Geography and Climate

When most of us think about Kenya, we probably think about giraffes, elephants or perhaps lions. These are the images that many persons have come to associate with Kenya. However, Kenya, while a country with a rich variety of animals, is much, much more. It has thousands of years of history and research by archaeologists indicates that the very first human beings that we are directly descendants of probably originated in Kenya.

Kenya stretches from the Indian Ocean in the east, to 5,199 meters at the peak of the snow-capped Mount Kenya. From the coast, the altitude changes gradually from the coastal belt and plains to the dry intermediate low belt and then to what is known as the Kenya Highlands.

The terrain in the low belt has hills, masses of boulders and inselbergs. People over the ages have confined themselves to places where water is readily found. The low belt is where much of Kenya's wild life is found-in places like the Amboseli Game Reserve, the Maasai Mara National Park and the Tsavo National Park.

The Great Rift Valley bisects the Kenya Highlands into east and west. Mount Kenya (see picture below) is on the eastern side. The Highlands are cool and agriculturally rich. Both large and small holder farming is carried out in the highlands. Major cash crops are tea, coffee, pyrethrum, wheat and corn. Livestock farming is also practised.

The Lake Victoria Basin is dominated by the Kano plains which are suited for farming through irrigation. The northern part of Kenya is flatter and arid. Pastoralism is the main land use activity. However, a variety of food crops do well through irrigation.

Kenya generally enjoys a tropical climate. It is hot and humid at the coast, temperate inland and very dry in the north and northeast parts of the country. There is plenty of sunshine all the year round and summer clothes are worn throughout the year. However, it is usually cool at night and early in the morning.

© 1996, 1997, 1998 John Oswalt

The long rains occur from April to June and short rains from October to December. The rainfall is sometimes heavy often falling in the afternoons and evenings. The hottest period is from February to March and coldest in July to August.

The annual migration of wildlife between Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Maasai Mara National Park takes place between June and September.

These migrations have attracted visitors from around the world who come to the national parks to see the largest diversity of free animals in the worls.

An Overview of Kenya's History
According to the 1989 Census, there are 42 "tribes" living in Kenya, as well as all of the non-African people groups. As such, it is difficult to make general comments about people in Kenya.

The story of people in what is today called Kenya starts in the early to late Stone Age. In places like Olduvai Gorge archaeologists have found Earth's oldest human remains along with artefacts suggesting pre-tool making in the Lake Victoria, Highlands and the Rift Valley regions.

Later, evidence shows the introduction of the bow and arrow. Three excavations at Elmentaita indicate the later arrival of new people probably from the North who were responsible for the introduction of blade technology and new kinds of tools.

From 3000 B.C. to1000 B.C. (called the Late Stone Age), there is evidence of another set of people who were tall with narrow heads and prominent noses and chins. Archaeologists think they resemble some of the present day peoples of Somalia and Ethiopia. This group was followed in 400 AD by the migration of the Bantu peoples into East Africa.

Bantu Migrations
Their original homeland was in Central Africa, in the area between Shaba Province in Zaire and Cameroon. Various groups moved up to fill Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. Some went south to the west coast to Angola and then moved across the Congo Highlands to Lake Tanganyika. These were mostly tribes without cattle and their customs held that sons were to inherit from their mothers. A second group moved across the Sudan to the region of the great lakes and the Rift Valley, and, after some time, moved south. These were mostly the cattle owning tribes who followed the custom that the son inherits from the father. The groups that came to Kenya entered through two different directions.

The first group moved into Uganda from Central Africa. By the 15th century many of these people were living in Eastern Uganda, in between Mt. Elgon and the River Nile. These were the ancestors of the Abaluhyia, Abagusii, Abakuria. From about 1000 A.D the ancestors of the present Western Bantu-speakers started to move into the area that became present day Kenya, concentrating around Lake Victoria and Mt. Elgon.

The second group migrated from Central Africa, moving into Central Tanzania. Later they settled in the area between Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Indian Ocean coast. During the 13th century they gradually moved out in two directions: One group migrated northwards, they formed the Taveta, the Dawida and the Akamba people. The second group moved the along the coastal region northwards settling on the hilltops behind the coastline. These became the Mijikenda. Another group migrated westwards into the Kenya Highlands, and this became the Agikuyu, Aembu, the Chuka, Tharaka and the Ameru.

Cushitic Migrations
Four thousand years ago, Kenya had a lot of rainfall. Pastoralists and agriculturalists lived and practised herding, agriculture and fishing. They migrated slowly from the Ethiopian Highlands to Northern, Central and Eastern Kenya. Archeologists and linguists say that the descendants of these early Cushites do not live in Kenya anymore because they moved into Central Tanzania as the Dahalo, Mbugu and the Iraqw. Around 1000 A.D. it was believed that western Kenya was inhabited by a few food-gatherers and hunters and then the Southern Cushites.

