Kenya, republic in East Africa, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Kenya has a varied landscape of plateaus and high mountains and is home to many different ethnic groups. Formerly a British colony, Kenya gained independence in 1963 and has been a republic since 1964. It is bounded on the north by Sudan and Ethiopia, on the east by Somalia and the Indian Ocean, on the south by Tanzania, and on the west by Lake Victoria and Uganda. Nairobi is the country’s capital and largest city.


LAND AND RESOURCES

Geography of Kenya

  • Area 580,367 sq km (224,961 sq mi)
  • Coastline 536 km (333 mi)
  • Highest point Mount Kenya 5,199 m/17,057 ft
  • Currency: Kenyan Shilling
  • Capital City: Nairobi
  • Population: 31, 639,000

Kenya has a total area of 582,646 sq km (224,961 sq mi). The equator passes through the middle of the country. Kenya’s maximum length from east to west is about 890 km (about 550 mi); from north to south it is about 1,030 km (about 640 mi).

Natural Regions

Mount Kenya
Mount Kenya is an extinct volcano in central Kenya. At 5,199 m (17,057 ft) tall, it is the second tallest mountain in Africa. 
Kenya is covered with volcanic rock that is split by faults, especially in the west. The Eastern Rift of the Great Rift Valley appears in Kenya as a massive depression, as wide as 50 to 65 km (30 to 40 mi) in some places, with cliffs reaching 900 m (3,000 ft) in height. The country falls into several topographical zones extending from sea level upward to lofty mountain ranges with elevations of more than 3,000 m (10,000 ft).

In the southeast, Kenya’s coastline measures 536 km (333 mi) in length and is fringed with coral reefs. It is bordered by a narrow coastal plain dotted with tropical forests. From the coast, the terrain rises to a series of low plateaus that cover most of eastern and northern Kenya and range in elevation from about 150 to 1,000 m (about 500 to 3,000 ft).

The region west of the plateaus, known as the Kenya highlands, consists of a series of higher plateaus, ranging from about 900 to 2,000 m (about 3,000 to 5,000 ft). Bisected from north to south by the Eastern Rift Valley, the Kenya highlands are divided into the Mau Escarpment on the east side of the Eastern Rift Valley and the Aberdare Range on the west side. These ranges are marked by numerous extinct volcanoes, the highest of which are Mount Kenya (5,199 m/17,057 ft) in central Kenya, and Mount Elgon (4,321 m/14,177 ft) on the country’s western border. In the far west is the lower Lake Victoria basin, which includes the hilly regions to the north and south of Winam Gulf. Although earth tremors are felt periodically in Kenya’s highlands, the country has experienced no volcanic activity or serious earthquakes over the past several centuries.

Rivers and Lakes

Lake Turkana 
Lake Turkana is the largest and most northerly of all the Great Rift Valley lakes. It lies mostly in Kenya, with its northernmost tip extending into Ethiopia. The striking jade-green color of its waters is due to the presence of blue-green algae. A massive volcanic crater is situated at the southern end of the lake.

Kenya’s largest lake, excluding Lake Victoria on its western border, is Lake Turkana, in the northwest. Smaller lakes—including Lake Baringo, Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivahsa, and Lake Magadi—lie in or near the Eastern Rift. The country’s major rivers include the Tana and Galana (known as the Athi in its upper course) in the east, and the Kerio, Turkwel, and Nzoia in the west. Parts of each of these rivers are navigable by small vessels, but only the Tana is used by larger boats. Except for the Tana and some of its tributaries, most Kenyan rivers have not been used extensively for irrigation.

Plant and Animal Life

Game Preserve in Kenya 
A giraffe towers over zebras on the savanna of a Kenyan game preserve. Home to many endangered species of wildlife, the African republic of Kenya shelters its wild animals in game preserves and national parks. Kenya outlawed hunting in 1977, but poachers continue to hunt many of these commercially valuable animals. Tourists can observe and photograph the animals in safaris through the parks and preserves.

Kenya contains diverse plant life. Along the Indian Ocean coast are forests containing palm, mangrove, teak, and sandalwood trees. Baobab, euphorbia, and acacia trees dot the lowland plateaus, while extensive tracts of savanna (grassland), interspersed with groves of acacia and some temperate forests, characterize the terrain of the highlands up to about 3,000 m (about 9,000 ft). The higher alpine zone contains giant senecio and lobelia shrubs.

Kenya is known for the great variety of its wildlife and is especially famous for its big game animals associated with the African savanna. The major big game species include elephants, rhinoceroses, zebras, giraffes, and lions and other large cats. Although many of these species are protected in national parks and game reserves, hunters have severely reduced the number of large mammals in Kenya, particularly elephants and rhinoceroses. Kenya’s rhinoceroses are critically endangered. Birds—including ostriches, flamingos, and vultures—abound in Kenya, as do reptiles such as pythons, mambas, and cobras.

Natural Resources

Kenya’s main natural resource is its land, of which 9 percent is currently cultivated. Almost all of the agricultural land is located in the south, as the northern two-thirds of the country is mostly desert or semidesert. Kenya does not have significant mineral deposits. Forests constitute approximately 6 percent of Kenya’s land area. Kenya’s rivers provide hydroelectricity.

