Kenya is one of the most famous countries in Africa, mainly because of its beautiful nature. The country is about three times the size of the United Kingdom and has at least 54 million inhabitants. Read more about Kenya’s history, culture and tourist attractions here.
Kenya is a popular safari destination because of the country’s beautiful nature and the large number of animals that can be observed in the wild. Besides the many national parks, there are lots of other places to visit. Think of interesting cities like Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa.
Facts and numbers
|Official languages||English and Swahili|
|Population||54 million (2022)|
|Currency||Kenyan shilling (KES)|
|Time difference||3 hours (2 hours in summer)|
|Flight time||9 hours|
|Electricity||240 volts, 50 Hz|
|Plugs||Type G (travel plug is required)|
|Tap water||Not safe to drink|
|Visa||Kenya visa is required|
Kenya lies on the east coast of Africa and borders five countries: Somalia to the east, Ethiopia to the north, South Sudan to the northwest, Uganda to the west and Tanzania to the south. Kenya also borders the Indian Ocean (to the southeast) and Lake Victoria (to the southwest), the largest freshwater lake in Africa and the second-largest freshwater lake in the world.
As the northeastern part of the country consists mainly of desert and other arid areas, the vast majority of the population lives in the south and southwest of the country. Kenya’s main cities are the capital Nairobi in the south and the port city of Mombasa in the southeast.
Kenya is among the parts of the planet longest inhabited by humans. Fossil remains found in the north of the country, dated to as much as four million years old, indicate the presence of a population of the earliest humanoids. Besides this tangible evidence of their presence, these earliest inhabitants also left many indirect traces. Examples include the oldest cemetery (about 80,000 years old) and the oldest trade network (about 300,000 years old) in the world. The oldest cave paintings in Kenya date from about 2,000 years before our era. Of course, all these remains are not from a homogeneous group. Prehistoric Kenya was probably inhabited by hundreds, if not thousands, of different tribes, each with their own language and customs. This changed with the arrival of the Bantu people. These people migrated to the areas of present-day Kenya around 1000 B.C. This caused a major cultural upheaval in which many original inhabitants were driven out or assimilated by the Bantu. Even today, the Bantu are still the dominant ethnic group in Kenya.
The rise of the Swahili
The first Europeans to visit Kenya’s coast were Portuguese explorers. In 1505, the Portuguese took the island of Kilwa off the coast of modern Tanzania. This began the European colonisation of East Africa. In 1593, the Portuguese settled on the Kenyan mainland with the construction of Fort Jesus in the city of Mombasa. The biggest threat to the Portuguese were the Arabs coming from Oman. As their trading interests were threatened by European interference, they besieged the Portuguese forts.
In the first half of the 18th century, the Omanis managed to drive out the Portuguese. Following this, they set up trade routes deep into the African interior, connecting more people in Africa to the global economy. Although it was difficult to gain real control over the interior, the coastal regions increasingly came under the direct rule of the Oman sultans. They enriched themselves through newly established plantations and the slave trade with Europe. Kenya’s coastal cities were heavily influenced by the Oman presence in terms of architecture and culture during this period. Also, many Swahili in present-day Kenya claim to be descendants of these early Arab settlers.
British rule and the struggle for independence
In the 19th century, many European explorers went into the African interior with the aim of mapping new territories and converting the population to Christianity. In 1895, the British incorporated much of East Africa into the British Empire. The Great Rift and the surrounding highlands of Kenya were declared a segregated area where only white people were allowed to live. The British also had a railway built inland to modern Uganda, using mainly Indian migrant workers.
The Great Rift, a natural landscape created by colliding earth plates, runs right through Kenya
Resistance movements against Europeans first appeared in the early twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, British authorities banned several anti-colonial organisations. In World War II, thousands of Kenyans were called up to serve in the British army. After their service, they demanded more political representation, which slowly but surely led to calls for African independence. During the Mau Mau uprising between 1952 and 1960, part of the Kenyan population revolted against the European rulers. However, this uprising was brutally put down. Many of the insurgents were imprisoned in concentration camps, where they were systematically tortured. Despite this military defeat, Kenyan local politicians continued to fight for the country’s independence. Finally, in 1963, Kenya officially separated from the British Empire and became independent.
