Elgon (4,321 m/14,177 ft) on the country’s western border. In the far west is the lower Lake Victoria basin, which includes the hilly regions to the north and south of Winam Gulf. Although earth tremors are felt periodically in Kenya’s highlands, the country has experienced no volcanic activity or serious earthquakes over the past several centuries.

Rivers and Lakes in Kenya

Kenya’s largest lake, excluding Lake Victoria on its western border, is Lake Turkana, in the northwest. Smaller lakes—including Lake Baringo, Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivahsa, and Lake Magadi—lie in or near the Eastern Rift. The country’s major rivers include the Tana and Galana (known as the Athi in its upper course) in the east, and the Kerio, Turkwel, and Nzoia in the west. Parts of each of these rivers are navigable by small vessels, but only the Tana is used by larger boats. Except for the Tana and some of its tributaries, most Kenyan rivers have not been used extensively for irrigation.

Plant and Animal Life in Kenya

Kenya contains diverse plant life. Along the Indian Ocean coast are forests containing palm, mangrove, teak, and sandalwood trees. Baobab, euphorbia, and acacia trees dot the lowland plateaus, while extensive tracts of savanna (grassland), interspersed with groves of acacia and some temperate forests, characterize the terrain of the highlands up to about 3,000 m (about 9,000 ft). The higher alpine zone contains giant senecio and lobelia shrubs.

Kenya is known for the great variety of its wildlife and is especially famous for its big game animals associated with the African savanna. The major big game species include elephants, rhinoceroses, zebras, giraffes, and lions and other large cats. Although many of these species are protected in national parks and game reserves, hunters have severely reduced the number of large mammals in Kenya, particularly elephants and rhinoceroses. Kenya’s rhinoceroses are critically endangered. Birds—including ostriches, flamingos, and vultures—abound in Kenya, as do reptiles such as pythons, mambas, and cobras.

Natural Resources of Kenya

Kenya’s main natural resource is its land, of which 9 percent is currently cultivated. Almost all of the agricultural land is located in the south, as the northern two-thirds of the country is mostly desert or semidesert. Kenya does not have significant mineral deposits. Forests constitute approximately 6 percent of Kenya’s land area. Kenya’s rivers provide hydroelectricity.

Climate in Kenya

Kenya’s different topographical regions experience distinct climates. The coastal region is largely humid and wet. The city of Malindi, for instance, receives an average rainfall of 1,050 mm (41 in) per year, with average temperatures ranging from 21° to 32°C (70° to 90°F) in January and 20° to 29°C (68° to 84°F) in July. The low plateau area is the driest part of the country. There, the town of Wajir receives an average annual rainfall of 320 mm (13 in) and experiences average temperatures ranging from 19° to 37°C (66° to 99°F) in January and 19° to 34°C (66° to 93°F) in July. Nairobi, in the temperate Kenya highlands, receives an average annual rainfall of 790 mm (31 in) and experiences average temperatures ranging from 9° to 29°C (48° to 84°F) in January and 7° to 26°C (45° to 79°F) in July. Higher elevation areas within the highlands receive much larger amounts of rainfall. The Lake Victoria basin in western Kenya is generally the wettest region in the country, particularly the highland regions to the north and south of Kisumu, where average annual rainfall ranges from 1,740 mm (70 in) to 1,940 mm (80 in). Average temperatures in this region range from 14° to 34°C (57° to 93°F) in January and 14° to 30°C (57° to 86°F) in July.

Rainfall occurs seasonally throughout most of Kenya. The coast, eastern plateaus, and lake basin experience two rainy seasons: the “long rains” extends roughly from March to June, and the “short rains” lasts from approximately October to December. The highlands of western Kenya have a single rainy season, lasting from March to September. All parts of the country are subject to periodic droughts, or delays in the start of the rainy seasons. Kenya’s climate has had a profound effect on settlement patterns, as for centuries population has been concentrated in the wettest areas of the country.

Environmental Issues in Kenya

Overfarming and intensive gathering of wood for fuel has led to soil erosion, desertification, and deforestation in Kenya. Increased use of pesticides and fertilizers has also led to significant water pollution. In Lake Victoria, the water hyacinth, a large ornamental water plant, has multiplied rapidly since being introduced in the 1980s. It threatens fish and other water life in the lake by depriving them of oxygen.

Kenya is well known for its game parks—including Masai Mara Game Park and Tsavo National Park in the south, and Marsabit National Reserve in the north—which attract large numbers of tourists and much revenue. Conservation of wildlife within reserves has thus received high priority. About 13 percent (2007) of Kenya’s total land is protected. There are 229 (2004) threatened species in Kenya. Threatened habitats include the slopes of Mount Kenya and coastal forests. Efforts are under way to restore the endangered African elephant and black rhino populations, and an aggressive campaign has been waged against poachers.


