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Culture Smart! Kenya provides a cultural bridge that will carry you beyond the gloss of the hotels and deep into the warp and weft of everyday life; beyond the game parks and into the intricacies of community and wildlife coexistence; beyond the bounds of tourism and into the freedom of cultural understanding and exchange. A true “insider’s take” gleaned over years of living and working in the country, it delivers key insights into the forces, ancient and modern, that have shaped Kenya—and practical guidance on how best to enter into the modern Kenyan business and social environment. Due to its high-action pursuits, cultural treasures, wealth of wildlife, and glorious beach life, it is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and the unrivaled “safari capital of the world.” As to its people, Kenya is a cultural microcosm comprising more than seventy ethnic groups. Each has its own distinctive cultural identity. All extend the warmth of welcome that has proved to be Kenya’s most valuable asset to tourism.
About the Author
Jane Barsby is an English journalist, writer, and PR consultant who has spent twenty-five years traveling in East Africa. Based in Nairobi, she has lived on one of the last colonial cattle ranches; she worked as a reviewer of Kenyan hotels, as a commercial exhibition organizer, and as a local travel writer. She has also written a book on the history of the Block family, the founders of the Kenyan hotel industry, and worked with the Kenya Wildlife Service to produce a series of guidebooks on the Kenyan national parks.
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Culture Smart! Kenya
By Jane Barsby
Bravo LtdCopyright © 2016 Jane Barsby
All rights reserved.
LAND & PEOPLE
Named after Mount Kenya, or Kirinyaga ("Mountain of Whiteness"), which lies almost in the center of the country, Kenya straddles the equator and covers an area of just under 225,000 sq. miles (583,000 sq. km). Bounded to the east by the Indian Ocean, it shares borders with Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania. Most of the north and northeast of the country is either uninhabited or sparsely inhabited desert.
The Kenyan landscape is divided into two distinct halves: the eastern half slopes gently to the coral-backed seashore; the western portion rises more abruptly through a series of hills and plateaus to the Eastern Rift Valley, known in Kenya as the Central Rift. West of the Rift is a westward-sloping plateau, the lowest part of which is occupied by Lake Victoria. The highest point in the country is the snowcapped peak of Mount Kenya, at 17,000 ft (5,199 m) the second-highest mountain in Africa and one of the largest freestanding mountains in the world with a base diameter of 124 miles (200 km). The coastline extends some 333 miles (536 km) from the Tanzanian border in the southeast to the Somali border in the northeast. The main rivers are the Athi/Galana and the Tana. The major lakes are Victoria, Turkana, Baringo, Naivasha, Magadi, Jipe, Bogoria, Nakuru, and Elementeita.
Kenya displays great contrasts in topography and climate: snowcapped peaks give way to deserts, palm-fringed beaches to rolling savannah plains, alpine highlands to the lunar semideserts of the northeast. Since the country lies on the equator, the climate remains stable all year. The days are sunny and hot, but the nights can be cool.
Broadly speaking, January to February is dry; March to May is wet ("long rains"); June to September is dry; October to December is wet ("short rains"). The coast is always hot with an average daytime temperature of 81–88°F (27–31°C). The average daytime temperature in Nairobi is 70–79°F (21–26°C), while the temperatures elsewhere depend on altitude. The period July to August marks the Kenyan winter.
FLORA AND FAUNA
Kenya's flora is diverse: along the coasts are forests containing palm, mangrove, teak, copal, and sandalwood trees. Forests of baobab, euphorbia, and acacia trees cover the lowlands to a height of around 3,000 ft (915 m) above sea level. Extensive tracts of savannah grassland, interspersed with groves of acacia and papyrus, characterize the terrain at heights from 3,000 to 9,000 ft (915 to 2,745 m). The principal species in the dense rain forest of the eastern and southeastern mountain slopes are camphor and bamboo. The alpine zone, above 11,600 ft (3,550 m), contains large plants of the Senecio and Lobelia genera.
