Kenya - Contexts

Kenyan History

See also the sections on History for each individual tribe, and the following essays: Lake Turkana: Mankind's Origins, Kikuyu colonial history (which refers to the Kikuyu but is common to all tribes), The Mau Mau Uprising and Independence (also in the section about the Kikuyu), and three general essays on Kenya's major ethno-linguistic groups - Kenya's People: the Bantu, Kenya's People: the Cushites, and Kenya's People: the Nilotes.
   A related website is Contestation over Political Space, by Karuti Kanyinga; a detailed account of Kenyan politics in the run-up to independence and after.
In this page:
The Colonial Experience
Modern Kenya
Tradition and the Present
The Future... and Memory


Mwacha asili ni mtumwa -
He who renounces his ancestry is like a slave
Swahili proverb

Over the five hundred years since Europe began its process of world domination, the traditional societies and cultures of Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas, have suffered great and often violent and disastrous change. Far from being the 'civilizing' influence its apologists claim it to be, the European presence was often the most destructive event ever to have occurred among the people who came into contact with it.
   The vast majority of such cultures simply did not survive the shock of the collision, whilst those that did lost much of their original traditions and ways of life, as well as their cosmologies - their conception of the universe, and of their place within it.

In Africa, it is these cosmologies which bind all peoples together, for ultimately the entire continent is interconnected - not only on the real level of people and trade, culture and beliefs, but also in supernatural and metaphysical terms. Everything is bound and connected, known and relativised... tales relate the lives of founders of lineages, tribes, civilisations and kingdoms; they relate encounters with spirits and supernatural forces, battles with them, kingly figures, ritual leaders, images of nature and people and the things known and unknown which held them together. The tales talk of dreams as much as they preserve the remembrance of the past in the form of oral history. They were a way of educating children. In short, the universe itself was explained, and known.

These last five centuries have witnessed the mass extinction of human cultures, each one of which was unique to the world. Each loss is irreversible, and only adds to the increasing impoverishment of mankind as a whole. Sadly, this process of change and destruction has only accelerated in the twentieth century, as the Europeans finally gave the world its formal independence. The new cultural entities that resulted - nation states - are largely artificial creations whose boundaries were decided by European interests, invariably ignoring older boundaries that may have existed between various groups of peoples and cultures before the Europeans came. As a result, the new post-colonial nations often have no strong historical or cultural roots, for they are essentially European creations. Economically, they are still largely controlled (or owned) by European or North American multinational corporations, on whom their crop markets depend, and on whose governments they rely for loans (to be paid back with swingeing interest) when things go wrong. This phenomenon is called neo-colonialism. The new countries are also politically unstable, in part because the original political, social and judicial structures which ensured a degree of peace or status quo were long ago discarded; the new Western-style governments which have taken their place are easily corruptible, notably by those who can afford to pay: Western companies and governments. The end result, of course, is the colossal mess we know today, fed to us via news reports about civil wars, brutal dictatorships, embezzlement of entire nations' resources in Swiss bank accounts, coups d'etats, famines and epidemics, and the plight of isolated and powerless peoples such as the Ogoni of Nigeria and the Okiek of Kenya.

Meanwhile, who in power - political or economic - gives a damn about the people of these countries? The majority, certainly in Kenya, are now poorer in both money and material terms than they were immediately after independence. Culturally, their entire ways of life have been changed, from their sense of identity to their religions. And despite the best efforts of certain enlightened African scholars, leaders, and indeed some non-African organisations, the changes cannot be unmade.

