Kenya is a crossroad where peoples and cultures from Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia have been meeting for hundreds of years. As a result we’re enriched with cultural and ethnic diversity, and unique and dynamic cultural traditions.
We’re a country of great changes, instigated mainly by ourselves but also through influences from other continents. The Kenyan culture embodies our philosophy, worldview, behavior patterns, arts, and institutions.
With a population of over 40 million people drawn from at least forty-two different ethnic groups, a number of “Asian” communities, remnants of European “settlers,” and more recent expatriate communities, we’re indeed a mosaic of cultural and racial diversity.
Our geographical endowments extend from the tropical Indian Ocean coast through temperate highlands and forests to the semiarid deserts of the north.
Christianity, Islam and traditional beliefs dominate the country’s religious practices, with a growing relogious population that includes Asians whose community members also include many Hindus.
In an effort to contextualize and be mindful of a complex mindset and worldview, here are a few Kenyan cultural values that pay off to know while traveling in Kenya!
Religion and worldview: Religion plays an important role in our lives and it’s common to find a syncretism between local and indigenous beliefs and practices with mainstream religions. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Kenyans don’t share a single worldview. The vast majority of Kenyans grow up either as Christian, Muslim, or traditional believers, yet they do so within the con text of a particular cultural or ethnic community, thus, religions in Kenya tend not to be mutually exclusive but instead may incorporate the beliefs and practices of one another.
Be polite: Hospitality is deeply ingrained in our cultures and it’s expected that visitors will be served with food and drink wherever they go. Refusing to have a bite is considered unacceptable and a bit rude. Invitations to dinner at restaurants and homes are to be expected and accepted graciously. Do prefer a firm handshake when offered from someone you are meeting and remove your shoes before you enter someone’s house, unless the host advises otherwise.
Beware what you wear: Dress appropriately when walking around in the neighborhood or market places. We have a conservative streak to us and what may be appropriate in high fashion, may not be suitable on the streets of Nairobi and other cities. Short and tight fit clothes are looked down upon. And if the disapproving stares don’t get to you, then do not be surprised if a random woman slides up to you and offers you a leso (wrap) to cover up. Ideally, you should wear clothing that covers most of your thighs and cleavage. Ideally, you should wear clothing that covers most of your thighs and cleavage. However, do not show up underdressed for an event either.
Not all Kenyans run and don’t ask people’s tribe: Since there are many stereotypes surrounding tribes, asking people about this can be misconstrued to mean you are stereotyping them, even when you are not. Please, for the sake of all that is good, don’t go around asking every Kenyan if they run. A very specific tribe in Kenya is famous for running and the rest of the population are equally impressed at their athleticism. You can, however, ask about the different tribes in the country.
Do not take people’s picture without their consent: It’s not uncommon to see Maasai walking the street, adorned in their traditional shukas, or a new surprising activity that is not common in your country. Tempting, as it may be to snap a photo, ask first to avoid offending anyone. Usually, we’re friendly and proud to show off our best efforts!
Refrain from buying items derived from endangered animals: In Kenya, you’ll get see a lot of roadside sellers of animal skins, horns and trinkets made from animals. Please note that this is illegal in most countries – Kenya as well! This exchange is close on the lines of smuggling, as nobody would give you any purchase receipt. Thus, don’t buy things that you might suspect are being made from animals.
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