Although the official languages of Kenya are English and Swahili, there are at least 60 other spoken languages. These mainly consist of tribal African languages as well as a minority of Middle-Eastern and Asian languages spoken by descendants of foreign settlers (i.e. Arabic, Hindi, etc). The African languages come from three different language families – Bantu languages (spoken in the centre and southeast), Nilotic languages (in the west), and Cushitic languages (in the northeast).
Kenya is not a homogenous country. It comprises 13 major ethnic groups and 27 other minorities. The majority tribes include the Bantu tribes of Kikuyu, Luhya and Kamba; the Nilotic tribes of Luo, Kalenjin, Masaai, and Turkana. The ‘Hamitic’ people include the Turkanas, Rendille, and Samburu. About 13% of the population are of non-African descent – Indian, Arabian, European.
Kenyans are orientated by socio-cultural rather than individualist dynamics. Popular in Kenya is the concept of Harambee (coming from the Bantu word meaning “to pull together”). This defines the people’s approach to others in life. The concept is anchored on mutual assistance, mutual effort, mutual responsibility and community self-reliance. This principle has historically been practiced by every ethnic group with its roots in cooperative farming or herding. Harambee took on a political tone when used at the time of independence by Jomo Kenyatta as a way to bring people together.
Here are some etiquette tips and customs of the Kenyans.
- The most common greeting is the handshake.
- When greeting someone with whom you have a personal relationship, the handshake is more prolonged than the one given to a casual acquaintance.
- Close female friends may hug and kiss once on each cheek instead of shaking hands.
- When greeting an elder or someone of higher status, grasp the right wrist with the left hand while shaking hands to demonstrate respect.
- Muslim men/women do not always shake hands with women/men.
- The most common greeting is “Jambo?” (“How are you?”), which is generally said immediately prior to the handshake.
- After the handshake it is the norm to ask questions about the health, their family, business and anything else you know about the person.
- To skip or rush this element in the greeting process is the height of poor manners.
- People are generally addressed by their academic, professional or honorific title followed by their surname.
- Once a personal relationship has developed, you may be able to address a person by their title and first name, first name alone, or nickname. Wait for the Kenyan to determine that your friendship has reached this level of intimacy.
- Women over the age of 21 are often addressed as “Mama” and men over the age of 35 are often addressed as “Mzee”. Children generally refer to adults as Aunt or Uncle, even if there is not a familial relationship.