Kenya’s population at the time of the 1999 census was 28,686,607. In 2009 the population was estimated at 39,002,772. Kenya experienced very high population growth rates in the 1970s and 1980s, but by 2009 the rate of increase had declined to 2.7 percent. In 2009 Kenya’s birth rate was estimated at 37 per 1,000 and its death rate at 10 per 1,000. The average life expectancy at birth in Kenya is 58 years. The low life expectancy and years of high birth rates have combined to give Kenya a young population: 42 percent of the people were younger than age 15 in 2009.

Some 58 percent of Kenya’s population lives in rural areas, most concentrated in the fertile southern half of the country. The country’s largest cites are Nairobi, the capital and chief manufacturing center; Mombasa, the nation’s principal seaport; and Kisumu, the chief port on Lake Victoria. Smaller cities include Nakuru, a commercial and manufacturing center in the Eastern Rift Valley; and Eldoret, an industrial center in western Kenya.

Ethnic Groups in Kenya

Nearly all Kenyans are black Africans, divided into more than 40 ethnic groups belonging to three linguistic families: the Bantu, the Cushitic, and the Nilotic (see African Languages). Language traditionally has been the primary characteristic of ethnic identity in Kenya. Bantu-speaking Kenyans are divided into three different groups: the western group (Luhya); the central, or highlands, group (including the Kikuyu, the Kamba, and other subgroups); and the coastal Bantu (Mijikenda). Among Kenya’s Nilotic speakers, the major groups are the River-Lake, or Western, group (Luo); the Highlands, or Southern, group (Kalenjin); and the Plains, or Eastern, group (Masai). The Cushitic-speaking groups include the Oromo and the Somali. The Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest ethnic group.

For much of Kenya’s history, its ethnic groups were loose social formations, fluid and constantly changing. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries British colonial rule solidified ethnic identities among Kenya’s people. Colonial administrators associated ethnic groups with specific areas of the country by designating areas where only people with a particular ethnic identity could reside. This pattern of ethnically based settlement has persisted in Kenya since it became independent, even though economic and political development has increased mobility and urbanization among the country’s inhabitants. Thus, the majority of Kikuyu live in south central Kenya, the majority of Luhya in western Kenya, the majority of Luo in southwestern Kenya, the majority of Kamba in east central Kenya, and the majority of Kalenjin in west central Kenya. Ethnicity also has been an important factor in Kenyan politics.

Language and Religion in Kenya

Kenya’s official languages are English and Swahili (a Bantu-derived language); both are widely used for communication between members of different ethnic groups. Nearly all of the African ethnic groups in Kenya also have their own languages, making for considerable linguistic diversity within the country. Many Kenyans thus speak three languages: the language of their particular ethnic group, Swahili, and English.

About three-quarters of Kenya’s population is Christian, with Protestants outnumbering Roman Catholics. Most of the remainder are followers of traditional African religions or Islam. There are also small numbers of Hindus and Sikhs.

Education in Kenya

Kenya’s educational system, established in the 1980s to replace the system that existed under British rule, consists of eight years of primary school, four years of secondary school, and four years of higher education. Schooling is compulsory for 8 years. Primary education is nominally free in Kenya, but pupils must meet the cost of uniforms, books, supplies, and school-related fees. Examinations taken at the end of the 8th and 12th grades determine whether students will be admitted into high school and university.

Although 75 percent of school-age children attend the first years of primary school, factors such as cost, examination performance, and inadequate facilities eliminate large numbers from secondary and university education. Kenya has made great progress with adult literacy since independence. In 2005, 87 percent of the adult population was literate, although the rate was significantly higher for adult males (92 percent) than females (82 percent).

Kenya has a number of public and private universities. The major public universities are the University of Nairobi (founded in 1956); Kenyatta University (1972), in Nairobi; the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (1981), near Nairobi; Egerton University (1939), near Nakuru; and Moi University (1984), outside Eldoret. The government also provides opportunities for higher education through several polytechnic institutes and teacher-training colleges.

Way of Life in Kenya

Most Kenyans place great importance on the family and the traditional values and responsibilities associated with it. Kenyan families tend to be large, and households often include many members of the extended family. Polygyny (the practice of having multiple wives) exists to some extent among all social classes and ethnic groups. Many of Kenya’s rural inhabitants live on small farms; some live in houses made of mud and wooden poles with thatched roofs, while others live in houses of brick or stone with metal roofs. A small number are nomadic livestock herders, notably some of the Masai people in the south and the Turkana in the north. City dwellers who are wealthy or middle class typically live in modern houses and apartment buildings; however, many other city dwellers live in shantytowns or other inexpensive quarters.

Kenya’s most popular sport is soccer, and Kenyan runners have gained worldwide renown. Many Kenyans occupy leisure time with traditional music and dance. The overwhelming majority of the Kenyan people dress in Western-style clothing; however, some rural Kenyans wear traditional vibrantly colored or patterned garb, such as the single piece of cloth—often bright red in color—worn by the Masai.