Of Kenya's forty-two officially-recognised tribes (there are many more in reality), about half - roughly 70% of the population - have lost the majority of their traditional ways. By this, I mean that their essential cultural institutions have been almost entirely 'Westernized' - society, laws, religions, cultures, marriage customs, their economic mode of life, dress, and music.
   Christianity is the most visible agent of change in Kenya, though ironically the religion has its roots in the colonial experience. It was used by European administrators to create an African elite - albeit one far beneath the rank and influence of the European settlers - which served the colonial administration in the form of clerks, policemen and minor officials. Christianity was also used as a 'pacifying' influence, through which it was hoped that the 'natives' would recognise the moral superiority of the colonists, and so not oppose them. The Christian missionaries of course themselves believed in their own righteousness, and in their right to impose by hook or crook their cosmological views and values upon the locals. Sadly, too many such Church missions organised around the very same principles are still active today - their aim, as ever, to convert the 'pagan natives' to the Love of Jesus, at whatever cost. For more on this, see my contextual essay about Kenyan Religions & Beliefs.

The Colonial Experience

The east African Republic of Kenya is a young nation which did not even exist 150 years ago, and which only achieved its independence from the British in 1963, after a long and bloody struggle against its colonial oppressors.
   It's a kind of irony that Kenya was not even conceived by Africans, but by European politicians, militarists, colonists and administrators at the end of the nineteenth century, who had between them agreed respective 'spheres of influence' in East Africa. This period, which is seen by historians as one of the crucial stages in the escalation of inter-European rivalry which ultimately led to the First World War, was called the 'Scramble for Africa'. In East Africa, Britain received control of what is now Kenya and Uganda; the Italians were given free rein in Abyssinia (Ethiopia and Somalia); and the new nation-state of Germany received the area to the south of Kenya, namely modern-day Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.

Mount KilimanjaroAt no time in this period - or indeed throughout the seventy years of abusive colonialism which followed - was ever more than fleeting consideration given to the people who actually lived in East Africa, and whose lives were being turned upside-down by the Europeans. The arrogant disregard shown by the new overlords was even set down in black and white in the form of Kenya's borders, which were determined not by the languages or distribution of its peoples, nor by their cultures or traditions, and not even by geography, but by military interests and even haphazard whimsy, which is how the southern border with Tanzania came to be defined. The German Emperor Wilhelm I, who had been given control of what became Tanzania, very much wanted possession of Africa's highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. To appease his ego, the British (in the form of his grandmother, Queen Victoria) relented, and through the 1886 Anglo-German Agreement the otherwise straight border was drawn with a large kink around Kilimanjaro, so that the mountain was entirely included in German-controlled territory.

The period of colonialism which followed was a litany of abuse, oppression, fear and misrule. Although the British had spent much of the nineteenth century opposing slavery (after much pushing from the Anti-slavery Society), it became abundantly clear that as far as the government was concerned, this had been not so much for moral reasons as for financial, military and political gain: an opportunity to hit its rivals.
   Within a decade of venturing into the Kenyan interior, vast tracts of Kenya's most fertile land were being stolen by the British for their own farms and estates. The theft lasted for several more decades at the beginning of the twentieth century, and included the sacred mountains of Mount Kenya (Kirinyaga), Nyandarua (the Aberdare Range), much of the Rift Valley, the far west north of Nyanza (Lake Victoria), and over eighty percent of Maasai grazing lands. Access to the land was restricted by barbed wire fences and armed sentries, although some people were tolerated as 'squatters' (on their own lands!), so long as they agreed to spend part of their labours for the benefit of the new landowner.
   To make way for these farms, millions of people were uprooted and forced to settle elsewhere, often in crowded 'Reserves' or 'protected villages' (nothing other than concentration camps) on inferior land controlled by the British, where the movements and activities of the 'natives' were severely restricted. As though losing their land and freedom was not enough, large numbers of livestock were also confiscated or forcibly sold by the colonial government, ostensibly to prevent overstocking (logically, in a Machiavellian sense, for most of the land had been stolen), but in reality to protect the investment of the new European ranches.
   Other Africans were forced into the urban labour markets of cities such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru to become dependant on the cash economy (if they were lucky enough to avoid unemployment), whilst others were conscripted into the army to fight in the white men's wars, notably in the First World War. Others were simply taken from their homes and used as forced labour, and were whipped, beaten or imprisoned if they refused or attempted to escape. And if an entire village was unlucky enough to have chosen to oppose the colonial government, they were brutally 'pacified' by military patrols, who seemed happy to massacre entire villages in their mission to quell 'dissent'. Needless to say, never was a penny in compensation ever paid to those dispossessed by the new order, unless one counts the farcical 'land treaties' by which some embattled local leaders were obliged to cede control of their land for a pittance.

