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KENYA – CULTURE, AND TRIBES

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Kenya in the World Map.

Kenya is located in East Africa, Africa. Kenya is also known as “Jamhuri ya Kenya”, and it borders Uganda to the western side, Ethiopia to the northern side, Tanzania to the Southern side, Somalia to the northeast, and the mighty Indian Ocean to the eastern side. The total area of this country that straddles the equator is 582,600 square kilometers (224,961 square miles), making it nearly twice the size of the state of Nevada. Nairobi City is the country’s capital and largest city. Kenya is home of the most spectacular features such as The Great Rift Valley, and numerous lakes and variety of wildlife.

Kenyan Tribes

Kenya is diverse in great measures, from the people to its cultures. There are about 42 tribes in Kenya, with different languages that have merged creating a unique mix of Kenyan culture. The largest six tribes make up almost half of the Kenyan population thus having a high influence on Kenyan culture.

This diversity has given rise to lots of traditional cultures and traditional ceremonies that are common across all the tribes, each doing with their unique flavor. Almost all Kenyans speak both English and Swahili, making communication between Kenyans very easy.

There are three main language groups that can be divided into;

Bantus
Tharaka, Gusii, Kuria, Embu, Meru, Mbere, Luhya, Akamba, Kikuyu.

Coastal Bantu: Pokomo,S wahili, Mijikenda, Taita, Taveta, Segeju.

Nilots
 Njemps,  Luo, Maasai, Samburu, Turkana, Teso, Elmolo,Kalenjin, Elkony.

Cushites
Boran, Boni, Somali, Orma, Gabbra, Rendille.

Ethnic Relations

The largest and most dominant tribe in Kenya is the Kikuyu, they are from the highlands of Kenya. They rose to power and dominance through barter trade, they traded they bountiful harvest to the communities who practiced hunting and gathering in exchange for land and a times inter-marriages. What aided they gradual rise was their peaceful antics when mingling with other ethnic groups. However, despite the Kikuyu community enjoying a lot of benefits post-independence, they were the tribe that was hit hardest during the colonial period. In the old times Kikuyu had hostile relationship with the Maasai community, the two ethnic communities did not see eye to eye with each other. They often raided each other villages and steal livestock. What was funny was, at the same time the antagonistic relationship was going on, there was a lot of intermarriages and cultural diversity between the two communities. How other different ethnic groups relate in Kenya are fraught with tension, this has been the main obstacle during the efforts of creation of a united Kenya. Much of the conflicts experienced in Kenya are part of the colonial rule, the British orchestrated and exaggerated tensions among various ethnic groups in order to reinforced their power. During the colonial era, under the British rule, most of the diverse ethnic groups were confined to particular geographic locations. The tensions between these ethnic groups that has continued to this date have been major cause of violence. At the beginning of 1990 there was tribal clashes that displaced thousands, it was between different communities but as of the recent past the trend is going down as Kenyans have started to embrace the diversities that are there.

The population of Indians in Kenya is fairly large, most of them belonged to the railway workers who came to Kenya in early 20th century to work Kenya-Uganda railway. After the completion of the railway many opted to remain behind, opening stores and others being merchants. During the colonial period they were occupying the racial netherland, the were ill-treated by the colonial masters but not as poorly as the Africans. After Kenya gained independence almost half of the Indian population left the Kenya.

Cuisine

In the real terms there is no single dish that represents all of Kenya’s wide variety of food. Every community has their own native food but, right across all the communities the common food is maize (corn). It is grinded into fine or coarse flour and prepared as hard porridge commonly known as ugali or posho. In Kikuyu culture, the maizemeal is sometimes mixed with potatoes that are either boiled or mashed, vegetables, or beans to come up with a dish known as irio. Another popular way to down ugali is with nyama choma (roasted beef) or beef stew. Matoke which is made from mashed boiled green bananas is also another common dish in Kenya, it is often accompanied by green vegetables which are either fried or boiled. Meat prices in Kenya is fairly high for a common person so it is rarely eaten. Those coming from herding communities like the Maasai and Samburu people depend on milk as their main source of food, those from around lakes on the Indian ocean fish is popular dis. The coastal town of Mombasa is known worldwide for its wide variety of food that was introduced by numerous early visitors to the area. The food includes the chapatti, curries, pilau, and samosas. Then snacks include the roasted corn on the cob, peanuts, mandazi, potato chips and many more. One of the common beverages in Kenya is tea, it is often mixed with sugar and milk. In Mombasa the popular drink is the palm wine. Beer is widely taken across the country and most it is produced by the local breweries.