Social Issues in Kenya

The social structure that evolved in Kenya during colonial times emphasized race and class. The dominance of whites over blacks was reinforced through segregation of the races and, within the black African population, of the various ethnic groups. Within each ethnic group, status was determined largely by wealth. After Kenya gained independence in 1963, race ceased to be an important indicator of social status, but wealth and ethnic identity remained significant. Today, a number of Kenya’s problems result from disparities in wealth. These problems include pervasive urban and rural poverty, overcrowded and substandard housing in urban areas, and a relatively high rate of unemployment. In the 1990s the country also witnessed periodic clashes between ethnic groups, particularly between Kalenjin and Kikuyu peoples in west central Kenya.

Tropical diseases, including malaria, have long been a public health problem in Kenya. In recent years, infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) has also become a severe problem. In 2005 an estimated 1,200,000 Kenyans were infected with HIV.


Kenya’s ethnic diversity has produced a variety and richness of cultural forms that reflect African, Asian, and European influences. Visual arts are not highly important in contemporary Kenya, although varieties of wood and clay sculpture are produced for the tourist trade.

Music and Dance in Kenya

Distinctive forms of music and dance are associated with each of Kenya’s ethnic groups, and traditional music has flourished since independence. Kenya also has a thriving industry in popular music, which combines Western and African influences.

Literature in Kenya

Oral literature is the oldest form of literature in Kenya, and oral narratives continue to play an important role in the lives of most Kenyan communities. Written literature—in Swahili and later in English—developed in the early 20th century, when these languages were adopted for use in schools throughout the colony. However, it was not until independence in 1963 that Kenya began to develop a national body of written literature. Since that time, Kenyan writers have produced literary works in English, Swahili, and various vernacular languages. Kenya’s most famous post-independence writer is novelist and playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Isak Dinesen, an early 20th-century white settler in Africa, wrote several books about her time in Kenya.

Theater in Kenya

Prior to independence, Kenyan theater dealt mainly with European issues and followed the model of European theater. Since independence, drama focusing on African themes has developed in Kenya. In the 1970s the University of Nairobi’s traveling theater group began bringing plays to the country’s rural areas.

Libraries and Museums in Kenya

Most of Kenya’s major libraries and museums are located in Nairobi. These include the McMillan Memorial Library; Memorial Library; the University of Nairobi Library; the Kenya National Archives, which includes a small museum; and the National Museum, which features historical and cultural exhibits. The museum at Fort Jesus in Mombasa, featuring archaeological and historical artifacts from the coast, is the most significant museum outside the capital.


Traditionally, Kenya’s economy was based on farming, herding, hunting, and trade. With the establishment of colonial rule, however, Kenya was brought into the world capitalist economy. Under the British, Kenya developed an economy based on the export of agricultural products. The colonial government encouraged the settlement of European farmers in Kenya to provide a greater supply of exports. From World War I (1914-1918) through the mid-1950s, produce grown on settler farms and estates, such as coffee, sisal (a fiber used to make rope), and tea, dominated Kenya’s exports. Meanwhile, African households were encouraged to produce commodities for subsistence and for sale in local markets, and to work on European farms producing export crops.

During and after World War II (1939-1945), Kenya’s economy was altered by the initiation of import substitution manufacturing—that is, the production of goods that formerly had to be imported. The 1950s also witnessed an important change in the agricultural sector as the colonial government adopted measures to stimulate greater production by African households, including granting Africans permission to grow high-value export crops. This helped spur small-scale production over the next two decades, and despite the departure of most European farmers after Kenya gained independence, agricultural exports expanded dramatically. This, together with influxes of foreign capital and technical expertise, made Kenya’s cumulative rate of economic growth—6.8 percent—among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa between 1963 and 1980.

Kenya’s booming economy weakened in the 1980s as a consequence of a rising trade deficit, among other factors. Kenya’s slowing economic growth rate and expanding budget deficits caused the government to turn to structural adjustment policies advocated by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of their economic assistance to Kenya. Nevertheless, the Kenyan government has set the ambitious target of achieving the status of industrialized economy by 2020. In 2007 the gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of goods and services produced, was $24.2 billion, or about $644.50 per person.

Role of Government in Kenya

Since the colonial period, Kenya’s government has played a major role in the economy through its ownership of the railways, control of marketing for agricultural products, and establishment of state-owned firms. After Kenya gained independence in 1963, the government issued a series of five-year plans to guide economic development. Since the early 1990s the government has sold many state firms to private individuals and companies.

