Kenyan traditions and customs

What traditions and customs are there in Kenya?

We reveal the customs and traditions of Kenya, an African country.


Food in daily life

Maize (or maize) is the staple food of Kenyans. It is ground into flour and prepared as a porridge called posho, which is sometimes mixed with mashed beans, potatoes, and vegetables, to make a dish called irio. Another popular food is a beef stew called ugali.

This is eaten in a large pot and each diner takes a piece of ugali, which they use as a spoon to scoop up beans and other vegetables. Boiled vegetables, called mboga, are a common accompaniment. Banana porridge, called matoke, is another common dish.

Meat is expensive and rarely eaten. Herders depend on milk as their main food, and fish is popular on the coast and around Lake Victoria.

Mombasa is known for its Indian foods brought over by the many immigrants from the subcontinent, including curries, samosas, and chapatti, a fried bread. Snacks include corn on the cob, mandazi (fried dough), chips, and peanuts.

Tea mixed with milk and sugar is a common drink. Palm wine is another popular libation, especially in Mombasa. Beer is ubiquitous, most of which is produced locally by Kenyan breweries. A special type of beer, made with honey, is called uki.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

For special occasions, it is customary to kill and roast a goat. Other meats, including sheep and beef, are also served at the celebrations. The special dish is called nyama choma, which translates to “burnt meat.”


Polygamy is traditional, and in the past it was not uncommon for men to have five or six wives. The practice is becoming less typical today as it has been shunned by Christian missionaries, and increasingly impractical as few men can afford to support multiple partners.

When a man chooses a potential wife, he negotiates the price of money or cattle with the woman’s father. The price is generally higher for a first wife than for subsequent ones. The wedding ceremony and party are held at the husband’s house.


Kenyans are generally friendly and hospitable. Greetings are an important social interaction, and often include questions about health and family members. Visitors to a home are usually offered food or tea, and it is considered impolite to refuse. Older people are treated with great respect and deference.


Religious beliefs

The population is 38 percent Protestant and 28 percent Roman Catholic. Twenty-six percent are animists, seven percent are Muslims, and one percent follow other religions. Many people incorporate traditional beliefs into their practice of Christianity, causing some tension between Kenyans and Christian churches, particularly over the issue of polygamy.

The religious practices of the different ethnic groups vary, but a common element is the belief in a spiritual world inhabited by the souls of the ancestors. The Kikuyu and various other groups worship the god Ngai, who is said to live on top of Mount Kenya.

Religious professionals

In traditional religions, fortune tellers are believed to have the power to communicate with the spirit world, and use their powers to cure people of illnesses or evil spirits. Fortune tellers are also called upon to help bring rain during times of drought.

Sorcerers and witches are also believed to have supernatural powers, but unlike fortune tellers, they use these powers to cause harm. It is the job of the diviners to counteract its malfunction.

Rituals and sacred places

Among the Maasai, the beginning of the rainy season is observed with a celebration that lasts for several days and includes singing, dancing, eating and praying for the health of their animals. For ritual dances, performers dye their hair red, paint black stripes on their bodies, and wear ostrich feather headdresses.

The Kikuyu mark the beginning of the planting season with their own festivities. Their ceremonial dances are usually performed by warriors wearing leopard or zebra skin robes and carrying spears and shields. The dancers dye their bodies blue and paint them white.

Initiation ceremonies are important rites of passage and vary from tribe to tribe. Boys and girls undergo separate rituals, after which they are considered of marriageable age. Kikuyu boys, for example, are initiated at the age of eighteen.

Their ears are pierced, their heads shaved, and their faces marked with white dirt. Pokot girls are initiated at twelve years of age, in a ceremony that involves singing, dancing, and decorating their bodies with ochre, red clay, and animal fat.

Weddings are important occasions throughout the country, celebrated with up to eight days of music, dancing, and special foods.

Death and the afterlife

When dying, Kenyans believe that one enters the spiritual world, which has great influence on the world of the living. Many Kenyans believe in reincarnation, with children believed to be the incarnation of the souls of ancestors in a family.

Secular celebrations

New Year’s Day is celebrated on January 1 and Labor Day on May 1. Other holidays include the anniversary of Madaraka’s self-government, June 1; Moi Day, which commemorates the inauguration of the president, on October 10; Independence Day, also called Jamhuri Day, on December 12; Kenyatta Day, which celebrates Jomo Kenyatta as the national hero, on October 20.

Also called Harambee Day, this festival includes a grand parade in the capital and celebrations across the country.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

The National Gallery in Nairobi has a special gallery and studio for emerging artists. The University of Nairobi also supports a national traveling theater company.


Kenya has a strong oral tradition. Many folk tales refer to animals or the intervention of spirits in everyday life; others are war stories detailing the bravery of soldiers.

The stories are passed down from generation to generation, often in the form of songs. Contemporary Kenyan literature draws heavily on this oral heritage as well as the Western literary tradition.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kikuyu, is Kenya’s most prominent writer. His early novels, including Weep Not, Child (1964) and Petals of Blood (1977) were written in English.

Although they were strong messages of social protest, it was not until he started writing exclusively in Swahili and Kikuyu that Ngugi became a victim of censorship. He was imprisoned for a year, then exiled to England. Other contemporary Kenyan writers, such as Sam Kahiga, Meja Mwangi, and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, are less explicitly political in his work.

Graphic arts

Kenya is known for its sculptures and woodcarvings, which often have religious significance. Ancestor figures are believed to appease denizens of the spirit world, as are the elaborately carved amulets that Kenyans wear around their necks.

In addition to wood, the sculptors also work in ivory and gold. Contemporary sculptors often mix traditional styles with more modern styles.

Artists also create the colorful masks and headdresses worn during traditional dances, often designed to represent birds or other animals. Jewelry is another Kenyan art form, and includes elaborate silver and gold bracelets and various forms of colored beads.

In some tribes, including the Kikuyu and Luhya, women make pottery and make decorated baskets.

Performing arts

Dancing is an important part of Kenyan culture. Men and women usually dance separately. The men perform line dances, some of which involve competing to see who can jump the highest. Dance is often an element of religious ceremonies, such as marriage, child naming, and initiation.

Costume is an important element of many traditional dances, as are props: dancers often wear masks and carry shields, swords, and other items.

Kenyan music is polyrhythmic, incorporating several different rhythms simultaneously. The main instruments are drums, but lutes, woodwinds, and thumb pianos are also used. Singing often follows a call-and-response pattern, with singers singing rhythms that differ from those played on instruments.

Kikuyu music is relatively simple; the main instrument is the gicandi, a rattle made from a gourd. Other groups, such as the Luhya, have more complex musical and dance traditions, incorporating a variety of instruments.

In the cities, benga, a fusion of Western and Kenyan music, is popular. Benga was originated by the Luo in the 1950s, and incorporates two traditional instruments, the nyatiti, a small stringed instrument, and the orutu, a one-string violin, as well as the electric guitar.

Taarab music, which is popular along the coast, shows both Arabic and Indian influence. It is sung by women, with drums, acoustic guitar, a small organ, and sometimes a string section accompanying the female singers.

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