Kenya Land and its People

Introduction to the Kenyan Land and its People

Kenya’s most important natural heritage is her people – they are skilled, educated, experienced and productive. They are the force behind Kenya’s vibrant economy and they have spread to all parts of the world – East Africa, the rest of Africa, Europe and the Americas have felt the impact of Kenyans. They are in business, academia, professions, entertainment and sport, among others.Their diversity, traditions, customs and practices create a totality of the distinct people that are Kenyans. They work together, compete and interact in many ways. Kenya is a multi-cultural, multi-national and multi-ethnic with a many languages, religions and lifestyles.

What is more?

It is the only country in Africa with the three major linguistic groups – Bantu, Nilotes and Cushites.


Kenya is in eastern Africa and borders South Sudan and Ethiopia in the north, Somalia in the East, Uganda in the west and Tanzania in the south. The Indian Ocean is in the south-east. The country lies between five degrees north and five degrees south latitude and between 24 and 31 degrees east longitude. It is exactly astride the Equator, which bisects the country in an east-west direction.
The breadth from east to east is about 890 km and 1,030 km north and south. The indian ocean coast-line is 536 km long, while the total land area is 582,650 square km. Of this, 569,250 square km constitute land area and 13,400 square km is water.

Time Zone

Kenya lies in one time zone – three hours ahead of GMT.


The linguistic profile of Kenya is wide and varied. The country has 42 ethnic communities with many common characteristics. This interaction has led to intensive borrowing of cultural traits. Kenya falls into three ethno-linguistic groups: Bantu, Cushites and Nilotes.

Nearly two thirds of Kenyans are Bantu. Three percent of the population is Cushite-speaking although they occupy the largest geographic area. The other section of the population speaks Nilotic languages.

The three language groups bind the more than 42 ethnic groups together, with over 70 linguistic variations.

The migration of the groups to Kenya took place over many centuries, long before the arrival of the Europeans in the 1800s. Before, hunters-gatherers who practised a limited form of agriculture inhabited Kenya. They were killed, assimilated or forced out as migration progressed.

Traces of their lifestyles are, however, noticeable among the Ogiek of the Mau Forest and the Boni of Tana River district along the Somalia border.


The Cushites began arriving from Ethiopia and Somalia between 2,000 BC and 1,000 BC and migrated south in sporadic waves. They are believed to have been searching for grazing lands for their animals.

Today, they are not many and comprise of a fragment of the population. The nomads roam and graze their herds in the arid northern lands.

Cushites also live near Lake Turkana and remote areas of Tana River District. Among the many groups, only the Somali number more than a few thousand.
The Cushites are divided into two: Southern and Eastern. The southern Cushites include the Boni, Wata, Yaaka and Dahalo communities who live in the coastal hinterland. They once traded ivory and honey, but today cultivate and herd cattle

Eastern Cushites

They include the Somali, Rendille, Borana, Burji, Gabra, Orma, Das-senach, and El Molo. The Borana are nomadic and occupy the north-east part of Kenya. The Burji are farmers in Moyale and Marsabit counties.

They grow maize, beans, pumpkins, coffee, cotton and tobacco. They weave garments, bado and kuta from the cotton they grow.

They are good businessmen. The Dassenich farm during the rains and fish on Lake Turkana in dug-out canoes. Their men are known for their elaborate hairstyles and ostrich feather-made head dresses.

The El-Molo is one of the smallest communities in Kenya and at one time were less than 500. They are fishermen who live on two islands in the south-western part of Lake Turkana. They have close ties with pastoralists such as the Samburu. They fish from their palm rafts on Lake Turkana. Cattle herding, commercial fishing and tourism now suppliment their traditional economy.

Their main diet is fish. They also eat birds, crocodiles, turtles and hippos. Other Cushite groups are the Sakuye and Galla.

Nilotic speakers

They came down the Nile valley, Probably Sudan, about 500 BC. They moved southwards and by the 17th and 18th centuries they had reached Tanzania.
They are divided into three sub-categories: Eastern plain Nilotes, Southern or Highland Nilotes and Western or River Lake Nilotes.

Eastern Plain Nilotes

They include the Maa speakers(Maasai, Samburu and Ilchamus) and the Karamonja group, represented in Kenya by the Turkana. They are nomadic herders.
The Maasai roam the southern region and Nairobi. The Samburu occupy part of north-eastern Kenya, and the Turkana the northwest.
Although their numbers are only a few million, the vibrantly adorned communities are the most famous people in Kenya in culture that has survived the modern age.

Southern or Highland Nilotes

They are collectively known as the Kalenjin and include the Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen, Marakwet, Keiyo, Pokot, Terik and Sabaot. This is a large group predorminant in the western edge of the Rift Valley in Baringo, Eldoret, Kericho, Kitale and areas surrounding Mt Elgon.
The Kalenjin are powerful political force. Former president Moi is from the Tugen sub-group.

River Lake Nilotes

The Luo, who live on the western side near Lake Victoria, the third largest fresh water lake in the world, are the largest of Kenya’s Nilotes. They are fishermen and farmers. They played a key role in the struggle for independence as trade unionists and politicians.
They are the largest group in terms of population in the country and have power and influence.


The word ‘Bantu‘ simply means ‘human beings’. They migrated from Central Africa at about 2000 BC. A sedentary agricultural life pressurised them to move in search of more fertile lands.
The Bantu are divided into three sub-categories: Highland, inter-lacustrine and North-East Coatal groups. The Bantu are industrious farmers. Bantu speakers account for nearly two-thirds of the population although they traditionally occupy less than a third of the national territory.
Their land, however, is among the most fertile, and supports agriculture and animal husbandry.

