Kenya (/ˈkɛnjə/ or /ˈkiːnjə/), officially the Republic of Kenya, is a country in Africa and a founding member of the East African Community (EAC). Its capital and largest city is Nairobi. Kenya is located on the equator with the Indian Ocean lying to the south-east and is bordered by Tanzania to the south, Uganda to the west, South Sudan to the north-west, Ethiopia to the north and Somalia to the north-east. Kenya covers 581,309 km2 (224,445 sq mi), and had a population of approximately 45 million people in July 2014.
Kenya has a warm and humid tropical climate on its Indian Ocean coastline which becomes cooler as you move inland through the wildlife-rich savannah grasslands towards the capital. The capital city, Nairobi, has a predominantly cool climate which becomes colder as you move closer to Mount Kenya which has snow permanently on its peak. Further inland, in the Nyanza region, there is a hot and dry climate which becomes humid around Lake Victoria, the largest tropical fresh-water lake in the world. This gives way to temperate and forested hilly areas in the neighboring western region. The north-eastern regions along the border with Somalia and Ethiopia are arid and semi-arid areas with near-desert landscapes. Kenya is traditionally famous for its safaris, diverse climate and geography, and expansive wildlife reserves and national parks such as the East and West Tsavo National Park, the Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru National Park, and Aberdares National Park. Kenya has several world heritage sites such as Lamu and numerous world-famous beaches including in Diani, Bamburi and Kilifi where international yachting competitions are held each year.
The African Great Lakes region, which Kenya is a part of, has been inhabited by humans since the Lower Paleolithic period. By the first millennium AD, the Bantu expansion had reached the area from West-Central Africa. The borders of the modern state consequently comprise the crossroads of the Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic areas of the continent, representing most major ethnolinguistic groups found in Africa. Bantu and Nilotic populations together constitute around 97% of the nation’s residents. European and Arab presence in coastal Mombasa dates to the Early Modern period; European exploration of the interior began in the 19th century. The British Empire established the East Africa Protectorate in 1895, which starting in 1920 gave way to the Kenya Colony. Kenya obtained independence in December 1963. Following a referendum in August 2010 and adoption of a new constitution, Kenya is now divided into 47 semi-autonomous counties, governed by elected governors.
The capital, Nairobi, is a regional commercial hub. The economy of Kenya is the largest by GDP in Southeast and Central Africa. Agriculture is a major employer; the country traditionally exports tea and coffee and has more recently begun to export fresh flowers to Europe. The service industry is also a major economic driver. Additionally, Kenya is a member of the East African Community trading bloc.
The word Kenya, /ˈkɛnjə/, originates from the Kamba name for Mount Kenya, “Kiinyaa“. Prehistoric volcanic eruptions of Mount Kenya (now extinct) may have resulted in its association with divinity and creation among the indigenous Kikuyu-related ethnic groups, who are the native inhabitants of the agricultural land surrounding Mount Kenya.
In the 19th century, the German explorer Johann Ludwig Krapf was staying with the Bantu Kamba people when he first spotted the mountain. On asking for the name of the mountain, he was told “Kĩ-Nyaa” or “Kĩĩma- Kĩĩnyaa” probably because the pattern of black rock and white snow on its peaks reminded them of the feathers of the cock ostrich. The Agikuyu, who inhabit the slopes of Mt. Kenya, call it Kĩrĩma Kĩrĩnyaga in Kikuyu, which is quite similar to the Kamba name.
Ludwig Krapf recorded the name as both Kenia and Kegnia believed by most to be a corruption of the Kamba version. Others say that this was—on the contrary—a very precise notation of a correct African pronunciation /ˈkɛnjə/. An 1882 map drawn by Joseph Thompsons, a Scottish geologist and naturalist, indicated Mt. Kenya as Mt. Kenia, 18620. Controversy over the actual meaning of the word Kenya notwithstanding, it is clear that the mountain’s name became widely accepted, pars pro toto, as the name of the country.
Geography and climate
At 580,367 km2 (224,081 sq mi), Kenya is the world’s forty-seventh largest country (after Madagascar). It lies between latitudes 5°N and 5°S, and longitudes 34° and 42°E. From the coast on the Indian Ocean, the low plains rise to central highlands. The highlands are bisected by the Great Rift Valley, with a fertile plateau lying to the east.
