The People

Most of the people of Kenya live in the southwest, where the soils are good and there is enough rainfall for farming. Few people live in the arid northern region.

Ethnic Groups, Language, and Religion. Almost all Kenyans are black Africans. There are small communities of Asians (whose ancestors came from what is now India and Pakistan), Europeans, and Arabs. Kenya's official language is Swahili, which is widely spoken along much of the East African coast. But many Kenyans speak English, and the people in rural areas speak tribal languages. Many Kenyans are Christians, including Roman Catholics and Protestants. Others follow traditional African religions. About six percent of the people are Muslims.

The Kikuyu Way of Life. The Kikuyu are Kenya's largest single ethnic group. Making up slightly more than one fifth of the population, they have played a major role in the political development of the country. Their traditional homeland is in the fertile highlands. Kikuyu farmers grow food crops of corn, beans, and millet. They also keep large herds of sheep and goats and some cattle.

The one great wish of almost every Kikuyu is to own a piece of land on which to build a house and plant a garden. Kikuyu children play an important part in the economic life of the family. Small children are left at home to care for infant brothers and sisters while parents work in the fields. As soon as children are old enough to hold digging sticks, they are given little pieces of land on which to practice. Their parents help them plant seeds and teach them how to tell corn from weeds. As the children grow older, they are given larger plots to plant. Even after marriage, they continue to cultivate their childhood gardens. Children also help in many other ways. They collect firewood, do housework, and herd livestock.

Although the Kikuyu have preserved many traditional customs, their way of life has changed with changing times. Most of them still live in round houses with mud walls and grass roofs. But the wealthier Kikuyu now build Western-style houses equipped with television sets and modern furniture. Kikuyu farmers have adopted scientific agricultural methods, and some of them grow export crops such as coffee and tea. Many Kikuyu have become traders, skilled workers, lawyers, doctors, and government officials in the cities. Others leave their farms to work for a time in the cities.

The Masai. The Kikuyu's southern neighbors are the Masai. A tall, proud people, famed as warriors and lion hunters, the Masai live primarily as herders of cattle. They travel with their herds over large areas of southern Kenya. During the rainy season their herds graze in the valleys, and during the dry season they move to higher land. Because the Masai are always moving with their livestock, they do not have permanent homesteads. Their cattle provide the Masai with milk, but since the animals are considered a source of wealth, they are rarely killed for food. Instead, the Masai obtain millet and beans from other, more settled tribes.

Masai men sometimes decorate their bodies with a red clay. Carrying their long spears and shields they present imposing figures. The Masai women traditionally shave their heads and adorn their arms with many bracelets.

The traditional life of the Masai is gradually changing. Like the Kikuyu, some are now moving to the cities, sending their children to schools, and using modern medicine.

Other Peoples. Other important African groups in Kenya include the Luhya, the Kisii, and the Luo. The Luo, who live in the Lake Victoria region, catch fish that they sell throughout Kenya. They also grow corn and other grains and raise cows and goats for meat and milk.

Most of the Arabs in Kenya are farmers and traders living on the coast. Asians have traded for centuries along the eastern coast of Africa. Many of them settled in the towns of Kenya, where they opened shops. Most of the Europeans also live in cities and towns. Since independence, black Africans have taken over many of the jobs once held by Europeans, Asians, and Arabs. While the great majority of the people still live in the countryside, Kenya's cities have grown due to a slow but steady movement of people from rural areas.

Education. Although education is not compulsory (required by law) in Kenya, it is highly valued, and the government encourages schooling for both boys and girls. Primary education is free, and about 80 percent of children in the primary-grade age group attend school. In addition to the government schools, Kenya also has Harambee, or self-help, schools. Harambee, the national motto of Kenya, is a Swahili word meaning to "pull together." These schools are built and staffed by volunteers to provide additional classrooms for children who otherwise would be unable to attend regular schools.

Kenya has several colleges and technical schools and one university, the University of Nairobi. Many Kenyan students earn scholarships to universities abroad.

The Land

Kenya's most important physical feature is the large area of highlands in the southwestern part of the country. These highlands have more rainfall, lower temperatures, and richer soils than other parts of the country. For these reasons many Europeans settled there, and the area became known as the White Highlands. Most of Kenya's export crops are grown on large farms in the highlands.

Kenya's chief mountains are also located in this area. Mount Kenya, which gives the country its name, is an extinct, snowcapped volcano rising to 17,040 feet (5,194 meters). The Kikuyu people who practice traditional African religions believe that their god, Ngai, dwells on Mount Kenya, and they turn toward it when they pray. Mount Elgon and the Aberdare Range are also found here.

The Great Rift Valley. One of the most spectacular geographical features on the Earth's surface–the Great Rift Valley–crosses Kenya from north to south. This gigantic valley runs from Southwest Asia through the Red Sea and crosses Eastern Africa as far as the nation of Mozambique in the south. In northern Kenya the Great Rift Valley forms a wide shallow basin, in which Lake Turkana (Lake Rudolf) lies. In the south it forms a deep, steep-walled valley, broken by a series of small lakes. The floor of the Great Rift Valley is dotted with small extinct volcanoes. Great outpourings of lava that once came from these volcanoes formed the surrounding highlands, as well as Mount Kenya and Mount Elgon.

