Kenya History and Its People

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On this page you learn about Kenya history from time immemorial up to present day.

Some of earliest historical records about Kenya include:

- In 45 A.D, Hippalus, a Roman sailor, was pushed to the East African coast by the monsoon winds. This marked the beginning of the Roman Empire trade and exploration conquest.

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an important discovery of the East African coast was written by an unknown Greek in the 1st century. It was a navigation guidebook dealing mainly with descriptions of places, conditions and trade; it had little information about East Africa's people.

- The "Geographia" by Ptolemy, a Greek, was written in the 2nd century. It described more trading posts along the Somali and Kenyan coastline.

- In the 7th and 10th Century, two Arabs explorers, Al Masudi and Ibn Batuta wrote about the East African coast.

Most of Kenya's history and culture has revolved around one core catalyst: TRADE

Many of the tribe's present in Kenya participated in trade. Trade was very important because it gave rise to a cultures, and a way of life when people got together to engage in business.

Trade also promoted the rise of town and cities, which created settlement and employment, which result to the need to form governments and council to run these establishments. Trade in everyday goods was common among all communities.

Essential items available only from certain communities were exchanged over greater distances. Such items required specialized skills to manufacture, example salt and iron. Important trade items included salt, iron, pottery, copper, cattle and foodstuffs. For example:

Salt was quite rare and much in demand. The Luo bartered salt for finger millet from the Abagusii. The Vinza of Western Tanzania exchanged salt from their brine springs, with digging hoes and cattle from the Nyamwezi.

Iron was very useful and much in demand. The Lango exchanged iron hoes for Banyoro livestock. The Ha and Zinza of northern Tanzania exchanged iron hoes, tools and weapons for Nyamwezi cattle. The Nyamwezi then bartered the hoes for ivory with other communities.

The Nyamwezi brought copper all the way inland from the Katanga copper-producing region. They sold some to the Ha and Sumbwa, who used it to hand-make ornaments. Some Luos of Western Kenya were expert potters and sold all sorts of useful pots.'

Many kinds of extra foodstuffs were traded among communities. Cows, sheep, goats and other domestic animals were also traded. For example, the Kikuyu exchanged food for Maasai cattle.

Archaeological remains in places like Hadaar in Ethiopia, Bigo in Uganda, Olduvai Gorge and Engaruko in Northern Tanzania and Olorgesaille in Kenya have assisted the world in knowing more about evolutionary origins like Zinjanthropus, Kenyapithecus and Lucy.

From a cultural aspect, present day Kenya is multi-racial and multi-ethnic; Africans of all origins live in Kenya: Native Africans, Afro-Arabs, Afro-Asians, and Afro-Europeans.


Kenya history - Prehistoric time

Some of our earliest human ancestors (Homo erectus and Homo habilis) walked on East African ground more than 2 million years ago. Several skulls and fragments has been found in Kenya and neighbouring countries.

The Khoisan-speakers are the first modern people known to inhabit East Africa. They are followed by Cushitic people (from north), Bantu speaking groups (from Central Africa), Nilotes (from Sudan) as well as Oromos and Somalis (from Ethiopia).

Kenya history - Arabian and Portuguese traders/invaders

8th century AD: The first visits by Arabian and Persian traders to East Africa are made. Some Arab traders stays in the region and brings a Muslim influence to the culture.

Most areas of Kenya are inhabited at this time, but most trade and development takes place in the coastal region. Trade with ivory, rhino horn, gold, shells and slaves makes Mombasa, Malindi and the Islands Lamu, and Pate into important centres of trade.

Kenya history - The 15th century: The Coast is rich and the cities are great in this period. It becomes the first centre of trade out of Africa. The African groups on the coast gradually forms the Swahili culture adapting Islam as their religion.

The common religion makes way for better understanding and business with the Arabs. Religious beliefs (Islam and later Christianity) also gives status in society (this can still be seen in the pride of many religious people in Africa).

Some Africans may have turned to Islam simply to avoid being sold as slaves. The Swahili were mainly black Africans and it were these people who build the great cities along the coast.

