Kenya has no single culture that identifies it. With such diverse regional peoples such as the Swahili along the coast, several pastoralist communities mainly in the North and the different communities in Central and Western regions, having a mutually acceptable cultural identification is difficult.
There are about 42 different ethnic groupings in Kenya - each of these with its own unique culture, but majority of them with intertwining cultural practices brought about by the close resemblance in the languages, the similar environment and physical proximity of the ethnic groups. The ethnic groups are grouped into larger sub-groups - based on their cultural and linguistic similarities. There are three major unifying categories of languages: the Bantu speaking people of the Coastal region, the Central Highlands and the Western Kenya Region, The Nilotes who are mainly found in the Great Rift Valley and the Lake Victoria Region and the Cushites who are mainly composed of pastoralists and nomads in the drier North Eastern part of the country. Of note is that these sub-groups span a vast area of not just Kenya, but the East, Central and Southern African Region as a whole.
The Kikuyu tribe wears these bright red dresses with brown belts with many beaded necklaces for special rituals.
The Maasai culture owes its widespread identification to the tourist industry.
Historical and current politics of division practiced first by the colonizers and then by subsequent community leaders has led to a situation where Kenyans themselves barely know their own culture let alone that of their neighbours. The colonial administration in partnership with missionary activities and formal education wiped out most cultural practices leaving a gap that was filled by Western cultural attitudes and identification especially by the youth.
The recent attempts at coming up with a national dress testifies to the difficult nature of Kenyans' cultural identity. The top-down formula employed rendered the entire process irrelevant as it only involved the urban areas hence the better educated and wealthier segments of society. The result was basically a restricted set of pre-approved national dresses and outfits with questionable aesthetic appeal to the majority of Kenyans.
There is no singular dish that represents all of Kenya. Different communities have their own native foods. Staples are maize and other cereals depending on the region including millet and sorghum eaten with various meats and vegetables. The foods that are universally eaten in Kenya are ugali, sukuma wiki, and nyama choma. Sukuma wiki, a Swahili phrase which literally means "to push the week," is a simple dish made with greens similar to kale or collards that can also be made with cassava leaves, sweet potato leaves, or pumpkin leaves. Its Swahili name comes from the fact that it is typically eaten to "get through the week" or "stretch the week." Nyama choma is grilled meat - usually goat or sheep. It is grilled over an open fire. It is usually eaten with ugali and kachumbari.
Among the Luhyas residing in the western region of Kenya, ingokho (chicken) and ugali is a favourite meal. Other than these, they also eat tsisaka, miroo, managu etc. Also among the Kikuyu of Central Kenya, a lot of tubers, ngwaci (sweet potatoes), ndũma (taro root) known in Kenya as arrowroot, ikwa (yams), mianga (cassava) are eaten as well as legumes like beans and a Kikuyu bean known as njahi. As you travel around the country distinct differences are noted mainly based on what foods are locally available around such areas. Grains are a staple food for groups that grow grains e.g Kikuyu, Embu, Meru, Kisii etc. Other communities such as the Luo and the Coastal community have fish and sea food for their staple food as available in such areas. In semi-arid areas like Turkana foods made from sorghum are more staple food. As you move towards the city- food eaten by working families vary according to preference. Rice and stew is more common with working families and other dishes like Chapati (parantha), Chicken stew etc.
Apart from the national flag, Kenya is yet to have a national dress that transcends the diverse ethnic divisions. With each of the more than 42 ethnic communities in Kenya having its own traditional practices and symbols that make it unique, this is a task that has proved elusive in the past. However, several attempts have been made to design an outfit that can be worn to identify Kenyans, much like the Kente' cloth of Ghana.
The most recent effort was the "Sunlight quest for Kenya's National Dress". A design was chosen and though it was unveiled with much pomp at a ceremony in which public figures modeled the dress, the dress design never took hold with the ordinary people.
