Kenya - Contexts

Kenyan Religions and Beliefs

See also the sections on Religion & Beliefs for each individual tribe.
In this page:
Traditional religion and beliefs
Sacrifice and propitiatory rites
Spirits, the living-dead and the ancestors
Missions, missionaries and colonization
The Consolata Fathers and the Mennonites


Penye wengi pana Mungu -
Where there are many people, there God is
Swahili proverb

An estimated three quarters of all Kenyans profess to be Christian, whether nominally or otherwise (the majority being Protestant), up from precisely zero before the first European missionaries arrived in the 1840s. Approximately one fifth of the population still adhere to their traditional beliefs and religions, although these are fast disappearing in the face of an often aggressive evangelical presence. A minority of Kenyans (around 6%) are Muslim.
   The only geographical distinction that can be made between the various religions is with Islam, which is practised mainly on the coast and in the adjoining northeast of the country bordering Somalia.

Thankfully, religion is not a divisive issue in Kenya, and has had nothing to do with the sporadic outbreaks of 'ethnic violence' that have plagued the country since the early 1990s. There is no official State religion, although the Moi administration has increasingly tried to associate itself with Christianity, perhaps in the vain hope of covering its woefully corrupt rule with a veneer of respectability, values and legitimacy. The result, though, is often little more than farcical. Here are two examples:

The first could be seen every Sunday on the television news, which were extended to include coverage of a weekly church sermon at which the political bigwigs, including Moi and his ministers, were in attendance. These were a delight, as the sermons were filmed by a crew of cameramen with more than a passing interest in irony. Cue shots of Moi et al yawning or sleeping, plus lingering images of them looking awkward whenever the priests spoke of 'a culture of corruption' or other hard truths.

The second rapprochement to Christianity has been the Government's drive against 'devil-worshippers'. In the 1990s, an extremely dubious official inquiry was held into the 'threat' of 'devil worship'. The findings of the commission (the Presidential Commission into the Cult of Devil Worship) were only published three years after completion of the report, and concluded that they had "found ample corroborative evidence of the existence of devil worship." So much so, indeed, that it threatened to "derail the country's national objectives". The findings, if taken seriously, would have condemned entire tribes as Satanists. The Maasai, Samburu, Rendille and Turkana would all have been condemned for drinking blood (a staple part of their diet, obtained from cattle without slaughtering them).
   Listening to loud music, transcendental meditation, sporting long hair and going about half-naked were also cited as tell-tale signs of Satanism, whilst people and organisations named as hotbeds of Satanism included Jehovah's Witnesses, various independent evangelical churches, the Mormons, the Theosophical Society, Rastafarians, the Lucifer Golfing Society (!), the Freemasons, and even matatu (communal taxi) drivers.

Thankfully, such puerile initiatives have had little effect among Kenyans at large, although the general trend is still very much in favour of Christianity, at the expense of traditional beliefs and customs.

Traditional Religion and Beliefs

Although traditional beliefs and ritual practises vary greatly in detail among Kenya's many ethnic groups, they share many general characteristics. For more information on the cosmologies of individual tribes, you really should read the relevant sections on 'religion and beliefs', which have been included for every people covered in this website.


In general, traditional Kenyan religions involve belief in an eternal, unique and omnipotent creator God who is distant from mankind, but not out of reach. God created and maintained the universe, including man, who in many cosmologies was lowered from some other world.
   Essentially, the Kenyan concept of God pretty similar to both the Muslim and Christian ideas. The name given to God changes from people to people, though those most frequently encountered are Ngai, Enkai, Akuj, Mulungu and Mungu, and variations thereof.
   God cannot be seen, and usually resides in the sky or on high mountains. God is associated with rain (and by extension grass, certain plants, animals, mountains, rainbows and prosperity), as well as with the consequences of not providing rain (drought, famine, disease and death). God is also manifest in the sun, moon, thunder and lighting, stars and in trees, especially the wild fig tree (also called 'strangling fig'), which is sacred to many different Kenyan peoples. Sometimes, different names are given to God according to the manifestation in which he is apparent.