Colonisation was officially-sanctioned theft on an unimaginably large scale - that of entire peoples and, ultimately, of their cultures. Needless to say, the British did not see it that way. They convinced themselves that people who wore skins, who lived in 'mud huts', who used bows and arrows, and who perhaps worshipped their ancestors and dozens of spirits - in short, a people whom they did not understand - were nothing other than 'savage' or 'primitive'. I have a 1934 book called 'The Story of the World in Pictures', which refers to the Kikuyu as 'Middle Barbarians', yet even this is something of a complement given that that accolade was four ranks higher than the status of 'Lower Savage' accorded the Vedda of Sri Lanka, among others.
   These savages and barbarians, the Europeans believed, certainly could not have developed the supposedly advanced notion of land ownership; therefore, they thought, all the land in Kenya was rightfully theirs to take.

Apart from such twisted and racist logic, also helping the colonists smooth away their guilt and doubts, if such guilt and doubts ever existed, were the Christian missionaries who followed them, and who had in many parts actually preceded the establishment of the colony, paving the way for a more efficient conquest. From the coast to the far west of the country, they went loudly proclaiming the heathen status of the natives, or worse: some tribes were accused of devil worship, others of worshipping multiple gods or ancestors. All these preconceptions, needless to say, were completely false, and arose both out of utter ignorance as well as simple racism.
   Of course, there was nothing more primitive than the British point of view itself - its disregard for entire peoples, traditions, lands and customs; its persistent misinterpretation of facts to suit their own purposes; the unwillingness of the British to consider Africans as equals; their racism; their views that Africans were 'heathens'... The only really dark thing about the continent was the European's ignorance of it: as the Nigerian author Chinweizu wrote in his short poem "Colonizer's Logic":

These natives are unintelligent -
We can't understand their language.

Modern Kenya

Modern Kenya would be utterly unrecognisable to a nineteenth-century inhabitant: aside from the usual trappings of western civilisation (capitalism, tarmac roads, cars, towns, cities, trains, dress, central government, offices, etc), almost everything else has changed, too: notably in terms of social structure, and in religion (most Kenyans now profess the Christian faith, which was utterly absent 160 years ago).
   Whereas previously, societies were governed on a local level (first through the family, then the extended family, then the clan, and ultimately the tribe), society is now determined by - and defined through - the cash economy. For many, money is the only form of wealth. Of course, it buys food, clothing, shelter and other material goods, and enables Kenya to trade with other nations, but more importantly for some, it also buys political power, influence and respect (which some call fear).
   Money also determines an individual's role within the modern family - the husband is generally the only waged member of the family, and as such, can exert considerable power over other members of the family, not least his wife. She, despite working longer and harder, and shouldering the responsibilities of feeding, clothing and educating her children, is invariably of lower status.
   In contrast, traditional Kenyan society was not always sexist, contrary to common belief. Certainly, the majority of women were circumcised, and were treated as little more than chattel during marriage negotiations, during which wealth - often in the form of livestock - was paid by the groom's family to the bride's in exchange for the wife. But men, too, were circumcised, and there was also in part a great respect placed on women, not only for their role as mothers, but also spiritually and as leaders. Many Bantu societies especially were originally organised along matrilineal lines, and were governed by women; and many other tribes venerate female founding ancestors as well as males. Socially, a woman's place was always in the home as well as in the fields, but the woman was often also paramount in those contexts, no matter the ego or feelings of her husband.
   This, too, has changed. With money now of primary importance, the social standing of many women has decreased. And yet, at the same time, other women - very few, admittedly - have had the opportunity to succeed in modern terms. In my work dealing with the managements of hotels, safari companies and restaurants, a good deal of the people I dealt with were women. And these women were invariably as confident and self-assured as their male counterparts, if not more. They were certainly a lot less corrupt.
   Women as public figures are also increasingly common, albeit still a tiny proportion: an outstanding example is physicist, feminist and environmental activist Professor Wangari Maathai, the brave, outspoken and charismatic leader of the Greenbelt Movement, who really should stand for the Presidency one day - one way that Kenya could certainly change for the better.


