The Language and Culture of Kenya
Kenya, known for its landscapes and wildlife preserves, draws tourists from Europe and North America.
The country is located in East Africa, with a land area of 580,367 square kilometers (224,081 sq. mi). Kenya is the world’s 48th largest country by area and has a population of about 56.9 million, based on recent statistics after the 2019 census.
Nairobi is the country’s capital city and the largest city, followed by the coastal town, Mombasa, the oldest and second-largest city. Even with the relatively minor population of the country, Kenya has the third largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, just behind Nigeria and South Africa.
Population of Kenya
Indigenous Africans account for around 98% of the Kenyan population and are split into three primary cultural and linguistic groups: Bantu, Nilotic, and Cushitic. The remaining 2% of the population is divided between Kenyan Arabs and Kenyan Europeans.
Contrary to popular belief, while the Cushitic and Nilotic people control most of the country’s land area, the Bantu (about 70% of the population) make up most of the population. The three major ethnic groups in the country are Kikuyu (the largest, with 17% of the total population), Luhya, and Luo.
There are subdivisions under each prominent tribe, e.g., under the Nilotes, the Luo (stay adjacent to Lake Victoria), Turkana, Maasai, Pokot, Nandi, Kipsigis, and Turgen peoples. All of them occupy the area between Lake Rudolf and the border of Tanzania.
With a population of about 56,950,513, Kenya is known as a secular country. The constitution also allows for freedom of religion, even though Christianity is the country’s most practiced religion, with 85.52% of the total population. Islam is practiced by 10.91%, and other faiths practiced in Kenya are Baháʼí, Buddhism, Hinduism, and traditional religions make up the remaining 3.57%.
National and Local Languages of Kenya
More than 68 languages are spoken in Kenya, and the two lingua franca of the country are Bantu Swahili and English. As second-language speakers, there are more Swahili speakers than English speakers.
Most Kenyans speak the language of their mother tongue within their local communities, but British English is the primary language for official communications in Kenya. Additionally, a distinct local dialect, Kenyan English, is used by some communities and individuals in the country and contains features unique to it that are derived from local Bantu languages such as Kiswahili and Kikuyu.
Languages in Kenya are grouped into three broad language families: Niger-Congo (Bantu branch), Nilo-Saharan (Nilotic branch), and Afroasiatic language spoken by the country’s Bantu, Nilotic populations, and the Cushitic family, respectively.
- Niger-Congo (Bantu branch): considered the world’s largest group in terms of native language speakers, and amongst the 700 million speakers who speak the language, the Bantu branch contributes about 350 million people, which is half of the entire Niger-Congo population.
- Nilo-Saharan (Nilotic branch): the most prominent tribe that speaks the languages classified under the Nilo-Saharan is the Luo tribe (also called Dholuo), and about 4.4 million people out of the 50-60 million Nilo-Saharan speakers are from this tribe.
- Afroasiatic (Cushitic branch): as the earliest tribe to set foot in Kenya, the Cushitic tribe and a majority of people speaking this language has been absorbed by both the Bantu and the Nilotic tribes.
Kenyan Culture and Values
From its ethnic groups, constitution, and the country’s flag, it is clear to see Kenyans’ values depicted in their cultural values.
The national flag of Kenya consists of a symmetrical shield and white spears superimposed in the middle of three horizontal bars of equal width in the colors of black (top), red (center), and green (bottom), flowing from left to right.
Black represents Kenyans red blood poured in the struggle for independence, green represents Kenya’s fertile agricultural land and abundant natural resources, and white represents tranquillity.
The two spears, the traditional Maasai warrior shield, and the color white were added to the flag after Kenya gained independence. The shield and the two spears represent the constant readiness of Kenyans to protect the freedom they have worked so hard to achieve.
In Kenya, a vital thing is how you address people; even if you have known each other for a while, you need to wait until the Kenyan gives you their go-ahead before addressing the person with their first name alone or nickname.
When greeting an elder or someone of higher status, grasp the right wrist with the left hand while shaking hands to demonstrate respect.
The most common type of greeting is a handshake, but you can give each other warm hugs if you have a very close relationship. It is crucial to give gifts or any item with your right hand or both hands; it is considered improper to use your left hand.
For a country such as Kenya, it is no surprise that the food in the country is exceptional, and below, you will find some of those meals and their unique origins.
Ugali (Cornmeal Staple):
Ugali, a dish made from cornmeal boiled in water that has been brought to a boil, is unquestionably the most popular food in Kenya. There is a famous saying that it is a dense block of cornmeal paste.
Irio (Mashed Peas and Potato Mix):
One of Kenya’s most well-known foods is Irio, which began as a Kikuyu staple before becoming popular across the nation.
Infinite Nazi (Coconut Rice):
On the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya, coconut rice is most widely consumed. To add flavor to ordinary boiled white rice, grated coconut meat is added throughout the cooking process.
- Matoke (Plantain Banana Stew):
Originally from Uganda, matoke is now readily available and well-liked in Kenya.
Plantain bananas are cooked in a pot that includes oil, tomatoes, onions, garlic, chiles, meat (optional), and lemon juice. The bananas are boiled until they are mushy and combined with the remaining ingredients to produce a thick sauce.
The Indigenous fashion of Kenya is highly varied due to the high number of ethnic groups in the country, and below are some of the most popular ones;
It is made of cotton that has been elaborately embroidered and tie-dyed to add color (when the fabric is clothed into a tight bundle and then dyed with various colors). Because kitenge is so vibrant and vivid, it is well-liked in Kenya and many other African nations. Despite not being an official Kenyan garment, this dress is trendy there.
