A guide to Kenya – etiquette, customs, clothing and more…

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Facts and Stats

: 45 million (2014 estimates by the CIA World Fact book)
Area: 581,309 km2
Capital: Nairobi
Unemployment: 40%, (2014 estimates by the CIA World Fact book)
Religion: Predominantly Christian (82.6%)
International dialing code: +254
Main cities: Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu
Key industries: Agriculture, tourism
President: Uhuru Kenya
African Union Member: Yes, Kenya joined OAU, the predecessor to the AU, in 1963. Locally, the country is a member of the East African Union.


Kenya lies on the East African coast and borders Tanzania to the South, Uganda to the East and South Sudan and Ethiopia to its North. The eastern edge of the country borders Somalia and the Indian Ocean. Kenya’s landscape is a lesson in geographic contrast; from the lowlands of Nyanza to the miles of enchanting coastline, the highlands in Central Kenya to the breathtakingly beautiful Great Rift Valley.

Kenya’s total land mass is 581,309 km2. Together with Somalia and Ethiopia, the three countries make what world geography now refers to as the horn of Africa. The country has 8 regions, which are further divided into 47 counties. The regions each have a defining character. The Coast and Nyanza have several miles bordering the neighbouring water bodies, Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean respectively. The beaches of the Coast Province are the leading destinations in the entire East African Coast. Tsavo National Park, an ecological stronghold and the oldest park in Kenya is situated in the Coast Province.


The northern eastern Rift Valley and North Eastern provinces are dry and inhabited mainly by pastoralist communities that keep livestock. South of this region are the central Rift Valley, Western and Central regions, which are the country’s bread basket, producing the bulk of Kenya’s harvest of wheat, maize, coffee and tea.


On the southern border with Tanzania lies the wildlife stronghold of the Mara-Amboseli ecosystem, which is in the Southern part of the Rift Valley region. The famed Maasai Mara National Reserve, East and Central Africa’s most visited destination, and Amboseli National Park are located in this region. The Maasai Mara National Reserve witnesses the annual migration, where more than a million blue wildebeest and 250,000 zebras cross the Mara River into the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.


The Nairobi region hosts the capital, which is the only national headquarters in the world situated adjacent to a national park. The Eastern region borders Nairobi to the east. The Eastern region also has vast wildlife habitats including Chyulu Hills and Meru National Park.


Local Culture and Language


Kenya is a multi-ethnic country with as many as 42 different groups. Various ethnic communities speak their respective local dialects, though the country has adopted Swahili as the national language and English as the official language of instruction.

Kenyans are warm, just like the landscape they call home. All the various communities, though noticeably distinct, are very welcoming. Scenes of happy dances accompanied by loud traditional songs are quite common when welcoming visitors. Moreover, visitors are revered in many Kenyan communities. A visitor will easily get the best provisions a host family can provide. Most families will go the extra mile to ensure their guest is comfortable in the real sense of the word.

Tradition is deeply rooted in all Kenyan communities and most people living in rural areas still adhere, though not strictly, to said traditions. The Maasai and their Samburu kin for instance, still practice their authentic pastoralist lifestyle and don their characteristic Shuka (wraparound sheets) accessorized by the rungus (hunting clubs).

Most other tribes that inhabit the Northern and North Eastern part of the country also show deep appreciation for their roots. The influence of modern western culture is minimal in these communities, which may explain their deeply set traditional ways.

All Kenyan communities appreciate decorum in community settings. Young people are obliged to respect their elders and treat them as such at all times. Culture here dictates the elderly have the first go at any time, and this includes when serving meals or getting whatever favour.

The cuisine of this East African country is just as varied as the ethnic communities that inhabit it. However, all these can be classified into four major categories. The coastal dishes, probably the most elaborate, have some Arabic influence and include delicacies such as Pilau (rice with meat and vegetable additives cooked in stock with spices), biryani (mixed rice dish), chapatti (unleavened flat bread), and madafu (coconut water taken from unripe fruits).

The cuisine of the central region is comprised of a combination of meat meals served on carbohydrates; mainly potatoes. Because of their proximity to Lake Victoria, Luo and Luhya communities on the Western and Nyanza regions consider various meals made from fish, as the staple food.

The contemporary Kenyan people that reside in the major cities and towns subscribe to these various cuisines, depending on their origins. They all, however, have a unanimous love for nyama choma (barbeque served on ugali (cornmeal).

While scheduled festivals and celebrations are only now taking root in the country, Kenya has many national holidays that mark or celebrate important events and achievements in its rich history. Madaraka Day (1st June) commemorates the day Kenya acquired internal self-rule from the United Kingdom in 1963. Heroes day is celebrated on (20th October) and full independence on (12th December) Jamhuri Day.
Aside from these national celebrations, Kenyans also observe international holidays that the rest of the world subscribe to. These include Labour Day (1st May), Christmas and Boxing Day (25th and 26th December respectively) and Easter weekend, which varies from year to year.


