Kenya: An Introduction


This is a post that gives some background on the country of Kenya, the third of my trip across East Africa, and described by many as the most developed in the region.

In this, we cover some of the fundamentals of what Kenya is all about.

Snow

In a round about way, this is the reason that Kenya is called Kenya.

It’s named after Mount Kenya (the second largest on the continent, and dormant volcano) which sits on the equator and has snow at its peak.

Now, in order to answer why Mount Kenya is called Mount Kenya you have to ask the locals. There was some discussion over the etymology, but the best guess (according the Wikipedia) is that the word “Kiinyaa” means “God’s resting place” to local tribes who lived around the mountain. The houses built in the region would all face the mountain

President Kenyatta?

Kenya’s founding President was a man named Jomo Kenyatta which, I thought, was part of the reason that the country was named so. It turns out though that Kenya preceded Kenyatta.

Surnames seem to be quite a malleable thing and after a stint in Selly Oak, Birmingham he returned to his homeland and decided his surname would be Kenyatta: “light of Kenya”.

Swahili

Swahili is the main language in Kenya though it should be noted that the swahili are first and foremost “a people” and that we’re therefore talking about their language.

Most people know at least some swahili words

Safari (to travel)

Simba (lion)

Hakuna Matata (it means ‘no worries’)

What I was interested to learn was how by looking into the language you learn a bit more about the cultural history of the region.

There is kiswahili as the root language (a branch of Bantu, which is the mother language across a lot of the East Africa region) but there are many loan words from Arabic countries.

Favourable wind

If I was to say “monsoon”, the first image you might conjure up would be “rain”.

Now, I’m not a metereologist, but part of the reason that the rains come is due to atmospheric changes in the earth’s pressure which blow heavy clouds up to the west coast of India and parts of Arabia.

This happens (or at least happened) predictably each year, with the wind going south to north during April – September and north to south from November – February.

Some time during the first millennium some smart sailors thought why not see what happens if we track these winds and so put up a sail and glided thousands of miles across the body of water we now call the Indian Ocean.

After waiting some months, they noticed the wind would change, and so would pack up again and do the return journey.

On a map, it looks a bit like this

trade-routes-mombasa

There then became a pattern of adventurous folk spending their year between Arabia and East Africa, depending on which way the wind was blowing.

The diversity of what each region could grow gave extra incentive for these adventurers to stock up their ships and bring with them treasures from back home to trade. There’s not much wood in Arabia and the East Africans wanted some spices.

As a result, the harbour areas of East Africa (and especially Mombasa) had a long history of Arabic natives docking by the coast and setting up institutions to make them feel at home. This means there is a lot of Islamic architecture in these areas and also that the swahili became combination of the local kiswahili, and also these foreign Arabic influences.

Anyway, this swahili language was adopted in Kenya as the national language, and so (along with English) a lot of people speak it.

Density

By land mass, Kenya is in the top third of countries in the world: between the size of France and Spain.

It is, however, 1,240 times larger than Andorra (the country which geographically is actually between France and Spain).

Kenya in red. Andorra (believe it or not) in blue

Kenya in red. Andorra (believe it or not) in blue

By population it has 47m people which, combined with its size, puts it about half way down the global population density index list.

In terms of England, Kenya is 4.5x as big with only 80% of the population.

So what’s in all the space?

The short answer is nature.

There are over 50 designated areas in the country which are protected for allowing wildlife to roam free, though unlike the human population, the number of animals in decline.

Of the parts of the country that are inhabited, a lot of the land is used for agriculture. 48% of it, according to the World Bank. In the UK it’s closer to 70% which says more about how much the land can be irrigated etc. than the number of people working in this sector (which is ~75% of the working population)

Kenya is famed for having a full house of The Big Five when it comes to their animals.

For those hoping it will one day appear in a pub quiz, here they are:

  1. Elephant
  2. Rhino
  3. Leopard
  4. Lion
  5. Buffalo

Apparently the idea of the “big five” were from game hunters (rather than safari guides) which might be why the giraffe (a big animal) doesn’t appear.

While we’re at Kenya safari trivia, I should also note that Queen Elizabeth was there on her hols in 1952 when she learnt that she was to be queen.

Development

The people I’ve spoken to in the region point to Kenya being the most developed of the East African set.

The World Bank projects it will have annual growth rates of around 6% and potentially be seen as the leading light in this part of the world.

From a purely observational standpoint, the city of Nairobi has many of the amenities of most European cities I’ve been to, with franchise restaurants, internationally stocked supermarkets, and Uber.

Many African commentators point that Kenya (or rather Nairobi) could become the “Silicon Savannah” and the focal point of East African finance/ technology development, with Lagos, Nigeria taking care of things in the west, and Cape Town, South Africa in the south. This article discusses it a bit more.

In the sticks

Outside of the high rises though there is, from what I have read, work to be done in meeting other humanitarian goals.

The World Bank puts Kenya 145th in the world (ahead of Nigeria and its neighbours, but behind South Africa) in its composite measure of life expectancy, knowledge, and standard of living.

Estimates of those below the poverty line aren’t too regular, but the latest has Kenya at 43%, Uganda at 19% and Tanzania 67%

Conclusion

In my time in Nairobi so far I’ve found it not as daunting as some of the stories people have told me.

It is standard advice from everyone you speak to is to not walk the streets at night, and its pretty easy to adjust your habits to this type of behaviour, especially with good 4G and the ability to hail an Uber.

The tech scene is also the most advanced that I’ve seen on my trip so far, with well-funded tech companies, a developing ecosystem, and even a recent visit from Mark Zuckerberg.

That though, is a whole other story blog post, and so we’ll save it for another time.