Kenya’s incredible natural environment and cultural heritage is almost unmatched in Africa. Revered by anthropologists as the “cradle of humanity”, Kenya is wild and a little dangerous. If you’re adventurous – and sensible – it promises the globe’s most magnificent wildlife parks, unsullied beaches, thriving coral reefs, memorable mountain scales and ancient Swahili settlements.
Kenya’s beauty is compromised by a cluster of familiar problems. HIV remains a major problem along with cholera and malaria epidemics. Kenya has also experienced major floods and drought which lead to food shortages in mid-2004 that were deemed a national crisis. While Kenya’s ethnic diversity has produced a vibrant culture, it is also a source of conflict that has led to ethnic fighting. Other pressing challenges include high unemployment, crime and poverty. Millions of Kenyans live below the poverty level of $1 a day.
Kenya lies across the equator on the east coast of Africa. It borders Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan to the North, Uganda to the west, Tanzania to the South, and the Indian Ocean to the East. Kenya covers an area of 225, 000 sq miles (582, 646 sq km); slightly more than twice the size of Nevada. It has a population of 41,000,000.
Kenya has a variable tropical climate. It is hot and humid at the coast, temperate inland and very dry in the north and northeast parts of the country. There is plenty of sunshine all the year round and summer clothes are worn throughout the year. It is, however usually cool at night and early in the morning.
The “long rains” occur from April to June and “short rains” from October to December. The rainfall is sometimes heavy, and when it does come it often falls in the afternoons and evenings. The hottest period is from February to March, and coldest in July to August.
Kenya’s two official languages are English and Swahili (Kiswahili). Unless you are hopelessly lost in the bush somewhere, you will probably be able to find someone who speaks English. Visitor’s attempts to use Swahili are generally warmly received and can help in conversations. Despite the widespread use of Swahili, the majorities of Kenyans have their own tribal language and view Swahili, as well as English, to be a foreign language.
Kenya has no state religion. However, many Kenyans are members of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Protestant churches. These religious connections came from early missionary activities of colonial times. Along with these religions, traditional beliefs of the people are very strong. Animals (cattle, sheep, and goats), natural objects and phenomena (rain, thunder, lightning, wind, even rocks and mountains) are often associated with God and considered to be sacred. Some names for God mean sky, heaven, or the above.
Most Kenyans are Christian. Muslims make up ~20% of the population, most living in Eastern Kenya provinces and along the coast. In more remote tribal areas you’ll find a mixture of Muslims, Christians and those who follow their ancestral tribal beliefs.
Kenya’s currency, the Kenyan shilling (Ksh), is a colonial legacy based on the old British currency. People often talk in “bob”, meaning shillings, and occasionally in “pounds”, meaning Ksh20 (you’ll also hear “quids” for pounds). There are Ksh1000, 500, 200, 100 and 50 notes, and coins of Ksh20, 10, 5, 1, 50 cents (half a shilling), 20 cents, 10 cents and 5 cents, though in practice you will rarely come across coins of less than Ksh1. Click here to see the current exchange rate
Social Customs and Culture
There are more than 40 tribal groups among the Africans in Kenya. Distinctions between many of them are blurred – western cultural values are becoming more ingrained and traditional values are disintegrating. Yet, even though the average Kenyan may have outwardly drifted away from tribal traditions, the first question asked when two of them meet are “What tribe are you from?”
These points will heighten your awareness of Kenyan culture:
- Politeness, respect and modesty are highly valued in Kenya.
- Immodest attire, public displays of affection, and open anger are frowned upon.
- It is perfectly natural for friends of the same sex to walk hand in hand in Kenya.
- Pleasantries are very important; several minutes of verbal greetings when meeting and departing are common and may be accompanied by a long handshake. Kenyans are big on ceremony.
- Learning a few words of greetings and responses in Swahili is most welcome and will be very much appreciated.
- An offered gift or invitation to a join a meal should be accepted; to refuse may shame the giver.
- Spoken thanks aren’t common; don’t be concerned if you aren’t thanked for a gift.
- Family and community are a priority in Kenya; personal interests and gain are secondary. Courtesy and respect for elders and professionals is expected.
- The elderly are much respected in East African culture; when introduced to a local family, addressing the eldest member first generates an excellent rapport.
- Time and deadlines are flexible; “now” and “tomorrow” may have many different meanings; don’t expect things to run to clockwork in Kenya.
- Ask permission before taking photos. Photography of airports or any government buildings is not permitted. Save your film for the wildlife and cultural villages where photos are encouraged!
- Kenyans love to party and the music style known as benga is the contemporary dance music that “rules”. It originated among the Luo people of western Kenya and became popular in the 1950’s. Some well-known exponents of benga include Shirati Jazz, Victoria Kings, Globe style and the Ambira Boys.
Kenyan food is characterized as “survival fodder” by locals, meaning maximum filling-up potential at minimum cost. Generally plain and filling, the basic Kenyan diet consists of potatoes or rice eaten with (tough) chicken, beef or mutton. Ugali, a starchy filler, with beans or a meat sauce is also part of the regular diet. Snacks include mandaazi and hard boiled eggs.
