Customs and Cuisine of Kenya
By Vinola V. Munyon
What’s in a Name?
The Republic of Kenya (in Swahili: Jamhuri ya Kenya) located in East Africa off the coast of the Indian Ocean, is home to scenic landscapes that are a study in contrast. Among these diverse relief features is Mt. Kenya, the highest point in the country at 17,058 feet, to which the country traces its name. From coral-backed beaches on the Eastern side, hills and ridges on the Western side, the Lake Victoria basin, the Great Rift Valley that runs through the highlands and the arid and semi-arid regions in the North, Kenya has every topographic feature. Famous for its diverse wildlife, including all five of the “Big Five” game animals of Africa (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant), Kenya has considerable land devoted to wildlife habitats. Kenya is known for world-class runners, being the “home of the safari” with over 54 national parks and reserves (the most famous being the Maasai Mara), for the spectacular wildebeest migration, tourism, and the Maasai. But as with all things that get distilled to just some of their parts, Kenya is more than the sum of these.
Kenyans are ethno-racially and linguistically diverse with about 47 different communities being represented among the 48.4 million (48,397,527) estimated in July 2018. Among this diverse group are a significant number of refugees fleeing conflict from neighboring sub-Saharan countries. The Somali refugees, for instance, number about 300,000 (April 2017). The Kenyan population estimate takes into account the increased mortality associated with HIV/AIDS, as the syndrome has, in recent times, taken on epidemic proportions. About 1.5 million Kenyans are estimated (2017) to be living with HIV/AIDS. While AIDS-associated mortality has skewed the age distribution among the population, it has not affected population growth per se as the increase in mortality has been counteracted by high fertility and a lack of support for family planning. While Kenya has the distinction of being the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to introduce a family-planning initiative in 1967, support for the program decreased significantly in the 90s. This was an unfortunate consequence of government financial support needing to be diverted to HIV/AIDS related initiatives. As a result of all these factors, the Kenyan population is younger than most others with about 40 percent of Kenyans being under the age of 15.
Most Kenyans are bilingual, speaking the mother tongues of their ethnic groups and one or both of the official languages – Kiswahili and English.
Apart from its African population, Kenya has been home to Indians, Pakistanis, and the British – all remnants of a colonial legacy. The numbers of these groups, very small to begin with, have dwindled since and are restricted to the urban areas in Mombasa, Nairobi, and Kisumu.
The Constitution of Kenya grants Freedom of Religion. Among the Kenyans, the majority (83 percent) identify as Christian, 11.2 percent identify as Muslim, and 1.7 percent as Traditionalists. Christianity, as practiced in Kenya, is informed by some of the traditional beliefs and practices.
The Family Unit
Polygamy has been traditionally the norm and is an example of one of the many instances in which traditional practices, even when in conflict with the tenets of Christianity, somehow manage to co-exist in Kenya. It is however, becoming less the norm, due to practical reasons – cost of forming and maintaining a multi-bride household can become an expensive proposition. In the polygamous household, it is typical for the husband to have his own hut and a hut for each of his wives and their respective children. In monogamous households, the husband, wife, and young children of both sexes, and older female children reside in one hut, while older male children reside in their own huts. Extended families often reside together in small settlements. Kin groups have strong familial bonds, wherein cousins tend to be as close to each other as siblings and aunts/uncles often stand in for parent-figures. This communal aspect extends to child care.
Gender roles are fixed and taught starting from childhood. Boys are taught to herd cattle and work the fields while girls are taught to tend to the house and care for younger siblings/cousins. The education system is structured in three levels: 8 years of primary education, plus 4 years of secondary education, plus 4 years of higher education. Schooling starts at age 6 and primary education is mandatory. While primary and secondary education are provided by the government, free of charge, students have to qualify for secondary education by taking and passing a rather rigorous national exam and receiving the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education. The literacy rate in Kenya, at 78 percent, is extremely high relative to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. This statistic and the implied value placed on education is borne out by how Kenyans enroll in what is known as “shadow education” (tutoring after and outside school) in order to qualify for secondary education.
The Food of Kenya
The cuisine of Kenya shares a lot in common with that of some its neighbors in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Tanzania and Nigeria, and also with that its colonial past such as India. A typical day in Kenya would mean breakfast, tea (chai) at 10 a.m., lunch, tea at 4 p.m., and dinner. Kenyan cuisine is built around fresh, readily available, and relatively inexpensive ingredients. The produce that grows in the region, such as kale, spinach, cabbage, tomatoes, beans, potatoes, avocados, and other leafy greens, feature prominently in daily dishes. Typically consumed animal proteins are goat meat, beef, and chicken, in that particular order. Along the coast, seafood such as crab, crayfish, lobster, prawns, king fish, parrot fish, tuna, sailfish, and marlin are available and consumed in plenty. Corn meal, rice, wheat, maize, and millet and their flours are the starches of choice.
Breakfast is typically bread (mkate) or porridge (uji) with chai. Despite Kenya being famed for its coffee (that is known for its distinctive wine-like flavor) the hot beverage of choice among the locals is tea. Drawing from the Indian connection, the tea had is Chai, a milky, sweet tea that is had at breakfast and during morning tea time and evening tea time. Lunch is Ugali (cornmeal/maize meal boiled in water to the consistency of a paste and made into a dough – think polenta) with vegetable (maharagwe) or meat stew. Sukuma Wiki (roughly translated means “to get you through to the end of the week”), a braised leafy greens dish made with onions, tomatoes, garlic and coriander is also lunch fare.
Kachumbari is a salsa-like condiment that is made of tomatoes, onions, coriander, pepper, and lemon juice. For dinner, it is served as an accompaniment with grilled meat dishes such as Nyama Choma (literally “burnt meat”) which is possibly one of the more popular dishes and is grilled skewers of goat meat or beef (less frequently, chicken). Pilau (savory rice dish with spices and vegetables) and Wali wa Nazi (coconut rice) are two popular rice dishes, both having their origins in the Indian subcontinent. Irio is a mashed peas and potato dish that is served with meat or stew. Chapathi (Indian flatbread) is considered a treat and eaten with vegetables or just as is with chai.
Tea time in Kenya is a throwback to two colonial influences, the high tea tradition assimilated from Britain and the Chai from India. At high tea snacks such as samosas (savory turnovers from India), potato chips, Chips Mayai (French fry omelet) or Mandazi (fried sweet dough) are had as an accompaniment to chai.
The Kenyan Way of Life
While embracing their individual differences and attributes, the Kenyan ethos is to celebrate unity as strength. This culture, known as “Harambee”, means “to pull together” in Bantu and underlies the Kenyan’s approach to life and living. The focus is on the community and in working together rather than on individual well-being.
As with other countries in the continent, life in the cities is markedly different from life in the rural areas. In the big cities such as the capital, Nairobi, and in Mombasa, globalization has meant that the way of life is a hybrid of what is Western and what is Kenyan. Western-wear is more frequently observed than traditional, and leisure activities take advantage of all that the rich natural landscape of Kenya has to offer as well as what built-scapes, such as amusement parks, malls and nightclubs, have in store.
View Recipes from Kenya