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Kenya conjures up images for many of us; those wide-open plains, the thundering wildebeest migration and the chants of the native Masai. But while all these are part and parcel of the Kenyan experience it is, in reality, just a tiny drop in the ocean.
The reality is all the more complex; and all the more wonderful for it. Kenya’s half a million square kilometres of land are home to some 40+ native ethnic groups, besides the many immigrants and expats who now reside here. Over 60 different languages are spoken within Kenya’s borders, making for a never-ending patchwork of languages and cultures.
From traditional arts, to folklore, to recipes and more, each part of Kenya has its own unique culture. This makes summarizing about Kenya incredibly difficult; as a result no article about Kenya can ever hope to be truly exhaustive. Indeed it is this cosmopolitan aspect of life in Kenya which makes life here so exciting and invigorating.
For the expat or traveller looking to escape the homogeneity of everyday life there can be few more tempting countries of all to visit, with new cultures and experiences around every corner…
Just as Kenya’s population is far from uniform, so the same could be said for the climate.
Those dry, dusty plains which feature in any self-respecting wildlife documentary are far from the only habitat to be found here. A rich milieu of different altitudes, winds and soil types lead to a huge diversity in climate.
Geographers often split the country into four distinct climatic zones. The first of these is the coastal zone, generally enjoying high temperatures coupled with a high humidity. Thankfully these are tempered somewhat by gentle offshore breezes which limit the stuffiness, making for perfect “beach vacation” weather through much of the year.
Further inland one experiences the Central Highlands. Due to its altitude this area typically benefits from higher precipitation and a more modest temperature. With temperatures rising to a comfortable 28’C in summer, and benefitting from rich red soils, it is the Central Highlands which represent the main agricultural area of Kenya.
To the west lie the Western Lowlands. Hotter than the more hilly highlands, this part of Kenya is typified by high temperatures and heavy rainfall in season. With the peak summer months offering temperatures of 35’C or more, it is here that coffee and sugar cane plantations proliferate.
Lastly we venture into the Northern Lowlands, which offer the most extreme climate anywhere in the country. This dry and dusty land experiences some of the lowest rainfall in all the country, combined with temperatures of 40’C or more at their peak. Many areas remain in a state of semi-desert for much of the year, with few crops withstanding such harsh conditions.
On a national scale it is important to appreciate that Kenya sits on the equator. As a result temperatures tend to vary less by season, and more by altitude. So while Mount Kenya may experience year-round snow, down at sea-level those individuals in the Northern Lowlands may not see rain for months on end.
Indeed, the seasonal variation in Kenya is typically driven more by rainfall than by temperature variations. Intriguingly, unlike many equatorial countries, Kenya actually experiences not one – but two – rainy seasons.
The first, known locally as the “long rains” occur between April and June. The “short rains” occur typically in November and December. These rains typically fit around annual temperature cycles, whereby the coolest months are to be found in July and August, just after the long rains. Even the “cool” season tends to be relative, with summer clothing possible except at altitude, where nights can be surprisingly chilly.
The peak season for temperatures is to be found in February and March, at the end of the short rains. Thus the annual cycle of rain-hot-rain-cool continues, with significant variation depending on locality.
As you can imagine these climatic variations, combined with differences in sea breezes, altitude and the effects of mountain ranges, make for never-ending variations in weather. Thus, the climate you can expect can differ wildly depending on which area you are visiting and the time of year.
Historically, Kenya is home to a wide range of different ethnic tribes, each with their own unique culture. This was added to yet further with the arrival of the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1888, whereupon the British arrived to benefit from Kenya’s exceptional agricultural climate, bringing with them workers from the Indian subcontinent.
Today ancestors each these ethnic groups survive, living (generally) peacefully side-by-side. In modern Kenya, for example, it is just as normal to eat a curry or a plate of French fries as it is more traditional fare of maize and beans.
Indeed, the large number of immigrants present in Kenya means huge amounts of dilution and cross-pollination has occurred over the years, with many groups borrowing from one another.
If there are any unifying influences in such a heterogeneous group of people they are the national flag and the concept of “harambee”.
