Kenya’s espousal of Western values has belittled much traditional culture, and only in remote areas are you likely to come across traditional dancing and drumming which doesn’t somehow involve you as a paying audience. If you’re patient and a little adventurous, however, you’re likely to witness something more authentic sooner or later, especially if you stay somewhere long enough to make friends. On a short visit, popular music and spectator sports are more accessible.
The hypnotic swaying and displays of effortless leaping found in Maasai and Samburu dancing are the best-known forms of Kenyan dance. Similar dance forms occur widely among other non-agricultural peoples. Mijikenda dance troupes (notably from the Giriama people) perform up and down the coast at tourist venues, while all-round dance troupes perform a range of “tribal dances” for tourists in hotels all over the country. It’s best to ignore any purist misgivings you might have about the authenticity of such performances and enjoy them as distinctive and exuberant entertainments in their own right.
Your ears will pick up a fair amount of current music on the streets or on buses and matatus, but the live spectacle of popular music is mostly limited to Nairobi, a few coastal entertainment spots, and various upcountry discos and “country clubs”. The indigenous music scene is somewhat overshadowed by soul and hip-hop, reggae (especially in the sacred image of Bob Marley) and a vigorous Congolese contribution, often called Lingala, after the language of most of its lyrics.
Theatre and film
Theatrical performances are effectively limited to one or two semi-professional clubs in Nairobi and Mombasa and a handful of upcountry amateur dramatic groups.
Cinema in Kenya revolves almost entirely around imports. The big towns have a few cinemas, including an Imax in Nairobi, but DVDs are how most people get their movies, with US and Bollywood box-office hits the staple diet. Home-grown Kenyan cinema has barely got off the ground, though the new Kenya Film Commission (wkenyafilmcommission.com) may stimulate an industry that up to now has mostly been about servicing foreign productions, from Out of Africa to African Cats.
Kenya’s ongoing Olympic success story is internationally recognized, with a regular clutch of gold and silver in the track events – though 2012 didn’t match their success in 2008 in Beijing. Kenya’s athletes are among the continent’s leaders and the country’s long-distance runners are some of the best in the world. It has even been suggested that certain Kalenjin communities may have a genetic make-up which makes them more likely to be strong athletes, but Kalenjins as much as anyone else have played down this idea. What is indisputable is that Kenya has possibly the most successful athletics training school in the world in St Patrick’s High School at Iten, up at an altitude of 2400m in the Rift Valley.
Football is wildly popular, with English Premiership teams having millions of devoted fans. You’ll see plenty of matatus decorated with the colours of Arsenal or Liverpool, and any small bar with a satellite TV will show all the big games from Europe and will always be packed. Kenya’s national team, the Harambee Stars, have won the East and Central African CECAFA Cup several times, most recently in 2002, and hosted it in 2009. While the team have never qualified for the World Cup, their star performers are held in high regard and the names Victor Wanyama and Dennis Oliech are known in most villages across the country.
A slow increase in sponsorship money made available to Kenyan football teams over the last decade has allowed the Kenyan Premier League to develop into one of the more financially stable leagues in East Africa. Crowds are still low (often no more than 2000) but more and more teams are turning professional and the title has been won by several different teams in the last few years.
Kenyan cricket received a boost when Kenya beat the West Indies at the World Cup in 1996 and came third overall in 2003. Most matches are played in the Nairobi area. Check out CricInfoKenya.
Other spectator sports include: racing at the racecourse in Nairobi, which dates from early colonial times; and camel-racing, spotlighted annually at the international camel derby in Maralal and now co-promoted with mountain-bike racing at the same event.
Once considered “the world’s toughest rally”, but dropped by the World Rally Championship in 2003, the KCB Safari Rally (wsafarirally.net) blazes a smaller trail across Kenya than it used to, doing a couple of “clover leaf” routes out from Nairobi and back. The rally is usually held on a weekend between Easter and June and uses public roads. Depending on weather conditions, drivers either spin through acres of mud or chase each other blind in enormous clouds of dust.
Another annual motor event, usually held in June, is the Rhino Charge motor race (wrhinocharge.co.ke), which attracts 4WD-drivers from across the globe, though these days it’s largely restricted to those who can raise the most funds. Registrations usually close about a year ahead. The funds raised go to the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, which has already fenced Aberdare National Park to protect its rhinos (wrhinoark.org). The challenge is to reach ten control posts in remote locations, whose whereabouts are revealed to the entrants only the night before the event.