There are more than 70 tribal groups among the Africans in Kenya. Distinctions between many of them are blurred - western cultural values are becoming more ingrained and traditional values are disintegrating. Yet, even though the average Kenyan may have outwardly drifted away from tribal traditions, the first question asked when two of them meet is 'What tribe are you from?'.
English and Swahili are the languages taught throughout the country, but there are many other tribal languages. These include Kikuyu, Luhia, Luo and Kikamba as well as a plethora of minor tribal tongues. It's useful for the traveller to have a working knowledge of Swahili, especially outside the urban areas and in remote parts of the country. Another language you'll come across is Sheng, spoken almost exclusively by the younger members of society. A fairly recent development, Sheng is a mixture of Swahili and English along with a fair sprinkling of other languages.
Most Kenyans outside the coastal and eastern provinces are Christians of one sort or another, while most of those on the coast and in the eastern part of the country are Muslim. Muslims make up some 30% of the population. In the more remote tribal areas you'll find a mixture of Muslims, Christians and those who follow their ancestral tribal beliefs.
Pre 20th Century History
The first of many human footprints to be stamped on Kenyan soil were left way back in 2000 BC by nomadic Cushitic tribes from Ethiopia. A second group followed around 1000 BC and occupied much of central Kenya. The rest of the ancestors of the country's medley of tribes arrived from all over the continent between 500 BC and AD 500. The Bantu-speaking people (such as the Gusii, Kikuyu, Akamba and Meru) arrived from West Africa while the Nilotic speakers (Maasai, Luo, Samburu and Turkana) came from the Nile Valley in southern Sudan. As tribes migrated throughout the interior, Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula and Shirazis from Persia (now Iran) settled along the East African coast from the 8th century AD onwards.
Drawn by the whiff of spices and money, the Portuguese started sniffing around in the 15th century. After venturing further and further down the western coast of Africa, Vasco da Gama finally rounded the Cape of Good Hope and headed up the continent's eastern coast in 1498. Seven years later, the Portuguese onslaught on the region began. By the 16th century, most of the indigenous Swahili trading towns, including Mombasa, had been either sacked or occupied by the Portuguese - marking the end of the Arab monopoly of the Indian Ocean trade. The Portuguese settled in for a long period of harsh colonial rule, playing one sultan off against another. But their grip on the coast was always tenuous because their outposts had to be supplied from Goa in India. Control of the coast was won back by the Arabs in 1720.
The remainder of the 18th century saw the Omani dynasties from the Persian Gulf dug in along the East African coast. The depredations of the Portuguese era and constant quarrels among the Arab governors caused a decline in trade and prosperity, which meant that economic powerhouses such as Britain and Germany weren't interested in grabbing a slice of East Africa until about the mid-19th century.
With Europeans suddenly tramping all over Africa in search of fame and fortune, even Kenya's intimidating interior was forced to give up its secrets to outsiders. Until the 1880s, the Rift Valley and the Aberdare highlands remained the heartland of the proud warrior tribe, the Maasai. By the late 19th century, years of civil war between the Maasai's two opposing factions had weakened the tribe. Disease and famine had also taken their toll. This opened the way for the English to negotiate a treaty with the Maasai laibon (chief, or spiritual leader) and begin work on the Mombasa-Uganda railway - which cut straight through the Maasai grazing lands. The halfway point of this railway is roughly where Nairobi stands today. It was downhill from here for the Maasai. As white settlers demanded more fertile land, the Maasai were herded into smaller reserves. The Kikuyu, a Bantu agricultural tribe from the highlands west of Mt Kenya, also had vast tracts of land ripped from under their feet.
White settlement in the early 20th century was initially disastrous, but - once they bothered to learn a little about the land - the British succeeded in making their colony viable. Other European settlers soon established coffee plantations and by the 1950s the white-settler population had reached about 80,000. With little choice left but to hop on the economic hamster wheel created by the Europeans, tribes such as the Kikuyu nonetheless maintained their rage. Harry Thuku, an early leader of the Kikuyu political association, was duly jailed by the British in 1922. His successor, Johnstone Kamau (later Jomo Kenyatta) was to become independent Kenya's first president.
As opposition to colonial rule grew, the Kenya African Union (KAU) emerged and became strident in its demands. Other such societies soon added their voices to the cry for freedom, including the Mau Mau, whose members (mainly Kikuyu) vowed to drive white settlers out of Kenya. The ensuing Mau Mau Rebellion ended in 1956 with the defeat of the rebels. The death toll stood at over 13,500 Africans - Mau Mau guerrillas, civilians and troops - and just over 100 Europeans.
Kenyatta spent years in jail or under house arrest but was freed in 1961 and became leader of the reincarnated KAU, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). He ushered in independence on 12 December 1963, and under his presidency the country developed into one of Africa's most stable and prosperous nations. Kenyatta was succeeded after his death in 1978 by Daniel Arap Moi, a member of the Tugen tribe.
In 2002 Moi decided to retire on very generous retirement benefits. At the December 2002 elections, KANU was routed by the National Rainbow Coalition, led by Mwai Kibaki. This brought about a feeling of new optimism in the country.