History and Geography of Kenya

Kenya, republic, Africa, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, bounded on the north by Sudan and Ethiopia, on the east by Somalia and the Indian Ocean, on the south by Tanzania, and on the west by Lake Victoria and Uganda. Kenya has an area of 582,646 sq km (224,961 sq mi).

Land and Resources

Kenya falls into several well-defined topographical zones extending from the Indian Ocean coast upward to lofty mountain ranges that reach elevations of more than 3048 m (10,000 ft) above sea level. From a low coastal strip the terrain rises gradually to a broad, arid plateau that covers the largest portion of the country.

The region west of the plateau contains great volcanic mountain chains, of which the principal peak is Mount Kenya (5199 m/17,058 ft). The southern and southeastern portions of the country are heavily forested, and in the west, the immense depression of the Rift Valley is demarcated by a succession of steep cliffs. The chief rivers of Kenya are the Tana and Galana (known as the Athi in its upper course). Besides a small portion of Lake Victoria, Kenya contains almost all of Lake Turkana (Lake Rudolf).


Kenya is divided into two almost equal parts by the equator. The region north of the equator is hot and receives comparatively little rain. The southern region falls into three meteorological zones: The coast is humid, the mean annual temperature ranging from about 24.4‹ C (about 76‹ F) in June and July to about 27.8‹ C (about 82‹ F) in February, March, and April; the highlands are relatively temperate; and the Lake Victoria region is tropical. The rainy seasons occur from October to December and April to June.

Natural Resources

The main resource of Kenya is its land, of which about 11% is suitable for agriculture. About one-third of this is arable; the remainder is used mainly for grazing. The northern two-thirds of Kenya is mostly desert or semi desert.

Plants and Animals

The plant life of Kenya is diversified. Along the coast are forests containing palm, mangrove, teak, copal, and sandalwood trees. Forests of baobab, euphorbia, and acacia trees cover the lowlands to an elevation of approximately 915 m (approximately 3000 ft). Extensive tracts of savannah (grassland), interspersed with groves of acacia and papyrus, characterize the terrain from about 915 to 2745 m (about 3000 to 9000 ft). The principal species in the dense rain forest of the eastern and southeastern mountain slopes are camphor and bamboo. The alpine zone (above about 3550 m/11,000 ft) contains large plants of the Senecio and Lobelia genera.

Kenya is renowned for the great variety of its wildlife, especially the big game animals associated with the African savannah. The major species are the elephant, rhinoceros, zebra, giraffe, and lion and other large cats. Many of these are protected in national parks and game preserves, but hunters have severely reduced the number of large mammals, such as the elephant and rhinoceros. Kenya abounds in birds and reptiles, the latter including the python and cobra.


The great majority of Kenya's population is black African. The country also has small numbers of Asians, Europeans, and Arabs. The blacks are divided into more than 30 ethnic groups belonging to four linguistic families—Bantu, Nilotic, Paranilotic, and Cushitic. The largest ethnic groups are the Bantu-speaking Kikuyu, Luhya, and Kamba; the Nilotic-speaking Luo; and the Paranilotic-speaking Kalenjin.

Population Characteristics

The population of Kenya (1990 estimate) was 24,872,000. The overall population density was about 43 persons per sq km (about 111 per sq mi). The population was increasing at the very rapid rate of 4.2% annually in the late 1980s. About 80% of the people live in rural areas.

Political Divisions and Principal Cities

Kenya is divided into seven administrative provinces—Central, Coast, Eastern, North-Eastern, Nyanza, Rift Valley, and Western—as well as the Nairobi district. Local government matters are handled by provincial advisory councils, whose members are appointed by the president.

Nairobi (population, 1984 estimate, 1,103,600) is the capital and largest city of Kenya. The major seaport is Mombasa (425,600), built mostly on an offshore island of the same name. Other cities are Kisumu (population, 1983 estimate, 167,100), a port city on Lake Victoria; Nakuru (101,700), the capital of Rift Valley Province; and Eldoret (population, estimated, 51,000), a rail center northeast of Kisumu.


