If you’re unfamiliar with the country, stories about Kenya probably have you thinking the country is nothing but a stream of safaris and strong runners, and make no mistake, Kenya has bragging rights to both those things. But the Republic of Kenya is as unique as it is multifaceted. So grab your chai, settle in, and let’s tour the land of Ugali and mobile money.
First, the basics.
The mountain that shines
1. Kenya was christened in 1920 after its tallest mountain, Mount Kenya. The indigenous people in the area called the mountain “kenia” or “the mountain that shines” in reference to the snow that caps the peak. (And yes, mountains in Africa have snow).
2. At just over 17,000 feet, Mount Kenya is Africa’s second tallest mountain after Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
3. Kenya’s captivating national anthem was adapted from a lullaby sang by an elder of the local Pokomo ethnic group as a prayer for the nation. The anthem literally sounds like an epic movie score and not gonna lie, I was ready to be a Kenyan citizen whenever we sang it before a choir performance in high school.
4. Kenya has a population of about 55 million people and over 60 languages are spoken in the country. The main ethnic groups are the Kikuyu (about 22%), the Luhya (14%), the Luo (13%), the Kalenjin (12%), the Kamba (11%) and several others.
5. The national languages are Kiswahili and English. But Kenyans, who have a gift for remixing everything, use a more colloquial form of Swahili slang known as “Sheng.” And if you don’t believe me about the remixing everything, listen to how Kenyans manage to add an “o” to the end of every name (Brian = Bryo. Kevin = Kevo. Steve = Stevo. Duncan = Dunco. Abraham = Abo. Justin = Justo. Anthony = Anto. It goes on. And on.)
6. Kenya is a majority Christian nation (about 80%). About 10% of the population is Muslim, followed by other beliefs including Indigenous religions, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism.
National parks and national pride
7. There are over 60 national parks in Kenya and it’s the only country in the world that has a national park located in its capital city. Cape Town in South Africa has Table Mountain National Park but South Africa has three capital cities.
8. Kenya shares the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, Lake Victoria, with its neighbours Tanzania and Uganda.
9. Kenya is home to the longest and deepest geographical fault on Earth. The Great Rift Valley is a stunning 7000-km trench that stretches across 11 countries including Kenya. Scientists estimate that the rift valley was formed over 20 million years ago when the crust of the Earth began to split.
10. Kenya’s forests host some of the rarest types of snakes and butterflies that can’t be found anywhere else!
11. The United Nations headquarters in Africa is in Nairobi, Kenya.
12. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environment warrior and women’s rights champion, was the first ever environmentalist to win the Nobel Prize. She was awarded the peace prize in 2004 for her “tireless contribution” to sustainable development, women’s rights, and peace. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement in the late 70s; a grassroots initiative to empower poor women most affected by deforestation to plant millions of trees.
“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own - indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.” - Wangari Maathai
She died of ovarian cancer in 2011.
13. Kenya is home to the world’s first all-female village where no men are allowed – Umoja Uaso. A Samburu women’s rights advocate named Rebecca Lolosoli created the village in the early 90s as a safe haven for women who were sexually assaulted by British soldiers, survivors of domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, and the trauma of early marriage. Today, the village is a successful matriarchy where the women build their own houses, generate their own income, run a school, and offer each other security.
14. Kenya has some of the most DELICIOUS and HEALTHY food on the continent! King of the Kenyan table is Ugali, a maize flour staple often served with cooked greens (spinach, kale etc.) and fish or meat. Some other popular dishes include Githeri, a maize and beans stew; Nyama Choma (barbequed meat) or Mbuzi Choma (barbequed goat meat), often paired with “katchumbari” (an onion, tomato, cilantro, and lime salad); Chapati; and Pilau. In short, Kenyans know good life.
15. Kenya is also home to countless gems: floating restaurants, a crocodile village, a revolving restaurant, a bed-and-breakfast that has giraffes craning their necks through the windows looking for treats, incredible lodges where you can view tens of thousands of pink flamingoes, and the infamous Maasai markets packed with gorgeous handmade souvenirs and fabrics!
16. Kenya hosts one of the most incredible natural wonders in the world: the Great Wildebeest Migration. Every year, around July to October, one to two million wildebeest and other animals migrate between the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and back. The astonishing event is often called the “World Cup of Wildlife” and if you have yet to witness it, go add it to your bucket list.
17. Kenya is also home to all of the Big Five beasts (the largest and most difficult to hunt): lions, elephants, buffalo, rhinos, and leopards. But, even if you had the guts to try to hunt these creatures, hunting is illegal in Kenya and punishable by lengthy jailtimes and hefty fines. The practise was outlawed in the 1970s after conservationists called for a ban but unfortunately poaching (particularly of elephant tusks and rhino horns) is still an issue in the country and has led to the decline of several animal populations.
18. Kenya is one of the top refugee-hosting countries on the continent. It hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees primarily from Somalia, South Sudan, Congo, and Ethiopia.
19. Telecommunications (about 60%) and agriculture (about 20%) make up the bulk of Kenya’s economy.
High literacy and high standards
20. Kenya has one of the highest literacy levels on the continent with about 82% of Kenyans above the age of 15 being able to read and write. Primary school in the country is free and mandatory. Secondary school is subsidized so the cost is shared between parents and the government.