Kitenge, a cotton fabric made into various colours and design through tie-and-dye and heavy embroidery, is generally accepted as the African dress. Though used in many African countries, Kitenge is yet to be accepted as an official dress as it is only worn during ceremonies and non-official functions. The Maasai wear dark red garments to symbolise their love for the earth and also their dependence on it. It also stands for courage and blood that is given to them by nature. The Kanga (Khanga, Lesso) is another cloth that is in common use in practically every Kenyan home. The Kanga is a piece of clothing about 1.5 m by 1 m, screen printed with beautiful sayings in Swahili (or English) and is largely worn by women around the waist and torso.
Kenya is home to a diverse range of music styles, ranging from imported popular music, afro-fusion and benga music to traditional folk songs. The guitar is the most popular instrument in Kenyan music, and songs often feature intricate guitar rhythms. The most famous guitarist of the early 20th century was Fundi Konde. Other notable musicians of the 60s era include Fadhili Williams (recognized by many as the author of the hit song "Malaika" that was later re-done by Miriam Makeba, Boney M and Daudi Kabaka).
Popular music in the 1980s and 90s in Kenya could be divided into two genres: the Swahili sound and the Congolese sound. There are varying regional styles, and some performers create tourist-oriented "hotel pop" that is similar to western music. Them Mushrooms, later renamed Uyoga, was one of the popular groups in this era.
In the recent past, newer varieties of modern popular music have arisen which are mostly local derivatives of western hip-hop. Two sub-genres have emerged: "Genge" and "Kapuka" beats. This has revolutionized popular Kenyan music and created an industry dominated by the youth. There is also underground Kenyan hip hop that gets less radio play than Kapuka or Genge because it is less club oriented and more focussed on social commentary. Early pioneers include the late Poxi Presha, Kalamashaka, and K-South. In Nairobi, hip-hop is viewed as more of a style than as a musical culture. There is a great correlation between the youth who listen to rap music and their economical status in the country with the majority of them coming from wealthy economic backgrounds. Since hip-hop is portrayed through clothing, magazines, and CDs, all of which are expensive, only the wealthier individuals are able to enjoy these luxuries.
Mainstream artists include Nameless, Redsan, Necessary Noize, Nonini, Juacali, Kleptomaniax, Longombas, Suzzanna Owiyo, Achieng Abura, Eric Wainaina and others. Their sounds run the gamut from Reggae/Ragga, Pop, and Afro-Fusion to Hip-Hop. Contemporary Kenyan music is becoming quite popular, with African based music channels such as Channel O and MTV Base, giving them a greater audience than previously before.
Many Kenyan performers mix languages in any single song, usually English, Swahili, their tribal language or Sheng (a hybrid of Kenyan languages and English/Swahili).
The Kisima Music Awards, which recognize musical talent across East Africa, were founded and are currently based in Kenya. Every year numerous Kenyan artists take out categories in the scheme.
The African Children's Choir features children, many of whom are orphaned, from Kenya, as well as from other neighbouring African countries.
Although the government has not been very supportive of the film industry in Kenya, the country offers some of the most spectacular sceneries and can only be compared to South Africa. Due to the nonchalant attitude and lack of enthusiasm exhibited by the government, the industry has remained considerably dormant whereby notable movies shot in the country have been few and far between. The most recent movie is the award winning The Constant Gardener directed by Fernando Meirelles and starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. Other films shot in Kenya in the recent past include the Academy Award winning Nowhere in Africa and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle won great acclaim in the 1980s and was one of the first foreign movies to be shot entirely on location in Kenya. Other highly acclaimed films set (and shot) in Kenya include Karen Blixen's Out of Africa, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep and directed by Sidney Pollack, and Born Free, an adaptation of the autobiography of Joy Adamson. In 1999, part of the movie To Walk With Lions, which featured actor Richard Harris, was shot on location in the country. Notable film actors from Kenya include Paul Onsongo, David Mulwa, the late Sidede Onyulo, John Sibi Okumu and Njeri Osaak.
The White Masai, a German movie about a Swiss Woman who fell in love with a Samburu warrior (Maasai); won an Award of the best Foreign language Movie (2006). Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, based on the Ugandan dictator, was shot in Kenya and is considered one of the most successful movies produced and directed by a Kenyan (Sharad Patel). Indigenous Kenyan filmmakers include Ingolo Wa Keya, Albert Wandago and Judy Kibinge. Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika - 2001), an award-winning German production, tells a story about German Jewish refugees living in Kenya during Second World War. Most of the movie is set in Kenya and numerous scenes show actors, either Kenyans or main German actors, speaking Swahili.