It has been estimated that the population of Kenya is about 28% Roman Catholic, 38% Protestant, and 6% Muslim. The remaining persons are largely followers of various traditional religions.


Nearly all the African ethnic groups in Kenya have their own distinct languages, some of which are closely related. Since the early 20th century Swahili has become a major African tongue, and it is the official language of Kenya; Kikuyu, Luo, and English are also widely used.


Education is not compulsory in Kenya, but the first eight years of primary school are provided free by the government. In the late 1980s approximately 5 million pupils annually attended about 13,850 elementary schools with a teaching staff of more than 149,000, and about 540,000 students attended the more than 2600 secondary and teacher-training schools staffed by some 25,600 teachers.

In the late 1980s Kenya had four universities: the University of Nairobi (1956) and Kenyatta University (1972), both in Nairobi; Edgerton University (1939), in Njoro; and Moi University (1984), in Eldoret. Specialized colleges included Mombasa Polytechnic (1948), in Mombasa; and the Kenya Conservatoire of Music (1944), Kenya Polytechnic (1961), and Strathmore College (1960), in Nairobi. Some 21,400 students were enrolled at the university level.


Many of Kenya's foremost cultural institutions are in either Nairobi or Mombasa. In Nairobi are the National Museums of Kenya, which includes exhibits on natural history and geology; the Kenya National Archives; and the McMillan Memorial Library, with a special collection of Africana. In Mombasa is the Fort Jesus Museum, a history museum housed in a 16th-century Portuguese fortress. The Kitale Museum features displays on scientific and historic topics.


Agriculture is the chief source of income, accounting for 26% of the gross domestic product in the late 1980s. Mining activity is on a relatively small scale, but the growing manufacturing industry is more important in Kenya than in many black African nations. After World War II Kenya experienced one of the highest rates of economic growth in the world because of large-scale foreign investments and the influx of European management and technical personnel. The government adopted the policy that the growth of the economy should be left to private enterprise and that government aid should be restricted to emergencies. Kenya joined with Tanzania and Uganda in 1967 to form the East African Community, an economic association to further the development of a common market in goods and services among the member states; the community was dissolved in 1977. In the late 1980s, Kenya's gross national product was estimated at $8.8 billion, or $380 per capita. Kenya's estimated national operating budget included expenditure of about $2.5 billion and revenue of approximately $2.3 billion.


Although only about 4% of the country is made up of arable land, the Kenyan agricultural system is highly diversified, producing almost every basic foodstuff. Sugarcane, corn, cassava, pineapples, sisal, cotton, and cashew nuts are grown on the coast and in the lowlands; potatoes, coffee, tea, cotton, cereal grains, beans, peanuts, and tobacco are grown in the highlands, the main producing area. Stockbreeding and dairy farming are important to the Kenyan economy, and in the late 1980s Kenya had about 9.8 million head of cattle, 8.5 million goats, 7.3 million sheep, and 23 million chickens. Dairy production included about 3800 metric tons of butter (including ghee, a semi-fluid clarified butter) and about 2.3 million metric tons of cow's milk.

Forestry and Fishing

Kenya produces mostly hardwoods (musheragi, muiri, mukeo, camphor, musaise) and some softwoods (pids, cedar, cypress). Wattle bark, used in tanning, is an important export item. The annual lumber output was 36.2 million cu m (1.3 billion cu ft) in the late 1980s. Commercial fishing, primarily on inland waterways and lakes, is sufficient to satisfy the local market. The annual catch was about 131,200 metric tons in the late 1980s.


Kenya has few developed mineral resources, and mining plays only a small role in its economy. Mineral production in Kenya includes soda ash, salt, fluorspar, iron ore, gold, garnet, and limestone. Large deposits of lead and silver have been discovered near Mombasa.


Although expanding, most industry in Kenya is still on a small scale and consists mainly of food- and raw-material processing for local consumption. Flour milling, cement manufacturing, and oil refining are among the country's leading industries.