The Kenyan flag comprises three primary stripes. These are black, red and green, with each colour representing part of the Kenyan psyche. The black stripe represents the native tribal people, many of whom survive to this day. The red stripe represents the bloodshed that Kenyans have experienced over the generations while fighting for the independence they finally gained in 1963. Lastly the green stripe represents agriculture; still the major industry in today’s Kenya.
It is estimated that 70% of Kenyans live in rural areas, surviving through growing crops and raising livestock, though there is an increasing move to urban areas.
“Harambee” is a decidedly Kenyan attitude to life. Translating literally to “all pulling together” this one-word slogan refers to the shared community to be found here. Historically, thriving in Kenya has been difficult, with frequent draughts which decimated crops and livestock. As a result, Kenyans have adopted the enviable principle of “pulling together” and helping people in need.
Whether this is sharing your crop when another’s has failed or raising funds for a new community school, life in Kenya frequently revolves around the “greater good” and helping your fellow man, especially in more traditional areas.
Perhaps this helps to explain the famously warm welcome that many outsiders experience when visiting the country for the first time.
There are two official languages spoken in Kenya. First is the native Swahili tongue, and secondly, in a throwback to British occupation, is English. However the coverage of each language varies by area. In larger cities like Nairobi and Mombasa you will find English is understood far more frequently than in more rural areas.
In less populous areas getting by with just English alone can be problematic. Indeed, with over 60 different languages actually spoken in Kenya, sometimes even finding a Swahili speaker can be a challenge, let alone someone who understands enough English to be of use.
For this reason if you are considering visiting more remote areas you may want to consider hiring a translator or fluent driver who can act as the conduit between yourself and the Kenyans you come across.
The most common source of public transport in Kenya are the well-known “matatu” – in essence privately-owned mini buses. While travel by mini bus may be cheap and commonplace, there are some downsides that first-time visitors should be aware of. For starters, many matatu drivers won’t leave for your desired destination until they are full, leading to a frustratingly long wait, especially in more rural areas.
Secondly, safety is perhaps not what one would hope for. Statistics suggest that Kenya has one of the highest death tolls from traffic accidents anywhere in the world. While the Kenyan government is currently trying to improve matters by insisting on regular vehicle checks, the use of seatbelts and so on, all the same travelling by matatu can be something of a white-knuckle ride at present.
A rather more civilized mode of public transport are the public buses, which tend to be driven rather less like rally cars. They also typically lack the loud music blaring out of the average matatu.
It is important to mention, however, than outside of major urban areas, Kenya’s road system is less than ideal. Tarmacked roads are typically potholed, while more rural roads may be little more than dirt tracks. Consequently long-distance travel by bus in Kenya can leave one black-and-blue thanks to the uneven road surface and minimal suspension.
An alternative option for shorter trips are the many taxis to be found. Most taxis in Kenya lack meters, so it is wise to negotiate a fare before setting off on your journey. If possible, try asking your hotel to book a taxi on your behalf; they will usually know the most reliable companies in your local area, which can make for a safer and more enjoyable journey.
While Kenya may have become famous for the railway built by the British, these days there is in reality just one major line. Trains can be very busy, so it can be wise to book tickets in advance, especially if you would like a first or second class seat.
As crime tends to increase on public transport after dark, anyone considering an overnight journey will find the benefits of their own first class sleeper cabin. Locking from the inside, such cabins will assist a night’s sleep without concern for whether or not your baggage will still be present in the morning.
Lastly it is possible to hire a car – either with or without a driver. If at all possible be willing to pay the premium for a four-wheel drive model due to the state of many of Kenya’s roads. Due to the lack of signposts a GPS is also a worthwhile addition.
Visitors should note that as crime rates go up considerably after dark you should avoid driving at night. While dangers exist at all times of the day in Kenya, car jackings and robberies go up considerably as the sun sets. In addition drivers should drive defensively, in order to avoid both other road users, and the wildlife which may inconveniently wander onto the road after nightfall.
For your ease you may opt to hire a car with a driver. Such drivers can not only make driving on Kenyan roads less stressful, but can also act an interpreter and guide too. Thus, a driver can offer all the benefits of hiring your own vehicle, while eliminating many of the impracticalities.