The Swahili people makes a fortune on trade and forms business families. They are able to communicate better with the foreign traders as the Kiswahili language develops. They also serves as middlemen for those wanting to sell gold and Ivory from deep within the continent.

The trade net grows to cover Africa, Arabia, Persia, India and China. It is recorded that traders even succeeds to send a live Giraffe all the way the Emperor of China.

Kenya history - 1498: Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reaches East Africa with ships and guns. Until now most meetings with foreigners has been relative peaceful, but the Portuguese are eager to get their hands on the rich trade around the Indian Ocean.

The Swahili people gives Vasco da Gama what he wants: They direct him on the way to India -and are happy to sea him leave. (See also Mozambique Timeline).

Kenya history - 1505: The Portuguese invades, slaughters and robs most cities on the East Coast of Africa. Dom Francisco de Almeida arrives with 23 ships and approximately 1500 soldiers. Mombasa is bombed and the occupied by Portuguese troops.

The next 200 years are marked by the fights between the Arabs and the Portuguese for control of the region. The main losers in this long struggle are the Africans, seeing their towns destroyed all along the coast.

Kenya history - 1585 and 1589: The Ottoman Turks tries to regain their power on the Kenyan Coast but are beaten by the Portuguese. Portugal starts a brutal colonial rule and exploitation of the Africans and their resources. With weapons in hand they try to convert people into Catholicism, but Islam has already grown strong on the coast.

Kenya history - 1593: Mombasa becomes the local centre of Portuguese power. Fort Jesus is constructed in Mombasa harbour to defend the city from the seaside and also against a growing resistance among the Swahili people.

Kenya history - 1698: Fort Jesus and Mombasa are finally lost to the Arabs after 33 months of siege. After a few years the Portuguese has left Kenya completely. Arab sultans now rules over different parts of the coast.

Kenya history - 19th Century: The European countries starts a race of land grabbing in Africa. In East Africa it is mainly Germany and England competing in making colonies and protectorates. By now a political pressure has influenced Britain to try and stop the African slave trade.

Kenya history - 1822: The Sultan of Oman (Sayyid Said) sends an army to East Africa. He claims control of all Swahili dynasties along the coast. The local Swahili clans resists to give up their power and asks Britain for help. Two warships are send from Britain and the captain declares the Mombasa region for British protectorate. The protectorate is given up after 3 years.

Kenya history - 1832: The sultan of Oman moves with his court to Zanzibar. He starts plantations of cloves and develops trade routes deeper into Africa. Spice production and export of Ivory and slaves are an important economic injection for the Sultan's empire.

Kenya history - 1847: The first European missionaries starts traveling west and exploring more of Kenya. The Germans, Krapf and Rebmann, are the first to reach Taita Hills and later gives the first reports of seeing Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.

Kenya history - May 1, 1873 : Dr. David Livingstone dies in Central Africa. His body is carried on a month-long journey to Zanzibar.

Kenya history - 1877: the Sultan offers the company British East Africa a concession of administration in East Africa. The British completely ignores the Swahili people -only negotiating with the Sultan on Zanzibar. Their racist prejudices makes them believe that the East African Coast has only developed because of the Arabs.

Kenya history - British Crown Colony

Kenya history - 1886: The European colonial powers divides Africa between them at a conference in Berlin. Germany and Britain are the main players in the game of control with East Africa. The Sultan of Oman is still granted a strip on the Coastline.

Kenya history - 1888: Imperial British East Africa starts "economic development" in their possessions (today's Kenya and Uganda).

Kenya history - 1894: Jomo Kenyatta is born in Ichaweri.

Kenya history - 1895: Britain's protectorate is formed and officially named British East Africa.

Kenya history - 1898: Construction of a railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria is progressing fast, but delayed in Tsavo. Two lions kills and eats 135 Indian and African railway workers. Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson manages to kill the lions after hunting them for nine months. The events were dramatised in the film The Ghost and The Darkness. The man-eating lions are still on display in The Field Museum, Chicago.