Some of the latest notable productions include the footage screened to the music of U2, Robbie Williams, R.E.M. and other acts at the Live 8 concerts in Europe and the US in July 2005, Africa Mon Amor, shot over a period of three months in Samburu, Shaba and Lamu with a renowned German actress, Iris Berben, in 2006.
The Kenya Film Commission (KFC) was established by the Kenyan government in 2005, but only became fully operational in mid-2006.
Acting for television has proved popular with the Kenyan audience. This genre has been around from the 1960s when actors like Mzee Pembe graced the Kenyan television screen. Others, like Benson Wanjau (Ojwang' Hatari) and Mary Khavere (Mama Kayai), followed later with their comedies presented exclusively in Swahili, reaching millions of households courtesy of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation television station. Serious Television drama was witnessed for the first time in the early 1990s with the entry of popular actors like Packson Ngugi, BMJ Muriithi alias Ben Mutua Jonathan Muriithi and Betty Achieng', alongside other thespians who featured in a variety of TV shows following the liberalization of the airwaves by the Kenyan government. However, Tushauriane, a Swahili television series featuring Kenyan fine actors like Dennis Kashero and Tony Msalame had premiered in the late 1980s becoming arguably one of the most popular productions to ever hit the Kenyan TV screens. A new genre in the form of stand-up comedy followed when the late actor Joni Nderitu entered the scene. The new style was later to be perfected by the group, 'Redykyulass', a trio of young Kenyans - Walter Mong'are, Tony Njuguna and John Kiare (KJ) - who specialised in political satire. They lampooned not only the establishment but also Daniel arap Moi, the Kenyan President at the time. The lampooning of the Kenyan head of state was unprecedented and could have easily led to their prosecution, or even detention without trial, had it been done in the 1980s, when mimicking the head of state and exhibiting any form of political dissent was considered treason. Other Stations known to promote theater in Kenya include Nation TV, Kenya Television Network (KTN) an Citizen TV, all based in the nation's capital, Nairobi. K24, the newest TV station to enter the scene, started its test run in Nairobi in December 2007. It captured the interest of many mainly because of the introduction of Jeff Koinange, one of the most popular Kenyan journalists who has worked for major international media houses like CNN, as its chief News anchor.
A Satellite and Internet-based 24-hour pan-African TV channel, A24, was scheduled to start broadcasting from Nairobi in 2008. This will be in honor and memory of world-renowned and award winning Kenyan Photojournalist, Mohamed Amin.
Kenya holds one of the biggest annual drama events, the Kenya schools and colleges drama festival, in the south of Sahara. The Kenya National Theatre is based in Nairobi opposite the Norfolk Hotel. Notable theatre performing groups include Eliud Abuto's Festival of Creative Arts that stages regular stage performances at both the Kenya National Theatre and Alliance Francaise, Phoenix Players based at the Professional Centre, Heartsrings Ensemble and Mombasa Little Theatre Club based in Mombasa. Notable names on the Kenyan theatre scene include the late actresses Stella Awinja Muka and Anne Wanjugu. Renowned director Tirus Gathwe cut a niche for himself and is perhaps the most well known theatre directors in Kenya today.In the late 1990s through the early 2000s, the late Wahome Mutahi followed in the footsteps of the legendary Ngugi Wa Thiong'o when he, through Igiza Productions, teamed up with Tirus Gathwe and embarked on a project dubbed "taking Theatre to the people" which saw them stage numerous productions, mainly political Satires, at nightspots throughout the country. Other notable directors include Festival of Creative Arts's Carole Odongo and Mbeki Mwalimu, as well as Mumbi Kaigwa who are currently the only female directors in Kenya. George Mungai of Phoenix, Keith Pearson, Sammy Mwangi, John Sibi-Okumu and Victor Ber are directors worth nothing.