Cr pic: John Mcarthur

A Glimpse of Kenyan Culture, Customs, Food, and Festivals


The Kenyan culture is a unique blend of African traditions and modern 20th century influences. This multifarious culture is well represented in various ways, ranging from its language, people, festivals, food, ethical values and norms, art and artifacts. Indeed all these forms of lifestyle and expression conspire in synergy to form an cultural identity that is specifically Kenyan.

1. Kenyan People

Kenya is a heterogeneous country ethnicity wise. Of the 45 million people that live here, the majority come from the 42 ethnic groups, with each featuring their own native language. The three major groups that make up the native population include Bantu who make up the majority, Nilotic and Cushitic people. About 13% of the population is made up of people of non-African descent i.e. European, Indian and Arab people.

2. Religion

Kenyan people practice different religions due to the fact that the Kenyan constitution allows for freedom of worship. About 80% of the population practices the Christian faith, 10% are Muslims, with a small minority of Sikh and Hindus. Additionally, there is a sizable number that practices animism, and traditional African beliefs within the population. Muslims tend to be concentrated in the eastern and coastal regions of the country while Christians are mostly concentrated in the central and western regions of the country.

3. The Importance of Family

Cr pic: Ian Macharia

Like most Africans, Kenyans place great importance on the family with the extended family being the basis of the social structure. This consists of family members on both sides of the divide and close friends. It is also the norm to find parents of the husband coming to live with their nuclear family once they are old and can no longer take care of themselves.

4. Kenyan Customs & Etiquette

Kenyans are hospitable and friendly people regardless of their ethnic affiliation. Traditional customs and etiquette is very important when it comes to business and social interactions. Kenyan customs and etiquette is mainly manifested in how old people are treated with reverence and respect, during meals, communication style, meeting and greeting and gift giving.

Communication Style

Kenyans are very conservative people who will rarely engage in direct or frank conversation. In an attempt to save face and preserve relationships Kenyans will always try to pass their message in a clever way so as not to offend the other party. In a culture whereby maintaining dignity and honor is of paramount importance, Kenyans would rather give an expected response rather than that which is sure to embarrass the other party. If you come from a culture that values direct talk and forwardness, you may wish to put your delivery style to moderation. It is also important to maintain eye contact during a conversation in order to build trust

Gift Giving

Gift giving is a normal practice among the Kenyan people. It is mainly practiced during important social and religious events. It is also customary for people to give gifts to servants, service workers, and tradespeople during Christmas. In case you are invited for supper in a Kenyan home, it is a good gesture to carry along sweets, pastries, and flowers for your hostess. In rural areas however it is common practice to carry along tea leaves, foodstuffs, and sugar. Gifts should however never be handed out using the left hand as this is considered rude for the host.

Meeting and Greetings

Cr. pic: Shalom Mwenesi

The most common greeting among the Kenyan people is the handshake although it not uncommon to find close female friends hugging and kissing one another on the cheeks instead of shaking hands. The most common greeting is “Jambo or Mambo?” (“How are you?”) This is mostly said immediately before shaking hands. After the handshake, people typically inquire about the other party’s health, family, and business. Skipping this protocol is considered the height of bad manners among the Kenyan people.

5. Kenyan Cuisine

The rich ethnic diversity in Kenya means that the cuisine among the various ethnic groups is varied and represents the different lifestyles they lead. Popular staple cuisine consists maize, potatoes, beans, rice, chicken, beef, tilapia fish and a range of fresh traditional vegetables and fruits. Although Kenya does not have a specific national Cuisine there exist three national dishes namely Ugali, Nyama Choma and Sukuma Wiki. The people from the coastal region of Kenya have however come up with a distinct cuisine that has Indian, African and Arabian influences. Coconuts and spices are used heavily in the myriad coastal dishes.

Nyama Choma

Nyama Choma refers to charcoal grilled or roasted beef or goat meat. The fact that the meat is however not softened and the only seasoning includes lemon juice, salt, and pepper help to give it a distinctively dry and chewy texture. Nyama Choma is roasted plain and brought to the table sliced into bite-sized chunks. It is also mainly accompanied with a side dish of mashed vegetables or Kachumbari which is a mixture of raw tomatoes, onions and green or red pepper.


Ugali refers to dough made from a mixture of maize (corn) flour and boiled water. Most Kenyans eat this meal on a daily basis together with various accompanying dishes such as stews, chopped kales and spinach, and meat.

Sukuma Wiki

This is a simple and inexpensive Kenyan dish that is mostly taken together with ugali. It comprises or kales and spinach chopped into small bits and pieces that are fried with tomatoes, onions, green pepper, and meat.

6. Kenyan Festivals

Kenya features many festivals and celebrations all over the country with some more famous than others. Below is a list of three major festivals that are famous and big enough to steal the limelight today:

Lake Turkana Festival

Started in 2008 the Lake Turkana Festival is a 3 day festival that brings together the different communities that live around Lake Turkana or Jade sea which happens to be the largest desert lake in the world. The eight communities include the Turkana, Gabbra, Rendille, Samburu, El Molo, Watta, and Dasannach. The various communities display their unique cultural dances, dressing, and food that highlight their rich cultures. The festival is located in small town of Loiyangalani which is a Turkana word that means “Place of many trees.”

Lamu Cultural Festival

Located on the north coast of Kenya, Lamu is an island that is one of the major abodes of the Swahili people. Considered the most famous cultural festival, this annual week-long festival involves the culmination of various captivating races and competitions. Above all the Lamu festival is a celebration of the culture and beliefs that make up the soul and heart of the Lamu community. Events devised to foster local practices and skills include Swahili poetry, Bao competition, and Henna painting. Other notable competitions include dhow racing, swimming competition, and donkey racing. Most people will fall in love with the cool, laidback and peaceful atmosphere of Lamu. Above all, they get to experience the joyous and exuberant life of the people and their sumptuous cuisine of Kenyan Coastal region.

Maralal Camel Derby

Maralal a dusty and sleepy town located in the North Rift region of Kenya roars alive every once a year during the iconic Maralal Camel Derby. The Maralal Camel Derby is Kenya’s most prestigious and famous camel race that attracts both international and local camel jockeys. It is an eccentric and electrifying race that sees some of the finest and fastest camels in the region paraded on the touchline. The race begins at the center of the town where competitors are flagged off by local dignitaries. It is often a time often highlighted by funny experiences as excited camels often decide to go in the opposite direction when the green light is given as others take the course at a breakneck speed. The Maralal camel derby is not just a competition but also an exciting social festival that brings the desert town of Maralal to life.

Written by Clement from Kenya

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