Labor in Kenya

In 2007 Kenya had a labor force of 17.4 million people. About 19 percent of the labor force works in agriculture, most earning their living by subsistence farming. About 62 percent work in the service sector and 20 percent in industry. Many laborers earn their living in what is called the jua kali sector—that is, through informal employment as mechanics, metalworkers, or in some other small-scale skilled craft. Kenya’s unemployment rate was estimated at about 21 percent in 1994. Trade unions represent a substantial proportion of private sector employees. All unions were brought under state control in 1965 with the creation of the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU).

Agriculture of Kenya

In 2007 agriculture contributed 26 percent of Kenya’s GDP. This represents a decline from 1963, when agriculture accounted for 38 percent of GDP. Kenya’s principal domestic commodities are the food crops maize (corn), millet, sorghum, and cassava. The most important export crops are tea, coffee, horticultural products (flowers, fruits, and vegetables), chrysanthemums (flowers from which pyrethrum insecticides are made), and sisal. The country’s principal livestock are cattle and goats. Since independence, Kenya’s small farm sector has contributed an increasing share of export production.

Tourism and Other Services in Kenya

The service sector accounts for 56 percent of Kenya’s GDP. This includes the various services provided by the government and the increasingly important restaurant, hotel, and safari industries, which have grown in response to the increasing number of tourists visiting Kenya.

Tourism in Kenya has expanded dramatically since 1963, and since 1989 it has been the country’s leading source of foreign currency. Tourist arrivals, mainly from Europe and North America, numbered 1,399,000 in 2005. Kenya’s main tourist destinations are the beaches along the Indian Ocean coast; national parks and game reserves, such as Masai Mara Game Park, Tsavo National Park, and Amboseli National Park; and museums and historical sites.

Manufacturing and Mining in Kenya

Kenya has the most industrially developed economy in East Africa. The manufacturing sector has grown significantly since the 1960s. In 2007 industry, which includes mining and construction, contributed 18 percent of GDP. Kenya’s chief manufactures include food products, beverages, cigarettes, textiles and clothing, cement, rubber products, transport equipment, printed materials, and petroleum and other chemicals.

Mining employs only a small number of Kenya’s workers. The main minerals produced are soda ash from Lake Magadi, fluorite, salt, and limestone products. The government is also seeking to exploit titanium and zircon deposits on the coast of the Indian Ocean.

Forestry and Fishing in Kenya

Kenyans engage in lake and ocean fishing, the former contributing most of the fish caught. The main sources of fish are Lake Victoria, Lake Naivasha, Lake Turkana, and Lake Baringo. Most fishing is done by self-employed fishermen, often as members of cooperative organizations. Most of the fish caught are consumed domestically. Kenya’s forest plantation areas are located in the highlands and on the coast. Softwood is an important product, with a considerable portion going to the country’s large paper mill at Webuye in western Kenya.

Energy in Kenya

Petroleum is Kenya’s major source of energy, and the country’s entire supply is imported. Electricity is the second most important energy source. Some 52 percent of Kenya’s electricity is generated by hydroelectric plants in the Tana River basin, in the Turkwel River gorge, and in neighboring Uganda. Kenya also has a geothermal station and an oil-burning facility that produce electricity.

Transportation in Kenya

Kenya has one of the most extensive transportation networks in East Africa. Railways connect the major cities, and the country’s road network is substantial, although only about 14 percent (2004) of roads are paved. Mombasa is Kenya’s major seaport and serves Uganda and Rwanda as well. Kisumu is the major port on Lake Victoria. River transport is not extensive. International airports are located at Nairobi, Mombasa, and Eldoret. Kenya Airways is the national airline. The main forms of public transportation in Kenya are buses, matatus (minibuses), and taxis.

Communications in Kenya

Historically, the Kenyan government exercised tight control over the media, although it owned only a portion of it. However, the advent of multiparty politics in 1992 brought about an expansion of press freedom. Kenya has several daily newspapers. The leading dailies are the English-language Daily Nation and its Swahili counterpart Taifa Leo, and the English daily the East African Standard. These and most other periodicals are published in Nairobi. Following political reforms of late 1997, a lively alternative press emerged, publishing numerous inexpensive and often short-lived newspapers in various languages.

The state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation operates radio and television stations serving most of Kenya; it offers programs in English, Swahili, and vernacular languages. Private television and radio stations have also been licensed to serve Nairobi and some other urban markets. Telephone service has expanded in recent decades, but Kenya still has only 8 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 residents. Mobile telephone service is available across Kenya, however, and there are 135 mobile telephone subscribers for every 1,000 residents. Access to the Internet is expanding but tends to be limited to individuals and companies located in Nairobi and other major cities.

Foreign Trade in Kenya

Kenya is dependent on foreign trade. Since 1980 the country has usually run a substantial trade deficit with countries outside Africa and a surplus with those in East Africa. In 2007 Kenya’s imports totaled $9.2 billion and its exports totaled $4 billion. Kenya’s imports include industrial raw materials, crude petroleum, and machinery. Exports include tea, coffee, horticultural products, petroleum products, and cement.