These various manifestations of God, together with the multiplicity of different names, have long confused Western observers, who saw in them evidence that Kenyans were polytheists. This, as I've said above, was far from the truth, as most Kenyan peoples believed in one God alone. Rather than being proof of belief in several Gods, this was only a way of distinguishing God's differing 'moods' (when God was angry and refused to bring rain, there was a special name; and when God brought good things, there was another). Often enough, God's different manifestations were also associated with colours and sexes. Black was invariably a good or 'cool' colour, whilst red (and sometimes white) was bad and 'hot'.

Another misconception is that God was always male. Although this is true among some people, this by no means applies to all Kenyan religions, and even among traditionally 'misogynistic' cultures (by Western standards), such as that of the Maasai, there are common expressions which praise God's female attributes.

As in Christianity, God can be prayed to, and although this can be done by individuals, it is most commonly done collectively at times of celebration, at important passages of life, and in times of calamity such as during epidemics, droughts and famines. Sacrifices of animals sometimes accompany such events, the sacrifice being seen as a direct offering to God, who may thus - it is hoped - be convinced to intercede in the affairs of the people.

Sacrifice and propitiatory rites

More information on sacrifice is included in the section on Turkana Religion & Beliefs

Also frequently misunderstood in the West is the concept and practice of sacrifice, which often accompanies communal prayers and important social occasions, and is in fact an integral part of the ceremonies. In its most basic form, sacrifice involves a person or people giving something that is valuable to them (such as food or animals) to God, in the hope that God repays the attention paid Him by blessing the people in whatever form requested, for example by bringing rain to end a drought, or calling off a flood, or quelling disease, or simply blessing a newly married couple or their child - whatever the people have a need of at the time.

Spirits, the living-dead and the ancestors

As far as I know, no African people has ever worshipped its ancestors, although the phrase 'ancestor worship' crops up frequently enough in the African context to warrant some explanation. In short, the concept of 'ancestor worship' is a misunderstanding of the African relationship between the living and the dead, and arose during colonial times when missionaries and others were only too keen to see their preconceptions and stereotypes validated by hasty and incomplete conclusions. Sadly, the phrase has stuck, together with its implicit but erroneous implication of polytheism (the belief in many gods).
   More appropriate would be to say that the living venerate and respect, and sometimes fear, their dead ancestors (who are also called 'spirit ancestors' and 'living-dead'; absolutely no relation to horror film scarers).

For many peoples, a person does not die completely when his or her heart stops beating. This is only the death of the physical aspect of life. The spirit, either as a real if invisible thing, or as a memory, lives on, usually in a kind of limbo state, near to the living yet far away, and close to God. Only when the spirits or memories of the deceased are truly forgotten by the living, do they pass away into the void that is nothingness or death.

The belief neatly encapsulates probably the most important aspect of many African philosophies, namely the principle of continuity. In continuity - from the past through the present to the future - lies unity, prosperity and life. Despite man's existence being limited and temporal, knowledge, traditions and histories are passed on across the generations; the living all carry these things within themselves, and in time will pass them on, together with new knowledge and traditions, to their own children. The very societies and cultures in which they live are products of the past (albeit ever-changing and evolving), and the people who created them, who started important lineages, who fought vital battles, or indeed who did a lot of evil deeds, are remembered, for their acts live on in the present.
   Yet the role of the ancestors is not just passive. Being close to God, they can act as intermediaries between God and the living, and for instance can play an important part in 'convincing' God to bring rain, to call off floods, or bring victory in war. Usually, the ancestors can be influenced by the living through prayer, offerings or sacrifice, in the same way that God might be influenced by similar acts. Some people can also hear or see the ancestors in their dreams, and some of these become diviners and soothsayers.