21. Kenyans are also extremely kind. It’s no wonder that one of the most ubiquitous sayings in the country is “Karibu” (welcome). According to the 2018 World Giving Index Report that ranks countries based on likelihood of donating money, time, or helping a stranger, Kenya ranked number 8 out of 144 countries in generosity.
22. Kenya has been crowned the World’s Leading Safari Destination SIX years in a row. It also has some of the most reputable beaches and resorts on the Indian Ocean and at least 15 gorgeous islands.
23. Kenyan athletes dominate in the Olympics, winning over 100 medals, particularly in track and field events. David Lekuta Rudisha still holds the record for being the first and only person in the world to run under 1:41 in the 800m dash. Eliud Kipchoge made history in 2019 as the first man to ever run a marathon in under two hours at 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 40 seconds. He has won 12 out of the 13 marathons he’s taken part in.
“Athletics is not so much about the legs, it’s about the heart and mind.”
- Eliud Kipchoge
24. Kenya is the world leader in geothermal electricity and the majority of the country’s electricity is generated from hydroelectricity.
25. Kenyans are highly entrepreneurial and innovative. With high unemployment rates in the country, many Kenyans are increasingly creating their own opportunities. Check out this student who created a shoe that can charge phones by walking. And these Kenyan environmentalists who created the world’s first boat made from recycled flipflops. And this 28-year-old who created a drone-powered flying taxi.
From Kenya to the world
26. Kenya is the innovator behind M-PESA, the world’s most successful mobile wallet technology. M-PESA is a mobile payment transfer service that allows individuals and businesses to deposit, withdraw, and transfer money using phones without a need for a bank account. Over 90% of Kenyans use this service on a daily basis and the incredible technology has been expanding into other countries.
27. According to scientists, Kenya may be the birthplace of humanity. More fossil remains have been found in the region than in any other African country and Kenya has the oldest remains dating back to 7 million years ago from Turgen Hills, Baringo. The second oldest remains are in Ethiopia (about 4.5 million years), South Africa (about 3 million years), and Tanzania (2 million years). Kenya also has some of the most complete skeletons of early ancestors like the Turkana Boy dating back nearly 2 million years. The oldest stone tools dating back over 3 million years were also discovered in Kenya.
28. Kenya is the world’s third largest producer of cut flowers like roses. There’s even a terminal at the airport to exclusively facilitate the export of flowers and vegetables.
29. Kenyans. Love. Their. Tea. I repeat: KENYANS LOVE THEIR TEA. I promise you, as I write this sentence, at least 25 million Kenyans have collectively sipped tea and sent me telepathic side-eyes. I’m not judging, I’m a fellow tea addict. Kenya is one of the top tea exporters in the world: apparently coming in third place after China and India. Kenyans love tea so much that despite also producing some of the world’s best coffee, only 7% of the coffee grown is consumed locally while 93% is exported.
30. Kenya’s gorgeous landscape is also infamous on the big screen, with scenes from several famous movies shot on location in the country. Some of the movies featuring Kenya include Inception (starring Leonardo di Caprio), Cry Freedom (starring Denzel Washington), Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (starring Angelina Jolie) and The Constant Gardener (starring Keanu Reeves).
Some fun facts about Kenya’s official language Swahili:
31. The name "Siri" for Apple’s famous virtual assistant actually originates from a Swahili word that means “Secret.” The software co-founder said he chose the name over several other contenders.
32. The phrase “Hakuna Matata” popularized by The Lion King movies is a Swahili phrase that translates to “No worries.” Although it’s obviously not literal (clearly Kenyans have troubles like any other population), it definitely embodies the Kenyan spirit of humour and not dwelling on things beyond one’s control.
Your favourite Kenyans
Naturally, we have to end with a shoutout to some well-known Kenyans out on the world stage repping the land of strong legs sponsored by Ugali.
33. By now, it’s common knowledge that former U.S. president Barack Obama had a Kenyan father therefore is half-Kenyan (although whether he psychologically identifies as Kenyan is another matter).
34. Her Kenyan highness, Lupita Nyong’o, the brilliant and eloquent actress who makes every character she portrays just shine. You’ll know her from Black Panther, Queen of Katwe, Us, etc. Though she was born in Mexico, her parents are Kenyan (her father is the governor of Kisumu County) and she was raised in Kenya. Lupita is also fluent in Swahili, Luo, Spanish, and English. One minute while I go dust the cobwebs off my Fula and French.
36. Kenya’s Queen Mother, Wangari Maathai – Nobel laureate, environmentalist, rights advocate, peace advocate, and author.
37. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – an acclaimed novelist and essayist who primarily writes in his native language (Gikuyu/ Kikuyu) to counteract the effects of colonialism.
38. Binyavanga Wainaina – a renowned journalist and author well known for his brilliant satirical essay How to Write About Africa. He died in 2019.
39. Edi Gathegi – an actor born in Nairobi and raised in the U.S. Acted in over 20 movies including X-Men: First Class and The Twilight Saga: New Moon.
So, that’s all I got, folks! Hope you enjoyed the read and learned a new thing or two about this super cool country! Like and comment to share your feedback/ thoughts please and thank you.