Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Craftwork is quite popular around Kenya, and it’s important to note that every group of people have their own skills and artistic styles. Much of their art work may be tied to their region, their ancestry, and their religion. Although there are many areas hit hard by poverty, there is a sense of pride in their craft work. While originally, many of these crafts were designed as home wares, and certainly some of these objects still decorate Kenyan homes, but today many of the handicrafts and sculptures are made with the tourists in mind. Wood carvings are popular, and many of the most common items are of animals or people (especially the iconic African figures, such as a woman carrying a basket on her head).  Besides wood carvings, there are also soap stone carvings. Soap stone is a material that is often mined in the western regions of Kenya and has to be wet sanded and polished and dyed. 


Other handicraft objects include jewelry, especially brightly colored beadwork. They also use a lot of cowry shells, which has a special meaning in many of the Kenyan cultures. Maasai spears and shields are also popular items tourists buy, although a little more difficult to take home.

One art lies in the tradition of making drums. Drumming and percussion instruments are an important part of Kenyan society, and with this there are many different types of drums that are often decorated with geometric designs on the outside or with tassels and rattles. 

Basket weaving and gourd carving are not only beautiful, but it’s also functional. Baskets are various sizes and shapes are used to store food while gourds are mostly used for storing liquids. 

Kenyan literature is primarily written in either English or Swahili, the two official languages of the country, although you may also find books written in other local languages. Swahili was actually written in the Arabic script during its early days. The language was spread along the coastal areas by fishermen, and as trade with Oman and other Arabian countries ventured into the area, Swahili adopted many Arabic words into its own language. The Story of Tambuka (Utendi wa Tambuka) is one of the earliest examples of poetry from this area, written in 1728, and is an example of Swahili written with the Arabic script. As the Europeans arrived later, the language script was changed over to Roman letters as it is today. 

Swahili literature generally fell into three styles: poetry, novels, and drama. Because of the ties between Swahili and Arabic, there are a few similarities between the two styles of poetry, but they are essentially as different as the languages are. What started out as oral narratives soon became the early forms of novels, but these were generally in the form of histories and other nonfiction works. However, written fiction in Swahili didn’t really make its entrance until the 1940s. 

There are many Kenyan writers who have emerged in the literary field. When Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote his novel Weep Not, Child, it was the first English-language novel published by an East African writer. Although he writes in English, he also writes in his native language of Kikuyu. Thiong’o is also known for his novels The River Between (which is required reading for schools) and A Grain of Wheat

Perhaps because of its exoticness or its picturesque view of what non-Africans view as being “African,” Kenya has long been the setting of many other books by authors from abroad. Quite possibly, the most well known of these would be Out of Africa by the Danish author Isak Dinesen (writing under the nom de plume Karen Blixen). If you want to read other books set in Kenya, you might also want to check out Coming to Birth by Margorie Oludhe Macgoye, The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley, and West With the Night by Beryl Markham.

Up next:  music and dance

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