Currency and Banking of Kenya

Kenya’s basic unit of currency is the Kenyan shilling, consisting of 100 cents (67.3 Kenyan shillings equal US$1; 2007 average). Currency is issued by the Central Bank of Kenya, established in Nairobi in 1966. An extensive network of commercial banks, both locally and foreign-owned, serves most of Kenya’s urban areas. The Nairobi Stock Exchange serves the whole country.


Before independence in 1963, Kenya was a British colony governed by an all-powerful colonial administrator. The vast majority of Kenyans were not allowed to vote and were not represented in the government. With independence, Kenya became a constitutional monarchy under the nominal sovereignty of the British monarch, with a prime minister serving as head of government. In 1964 Kenya cut its ties to the British throne and became a republic with a president as head of state and government. From 1964 to 1966, and from 1969 to 1982, Kenya was, for all practical purposes, a one-party state; between 1982 and 1991 it was a one-party state by law. In 1991 the Kenyan government allowed for the existence of multiple political parties, and in 1992 the country held its first contested presidential elections.

Independent Kenya’s first constitution, adopted in 1963, provided for a semifederal system with a two-chamber national legislature and regional governments with designated powers. When the constitution was revised in 1964 to provide for a republic with a strong president, most federal features of the government were scrapped. In 1967 the two chambers of the legislature were merged to form the single-chamber National Assembly. The country holds regularly scheduled parliamentary elections, and all citizens age 18 and older are eligible to vote.

Executive of Kenya

The executive branch is the most influential branch of the Kenyan government. Kenya’s president serves as head of state. The president is elected by the people for a five-year term, and a 1991 constitutional amendment established a two-term limit for the presidency. To become president, a candidate must simultaneously run for president and for a seat in parliament and must win both elections. The president appoints a cabinet of ministers, each of whom heads an executive department of the government, and a vice president, who is also a member of the cabinet. Under the terms of a 2008 power-sharing agreement, the position of prime minister was created to replace the president as head of government.

Legislature of Kenya

Kenya’s parliament is a single-chamber body called the National Assembly. Legislation passed by the parliament becomes law after being approved by the president. Elections to the National Assembly are held every five years, unless called earlier by the president or the assembly itself. Following the elections held in 2002, the National Assembly consisted of 210 directly elected representatives (including the president), 12 members nominated by the president, the attorney general, and the speaker of the house.

Judiciary in Kenya

Kenya’s judiciary consists of two major courts and a number of lower magistrate courts. The major courts are the Kenya Court of Appeal, with 9 judges, and the High Court of Kenya, with 27 judges. All judges are appointed by the president. Kenya’s legal system is based on English common law, tribal law, and Islamic law. Trial by jury is not used in Kenya.

Local Government of Kenya

For administrative purposes, Kenya is divided into seven provinces (Central Province, Coast Province, Eastern Province, Northeastern Province, Nyanza Province, Rift Valley Province, and Western Province), in addition to the extra-provincial region of Nairobi and its environs. The provinces are divided into dozens of districts, which in turn are divided into divisions, which are further divided into locations. A commissioner heads each province and district, while a district officer heads each division; chiefs head the locations. All of these officials are under the direction of the president. This system of local government was inherited from the colonial period. Kenya’s districts and municipalities also have elected councils, which raise revenue to provide some local services.

Political Parties of Kenya

Between 1982 and 1991 Kenya was a one-party state by law. The ruling party was the Kenya African National Union (KANU), a conservative nationalist party dominated by the interests of President Daniel arap Moi. At the end of the 1980s many Kenyan people began to protest the system of one-party rule, and in late 1991 the government agreed to permit the registration of other political parties. More than a dozen new political parties were legalized in 1997. KANU remained the ruling party of Kenya until December 2002 elections, which were dominated by an alliance of opposition parties called the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). Ethnicity has long been a main determinant of political party membership.

Social Services in Kenya

Kenyans rely on family support for many of their social welfare needs, including school fees and funeral expenses. However, Kenya’s government provides funding for a range of hospitals, health centers, and clinics. The government also provides support for adult literacy classes.

Defense of Kenya

In 2006 Kenya’s defense establishment consisted of an army of 20,000 personnel, a navy of 1,620, and an air force of 2,500. Military service is voluntary. Kenya’s military has had relatively little influence on politics.

International and Regional Organizations in Kenya

Kenya is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the African Union (AU), and the United Nations (UN). Kenya is linked economically and politically with Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda through its membership in the East African Community.


Kenya was the location of some of the earliest human settlements. Sites such as Koobi Fora, near Lake Turkana, indicate hominid habitation dating back 2.5 million years.