Kenya history - 1898: The railway reaches half way through Kenya. The city of Nairobi is founded a few years later.

Kenya history - 1901: The railway from Mombasa to Kisumu is completed with its 965 km. European and Indian settlers now arrives in great numbers to East Africa. White settlers are favoured from the beginning and given influence on the management of the colony.

The African inhabitants of the "White highlands" are forced into "native reserves". In the following years several local uprisings are stopped by British soldiers. As in the other African colonies some tribes are favoured by the British. This makes the foundation for jealousy, hatred and ethnic clashes for generations ahead.

Kenya history - 1902: The border between Kenya and Uganda is adjusted. Before this Kisumu and the area around Lake Victoria was a part of Uganda.

Kenya history - 1905: First experiments with growing coffee in Kenya are made by British settlers. Today Kenya is the African country exporting most coffee.

Kenya history - 1907: The British colonial administration moves from Mombasa to Nairobi.

Kenya history - January 1914: 28 year old Karen Blixen (also known as Isak Dinesen) arrives in Kenya with her husband Bror Blixen. They settle on a farm close to Nairobi and starts growing coffee. Karen Blixen has no experience and no success with farming but after returning to Denmark in 1931 she becomes a well known writer.

Kenya history - 1914: World War I also includes Africa. 200,000 Africans are recruited in Kenya by the British Army. One fourth of them dies.

Kenya history - 1915: The British settlers requires more land. Another 5186 hectares are taken from the Africans. The "Registration Act" forces all African adult males to carry identification whenever leaving the reserves.

Kenya history - 1921: The protectorate becomes Kenya and gets status of British Crown Colony. A British governor administrates the colony.

Kenya history - 1922: Foundation of East African Breweries (today: Kenya Breweries, producing the popular "Tusker" and other brands).

Kenya history - 1922: Africans educated in the Missions starts protesting against the British policies. Harry Thuku, leader of the East African Association (EAA) is arrested. Another young Kikuyu from EAA is about to begin his career: Jomo Kenyatta leaves for university Studies in England (1931) and returns to become a political leader years later.

1923: The first tea plantation is founded in Kenya. A law ensured that only the European settlers could profit from growing tea and coffee for export.

Kenya history - 1924 : Daniel Arap Moi is born in Baringo.

Kenya history - 1933: American writer Ernest Hemingway visits Kenya and writes some of his most famous stories.

1939: Labour unions are becoming stronger in the colony. Strikes hits hard on Mombasa.

1944: A organisation for African independence is formed: Kenyan African Union (KAU).

Kenya history - 1947: Jomo Kenyatta becomes leader of KAU.Mau Mau rebellion.

Kenya history - 1952: A political Kikuyu group called "Mau Mau" starts violent attacks on white settlers. The Mau Mau guerillas are organised in Kenya Land Freedom Army (KFLA). Jomo Kenyatta is regarded to be leader of the "Mau Mau" and he is jailed the following year. The Mau Mau rebellion continues and Britain declares a state of emergency in Kenya.

February 6, 1952: The young Elizabeth stays in the Aberdare Treetop Hotel when her father, King George VI, dies of cancer. She returns to England as Queen Elizabeth II.

Kenya history - October 1956: The leader of KLFA, general Dedan Kimanthi is captured by British troops with assistance from a loyal Kikuyu group. The Mau Mau are now without efficient leadership.

1956: The Mau Mau warriors kills more Africans loyal to the British than white people. Around 50,000 British soldiers are set in against the rebellion. They burn down villages and carry out bomb attacks from airplanes. When the rebellion is finally put down a total of app. 12,000 Africans are killed -and only about 30 Europeans. 100,000 Africans are imprisoned.

1957: Dedan Kimanthi is executed.

Kenya history - 195?: Kenyan songwriter Fadhili William records the pop song Malaika. The song becomes a world-wide hit and as has since been recorded by several other artists.

1957: Ghana is the first African colony to gain independence. (See also Ghana Timeline)

Kenya history - 1959: Kenyatta is transferred from jail to house arrest. Formation of political parties are now allowed and African politicians are invited for negotiations in London.