In general, the characteristics of the spirit ancestors follow in exaggerated form the characteristics of the ancestors when they were physically alive. Thus, a kind-hearted person who did a lot of good for everyone will become a similarly public-minded and benevolent spirit, who will help the living by intervening in God's actions when appropriate. On the other hand, the spirit of a murderer will predictably have bad effects on the living unless placated. The exact nature of their power varies from people to people: some equate their ancestors with terrifying abilities, who need to be suitably placated or satisfied with animal sacrifices. Indeed some ancestors are represented not as humans but as monsters such as ogres or giants, or as strange and grotesque creatures with animal heads or animal bodies. Yet good or bad, it does appear that if they are in danger of being forgotten, all spirits can become a nuisance: no one likes to be forgotten.

A further class of spirits also existed in many cosmologies, which were not connected to ancestors, and so might be called natural or supernatural spirits. These usually lived in wild places, especially in river beds, in thickets, forests and on hillsides. Their activities were unpredictable, and since they were not related to humans, they were greatly feared and avoided wherever possible.

Many societies had a class of specialists adept in dealing with spirits, and who often doubled as experts in natural medicine. They are variously called diviners, witch-doctors, medicine men, prophets or soothsayers.

Belief in spirits has decreased markedly since the advent of Christianity, although certain beliefs persist, such as the fear of witchcraft. I should make it clear that diviners, witch-doctors and medicine men are not considered to be 'witches'. As such, 'witchcraft' denotes the practice of using supernatural powers for negative means, often for economic gain, such as casting curses over people and livestock (in European terms, witches are those who practice black magic as opposed to white magic). In certain areas, notably among the Gusii, sporadic lynchings of suspected witches still occur nowadays, much to the exasperation of the local police, who end up jailing the suspects for their own protection.


Bible preacher in Nairobi
Image reproduced by kind permission of Campos & Davis Photos. You'll find many more Kenyan prints for sale on their website.

I am aware that, as a seasoned atheist, my sometimes antagonistic attitude towards what I perceive as the less palatable aspects of Christianity in Kenya, and particularly towards the missionaries, is evident in places throughout this website. My feelings naturally favour the often embattled position of traditional religion, which - as an integral part of traditional culture - I am sad to see replaced, forgotten or destroyed, and this at an alarming pace. For despite my atheism, I do respect people's beliefs, and defend their right to practice them unmolested. God, as far as I am concerned, does exist - not for me, but only for those who believe in God. Nonetheless, I do feel obliged to offer an apology to those who may feel offended by my remarks from time to time. As should hopefully become obvious, my attitude is that religion is a personal matter, be it traditional beliefs or Christianity. Most Christians and Muslims I know put this belief into practice, and attempt to live good lives within the constraints and values imposed by their beliefs.

Missions, missionaries and colonization

Unfortunately, religion - especially Christianity in the African context - has rarely been practised on an individual level: Evangelism itself, with its desire to convert people to the Christian faith, is by its very nature an expansionary, and thus colonizing, concept. It was inevitable, given that Christianity simply did not exist in Kenya before the colonial conquest, that the religion became deeply associated with the British colonial regime, for which it also played a vital role.

Missionary activity began the 1840s, notably with the combined evangelical and exploratory activities of Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, who were incidentally also the first Europeans to set eyes on Mount Kenya. The following decades though saw few converts and little concerted effort to diffuse the Christian faith into Kenya. The building of the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Kampala at the turn of the century, however, changed all that. From the end of the nineteenth century, the interior was opened up to both colonists and missionaries, the two often working hand-in-hand. After scattered successes, the 1920s and 1930s saw a rash of church building, not all of them controlled by the government's approved denominations. Indeed, among several tribes, such as the Luo, Luhya and Kikuyu, the new independent churches were to become a focus of anti-colonial agitation, which eventually culminated in the Kenya's independence in 1963.