There are approximately forty to sixty different groups of people in Kenya (depending on how you count and define them), each with their own traditions and histories, cultures, languages and dialects, territories, religions and beliefs, ways of dressing, music and dance. In short, each has their own identity, distinct from any other. I have called each of these peoples a tribe, following the usage of Kenyans themselves in describing their own identity (see my note about the word 'tribe' for a fuller explanation of this).

It's rare, certainly in Kenya itself, to hear a person describing themselves as Kenyan. Their tribal identity - be it Maasai or Kikuyu, Luo, Kalenjin or whatever - invariably comes first. If you pay attention to the actions and pronouncements of Kenyan politicians, you will also realise that the nation's government, far from being practised "For a Just Society and the Fair Government of Men" as the stone inscription says over the Nairobi-based Parliament's gate, is carried out primarily for the benefit of the few tribes to which the president and his ministers belong, and often to the detriment of others.

As a nation, Kenya is deeply fractured. The notion of "us and them" pervades every level of life, from bawdy jokes in Nairobi's River Road bars about the stereotypical characteristics of each tribe, to the now proven allegations that important politicians and public figures organised, funded and partly armed the ethnic violence that has sporadically scarred Kenya since the first multi-party elections were held in the early 1990s.
   Since 1991, the Kalenjin have been bitterly pitted against the Kikuyu; Turkana against Samburu; coastal Swahili against 'up-country' folk; Maasai against Kikuyu; Pokot against Kalenjin and Turkana; Elgeyo against Marakwet; Somali against Rendille and Samburu ... and so on.

What can be done?! With so much hate (racial, tribal, ethnic - call it what you will), and an apathetic, self-serving and ineffectual government, the future of Kenya looks grim. After a decade of violence, and several decades of corruption and tribal favouritism, Kenya is in both material and spiritual terms much poorer now than it was directly after independence. The average per capita income, already low, has steadily been decreasing, and lies now somewhere in the region US$200 a year. The natural resources are there, the people willing to work are there too. But the will to change things for the better - which needs a spirit of cooperation on all levels of society - is not.

Yet there is, I feel, a growing feeling that all Kenyans are 'in this together'. Through no choice of their own, they were given their Kenyan identity. Unless Kenya's borders are redrawn (which would entail the fragmentation of the nation into several smaller states), Kenya - all Kenyans - will share a common destiny, and only together will they succeed in determining for themselves rather than merely accepting their future.

The first president of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, identified this spirit of brotherhood or 'togetherness' as essential for the well-being and prosperity of the fledgling nation state. The idea, which became public policy (at least in words), was called Harambee - 'coming together'.

Traditional and the Present

All to say only that Kenyan society is currently in a period of great transition, and I am only too well aware of the anachronistic nature of my work on this website. In dealing only with the traditional side of Kenyan culture, I am covering a narrow and in any case dwindling aspect of Kenyan reality. By dealing only with the 'traditional', I am inevitably ignoring many of the achievements of modern Kenya, its vibrancy, courage, doubts and challenges, dreams and hopes.

