Kenya has both an ancient and colourful history. The country is home a mix of ethnicities from the majority Bantu, who include various cultures, to the Nilo-Saharan, who are indigenous to the Nile Valley, to the Afro-Asiatic who are descended from the coastal trading regions. The country gained independence in 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as a figurehead of the struggle. Prior to this it experienced time as a British colony and protectorate and was, in earlier times, heavily tangled in Arab and then European trading across the Indian Ocean. You can visit the 16th-century fort, Fort Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage treasure in Mombasa. Evocative of an era long gone, it is an unmissable site. This economic activity heavily influenced the culture and religion of the country as many traders established deep roots along the coast.
One product of the past Arabic-African trading ties is Swahili, a lingua franca in the country, and a mix of Bantu, Arabic and Hindi language. In fact you might recognise the phrase ‘Hakuna Matata’, from the popular disney film ‘The Lion King’, which means ‘no problem/worries’ in Swahili. Similarly the word ‘safari’ means ‘journey’ and has been adopted into English. The official language of the country is English, however, Swahili is an incredibly popular language that permeates the entire surrounding region and is even found further inland in the Congo. It is, in fact, one of the most widely spoken dialects across the African continent. The multiculturalism brought from sea trading is also evident in the architecture, religion and food. In fact Arabic and Persian influence means Swahili food is rich in spices and flavours of coconut, cardamom, garlic, saffron, turmeric, and pilau masala. Popular Swahili dishes include biriani, mseto, vitumbua, haluwa, kaimati, mshikaki, mahamri, pilau and boko boko.
Inland, many incredibly-telling human fossils have been found, particularly around the Turkana lake region. Famous fossils like Turkana Boy and the oldest tools in the world, dating back about 3.3 million years, have been unearthed. The country continues to be a fertile ground for the discovery of human evolution, fossils and artefacts. You can visit sites like the Kariandusi archaeological site on the eastern side of the Rift Valley or one of the many National Museums of Kenya which document, in general, the culture and history of the country.
Incredible, archaic fossils are not the only natural wonders that Kenya boasts. The Rift Valley which runs the length of the country in the west, and acts as a natural divide, has some spectacular attractions. These include the scenic freshwater lake Lake Naivasha, the dramatic cliffs of Hell’s Gate, the shallow, alkaline Lake Elmenteita whose banks are grazed by zebra, gazelle and eland, and the teeming Lake Nakuru National Park.
There are also a number of other national parks and reserves across the interior that are worthy of note and that contribute to Kenya’s array of wildlife. Nairobi National Park, with the densest population of black rhinos and commonly-sighted lion and hyena, is set close to the sprawling capital Nairobi in the east. Amboseli National Park has amongst its attractions, hundreds of big-tusked elephants and phenomenal views of Mount Kilimanjaro. Mount Kenya National Park holds the mountain that is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. And Masai Mara National Park is famed for the spectacular Great Migration of wildebeest. Because of these incredible natural sites and interesting history, tourism remains a key section of the Kenyan economy. Alongside this is coffee, tea and other agricultural products. Interestingly coffee is largely exported and not really drunk locally; tea is much preferred.
Kenya also has a rich tradition of fables, stories, music and poetry. Critically acclaimed Kikuyu writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o published some beautiful works in English such as the prize-winning ‘Weep not, Child’ (1964) and ‘A Grain of Wheat’ (1967). In Swahili culture, the music, Taarab, is poetically very rich. The traditional rhythm is a slow beat that borrows heavily from Indian and Arabic melody. The oral and written tradition of inspiring and meaningful fables is one that is worth paying attention to. One folklore character, for example is the Hare. Small and weak, but full of innovative wit, the creature is a hero; inspiring struggles for independence.