North, East Coast Bantu

They include those who live near the Coast and the plains: Pokomo, Taita, Makonde, Taveta and the ‘nine tribes‘ of the Mijikenda(Digo, Chonyi, Kambe, Duruma, Kauma, Ribe, Rabai, Jibana and Giriama).

Highland Bantu

They live in the central highlands near Mt Kenya and the Nyandarua(Aberdares) Range: Chuka, Aembu, Mbeere, Kamba, Agikuyu and Ameru.

Inter-clusterine Bantu

They live in the north of the Lake Victoria basin in the west: Abagusii, Guba, Kuria and Abaluhya.Although each of the communities shares the root language, their own languages, dialects and variations are not necessarily mutually intelligible.

The Agikuyu are the largest single group in Kenya. The luhya is the second largest Bantu speakers. ‘Luhya‘ refers to both the people and the languages, and the group has 16 sub-tribes.

The dorminant are the Maragoli, Abanyore, Isukha, Abakhayo and Abanyala in Busia and Kakamega, and Bukusu in Bungoma. Others are Abamarachi, Abatsosto, Abasamia, Tiriki, Wanga, Marama, Idakho, Kisa and Abatachoni.

The luhya are farmers who grow cassava, tea, maize, wheat, rice and sugarcane. The Bukusu and the Wanga are mainly cash crop farmers and the Saamia fishermen and traders.

The Lingustic Groupings form the rich cultural diversity that is the basis of Kenya’s development, social cohesion and peace.

The diversity is a national driving force lingustically, economically and politically. Groups share many similarities and differences within and among themselves.


Kenya’s population is Largely African but there are minorities: Asians(Indians, Pakistanis and Goans) and Europeans

National and Official languages

After independence in 1963, the Government set policies on languages. Kiswahili was identified as the national language, and English as the official one. Kiswahili has a heavy base in Bantu languages at the Coast with a mixture of Arabic. Originally spoken at the Coast, the language is now widely spoken throughout Kenya and, indeed, Eastern Africa.

Kiswahili aims to create national cohesion and understanding based on communication of values through a common language.
As Kenyans intermarry, Kiswahili has taken a new shape as it borrows from local languages and English to create a new language, Sheng.
The Official language, English, is used for international trade, education and jurisprudence.

Both languages, however, are used in politics, among other situations.

First languages

Kenyans use mother tongue for communication within their respective groups and as a form of identity. Mother tongues are an indispensable mode of communication and learning at regional and family level. Many children only get exposed to other languages when they start formal education.

Many adults speak at least two languages: Mother tongue and either English or Kiswahili or both. Mother tongue is a distinctive feature distiguishing community affiliation and identity. Languages, with their implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance.

They carry the heritage of various communities with their music and oral traditions.


Even though there are 42 communities, national identity takes pride of place. The population is approximated at 52 million with a growth rate of 3.8 percent. Kenya’s diversity is the basis of a more fulfilling intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual life.

Embracing cultural diversity is thus an asset that is indispensable in development and meeting national challenges.


Largely, men wear trousers and shirts, and women dresses and skirts. Women also often cover their heads with scarves. Muslims have near uniform dressing, with the ‘hijab’ for women and kanzu for men. The kofia(cap) is another characteristic head cover for muslim men and swahili people at the coast.

Each cap is recognisable by the patterns on it, and the emboidery design indicates its origins: Lamu, Mombasa or Malindi.


Grass-thatched houses have been replaced by permanent or semi-permanent rectangular iron-sheet houses. But Maa speakers and the Swahili at the Coast have retained their traditional architecture: The former have manyatta and the latter houses on narrow streets with elegantly curved wooden doors and widows.


Communities have adopted one another’s food preferrences and recipes. With the exception of the Coast and Indian communities for whom food preparation is an elaborate process, nearly all other communities garnish their food by frying it. They also boil, bake in hot ashes and roast.

Common foods include:

  • Ugali: It is a sticky mixture of flour and water and is accompanied by vegetables, meat, milk or milk mixed with blood especially for pastoralist communities.Traditionally, it is made from millet or cassava. But maize flour has increasingly taken pride of place.


  • Meat: It is used to prepare sauces and stews. Communities have different ways of preparing meat, but roast meat is widely eaten as a delicacy especially in urban areas. Animals slaughtered for meat depend on the location, with beef and mutton the most common. Camel and game are the preserve of communities with access to the animals.


  • Maize: In the bast quarter of the 20th century, maize replaced sorghum as the most important cereal in Kenya. It is roasted and eaten as a snack and is sold on the streets and in markets.


  • Green boiled maize, often garnished with salt, is also common. Among the Somali, fresh maize(galeey) is fried in oil and eaten as a snack. Dry maize is also fried to make popcorn, popular with children.


  • Githeri: A mixture of green or dry maize and beans, cowpeas, pigeon peas or even groundnuts is also popular. It is eaten as a main course or snack. Sometimes, it is pounded with irish or sweet potatoes, bananas or green vegetables.


A wide range of traditional and exotic fruits are consumed in Kenya, usually as snacks. Mango, Citrus fruits, banana, jack fruit, papaya, melons, guava, passion fruit, custard apple and avocado pear are common. Many traditional fruits such as baobab, wild custard apple, carissa dialium, flacoutia(Indian plum), marula, vangueria, tamarind, vitex and ‘jujube‘ are picked in the wild.


They are used for accompaniments for starchy food such as ugali. Common traditional foods include baobab, cowpeas, amaranth, vine spinach, Ethiopian kale, pumpkin leaves, spider plant and hibiscus. Kale(Sukuma wiki) is now the most common vegetable in Kenya.

Related posts

The Imperial British East African Company (that was located in Kenya).


Islam in Kenya


Missionaries and education in Kenya


Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More