Kenya is still a poor nation, with over 50% of the population living below the poverty line. It should therefore come as no surprise that medical facilities can be below Western standards. Indeed, most public healthcare facilities suffer from a distinct lack of funding which, when combined with heavy use, means stressed staff and poor standards of care.
Additionally, while an ambulance may be summoned by calling 999, the emergency response is often far from speedy. As a result it is often quicker to find your own way to hospital by private means rather than waiting for an ambulance.
All these factors mean that most expats opt for private medical care while in Kenya. In both Nairobi and Mombasa one will find private hospitals offering largely international-grade standards of care, capable of all but the most severe cases.
Be aware that many expats and wealthy Kenyans alike opt to seek treatment overseas for more severe medical cases. Air lifting to South African is not uncommon; however this also comes with severe financial implications. Emergency evacuation of this nature can (and frequently does) cost a six figure sum.
Therefore it should be considered critical that expats and visitors alike visiting Kenya should invest in a fully comprehensive insurance policy to mitigate such costs.
A detailed guide to expat healthcare in Kenya may be found here.
Kenyan Shillings are the official currency, often referred to as “bob” thanks to the historical English influence. Each shilling is then further sub-divided into 100 cents.
The good news when visiting Kenya is that accessing local funds is unlikely to be a problem. For one thing, credit cards are widely accepted by businesses, especially those catering to tourists. In addition ATMs are commonplace in urban areas, and many accept Visa, Mastercard and Maestro cards.
That said, note that the costs of using such machines can vary widely, so it is a good idea to check with your bank before you leave for Kenya. In addition, expats report that some ATMs inextricably refuse cards or decline transactions – seemingly at random. Assuming you have alerted your bank to your trip this shouldn’t necessarily be a cause for concern; if in doubt trying a different machine, or the same ATM some time later, will often yield the desired result.
Kenya is a high-crime country so great care should be taken with cash and cards. It can often be wise to use ATMs within banks for your own security, and to safely stash your funds into a concealed money belt before exiting the premises. If you opt for this solution be aware that most Kenyan banks close at lunchtime on a Saturday and don’t re-open until Monday. As a result it is necessary to plan ahead, and ensure you have the necessary funds to see you through the weekend.
Alternatively, banks can be used to exchange well-known currencies (US Dollars, Sterling etc.) though most will expect you to produce your passport as part of the transaction.
Publicly-funded schools in Kenya have received something of a bad reputation over the years. While some good schools do no doubt exist, many expat parents complain about under-funding, poor resources and large class sizes. The impact of these limitations is felt in the poor literacy rates, and significant drop-outs, especially amongst girls. Combine this with the potential language barrier of lessons taught in Swahili and it is no surprise that many parents opt to privately-educate their children.
Fortunately this is relatively simple, thanks to a number of high quality international schools in and around Nairobi. Not only do such schools generally offer higher standards of tuition, but in addition they will allow your children to study for internationally-recognized qualifications.
Note that as in many other countries, these international schools come with a premium price-tag attached. As a result expats may want to consider trying to include school fees in their remuneration package in order to lessen the financial impact of taking children to Kenya.
Like its climate and culture, Kenya’s traditional foods are highly varied. Furthermore the typical fare frequently vary by area, based on what crops can be grown. Added to his variety there are also influences from the many immigrants who have settled here. Thus, for example, curry and chapatis, brought here by Indian plantation workers, are now fully integrated into the Kenyan menu.
In general traditional Kenyan food can be thought of as basic and hearty, typically comprising of vegetables and cereals such as maize, sometimes supplemented with meat. Pleasantly, vegetarians will find plenty of options in Kenya’s cuisine, with many unusual ways of preparing and serving meat-free produce.
One typical example is known as “Ugali”. It is essentially a cornmeal paste, served in a crumbly block, and acting as an accompaniment to many dishes. Another popular option to be found right across the country is “Irio”, essentially a hearty dish of mashed beans and potato, with sweet corn added for sweetness and texture.