Under the leadership of President Jomo Kenyatta, the country developed into a superpower in eastern Africa. Kenyatta sought to improve relations between the black and white populations, expand the welfare state and implement capitalist policies. In 1969, he banned competing political parties, effectively making Kenya a one-party state. The government was frequently accused of corruption and nepotism. From 1992 on, multiple parties were allowed again.
Kenya’s political system clearly reflects the country’s great ethnic diversity. Different population groups have always competed for influence. During the 2007 presidential elections, Kenya’s political system was in question. Election irregularities meant the winner was not immediately clear, leading to riots across the country. Elections can still cause political uncertainty in the country, but despite this, Kenya today has a reasonably functioning democracy.
Kenya has more than 100 different ethnic groups. Most belong to the Bantu people, originally from areas south of Africa. However, there are also plenty of groups with other origins, such as the Nilotic peoples from the southern Nile region. There are also minority groups of European, Indian or Arab origin. As a result, there is not so much one uniform culture as a melting pot.
One of Kenya’s best-known population groups is the Masai, probably partly because they roam close to the nature reserves and national parks that are popular among tourists. This population group lives in northern, central and southern Kenya and is characterised by their distinctive clothing, jewellery and simple way of life.
Although many people in Kenya were gradually converted to Islam during the Middle Ages, this process changed radically with the arrival of European rulers. Through British and German missionaries, many Kenyans were converted to Christianity. Now at least 85% of the population adheres to the Christian faith, about 10% of Kenyans are Muslims, and there are also numerous people who follow a traditional natural religion.
Kenya’s unofficial national dish is nyama choma, which consists of grilled meat. This can be goat, sheep or beef and is eaten by hand.
Nature and climate
Kenya is a huge country and its climate is diverse. Most of Kenya has a warm desert climate (especially in the north and northeast) and a warm steppe climate (especially in the southeast). In the southwest, there is a tropical climate. The coast is hot and humid and this is where most precipitation falls throughout the year. The more you travel towards Kenya’s interior, the drier it gets. Kenya has two deserts: one in the southwest (Nyiri Desert) and one in the north (Chalbi Desert). As the equator runs right through the centre of the country, there are no traditional seasons. However, there are specific rainy seasons, namely from late October to December and from March to May. Especially in the west and south, it can rain heavily during this period, so those who want to visit these places are advised to plan their trip at another time.
The landscape of central and western Kenya is characterised by the unique landscape of the Great Rift. This landscape was formed millions of years ago as a result of three colliding tectonic plates. The mountains here range from about 400 to 1800 metres in height. Between the mountains are dozens of lakes and forests, each with a unique ecosystem. This area is inhabited by hundreds of different animal species, including lions, elephants, rhinos, giraffes and zebras.
In western Kenya, near the border with Uganda, lies the Kakamega Forest, the largest forest area in East Africa and Kenya’s only tropical rainforest. In the rainy season, as much as 22 centimetres of rainfall per month falls here. The north and north-east of the country are covered by a large, dry area. To the north is the Chalbi Desert, home to a significant population of African elephants.
This diversity of flora and fauna is Kenya’s main attraction, but it is seriously threatened by intensive agriculture, deforestation and industrial pollution. Consequently, populations of the elephant, giraffe and black rhino, among others, have declined significantly in recent decades. Yet there is also good news. Government anti-poaching policies in recent years have succeeded in better protecting many animal species.
Average temperature in Nairobi throughout the year
|Month||Average max. temperature in °CAvg. max. temp. in °C||Average min. temp in °CAverage min. temp in °C|
Many tourists go on safari in Kenya in search of the Big Five, all of which can be found in the country.