The Kenyan Highlands comprise one of the most successful agricultural production regions in Africa. The highlands are the site of the highest point in Kenya and the second highest peak on the continent: Mount Kenya, which reaches 5,199 m (17,057 ft) and is the site of glaciers. Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 m or 19,341 ft) can be seen from Kenya to the South of the Tanzanian border.
Kenya’s climate varies from tropical along the coast to temperate inland to arid in the north and northeast parts of the country. The area receives a great deal of sunshine every month, and summer clothes are worn throughout the year. It is usually cool at night and early in the morning inland at higher elevations.
The “long rains” season occurs from March/April to May/June. The “short rains” season occurs from October to November/December. The rainfall is sometimes heavy and often falls in the afternoons and evenings. The temperature remains high throughout these months of tropical rain. The hottest period is February and March, leading into the season of the long rains, and the coldest is in July, until mid August.
|City||Elevation (m)||Max (°C)||Min (°C)|
|Eldoret||Rift Valley town||2,085||23.6||9.5|
|Lodwar||dry north plainlands||506||34.8||23.7|
|Mandera||dry north plainlands||506||34.8||25.7|
Kenya has considerable land area devoted to wildlife habitats, including the Masai Mara, where Blue Wildebeest and other bovids participate in a large scale annual migration. Up to 250,000 blue wildebeest perish each year in the long and arduous movement to find forage in the dry season.
The “Big Five” animals of Africa can be found in Kenya and in the Masai Mara in particular: the lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant. A significant population of other wild animals, reptiles and birds can be found in the national parks and game reserves in the country. The annual animal migration – especially migration of the wildebeest – occurs between June and September with millions of animals taking part, attracting valuable foreign tourism.
Kenya is the setting for one of the Natural Wonders of the World – the great wildebeest migration. Two million of these ungulates migrate a distance of 1,800 miles (2,897 km) from the Serengeti in neighbouring Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya, in a constant clockwise fashion, searching for food and water supplies.
Fossils found in Kenya suggest that primates roamed the area more than 20 million years ago. Recent findings near Lake Turkana indicate that hominids such as Homo habilis (1.8 and 2.5 million years ago) and Homo erectus (1.8 million to 350,000 years ago) are possible direct ancestors of modern Homo sapiens, and lived in Kenya in the Pleistocene epoch. During excavations at Lake Turkana in 1984, paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey assisted by Kamoya Kimeu discovered the Turkana boy, a 1.6-million-year-old fossil belonging to Homo erectus. Previous research on early hominids is particularly identified with Mary Leakey and Louis Leakey, who were responsible for the preliminary archaeological research at Olorgesailie and Hyrax Hill. Later work at the former site was undertaken by Glynn Isaac.
The first inhabitants of present-day Kenya were hunter-gatherer groups, akin to the modern Khoisan speakers. These people were later replaced by agropastoralist Cushitic speakers from the Horn of Africa. During the early Holocene, the regional climate shifted from dry to wetter climatic conditions, providing an opportunity for the development of cultural traditions, such as agriculture and herding, in a more favourable environment.
Around 500 BC, Nilotic-speaking pastoralists (ancestral to Kenya’s Nilotic speakers) started migrating from present-day Southern Sudan into Kenya. Nilotic groups in Kenya include the Samburu, Luo, Turkana, Maasai.
By the first millennium AD, Bantu-speaking farmers had moved into the region. The Bantus originated in West Africa along the Benue River in what is now eastern Nigeria and western Cameroon. The Bantu migration brought new developments in agriculture and iron working to the region. Bantu groups in Kenya include the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kamba, Kisii, Meru, Aembu, Ambeere, Wadawida-Watuweta, Wapokomo and Mijikenda among others.
Remarkable prehistoric sites in the interior of Kenya include the archaeoastronomical site Namoratunga on the west side of Lake Turkana and the walled settlement of ThimLich Ohinga in Migori County.
Swahili culture and trade (1st century–19th century)
Arabs from southern Arabia settled on the coast among the Bantu people and helped to establish many new autonomous city-states, including Mombasa, Malindi, and Zanzibar; the Arab migrants also introduced Islam to the area. This blending of cultures left a notable Arabian influence on the local Bantu Swahili culture and language of the coast.