History of Inland Kenya

In the Kenya highlands, communities that produced their own food by farming and domestication of animals had taken up residence by the end of the second millennium BC. Because of the tools they used, these people—who probably came from the highlands of Ethiopia—are known as the Stone Bowl people. It was not until the last few centuries of the pre-Christian era that other food-producing and iron-working peoples began to take up residence in Kenya. These were the ancestors of the Bantu- and Nilotic-speaking groups of modern Kenya. Bantu-speaking peoples entered Kenya from the west and south, eventually settling east of Lake Victoria, where they occupied land on the coast and in the eastern highlands. The earliest Nilotic-speaking people, ancestors of today’s Highlands Nilotic speakers, entered Kenya from the northwest to take up residence in the highlands west of the Eastern Rift Valley. Later, ancestors of the Plains Nilotic speakers followed, moving into the Rift Valley and the plains to the east. Later still, ancestors of the River-Lake Nilotic speakers moved into the lower-lying regions around Lake Victoria. Eastern Cushitic speakers ancestral to the Oromo moved into northern Kenya from lands to the northeast and were followed by Cushitic-speaking Somali.

This process of migration occurred through small population movements and interactions and stretched over a period of centuries. From this process emerged the various social formations that existed in Kenya at the beginning of colonial rule in the late 19th century AD. These groupings were fluid, representing a process of ongoing social change. For example, in the 17th century the ancestors of the Bantu-speaking Kikuyu settled in the forested hills and ridges south and west of Mount Kenya; as they did so, they borrowed customs from some peoples, absorbed other peoples, and competed with various groups for resources. Most of Kenya’s peoples combined livestock raising with agriculture, although some, like the Nilotic-speaking Masai, were nomadic herders. Unlike nearby regions such as Ethiopia and Uganda, Kenya did not experience the emergence of large, centralized states or empires.

History of Coastal Kenya

The Kenyan coast developed differently from the interior due to its exposure to the Indian Ocean sphere of exploration and trade. Over the course of the first millennium, a separate Bantu language and culture, which came to be known as Swahili, developed along the East African coast. This development was strongly influenced by contact with Arabs from the Persian Gulf, who traded, settled, and intermarried with the coastal Africans. By the 9th century the Swahili-speaking people had established a number of towns between present-day Somalia and Mozambique, including Mombasa, Lamu, and Pate in what is now Kenya. These towns became important trade centers, facilitating commerce between residents of the Kenyan interior and seafaring traders from Arabia, Persia, India, and elsewhere on the Indian Ocean. The main exports from these Swahili towns were ivory, slaves, and timber and other raw materials. By the 12th century many of the Swahili inhabitants of the towns had adopted Islam. Some towns, such as Mombasa, grew wealthy, gaining control of coastal and inland territory and developing into city-states. A number of these Swahili city-states dotted the Kenyan coast by the time the Portuguese arrived at the start of the 16th century.

After Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama successfully sailed around Africa to India and back between 1497 and 1499, the Portuguese began actively exploring the Indian Ocean coast. At first the Portuguese were interested in dominating trade on the seas rather than controlling mainland territory in East Africa. At the end of the 16th century, however, the Portuguese constructed Fort Jesus, a massive fortress at Mombasa, in order to exercise greater control ashore. Portuguese dominance did not last long, as the Portuguese faced competition from the Arab dynastic state in Oman, which also sought to control much of the East African coast. The Swahili states, together with the Omani Arabs, succeeded in driving the Portuguese from Kenya’s coast by the end of the 17th century. The Swahili states resisted Omani attempts to control the coast, but by the 1840s the Omanis had established dominance. Commerce expanded as trade in African slaves boomed. Omani rule over the area brought further Arabic influence to Swahili language and culture. In the 19th century the East African coast also experienced greater contact with Europe, in the form of commerce and attempts by Britain to stamp out the African slave trade. British influence in the region grew, culminating in Britain’s halting of the slave trade in the late 1800s and its takeover of Kenya at the end of the century.

British Colonization

In 1886 and 1890 Britain reached agreements with Germany that delineated a boundary between British territory in Kenya and German territory in Tanganyika (part of present-day Tanzania) to the south. The Imperial British East Africa Company was chartered in 1888 to administer Kenya, but the company soon found itself losing large amounts of money through its vain attempts to extend control over the interior. In 1895 the British government formally took over the territory, which was renamed the East Africa Protectorate. Its western neighbor was Britain’s Uganda Protectorate, and the border between the two lay just west of the site that would become, in the late 1890s, the new city of Nairobi.

Although the boundaries of the British protectorate were set, the British actually controlled little more than the Kenyan coast at the beginning of the 20th century. The British conquest of the Kenyan interior was gradual and incremental, taking second place to Britain’s construction of a railway connecting Mombasa with Lake Victoria. The railway was completed in 1901. In 1902 Britain decided to merge Uganda’s Eastern Province with the East Africa Protectorate; thus the Lake Victoria basin and the western highlands became part of Kenya. By 1908 the British administration had brought the southern half of present-day Kenya under its control. Northern Kenya, then inhabited largely by nomadic peoples, did not come under British authority until well after World War I (1914-1918).

