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.
Theatrical performances are effectively limited to one or two semi-professional clubs in Nairobi and Mombasa and a handful of upcountry amateur dramatic groups.
Kenya is a frequent location for international film-makers, from Out of Africa to Disney’s African Cats, but there’s almost no home-grown industry, and cinema in Kenya revolves almost entirely around imports. The big towns have a few cinemas, including an IMAX in Nairobi, but downloads or DVDs are how most people get their movies, with US and Bollywood box-office hits the staple diet.
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.
Kenya’s ongoing Olympic success story is internationally recognized, with a regular clutch of gold and silver in the track events – the most recent achievement was at the 2016 Olympics in Río, where Kenyan athletes won six gold medals, six silver medals and one bronze in the country’s best ever Olympic performance. This massive triumph, however, was overshadowed by scandal after one coach was found to have posed as an athlete and submitted his own urine sample for dope testing, while the Kenyan track manager sent home following doping allegations.
Football is wildly popular, with English Premier League teams having millions of devoted fans. You’ll see plenty of matatus decorated with the colours of Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United, and any small bar with DSTV will show all the big games from Europe and will always be packed. Kenya’s national team, the Harambee Stars, have not fared so well, however, and while the country most recently hosted the East and Central African CECAFA Cup in 2009, it hasn’t won it since 2002, and neither has it qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations since 2004 (or ever qualified for the FIFA World Cup). Nevertheless, matches played against visiting international teams at Nairobi’s Nyayo National Stadium are spirited occasions.
Kenyan cricket reached its highest points when the national team beat the West Indies at the World Cup in 1996 and came third overall in 2003. It hasn’t progressed much on the international agenda since then, but most matches, played in the Nairobi area, get a good turnout and the game is particularly popular with the Asian communities. Check out Cricket Kenya.
Other spectator sports include: horse-racing at the racecourse in Nairobi, which dates from early colonial times; and camel-racing, spotlighted annually at the International Camel Derby in Maralal.
Once considered “the world’s toughest rally”, but dropped by the World Rally Championship in 2003, the KCB Safari Rally 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, 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 challenge is to reach ten control posts in remote locations, whose whereabouts are revealed to the entrants only the night before the event. The funds raised go to Rhino Ark, a charitable trust that works to protect forest ecosystems in Kenya; it has already fenced Aberdare National Park and is now involved in fencing part of the Mau Forest Complex.