The beautiful diversity that the Kenyans have come to embrace comes with different delicious cuisines also. Western part of Kenya which is occupied mostly by the Luhya Community loves the chicken (ingokho) and ugali anytime anywhere in addition to miroo, virenche, tsisaka, managu, and other cuisines. The Kalenjin community resides in Rift Valley and their favorite meal is ugali (“kimyet” in local dialect), mursik (fermented milk) which they are famed for, and isageek, traditional native vegetable. Among the community from Central Kenya, which comprises mainly of the Kikuyu loves tubers such as sweet potatoes (ngwaci), arrow root/taro root, among others as wells legumes such as beans commonly known as njahi. The Luo community coming around the Lake Victoria relish taking ugali (kuon) and fish (rech), and sometimes chicken (gweno). As you move towards urban centers the food there is diverse, most working families eat dishes such as chapati with beef or chicken stew.

Social Stratification

Kenya as any other developing country have different classes of people from those below the poverty line, to middle class to those who are cushioned against any economy impact. Those in middle and the higher classes have been assimilated more western cultures than those below them. One of the symbols of social stratification is among the herders such as the Maasai, in which they measure their wealth in the number of livestock one owns. In some ethnic communities having many children is also sign of wealth. In towns and cities almost, everybody dresses in Western-style clothing. However, the western clothing does not necessarily indicate the high status but the brand name the clothes carries. Many women wrap themselves with colorful kanga, this is large piece of cloth that can be used as shawl or skirt or even head scarves which are usually common. In adopting the western culture, some communities have readily adopted it more than others who prefers to retain their unique styles of ornamentation or dress. The women who comes from the herding communities of the northern Kenya, wear for example goatskin or goatskin which is dyed black or red, it is locally known as gorfa. It is wrapped around the body which is held in place with a rope or a leather cord belt. In some ethnic groups such as the Rendille, a woman marital status is shown by the way she has done her hair. This hairdressing also indicated whether she has children or not. When it comes to men, their stage in life is revealed by jewelry or specific headdresses. The Masai and Pokot communities wear rows of necklaces which are beaded, as do the women from Turkana ethnic group, who adorns so much strands that it makes their necks elongated. The practices above show whether someone is married and their social standing within the society.

Gender Roles and Positions

In most communities the division of labor is by gender. In the herder’s communities, the men are the one who are mandated with the care of the livestock.  In the communities that practices agriculture, both women and men are the one who works in the fields but a study done shows that women do up to 80 percent of the farm work in rural Kenya. In addition to the work in the fields, the women also take care of the children, clear and maintain the vegetable garden clean, fetch water, and many times take the produce to the market to sell. It is common practice in Kenya for men to leave their rural homes to move to the urban center in search for jobs that pays. While in many cases this will bring more money, supplementing the family income, the workload of the women also soars. In towns and cities women are more likely to look for jobs that are just outside their homes, female represents 40% of the workforce in the urban areas. However, majority of them are still pegged at low paying job or that associated with low status such as secretarial or food service, but in the recent past we have women vying and winning up to the big political seats such as the governors and members of parliament.

The relationship of status of women and men in Kenya, as like many other developing countries women in Kenya are treated less favorably than men. Despite the uneven work amount they are subjected to; men are the one who are usually in charge of property and money in a family. In some communities’ wife beating was still common, but now almost extinct thanks for the legal repercussions. The issue which had become more severe was the FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) or clitoridectomy, which leaves the women in pain that seems to never end making the susceptible to various infections. The women who have undergone the education system, their social statuses also increase. Various women groups have lobbying for the equal rights for the women, examples of such movements are the National Women’s Council of Kenya, they have been in the frontline pushing for fair laws and teaching beneficial skills to women that can earn them a living.

Marriage, Family, and Relationship

In most of the ethnic groups in Kenya, polygamy is a tradition, and in the recent past men have been known to have even up to six wives. However, the practice is becoming obsolete today because the Christian missionaries were objecting it, and increasing economical mishaps which makes it impractical as few men can afford several partners. The marriage process starts by a man choosing a potential woman, then they negotiate dowry which is usually in form of livestock and a times money to the woman’s family. When someone is practicing polygamy, the price of the first wife tends to be higher than for subsequent ones. The feast and wedding ceremony are done at the husband’s home.