In their colonial conquest, the British followed a policy of divide and conquer, allying with some African groups against others. The Masai, who had suffered a series of 19th-century civil wars over water and grazing rights and had lost much of their livestock to disease and drought, were one group with whom the British allied in order to impose their rule. To aid colonial administration, the British divided Kenya’s Bantu-, Nilotic-, and Cushitic-speaking peoples into ethnic classifications based on linguistic variations and locality. Thus, specific ethnic subgroups, called “tribes,” were created in a form that had not existed previously. The ethnic groups were assigned to live in separate areas of the colony. Within each subgroup, colonial administrators designated one “chief,” who became responsible for collecting taxes levied by the colonial state.

To help make the new railway profitable, the colonial government encouraged the settlement of European farmers in Kenya. After 1902 white Europeans (mostly from Britain and South Africa) took up residence in the highlands. Land for European settlement meant the loss of land for some of Kenya’s peoples, most notably the highland-dwelling Kikuyu. Many of the Kikuyu who lost land were forced to move onto European farms and estates as squatters and laborers, or to seek employment in urban areas such as Nairobi. By the time World War I ended in 1918, European settlers, desiring inexpensive farm labor, had convinced the colonial government to adopt measures that essentially forced Africans to work the farms. These included new, higher taxes on Africans, who, lacking money, were obligated to work the settlers’ farms in order to pay them. By this time, the settlers had achieved considerable political influence in the territory, which was changed to a colony and renamed Kenya in 1920. The colony of Kenya was administered by a British governor, who was advised by an elected Legislative Council. Black Africans were not allowed to vote and were denied representation in the council until the mid-1940s, when a small number of blacks were nominated to the council. The colony’s small Asian and Arab populations were given several seats in the council in the 1920s.

African Opposition to the British

Following World War I, protests against settler supremacy and the policies of the colonial government emerged among Kenyan Africans. Much of the opposition during this period came from educated Kenyans who objected to the government’s high taxes, labor-control policies, and a general lack of opportunities. One of the first opposition movements to emerge was the East African Association, which was banned by colonial authorities in 1922. In the 1920s and 1930s African protests focused on local issues and remained within the boundaries of the ethnic units recognized by colonial rule. The Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), formed in 1924, began advocating the return of land lost to European settlement, the importance of Kikuyu cultural values, and improvement in the lot of its middle-class leadership. One of the leaders of the KCA was Jomo Kenyatta. During this period, the KCA and similar organizations in other parts of Kenya sought not the removal of colonial rule but rather improvement within it.

After World War II (1939-1945), opposition increasingly took the form of nationalism, with African activists demanding self-government and independence. A colony-wide political party, the Kenya African Union (KAU), was formed in 1944 to advocate this goal. Kenyatta became the leader of the party in 1947. KAU made little headway with its demands, however, as European settlers still enjoyed far greater influence than Africans within the colonial government.

In these postwar years, economic and political discontent mounted, particularly among the Kikuyu. Some outbreaks of violence occurred in 1951, and the following year a secret Kikuyu guerrilla organization known as Mau Mau began a campaign of violence against Europeans. In October 1952 the colonial government declared a state of emergency and arrested Kenyatta, charging him with managing Mau Mau. Kenyatta’s arrest and later conviction and imprisonment, and the banning of KAU in 1953, spurred on the Mau Mau rebellion, in which thousands of Africans—the majority of whom were Kikuyu—fought a guerrilla war against colonial rule and settler supremacy. The rebellion proved also to be a Kikuyu civil war: Those who fought against British rule were drawn from the poorest segment of Kikuyu society, while wealthier Kikuyu, who had profited from colonial rule, fought against the rebels. After four years of fighting and thousands of deaths (mostly of Africans), the British finally suppressed the rebellion in 1956.

Although the British moved to provide greater economic, educational, and political opportunities for Africans, African nationalism continued to intensify and to spread among all of Kenya’s ethnic groups. In 1960 and 1961 the British rapidly took steps to end settler supremacy and establish independence for Kenya with African majority rule. Colony-wide political parties were formed, and when Kenyatta was freed from detention in 1961 he became the leader of the newly formed dominant party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). KANU was supported by the Kikuyu and the Luo, Kenya’s two largest ethnic groups at the time. In pre-independence elections held in May 1963, Kenyatta led KANU to victory over its main rival, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), which was supported by a number of smaller ethnic groups. Kenyatta became prime minister in June, and in December Kenya became an independent nation.

Kenya Under Kenyatta

As an independent country, Kenya was initially a constitutional monarchy, with the British monarch as its nominal head of state and a prime minister as head of government. In December 1964, however, Kenya became a republic with a president as both head of state and head of government. Kenyatta was chosen as the country’s first president. By this time KADU had dissolved, and its members had joined KANU.