The Kilwa Sultanate was a medieval sultanate, centred at Kilwa in modern-day Tanzania. At its height, its authority stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast, including Kenya. It was founded in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, a Persian Sultan from Shiraz in southern Iran. The subsequent Swahili rulers would go on to build elaborate coral mosques and introduce copper coinage.
Later on in the 17th century, once the Swahili coast was conquered and came under direct rule of Omani Arabs, the slave trade was expanded by the Omani Arabs to meet the demands of plantations in Oman and Zanzibar. Initially these traders came mainly from Oman, but later many came from Zanzibar (such as Tippu Tip). In addition, the Portuguese started buying slaves from the Omani and Zanzibari traders in response to the interruption of the transatlantic slave trade by British abolitionists.
Swahili, a Bantu language with Arabic, Persian, and other Middle Eastern and South Asian loanwords, later developed as a lingua franca for trade between the different peoples. Swahili now also has loan words from English.
Throughout the centuries, the Kenyan Coast has played host to many merchants and explorers. Among the cities that line the Kenyan coast is the City of Malindi. It has remained an important Swahili settlement since the 14th century and once rivalled Mombasa for dominance in the African Great Lakes region. Malindi has traditionally been a friendly port city for foreign powers. In 1414, the Swahili Sultan of Malindi initiated diplomatic relations with Ming Dynasty China during the voyages of the explorer Zheng He. Malindi authorities welcomed the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498.
British Kenya (1888–1962)
The colonial history of Kenya dates from the establishment of a German protectorate over the Sultan of Zanzibar’s coastal possessions in 1885, followed by the arrival of the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1888. Incipient imperial rivalry was forestalled when Germany handed its coastal holdings to Britain in 1890. This was followed by the building of the Kenya–Uganda railway passing through the country.
This was resisted by some ethnicities — notably the Nandi led by Orkoiyot Koitalel Arap Samoei for ten years from 1890 to 1900 — still the British eventually built the railway. The Nandi were the first ethnicity to be put in a native reserve to stop them from disrupting the building of the railway. In 1920 the East Africa Protectorate was turned into a colony and renamed Kenya, for its highest mountain.
During the railway construction era, there was a significant inflow of Indian people, who provided the bulk of the skilled manpower required for construction. They and most of their descendants later remained in Kenya and formed the core of several distinct Indian communities such as the Ismaili Muslim and Sikh communities.
While building the railroad through Tsavo, a number of the Indian railway workers and local African labourers were attacked by two lions known as the Tsavo maneaters.
At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the governors of British East Africa (as the Protectorate was generally known) and German East Africa agreed a truce in an attempt to keep the young colonies out of direct hostilities. Lt Col Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck took command of the German military forces, determined to tie down as many British resources as possible. Completely cut off from Germany, von Lettow conducted an effective guerrilla warfare campaign, living off the land, capturing British supplies, and remaining undefeated. He eventually surrendered in Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia) fourteen days after the Armistice was signed in 1918.
During the early part of the 20th century, the interior central highlands were settled by British and other European farmers, who became wealthy farming coffee and tea. (One depiction of this period of change from one colonist’s perspective is found in the memoir Out of Africa by Danish author Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, published in 1937.) By the 1930s, approximately 30,000 white settlers lived in the area and gained a political voice because of their contribution to the market economy.
The central highlands were already home to over a million members of the Kikuyu people, most of whom had no land claims in European terms and lived as itinerant farmers. To protect their interests, the settlers banned the growing of coffee, introduced a hut tax, and the landless were granted less and less land in exchange for their labour. A massive exodus to the cities ensued as their ability to provide a living from the land dwindled. There were 80,000 white settlers living in Kenya in the 1950s.
In 1952, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip were on holiday at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya when her father, King George VI, died in his sleep. The young princess cut short her trip and returned home immediately to take her throne. Queen Elizabeth II was crowned at the Westminster Abbey in 1953 and as British hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett (who accompanied the royal couple) put it, she went up a tree in Africa a princess and came down a queen.