The domestic unit involves the traditional arrangements where a man is mandated to build separate house for each of his wives, where she will dwell with her children, and grand hut for himself. If the man has one wife, the parents often live together in the same house with both younger boys and girls, the boys that have come of age have smaller huts close by. It is very common to have several generations living under one roof. Most of the traditional African families, the responsibility of taking aging parents is left to the youngest son. Among the Masai communities, the huts are divided into four compartments:  one section for the man of the house, one section for the women, one section for the kids, and other section for cooking and eating.

Inheritance according to the traditions, passes from father to son. This is the scenario today, and there are existing legal as well as cultural hiccups to women inheriting any property. Extended families are regarded as a single unit, children being so close to siblings and cousins, and uncles and aunts and are taken as mothers and fathers. These huge family groups setups often dwell together in small settlements or villages. The Maasai for example, among them ten to twelve huts are built to form a circle which is surrounded by a live fence of thorns.

Religion

The constitution of Kenya guarantees freedom of worship. More than four fifths of Kenyans are Christians and attend mainly Roman Catholic churches or Protestant. Portuguese introduced Christianity for the first time in Kenya in the 15th century, but by 17th century it was no longer there. Towards the end of 19th century Christianity recovered and spread quickly.

In the Traditional African religions, the belief in a supreme being known by many names depending on the language you speak. Independent churches have also multiplied, such as the Legio Maria d’Africa, most members are Luo people.

Muslims makes a minority including Sunnis and Shia. There is also a small population of Jains, Bahais Jews and Sikhs.

Secular Celebrations

Kenya like the rest of the world celebrates New Year’s Day is celebrated on 1st January, and Labor Day is 1st May. Additional holidays on the Kenyan calendar include Madaraka Day on 1st June which is the celebration of the anniversary of when Kenya achieved self-rule. On December 12th their commemoration of Independence Day. On 20th December is Mashujaa Day or Heroes Days, a day to remember those who were and are instrumental in national achievements in Kenya.

Literature

The oral tradition in Kenya is very strong, there are many folklores that dwells on mighty animals or the intervention of good and bad spirits in everyday life. Others are war stories detailing feat of brave soldiers, these stories are passed down from one generation to another. Mostly inform of songs or stories.

Modern Kenyan literature extensively draw their content from this oral heritage, as well as the Western literary tradition. One of the most prominent writers in Kenya is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, he has written many award-winning novels. One of the first novels in his writing career is Weep Not Child, written in 1964 and Petals of Blood written in 1997, both written in English.

The books Ngugi wrote had string messages that could fuel the social protest, it was until he began to write purely in the local dialect of Kikuyu and Swahili when he became a victim of censorship. He faced one-year jail term and later went on exile to England. Other modern writers in Kenya includes Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, Meja Mwangi, and Sam Kahiga. They are less explicitly political when it comes to their work.

When it comes to graphic works Kenyans are known for their amazing carvings from wood and sculpture, in some communities they often had some religious significance. They carved figures of ancestor; it is a common believe that it will appease those who resides in the spirit world. Most of this are amulets that are carved ornately and the members wears around their ankles or necks. These sculptors are also so that they can work with gold or silver. Modern sculptors have incorporated modern styles with the traditional styles in their designs. Also, this tradition is promoted by artist who dons headdresses and bright mask that has lots of colors, this is often during the traditional dances. The headdresses are often fashioned to look like birds or any other animal of the choice. Another Kenyan art form is jewelry which comprises of gold bracelets and elaborate silver, and also many other forms of colorful beadwork. In some ethnic groups that include the Luhya and the Kikuyu, women there are skillful in making baskets that are elaborately decorated and beautiful pottery.

Performance Arts

Kenyan Culture is not complete without mention of the magical words “Music” and “Dance”. Traditionally women and men danced separately. Men performed what is commonly known as line dances, most of it involved a fierce competition on who can jump highest. Dances is usually an ingredient of ceremonies such as initiation, religious ceremonies, marriage, burial, and child naming. In the traditional dances costumes plays a big role, there is usually props such as masks, swords, carry shields and other props.

The music of Kenya has many rhythms, often fusion of several beats concurrently. The main instruments in the music scene are piano, percussions, drums, lutes, woodwinds, and many more. The singing is often well timed and follows a certain pattern where a lead singer calls and the rest responds and it goes on in that pattern. Kikuyu music is fairly easy to learn, the traditional main instrument is call Gicandi, it is a rattle made from a gourd. Other ethnic groups have complex music and dance, because they fuse a number of instruments at once.