The Nyanza and Nyika Regions. To the west of the highlands is a hilly region that slopes down to Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, which forms a part of Kenya's western border. This is part of the Nyanza (lake) region, one of the most important corn-producing regions of eastern Africa. To the east of the highlands the land falls in a series of steps down to Kenya's coast on the Indian Ocean. This region is known as Nyika, a Swahili word meaning "wilderness."

The two largest rivers in Kenya are the Tana and the Athi. Both of these rivers flow eastward into the Indian Ocean.

The Economy

Agriculture. Kenya's economy is based mainly on agriculture, including the raising of livestock, which employs about 75 percent of the work force. Most of these are subsistence farmers, who grow only enough food for their own needs. Kenya has been largely self-sufficient in food production, although a drought in 1984 affected this vital aspect of the economy.

About one third of Kenya's agriculture is devoted to cash crops, intended for export. Coffee is the leading export crop, followed by tea. Other important cash crops are sisal (a fiber used to make cord and twine) and pyrethrum (a flower used in making insecticides). Cotton, sugarcane, and various vegetables, fruits, and grains are also grown, both for domestic use and for export.

Industry. Textiles, processed foods, livestock products, cement, and textiles are among the leading manufactured goods. Tourism has long been an important industry in Kenya, traditionally second only to coffee as a source of income. People come from all over the world to visit Kenya's beaches on the Indian Ocean and to see the many animals that roam in the nation's tropical grasslands. A golf club at Kisumu, near Lake Victoria, has a club rule that when a ball falls dangerously near a hippopotamus or a crocodile, the player should use another ball. Ostriches are found in the bush grassland, and the Rift Valley lakes are the home of large flocks of flamingos. To preserve this rich wildlife, large tracts of unpopulated country have been set aside as national parks.

Mining. Kenya's known mineral resources are limited. They include soda ash (used in making soap), limestone, salt, fluorspar, and some iron ore. Small amounts of gold also are mined.


Nairobi is Kenya's capital, largest city, and its center of industry and commerce. Located in south central Kenya, in the highlands area, its elevation of almost 5,500 feet (1,600 meters) above sea level gives it a pleasant climate. A modern city, it has grown rapidly in recent years and now has a population approaching 1,000,000. The city is only a few miles away from Nairobi National Park, a wildlife refuge.

Mombasa is Kenya's second-largest city and its principal seaport. The city is situated on an island off the Kenya coast. It has had a long history as a port and trading city.

History and Government

Early History. Kenya was one of the earliest homes of prehistoric people. Scientists have discovered the remains of humanlike creatures called australopithecines who lived in Kenya as long as 3,000,000 years ago. Bones of Homo erectus, a more advanced human ancestor who may have used simple tools, have also been found in Kenya.

Kenya's earliest recorded history tells of various herding and farming tribes that migrated into the area from other parts of Africa. Some 2,000 years ago, merchants from Arabia sailed along the coast of Kenya in search of gold. From the 7th century on, Arabs built trading centers at places like Mombasa and what is now the town of Malindi. In 1498 the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and landed at Malindi. The Portuguese established coastal trading posts and held them until 1740, when the Arabs drove them out.

British Rule. The British first entered the area mainly to stop the slave trade. In 1895, Britain began to build a railroad from the coast to Lake Victoria. That same year, to safeguard the railroad, the British government made most of what is now Kenya a protectorate known as the East Africa Protectorate. It was later given its present name and boundaries.

The British government encouraged Europeans to settle in the Kenya highlands. The whites aroused bitter hatred when they forced the Africans, mostly Kikuyu, off the land. In the 1950's, a secret Kikuyu movement called Mau Mau tried to frighten the whites away and force Britain to grant Kenya independence.

Independence. Kenya gained independence in 1963 and became a Republic in 1964. The head of state and government is the President. The President and most members of the legislature, the National Assembly, are elected directly by the people for a term of 5 years, although new elections may be called earlier.

Jomo Kenyatta, the Kikuyu political leader, became Kenya's first President and one of Africa's best-known leaders. Many feared that an old rivalry between the Kikuyu and the Luo would cause turmoil after Kenyatta's death. Tensions increased in 1969, when the Luo leader Tom Mboya was assassinated. All political parties except Kenyatta's Kenya African National Union were then banned.

Recent History. Kenyatta died in office in 1978 and was succeeded by Vice President Daniel arap Moi, who was elected President in 1979. In 1982 the constitution was changed to make Kenya a one-party state, and Moi was automatically re-elected in 1983 and 1988. Forced to reintroduce a multiparty system, Moi won narrow and disputed victories in elections held in 1992 and 1997. He has resisted domestic and international demands for further political reforms.

Once one of Africa's more politically stable and prosperous nations, Kenya has become increasingly troubled by violence and by economic problems. In 1998, a terrorist's bomb exploded outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, killing approximately 200 people.