In the late 1980s Kenya attracted about 700,000 visitors annually, yielding revenue of more than $400 million. Tourists primarily visit Kenya's national parks and game reserves to see and photograph the wildlife; many also enjoy the beaches along the Indian Ocean coastline. Tsavo National Park and Marsabit National Reserve are two of the country's largest parks.


Since World War II hydroelectric power projects have been developed to meet the increasing demand for electric power. In the late 1980s Kenya had an installed electricity-generating capacity of about 575,000 kw; the annual production of electrical energy was approximately 2.6 billion kwh, about three-fourths of which was generated by hydroelectric facilities.

Currency and Foreign Trade

The currency unit is the Kenya shilling, consisting of 100 cents (24.43 shillings equal U.S.$1; 1991). Kenya usually spends considerably more each year on imports than it earns from exports; in the late 1980s annual imports were valued at $2 billion and exports at $926 million. Exports went principally to Germany, Great Britain, and Uganda. Major exports include coffee (the largest cash crop), tea, petroleum products, canned pineapple, hides and skins, sisal, soda ash, and pyrethrum extract (used in insecticides). Imports came mainly from Great Britain, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan. Leading imports are crude petroleum, industrial machinery, motor vehicles, iron and steel, agricultural implements, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer.


Kenya is served by the Kenya Railways Corporation, which operates about 2735 km (about 1700 mi) of railroad, linking Kenya with Uganda and Tanzania. Kenya has a road network totaling about 54,700 km (about 34,000 mi); 15% of the roadway is paved. Mombasa is the chief port and serves Uganda and Ethiopia as well as Kenya. Steamer service is maintained on Lake Victoria, with connections to Albert and Kioga lakes in Uganda. River transportation is not extensive. The Jomo Kenyatta Airport; used to be Embakazi Airport; in Nairobi is a major terminus for Kenya Airways and other international airlines. A second international airport is located at Mombasa.


Kenya has five daily newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 300,000. Leading dailies include two English-language newspapers, the Daily Nation and The Standard, and a Swahili-language daily, Taifa Leo, all published in Nairobi. The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation operates radio and television stations with English-, African-, and Asian-language programs. In the late 1980s Kenya had more than 316,000 telephones, 1,900,000 radios, and 200,000 television receivers.


In the late 1980s about 1.3 million people were employed in Kenya's money economy; more than 50% worked in service industries, about 20% in agriculture and forestry, and about 18% in manufacturing and construction. The vast majority of the country's economically active population, however, consisted not of wage earners but of farmers and herders at a subsistence level.


Kenya is governed under the constitution of 1963, as amended. Amendments enacted in 1964 made the country a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations. It has a modified parliamentary form of government.

Central Government

Executive authority in Kenya is exercised by a president, elected for a 5-year term by popular vote. A vice-president and a cabinet are appointed by the president from members of the National Assembly, the legislative branch of government. The assembly consists of 188 directly elected members plus 12 members who are nominated by the president. The Kenya African National Union (KANU) was the nation's sole legal political party from 1982 to 1991.


The Kenyan judicial system consists of two major courts and several lesser tribunals. The major courts are the Kenya court of appeal, with a chief justice and five associate judges; and the high court of Kenya, with seven seniour judges. The lesser tribunals include the resident magistrates' courts; the district magistrates courts; and the qadi courts, which determine questions of Muslim law.

Local Government

Kenya is divided into 7 provinces, which are broken down into some 40 districts, all of which have local councils with administrative functions. The higher local authorities are divided into two categories, municipalities and county councils. Below these are various urban councils, township authorities, area councils, and local councils. Although all these groups are responsible to the central government, considerable local autonomy is encouraged within the groups. Many of the councils raise their own revenues to finance public health measures, road and construction projects, and social welfare schemes. They also contribute revenue to local education costs. The Nairobi area is not included in any other district or province but has a special status of its own.


