Kenya’s credentials as a hub for artistic and cultural excellence of the country’s more than 40 ethnic communities continue speaking for themselves. Expressions in music, visual arts, theatre, comedy, film and TV have created numerous opportunities for artists and artistes, with some rising to international fame.
Kenya is a multilingual and multicultural country. Although English and Kiswahili are the official languages, there are over 62 languages spoken in Kenya. Kenya is also home to large populations of Europeans, Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, many of whom came to the country in the 19th century.
There are at least 42 different ethnic tribes in Kenya. The different ethnic languages in Kenya fall into three categories: Bantu, Nilotic and Cushitic.
Two thirds of people in Kenya are Christian. Thanks to centuries-old influence of Arabic and Islamic traders and settlers (particularly along the coast); around 15 per cent of Kenyans are Muslim. Although mainstream religions such as Christianity and Islam are widespread, many Kenyans also hold onto their traditional beliefs, key amongst them the ancestor world, where the dead have powers for good or bad over their living descendants
Kenyans are historically group/community-orientated rather than individualistic. “Harambee,” (to pull together) defines Kenyans’ approach to life. The harambee spirit encourages mutual assistance, mutual effort, mutual responsibility and community self-reliance. Almost every ethnic group in Kenya has its roots in cooperative farming or herding. The term harambee took on a more political resonance when used at independence by Kenya’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta as a way to bring people together.
Because of the group-orientated culture and values, the extended family forms an integral part of most Kenyan communities. A typical Kenyan family includes maternal and paternal relatives as well as close friends.
In many instances, the husband’s parents may live with the nuclear family when they get older and can no longer care for themselves. When people marry, they join their families, thus ensuring that there will always be a group to turn to in times of need.
Settlers and colonialists introduced some of the staple foods in Kenya. For example, when the Portuguese arrived in Kenya in 1496, they introduced foods from Brazil like maize, bananas, pineapple, chilies, pepper, sweet potatoes and cassava, which now form a big part of Kenyan staple meals. They also brought oranges, lemons and limes from China and India, as well as pigs.
Cattle herding has a long history in Kenya. Around 1000AD, the Hima clan from North Africa introduced cattle herding to Kenya. By the 1600s, the Maasai and Turkana relied on cattle exclusively for food. Cattle provide meat, milk, butter and blood. The Maasai and other cattle-herding communities in Kenya rely on cow and goat by-products (such as the animal’s meat and milk) for food. The Maasai generally do not eat any wild game or fish, depending only on the livestock they raise for food.
When Europeans came to Kenya, they brought with them white potatoes, cucumbers, and tomatoes. The British also imported thousands of Indians for labour, who in turn brought along their traditional foods like curries, chapati (flat, disk-shaped bread made of wheat flour, water, and salt) and chutneys (a relish made of spices, herbs, and/or fruit).
The Kikuyu grow maize, beans, potatoes, and greens. They mash all of these vegetables together to make irio, their staple food. They also like boiled maize and beans (githeri).
Western Kenya people, mainly Luos living near Lake Victoria (the second-largest freshwater lake in the world) eat ugali and fish as their staple dish.
It is, therefore, important to note that traditional Kenyan foods reflect the many different lifestyles of the various groups in the country. Below are some of the staples.
One of the most common foods in Kenya is ugali made from maize flour. Ugali is eaten in most households and goes down well with fried vegetables, especially kale (sukuma wiki), meat or fermented milk (maziwa lala). Sukuma wiki is normally sliced very thin then fried in oil, onions and tomatoes.
Originally from the influence of Indians, chapati (round flat bread made of wheat) are popular in Kenya. They are rolled out and fried in oil until becoming soft and golden brown. Chapati may be eaten as a snack with tea and other times along with stew or vegetables. It is also a celebratory food served in most parties and celebrations in Kenya.
Irio is a combination of potatoes, green peas and green maize mashed up together. The ingredients may differ a little. Sometimes, pumpkin leaves, arrowroot leaves or other traditional greens may be added to the mash. It’s often enjoyed with beans, stew, meat or just sukuma wiki.
Nyama choma is meat (beef, mutton or sometimes chicken) roasted over hot charcoal. The meat is often eaten with ugali or irio and kachumbari (tomato and onion salad).
The food preference amongst the communities at the Kenyan coast have been influenced by Arabs and Indians more than anywhere else in the country. Pilau and biryani (spiced rice) dishes are common in the region.
Pilau is cooked within a mixture of spices (garlic, ginger, cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, herbs), fried onions, broth and a selected set of meat or vegetables. The ingredients are all cooked with the rice in the same pot.
Though cooked in similar spices as pilau, the meat sauce in biryani is cooked in a separate pot from the rice. After both are cooked, the rice and meat sauce are combined, flavouring the rice and bringing the dish together.
One of the most common snacks on the streets of Nairobi is hot roasted maize, done on an open charcoal fire like in nyama choma. It’s cheap, filling and often rubbed with a little lime chili sauce.