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Country Profile: Kenya

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People


Background
 
The earliest ancestors of man may well have originated as far back as 12 million years ago in what is now Kenya, or just across the borders. More immediate ancestors of mankind from the australopithecine branch have been traced back more than 2.6 million years in the Lake Turkana region. Research into the present species of humankind has been less conclusive, with some scattered remains pointing to evidence of a Stone Age civilization from approximately 16,000 before the common era, or B.C.E. What the archeological record demonstrates with certainty, however, is that modern men and women can all trace their ancestry to the continent of Africa and East Africa in particular.
 
In 2000 new fossils had been discovered in Baringo district in the Rift Valley suggesting that hominids were living in the area more than five million years ago. This is another archaeological challenge indicating the existence of ancient human life. As it has previously been known, earliest claimed hominids aged about 4.5 million years were discovered at Aramis, Ethiopia.
 

Cultural Legacy
 
Kenya is in many ways a cultural microcosm of Africa. Over the past centuries, people from many parts of the continent and beyond have been migrating to Kenya, each bringing distinctive features of their own culture and language to weave into the cultural fabric of Kenya. Among the main strands of these disparate streams of people are three main groupings: Bantu, Cushitic and Nilotic. The interplay of these countless migratory movements produced a vibrant and colorful mosaic of 30 million people and their cultural histories.
 
From the Indian Ocean to the shores of Lake Victoria and from the southern plains through the Rift Valley to the vast desert expanse in the north, Kenyans have had to adapt their cultures and customs to the physical environment around them. The oldest of the ethnic groups inhabiting Kenya were originally hunters and gatherers, and their descendants still practice many of the ancient techniques today. This is not to say that they are inherently primitive but that aspects of their technology may well be regarded as such.
 
The fact that there were true hunter-gatherers in Kenya is undisputed. Similarly certain is the previous existence of a bushman-type people, although there are no true bushmen in Kenya today. Quite possibly there were hunter-gatherers of still other stock as well. Kikuyu legends, for instance, talk of pygmies, the Agumba, living in the forests to which the Kikuyu migrated.

Bantu people came to Kenya, probably from what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, during the first millennium. They introduced iron smelting and the use of iron tools in Kenya.
 
They were mainly agriculture oriented and cleared large tracts of land for cultivation. The migration was not sudden but a continuous process, which took almost 2,000 years. The new comers displaced and many times fused with the previous hunters-gatherers or with previous Bantu immigrants. There was an extensive intermingling with southern Cushites from which some Bantu people adopted pastoral practices and some agricultural techniques.
 
The Yaaku (also known as the Mokugodo or the Mokokodo) today represents the eastern Cushitic people. They were originally hunters and cultivators, but due to the exposure and influence of the Maasai, they turned to animal husbandry. The name "Yaaku" is a southern Nilotic term for hunting people. They live near Doldol northwest of Mount Kenya. The Somali migrated from southern Ethiopia into the tip of the horn of Africa and to the Tana River in the south. The Somali speakers preceded the Galla speakers into the area between the Juba and the Tana Rivers. These Somali speakers were then called the Garre.
 
Interestingly, some of the smallest groups of Cushitic-speaking Kenyans occupy the largest land area in the north of the country. These people, who make up roughly three percent of the country, lead a nomadic existence in a harsh and arid climate, roaming the northern regions of the country.
 
Further to the south, Kenyans speaking Bantu and Nilotic languages live in fixed settlements on more fertile and productive lands. The descendants of the Nilotic migrants include the Luo, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu and the Kalenjin. Originally, all of these groupings were pastoralists, but disease and environmental devastation forced some of them to adopt more sedentary patterns. These three cultural and language groupings bind together the cultural tapestry of over 30 distinct ethnic groups.
 
The richness of this tapestry is exemplified in one of Kenya's national languages, Swahili, which emerged as a lingua franca for trade between the different peoples. The language is a mixture of Bantu syntax and Arabic vocabulary, which played an important role in the growing Arab dominance on the coast and in the interior trading routes until the 16th century. Although the Arab dominance began to wane after the European era began in the late 15th century, the language remained still serves as an important unifying force amongst disparate groups.
 
In terms of religion, the vast majority of Kenyans are Christians although there both Protestants and Roman Catholic are represented.  Animist indigenous beliefs are practiced by about a tenth of the population, with an equivalent portion being followers of Islam. The prevalence of Christianity is attributable to Kenya's colonial past.  

 
Human Development
 
Today, Kenya's population totals well over 36 million. The population growth rate is 2.79 percent and the fertility rate for women is 4.7 children born  per woman. In terms of health and welfare, Kenya's infant mortality rate is  56.01 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to recent estimates. Life expectancy at birth for the total population is 56.6 years of age, according to recent estimates. The literacy rate for the total population is 85.1 percent, and is not gender balanced. While 90.6 percent of males are functionally literate, a significantly lower rate of 79.7 percent is attributable to females.
 
Note that seven percent of GDP in this country is spent on educational expenditures;  12. 2 percent of GDP is spent on health expenditures. 
 
The degree of risk of infectious diseases in Kenya is high. Food or waterborne diseases include bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever; vectorborne diseases include malaria and Rift Valley fever; water contact diseases include schistosomiasis; animal contact diseases include rabies.
 
One notable indicator used to measure a country's quality of life is the Human Development Index (HDI), which is compiled annually since 1990 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The HDI is a composite of several indicators, which measure a country's achievements in three main areas of human development: longevity, knowledge and education, as well as economic standard of living. In a ranking of 169 countries and territories, the HDI places Kenya in the low human development category, at 128th place.

Note: Although the concept of human development is complicated and cannot be properly captured by values and indices, the HDI, which is calculated and updated annually, offers a wide-ranging assessment of human development in certain countries, not based solely upon traditional economic and financial indicators.

 
Written by Dr. Denise Youngblood Coleman, Editor in Chief at CountryWatch.com; see Bibliography for research sources.