In the late 1980s the Kenyan army had a total strength of about 19,000. The navy, which is based in Mombasa, had about 1100 officers and ratings who operated coastal patrol boats on Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean. The air force, established in 1964, had 3500 personnel and 28 combat aircraft. Military service is voluntary.


Kenya is an ethnic and cultural melting pot. Its present population is the result of incursions of differing groups over the past 1500 years. Before ad 1000 East Africa was invaded by Nilotic clans from the north. The invaders, called Hima, were aristocratic pastoralists who introduced cattle herding and developed powerful kingdoms.

Bantu and Masai Migrations

Bantu invasions after the 14th century forced most of the Nilotes into Uganda, where they established new kingdoms, or into Tanzania, where, mixing with the Bantu, they became the Sukuma and Nyamwezi. In Kenya a similar process absorbed the Nilotic Luo into basic Bantu culture. The Bantu invaded Kenya by two routes. The Kamba and Kikuyu took the northerly way from west of the great lakes area and settled in the highlands. A more southerly route was followed by the Taita and other coastal Bantu. Both of these groups were organized into clans, with no centralized social or political institutions. No large, powerful Bantu kingdoms ever emerged in Kenya. Even the Kikuyu, the most numerous of the Bantu groups, were satisfied with the clan system. The soil in the uplands was fertile, and agriculture flourished there. The Bantu, using the terrain of the Rift Valley, particularly the valleys and hills of the highlands and the Aberdare Mountains, defended themselves from later invaders without being forced to alter fundamentally their political systems.

Still another group of invaders came to Kenya in the 17th century from the region north of Lake Turkana (Lake Rudolf). These were the Nilo-Hamitic Masai clans with their cattle herds. Scorning the uplands for the plains of central and southern Kenya, they clashed with the Bantu only on the frontiers. Their societies were also based on clans, and although the warrior, or muran, was a dominant figure, the Masai never had large armies. Like the Bantu, they presented few military problems to the Europeans who divided up East Africa in the 19th century.

The Zenj States and the Portuguese

After the 11th century, the coastal areas were dominated by traders and settlers from southern Arabia. They established the various Zenj city-states, so called because in Arabic the country was known as the land of the Zenj, or black people. The most important of these settlements in Kenya were Malindi and Mombasa. The Muslim entrepreneurs were content to control the interior trade, and their cities became important ports in the Indian Ocean trade system. In time a composite Arabic-Bantu culture developed along the coast, exemplified by the hybrid Swahili language, which became the trading language of East Africa. Generally independent from one another, the Zenj states were from time to time dominated by powerful non-African maritime empires. One of these was the sultanate of Oman and Muscat, which for centuries vied with the Europeans for supremacy along the coast. The Portuguese, following Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India in 1498, attempted to monopolize all Indian Ocean trade, and for more than a century, despite native resistance, they dominated the Zenj states. Fort Jesus, a massive 16th-century fortress in Mombasa, stands as a memorial to their former power on the Kenya coast. After the Dutch and the English wrested the trade from the Portuguese early in the 17th century, however, the Zenj states regained their independence.

The Omani Dynasty

In the early 19th century Sultan Sayyid Said of Oman (reigned 1806-56) conquered all the city-states north of Cape Delgado. Ruling over a commercial empire, he did not try to dominate the interior Bantu clans, and he eventually moved his capital to the island of Zanzibar in present-day Tanzania. The clove plantations on Zanzibar and oil-palm groves at Mombasa, developed by Said, needed a large labour force, and this need was met by the slave trade. Controlled from Mombasa and Zanzibar, this trade extended into Africa's interior as far as Zaire. Swahili slavers sometimes raided weak Bantu clans, but they generally traded for slaves with the stronger African states. The cruelty of the trade brought revived European interest in Kenya. The British consul on Zanzibar took the lead in the anti-slave-trade movement. In return for guarantees of continued protection, the sultan by the 1850s had signed treaties limiting the scope of the trade. Finally, in 1873, fearing that the British would support a European takeover of his empire, Said's son, Barghash (reigned 1870-88), agreed to abolition.