1960: Britain gives in to the pressure and starts preparing Kenya for independence. Estimated 60,000 Europeans now live in Kenya.

Kenya history - 1960: A team of archaeologists led by Mary and Louis Leakey finds a skull of Homo Habilis near Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya. The skull is estimated to be 1.8 million years old.

1961: House arrest ends for Kenyatta and he becomes leader of the political party KANU.


December 12, 1963: : Kenyan independence day.

Kenya history - 1964: The Republic of Kenya (Jamhuri ya Kenya) is formed with Kenyatta as president and Oginga Odinga as vice president. The party KADU dissolves and integrates with KANU. The government is without opposition.

1966: The Luo politician Oginga Odinga is excluded from the Kikuyu dominated KANU party. He tries to start an opposition party, but is arrested several times during the following years.

Kenya history - 1969: Conflicts between ethnic groups continue. The Luo politician Tom Mboya aspires to future presidency and is assassinated by a Kikuyu. Odinga is arrested.

1974: Jomo Kenyatta is re-elected as president. Kiswahili becomes official language in the parliament.

1976: Border problems and regional tensions: The Ugandan dictator Idi Amin claims huge parts of Kenya and Sudan.

1977: Big game hunting becomes prohibited by law.

Kenya history - August 22, 1978: Jomo Kenyatta dies in his home in Mombasa. During his presidency Kenya has become one of the most stable and prosperous countries in Africa. In spite of mistakes and some degree of paranoia, Kenyatta was loved by most Kenyans and respected by politicians abroad. The Republic of Kenya held many promises which were soon to fade.

Kenya's second president

October 6, 1978: Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi becomes president of Kenya. At the time he is not seen as a very strong politician, but he was vice president for Kenyatta and the parliament agrees on the choice. This is partly because as a Kalenjin (Tugen) he is not representing any of the dominant tribes in Kenya.

The new national slogan launched by Moi is "nyayo" -follow the tracks. But soon Moi starts hitting hard on opponents, banning tribal societies and closing universities. The president makes more and more frequent use of prisons and guns in the coming years.

1979: The president launches a plan for protection of Rhinos in Kenya.

June 1982: The Republic of Kenya is officially declared to be a one party state by ruling party KANU.

Kenya history - August 1982: The Kenyan Airforce attempts a military coup. A few days pass in uncertainty and 120 people are killed. Then forces loyal to the government puts an end to the rebellion. Following the coup-attempt, 12 people are sentenced to death and 900 are jailed.

1985: Hollywood premieres Out Of Africa filmed on location in Kenya, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

1987: President Moi is re-elected after introducing a complicated and highly criticised voting system. Opposition leaders including Kenneth Matiba are jailed without trial.

1989: Paleontologist Dr. Richard Leakey becomes manager of the Department of Wildlife in Kenya. President Moi burns of 12 tons of ivory, making a public statement against poaching.

Kenya history - 1990's: Communist regimes in eastern Europe collapses, putting an end to "the Cold War" era. USA and Western Europe has supported corrupt regimes all over Africa in their attempt to keep communism from the door.

But now they loose interest in the continent. For the first time donor countries makes demands of democratic development and puts pressure on the Kenyan government. Multiparty systems are a public demand all over the continent and the governments no longer has Western support to suppress the opposition.

The KANU Youth group is used as pro-government troublemakers. In the following years KANU Youth are used to harass opposition members and provoke riots in democratic demonstrations. The KANU Youth has also been involved in the unleash of violence and ignition of ethnic clashes.

Kenya history - July 7, 1990: An illegal demonstration becomes known as the "Saba Saba" (Seven Seven - the date in Swahili). The government sends in police and military, killing at least 20 and arresting several hundreds, including politicians, human rights activists and journalists.

1991: A new opposition party is formed under the name Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD). The party is at first banned by Moi. Leaders, including Oginga Odinga, are arrested.

Most Western countries suspends their economic aid to Kenya in condemnation of the political oppression and abuses of human rights. Moi finally gives in and introduces the multiparty system in Kenya: The constitution is changed, for the first time allowing registration of opposition parties.

