Kenya is bestowed with well over 40 different ethnic groups with different languages and dialects, traditional arts & crafts, architecture in homestead designs, clothing and jewellery, food, social and economic activities. Successive migrations and invasions, right until the British colonisation in the late 19th Century, have left their mark in the rich mixture of tribes, race and customs seen in Kenya today. If any one thing of Kenya speaks of this unique character, it is the modern melding of traditional societies and culture. Kenya’s culture is both diversified and fragmented, born of myriad sources and influences both new and old.
In Kenya the modern and the traditional live side by side, and at times the lines blur. For many visitors to Kenya, this is evident within minutes of arrival. In Kenya it is possible to leave Nairobi, a city with a thriving business heart powered by the latest information technology, and drive in just a few hours to a place where life is lived in accordance to tradition and custom, where warriors armed with spears drive cattle into thorn brush enclosures to protect them from lions at night.
The Kenyan official national language is English and Swahili. Swahili is the most widely spoken African language, with 50 million speakers in East Africa and Central Africa, particularly in Tanzania (including Zanzibar) and Kenya.
There are many other languages spoken by each Kenya’s 42 different ethnic groups including Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo and Kikamba and many more The average Kenyan therefore speaks at least three different languages.
A more modern language spoken amongst the younger members of society is Sheng. This is a mixture of Swahili and English along with a words of other languages.
Kenyan food includes a variety of African and Indian recipes. Ugali (porridge made from cornmeal or millet flour), groundnut soup, stews and kebabs are favourite dishes. Use of spices and coconut feature in Kenyan cuisine. Indian food such as pilau rice, samosas and chapatis are often eaten with meals. Tea is served very hot and sweet.
Songs and dance have always played an important role in African culture, used especially to mark important events and ceremonies. For example, the Maasai had the Engilakinoto, sung after a victorious lion hunt. Structured around a deep rhythmic chant it is accompanied by a spectacular dance in which warriors display their strength and prowess by leaping directly and vertically into the air.
The Luhya of Western Kenya developed a very distinctive dance style called Sikuti after the local name for a drum. This extremely energetic dance is usually performed by paired male and female dancers, and accompanied by several drums, bells, long horns and whistles.
The Kamba and Chuka people both developed a distinctive drumming style, in which a long drum is leant forward and clasped between the thighs. The Kamba were well known for their athletic, almost acrobatic dancing.
On the coast, the growth of Swahili culture saw the growth of a unique style of music, called Taarab. Combining elements of African percussion with Arabic rhythms, Taarab become a popular form of music that remains a coastal favourite today.