Despite the tremendous losses inflicted by hunting and poaching during the twentieth century, Kenya teems with wildlife. There are eighty major animal species, ranging from the "Big Five" (elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion, and leopard) down to tiny antelopes such as the dik-dik, which is slightly larger than a rabbit. At least thirty-two endemic species are endangered.
An ornithologist's paradise, Kenya is the finest country in Africa for bird-watching, boasting 1,137 species of birds and sixty IBAs (Important Bird Areas). It is common to spot more than one hundred bird species in a day.
Kenya's wildlife conservation area is 17,000 sq. miles (44,400 sq. km) or 7.6 percent of its total area. For national parks and reserves, see pages 119–21.
Deforestation is a major problem. With one of the highest population growth rates in the world, Kenya requires ever-increasing amounts of agricultural land for crops and firewood for fuel. However, some 10 million trees have been planted over the past two decades with the help of private groups and tree nursery programs. There is soil erosion and desertification in some areas. Significant water pollution has followed the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers, and contamination of supplies means that only about 50 percent of the rural population has access to safe drinking water.
The capital, Nairobi, from the Maasai word Nyrobi meaning "Place of Cool Waters," also known as the "Green City in the Sun" and "Safari Capital of the World," has a population of around 3.9 million people (the unofficial figure is closer to 5 million). It came into being in May 1899 as a supply depot created by the European builders of the East African railway, located at "Mile 327" from the coast, high enough above sea level to avoid the malaria mosquito. The largest city in East Africa, it is also one of the youngest, the most modern, the highest at 3,600 ft (1,700 m), and the fastest growing.
Other urban centers are Mombasa (the main port on the Indian Ocean), Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria, Eldoret, Thika, and Nakuru.
THE KENYAN PEOPLE
Kenya is a cultural microcosm of Africa. Groups from all over the continent have migrated there for centuries, each with its own distinctive cultural features. As a result, Kenya has more than seventy ethnic communities, speaking close to eighty different dialects; all are united under the striped green, black, and red national flag (green for the land, black for the people, and red for the blood spilled in the struggle for freedom). Unity is expressed in the national motto Harambee, which translates as "let's all pull together."
For many years Kenya enjoyed the dubious distinction of registering the highest population growth in the world. Then, at the turn of the millennium, the growth rate slowed down dramatically. The high-speed growth had stemmed from the fact that, until very recently, a man's social and economic status in Kenya was largely determined by the number of children he sired. And, since polygamy was also widely accepted, a man of consequence could boast of having fathered maybe a hundred children, often more. Kenyan tradition also dictates that, once married, a couple must name a child after each of their own parents; which means they must continue to produce children until they have two of each sex. Add to the above the fact that Kenyans universally adore children, and that most Kenyan women would not consider themselves fulfilled unless they had borne at least one child (whether married or not), and the reasons for the explosive birthrate are all too clear.
As to the sudden decline in the population growth rate, this has resulted not only from the impact of AIDS on Kenyan society, but also from the growing realization, especially among the rural population, that today's couples can neither support nor finance the education of so many children. The emergence of a Kenyan middle class has also affected the growth rate, with many professionals choosing to establish financial security before starting a family, and then opting to have only as many children as they can afford to educate to university level. The changing social structure has also introduced a new phenomenon, the professional, and often single, Kenyan lady, who increasingly chooses either to remain childless, or to have just one child.
Officially the population of Kenya is around 46 million, though the actual figure may be much larger, and the forecast annual growth rate is 1.93 percent (2015 estimate), which reflects the expected increased death rate due to AIDS — more than 1.3 million Kenyans (5.3% of the adult population) are infected with the HIV virus. Under-fourteens account for 41.5 percent of the population. Urban Kenyans, constituting 25.6 percent of the whole, are concentrated in a few large cities such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, and Nakuru, while 67 percent of the people live in rural areas, mostly in the high-rainfall arable areas of the central highlands, and Western Kenya. The north and east of the country, 80 percent of the land, contains only 20 percent of the population.