Putting aside the unfortunate way in which Christianity was introduced to Kenya, the indisputable fact remains that the majority of Kenyans now consider themselves to be adherents of that faith. I have no problem with that. But what I do have a problem with is the continued attempt by certain missionary organisations still active in Kenya today to impose their religion on others, and this at any cost and through any means.

This is done is all manner of ways, from charismatic evangelical African 'healers' who hold out the promise of a cure from AIDS (or salvation if that fails) in packed and practised weekend sermons on Nairobi's outskirts, to the exchange of emergency aid and food relief in drought-prone regions in return for a child attending Christian school, or church attendance on Sundays. This latter attitude (actually more of a technique) - exemplified by advice contained in certain Christian evangelical websites for missionaries to be "well-versed in matters of spiritual warfare" - I personally consider to be immoral and exploitative.

My dislike of such practises was concreticized in Kalacha, a tiny village in the far north of Kenya, which had been a traditional watering ground for the Gabbra nomads and their camels. A few decades ago, a Christian mission was established there, but saw little success. Little success, that is, until the 1980s, when the prolonged drought and famine which struck much of sub-Saharan Africa (the same drought that prompted Bob Geldof to start Live Aid), turned many local Gabbra into helpless victims. In return for food, people were exposed to Christianity. Yet even this was, as far as I can tell, insufficient to convince the majority of Gabbra to convert to the new faith. But here's the rub: when I last visited Kalacha (end-1998), there were no starving people that I could see. But there were people, many people, who had lost their herds in the 1980s, and had been obliged to reside permanently in Kalacha, relying on mission hand-outs for their daily survival.

One evening, I was talking with a group of kids who had come to the camp at which I along with a small group of tourists were staying, to tell us about a church service which was being held that evening, and to which we were all invited. We talked a little, and I asked whether they were Christian. Yes they were - and their names were Matthew, Mark, Michael and John.

"And your parents?" I asked, "Are they Christian too?"

"Oh no!" exclaimed one boy, "they do not like us going to church."

This, precisely, is the bone I have to pick with the attitude of certain missionaries: unable to convert the adults, the missionaries of Kalacha have turned to converting their children instead, contrary to their parents' wishes. This is immoral and utterly repugnant.

The Consolata Fathers and the Mennonites - lessons in love and respect

Nonetheless, I must mention some major exceptions (there must be many more) which I found refreshingly different. The organisation that has most impressed me has been the Consolata Fathers, who over the years - and not only in Kenya - have proved themselves marvellously worthy of the tolerance and respect preached by all religions. Regarding Kenya, their now sadly out-of-print booklets about various Kenyan peoples have proved invaluable for this website. In fact, so respectful have they been of traditional cultures, beliefs and even religions, that some impatient Christian commentators, exasperated by the lack of tangible success reaped by the Consolata Fathers in terms of churches founded or conversions made, have even accused them of merely pretending to be missionaries whilst actually acting as anthropologists! To you, I take my hat off, and wish that other missionaries would take the Consolata Fathers as an example of the love, tolerance, sensitivity and respect for other people which religion should really inspire. For those interested in finding out more, the Consolata Fathers in Kenya can be reached at PO Box 47540 Nairobi (
   Another Christian body which appears to hold a similarly open-minded approach to traditional Kenya is the Mennonite Central Committee, which has published (both on paper and on the internet: see a remarkable sequence of often quite secular articles concerning Kenyan tribes as well as other peoples, with the focus firmly tolerance and peace-making.


Kenyan Islam, which is primarily present on the coast, is largely the result of centuries of contact with traders from the Arabian peninsula since the fourteenth century (and latterly Indian immigrants), and the religion forms the backbone of Swahili society. Other coastal peoples practising Islam include some Mijikenda sections, the Orma and Pokomo. Islam is also practised among the Somali in the northeast of Kenya (who number half of Kenya's Muslims), and less thoroughly by the Borana further west.
   My apologies for the sparsity of this section on Islam: I'll write a more comprehensive description when I get round to finishing the section about the Swahili.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography