For tourists Kenya is quintessential Africa. Seemingly endless blue skies over-reach red savannahs, where the big five animals still roam freely. Most visitors of course come here to go on safari, the Swahili word that has become synonymous with the country.
Taking a safari during your stay is essential. The wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara is quite rightly proclaimed one of the animal kingdom's most impressive phenomena. The plains they sweep across are just one of a myriad of terrains found within the nation. Wetlands are home to crocodiles and hippos while the mineral rich lakes of the Rift Valley attract vast flocks of pink flamingos, which come for the small fish that thrive here.
However, it is a mistake to think of Kenya merely as one big safari park. There is a lot more to this fascinating country. It is known as the "Cradle of Civilisation" for it was here that the most ancient remains of early man were found in the 1920s, at the Hyrax Hill site near to Lake Nakuru by renowned anthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey. You can see many of these and other findings in the Kenyan National Museum in Nairobi.
You'll also find intriguing relics of history on and in the landscape. The Gedi Ruins are the most spectacular remains of the people who inhabited the coast - an enigmatic settlement of amazing sophistication yet unrecorded in any period of literature. Malindi meanwhile is a reminder of the colonial influences on the country - the Portuguese were here for a couple of centuries and the shameful slave trade from the Kenyan coast under British jurisdiction is well documented.
Kenya isn't a tourist playground though - bush resorts and safaris are all well and good but in Nairobi and the other major cities the steady march of progress has come at a price - they aren't always the most pleasant locations for the stranger.
With Kenya's diversity of terrain comes a great amount of climatic variation - from the arid interior to the tropical coast and the equable highlands. Being an equatorial country there is one thing you can guarantee though - whatever time of year you visit - Kenya is hot. The most popular months for visitors anywhere in the nation are January and February, the hottest and driest months of the year.
Although in the interior the heat at this time can be almost unbearable, during wet season (March-May and October-November) flash flooding and water damage can cause a host of other problems, although you are unlikely to be in any genuine danger. For visitors from Europe and cooler climates it is often advisable to visit in one or another of the shoulder months - September or just after the spring wet season in June before the weather becomes hot once more in July and August. These months enjoy (slightly) lower temperatures and don't have the problems of the rainy season.
Most Westerners will find the highlands' climate the easiest to bear, with a low annual range of temperatures and less extremes in the change from wet season to dry and back again. On some of the higher terrain you'll even find glaciers with a climate to match.
Man’s earliest ancestors might have originated as long as five million years ago in what is now the north of Kenya. You could say that the country’s indigenous population easily represents more diversity than any other African country; approximately 30 languages are spoken in Kenya.
One of the biggest ethnic group is the Kikuyu; the smallest group is the El Molo, living on the shores of Lake Turkana.There are roughly seventy tribes dispersed around Kenya.
They are made up of three primary grouping.
The BANTU, who since 500 BC have been drifting to Kenya from West Africa; the NILOTIC tribes who arrived from Sudan and Egypt around 1000 BC; and the CUSHITES who made an entrance about 2000 BC from Somalia and Ethiopia.
These groups make up approximately 98% of Kenya’s population. There are many sub-tribes too numerous to mention.
The population growth in Kenya is one of the highest in the world. The economy is stretched to the limit as it tries to provide educational facilities and other services to the expanding populace. Many inhabitants are giving up life in the bush for an easier existence and more job opportunities in the cities and towns.
The remaining 2% of Kenya’s population consists of Arabs (Swahili), Europeans and Asians.
Along the coast the given name to the mix of people is Swahili. These Kenya people have been mixing, intermarrying and trading with settlers from abroad for hundreds of years. Basically descendants of Arab and Persian immigrants, they are distinguished in their shipbuilding and woodworking skills. The famous ocean-going dhows with their unique triangular sails still cruise up and down Kenya’s coast.
As each year passes, the unique melting pot of communities and cultures mix and blend, allowing Kenyans to live together in relative harmony. Distinct cultural lines become less distinguishable with the passing of time as people get on with their daily chores of their chosen lifestyles.
While Kenya People are not without their population problems, their peaceful example stands out among the countries of the world.
Kenya's economy is market-based, with a few state-owned infrastructure enterprises, and maintains a liberalized external trade system. The country is generally perceived as Eastern and central Africa's hub for Financial, Communication and Transportation services. As at May 2010, economic prospects are positive with 4-5% GDP growth expected, largely because of expansions in tourism, telecommunications, transport, construction and a recovery in agriculture. Tere is a high level of computer literacy, especially among the youth. The government, generally perceived as investment friendly, has enacted several regulatory reforms to simplify both foreign and local investment. An increasingly significant portion of Kenya's foreign inflows is from remittances by non-resident Kenyans who work in the US, Middle East, Europe and Asia. Compared to its neighbors, Kenya has a well-developed social and physical infrastructure. It is considered the main alternative location to South Africa, for major corporations seeking entry into the African continent.
After independence, Kenya promoted rapid economic growth through public investment, encouragement of smallholder agricultural production, and incentives for private (often foreign) industrial investment. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual average of 6.6% from 1963 to 1973. Agricultural production grew by 4.7% annually during the same period, stimulated by redistributing estates, diffusing new crop strains, and opening new areas to cultivation. Between 1974 and 1990, however, Kenya's economic performance declined. Kenya's inward-looking policy of import substitution and rising oil prices made Kenya's manufacturing sector uncompetitive. The government began a massive intrusion in the private sector. Lack of export incentives, tight import controls, and foreign exchange controls made the domestic environment for investment even less attractive.
