(Supported by a Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities)
Kenya Tanzania  Uganda Burundi  Rwanda

Kenya -- Geography

The total area of Kenya is 224,960 square miles; almost 5,200 sq. miles of this total takes the form of fresh water, mainly in Lake Rudolf.

Kenya is positioned on the equator on Africa's east coast. Its northernmost and southernmost points are approximately equidistant--a little over 40 north and south of the equator. Kenya shares borders with five other countries. The perimeter of Kenya's international land borders is 3,446 km., including borders with Sudan (306 km), Ethiopia (779 km), Somalia (682 km),

Tanzania (769 km), and Uganda (772 km). Kenya's eastern and northern neighbors are Somalia and Ethiopia. To the northwest lies the Sudan. Many inhabitants of the Sudan's border region are in fact ethnically related to Kenya `s peoples. To the west lies Uganda and to the south, Tanzania, both nations that share with Kenya a history of British colonial rule.

Geographical Regions
The country is commonly divided into seven major geographic regions, as follows.

The Coastal Region extends some 250 miles from the southern border where Kenya meets Tanzania, to the border with Somalia in the north. This region is characterized by a variety of geographical features, a variety that is particularly pronounced as one travels south or north. The southern shoreline consists largely of stretches of coral rock and sand interrupted by bays, inlets, and branched creeks. Following the coast is a barrier reef that is broken only rarely. Traveling inland from the coast, one encounters a narrow plain, and later a low plateau area reaching an elevation of about 500 feet, and, finally, a line of discontinuous ridges. The principal geographic feature of the northern part of the region is the Lamu Archipelago, which was formed when a rise in the ocean level inundated coastal lands.

The southern coastal hinterland is a relatively featureless erosional plain broken in a few places by groups of small hills. The Tana Plains are mainly a depositional plain; equally featureless and deficient in rainfall, this region extends northward from the upper Coastal Region to the northern plains. The plain's eastern edge forms the border of Somalia (into which it actually extends). The western part of the plain ends with the elevated Eastern Plateau Region. The Tana River flows across the plain from the Kenyan Highlands into the Indian Ocean. The Eastern Plateau

Region consists of a belt of plains extending north- and southward to the eastern Kenya Highlands. Land elevations vary mainly between 1,000 and 3,000 feet above sea level.

The Northern Plain-lands Region stretches from the border with Uganda on the west to the Somalia border on the east. It is made up of a series of arid plains formed by erosion or by great outpourings of lava. The region includes Lake Rudolf and the Chalbi Desert. West of the lake the lands are quite arid, with an annual rainfall that averages under ten inches and that falls some years to an almost negligible level. East of Lake Rudolf lies the Chalbi Desert; still farther east are equally arid lands that ordinarily support only semi-desert vegetation.

The Kenya Highlands Region was known as the White Highlands during colonial times since the European population tended to concentrate there. The region consists of two major divisions, lying east and west of the Great Rift Valley that runs north-south. These regions are made up of a variety of geographical subdivisions whose origins are diverse. The entire area is characterized by significantly higher altitude, cooler temperatures, and, generally speaking, more plentiful precipitation than in other regions.

Rift Valley Region encompasses Eastern Africa's Rift Valley which was formed by an extended series of faulting and differential rock movements. The valley stretches from Kenya's Lake Rudolf area, running southward through the Kenya Highlands into Tanzania. Near Lake Rudolf, the valley floor tapers down to less than 1,500 feet above sea level, but southward it rises steadily to nearly 6,200 feet in its central section near Lake Naivasha. South of the lake, it drops off to about 2,000 feet at the Kenya-Tanzania border.

The Western Plateau Region forms part of the extensive basin around Lake Victoria. In Kenya the region consists mainly of faulted plateaus marked by escarpments that descend gently from the Kenya Highlands to the lakeshore. The region is divided by the Kano Rift Valley into northern and southern sub-regions with distinct geographical features.[1]

Given that Kenya straddles the equator, its terrain is highly diversified with climatic conditions ranging from moist to arid. In this part of Africa, seasons are distinguished by duration of rainfall rather than by changes in temperature. In the Western Plateau and the Highlands, rain falls in a single long season. East of the rift valley, there are two distinct seasons: a period of long rains from March to May and one of short rains from September to October. Rainfall is most plentiful in the Highlands and on the coast which receive an average of 101 cm. The Western Plateau receives over 178 cm annually. More than 70% of the country, however, is arid or semi-arid, receiving less than 51 cm per year. Rainfall is sporadic in the dry areas.