Political violence on the road to democracy1992: Political discussions slowly becomes more common on the streets and some people even dare to hope for a change. But at the same time many people fears the wars, violence and chaos in other African countries. An argument often heard is that Moi may be one the most corrupt leaders in the world, but he has kept Kenya peaceful.

Prior to elections, 2000 are killed in ethnic clashes in the Rift Valley region. It is almost certain that the violence was provoked by KANU. But President Moi manages to end the conflict and makes himself an image as the peace maker.

1992: The Ford party splits into two fractions. Moi gains more power as the opposition waste their efforts on internal conflicts.

December 29, 1992: Moi is re-elected as President in Kenya's first multiparty election. All foreign observers reports that KANU manipulated the voters and election in every possible way.

1993: International donors, IMF and the World Bank forces the government to start economic reforms in Kenya.

1994: Oginga Odinga dies. The opposition parties form a new coalition, but are still having strong internal disputes. Moi is becoming more and more clever in setting up opposition members against each other.

Kenya history - 1995: Paleontologist Richard Leakey forms Safina, a new opposition party. The Leakey family is famous for their archaeological findings in Kenya. Moi argues strongly against having white men in government.

1996: KANU announces a wish to change the constitution allowing Moi to stay in office for one more term.

1997: Demonstrations for democracy are frequent in Kenya.

August 14, 1997: 200 raiders attacks the police station in Likoni, Mombasa. Prisoners are freed, six police officers and seven civilians are killed. The violent attackers steels rifles and ammunition. In the following weeks horror rules on the coast with massacres and ethnic violence. Many people are on the run. Who started this, and why was nothing done to stop it?

1997: Daniel Arap Moi wins his 5th term as president in criticised elections. Once again Moi has succeeded to play opposition and ethnic groups against each other.

1997: The El Nino weather phenomena brings cascades of water to the Kenyan coast. Several thousands are left homeless.

September 8, 1997: President Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire (D. R. Congo) loses his power and dies soon after. Mobuto was considered to be the richest man in Africa. According to an Ugandan newspaper, Daniel Arap Moi is a possible number two. (The Monitor, August 4, 1997)

Kenya history - August 1998: 230 people are killed when a bomb explodes in Nairobi's US embassy. At the same time people are killed by a terror bombing in Tanzania. The bombings are later linked to Osama Bin-Laden and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

1999: Richard Leakey becomes minister in the KANU government. He is tasked with fighting corruption in Kenya.

June 2001: Moi forms the first coalition government in Kenya. Opposition leader Raila Odinga becomes minister of Energy.

August 2001: 3 million people starves as Northern Kenya suffers from drought.

2001: Several anti-corruption initiatives are started in order to please the IMF.

October 2001: Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Jomo Kenyatta) is appointed to parliament and a cabinet post by President Moi. The inexperienced Uhuru Kenyatta is later appointed by Moi to be his successor in the presidential office.

2001: Ethnic clashes breaks out again. Worst in the Kibera slum area of Nairobi. As the violence continues the government stays passive. Some people fears that Moi would like to see chaos break out in Kenya after he gives up presidency.

The third president

December 27, 2002: Election in Kenya. Moi is leaving the office to opposition leader Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki soon announces that Kenya will provide free primary schooling for all children.

Another imprtant law from Kibaki is new rules for Matatu-owners. The matatus are privately-owned mini-busses. They are loud and colourful contributions to Kenyan culture, but also notorius for their high rate of accidents (more than 3,000 dies in road accidents every year).

The new laws are made to improve traffic security, but the matatu owners have protested and paralysed the country with strikes and new high fares.

Other Pages of Interest

Kenya Culture | Akamba | British Colonialists | Crafts | Cultural Business Meetings | Cultural Communication | Cultural Eye Contact | Cultural Gestures | Gift Giving | Cultural Law | Cultural Music | Cultural Space | Cultural Time | How to Talk in Kenya |
 The History of Kenya and Its People

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