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Kenya - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceKenya - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


The Democratic Republic of Kenya lies across the equator on the east coast of Africa. It borders Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan to the north; Uganda to the west; Tanzania to the south; and the Indian Ocean to the east. The country covers an area of 222,845 square miles, approximately the size of the state of Texas. Almost 80 percent of the land mass ranges from arid to semi-arid savanna land, mostly occupied by sparsely populated communities that combine agriculture with pastoralism. Tourism is one of the main ways in which the country earns foreign currency. Kenya has a moderate climate, much open space, and an abundance of wildlife that attracts people from all over the world. Modern transportation has made traveling in the country more convenient. It takes approximately 45 minutes by air and six hours by road to travel from the wild game parks to the Indian Ocean coast, which has many popular beaches.

The country is divided into eight provinces including the Nairobi area: Central, Coast, Eastern, North, Rift Valley, Western, and North Eastern. They are divided into administrative areas known as districts. Nairobi is the capital city with a population of approximately 1.4 million. Other major towns include Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu, and Eldoret.

The 1997 census estimated the population at 29.1 million. There are numerous religious affiliations, with the population being approximately 40 percent Protestant, 30 percent Roman Catholic, 6 percent Muslim, and 23 percent other religious believers (Embassy of the Republic of Kenya 2001).

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (2000) indicated that the July 2000 population was estimated at 30.3 million. The report notes that these estimates explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS, which can result in lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality and death rates, lower population and growth rates, and larger changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected.

In Kenya, there are 42 ethnic groups, each with a unique language, divided into four major linguistic groups: the Khoisans, Bantu, Nilotics, and Cushites. Swahili (Kiswahili) is the national language, and English is the official language and the medium of instruction. As a result of interaction between the coastal Bantu, the Arabs, and other groups, the Swahili language developed as early as the fifth century. The Swahili speaking people (Waswahili) are made up of a mixture of different people from various ethnic groups, especially the coastal Bantu (the Miji Kenda), known as the nine tribes of the coast. The Waswahili mainly dwell in the cities and the majority of them are Moslem. The main Kenyan ethnic groups include: Kikuyu, 22 percent; Luhya, 14 percent; Luo, 13 percent; Kalenjin, 12 percent; Kamba, 11 percent; Kisii, 6 percent; Meru, 6 percent; other African, 15 percent (which includes the Miji Kenda); and non-African (Asian, European, and Arab), 1 percent.

The country's history dates back to the Stone Age. Kenya possesses one of the world's largest and most complete records of man's cultural development, partly because of the country's rich variety of environmental factors conducive to human survival and development. According to archeological finds in various parts of the country, the prehistoric period is divided into two categories: the Stone Age period, which dates from about two million years ago, and the Neolithic period, which dates from about 2,000 to 10,000 years ago. Available evidence indicates that man left behind traces of his occupation during the Iron Age through the precolonial period and up to the present time. The phases of the various periods are characterized by tools ranging from crude to advanced (Quyum 2001).

Kenya was colonized by the British government for 70 years. It became a British protectorate after the Anglo-German agreement of 1890. At this time the British main interest was not to control local people, but to construct a railway that would connect Uganda, Zanzibar, and the Indian Ocean. The railway was important for strategic and economic reasons; it was to be the main link that would connect Lake Victoria (the source of the river Nile) and Uganda, which was also under British control. The construction of the railway led to a large immigration of people from India who were imported to work on the railway. Other immigrants from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada followed in 1903 as economic interests grew. European settlers from South Africa also moved to the new British territory.

In order to prosper, the colonial government had to force the Africans who lived in its protectorates to work. In 1901 the British imposed tax payments in every area that they controlled. In order to maintain control over Africans, the British limited their education to mere practical skills, suitable for working on the farms. The missionaries and Islamic groups on the Indian Ocean coast had already established schools. The discriminatory attitudes and the imposition of taxes, forced labor, and land confiscation caused friction between Africans and the colonial government. The friction triggered a political consciousness among Africans, which led to the eventual resistance by Africans against British rule. The strongest rebellion against the British was the Mau Mau, first in 1890 and the last in 1952. This period marked the beginning of African nationalism.

Daniel N. Sifuna, in the book, Development of Education in Africa: The Kenyan Experience (1990), points out that the Second World War brought not only an economic boom, but also a significant psychological change that led to the subsequent spread of nationalism in Africa. Previously, Europeans had dominated Africans by demonstrating advanced military and economic power and an attitude of superiority and invincibility. Many Africans, after fighting alongside the European soldiers, realized that the Europeans were equally vulnerable human beings. Thus, the white superiority myth was destroyed.

The Mau Mau resistance paved the way for constitutional reforms and development in subsequent years. In 1955, various political parties were formed all over the country after the colonial government yielded to their formation. Elections were held in March 1957, after which racial barriers in the government began to be lifted. In 1960, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), which advocated a unitary government, was formed. In 1961 the Kenya African Democratic Union, which advocated a quasifederal government (Majimbo), was also formed. The first full franchise general elections were held in May 1963, and KANU emerged the winner. In June 1963, Kenya attained internal self-government. On December 12 of the same year, independence was achieved with a complex (Majimbo) constitution, which conceded much autonomy to the regions. On the first anniversary of independence in 1964, Kenya became a republic, with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta as president. Following his death on 22 August 1978, the Honorable Daniel Arap Moi assumed the presidency in accordance with the Kenyan Constitution.