Variations in altitude are the major factor in temperature differences in the various parts of the country. The Highlands generally have a cool, bracing climate with a mean annual maximum of 26.10C (790F) and a mean annual minimum of 10C (50F). Nairobi, at an elevation of 1,670 meters (5,500 feet), has a mean annual temperature of 19C (67F). The nation's highest temperatures are found in the Northern Plain, where the mean maximum is 34C (93F) and temperatures often reach 43.3C (110F). Temperatures varies between 14C (57F) and 29C (84F) in the Eastern Plateau, and between 34C (93F) and 17.8C (64F) and 21.1C (70F) in the coastal areas. The hottest months fall between January and March; the coldest are June and July.[2]

Kenya's plant life is highly diverse, ranging from mangrove forests and coconut palms on the coast to Savannah grassland and woods to thick coniferous evergreen forests on the mountain slopes. On the western plateaus, low trees grow amid grass over 1.5 meters high; similar vegetation is found between 915 and 1,829 meters east and south of Mount Kenya and near the headwaters of the Tana and Athi rivers. On the northern and southern edges of the highlands, flat-topped trees are scattered through meter-high grass. [3]

Drainage System
The area's principal drainage system begins in the Kenya Highlands Region. Streams and rivers radiate from this region eastward toward the Indian Ocean, westward to Lake Victoria, and run northward to Lake Rudolf or disappear the arid terrain of northern Kenya. A secondary drainage system is formed by rivers in the southern highlands of Ethiopia, which extend into Kenya along the eastern part of their shared boundary. These rivers are seasonal. Those receiving sufficient rainwater to reach the sea all pass through Somalia. The two largest rivers--the only navigable ones--are the Tana and the Galana, which empty into the Indian Ocean. The Tana basin has an area of about 24,000 square miles and receives much of the flow from the Aberdare Range and Mount Kenya. The Galana River has its source in the southeastern Kenya Highlands and flows together with its tributaries into the Indian Ocean north of Malindi.

Several smaller rivers begin in the foothills of the eastern Kenya Highlands in the Tana River basin. The Lagh Thua and Mkondo Wa Kokani rivers disappear in the semi-arid region east of the highlands; only in times of heavy rainfall do their waters cross the area to empty into the Tana River. South of the Galana, the Goshi River runs about 130 miles, fifty miles of whose lower course has water in the dry season.

The western Kenya Highlands are drained by a number of rivers that empty into Lake Victoria. The largest of these are the Nzoia, about 160 miles long, and the Yala, with a length of about 110 miles. Yala Falls and Selby Falls (on a tributary of the Nzoia) have considerable potential for generating hydroelectric power. The Mara River, in the Mau Escarpment in the southwest highlands, flows southward for about 100 miles, enters Tanzania, and turns westward to flow for almost another 100 miles into Lake Victoria. The northern Kenya Highlands east of the Rift Valley are drained by small rivers that disappear in the arid land to the north and by the larger, eastward-flowing system of the Ewaso Ngiro, which has a drainage basin of approximately 22,000 square miles.[4]

[1] Kaplan, Irving & 1976. Area Handbook for Kenya, Second Ed., U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C. pp. 50-64.

[2] Kurian, George Thomas 1992. Encyclopedia of the Third World, fourth edition,

volume III, Facts on File: New York, N.Y., pp. 968-69.

[3] Uwechue, Raph (ed.) 1996. Africa Today, Third Edition, Africa Books Limited, p. 854.

[4] Kaplan, Irving & 1976. Area Handbook for Kenya, Second Ed., U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C. pp. 57-58.

Previous Menu Home Page What's New Search Disclaimer