Frequently regarded as the traditional clothing of Kenya and the Masai tribe, the Masaire dress consists of red kanga and other vivid accessories, such as necklaces, bracelets, and beaded headdresses. Masai men hold a peculiar club with a ball end and wear a red-checked Shuka, a traditional Masai blanket.
The sandals, constructed of natural materials, are what we should refer to as traditional footwear in Kenya. They are easy and practical. As a sole, motorcycle tire fragments are occasionally used.
Kenyan men and women have short haircuts and frequently shave their heads; males often use red ochre to color their hair. Kenyans frequently decorate their faces with drawings for rituals and other significant occasions.
Family Life in Kenya
In regular life in Kenya, there is a significant emphasis placed on every child to start a family when they come of age. Regularly extended families are actively involved in every part of the family.
As a culture in the country, children are required to call their maternal aunts ‘younger mother’ or ‘older mother,’ depending on the aunt’s age with the child’s mother’s age.
Another factor that contributes to the tightly-knit nature of the country is the highly patriarchal society which enabled an obvious gender role definition in the community, which in turn led to the reasonably good upbringing of children in comparison to the rest of the world.
Common Kenyan Expressions and Translations
Many terms make up the entire Kenyan vocabulary, and most of them are used depending on the region you are in, i.e., Swahili is ubiquitous in the Bantu-populated areas.
Jambo: this is the most common greeting, and it means “How are you.” It is said before you give someone a handshake.
Mzee is the term used to greet a man over 40 years old. It is often used to acknowledge the age, wisdom, and experience they’ve garnered.
Habari Gani: Good morning/How are you?
Habari Yako: Greeting an elderly person
Nzuri: I’m fine
Pole or pole sana: Sorry
Asante Sana: Thank you
Unaitwa Nani?: What’s your name?
Jina langu ni: My name is
Safari njema: Safe journey
Hapana Asante Sana: No, thank you very much
Jambo, Habari?: Hello, how are you?
Lala salama: Good night
Muzungu: the term used to describe a foreigner
Translating for the Kenyan Market
The primary languages spoken in Kenya are English and Kiswahili. Luhya, Kikuyu, and Luo are other regional languages in the country. For an organization/company looking to launch its products or services in the Kenyan market, the best and most widely spoken language is Swahili (spoken by nearly 100% of the population, but there are about seven sub-dialects). Shown below are the classifications and sub-divisions of the dialects.
- Kikuyu 8.1 million
- Kamba 4.7 million
- Luhya 3.3 million
- Gusii 2.7 million
- Meru 2.0 million
- Mijikenda/Giriama ca. 1 million
- Dholuo: 5.0 million
- Kalenjin languages: 6.7 million (Kipsigis 1.9 million, Nandi 940,000)
- Maasai 1.2 million (1.9 million including Tanzania)
- Turkana 1.0 million
- Oromo (over 48 million incl. Ethiopia)
- Borana, 3.4 million speakers in 2010
- Orma, 659,000 speakers in 2015
- Somali 2.8 million (22 million incl. Ethiopia and Somalia)
Depending on the type of translation and the number of words, the translation costs for these languages may vary; you can get a real-time estimate of these costs using our translation quick quote calculator.
Doing Business in Kenya
There are several factors to consider when doing business in Kenya, and the most important are listed below;
- Appointments should be scheduled at least two weeks ahead of time. Confirming the meeting time and date two or three days in advance is critical.
- Titles are essential in Kenyan business culture. People will introduce themselves by their academic, professional, or honorific title, followed by their surname.
- ‘Swahili Time’ is commonly used in Kenyan business. It is generally assumed that if a meeting is scheduled to begin at 8:00 a.m., it will start properly at 9:00 am. Similarly, if you arrive late for a business meeting, it is uncommon for someone to be irritated, especially if you notify them ahead of time that you may be late.
Kenyan Holidays and Special Celebrations
Madaraka – June 1st:
The Swahili word for ‘power’ is Madaraka. Madaraka Day is a national holiday commemorating Kenya’s attainment of internal self-rule from British colonial powers in 1963.
Mashujaa October 20th:
Mashujaa is the Swahili word for ‘Heroes,’ and as a result, Mashujaa Day is also known as ‘Heroes’ Day. This important day, which honors all who have contributed to Kenya’s freedom struggle, is a national holiday in the country.
The 12th of December is Independence Day, commemorating the freedom/independence from The British Empire.
But these are but a few of the special celebrations that are practiced in the country, as each ethnic group has events unique to them alone, but those listed above are the special ones that affect the whole country also, and also bear a considerable significance in the overall culture of the country.
As an essential part of each country’s culture and set of values, language and how we communicate can determine the success or failure of a business venture.
While English and Swahili are the official languages, your services, and target audience will determine the languages you should employ to market your services to gain the largest market share. Studies have shown that consumers are more likely to purchase products and services marketed in their language. Materials related to healthcare and services may require translation into more specific languages to reach the various groups of the region. To localize your content to the Kenyan market, consider optimizing your product by adding Swahili to the languages available on your website.
It is important to remember that professional translators should complete quality translations. A qualified language service provider (LSP) has processes to qualify translators and provide high-level translation support. Additionally, they can provide SEO (search engine optimization) services to ensure your website is visible on the correct search engines.