A Brief History of Kenya


History of Kenya


Kenya is one of Africa’s 54 countries. It is located on the equator and surrounded by Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Indian Ocean. From the lush forests to impressive mountain ranges, the country has a rich natural beauty and geographical biodiversity. Indeed, the fascinating history of Kenya is as diverse as the 55 million people calling this land home today. It helps us understand the essence of African culture and European colonization in Africa. Then, let’s explore the history of Kenya below: –


Political History

1.       Pre-Colonial History of Kenya


a.       The Native Cultures

The indigenous people of early East Africa that is now Kenya were hunters and gatherers. They included the ancestors of modern-day Pygmy or Khoisan people and the modern-day tribes in Kenya like the Maasai and the Kikuyu. Note that the indigenous people did not identify themselves as a tribe. This concept came during the European colonization of Kenya in the 1800s. Still, the native ethnic groups had their own unique cultures and history. Also, they passed these traditions from generation to generation through practice and telling origin stories, religious beliefs, worldviews. These native stories remain a valuable resource available today when attempting to discover the native history of Kenya.


b.      Migration from North, West, & Central Africa


History of Kenya

By the 1st century, many people were migrating into eastern Africa from the north, west, and central regions. They began establishing themselves in the vast fertile lands of Kenyan plains and the river basins. Notably, three ethnic groups dominated the Kenya region during the pre-colonial era. These were the Cushites from Northern Africa, the Nilotes from Nile Valley, and the Bantu from Central Africa.

The Bantus reached Kenya from the west and southern parts of the region, sometime between 200 AD and 1,000 AD. They occupied the central, eastern, and western areas. Next, the Nilotes split into three sub-ethnic groups; the plain Nilotes settling in the west and northern Kenya, the highland Nilotes in the highlands, and the river lake Nilotes near Lake Turkana. And, most Nilotes were pastoralists and fishermen. Finally, Cushites settled in Kenya in 2,000 B.C. Those that moved to the Rift Valley did hunting and gathering. Other Cushites occupied the North Eastern region and opted for pastoralism and herding.


c.       First Non-African Contacts (500B.C. – 500 A.D.)


History of Kenya

The first none-African contact with Kenya came with the Arab explorers in the 1st century. These explorers came searching for trade routes and control of the area. They also brought Islam which began to spread rapidly. It is most likely that the Arab merchants and native cultures blended to create a new language and distinct community called Swahili.

Kiswahili, or simply Swahili, is the national language of Kenya. It originates from the blending of Bantu languages and foreign vocabulary. And, it formed its own new culture that allowed the indigenous people to connect with surrounding countries and trade routes.

From the 8th century onwards, the Arabs, Persians, Romans, and East Indians used the Kenyan coast as their trade route. They imported glass, textile, and wines. Also, they exported ivory, rhinoceros horns, and slaves. At this time, Kenya had many natural resources to offer, including plant life, animal life, soda ash, zinc, limestone, gold, spices, and diatomite. Poaching was rampant, with the demand for exotic animal products like elephant tusks, ivory, and hides sustaining the illegal trade.


d.      Coming of the Portuguese – 1498 to the 1700s


Portuguese in Kenya

Around the end of the 15th century, the first Europeans set foot on the Kenyan coast. A Portuguese explorer named Vasco Da Gama came across Africa’s eastern coast while searching for china in 1498. The Portuguese gained control from the Arabs and stayed in the region for around 200 years. They used the Kenyan coastline for their trade routes. Still, by the 1700s, the Portuguese became dissatisfied, giving back control of the region to the Arabs before leaving. 


e.       Slave Trade – 1800s

The slave trade history of Kenya dates back to the 19th century. Author N’Diaye estimates that at least 17 million East Africans were sold to slavery. And there are historical records of the slave trade happening as early as the 7th century when Arabs captured and sold Africans to the Middle East via Zanzibar. The slaves became field workers, harem guards, and teachers. And the castration of male slaves was a common practice at the time. Still, African Muslims were exempted from enslavement as per the Islamic legal views.