Climate

Kenya’s different topographical regions experience distinct climates. The coastal region is largely humid and wet. The city of Malindi, for instance, receives an average rainfall of 1,050 mm (41 in) per year, with average temperatures ranging from 21° to 32°C (70° to 90°F) in January and 20° to 29°C (68° to 84°F) in July. The low plateau area is the driest part of the country. There, the town of Wajir receives an average annual rainfall of 320 mm (13 in) and experiences average temperatures ranging from 19° to 37°C (66° to 99°F) in January and 19° to 34°C (66° to 93°F) in July. Nairobi, in the temperate Kenya highlands, receives an average annual rainfall of 790 mm (31 in) and experiences average temperatures ranging from 9° to 29°C (48° to 84°F) in January and 7° to 26°C (45° to 79°F) in July. Higher elevation areas within the highlands receive much larger amounts of rainfall. The Lake Victoria basin in western Kenya is generally the wettest region in the country, particularly the highland regions to the north and south of Kisumu, where average annual rainfall ranges from 1,740 mm (70 in) to 1,940 mm (80 in). Average temperatures in this region range from 14° to 34°C (57° to 93°F) in January and 14° to 30°C (57° to 86°F) in July.

Rainfall occurs seasonally throughout most of Kenya. The coast, eastern plateaus, and lake basin experience two rainy seasons: the “long rains” extends roughly from March to June, and the “short rains” lasts from approximately October to December. The highlands of western Kenya have a single rainy season, lasting from March to September. All parts of the country are subject to periodic droughts, or delays in the start of the rainy seasons. Kenya’s climate has had a profound effect on settlement patterns, as for centuries population has been concentrated in the wettest areas of the country.

Environmental Issues

Green Belt Movement in Kenya 
The Green Belt Movement in Kenya has planted some 30 million trees in a grassroots reforestation effort. Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai spearheaded the tree-planting effort in 1977, and it has since spread to other parts of Africa as part of the Pan African Green Belt Network. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her environmental activism.

Overfarming and intensive gathering of wood for fuel has led to soil erosion, desertification, and deforestation in Kenya. Increased use of pesticides and fertilizers has also led to significant water pollution. In Lake Victoria, the water hyacinth, a large ornamental water plant, has multiplied rapidly since being introduced in the 1980s. It threatens fish and other water life in the lake by depriving them of oxygen.

Kenya is well known for its game parks—including Masai Mara Game Park and Tsavo National Park in the south, and Marsabit National Reserve in the north—which attract large numbers of tourists and much revenue. Conservation of wildlife within reserves has thus received high priority. About 6 percent (2004) of Kenya’s total land is protected. There are 229 (2004) threatened species in Kenya. Threatened habitats include the slopes of Mount Kenya and coastal forests. Efforts are under way to restore the endangered African elephant and black rhino populations, and an aggressive campaign has been waged against poachers.


THE PEOPLE OF KENYA

Nairobi 

Nairobi is the capital of Kenya. The city is a commercial center and serves as the headquarters for many multinational corporations.

Some 58 percent of Kenya’s population lives in rural areas, most concentrated in the fertile southern half of the country. The country’s largest cites are Nairobi, the capital and chief manufacturing center; Mombasa, the nation’s principal seaport; and Kisumu, the chief port on Lake Victoria. Smaller cities include Nakuru, a commercial and manufacturing center in the Eastern Rift Valley; and Eldoret, an industrial center in western Kenya.

Ethnic Groups

Masai Village, Kenya 
This traditional boma, or village, of the nomadic Masai people is located in southern Kenya. The huts are constructed in a circle, a traditional defensive practice. The stick structure in the center of the boma is a corral for livestock.

Nearly all Kenyans are black Africans, divided into more than 40 ethnic groups belonging to three linguistic families: the Bantu, the Cushitic, and the Nilotic (see African Languages). Language traditionally has been the primary characteristic of ethnic identity in Kenya. Bantu-speaking Kenyans are divided into three different groups: the western group (Luhya); the central, or highlands, group (including the Kikuyu, the Kamba, and other subgroups); and the coastal Bantu (Mijikenda). Among Kenya’s Nilotic speakers, the major groups are the River-Lake, or Western, group (Luo); the Highlands, or Southern, group (Kalenjin); and the Plains, or Eastern, group (Masai). The Cushitic-speaking groups include the Oromo and the Somali. The Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest ethnic group.

For much of Kenya’s history, its ethnic groups were loose social formations, fluid and constantly changing. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries British colonial rule solidified ethnic identities among Kenya’s people. Colonial administrators associated ethnic groups with specific areas of the country by designating areas where only people with a particular ethnic identity could reside. This pattern of ethnically based settlement has persisted in Kenya since it became independent, even though economic and political development has increased mobility and urbanization among the country’s inhabitants. Thus, the majority of Kikuyu live in south central Kenya, the majority of Luhya in western Kenya, the majority of Luo in southwestern Kenya, the majority of Kamba in east central Kenya, and the majority of Kalenjin in west central Kenya. Ethnicity also has been an important factor in Kenyan politics.


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