People and culture, Kenya
‘A melting pot of people’
Waves of migration over the centuries from the north and south have led to Kenya becoming one of the most diverse African countries culturally and linguistically.
The country has at least 40 different ethnic African groups, including the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin tribes, Luo, Kamba, Somali, Kisii, Meru & Embu, Mijikenda, Turkana and Maasai, who speak a variety of mother tongues.
The different languages in Kenya fall into three categories: Bantu (Niger-Congo) languages which are spoken by around 65% of people, the Nilo-Saharan group of languages spoken among another third of the population and the Cushitic language, an Afro-Asian tongue spoken in the north by around 3% of the population.
Added to this mixture, Kenya is also home to large populations of Europeans, Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, many of whom came to the country in the 19th century.
The most widely spoken language, Swahili, is essentially Bantu infused with Arabic, Asian and European elements. Swahili is used as the national language of Kenya along with English, the official language.
Native African culture has been diluted in many parts of Kenya by outside influences. So for example, Kenya’s music is often a mixture of African, Indian, European and American styles.
Many Kenyan communities have also adopted westernised or Islamic forms of dress, with their original clothes, jewellery, body ornamentation and weaponry kept for special occasions or celebrations.
However, in certain parts of Kenya, particularly across the more arid and inaccessible north, communities retain their traditional culture and ways of living. Among nomadic and pastoral tribes such as the Maasai, Samburu and Turkana, people still wear cloths or skins and elaborate jewelry of beads and metalwork.
Belief systems among some remote tribes also remain indigenous. Across Kenya as a whole two-thirds of people are Christian. With the centuries-old influence of Arabic and Islamic traders and settlers (particularly along the coast), around 15% of Kenyans are Muslim.
One of the most popular forms of pop music is ‘Benga’, which combines traditional African drum and dance rhythms with modern electrical sounds and melodies.