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Kenya: Kenya Art / Culture Profile


Kenya's a lot of ethnic groups


Kenya's a lot of ethnic groups have a well developed and sophisticated folklore which embodies their history, traditions, mores, world-view and wisdom. Their legends recount the movement of people to and from the rift valley, into the highlands, the grasslands and the lake regions. Famous historical figures such as the Kikuyu Gikuyu and Mumbi or the Luo culture hero Liongo are represented in myths and legends. Myths include accounts of how cattle were given to a certain people by God. The Maasai have this legend, so at the same time as they went on cattle raids they were getting back what was rightfully theirs.

The Kikuyu as well have a similar story. Folk tales try to answer etymological questions, such as why the hyena has a limp and the origin of death. In a lot of Kenyan cultures the message that men would not die was given to a chameleon, but he was so slow that a bird got to man before him and gave them the message that men would die. Folk tales as well recount the adventures of tricksters. In Kenya, tricksters are usually the hare or the tortoise. The ogre is an extra popular, if evil, character in a lot of Kenyan folk tales. The ogre devours whole communities but is from presently on vanquished by the actions of a brother and sister. The brother again cuts the toe of the ogre and all the people it ate come out.

Each ethnic group has a large store of riddles, proverbs and sayings, which are still an significant aspect of daily speech. Riddles were usually exchanged in the evening before a storytelling session. Riddling sessions are usually competitions between two young people who fictionally bet villages, or cattle, or other items of economic life on the outcome. A lot of cultures have a prohibition on telling riddles during daylight hours. The Kikuyu had a very elaborate sung riddle game, a duet called the enigma poem or gicandia set text poem of riddles. It is sung in a duet and the players are in a competition. The duet is strikingly different than the normal singing of the Kikuyu performed by a soloist and a chorus. The poem is learned by heart. A decorated gourd rattle accompanies the singing One gicandi may consists of 127 stanzas.

Proverbs are social phenomenon and as such they can be defined as a message coded by tradition and transmitted in order to evaluate and/or result human behavior. Proverbs reveal key elements of a culture such as the position and influence of women, morality, what is considered appropriate behavior, and the importance of children.

For example the Luo have these proverbs:

(1) The eye you have treated will look at you contemptuously.
(2) A cowardly hyena lives for a lot of years.
(3) The swimmer who races alone, praises the winner.
Some Kikuyu examples includes:
(1) Women and the sky cannot be understood.
(2) The man may be the chief of the home, but the woman is the heart.
(3) Frowning frogs cannot stop the cows drinking from the pool.
There are as well several proverbs in Swahili and English that have become part of Kenyans' daily life. For example: Haraka Haraka haina baraka (hurry hurry has not blessing) and as well, At the same time as elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.

The Swahili people on Kenya's coast have had a rich oral tradition that has been influenced by Islam. Stories of genies are told side by side with stories of hare and hyena. There is as well a very rich tradition of popular poetry that has been part of Swahili cultural life for over four centuries.

Kenyan radio and television shows use folklore as part of their daily programming. Oral literature is part of the secondary and university syllabus. Part of the requirement in these classes is for students to collect folklore from their parents and grandparents. Kenyans believe that folklore is an significant part of their heritage and culture and are taking steps to preserve and encourage folklore and education. While world culture in the shape of movies, music and literature is replacing folklore, Kenyans are actively involved in its maintenance.

Culture of Kenya - Kenya has no one culture that identifies it. With such diverse regional peoples such as the Swahili along the coast, several pastoralist communities mainly in the North and the different communities in Central and Western regions, having a mutually acceptable cultural identification is difficult.

There are about 42 different tribes in Kenya - each of these with its own incomparable culture, but majority of them with intertwining cultural practices brought about by the close resemblance in the languages, the similar environment and physical proximity of the tribes. The tribes are grouped into larger sub-groups - based on their cultural and linguistic similarities. There are three major unifying categories of languages: the Bantu speaking people of the Coastal region, the Central Highlands and the Western Kenya Region, The Nilotes who are mainly found in the Rift Valley and the Lake Victoria Region and the Cushites who are mainly composed of pastoralists and nomads in the drier North Eastern part of the country. Of note is that these sub-groups span a vast area of not just Kenya, but the East, Central and Southern African Region as a whole.

The Maasai culture owes its widespread identification to the tourist industry which has exploited them for purely commercial purposes.

Historical and current politics of division practiced initial by the colonizers and again by subsequent community leaders has led to a situation where Kenyans themselves barely know their own culture let alone that of their neighbours. The colonial government in partnership with missionary activities and formal education wiped out most cultural practices leaving a gap that was filled by Western cultural attitudes and identification particularly by the youth.

The recent attempts at coming up with a national dress testifies to the difficult nature of Kenyans' cultural identity. The top-down formula employed rendered all process irrelevant as it only involved the urban areas hence the better educated and wealthier segments of society. The result was basically a restricted set of pre-approved national dresses and outfits with questionable aesthetic appeal to the majority of Kenyans.

Sports, Entertainment and Recreation

Soccer is a very popular sport and spectator entertainment. Teams are formed by ethnic groups, such as Gor Mahia, a Luo team, the armed forces, the police, and by corporations and parastatals, such as Kenya Breweries and Kenya Posts and Telecommunications. Boxing is an extra popular competitive sport. For the additional affluent in Kenyan society, clubs offer a lot of kinds of sports to their members, inclunding squash, swimming, tennis and cricket, which is a popular sport outside of clubs particularly part the Indian community. Safari rallies are as well very popular, if infrequent sporting events; over Easter Kenyans can enjoy the Marlboro/Epson Safari rally. Sunday afternoon in Nairobi can be spent at The Ngong Racetrack watching and betting on horse racing. Secondary schools offer a lot of sporting competitions for their students and both girls and boys take chance of this opportunity. Kenyan runners have become famous in international competition, particularly in the long distance events and have won gold medals in the Olympics.

Bao, a game involving a wooden board with a number of cups holding seeds or stones, is played throughout Kenya but it is most popular on the coast. There are annual national Bao competitions to determine the best players.

Going to the movies is very popular part young people. Kenya's large cities have theaters that show international films. Martial art and action packed movies are the majority popular, but Indian movies as well attract large audiences. In recent years, entrepreneurs have set up "movie houses" in living rooms or kiosks with a television and VCR in a lot of rural areas, particularly in and around market areas. These homespun movie houses are doing much business.

Discos are as well very popular part young people. Most cities have several discos and the major cities such as Nairobi and Nakuru boast very sophisticated discos. Some of the additional famous discos in Nairobi include Bubbles, Carnivore and Florida 2000. Here too, rural entrepreneurs with simple stereo equipment produce dances.

Music is an significant part of life in Kenya. There is a lively, informal music production and distribution of foreign and domestic tapes. Radio stations a lot of hours of music programming with a variety of European, American, and African music.

Visiting friends and relatives is the majority significant form of entertainment, particularly on weekends. Urban family members may visit their rural homes and exchange food for money or material goods from the cities.