In urban centers the music culture is diverse. Afro-fusion, benga (fusion of Kenyan and Western music), hip hop and nearly all the contemporary music is embraced. Benga was introduced to Kenya in the 1950s, it is played using two traditional instruments, the orutu (it is a fiddle with one string) and the nyatiti (it is a small stringed instrument), and in the recent times the electric guitar also. At the Kenyan coastal strip, Taarab music is popular. It is a product of Indian and Arabic influence in the coast, it is usually sung by women and the instruments used are small organ, drums, acoustic guitar. In most sessions they are often have accompanying singers.

The State of the Physical Sciences

They are number of facilities in Kenya that are available for the study of physical sciences. In the National Museum of Kenya, Nairobi, there is vast collection of cultural and historical artefacts. The museum at Fort Jesus in Mombasa is dedicated solely for history and archeology. Most of the activity going on in these facilities are scientific researches that revolves around conservation. Kenya has many National Parks and Game Reserves that offers wildlife protection they deserve and the scientist from around the globe visits these parks to study its diverse wildlife which is abundant.

Housing

The average dwelling in rural areas comprises of a typical two-room house built with wood paneling and a tin roof; because unfortunate and simple thatched huts are common. For towns, the elegant bourgeois home should have at least two bedrooms, indoor water system, a kitchen and a living room.

Decent houses in urban areas has remained a challenge since independence. In a government effort to provide quality housing at affordable prices, quality construction materials have been made. An example of such materiel is a brick made by mixing the earth, a small amount of concrete and water.

Education

The public education system has three phases; eight years of mandatory primary school education, four years of secondary school education and four years of higher education. Free education for primary and secondary is offered by the government free of charge.

The education of the local people was not an important issue during the colonial era, in the wake of gaining independence admissions in both primary and secondary schools skyrocketed. The president had pledged free primary education for all of its citizens, which was done partially in 1974 when fees for the initial four years of primary school were catered for by the government.

The civil service was expanded in the late 1970s to cope with rising unemployment due to the large number of educated Kenyans. As the government was unable to build enough schools for all it embarked on community-built Harambee Schools. These schools were supposed to have received help from the government to send teachers and teaching materials, but that support didn’t always actualize.

Free education for entire years of primary was introduced in 2002. In the preceding years it saw a sharp increase in enrollment beyond capacity. Education is still highly regarded in Kenya.

In 2008 free secondary education was introduced to curb the problem of students who were unable to pass primary level. Kenya’s literacy rate is over four-fifths of the population.

Greetings

Kenyan people are cheerful bunch, every contact among them or strangers starts with a greeting. If when purchasing something from a shop, they greet the shopkeeper and strike a little polite conversation. It is normal among people present in a certain group or congregation to shakes hands upon meeting and on departure. Shaking of hands with vigor is more common in men than women, women prefers to hug each other. The handshakes and clicking of fingers are common among the youth. The respectable way to greet someone is clutching your right arm with your left hand as you shake hands. Muslims prefers touching your left hand to your chest when shaking.

In the traditional Kenyan ethnic groups, the exchange of greetings and pleasantries lasted for at least two minutes, being performed in a formal manner between the two people. Prolonged greetings aided in consequent negotiations. It is usually considered polite in Kenya to engage someone in a lengthy talk, and also grunts affirmatives or even say thank you frequently. Breaks that are in between the conversations are marred with more greetings. When you want to attract someone’s attention mostly in rural areas you hiss (“Tssss!”). it is quite common to hiss at a service provider at the hotel and it won’t cause any offence or harm.

Body language, gestures and dress

Lest you want trouble, never point with your finger, it is equated to an obscene gesture. So not to be on the wrong side or give out mixed signals, beckoning is done with the palm down. Dot put the palm up because it can convey a dismissive gesture. Do not be alarmed by seemingly deceptive shiftiness in eye contact as this is common when talking to someone younger than you. They are shy are try to avoid direct gaze.

The religion in the coastal strip is predominantly Muslims, visitors usually wear t-shirts and shorts because it is appropriate because of the beach, so you won’t be in any trouble. People in this part of Kenya are polite and cannot openly rebuke visitors. It is better still to clad in loose-fitting trouser or light dress. In Lamu there is call for more conservative dress which requires both females and females to dress kanga and kikoi wraps. 

The women are judged more on what they were more than men, and they get noticed more. Such fine details are more noticed especially when you are walking alone with no male company, but no harm will be done to you, maybe a few catcalls and that is it. Any part of the body that might been seen as provocative should be covered. Sunbathing while topless in public beaches is not allowed. To the numerous mosques that dots the coast, you need proper attire, and take every heed from your local guide, there is no entering the mosque unaccompanied. In many scenarios’ women are not allowed to enter mosques at all.

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