The African peoples of Kenya, who constitute virtually the entire population, are divided into three language groups: Bantu, Nilo-Saharan, and Afro-Asiatic. Bantu is by far the largest, and its speakers are mainly concentrated in the southern third of the country. The Kikuyu, Kamba, Meru, and Nyika peoples occupy the fertile Central Rift highlands, while the Luhya and Gusii inhabit the Lake Victoria basin.
Nilo-Saharan—represented by the languages of Kalenjin, Luo, Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana—is the next largest group. The rural Luo inhabit the lower parts of the western plateau, and the Kalenjin-speaking people occupy the higher parts of it. The Maasai are pastoral nomads in the southern region bordering Tanzania, and the related Samburu and Turkana pursue the same occupation in the arid northwest.
The Afro-Asiatic peoples, who inhabit the arid and semiarid regions of the north and northeast, constitute only a tiny fraction of Kenya’s population. They are divided between the Somali, bordering Somalia, and the Oromo, bordering Ethiopia; both groups pursue a pastoral livelihood in areas that are subject to famine, drought, and desertification. Another Afro-Asiatic people is the Burji, some of whom are descended from workers brought from Ethiopia in the 1930s to build roads in northern Kenya.
In addition to the African population, Kenya is home to groups who immigrated there during British colonial rule. People from India and Pakistan began arriving in the 19th century, although many left after independence. A substantial number remain in urban areas such as Kisumu, Mombasa, and Nairobi, where they engage in various business activities. European Kenyans, mostly British in origin, are the remnant of the colonial population. Their numbers were once much larger, but most emigrated at independence to Southern Africa, Europe, and elsewhere. Those who remain are found in the large urban centres of Mombasa and Nairobi.
The Swahili (mostly the products of marriages between Arabs and Africans) live along the coast. Arabs introduced Islam into Kenya when they entered the area from the Arabian Peninsula about the 8th century AD. Although a wide variety of languages are spoken in Kenya, the lingua franca is Swahili. This multipurpose language, which evolved along the coast from elements of local Bantu languages, Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, Hindi, and English, is the language of local trade and is also used (along with English) as an official language in the Kenyan legislative body, the National Assembly, and the courts.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. More than four-fifths of the people are Christian, primarily attending Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. Christianity first came to Kenya in the 15th century through the Portuguese, but this contact ended in the 17th century. Christianity was revived at the end of the 19th century and expanded rapidly. African traditional religions have a concept of a supreme being who is known by various names. Many syncretic faiths have arisen in which the adherents borrow from Christian traditions and African religious practices. Independent churches are numerous; one such church, the Maria Legio of Africa, is dominated by the Luo people. Muslims constitute a sizable minority and include both Sunnis and Shīʿites. There are also small populations of Jews, Jains, Sikhs, and Bahaʾis. In remote areas, Christian mission stations offer educational and medical facilities as well as religious ones.
Most of Kenya’s population is rural and lives in scattered settlements, the location and concentration of which depend largely on climatic and soil conditions. Before European colonization, virtually no villages or towns existed except along the coast, while urbanization was confined to fishing villages, Arab trading ports, and towns visited by dhows from the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. The modern cities of Mombasa, Lamu, and Malindi were among the preexisting urban areas that were expanded during the colonial period. Nairobi, originally a Maasai watering hole, became important because of its connection to the railroad, which came through the area at the beginning of the 20th century. Other towns, such as Eldoret, Embu, Kisumu, and Nakuru, were established by Europeans as administrative centres, mission stations, and markets.
The migration from rural to urban areas has accelerated since independence, spurred by greater economic development in urban areas. In the late 1960s about one-tenth of the national population lived in urban areas of 1,000 or more people; by the turn of the 21st century the figure had more than doubled. The largest coastal city is Mombasa, while the majority of Kenyans in the interior live in the capital city, Nairobi. The influx of people has placed a major burden on the provision of such services as education, health and sanitation, water, and electricity.
Kenya’s accelerating population growth from the early 1960s to the early 1980s seriously constrained the country’s social and economic development. During the first quarter of the 20th century, the total population was fewer than four million, largely because of famines, wars, and disease. By the late 1940s the population had risen to more than five million, and at independence in 1963 it was more than eight million and growing rapidly. The population exceeded 20 million by the mid-1980s, after which the growth rate began slowing dramatically. Nonetheless, in the early 21st century the rate of natural increase was still above the world average. As some two-thirds of Kenyans were under age 30, the country’s higher-than-average growth rate was expected to continue for some time. The pressure of such a population explosion produced limited employment opportunities; rising costs for education, health services, and food imports; and an inability to generate the resources to build housing in both urban and rural areas.
The most important causes of the country’s explosive growth in population were a sharp fall in mortality rates—especially infant mortality—and the traditional preference for large families. The slower population growth of the late 20th and early 21st centuries occurred in part because fertility and birth rates were lower but also because the number of deaths from AIDS was increasing. In the early 21st century, life expectancy in Kenya was below the world average.
Since independence was achieved in 1963, Kenya’s economy has contained both privately owned and state-run enterprises. Most of the country’s business is in private hands (with a large amount of foreign investment), but the government also shapes the country’s economic development through various regulatory powers and “parastatals,” or enterprises that it partly or wholly owns. The aim of this policy is to achieve economic growth and stability, generate employment, and maximize foreign earnings by achieving high levels of agricultural exports while substituting domestically produced goods for those that have been imported. For a decade after independence this policy showed great promise as rising wages, employment, and government revenue provided the means for expanding health services, education, transportation, and communication. But problems that arose with the rise of global oil prices in 1973 have been aggravated by periodic drought and accelerating population growth, and Kenya’s economy has been unable to maintain a favourable balance of trade while addressing the problems of chronic poverty and growing unemployment. The country’s ability to industrialize has been hampered by, among other factors, limited domestic purchasing power, shrinking government budgets, increased external and internal debt, poor infrastructure, and massive governmental corruption and mismanagement.
In an effort to decrease its dependence on volatile agricultural markets, Kenya attempted to diversify its exports in the last decade of the 20th century, adding horticultural products, clothing, cement, soda ash, and fluorspar. The country also made the export of manufactured goods such as paper and vehicles a priority. Domestic restrictions on imports have been removed slowly, however, and this policy has been only partially successful. Kenya’s economy, which did not grow at a constant rate during the last two decades of the 20th century, continued to be dominated by the external market; tourism and agricultural exports were still the major source of foreign exchange for the country in the early 21st century.