Customs of Kenya

Marriage and Family

Whether young people choose their own spouses varies according to the community—in some, families are responsible for the selection. Educated couples tend to marry later than those who have not continued their studies past primary school. The dowry system, in which a payment of money or livestock is made by the groom’s family to the bride’s family, is still common, but the practice varies enormously from area to area and has changed significantly in recent decades. Among some groups, specific gifts must be given in order for a marriage to be fully recognized. Grooms and their families may give a larger dowry (in gifts and cash) to the bride's family if the bride is well-educated, and this dowry is considered more a sign of appreciation than a gift of obligation. Welfare institutions and churches might also contribute to a dowry. Families and friends help organize and pay for the wedding.

The family unit is usually large and includes the extended family, although in urban areas families tend to be smaller and nuclear families are more common. Family members, particularly those who have the financial means to do so, care for the elderly. It is common to call maternal aunts mamdogo (mother) and paternal uncles ami (father). These are Kiswahili terms. Most households continue to be male dominated, and most economically active women work in the agricultural sector. However, women have a higher rate of literacy in Kenya than in most other African countries, and women's numbers in higher education have increased.


Ugali (a stiff dough) or uji (porridge) made from maize meal, millet, or sorghum flour are traditional staple foods in some communities. Ugali is eaten with a stew that might include goat, beef, lamb, chicken, fish, beans, or other vegetables, depending on what foods are available. Meat is expensive and is often saved for special occasions. Fish is also expensive, outside of fishing communities. Rice, kitumbua (rice-flour fritters), and chapati (flat bread) are also eaten, particularly on the coast. Bananas, pineapples, mangoes, oranges, papayas, and avocados are popular fruits. Kale, green peas, and cabbage are some of the more commonly eaten vegetables.


In urban centers and among the educated, greetings in English are acceptable. In Kiswahili, the most common greeting is Hujambo! Habari gani? (literally, “Are you fine? What news?”), to which the reply is often Mzuri ('I am fine'), or Mzuri, asante sana ('I am fine, thank you very much'). In coastal cities, a simple Hujambo! is a common casual greeting. Greetings are often extended by inquiries about the well-being of one’s family, news of the weather, or where one has come from. When parting, Kiswahili-speaking Kenyans might say Tuta onana (“We will meet”) or, if it is evening, Jioni jema ('Have a nice evening') or Lala salama (“Sleep peacefully”). Handshakes are acceptable in cities and among certain ethnic groups.

Family members and friends often drop in on one another, and Sunday is a popular day for making visits. Kenyans make every effort to ensure that guests are comfortable—even at the expense of their own comfort. Gift-giving is important among relatives and friends, and it is always appreciated when foreign visitors bring a gift from abroad.


Soccer is the most popular team sport in Kenya; highly organized, although poorly equipped, soccer leagues operate in even the poorest areas. Track and field activities are also popular, and some of the world’s best athletes (notably distance runners) have come from Kenya. Many people enjoy wrestling, tug-of-war, and checkers. A board game called bao or ajua, which uses seeds or pebbles, is traditional in some communities. Field hockey, cricket, and croquet—sports introduced during the country’s colonial days—are played in many big cities.

The Kenyan National Theatre offers drama, concerts, and dance programs. Storytelling, riddles, and proverbs are much enjoyed in rural areas, and cinemas and nightclubs are popular in cities.

In some communities, traditional values emphasize coexistence with animals and drought is considered a result of the unnecessary killing of animals. National parks and game reserves cover 6.2 percent (1997) of the country’s total land area, hunting has been banned since 1977, and Kenya has been in the forefront of the fight against the illegal ivory trade. Many tourists come to visit Kenya’s safari areas, drawn by the opportunity to see zebras, lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes, gazelles, and monkeys. National parks and game reserves cover more than 6 percent (1997) of the country’s total land area.

Holidays and Celebrations

Kenya celebrates New Year’s Day (1 January); Easter (Friday through Monday); Labor Day (1 May); Madaraka, or Self-Rule Day (1 June), marking the birth of the republic; Moi Day (10 October), honoring President Daniel T. arap Moi; Kenyatta Day (20 October), celebrating the day in 1952 when Jomo Kenyatta was arrested for opposing British authorities; Jamhuri or Independence Day (12 December); Christmas Day (25 December); and Boxing Day (26 December). Boxing Day derives from an old British custom of giving small boxed gifts to servants and tradespeople on the day after Christmas. Official holidays are often marked by church services, parades, and other festivities. For the Muslim population, the country also observes the three-day feast at the end of the month of Ramadhan (Ramadan) called Idi-el-fitr. The first day is an official holiday for Muslims, but celebrations on the next two days occur after working hours.

Jamhuri, which commemorates Kenya’s liberation from British rule in 1963, is the most important national holiday. Although this day is celebrated nationwide, with the presidential speech delivered by local government leaders, Nairobi hosts the most grandiose festivities. In addition to speeches by the president and other officials, there are parades and fireworks, and special dances are performed in public squares. Madaraka Day marks the transfer of government control from the British to the Kenyans just prior to the nation’s independence in 1963.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas