Kenya’s modern culture was born out of a myriad of sources and influences, both modern and traditional. Despite the many and varied influences that have shaped Kenyan society, the culture in Kenya has become truly and purely Kenyan. If there is any one thing about Kenya that gives any indication of this unique character today, it is the melding of traditional societies and culture with modern norms and values.
In Kenya it is possible to leave Nairobi – a city with a thriving central business district powered by the latest information technology – and drive in just a couple of hours to a place where life is lived in accordance with tradition and custom, where warriors armed with spears drive their cattle into thorn bush enclosures to protect them from lions at night. The modern and the traditional live side by side, and sometimes the boundaries between the two blur and merge.
The ease with which Kenyans adopt and adapt to new cultural influences has a long history. Kenyan culture is built on the acceptance and absorption of new and varied cultures, be they migrant nomads or sea-borne traders.
The result is a culture of endless influence and yet one that is completely Kenyan in character.
Kenya’s music is varied. Nearly every tribe has its own musical culture. Drumming has been perfected by peoples like the Akamba from Eastern Kenya, and the coast Mijikenda. Traditional instruments – like the nyatiti lyre favoured by the Luo – are used too. The Luo have a distinctive musical style known as benga, which has become an integral part of popular Kenyan music, not just among the Luo.
The Maasai and the Samburu have perfected the art of unaccompanied singing. Their sagas of conquest and prowess are sung in a series of throaty grunts, with each man singing part of the tune.
There is a strong Congolese rumba influence in Kenyan popular music.
A talented crop of youth artists, inspired by modern hip-hop, R&B, rap and reggae, blend these styles using Kenyan melodies, lyrics and rhythms.
In 2002 Kenya was declared the winner for ‘Best Film Location’ in the ‘Originality and Creativity’ section of Annual Global Locations Expo in Los Angeles. Out of Africa, Born Free, To Walk With Lions, Mountains of the Moon, and the recent Oscar award-winning film Nowhere in Africa have all been shot on location in Kenya. In addition, Malooned has jointed the list.
Kenya’s cuisine reflects the diversity of its varied cultural influences. However, eating out is not a national pastime, and only the Coast has developed a distinctive regional culinary style, thanks to its long association with Indian Ocean trade.
Traditional food tends to be simple and starchy – practical eating! Ugali (maize meal cake) is the main staple, along with potatoes or rice. It is usually accompanied by chicken, beef, goat or vegetable stew, spinach, beans or fish. A nyama choma (mutton, goat or beef, roasted over glowing charcoal) feast is a typical Kenyan experience.
Coast cuisine is a delight. Seafood (sea-perch, parrot-fish, red snapper, king fish, giant crayfish, jumbo prawns, crabs, oysters and sailfish) is cooked with lime, coconut, peppers, and a myriad of exotic spices. Fresh fruit – in particular mangoes, pineapples, pawpaws and citrus – grow well in the coastal climate.
Kenyan cuisine has a strong Indian influence, dating back to the 19th Century when Indian labour was used to construct the Mombasa-Kisumu railway and most international tastes are catered for.
In Kenya’s major cities there are a plethora of international restaurants – Chinese, Italian, French, Japanese and Thai, to name just a few.