In dealing primarily with the receding past, I am - I freely admit - presenting an incomplete and perhaps biased picture of Kenya today. Yet my reasons for doing so, apart from attempting to bring to a wider audience the riches of cultures of which many are on the brink of extinction, are not just altruistic (or indeed personal - I love the music!). My work is also an attempt to link the past with the present and with the future (an idea which was foremost in the philosophy of Jomo Kenyatta, and which was present in his actions in the early years of his presidency).
   Kenyan traditions - any traditions - are the products of centuries, and sometimes millennia, of life and learning. Traditions are formed through experience, knowledge, needs, and the necessity both to adapt and adopt to the environment. Traditions are both an expression of these realities, as well as a means of regulating and making sense of them.
   In many African societies, tradition was the rope that bound together past, present and future. The ancestors of a people, who had often created the tribe in the first place, or had determined its direction and forged its values, were revered not as gods, but as actions, and as the memories of people who had formed the society in which people then lived. Their qualities, as well as their faults, were celebrated and represented in oral histories, legends and fables, and in songs and dances. In the same way that the 'Founding Fathers' became a 'creation myth' in the US, so were the ancestors of African societies regarded as founding fathers or mothers by their own people. Yet their real legacy was not only a memory, for their lives persisted in how a society regulated and organised itself.

My fear is that if traditions are forgotten, a nation such as Kenya will lack direction, for it will lack a heart - many hearts - from which to advance. So it is my sincere belief that in order for Kenya to successfully advance as a united and prosperous nation, the past - Kenya's many pasts - have to be carried along with it, and cherished as its very heart.

The Future... and Memory

It is memory - the memory of the ancestors, of the past, and of the forces that made people what they are - that remains paramount. Often misinterpreted as 'ancestor worship', the only traditions that involve or invoke ancestors are actually nothing more than the paying of respect to them, and the nurturing of their memory. As many African people believe, the death of an individual is not as final as we in the West see it (the prospect of Heaven and Hell notwithstanding): for a physically deceased person remains alive in spirit, and will remain so only until the last living person has forgotten them and their actions. Only then, when remembrance has ceased, do the deceased finally disappear into the void of nothingness, which we call death.
   I would like to apply this idea to modern Kenya. It is now over a century since colonisation began, and over a century and a half since the first Europeans ventured inland beyond Mombasa and Malindi.
   Colonialism brought many things, not all of them bad. But it also caused the destruction, both directly and indirectly, of almost everything that had been there before. Entire peoples were evicted from their ancestral lands and forcibly resettled elsewhere; old traditions such as rites and rituals connected to remembrance were abolished on the grounds of their being 'pagan' or 'Satanic'; the way of dressing was changed to accord with European ideas of decency; and of course the very unity of tribal societies was deliberately undermined by the British so as to weaken any opposition to the colonial regime.
   But the rub is that once the British finally granted Kenya its independence, this same process of cultural obliteration has continued to be practised by Kenyans themselves. The danger - and in fact, the reality - is that many of the traditions which nurtured traditional Kenyan societies have now been almost totally forgotten.
   Short of indicting the entire ruling class - national, local, political, judicial, police - or electing an honest, non-tribalistic and incorruptible President, I can offer no solution. In any case, as a non-Kenyan white man (mzungu), it is not even for me to comment. I am neither an anthropologist, nor am I versed in ethnology, political science, or the ins and outs of development issues. But one thing I do know - and this with certainty - is that Kenya today exists as it is, and cannot (and should not) go 'back' to what it was.
   I know also that the old traditions are seen by many Kenyans I talked with as outdated. Some even called them 'primitive', and regarded their past with disdain, and even shame. The old ways and traditions have been discarded with incredible haste, and many of them have been lost for good.

But that is no way forward, and this way of thinking will certainly not build a nation that is proud of itself. If I, as a mzungu, can see the value of the old ways - moreover, the importance of preserving the memories of them - then surely they must still have some value and relevance?
   When I think of ancestors, I think of the roots of a tree. Without the roots, of course, the tree dies. Kenya has lost many of its roots. All I can say is that the present, and the future, depend on their roots in the past. Instead of being denigrated, the past must be remembered for only then will Kenya become whole.


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