The largest cushitic group was the Somali who later migrated from Southern Ethiopia into the tip of the horn of Africa. They lived in northern Somalia as pastoralists and spread gradually northwards, eastwards and southwards. By the 10 century AD, they reached the Indian Ocean coast and lived around Mogadishu. They then gradually migrated southwards and westwards to occupy their present homeland in Kenya, that is the north eastern part of Kenya. The Somali speakers preceded the Galla in the area between the Juba and the Tana rivers. These Somali speakers were then called the Garre. The Yaaku also known as the hunting people were originally hunters and cultivators, but turned to animal husbandry due to influence from the Maasai community. They live near Doldol northwest of Mount Kenya.

The Orma, Borana and Rendille who were pastoralists began to move into northern Kenya from Southern Ethiopia around the 16th century and by the 19th century they were firmly settled in Kenya amidst much competition for grazing land with the Somali.

i) Kenya: An official handbook
ii) Story of Africa from the earliest times, Book one, A.J. Willis
iii) Longman GHC, E S Atieno Odhiambo, John N B, N I Were

Nilotic Migrations
Highland Nilotes
The Nilotes moved out of their original homeland which was to the West of Lake Turkana, between 10th and 14th centuries AD. They moved in different directions and these consisted of the Kalenjin, the Maasai, the Turkana, the Iteso and the Luo.

At about 1000 AD proto-Kalenjin communities were occupying the Uasin Gishu plateau. On the eastern side of the Kalenjin another very important expansion was taking place which led to the withdrawal of the Kalenjin from some of the grasslands along the Rift Valley, which they formerly occupied, to their present homes. This is of course, in reference to the expansion of the Maasi southwards along the Rift Valley, which dates from the 1600 AD.

The Maasai drove the Kalenjin from the eastern grazing lands in the Nakuru and Tugen areas towards the present Elgeyo, Elgon, Nandi and Kipsigis. With the resulting loss of much of their grazing lands, the Kalenjin were forced to reduce their herds and to rely more on agriculture. Also the different Kalenjin groups were isolated permanently into separate communities such as Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen.

Later the Kalenjin migrated to Sirikwa. Then, from Sirikwa, the Nandi, Elgeyo, Kipsigis and Maasai migrated to the present homelands. The Bok came from Sirikwa in the Elgeyo area and then moved on to Kitale and stayed there for a period of years and then to Swam Hill (Malikisi) where they settled.

Plain Nilotes

The Maasai moved into the highlands before settling in the Rift Valley area by the 18th Century. By the 19th century, the Maasai society began to disintegrate as a result of wars. The Kalenjin, especially the Nandi began to expand into the Western Highlands at the expense of the Maasai. Other Bantu communities, especially the Kikuyu and the Kamba also exploited the situation to extend their territories into what were formerly Maasai areas.

River Lake Nilotes
The Luo group moved up from Lake Turkana area, westwards to the Lake Albert and River Nile. They began moving southwards in the 14th and 15th centuries and gradually settled in Kenya between the 15th and 17th centuries AD. 1500 AD marked the advent of the Luo who displaced the Luyia speakers from the Lake Basin. The Luo occupation of the Lake region during the last 500 years resulted in the retreat of the Luhyia eastwards to higher ground.

The Teso of Busia District (See GLP Initiatives in the web site) originated in the Sudan and then moved on to the country of the Karamajong. From here they dispersed, and some went to Turkana and others to Soroti. They then moved into Ngora in the Teso district of Uganda, Kumi, Kachubalang in the same district and then into Kanginima, which is the Teso country of Uganda and on into Tororo and Akoret in Uganda. They dispersed and spread out so that by the 18th century, they were settled in their present homeland in Busia district.

i) Kenya: An official handbook
ii) Story of Africa from the earliest times, Book one, A.J. Willis
iii) Longman GHC, E S Atieno Odhiambo, John N B, N I Were

Although the Kenyan interior was marked by early and frequent tribal migrations, the coastal region evolved in a very different manner. The rugged terrain of the interior was a natural barrier isolating the coast from tribal activity. Coastal inhabitants, therefore, were greatly influenced by Arabs and Persians who came to the East African coast to trade. In 600 AD the people we now call Arabs began to settle on the Coastal area and this marked the coming of Islam. By 700 AD there was an active Indian Ocean trade with the Arabs, Phoenicians, Indians and Chinese bringing in cloth, pottery and glass beads which were exchanged for cowrie shells, iron products and mangrove poles.

The Arabs and Portuguese
Arab traders settled in coastal communities and intermarried among the Bantu tribes. Here, native and foreign cultures blended to create a new language and distinct community called Swahili. The Swahili were Kenya's primary link with the world at-large trading animal skins, ivory, agricultural produce, and slaves with ships from the middle east and China.

Another critical influence on the coastal communities was the assimilation of Islam. Divisions within Islam forced Arab immigrants to relocate on the coast of Kenya. Much of the distinctive architecture, narrow streets, and numerous mosques that characterize Kenyan coastal cities today have their roots in this immigrant influence.

