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

Kenya --Material Culture

Each of Kenya's ethnic groups has a wide range of material cultural products including architecture, cooking utensils, clothes, textiles, farming equipment, hunting tools, baskets, mats, head rests, shields, art works, carvings, sculpture, etc. The following only highlights a few cultural materials. However, most art and craft production is for the lucrative tourist market. A stroll in downtown Nairobi will reveal the diversity of items and quality available. Sculpture of poor quality and low price to museum quality work can be found in Kenya. The same goes for art; batiks, which are common, also vary dramatically in price and quality. Other items produced for the tourist market include sisal baskets, soapstone sculpture from Kisii, elephant hair (not real elephant hair) bracelets, Maasai bead jewelry, musical instruments, and silver and gold jewelry.

One aspect of material culture that is important to Kenyans and not destined for the tourist market is the work of craftsmen who transform waste items into every day useful things. For example, old oil drums are turned into cooking pots or tiny stoves called jikos; used tires are turned into sandals.

One of the most visible textiles in Kenya is the kanga. It is a large colorful cloth that has a traditional saying or proverb in Swahili. Women usually wear a kanga over their other clothing to keep it clean, to carry their children, or to carry things. Some examples of kanga sayings are[1]:

Tulia tuishi wazuri haweshi - Calm down and live with me, pretty ones are never in short supply.

Hata ukinichukia la kweli nitakwambia - Hate me, but I won't stop telling you the truth.

Moyo wa kupenda hauna subira - A heart deep in love has no patience.

Usikumbuke uovu ukasahau fadhila - Don't remember the evil things only while forgetting to be thankful for the good deeds - Make a judgement based on both, the good and bad side of everything.

Halua ya lozi imemshinda mdokozi - An almond sweetmeat is a formidable challenge to a petty thief - Sweetmeat is a famous dessert in Zanzibar and along the coast of East Africa. It is made of starch, sugar, oil and sometimes nuts or sesame seeds. Depending on the way it is made, it can be as soft as a jelly, but sometimes it may be very hard to cut with fingers. The saying above is meant to laugh at someone who has attempted in vain to do something, especially to win over somebody else's lover.

Ukiujua huu, huu huujui - If you know this one, you don't know this (other) one - Sometimes interpreted as a gesture demonstrated by flies when they rub their legs forward and then repeat rubbing their legs backward. i.e if you know the forward one, you don't know the backward one. In other words you will always find that there is something you don't know.

Mchezea wembe humkata mwenyewe - He who plays with a razor, cuts himself - If you get involved in a dangerous exercise, you are bound to be harmed physically or emotionally.

Mchimba kisima, huingia mwenyewe - He who digs a well, gets himself inside - A person who sets a trap often times finds himself caught in it. If you have bad intentions against others, chances are, you'll be the first to be affected by those intentions directly or indirectly.

Haba na haba, hujaza kibaba - Little and little, fills the measure - Small things, when combined together make up big things.

Men on the coast wear kikoi, a type of sarong that comes in many different colors and textiles. However, the preferred style is stripes.

The Maasai produce colorful beaded jewelry which includes earrings and collars. Another Maasai item is the decorated calabash. A gourd is dried out by burning grass in it. The Maasai use these gourds for keeping milk and blood, and they add soot to aid in the fermentation of milk. The gourds are decorated by carving figures and geometric designs on the outside.

[1] Http://

For Further Reading:

ADDIN ENBbu 32003900370039004400380039003
Ghaidan, Usam. 1972. Swahili plasterwork. African Arts 6 (2):46-49.

Orchardson-Mazrui, Elizabeth C. 1993. Jangamizi: Spirit and Sculpture. African Languages and Culture 6(2):147-160.

Todd, C. 1961. Modern sculpture and sculptors in East Africa. African Music 2 (4):72-76.



Previous Menu Home Page What's New Search Disclaimer