Slaves from all parts of Africa passed through Zanzibar enroute to North America and the West Indies. They faced hunger, exhaustion and, illness, with three out of four slaves dying before reaching their final destination. A slave revolt happening in the Dominican Republic and Haiti was felt in East Africa, prompting an outcry for the end of slavery. And by 1847, the slave trade within Kenya ends.

In 1850, European missionaries came to Kenya to convert locals from Islam to Christianity. Eventually, Great Britain’s presence in the country quickly spread, and they decided to take over the country.


2.       Colonial History of Kenya

Kenya colonization

a.       The Scramble for Africa


Africa was seen as a land of opportunity by governments in the west. Hence, a Scramble for Africa began with the General Act of the Berlin conference in 1884. Here, the most powerful countries in Europe met to divide and colonize all of Africa. They drew some of the first borders in Africa, separating communities and placing them into tribes.


b.      The East Africa Protectorate

After World War 1, the British gained control over the East Africa Protectorate. Here, the protectorate was under the British Imperial East Africa company. Great Britain used the company to export raw materials, British manufacturing, and trade routes. It lasted until about 1920 when the area was renamed the Kenya colony.


Many natives did not want to be under British control. They became too hostile towards the colonizers. In turn, Britain decided that an official British rule was necessary. In 1885, the first British government was established, resulting in the renaming of the region as the Kenya colony. The first governor was Sir Arthur Hardinge.


c.       Resistance to Colonialism

As the locals grew unhappy with the British rule, they revolted against it. Their rebellion was called the Mau Mau movement. It aimed to remove any European or British influence within the land. The British responded with forced labor, unfair taxes, and racism. Plus, they sent in troops to control the situation but soon after declared a state of emergency. And, the Mau Mau movement was declared a terrorist group rather than freedom fighters. The state of emergency finally ended on November 10th, 1959, with approximately 13,000 people dying during the tensions.


3.       Post-Colonial History of Kenya

a.       Independence


Locals fought for their independence for over six years. Then, on December 12th, 1963, Kenya gained its independence from British rule, becoming the 34th post-colonial African state. Next, Kenya held its first multi-racial elections in May of the following year and elected Jomo Kenyatta as their first Prime Minister. Soon after, Kenya became a republic and elected its first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Here are more facts about the history of Kenya after independence: –


  • The post-independence political climate of Kenya continues to be marked by domestic tensions and post-election violence. This instability is from intense electoral contestation associated with abuse of power and centralization.


  • In 2010, Kenya reviewed and promulgated a more inclusive and progressive constitution. Here, a decentralized governance structure resulted in the creation of 47 country governments. This step helped increase community participation in local governance. Also, it countered violent extremism, resulting in a more peaceful elections period in 2013. It also helped increase women representation in the politics of Kenya. Only, this representation is still below the global average. This step was a milestone towards ending the political crisis associated with power transition in the history of Kenya.


  • The first president of Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, ruled between 1963 and 1978. Upon his death on August 22nd, 1978, Jomo Kenyatta’s then vice president Daniel Arap Moi took over leadership, becoming president for the next 24 years. In December 2002, Emilio Mwai Kibaki became the third president of Kenya, having won via a coalition of opposition parties. Mwai Kibaki ruled the country until 2013. His reign witnessed a spectacular economic recovery. Still, the 2007 and 2012 post-election violence remains the bloodiest in the history of Kenya. The current president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, who is also the son of the first president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, came to power in 2013.


Social and Economic Life in Kenya

Kenya's Stock Market

Kenya is famous for its beautiful landscapes, safaris, and some of the best teas in the world. As the fourth-largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya’s social and economic life is more than just tours and agriculture. The country is a transport and finance hub in the Eastern Africa region. Indeed, it has the kind of market presence you would associate with a regional power, especially when it comes to logistics and trade. For a region with a history of political instability around its general election periods, the nation has managed to achieve sustained economic growth.


