Five ways to experience Indigenous culture in Kenya

Many of Kenya’s 40-plus ethnic groups live in remote rural areas, but a new wave of tourism has opened the door for more of them to benefit from sharing aspect

Emma Gregg
27 December 2023

When you first meet your Kenyan safari guide, there’s a good chance he or she won’t be wearing the beige or green outfits that are standard attire in Africa’s safari heartlands. Instead, they could well be dressed in traditional regalia: a scarlet shuka (shawl) and blue kikoi (sarong), perhaps, with a stack of bangles or a beaded collar and feather-trimmed headdress. Here, Indigenous traditions outweigh safari conventions and traditional colours are worn with pride.

It’s a great ice breaker. Shukas and beadwork are powerful symbols of Kenya’s heritage and diversity, and if you’re as interested in culture as in nature, you’re bound to be curious about the stories behind them. Rural communities that once stuck to Indigenous dress by default – through marginalisation, or because their elders considered Western styles undignified – now embrace their clothing culture as an expression of identity, tweaking it when new local fashions pop up. It’s not just the instantly recognisable Maasai and Samburu peoples that dress strikingly; others, including the Rendille, Turkana, Pokot and Kalenjin, have their own distinct styles too.

Dhow racing is one of the centrepiece events at the Lamu Cultural Festival (Alamy)

Since safari guides love guests to ask questions, there’s no reason why your game-drive chats shouldn’t encompass everything from jewellery (most likely homemade, by them or their female relatives) to talk of livestock. From there, you could perhaps move on to more sensitive and contemporary topics: land rights, for example, in instances where livestock herders and conservationists don’t see eye to eye. They may also have much to say on social issues, and how tourism is helping to fund community-led efforts to tackle HIV, unwanted pregnancies, FGM/C (female genital mutilation/cutting) and the societal impacts of climate change.

Meeting other rural Kenyans on a meaningful footing can be more challenging. The typical route used to be to visit cultural manyattas – show villages where rural performers recreated rituals and dances for spectators. But while some of these were mutually respectful, others felt inauthentic, transactional and borderline voyeuristic.

Fairer, more sustainable alternatives have now emerged, led by communities of semi-nomadic livestock herders and coastal or lakeshore fishermen who are keen to share and exchange aspects of their culture, past and present through hands-on encounters. These enable communities to benefit financially from safeguarding local habitats and keeping traditions alive.

Crucially, such experiences are immersive. You could take a guided botanical walk or birdwatching boat trip, learn how huts are built or how beaded jewellery is made, or join a dance. If, for example, you’re encouraged to take part in a Maasai adumu (jumping ritual), don’t hesitate: there’s something exhilarating about being wrapped in the rhythm of chanting voices and pounding feet.

Five ways to experience Kenyan culture

1. Drive the Masai Mara with a female guide

Proving that a Kenyan safari can be thoroughly progressive, Emboo River Camp is challenging gender inequality in the industry. Many of the workers at this thoroughly eco-friendly off-grid lodge are women from the local Maasai community, and there’s an excellent chance it’ll be a young Maasai woman who drives you around the reserve. It is also one of few lodges with a fleet of electric safari vehicles, which are charged using solar energy. Consequently, Emboo River’s game drives are comfortable and quiet, with plenty of opportunities to chat about Maasai culture from a woman’s perspective.

2. Visit a community-owned conservancy

Created in 2001 in a former poaching hotspot, Sera Wildlife Conservancy is owned and run by locals, who are predominantly Samburu, though the area also includes Rendille and Turkana. In 2015, ten black rhinos were reintroduced to a section of the conservancy protected by Samburu rhino guards, as it began offering East Africa’s only opportunity to track black rhinos on foot. Saruni Rhino is a small, comfortable rhino-tracking camp with a faraway feel. It’s here that Samburu guides share their renewed enthusiasm for nature and lead tours of the semi-desert and its singing wells, where herders are known to chant as they haul water for their camels.

3. Take a guided hike or bike ride across the Loita Hills

The pastoral Loita Hills lie within the Masai Mara ecosystem, around 80km east of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Stay at Loita Hills Basecamp or join an adventurous tour of Kenya with Much Better Adventures to explore on foot or by mountain bike, crossing open grasslands and forests with Maasai guides. Along the way, you’ll also soak up elements of warrior lore, such as how to avoid dangerous animals, identify useful plants, select the best camping spots and cook ugali (a type of doughy cornmeal) and vegetables over an open fire.

4. Immerse yourself in Swahili culture

Steeped in Islamic tradition – and with a couple of dozen unique local dances and a distinctive music and poetry scene – the UNESCO-listed Old Town on Lamu island offers a markedly different cultural experience to the pastoral regions of western and north-western Kenya. During the Lamu Cultural Festival, held in November, cultural performances take place in the main square, with donkey races and a dhow regatta livening up the seafront. Expert Africa can arrange a trip with accommodation at Lamu House in town, or at Peponi Hotel on Shela Beach, around 3km away.

5. Learn about life in the semi-desert around Lake Turkana

The arid lands around Lake Turkana, an immense salt lake in Northern Kenya, are shared by fiercely independent and resilient semi-nomadic communities, including Turkana, Samburu, El Molo and Rendille. To learn about their customs, join trips into the Kaisut and Chalbi deserts with Native Eye Travel. Alternatively, absorb the sights and sounds of Tobong’u Lore (Lake Turkana Cultural Festival) with Undiscovered Destinations. The festival is a rich spectacle of traditional dress, music and dance that welcomes visitors. Its name, meaning ‘welcome back home’ in the Turkana language, refers to the region’s history as a cradle of humankind.

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