LANGUAGE AND IDENTITY
As we have seen, more than eighty languages are spoken in Kenya. English is the "official" language and Swahili the "national" language; both are taught in Kenyan schools, Swahili at primary level, English at secondary level. Most Kenyans, however, speak at least three languages — English, Swahili, and their "tribal" or "mother" tongue. Some, who come from marriages of mixed ethnicity, speak more. In the rural areas, however, visitors may find that English is either only sketchily understood, or not at all. Broadly speaking, Kikuyu, Luo, and English are the most widely used languages; "up country" Swahili is spoken in varying degrees of grammatical accuracy, and safi (pure Swahili) is spoken almost solely on the coast. Most of the tribal languages fall into one of two groups: Bantu and Nilotic.
What follows is a brief introduction to some of the major "tribes" that the visitor to Kenya is most likely to encounter.
The Maasai have long remained the ideal mental conceptualization of the Western European idea of an African "noble savage." Tall, elegant, handsome; walking with a gentle spring of the heel, seemingly proud and indifferent to all but the most necessary external influences.
(S. S. Sankan)
Perhaps the best known of Kenya's tribes, the Nilo-Hamitic Maasai are a nomadic people whose lifestyle has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. The daily rhythm of life revolves around the constant quest for water and grazing for their cattle. Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai are distinguished by their complex character, impeccable manners, impressive presence, and almost mystical love of their cattle. The latter is based on the Maasai belief that the sky god, Enkai, was once at one with the earth. When the earth and the sky were separated, however, Enkai was forced to send all the world's cattle into the safekeeping of the Maasai, where, as far as the Maasai are concerned, they have remained. Brave and ruthless warriors, the Maasai instilled terror in all who came up against them, especially the early explorers. "Take a thousand men," advised the famous explorer Henry Stanley when speaking of the Maasai, "or write your will."
Today, cattle are still pivotal to Maasai life and "I hope your cattle are well" is the most common form of Maasai greeting. The milk and blood of their cattle continue to be the preferred diet of the Maasai, while the hides serve as mattresses, sandals, mats, and clothing. Cattle also act as marriage bonds, while a complex system of cattle-fines maintains social harmony. Visually stunning, the Maasai warrior with his swathe of scarlet shuka (blanket), beaded belt, dagger, intricately plaited hair, and one-legged stance remains the most enduring icon of Kenyan tourism. That said, many a modern Maasai dons a suit for work but, come the weekend, and he'll be back in his beloved traditional dress.
After deep reflection on my people and culture, I have painfully come to accept that the Maasai must change to protect themselves, if not their culture. They must adapt to the realities of the modern world for the sake of their own survival. It is better to meet an enemy out in the open and to be prepared for him than for him to come upon you at home unawares.
(Tepilit Ole Saitoti, Maasai chief)
The largest of Kenya's tribes, the Kikuyu live in the area around Mount Kenya where, at the dawn of the colonial era, they came into violent conflict with the European settlers, to whom large tracts of Kikuyu homeland had been apportioned by the colonial government. Since the possession of land is one of the foundations of Kikuyu social, religious, and economic life, this conflict rapidly spiraled into war, and it was the Kikuyu's formation of a political association against the British that sparked the infamous Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, which eventually led to Kenya winning its independence. As a result of their early involvement in the fight for freedom, the Kikuyu have always played a dominant role in Kenyan politics and commerce, their most famous politician being Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who even today is referred to affectionately as "Mezee" (respected elder). Perhaps more successfully than any other Kenyan tribe, the Kikuyu have adapted to the challenges posed by Western culture and technology, and their role in modern day Kenyan business is significant. However, the rural Kikuyu, traditionally agriculturalists, continue to combine small-scale farming with the growing of cash crops such as tea, coffee, and pyrethrum.