Below are some quick facts about the social and economic life in Kenya: –

  • Kenya has a GDP above $100 billion, making it a lower-middle-income country.
  • Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy, accounting for up to 30% of the GDP. Most participants are smallholder farmers and agribusinesses producing crops and animal products for export. Still, Kenya remains a net importing country.
  • The country is the entry point to East Africa’s market comprising 300 million people.
  • More than 70% of Kenya’s population is below 30 years old.
  • Kenya’s highest economic growth was in the 2010s, averaging more than 5.9% p.a between 2010 and 2018. Yet, manufacturing accounts for less than 10% of the GDP.
  • Extreme inequality and corruption are huge concerns in Kenya. Notably, there are significant income disparities by gender and geographical location, with the poorest persons being in the arid and semi-arid areas and some coastal regions.
  • Kenya’s discovery of oil and other minerals indicates potential for further economic growth.
  • The official languages in Kenya are English and Swahili, and the currency is the Kenya Shilling.


The Geography of Kenya

The Geography of Kenya

Kenya has a vast topography and favorable climate. And its strategic location and uniqueness make it desirable throughout its history for foreign countries to colonize.


Its geographical regions include the Lake Victoria Basin, Great Rift Valley, Eastern Plateau Forelands, Western Plateau, and the Indian Ocean Coastline. The country has various topographical features like vast mountain ranges, long stretching coastlines, swamps, plains & hills. The country’s coastline enjoys a hot and humid tropical climate which turns to cold and arid or semi-arid as you move inland.


Kenya gets its name from Mt. Kenya. It is the highest peak in Kenya and the second tallest mountain in Africa after Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, near the Kenyan border. Mt. Kenya reaches about 5,199 meters above sea level.


Savannah is the primary biome in Kenya. It has vast grasslands and few trees. Also, it has a wide range of exotic wildlife like lions, cheetahs, buffaloes, leopards, rhinos, and giraffes. These vast wildlife reserves attract tourists from all over the world.


Five Main Cities of Kenya

Magical Kenya

Kenya has well-established cities and towns with robust urban scenery, art, architecture, beautiful attractions, housing facilities, and great amenities. Here are five main cities in Kenya: –


1.       Nairobi

Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya. It is famous for being the only capital city with a national park worldwide. It is the country’s primary economic, administrative, and political hub. The history of Kenya’s capital city dates back to the late 1890s. At that time, Nairobi served as a British railroad camp, housing railway construction workers. Today, Nairobi boasts of such tourist attractions as Nairobi National Park, Bomas of Kenya, Giraffe Center, nature parks, museums, and active nightlife.


The majority of Nairobi residents are middle-income earners. Second, the city has a robust road network that connects it to all parts of the country. Other city amenities include Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Wilson Airport, the Standard Gauge Railway connecting the city to Mombasa, and a reliable internet through fiber networks. The city has public and private schools, including international schools.


2.       Mombasa

Mombasa Island is the oldest and second-largest city in Kenya. More so, it is a regional, cultural, and economic hub. This metropolitan city is a vital tourist destination with such attractions as an international airport, 5-star beach resorts, national parks, white sandy beaches, historical ruins, cultural and recreational facilities. Plus, it has the largest port in east and central Africa. As a metropolitan city, the cost of living in Mombasa is relatively higher than in other cities in the country.


3.       Kisumu

Kisumu is the third-largest city in Kenya. It has a busy port on Lake Victoria, serving as a shipping route for goods destined for Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also, Kisumu has an established education system, a business atmosphere, and booming agricultural activities. Kisumu’s tourist destinations include the Kisumu museum, the Impala Sanctuary, Hippo Point, and Ndeere Island National Park.


4.       Nakuru

Nakuru is the fourth-largest urban city in Kenya, located away from the hustle and bustle of city life. It is rapidly growing into its own identity, with the third-largest population in the country. The town has beautiful lakes and national parks. Food and housing are affordable, and agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism remain the backbone of the economy of Nakuru city.


5.       Eldoret

Eldoret is a beautiful and peaceful town located in western Kenya. It enjoys a cool climate and breathtaking landscape. Life in Eldoret is at a slow pace and easy to get by. The city’s cost of living is much more affordable than other major cities in the country. Here, there is an abundance of fresh food and decent housing facilities.