Tourist highlights of Kenya
Kenya has a lot to offer, from a desert in the north to pearly white beaches in the southwest and some of the most spectacular nature reserves in the world inland. Here are five of the most popular highlights in Kenya:
The Masai Mara National Reserve
This is one of the most famous nature reserves in the world. Mainly because of the impressively large seasonal migration of about two million animals (mainly wildebeest), this reserve is a popular tourist attraction. In October, these animals migrate south because of the drought in the north. In April, they migrate back north again. As a tourist, it is possible to tour the landscape by jeep with a guide. Staying overnight with the local people, the Masai, is also an option.
Lake Nakuru in central Kenya was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. Due to its large amount of algae, the lake attracts several thousand flamingos. Despite the lake and the surrounding national park being best known for this large population of flamingos, there are many other animals to admire here, from baboons to a healthy population of black and white rhinos. At Baboon Cliff, it is even possible to see baboons up close.
Mount Kenya is located exactly on the equator in the centre of Kenya. It is the highest mountain in the country and the second-highest mountain in Africa after Kilimanjaro, located in Tanzania. Most tourists come to Mount Kenya National Park to climb the mountain, but the area is also suitable for a safari. If climbing Mount Kenya does feature on your travel itinerary, it is recommended to do the climb in at least three days. This way, your body can get used to the altitude difference and altitude sickness can be avoided.
Malindi is a city on the east coast of Kenya. It is the place where explorer Vasco da Gama came ashore in 1498. From that date, the Portuguese controlled the city for over a century and a half. Nowadays, Malindi is primarily known for its beaches and coral reefs. Tourists primarily visit the city if they want to snorkel or relax on the beach.
Kenya’s capital city should, of course, not be missing from this list. Nairobi is the ideal starting point for those travelling to Kenya for a safari. Wherever the safari takes place, it is usually organised in the capital. Furthermore, the city also has a lot to offer culturally. For instance, there are numerous museums highlighting Kenya’s history. Moreover, numerous historical buildings from colonial times can still be admired in this city.
Hell’s Gate is the only national park in Kenya that can be traversed by bicycle. Watch out for lions!
The economy of Kenya
Kenya is the third-largest sub-Saharan economy. There is an active industry with a lot of foreign investment. One example is the renovation of the country’s main rail link in 2017 with the help of Chinese investors. This rail link starts in Mombasa and leads deep into the interior. This railway connects the port of Mombasa with a wide hinterland and provides Kenya with even more opportunities to develop economically. Even so, about 75% of the population still works in the agricultural sector. Besides industry and agriculture, tourism is an important source of income for many Kenyans. A large part of the population nevertheless lives below the poverty line.
Kenya’s currency is the Kenyan shilling (KES). The lowest coin value in use is 50 cents. There are also coins of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 40 shillings. Paper money comes in the form of 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 shillings. In some tourist locations in Kenya, it is also possible to pay with dollars or even euros, but shillings are preferred. As ATMs are scarce outside the capital, it is recommended that you withdraw enough shillings when you come across an ATM.
Views overlooking Nairobi, the capital of Kenya
Safety and Health
Generally speaking, Kenya is a safe country. However, there are some safety risks. You can best avoid political gatherings or demonstrations. You should also try to avoid the east of the country, near the border with Somalia, because it is not a safe area. Furthermore, it is not advised to be on the streets after sundown, have lots of cash with you, or wear expensive clothing. This way, you can diminish the chances of becoming a victim of a riot. If you are part of the LGBTQI+ community, it is recommended that you not show this in public as homosexuality is illegal in Kenya.
It is good to know that the tap water in Kenya is not safe to drink. Furthermore, it is recommended that you check with your GP about which vaccinations are recommended for Kenya.
Travellers with British or Irish nationality need to have a valid visa with them upon arrival in Kenya. Children younger than 15 are an exception to this rule. They can obtain a free visa at passport control. The Kenya visa can be obtained through the online application form on this website. Apply for the visa on time, preferably a week before departure.
Apply for the Kenya visa now
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