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People and culture

A Masai familyWith it’s many international influences, over 40 different tribal groups and a lot of European, Indian and Arab settlers, it’s little wonder that Kenya’s people and culture are so dynamic and diverse. The native tribes are generally split into three linguistic groups; the Bantu-speakers, the Nilotic-speakers and the Cushitic speakers. The coast is a particularly eclectic melange of backgrounds and ancestry, as this is where local people from various tribes intermarried with Arab settlers – these people are known as the Swahili, and it was here that the language was born.

Despite it’s fraught history of colonialism, political instability and tribal disagreements, various aspects of modern Kenyan life, in particular education, are helping to mould a national consciousness. Moreover, tribal differences are being slowly diluted as a result of inter-marriage and national movement. If you were to use one word to sum up the Kenyan attitude to life in general, it would be “inclusive.” People in Kenya are down-to-earth, friendly and gregarious, often congregating in groups, maybe playing football, or even just exchanging the many greetings in the Swahili language. Suffice to say that the Swahili word “mgeni” means both guest and stranger.

Kenyans are also very polite and respectful towards their elders, and family is extremely important. This is particularly important since many parents are leaving rural areas in search of more lucrative employment in bigger cities, often leaving their children with grandparents or aunts and uncles.

An African drumKenya’s burgeoning arts scene reflects the diversity of it’s history and people. With it’s earliest roots in the chanting of the Masai tribes and the rhythmic drumming of the Luhya in western Kenya, the contemporary music scene now demonstrates influences from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Reggae and hip-hop are becoming increasingly popular.

Dance is an integral part of life in Kenya, with contemporary dance groups performing in Nairobi, and traditional tribal dancing on show in many safari lodges as part of the nightly entertainment.

Kenyan art is often very decorative, the beading worn by Masai tribe members being a perfect example of this. Stone carving is also a popular art form, particularly amongst the Kisii of western Kenya. They carve animals and chess pieces, as well as more practical items like soap dishes and coasters. Painting is a comparatively new art form, having been introduced by Europeans during the colonial era.