“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…” Generations of cinema fans have admired Meryl Streep in Out of Africa (1985), the dramatic romance of a Danish heiress living in Kenya. For many expatriates-to-be, the first images that come to mind are often influenced by Kenya’s presentation in movie hits from Europe or the US.
Despite their entertainment value, such films frequently show a nostalgic, whitewashed version of Kenya’s colonial past. Beyond their iconic status for the local tourism industry, these movies are of little relevance to people in Kenya today. What then — if not sunsets and safaris — awaits an expat moving to Kenya, the most influential nation in East Africa?
With a surface area of 580,000 km², Kenya is one of the largest countries in the region — roughly the size of Texas. It borders the Indian Ocean in the east, Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan in the north, Uganda in the west, and Tanzania in the south. The kind of climate you have to prepare for when moving to Kenya strongly depends on where in the country you will live, work, and call home.
The coastal plain— where, for instance, Mombasa is located — is definitely tropical. Kenya’s interior features a sub-tropical climate that gets cooler and more moderate in the highlands, e.g. in Nairobi, the capital. The northern areas consist of arid steppe. However, few expats ever go there unless, for example, they are humanitarian workers aiding refugees from Somalia.
Nicknamed the “cradle of humanity”, Kenya has been inhabited by humans for millions of years. Throughout its later history, its rich agricultural lands and strategic location in East Africa attracted the interest of foreign powers. The influence of Portuguese merchants and Arab culture — especially from the Sultanate of Oman — is still visible in coastal cities like Mombasa. Kenya’s more recent past, however, was marked by the imperialist “scramble for Africa” and an influx of European settlers and officials deciding to move to Kenya.
In 1895, Kenya became a British protectorate and later an official crown colony. After many years of violent struggles between the British and the Mau Mau guerilla group, Kenya gained its independence in the early 1960s.
Years of political instability, tribal conflicts, Somali Islamist terror-attacks, and allegations of corruption have sadly plagued Kenya since its independence. Violent unrest following the 2007 presidential election left about 1,500 people dead and displaced an estimated one million inhabitants.
Fortunately, the following election process in March 2013 proved far less tumultuous. After all, Kenya cannot afford to jeopardize its ambitious vision of progressing from a developing country to a middle-income nation by around 2030, which would certainly encourage immigration to Kenya.
After moving to Kenya, you will soon notice that the population — ca. 47 million people — consists of dozens ethnicities, each speaking their own language and calling Kenya home. These varied ethnicities form three large demographic groups. The biggest is that of the Bantu people, such as the Kikuyu, who make up over 20% of Kenya’s populace. The Cushitic group settled in the northeast after moving to Kenya from Ethiopia and Somalia, and they constitute the second largest part of the population. Nilotes are probably the best-known, with the Nilotic Maasai warriors featured in all touristic descriptions of the country.
Africans represent over 99% of Kenya’s population. The rest consists of Arabs (washihiri) living on the coast, the Kenyan Indian community (colloquially known as “Asians”), and people of European descent (mzungu). The Westerner community mostly includes the descendants of British colonists, as well as many expats who work as NGO workers, foreign employees, and a considerable number of missionaries.
If you do not speak Kiswahili, the official lingua franca of multi-ethnic Kenya, don’t worry. English is the second working language of the nation, particularly among the urban population. This is a definite bonus for expats who want to feel at home living in Kenya’s local and expat communities in Nairobi and Mombasa.
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