The Politics of Kenya take place in a framework of a presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the President of Kenya is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. Recent constitutional amendments have enabled sharing of executive powers between the President and a Prime Minister. Executive power is exercised by the government, with powers shared between the President and a Prime Minister, who coordinates and supervises the cabinet. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the National Assembly. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.
The president appoints the vice president and cabinet members from among those elected to the National Assembly. Under the power sharing agreement signed by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement, the post of prime minister was constitutionally created and ministers appointed to reflect political parties' relative strength in the National Assembly.
The unicameral National Assembly or Bunge has 224 members, 210 members elected for a five year term in single-seat constituencies, 12 members nominated by political parties in proportion to their share of seats won in the single-member constituencies and 2 ex officio members: the attorney general and the speaker.
Kenya public transport network isn't the most sophisticated in the world. Most people will have their transfers privately arranged before arrival in any case, but if not you should be able to access most places reasonably easily, mainly by bus.
During Kenya's festivals and public holidays transport may be disrupted and immediately prior to any holiday it is likely that trains and buses will be extremely crowded.
Today the passenger rail system is limited to an overnight run (14hrs) between Nairobi and the coastal town of Mombasa, and even that only leaves four times a week and is often subject to delays. Costs vary according to season, as well as to class - but it's worthwhile buying the most expensive ticket you can afford whenever you travel.
Reservations can be made at the main rail station on Moi Avenue in Nairobi city centre, Tel: +254 (0)20-221-211.
A variety of bus companies operate across the country. Relatively inexpensive compared to airfare
Large international tour companies operate modern large coaches, with full mod-cons including air conditioning and entertainment .
Akamba is one of the most respected companies with one of the best reputations. Its head office is located near Tom Mboya St on Lagos Rd in Nairobi.
Buses run to any destination you could wish to access, although travel times can be very long due to the state of the roads.
For urban transport Kenya Bus operates in Nairobi and Mombasa city centres.
visitors opt to arrange for road transportation through travel agency groups (via minivans), taxis in the cities or hiring a car with a driver. For the more intrepid travellers, rental cars are available in the capital on arrival.
A few major international rental companies offer cars for hire in Kenya.
Air travel in Kenya is by far the most comfortable and convenient method of transportation available. There are three main carriers providing domestic services:
Tel: +254 (0)20-327-4000
Tel: +254 (0)20-605-745
Between them these firms connect to all the major destinations within Kenya, including Malindi, Mombasa, Masai Mara and Lamu with Nairobi acting as a hub. There is an international departure tax of USD20 or equivalent payable on leaving Kenya. This should be included in any international air ticket. On domestic flights you are required to pay a departure tax of KSH300. This may be included in your ticket price, otherwise you will have to pay at the appropriate counter in the airport prior to boarding.
Kenya's ferry services are currently non-existent, unless one counts the short ride on Likoni ferry across the Kilindini Harbour from Mombasa to the south coast.
The ferry system in Lake Victoria, which provided transport to Mfangano and Rusinga Islands, is no longer operational. Travellers without pre-arranged transportation can grab a boat taxi in Kisumu at Mbita point.
In Kenya shopping is synonymous with bargaining. Whether in the market place or most shops, prices are marked high in anticipation of negotiation. At a market, anticipate the actual price of an item is approximately 60% of the first stated price. If time is short and the process of haggling seems too much, you can obtain most souvenirs in hotel gift shops, where bargaining is a strict no-no.
What to Buy
The combination of Kenya's carpenter craftsmen and fine tropical hardwoods (African mahogany, teak, olive, ebony and rosewood, among others) creates a multitude of beautiful wood products ranging from tiny trinket boxes to large pieces of furniture. Lamu Island is famous for the craftsmanship of its furniture, and pieces are available all over the country. It is cheaper to buy at source however and most large shops can arrange shipping for you.
Jewel lovers will appreciate the locally-mined tanzanite (shades of blue and purple) and tsavorite (variations of green) gems. Available in the larger jewellery stores in Nairobi, a highly-recommended shop is the Village Jeweller located in the city centre next to the New Stanley Hotel. Maasai beaded items are immensely popular among tourists and expatriates alike. Men are partial to the beaded belts, and women are drawn to the intricate sandal designs, headbands and jewellery.
From the coast comes some of the country's finest woven goods. A "kikoy" or "kanga" is a brightly coloured length of cloth intended to work as a skirt, but can easily become a swimming costume cover, sundress, tablecloth or bedspread. It's a fabulous souvenir.
The best shopping in Nairobi is found two days a week at the city's "Maasai Market". Virtually any kind of souvenir is found here, for sale from craftsmen and traders from all over the country. Held in the city centre, Tuesday's market is not for the faint-hearted. Although friendly, the sellers are persistent and the cramped location can be dusty. Fridays are favoured among resident expatriates for souvenir shopping.
Held in the city's more upscale suburb of Gigiri, the open-air bazaar is situated in the courtyard of the Village Market. Safe and clean, this market site incorporates a variety of ethnic restaurants as well as a number of interesting stores. Most hotels will not only organise a taxi for transportation to and from the markets, but also arrange an escort (for a small fee) should you feel more comfortable with someone to assist in bargaining.
Most shops in Kenya operate hours of 09h00-12h30/13h00 and 14h00-16h30 Mon-Sat. Large (and air-conditioned) stores in Nairobi and Mombasa might open through the day.