Mau Mau Uprising (1952–1959)
From October 1952 to December 1959, Kenya was under a state of emergency arising from the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule. The governor requested and obtained British and African troops, including the King’s African Rifles. The British began counter-insurgency operations; May 1953, General Sir George Erskine took charge as commander-in-chief of the colony’s armed forces, with the personal backing of Winston Churchill.
The capture of Warũhiũ Itote (aka General China) on 15 January 1954 and the subsequent interrogation led to a better understanding of the Mau Mau command structure. Operation Anvil opened on 24 April 1954, after weeks of planning by the army with the approval of the War Council. The operation effectively placed Nairobi under military siege, and the occupants were screened and the Mau Mau supporters moved to detention camps. The Home Guard formed the core of the government’s strategy as it was composed of loyalist Africans, not foreign forces like the British Army and King’s African Rifles. By the end of the emergency, the Home Guard had killed 4,686 Mau Mau, amounting to 42% of the total insurgents. The capture of Dedan Kimathi on 21 October 1956 in Nyeri signified the ultimate defeat of the Mau Mau and essentially ended the military offensive. During this period, substantial governmental changes to land tenure occurred. The most important of these was the Swynnerton Plan, which was used to both reward loyalists and punish Mau Mau.
Independent Kenya (1963)
The first direct elections for native Kenyans to the Legislative Council took place in 1957. Despite British hopes of handing power to “moderate” local rivals, it was the Kenya African National Union (KANU) of Jomo Kenyatta that formed a government. The Colony of Kenya and the Protectorate of Kenya each came to an end on 12 December 1963 with independence being conferred on all of Kenya. The United Kingdom ceded sovereignty over the Colony of Kenya and, under an agreement dated 8 October 1963, the Sultan of Zanzibar agreed that simultaneous with independence for the Colony of Kenya, the Sultan would cease to have sovereignty over the Protectorate of Kenya so that all of Kenya would be one sovereign, independent state. In this way, Kenya became an independent country under the Kenya Independence Act 1963 of the United Kingdom. Exactly 12 months later on 12 December 1964, Kenya became a republic under the name “Republic of Kenya”.
Concurrently, the Kenyan army fought the Shifta War against ethnic Somali rebels inhabiting the Northern Frontier District, who wanted to join their kin in the Somali Republic to the north. A cease fire was eventually reached with the signature of the Arusha Memorandum in October 1967, but relative insecurity prevailed through 1969. To discourage further invasions, Kenya signed a defence pact with Ethiopia in 1969, which is still in effect.
On 12 December 1964 the Republic of Kenya was proclaimed, and Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya’s first president.
Moi era (1978–2002)
At Kenyatta’s death in 1978, Daniel arap Moi became President. Daniel arap Moi retained the Presidency, being unopposed in elections held in 1979, 1983 (snap elections) and 1988, all of which were held under the single party constitution. The 1983 elections were held a year early, and were a direct result of an abortive military coup attempt on 2 August 1982.
On the heels of the Garissa Massacre of 1980, Kenyan troops committed the Wagalla massacre in 1984 against thousands of civilians in Wajir County. An official probe into the atrocities was later ordered in 2011.
The election held in 1988 saw the advent of the mlolongo (queuing) system, where voters were supposed to line up behind their favoured candidates instead of a secret ballot. This was seen as the climax of a very undemocratic regime and it led to widespread agitation for constitutional reform. Several contentious clauses, including one that allowed for only one political party were changed in the following years. In democratic, multiparty elections in 1992 and 1997, Daniel arap Moi won re-election.
In 2002, Moi was constitutionally barred from running, and Mwai Kǐbakǐ, running for the opposition coalition “National Rainbow Coalition” — NARC, was elected President. Anderson (2003) reports the elections were judged free and fair by local and international observers, and seemed to mark a turning point in Kenya’s democratic evolution.
In mid-2011, two consecutive missed rainy seasons precipitated the worst drought in East Africa seen in 60 years. The northwestern Turkana region was especially affected, with local schools shut down as a result. The crisis was reportedly over by early 2012 because of coordinated relief efforts. Aid agencies subsequently shifted their emphasis to recovery initiatives, including digging irrigation canals and distributing plant seeds.