The Kenyatta era, which lasted until 1978, was a period of considerable social change and economic growth for Kenya. Kenyatta appointed members of many different ethnic groups to government positions and encouraged the people of Kenya to come together as Kenyans, rather than focus on their different ethnic alignments. Many whites had left the country when Kenya became independent, and Kenyatta divided their land among blacks. These Kenyans were encouraged to grow export crops such as coffee and tea on their new land. Aided by a steady flow of foreign investment, largely from Britain, Kenya’s economy flourished. The standard of living rose for most Kenyans, and the nation’s economy became one of the fastest growing in post-colonial Africa.

However, Kenyatta’s capitalist economic policies and pro-Western orientation provoked division within KANU. Kenya’s vice president, an ethnic Luo named Oginga Odinga, resigned from the government in 1966 and formed the Kenya People’s Union (KPU), which drew a great deal of Luo support away from KANU and presented the Kenyatta government with a challenge. In 1969 Tom Mboya, an influential Luo cabinet minister, was assassinated, resulting in a further loss of Luo support for the government. Kenyatta surmounted these challenges through the use of state power: detaining opponents without trial, banning the KPU, and filling government positions with supporters. Kenyatta made appeals for ethnic solidarity among Kikuyu, and many Kikuyu achieved influence and considerable wealth under his rule. However, the president resisted attempts by Kikuyu to remove his vice president, an ethnic Kalenjin named Daniel arap Moi, from the position of successor.

Moi’s Rule

Kenyatta died in 1978, and Moi assumed the presidency of Kenya. He took the Swahili word nyayo (meaning “footsteps”) as his leadership motto to assure Kenyans that he was following the legacy of Kenyatta. At first, Moi adopted a populist approach, releasing political prisoners, moving to limit Kikuyu political and economic influence, and traveling among the nation’s people. In the 1980s, however, Kenya’s economic growth began to slow, and Moi’s rule became increasingly authoritarian. In 1982 the Moi government altered the constitution to make Kenya officially a one-party state. That year Moi survived a coup attempt by air force personnel. Beginning in the 1980s, Kenya experienced several debilitating droughts and the price of coffee dropped several times. These factors damaged the Kenyan economy; the nation fell into debt, and unemployment rose dramatically.

Fueled by economic discontent, strong pressure for reform of the political system and an end to Moi’s rule emerged from many sectors of Kenyan society by the end of the 1980s. Moi resisted the calls for reform, but his government came under pressure from foreign economic donors, such as the World Bank and the United States, to implement political and economic reforms. Meanwhile, in the early 1990s violent ethnic clashes rocked Kenya’s Rift Valley Province, as Kalenjin people attacked Kikuyu living in traditionally Kalenjin areas. Moi finally bowed to domestic and international pressures in December 1991 and agreed to legalize other political parties. Multiparty legislative and presidential elections were held in December 1992, but the opposition to KANU split along ethnic lines; Moi was reelected in the presidential race, and KANU won the majority of seats in the assembly.

Continuing economic difficulties and calls for further reform marked Moi’s new term. His administration also was accused of corruption and overspending, particularly through its favoring of development projects in Kalenjin-dominated areas that supported him. Before the elections of 1997, opposition parties held demonstrations calling for electoral reform, and further ethnic clashes occurred. In late 1997 Moi consented to the repeal of repressive antiopposition laws that had existed since colonial times. However, opposition to Moi’s rule remained divided, and he was reelected president in December.

Recent Developments

The Kenyan economy continued to decline into the 21st century and opposition to Moi and KANU mounted. Constitutionally prohibited from seeking another term, Moi handpicked KANU’s candidate to succeed him. Expressing fears that Moi would manipulate the next KANU president behind the scenes, several major opposition parties joined forces to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), led by former vice president Mwai Kibaki. NARC and Kibaki swept the December 2002 elections with more than 60 percent of the vote. Kibaki was sworn in as president of Kenya in late December, ending four decades of KANU rule.

Kibaki pledged to curb corruption in the government and civil service and in 2003 established a new anticorruption senior official. However, the government’s commitment to the effort was questioned. After making little progress, the anticorruption official resigned in 2005, sparking criticism of the Kenyan government from the international economic community.

Kibaki was declared the winner of the December 2007 presidential election despite widespread evidence of vote rigging. The top opposition leader, Raila Odinga, claimed he had won the election. Weeks of bloodshed and destruction ensued as Kibaki’s and Odinga’s supporters, divided along ethnic lines, clashed over the dispute. More than 1,000 people were killed in the unrest, which damaged Kenya’s long-standing reputation for stability. A power-sharing agreement was finally reached in late February 2008, following mediation by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and intense international pressure. In the agreement, Odinga dropped his claim to the presidency and accepted the newly created position of prime minister.

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