Etiquette and Customs

Kenyans are very outgoing and prefer that every encounter starts with warm greetings. This scene plays out in almost all situations. A person entering a shop, for instance, would start by shaking the shop attendant’s hand and would proceed to make small talk before going about their business. The same practice should be repeated on departure. Women also start by shaking hands with other women. Most communities, however, restrict women from greeting their male counterparts by shaking their hands, though this restriction seems to have far less weight in more sophisticated contexts.

It is considered good manners for visitors to mumble at least a salutation in the local language. Alternatively, visitors can use Jambo, the Swahili salutation that loosely translates to “Hello”. Traditionally, greetings should last about a minute or two. However, it is advisable to make them slightly longer, especially if you plan to conduct a business negotiation with the person you are greeting. Longer greetings may help you negotiate a cheaper price.

Hissing may appear rude in other cultures but it is a perfectly acceptable form of getting a stranger’s attention. This habit is, however, less common among sophisticated urban dwellers, except in crowded situations like restaurants, where again, it is normal to hiss at a waiter.

Bodily gestures and close physical contact is a common phenomenon, especially among the Coastal communities. Visitors should anticipate holding hands with strangers, especially if they are leading you around.


When responding to questions, always avoid flat out ‘no’ responses, as most communities consider these rude. Instead, elaborate on your answer and, when asking questions, avoid phrasing the queries in the negative.


A common and essential component of etiquette in Kenya is the hand rule. Kenyans reserve the left hand for unhygienic acts and the right for acts such as eating, touching and passing things to other people. Pointing at another person is considered rude and that goes for beckoning with the palms up, which is considered rude and may be interpreted as you being dismissive.


Business Meetings and Management Advice


Kenyans have a relatively good sense of time. They will be punctual when there is a scheduled meeting. This, however, only refers to the sophisticated urban population. Expect a lot of back and forth in any business meeting. To get ahead, you need to be very clear in your presentation. Almost always, you will hit many gridlocks because of the bureaucracy in the country. However, most Kenyan business executives know how to counter most of these, and as such you will easily get ahead if you enlist their help in avoiding unnecessary restrictions.


Most business meetings are conducted in English. However, Kenyans are sensitive to the needs of strangers. It is common to find Kenyans going out of their way to make you feel comfortable. Even before a meeting commences, they will ask to know if you are comfortable or, if you prefer to have any extra arrangements made for the meeting such as enlisting the services of an interpreter.
People in rural areas, on the other hand, will turn up late for meetings, sometimes even a couple of hours late, and will make no apologies for their lateness. Still, it helps to be courteous if you hope to sway their decision. More importantly, explain your points well and avoid brushing off issues, especially if some people seem dissatisfied. In villages, giving handouts may gain you some mileage, especially if you are looking to get the goodwill of a relatively large population.

While corporate dress code is formal, Kenyans do not insist on it. As long as you are decently dressed, you should be fine. No one will fault you for omitting a tie in your attire.

Relocating to Kenya and Expat Advice

If you plan to relocate to Kenya, you need to invest time in extensive research. For instance, you will need to identify an appropriate place to stay, advice on tax, work related matters, property, and health insurance, among others.

Before travelling to Kenya, ensure you get the appropriate visa in advance. Several visa types apply depending on the length of your stay. Tanzanian and Ugandan nationals, however, do not require a visa if they are visiting for less than three months.

The requisite documents you need before making a visa application include:

  • An official application form
  • Passport with at least one blank page and valid for at least the next six months
  • Recent passport-sized photographs
  • Confirmation of booking

Prospective visitors looking to stay longer may need either a residence or work permit. Moreover, visitors over the age of 18 years who plan to stay for more than three months must register with the Kenya Police before the 90 days elapse. This process requires:

  • Valid passport
  • Recent passport-sized photographs
  • Registration fee

Kenyan income tax starts at 10% and caps out at 30%. For foreigners that own property in Kenya and reside here for any period during a tax year, they are classed as residents for taxation purposes. Foreigners who do not own permanent homes but stay for 183 days or more in a tax year or 122 days each year in two consecutive tax years are also considered residents for tax purposes. Such individuals are required to pay tax on their worldwide income.

Most regions of Kenya are malaria zones and visitors are encouraged to take prophylaxis. Also recommended are routine vaccines such as measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, polio vaccine and the annual flu shots. It also is advisable to get private health insurance as this may help cut healthcare costs.

Language Translation Services for Kenya

If you’re planning to do business or relocate to Kenya it’s important to understand their main language is Swahili, although they speak over 42 local dialects. Kwintessential have a team of experienced Kiswahili translators who will help with legal and certified translations needed. Contact us for more information and quotes.

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