However possibly the most popular and characteristic meal to be found in Kenya is a dish of thinly-sliced fried kale, served with a variety of other tasty vegetables such as onions and tomatoes. Sometimes accompanied by a portion of Ugali, it makes a delicious meat-free meal at any time of day.
In terms of beverages, Kenya has long been a major producer of tea, so it should come as no surprise that it has become something of a national institution. Tea in Kenya is typically served the “British way” with milk and sugar, rather than black or with condensed milk as seen in many other ex-British colonies. Perhaps even more popular than standard tea are the delicious hot cups of spiced chai available almost anywhere.
Kenya might be a fascinating and colourful country, but it does come with more than its fair share of hazards.
To begin with it is important to appreciate that Kenya is one of the higher crime areas of the world, with mugging and pick-pocketing disappointingly common. For this reason you should take all necessary precautions. For starters, avoid flouting any valuables in public; keep cell phones and cameras safely stashed away, for example. Additionally take care when using ATMs and carry cash in a concealed money belt.
Problems of crime tend to be most pronounced on public transport, after dark, and in urban or isolated areas. As a result take great care to keep an eye on your valuables when travelling by bus and try not to travel during the night. If you must, then the safest option is likely to be taking the train, where you can lock yourself inside your sleeping compartment.
Kenya has historically suffered with acts of terrorism on a semi-regular basis, and many governments around the world advise extreme caution. This is especially so in the north and east of the country, along the borders with Ethiopia and Somalia. The Foreign Office currently recommends visitors avoid border areas due to recent unrest.
Besides the high risk of crime, Kenya also poses a number of potential health threats. For example malaria and dengue fever are both inherent here. This means that visitors should apply suitable mosquito-avoidance procedures, such as wearing long-sleeved clothes, sleeping under a mosquito net and applying DEET-based repellent on a regular basis. Anti-malarials are also strongly advised.
In Kenya cholera is still commonplace and tap water is not considered safe to drink. As a result aim to rely on bottled water – having checked that the seal is unbroken – and avoid ice in drinks.
Kenya has rightly become a tourism hotspot over the years. Today its many protected areas provide non-stop entertainment in the form of wildlife watching, diving and sight-seeing. Here are just a few of the top sites you might like to consider when visiting Kenya…
Inhabited for at least 700 years, Lamu is an archipelago sitting just off the coast of Mombasa. The Old Town on the island is notable both for its architecture and its historical importance. The town is built from coral stone, glowing white against the deep blue sea. It is also considered one of the best-preserved traditional Swahili areas in the world, and has been called the “cradle of Swahili civilization”. Lastly, as if that weren’t enough, the islands are surrounded by pristine coral reefs; perfect for snorkelling.
Named after the Masai tribe who call this part of Kenya home, this is arguably the most famous game reserve in the world. Covering over 500 square miles of grassland, all of the “big five” game species are to be found here, jostling alongside a wealth of other plants and animals. While the reserve may be busy at peak season, the wildlife are largely unaffected by all the scopes, binoculars and cameras, going about their daily lives with aplomb. For wildlife watchers the Masai Mara is surely a must-see destination.
While the game reserves allow one to observe wildlife from a distance in its natural surroundings, the wildlife trust presents an entirely different experience. Here, orphaned wildlife is adopted and, if necessary, hand-reared, before being released back into the wild. As a result the trust provides an opportunity to experience wildlife close-up. Come to watch the baby elephants at close quarters feeding, playing and romping with their compassionate human “mothers”.
When you tire of the mayhem in Nairobi it’s time to relax at Karura. In 2,500 acres of protected wilderness you can almost feel the stress draining away. From tumbling waterfalls to forest paths, from the monkey to the butterflies, Karura is the Kenyan equivalent of a city park on a monumental scale. Come here to explore, unwind and soak up the wonders of nature in this wonderfully cared-for park.
One of the most important mangrove areas in the world, this huge biological reserve is a mecca for bird watchers the world over. Spanning some thirty two square kilometres, 65 different species of bird, not to mention dozens of rare fish call this protected wetland home. You’ll even find a resident population of turtles, who rely on the calm waters and lack of fishing as a nursery site. Take a boat ride – or even a swim – in the warm waters and see just how many species you can tick off your list.
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