Kenya History, Language and Culture

History of Kenya

Kenya has seen human habitation since the beginning of the Lower Palaeolithic period – the earliest subdivision of the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age. The Bantu expansion (a major series of migrations of the original proto-Bantu language speaking group) from a West African centre reached the area by the 1st millennium AD.

Over the past few millennia, Kenya has been settled by a large number of migrants from all over Africa, among the most recent arrivals being the Maasai, who crossed from present-day South Sudan in the 17th century. The mediaeval Kenyan coast was a prosperous maritime trade centre serving ships from Arabia and Asia. Many modern ports, including Lamu and Mombasa, date from this era. The Portuguese arrived on the coast in the early 16th century, followed by Omani Arabs in the 18th century, and the British in the mid-19th century.

It was only in the 1890s that outsiders penetrated far into the interior, resulting in the British construction of the 'Lunatic Line' from Mombasa to Kampala (Uganda). Nairobi, founded as a staging point along this railway line, became the headquarters of the British colonial administration.

In the early 20th century, the fertile highlands around Nairobi attracted an influx of European settlers. This resulted in a liberation movement demanding greater territorial, economic and political rights for locals. Led by Jomo Kenyatta, the fight for independence gathered pace after World War II, culminating in the 1950s with a bloody three-year guerrilla war between the Mau Mau and the British colonial authorities.

Kenya was granted independence in 1963, and the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), led by Kenyatta, took power. Kenyatta died in 1978, and was succeeded by Daniel Arap Moi, an autocrat who banned opposition parties outright in 1982. A multi-party system was restored in the early 1990s, but Moi remained in power until the 2002 election, which was won by the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC), led by Mwai Kibaki, who became the country's third president.

Over the past few years, Kenya has been plagued by terrorism. In April 2015, Al-Shabab militants carried out a massacre at Garissa University College in northwest Kenya, killing 148 people, and in January 2016, Al-Shabab claims to have killed more than 100 Kenyan soldiers in a dawn raid on a base in southern Somalia. Despite unrest, Kenya continues to invest in infrastructure projects including the multi-billion-dollar railway line linking Mombasa to the capital Nairobi and pushing for tourism.

Did you know?
• In 2004 Wangari Mutu Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to her for her contribution towards sustainable development, peace and democracy. She died in 2011 of complications from Ovarian cancer.
• In the London Marathon 2019, Kenya runner Eliud Kipchoge became the first man to win four London Marathons, and set a new record of 2:02:37.
• 2,493 railway workers were killed, many by lions, while building the Lunatic Line in the late 1800s during the Scramble for Africa.

Kenya Culture


About 80% of Kenya's population is Christian (mostly Catholic and Protestant); Muslim 11% and others 6%.

Language in Kenya

Swahili and English are the two official languages in Kenya. Kikuyu and Luhya are widely spoken.

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