British Rule

The British consul from 1873 to 1886 was John Kirk (1832-1922), who advised Sultan Barghash to raise an army and annex most of eastern Kenya and Tanzania. Refusing this advice, the sultan was helpless in the face of European territorial imperialism. German imperialists led the way, and their claims were upheld at the Congress of Berlin. In 1886 the British recognized the German sphere of influence over coastal Tanganyika (part of present-day Tanzania), retaining the Kenya area for themselves. A further territorial division took place in 1890. For a time British interests in Kenya were maintained by the Imperial British East Africa Company, but in 1896 the British Foreign Office assumed direct control primarily because of the decision to build a railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. British annexation was not seriously contested by any of the Bantu or Masai. In 1902 all Kenya became a dependency under the Colonial Office. It became the British base of operations in the protracted East African campaign against the Germans during World War I.

The type of government established in Kenya was the crown colony system. The governor and the secretariat were appointed from London. Most Africans, however, continued to be ruled in some fashion by their own leaders under the general guidance of a British district officer. Tribal lands were guaranteed, but all unoccupied territory became crown land. Even before 1900 some white colonists had recognized the economic value of the highlands and had begun to settle the fertile lands adjacent to Nairobi. By the close of World War I more than 9000 Europeans were in Kenya, and much of the highlands had been reserved for continual white settlement. The government, claiming to be concerned with “native paramountcy,” actually favoured the productive white minority. African economics and politics were closely monitored at a time when the depression of the 1930s and an expanding population showed the inadequacy of the land reserved for the natives.

The Kikuyu Revolt

The Kikuyu, denied any major additions to their reserve and never reconciled to the loss of their original lands, began an agitation after World War II, which culminated in the Mau Mau uprising of the early 1950s. Although the rebellion did not spread to the other native peoples, it cost the lives of a few Europeans and thousands of Kikuyu, and the expenditure of millions of dollars. By the end of the emergency, in 1956, the pro-settler policy was abandoned in favour of one similar to that being followed in West Africa, leading to majority rule and independence. The only difficulty in this period concerned Jomo Kenyatta, the Kikuyu leader, who had been imprisoned for complicity in the Mau Mau uprising. The major Kenya political party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), refused to cooperate fully until their leader was released. Once this was done (1961), full cooperation ensured Kenya's independence, which was proclaimed on December 12, 1963.


Despite the fears of white settlers, African rule proved moderate, pro-Western, and progressive. Although Kenya by 1965 was a functioning one-party state, considerable freedom was permitted within the party, and the government seldom misused its powers. Internal peace among the different tribes and nations was maintained, and land redistribution calmed much of the clamour of Kenya's traditional leaders. Kenya became a republic in 1964, and Kenyatta was chosen its first president. He sought to maintain good relations with Kenya's neighbours but did have some difficulties with Tanzania and with the Ugandan regime of Idi Amin. The East African Community, an economic union of the three countries established in 1967 and once considered a promising start for political unification, was gradually phased out (although in the early 1980s the community's former members considered reviving it). Kenyatta's moderate, stable government attracted large foreign investments. A new industrial area was established near Thika, and central Nairobi was modernized. The tourist industry, based on Kenya's great national wildlife reserves, continued to thrive. Kenyatta was recognized at the time of his death in mid-1978 as Mzee, “the wise old one,” not only by his own people but by a wide array of world leaders.

Fears of possible civil war between Luo and Kikuyu groups when Kenyatta died proved unfounded, and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, followed the same moderate political and economic policies. However, in June 1982 he made Kenya officially a one-party state. Two months later an attempt by air force units to oust him was crushed by loyal troops. As the 1990s began, Moi reacted to rising domestic opposition by jailing his leading critics; in late 1991, however, he bowed to pressure from international aid donors by legalizing opposition parties. Kenya's first multi party election in 26 years was held in December 1992. Moi won the election and was sworn for his fourth term as president in January 1993.