Kenya: A Traveller’s “Must-Know” Introduction

This spring, I’ll be spending approximately a month each in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While I used to live in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are new to me! I’m very excited about the trip, and will be channelling my excitement into some introductory blog-posts about each country. So, this post is a quick introduction to the “must-know” factoids about Kenya.

Note: This post is not a travel guide to Kenya, and doesn’t include logistical advice on travel — instead, this is a run-down of some common knowledge and household names you should really know if you’re going to spend any time in Kenya… don’t want to be the ignorant tourist!

Must-Know Basic Facts about Kenya

When travelling to Kenya, there are a few basic facts which would be quite embarrassing to be caught in ignorance of, so let’s go over those first!

  • capital and largest city: Nairobi (Mombasa is #2)
  • president: Uhuru Kenyatta (since 2013 — his father, Jomo Kenyatta, was also president, 1964-1978)
  • currency: Kenyan shilling (ksh), often referred to when speaking as “bob”
  • official languages: Swahili and English (although there are around 70 languages spoken in the country)
And, just so you recognise it, this is the flag of Kenya.

Kenya: An Introduction via Maps

Now that we’ve got the absolute basics, let’s check out some maps to get a better sense of Kenya’s geography.

Kenya in East Africa

I know, it’s basic, but we’re starting from the beginning! Kenya is in eastern Africa, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Notice that Kenya is directly on the equator.

source: Ian Macky

A Basic Map: Kenya’s Major Cities, Geographic Features, and Land Borders

Next, check out this map of Kenya with some major cities and geographic landmarks shown. Here are a few you should take specific note of:

  • Nairobi = Kenya’s capital city
  • Mombasa = Kenya’s second-largest city, and largest port
  • Mount Kenya = Kenya’s tallest mountain
  • Great Rift Valley = one of Africa’s largest features, a giant valley where the continental plates are being slowly ripped apart

In addition, take note of the land borders. Kenya borders Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania.

source: World Factbook

A Tourists’s Map: Kenya’s Roads and National Parks

Next up, check out this map of Kenya more meant for tourism, with roads and national parks marked. Remember: roads doesn’t necessarily mean pavement, although Kenya does have an extensive network of paved roads, primarily in the central/southwest part of the country. You’ll notice that some “big names” aren’t on this map, like the Maasai Mara. That’s because it’s a national game reserve, and this map only shows national parks.

source: World Factbook

A Size Comparison Map: How Big is Kenya?

For any Americans reading, a size comparison can be a really helpful tool in understanding how big a country is. Here is Kenya overlaid with the eastern United States.

source: World Factbook

Famous Kenyans

Some Kenyans are household names internationally, some are not. Regardless, here are some incredibly accomplished and well-known Kenyans, who are definitely household names in Kenya.

  • Jomo Kenyatta (b. 1897, d. 1978, president of Kenya, 1964-1978): leader in Kenya’s independence efforts during the colonial era, first Kenyan leader post-independence
  • Daniel Arap Moi (b. 1924, d. 2020, president of Kenya, 1978-2002): second president of Kenya, known for his autocracy, ethnic persecution, and ban of opposition parties
  • Mwai Kibaki (b. 1931, president of Kenya, 2002-2013): third president of Kenya, signed into effect a new Kenyan constitution in 2010
  • Uhuru Kenyatta (b. 1961, president of Kenya, 2013-present): current president, son of Jomo Kenyatta
  • Raila Odinga (b. 1947, Kenya’s opposition leader): recently known for holding an inauguration ceremony in 2018, having declared himself the winner of a disputed presidential election (despite the government’s declaration that Kenyatta had won)
  • Wangari Maathai (b. 1940, d. 2011): environmental and social activist, first female African winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Eliud Kipchoge (b. 1984): world-renowned long-distance runner, holds the world record and Olympic records for the marathon
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (b. 1938): academic and writer, known for works such as “Decolonising the Mind” and his promotion of literature written in Gikuyu and other African languages
  • Sauti Sol (group of Bien-Aimé Baraza, Willis Chimano, Savara Mudigi, and Polycarp Otieno): afro-pop musical group, released their first record in 2008
  • Fena Gitu (b. 1991): musician and rap artist, well-known for her singles such as “Fenamenal Woman”