Kenya is home to 42 ethnic groups, each with a unique culture although many have practices and languages that are similar. Kenyan culture is, therefore, a melting pot of thoughts, practices and customs from various communities.
Kenya has a culture born of countless sources. This region has been crossed by the paths of a long and complex history. From the prehistoric records of early man to the present day, Kenya has been a land of unending change, contrasts and diversity.
The early tribal states saw cycles of migration and shifting power, with Kenya as a meeting place for peoples from the plainlands of the south, the forests of the West and the deserts of the North.
The sea brought influences from the outside world, and the passage of the spice trade created the unique coastal culture, where lines between Africa and Arabia blurred. The open coast brought European influences into this world of change and began a turbulent struggle for control whose exotic history lingers today.
The first explorers discovered a land of great peril and greater beauty, and their great adventures created the most unique colony in the British Empire. This was a meeting place of cultures, where adventurers and soldiers of fortune mingled with a complex tribal society, and the arrival of labourers and merchants from India brought new and pervasive influences.
The colonial legacy lives on in the traditions of the great safari, and the pursuit of adventure and freedom.
Kenya has drawn on all of these influences to develop its own unique culture. This is the nations greatest strength- the ability to blend the best of many worlds into a strong, singular identity.
Today, Kenya welcomes the world to its shores and continues to evolve a modern culture that is born of endless variety, and yet purely, proudly Kenyan..
Kenyan Culture Customs, Traditions and Beliefs
Kenya is steeped in myths and folklore. As in other parts of Africa, the human and the spirit worlds are inextricably bound together. People communicate with the gods through the medium of ancestors, deities, or local spirits. Beliefs and rituals are closely connected to the coming of the rains, upon which life depends. The Borana of northern Kenya, for instance, believe that “Water is the gift of Heaven, and grass the gift of Earth.” God is most commonly manifested in the sun, moon, stars, clouds, thunder, lightning, and trees, particularly the wild fig tree. Mountains may be venerated: newborn children of the Meru are held up to face Mount Kenya for blessing, while, according to the Kikuyu, Ngai (God, also known as Mugai) resides on the top of Mount Kenya. The Kenya Wildlife Service still reports elderly Kikuyu men found wandering high on the snow-clad slopes in an attempt to get closer to Ngai.
Kenyan Culture: The Maasai Legend of the Sun and Moon
Long ago the sun married the moon but one day they fought and the moon struck the sun on the head. Of course the sun hit back, and damaged the moon. When they had finished fighting, the sun was so ashamed of his battered face that he became so dazzlingly bright that humans could not regard him without half closing their eyes. The moon, however, was not in the least bit ashamed and anyone looking at her can clearly see that her mouth is cut and one of her eyes is missing. – Adapted from the Maasai: Their Language and Folklore by A.C. Hollis
Kenyan Culture – The Ancestors
Belief in the power of ancestors remains strong. The Luo, for instance, believe in ancestral ghosts, other tribes that their ancestors reincarnate as children within the family. Among the Nandi, when a child is born it receives a “spirit” name, which relates directly to its ancestors. And even in fast-moving urban Kenya, couples are still expected to name their children after each of the grandparents. Finally, the fact that ancestors are thought to bring unity to the family lineage, and a direct link with other lineages, goes some way to explain the phenomenon of the Kenyan funeral. Many of these are huge events that last for days, cost fortunes, and hundreds of mourners attend.
Kenya Traditions – Shamans, Soothsayers, and Herbal Medicine
Many of Kenya’s indigenous religions center on those who can intercede with the spiritual realm. Such people exist in many guises, from the so- called “witch doctor” or wizard (whose services are regularly called upon to deal with matters ranging from illness to curses), to soothsayers, diviners, and shamans.
Each has his or her own method of addressing the physical and spiritual needs of the individual. Some use sacred items, like talismans and carved deities; others natural objects, such as earth, stones, and trees; yet others simple tools, such as shoes, which they “throw” to determine what action is required. Such practitioners are often expert in herbal medicine. Herbal medicine is highly regarded: not only is it cheaper and more easily obtainable than pharmaceuticals, but it is believed to be more effective since it treats the ailment in a holistic manner. According to the World Health Organization 80 percent of the rural population turn first to herbal doctors and remedies, before consulting a regular medical practitioner.
Kenya Customs – The Sacred Kayas of the Coast
Down on the south coast, in the wooded hills that lie behind the tourist strip, are the remnants of an ancient religion. The sacred Kayas are clearings in the forests, adorned by offerings, carvings, and flowers. These magical sites were traditionally maintained by groups of male elders as centers of spiritual rejuvenation, ritual, burial, and prayer. They were also the source of the medicinal herbs, fruit, and forest products that were central to the existence of the coastal peoples. In more recent times a growing disregard for traditional values, coupled with a rising demand for land and timber, have placed the Kayas under increasing threat. Fifty-two remain, of which some have been protected as national monuments, but many have been drastically reduced in size or sold.
Kenyan Culture – Creation Stories
Each of Kenya’s ethnic groups have its own version of how the world was created. One of the best known is the Kikuyu creation story, whose influence remains so strong that most Kenyan families name their girl children after Mumbi (the tribe’s mythological creator) or one of her nine beautiful daughters, and most rural Kikuyus strive to build their houses with the door facing Mount Kenya (jomo Kenyatta’s book on Kenya’s cultural heritage is named Facing Mount Kenya). In rural areas the sacred fig or mugumo trees can still be found with small offerings at the foot of their mighty trunks.
Kenya Traditions and Beliefs – Superstitions
Every tribe in Kenya has its own superstitions, some better known than others. Bees circling the head mean news, good or bad, within two days. A dog or a cat crossing one’s path is unlucky. Colors can be lucky or unlucky: black is considered a “cool” entity, and therefore welcome; red is considered a “hot” entity, so is not so propitious. Red is also the color associated with modern-day Kenyan funerals, when red ribbons are tied to all the vehicles in the procession.
Kenyan Culture – Soccer and witch doctor
The awe felt for the power of the “witch doctor “is reflected in the name of one the nation’s best» known soccer teams, Gor Maiya, called after one of Western Kenya’s most famous wizards. Gor Maiya lived high on a hill in the Lambwe Valley, now Ruma National Park, and his sorcery was so powerful that he could see all things and controlled the whole of Western Kenya. People came to him for good magic and bad, knowing that he could read minds, cast spells, bring rain, kill with a look, and shape-shift in an instant from man to dog, dog to bull. Husband to twenty-two wives, Gor Maiya died in 1920, and his many descendants still populate the region around Ruma National Park. As for the soccer team, they still visit his hill before important matches, hopeful that, even from beyond the grave, his formidable powers will score them goals.