The national beverage is chai (tea). Universally drunk at breakfast and as a pick-me-up anytime, it’s a variant on the classic British brew: milk, water, lots of sugar and tea leaves, brought to the boil in a kettle and served scalding hot. Instant coffee – fresh coffee is rare – is normally available in hotels as well, but it is expensive and not as popular as tea.
Both Christian and Muslim religious holidays are observed, as well as secular national holidays. Local seasonal and cyclical events, particular to ethnic groups, are less well advertised. Kenya’s most spectacular annual event is organized by an unlikely group – wild beasts. Literally millions of antelopes move en mass in July and August from the Serengeti in search of lush grass. They head south again around October. The best place to see this phenomenon is at the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Responsible tourism entails refraining from supporting trades or services that do harm to the people or the environment, and travelers to Kenya should be very aware its importance. Please avoid purchasing wildlife products such as ivory and skins as the market created by these purchases encourages poaching and terrible injuries to the animals themselves. Removal of coral, shells from turtles or any other kind of marine animal also causes a tremendous upset to the balance of marine life which is more often than not impossible to correct.
Responsible tourism also involves not handing out candy and pens to children or giving money to beggars. While the kids are cute and the beggars poor, there are much better ways to use any resources you have. Handing out money or other items to people in the street encourages a begging mentality and makes locals dependent on tourists.
City vs. Country Living
Nairobi is a cosmopolitan city and you can expect a fairly high level of development although living is basic. Houses generally have electricity, running (though not necessarily hot) water and flush toilets. Power blackouts and water stoppages are not uncommon. Houses are usually small and have many people living in them. Often you will find aunties and grandmothers living with the family. Many houses will also have a housekeeper. Rural houses may not have electricity or running water, and internet facilities and shops are usually far away. Common are bucket baths, squat toilets and boiled hot water.
Health and Hygiene
Approximately one third of travelers to lesser-developed countries become ill as a reaction to contaminated food or water. While volunteering, you should monitor your own health so that you can see a doctor right away if you show signs of illness. In the case of malaria, it is much easier to treat when you detect it early. Most of the time though, if you get sick, it will be because of something simple like not washing your hands or drinking local, untreated water. As a result, you have diarrhea for a day or two, take some medication for it, and then go back to doing what you came to do. There are several good health websites out there for travelers such as the ones established by the CDC, WHO as well as popular health journals.
Visitors to Kenya unfamiliar with the heat can suffer from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Stay hydrated with sealed, bottled water which is readily available. It is never a good idea to drink the local water without filtering, boiling or using water purification tablets. Fruit juice can have water added to it unless bought bottled from a shop. Hot drinks such as coffee and tea are usually fine, as they use boiled water.
Using the rest room may be quite a new experience for you if you have never had the opportunity to use a “squatty potty”. Flush toilets can be found in the Brittney House, the Kenya Relief compound, airports, hotels and more expensive restaurants. When traveling it is acceptable to make a discreet stop behind a tree or bush if needed. You may see local men, even in the city, using a bush or the roadside as a toilet. Public restrooms may not supply toilet paper. If wearing long pants, it’s smart to cuff your trousers. Toilets are sometimes flushed using a bucket (even in businesses). Pit latrines are common in slums and rural areas.
Disposing of used sanitary items can pose a problem as they should not be dropped down pit toilets, and most bathrooms don’t contain bins. Public bathrooms very often lack TP. Some women who are on the pill choose to take back-to-back courses to avoid the issue altogether, with their doctor’s approval.
There is a significant risk of malaria in rural Kenya, and appropriate medication is essential. Spread by mosquitoes, this disease can be fatal in some circumstances if not diagnosed quickly. For prevention, effective anti-malarials are available and usually need to be started a few days before arriving in Africa. Some affect people quite differently and each has its own benefits and drawbacks. Whichever form of anti-malarial you choose, it is essential that you know how and when to take it, as it will only provide protection if used correctly. It is worth noting that even if you take anti-malarials as prescribed it is still possible to catch malaria. Malaria can be in your system for some time before you show signs of illness. Regardless of where you are, in Africa or back home, you should seek medical attention if you have any flu-like symptoms or fevers within a year of travel. Alert your medical practitioner to the fact that you have been traveling in a malaria infected country and let them know what medication you were taking.
Traveling across Kenya is via varying road conditions – if you get car sick, bring medication. Some stretches of rural roads are in very poor condition. Kenya has a network of buses (known as city-hoppers) and matatus (minibuses). City-hoppers and most matatus travel on specific routes and have route numbers, but neither run on strict schedules. Bicycles are ridden mostly by men, but walking is still the main form of transportation for most people. A half hour walk is usually considered short by locals. All transportation during your stay is prearranged so no need to worry about catching a matatu!
In general people are extremely friendly in Kenya and you will be humbled by their hospitality. As a tourist you will probably attract souvenir hawkers and beggars. Try and take the time to meet ordinary people going about their day to day business too…the experience will be worth it!
Street crime can occur particularly in large cities like Nairobi and Mombasa. Foreigners are not generally targeted, but incidents have occurred. You should be vigilant at all times and follow all advice given by the Kenya Relief staff and drivers. Avoid carrying large amounts of cash and don’t wear expensive watches, jewelry or items of sentimental value. Carry your passport in a safe and secure place that only you are aware of. Don’t accept food or drink from strangers. Avoid walking around after dark.