Kenya: contrasting cultures – Masai to Maulidi

Anver Versi

Kenyan culture is a fascinating melting pot, taking in everything from camel derbies in its desert regions to traditional dancing in its villages and beer gardens on the coast 

Kenya is astonishingly diverse. It stretches from the semi-arid north, where it borders Somalia, to the vast grasslands of the south leading to the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Tall coconut palm trees swaying in the breeze flank acres of blindingly white beaches along the eastern coastline, rising to the Nyika Plateau and on to the great craggy gash of the Rift Valley where the majestic Mount Kenya’s needle-sharp pinnacle pierces the clouds before the ground falls away towards Lake Victoria in the west. 

Over a single day, temperatures can vary from boiling hot in the Lake Turkana region to below freezing on the slopes of Mount Kenya; from stifling humidity at the coast to the equivalent of a mild English summer’s day in the highlands. This geological jumble, all crammed into one country, has produced the wondrous varieties of flora and fauna for which Kenya is so famous. It has also spawned an equally splendid diversity of peoples and their cultures. 

The coast of Kenya extends roughly ten miles into the hinterland, before it begins to rise to the forbidding Nyika Plateau, which for centuries formed a natural barrier to the interior. Until independence in the 1960s, the coast was part of the Sultan of Zanzibar’s dominion, although it was administered by the British as a protectorate. It used to be said by travellers from the interior that “the coast is a different country”. This was where the Swahili of mixed Arab and African ancestry reigned supreme. They built large stone houses along narrow, winding lanes (the better to deter attacks) that often presented a blank face to the world – save for the extravagantly carved and decorated doors. 

The inside of the houses was large – often complete with their own wells and gardens. Intricate plasterwork decorated the walls and ceilings, while carpets, brought by dhows from Shiraz and Isfahan in Iran, covered the floors and brass-studded chests from Gujarat held family treasures. Although few of these magnificent houses remain in their original state today, you can still feel yourself being transported back in time when you visit Mombasa’s old port – once brimming with dhows as far as the eye could see, brought here by the annual monsoons from Arabia, India and Iran. A stroll through the narrow streets, where intricately carved balconies seem to lean over and whisper to each other, takes you to the heart of Mvita, the Swahili name for Mombasa. 

The largely Muslim Swahili, whose language is now the lingua franca in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and part of the DRC, had their own culture and their own alphabet. They loved writing and reciting poetry and old timers still remember, with great nostalgia, the musical soirées in grand mansions as the tarab singers, their voices quivering with emotion, sang about unrequited love. It is hardly surprising that Kenya’s best-loved song, Malaika, later made internationally famous by Miriam Makeba, is said to have been written by a coastal Mswahili pining for his love. 

Set on an island, the town of Lamu in the north of the country has retained most of its Swahili culture. At last count, there was only one car on the island. Every year, it hosts the biggest Maulidi festival on the African coast to celebrate the birthday of the Holy Prophet of Islam. Processions made up of men holding each other by the waist, forming lines, explode into Zikirs (religious chanting) praising the prophet, wending their way past the seafront to the main mosque, accompanied by celebrating children and thoughtful-looking donkeys. 

Women clad in black buibuis with only their (often expertly made-up) eyes showing, cast amorous thunderbolts on the young men. Having been ‘slain by one look’, as many young men will tell you, they ‘let the uji (porridge) hang out’ and engage in vigorous stick fights to impress the unknown beauties hidden in the enveloping buibuis. 

The cuisine of the coast, an age-old fusion of Indian, Persian, Arabic and even Portuguese, is legendary. The coconut in all its different forms is an essential ingredient in the fabulous sauces that coat chicken, fish and prawns. Meals can have several courses, culminating in a rice dish, a pilau or a biryani, and can last for hours. 

Further away from the coast, traditional culture is still alive and well in the villages. Each village tends to have its own style of songs, accompanied by drums, rattles and whistles, and dance. The Giriama, for example, burst into one of the most vigorous displays I have ever seen, their shoulders, hips, arms and legs moving in perfect rhythm to the pounding drums and shrill whistles. I was fascinated by a dance by the Kamba people in which couples, dressed in what looked like fanciful Western clothes, topped with a tall hat made of wool, danced as if it were a waltz. Perhaps they were lampooning early European settlers as the dance would be interrupted by several comical interludes, which invariably sent the audience into fits of laughter. 

A camel derby in the semi-desert reaches near the town of Maralal draws thousands of enthusiasts from as far away as Egypt and the UAE every year. The racing is very spirited and is followed by feasts and much merrymaking before the town returns to its somnambulant norm. In urban and semiurban areas, bars, beer gardens and clubs provide the backdrop for live music, often Congolese, and the chance to meet friends and discuss current issues over a crate or two of the excellent Tusker brewed in Kenya and quaffed with helpings of nyama choma – roast goat sprinkled with chilli powder and salt. 

Kenya has a thriving literary and theatrical culture and has produced at least one of the great African writers – Ngugi wa Thiongo, who is strongly tipped to win the next Nobel Prize for literature. 

As cities expand and become more mixed, many of the distinct cultural traits of the various ethnic groups are being eroded. For example, many traditional dances are often plucked out of their natural environments and staged to entertain tourists. But there are still many places, often accessible only by bicycle or motorcycle, where traditional ways of doing things and celebrating life, love, marriage, birth, rites of passage and death are still retained in their pristine condition. The experience is well worth going the extra, often arduous, mile.

About the author:

Anver Versi is the editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


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