Kenya: an Open Wonder

Kenya is a land of kaleidoscopic contrasts. Much of its recorded history centres on the Coast. Ptolemy, the great geographer, wrote in the second century AD about Mombasa under the name of Tonike, and the long white coral beaches, verged with palm trees were familiar to Indians, Arabs and Portuguese, as well as later travelers. But now most visitors’ first impression is of the the utterly different scenery outside Nairobi, of the sweeping Athi plains and game straying among the thorn bushes of the Nairobi National Park.

North-west of the capital again, with upland farms reminding one of a sunlit England, while higher still the thick rain forest of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares are as mysterious as the perpetual snow on the Equator is paradoxical. Finally, the arid semi-desert of the north, bordering on Ethiopia and Somalia, seems in yet another world.

Kenya fires the imagination of everyone who comes here. It is not surprising that over the years since independence it has become internationally recognised as one of the most magnificent and exciting holiday areas anywhere.

Geographically the country covers 582,647 sq km (225,000 sq miles) and lies across the Equator. Its Indian Ocean coastline is 608 km (380 miles) long, while its centre is cut by the Great Rift Valley, running north to south and containing a variety of lakes. The largest river is the Tana, which flows in a wide curve eastwards from the slopes of Mt. Kenya (17,058 ft) to the Indian Ocean.

Kenya is home to Arabs, Asians and Europeans as well as more than 48 main African tribes. Some like the Masaai, are famous as warriors. Others like the EL Molo up at Lake Turkana or the Waliangulu Elephant hunters near Tsavo Park, are few in number, shy and still backward. The largest are the Luhya (24%); followed by the Kikuyu (21%) where the head of state comes from; the Luo (20%) on the famous Lake Victoria; the Kalenjin (17%); the Kamba (10%) centred on Machakos and Kitui; the Meru (10%) and the Kisii (6%). The non-African community who include the Asians, Europeans, Americans and Arabs comprise 2% of the population.

The total population stands at 29.3 million. A century ago there was great rivalry between the tribes, but today everything is concentrated on collaboration and Kenya’s motto of Harambee, which means ‘Let’s all pull together’. The Harambee concept has come under a lot of fire recently and politicians have been barred from officiating in any such ventures.

Traditional dances and costumes are cherished as part of the country’s cultural heritage. They are brimful of vitality too and the Chuka drummers, for instance, have drawn crowds to overseas performances in London and elsewhere not to mention the famous Muungano choir and the Kamba dancers. Broadly, there are three ways of getting to see traditional dances:

If there’s a celebration such as on one of the National holidays of the country, there are likely to be public performances.

If you are on a tour, you may find an exhibition arranged at some point, for instance at the Bomas of Kenya in Langata. Perfomances can be seen here from monday to Friday starting 2.30pm-4.00pm, Saturday-Sunday from 3.30pm-5.15pm and public holidays from 3.30pm-5.15pm.

Many Hotels also have their own organised performances. Indeed the fierce dancer wielding a spear may be the same man who earlier carried your suitcase to your room!

One word of caution here. If you happen accidentally upon a local Ngoma which is Swahili for a dance or celebration, make sure to ask if you may stay and watch, especially before taking photographs. These are private affairs.

When the British colonised Kenya they introduced both Asian and European minorities. The Asians came mostly to work on the railway, then branched into trade. Since independence the Asian community has continued to grow in number and in prosperity.

Public holidays, when banks, shops and government offices close are Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Labour Day (May 1), Madaraka Day (June 1 or the following day if June 1 falls on a Sunday), Kenyatta Day (October 20), Jamhuri or Independence Day which may soon be christened Mashujaa Day (December 12). Additionally the Moslem holidays of Id-ul-Azha are observed by all people of the Islamic faith.