Kenya’s Ethnic Tribes

Kenya's People

Kenya, like most African nations, boasts of several ethnic groups. While these groups have some common cultural practices, each tribe has its unique features that distinguish them. Hence, there are 47 ethnic tribes in Kenya.

Below is a list of the five main tribes that make up the Kenya population: –


1.       Kikuyu

Kikuyu is the largest and most popular Kenyan ethnic group. It represents an estimated 22% of the Kenya population. Further, most of the Agikuyu are in Nairobi and the central part of Kenya. These are well-educated persons, run successful businesses and careers, and dominate the leadership and political space in Kenya. Indeed, the first, third, and current presidents of Kenya are from the Agikuyu tribe. And Africa’s first female Nobel peace prize winner, the late Professor Wangari Maathai, was Kikuyu.

2.       Luhya

Luhyas are Kenya’s second-largest ethnic group, accounting for 14% of the total population. They are further subdivided into the Khayo, Marachi, Kisa, Isukha, Idakho, Batsotso, Banyore, Gisu, Banyala, Marama, Tachoni, Wanga, Tiriki, Samia, and Bukusu sub-tribes. This community practices polygamy, bullfighting, and male circumcision. The traditional initiation ceremonies from boyhood to manhood are in August and December each year.

3.       Luo

The Luo tribe is the third largest ethnic group in Kenya. It makes up 13% of the Kenya population. Luos arrived in Kenya 500 years ago from Southern Sudan and established settlements around Lake Victoria, Africa’s biggest freshwater lake. They are one of the few Kenyan tribes that do not circumcise their males. Instead, initiation into manhood involves the removal of six teeth from the lower jaw. Also, the Luos practice wife inheritance. Here, a brother of the deceased marries the widow and provides for all her needs. The late Barrack Hussein Obama Snr, the father of former US president Barrack Obama, was from the Luo tribe.

4.       Maasai

Until recently, the Maasai were arguably the dominating tribe in Kenya. To date, the Maasai hold on to their traditional pastoral lifestyle, setting them apart from the other Kenyan tribes. Most Maasais wear a piece of clothing called Shuka in the Mara language. It is a combination of red, blue, and green checked and striped fabric. The majority of the women have bald heads, and the men walk with a “rungu” (club) in their hands. Their peculiar custom includes drinking raw blood from cows and goats. And they value their livestock and children.

5.       Ameru

The Ameru is a Bantu ethnic group. Further, it has the Igembe, Tigania, Igoji, Muthambi, Chuka, Imenti, Mwimbi, Tharaka, and Miutuni sub-tribes. This tribe occupies the northeastern slopes of Mt. Kenya. Here, they practice controlled animal rearing and farming. Also, their unique dialect is the Kimeru language. And, they practice such cultural activities like male circumcision as a rite of passage for boys.


The other ethnic tribes in Kenya include: –


  • Kalenjin
  • Mijikenda
  • Kamba
  • Kisii
  • Kuria
  • Embu Tribe
  • Makonde
  • Orma
  • Rendille
  • Sabaot
  • Samburu
  • Somali
  • Suba
  • Swahili
  • Taita
  • Taveta
  • Turkana
  • Gabra
  • Mbeere
  • Nubi
  • Tharaka
  • Ilchamus
  • Njemps
  • Borana
  • Galla
  • Gosha
  • Konso
  • Sakuye
  • Waat
  • Isaak
  • Walwana
  • Dasenach
  • Galjeel
  • Leysan
  • Bulji
  • Teso
  • Kenyan Arabs
  • Kenyan Asians
  • Kenyan Europeans
  • Kenyan Americans



Kenya is a diverse country that has been through a lot. And the current government is striving to bring the Kenya economy back from poverty after the colonization. Yet, it remains a beautiful country with a lot to offer the world. Hence, studying the history of Kenya gives us a glimpse into the African culture and the colonization by European countries during this time. 

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