In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama stumbled upon the East African coast in search of China. De Gama was initially rejected by the sultan at Mombasa but his bitter rival, the sultan of Malindi welcomed the explorers. At the beginning of the 16th century about 1,400 Portuguese explored and established themselves as a dominant power and built a colony along the Kenyan Coast. The Portuguese in East Africa were interested in spreading the Christian faith and in engaging in trade as the coastal towns of East Africa had rich reserves of some minerals particularly the gold trade from Sofala, Msumbiji, and Kilwa.

They used the natural port of Mombasa and set up a garrison of troops. Soon they were embroiled in conflict wih the Omani Arabs between 1500 A.D. and 1509 A.D. as the king of Portugal sent soldiers with ships and guns to conquer the Arab- Swahili settlements of the east coast. The Arabs tried to defend their islands but the Portuguese prevailed. The soldiers took everything valuable from the towns and burnt most of them.

1700 AD - Throughout the 17th century, the Arabs attempted to reestablish links with their East African outposts. This led to an ongoing series of confrontations with the Portuguese to establish dominance. The Omani ships prevailed and by the early 1700s, the Portuguese had been routed completely.

The British Presence

Under the leadership of the Sultan of Oman, Seyyid Said, the Arabs worked to regain economic and political supremacy over the region. The island of Zanzibar quickly became a key trade center, most especially of a lucrative trade in slaves and ivory from the interior and spices from the island itself.

The growth of the East African slave trade was facilitated by rivalries between antagonistic groups. As powerful groups conquered their weaker neighbors, Arab traders facilitated selling the losers not absorbed into the winning society into slavery. The slaves were then forced to the coast and on to Zanzibar to be traded. Both ivory and slaves were hugely profitable and Zanzibar grew rich on the trade. This pattern continued despite the public outrage in Europe demanding an end to all slave trade. Eventually, the British brought their forceful anti-slavery message directly to the Sultan as they established a consulate at his court. After years of pressure, the Sultan finally relented and agreed to ban slavery in 1847.

Around 1800 - there occurred what is called "The Great Trek," where christian missionaries and explorers come in to Africa. The British declared Kenya a Protectorate in 1895 and some Europeans came in to work as administrators. As the economy grew, more professionals came in as doctors, lawyers, accountants, missionaries, teachers, hunters, mechanics and electricians.

With the growth of the local British population there begun to be a transition towards domination of local peoples. This led to the long struggle for independence and the creation of modern Kenya in 1963.

The Road to Independence and After
1952 - 1970 - Kenya's Agrarian Revolution
1963 - Kenya gains Independence
1964 - Kenya becomes a Republic
1978 - The first President of the Republic of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, passes away 1978 - Daniel arap Moi elected as the next president.
1992 - Kenya becomes a multiparty state.

Today, Kenya continues to evolve as a society. Beyond the political dimension is the growing assertion by women to publicly move beyond the traditional roles herebefore assigned to them. This can bee seen in the actions of Loise Towon, founder of the Samburu Girl child Education Support Programme (Sagep)-an initiative that supports Samburu girls towards asserting their right to access to education. Then there is Roselyn Asumwa Odera, nominated to chair the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 2000. Finally, examples of this new generation are, the girls who in 2002 won the right to prevent their relatives from having them circumcised, and, Shila Nhemi, a student from Precious Blood Girls Secondary who, at fifteen years old, wrote a popular book of short fiction.

Kenya has never been a place simply of wild, exotic beasts with people defined only by their exotic dress. It has a long a varied history that continues to evolve and respond to the changes in the wider world.

Kalenjin Women

Maasai Man

Turkana Nomad

Kikuyu Dancer

Samburu Dancer

Rendille woman

Giriam girl

Pokot men

Eric Kimaiyo

Tegla Laroupe

Louise Towon

Roselyn Asumwa Odera

Shila Nhemi

Jomo Kenyata

Daniel Arap Moi

For fuller descriptions of the three women above and for more information about today's Kenyan women, take a look at the Gender Learning Network at:
2002-Mwai Kibaki is elected as third president of Kenya

Born in 1931 on the slopes of Mount Kenya, he is from Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu.After studying in Uganda and London, he became a lecturer, but in the early 1960s gave it up to help in Kenya's push for independence. He helped draft Kenya's constitution, was elected as an MP in 1963 and has held his seat ever since.

He was finance minister throughout the 1970s and vice president for much of the 1980s, serving ably under the country's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and then his successor President Moi.

When a long-standing ban on opposition parties was lifted in 1991, Mr Kibaki left the ruling party, Kanu, to found the Democratic Party, which he still leads. He came third in the first multi-party elections in 1992 and then came a close second to President Moi in the last polls in 1997 when there were 15 candidates.

Mwai Kibaki