The Swahili or Shirazi Peoples
The most prominent of the coastal people, the Swahili are not a tribe but the product of centuries of intermarriage between indigenous Kenyans and incoming waves of Persian, Portuguese, and Omani conquerors. First, around the seventh century, came Arab traders from the Persian Gulf, who plied the Kenyan coast in their dhows and gradually integrated with the native population. In the sixteenth century the Portuguese arrived, and finally, in the eighteenth century, the sultans of Oman took over as rulers; both these sets of colonizers intermarried with the locals, just as their predecessors had done. The result was a colorful mix of ethnicity and language, which came to be known as "Swahili," which translates literally as "of the coast." Although the majority of Kenya's coastal people are Muslims, their relaxed way of life is worlds away from the stricter Islamic practices of the Middle East. Enjoying a vibrant culture, they excel in literature, art, and architecture, while the Swahili craftsmen are famous for their beautiful triangular-sailed dhows. Swahili cuisine is a glorious mélange of culinary influences: exuberantly spiced, steeped in coconut, and cooked with fresh lime and coriander.
The Asian Community
The importance of Kenya's Asian community is due to the influence it has had on the economy. It is a common misconception that this community is descended solely from the 32,000 indentured laborers from Gujarat and Punjab imported by the British at the end of the nineteenth century to work as "coolies" on the Uganda Railway. In fact, there had been people of Indian descent living on the coast for hundreds of years before then, as evidenced by the introduction of bananas and coconuts to the economy. Nevertheless, the majority of the present Asian population are descendants of the 6,000 workers who elected to stay in Kenya after the railway was completed. Hardworking, aggressive in business, and highly skilled, they soon established a burgeoning commercial community, which still controls most of the country's retail trade. Initially functioning very much as an economic "colony" of India, to which its members tended to send most of their earnings, the Asian community is still self-contained, nurturing its own rich and diverse culture while remaining largely impervious to African cultural influences. Officially referred to as "Asians" since the partitioning of India in 1947, the present community consists of four main groups: Hindus (numerically the largest), Muslims (second largest), Goans, and Sikhs.
The White Community
Though small in number, the white community in Kenya is important because of the effect it has had on the country's development and culture. Referred to by Kenyans as Muzungu (singular) or Wazungu (plural), a Swahili word that roughly translates as "European" but can also mean "something strange and startling," the whites are largely synonymous with the British settlers, who began arriving in Kenya after it was declared a British protectorate in 1895.
An eclectic mix of landless aristocrats, big-game hunters, and ex-servicemen, they rapidly acquired much of Kenya's best farming land. They also achieved notoriety thanks to the riotous lifestyle of a very small group of wealthy sybarites who settled in the "Happy Valley" area of central Kenya, and inspired the book (and later film) White Mischief.
Unlike the previous migrants, most of whom had intermingled with the local population, the British came with the intention of introducing cultural change, rather than participating in cultural exchange. Resourceful and industrious, they had a profound effect on the indigenous Kenyan culture. British dress, language, architecture, farming, manners, religion, and leisure pursuits were imposed, whether the Kenyan people liked it or not. Today the dwindling Muzungu community is a blend of third-generation "white Kenyans," temporary business folk, and members of international aid organizations, many of whom are actively engaged in preserving or celebrating Kenya's traditional cultural heritage. Approximately half of Kenya's white population lives in Nairobi, many of them in the select suburb of Karen, named after Karen Blixen, author of the famous novel (and later film) Out of Africa.
Excerpted from Culture Smart! Kenya by Jane Barsby. Copyright © 2016 Jane Barsby. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
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Table of Contents
ContentsMap of Kenya,
Chapter One: LAND AND PEOPLE,
Chapter Two: VALUES AND ATTITUDES,
Chapter Three: RELIGIONS AND BELIEFS,
Chapter Four: MAKING FRIENDS,
Chapter Five: KENYANS AT HOME,
Chapter Six: TIME OUT,
Chapter Seven: TRAVEL, HEALTH, AND SAFETY,
Chapter Eight: BUSINESS BRIEFING,
Chapter Nine: COMMUNICATING,