Kenya’s incredible culture

Think ‘Kenya’, and the first image to blossom in your mind might well be a lion or a tropical beach. Then again, it could just as easily be a scarlet-robed Maasai warrior. Or an exquisite wood carving. Or the memserising rhythm of traditional singing. Kenya’s culture is one of the most vibrant and diverse to be found anywhere. So sit back and enjoy eight pages celebrating a truly proud heritage.

Kenya’s culture simmers in a vast pot of more than 40 diverse and unique tribes. It’s about a heritage that stretches from the prehistoric emergence of early man to the present day. It’s about people from the plain lands of the south, the forests of the west and the scorching deserts of the north. It’s about the Maasai and their warrior tales and the Swahili with their unique coastal cuisine – and everybody in between. In this rich cultural landscape thrives diverse foods, languages and practices that not only distinguishes Kenyans but unites them.

This is a Samburu. Although he is one of the Nilotic peoples, he isn’t Maasai – but closely related. Both speak Maa, and are polygamous, but they are also quite distinct. Kenya is a land of such contrasts and colour: the Luo play Nyatiti, the Luhyas have bullfights. One of Akamba’s traditional dances, Mbalya, resembles the dance technique of the Aembu of Kenya and Batutsi of Rwanda. There are the Ormas and their bullet-shaped huts, and the Kikuyu and their spiritual reverence for Mt Kenya. All different, and all Kenyans.

Beads aren’t simply for decoration. They tell a story: they mark an occasion, define a stage. There are unique items of jewellery worn by Maasai women after marriage, beaded necklaces for engagement and a beaded shield for the young warrior. Time and modernity have been incorporated into the modern Maasai designs, which tell of a willingness to move forward without moving away.

Bracelets Beadwork in Maasai culture is traditionally done by women, late in the evening after all chores are finished – a form of relaxation as much as artistic expression. Mask carving Masks, a vital component of most Kenyan cultures, allowed people to honour their ancestors. Most were used in ceremonies  depicting spirits, deities and mythological beings that bestowed power over humans. Now they are mostly for decoration, or curio souvenirs.

Maasai club A common weapon with Maasai morans, this was traditionally used in warfare or in hunting. Some clubs have ceremonial significance; they were mostly owned by older members of society. Today, we keep them under our car seats.

Stick people carvings The Akamba people are renowned for using wood to craft items. Their work finds its way into homes and businesses, testimony to their creativity and desire to explore wood in different ways.

Where to buy craft in Nairobi

1 Maasai Market, Westlands Roundabout
It’s been there since God was a boy. You have the pleasure of choosing from numerous shops. Because it’s popular with mzungus, pricing is on the expensive side.
2 Maasai Market Rotation
This is a traditional craft jamboree held in different parts of town. Any Kenyan traditional handicraft made by man will find its way there. On Tuesdays, head to Westgate shopping mall, Westlands; Wednesdays, Capital Centre Mall, Mombasa Road.; Thursdays, Junction Mall, Ngong Road; Fridays, Village Market Mall, Gigiri; Saturdays, High Court Parking lot, city centre. Many attract a lot of tourist types so pricing might be a bit high. Always take a local with you. Or learn Kiswahili.
3 Gallery Watatu
Located at Lonrho House on Standard Street, this gallery was started by three art enthusiasts, and is frequented mostly by expats. You will find unique works of art here, but you will also fork out good money for it.
4 Banana Box, Sarit Centre
This is a unique shop where all products are made from natural materials sourced locally. We are talking banana leaves, unbleached paper, Kenyan cotton etc. The Banana Box also sells items made from recycled glass and flip flops. Even elephant dung finds its way into some of the products for sale. Pricing isn’t so bad for the level of creativity employed there.
5 African Prints and Jewels, Hilton Hotel
This is a bit of a bourgeois shop, which thankfully doesn’t imply that they sell boring stuff. They have unique items sourced from various suppliers. It is one of the best places to nip into at the eleventh hour when you want to pick up a Kenyan gift for a family member back home.
6 City Market
Some of the best deals come from City Market. And there is a good variety of shops where you can usually get some great bargains. There are middlemen who can also help you look for whatever you need.