After independence, Kenya faced an enormous challenge of reforming the educational system to reflect its citizen's needs. Such a challenge continues to haunt the country today. One difficulty lies in developing an education system to replace the one inherited from the colonial government.

Sifuna (1990) defines education as the "whole process by which one generation transmits its culture to the succeeding generation, or better still a process by which people are prepared to live effectively and efficiently in their environment." This definition fits a universal view of what education is, and what it aspires to be. Thus, the difference between African-Kenyan indigenous education and that inherited from the British is in its application or methods and interpretation of the needs of the society by its leaders.

Usage of the Terms Race, Ethnicity, & Tribe: It should be noted that the terms: race, ethnicity, and tribe can be confusing. The meaning depends on who is using the term and from what era. In colonial times, the Europeans often viewed Africans as uncivilized people, and, when describing African groups, did not consider their language variations or linguistic diversity as important. They often referred to Africans as "black people" or a "black race" divided into different tribes. However, Africans in general, including Kenyans, identify themselves according to their linguistic groups, as Irish-, Italian-, or German-speakers do. Thus, the Kamba people who speak the Kikamba language or the Kikuyu people who speak the Gikuyu language belong to two different ethnic groups.

In the twenty-first century, usage of the terms race and tribe can portray insensitivity and a racist attitude, particularly when the term race is used to refer to the skin color of the people but not their culture, language, and ancestry. Confusion occurs when the term race is used in place of ethnicity because race can refer to skin color, whereas ethnicity means more than physical description. The following description of kinship should help clarify misconceptions and confusion caused by usage of the terms race, ethnicity, and tribe. It is also important because it clears the distortion that has been imposed on Africans' identity in general by foreigners.

Kinship: In Kenya and Africa, traditional ethnic groups were determined by geographical region, language, and common culture. Each ethnic group had its own social and political organization with a strong sense of kinship. Kinship controls social relationships between people in a given community, governs marital customs and laws, and determines the behavior of one individual towards another (Mbiti 1992).

Understanding kinship is important as far as intracultural (cultural awareness among Kenyans), cross-cultural (awareness transfer or borrowing from one culture to another), and intercultural (awareness between different cultures through interaction) factors are concerned. An awareness of kinship was lacking when Western education was introduced in Kenya. Exclusion of the indigenous form of education from formal education in Kenya has led to an alienation of cultural identity. This is one of the main reasons why many Kenyans feel the education system needs a complete overhaul in the twenty-first century. Education in Kenya has been declared dysfunctional because it has failed to address a full range of economic, social and cultural, political, and psychological perspectives.

In traditional societies, the community took precedence over the individual. Members owed existence to one another, including both their ancestors and contemporaries. Marriage was highly valued, as were children. "Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. Therefore the individual can only say, 'I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am"' (Mbiti 1992). Communities lived together in villages, which included farm fields and animal sheds along with houses and shrines. The style of traditional houses varied from community to community. Some were round in shape, built around the village compound in a circle or semicircle, while others were rectangular in shape. The houses generally faced the center of the compound (Mbiti 1992).

Very little has been included in the educational curricula that emphasizes ancient African civilization. Most emphasis is placed on understanding Europeans and life outside the African continent. Thus, it is not surprising to find that most educated Kenyans have not visited or know much about the ancient civilization archives in Egypt, just two hours away by air.

Indigenous Education in Kenya: Kenyans as well as other Africans did not live in the society as one nation of people. Therefore, they did not have one single indigenous form of education. As Sifuna (1990) points out, Africans had different systems of education to transmit their own particular knowledge and skills. He notes that, although the African-Kenyan indigenous education differed from one ethnic group to another, the goals were very similar. The main purpose of indigenous education was to train youth for adulthood. Emphasis was placed on the established norms (normative goals) that were unique to each ethnic group, which reflected the standards and beliefs of the correct behavior (ethical and moral character in Western terms). Other goals were expressive that emphasized unity and consensus. Competitiveness in intellectual and practical matters was encouraged. In essence, African-Kenyan indigenous education had a holistic approach that emphasized social responsibility, job orientation, political participation, spirituality and moral values.

The curriculum was pragmatic by design. Environmental knowledge was crucial in order for the student to overcome hardships and to exploit it for survival reasons. Therefore, the student had to acquire knowledge of physical geography, appropriate technology, plants, animals, and insects. Also, learning how to get along and stay close, with a sense of cultural identity and community, and strong government was highly emphasized. Understanding "who you are" through kinship (lineage and ethnicity), and one's role in society was highly valued. Most of the activities that taught these values were very ritualistic, and constituted civic responsibilities. Thus, depending on one's clan and ethnic group, the rituals involved initiation rites and ceremonies that were symbolic and served as a form of teaching and learning.

Informal methods of instruction involved productive and meaningful work, mostly learning by doing along with adults. The formal methods of teaching involved a theoretical and practical inculcation of skills through apprenticeship. The philosophical foundations that shaped indigenous education were universal to all ethnic groups. The foundation included the following philosophies: communalism, preparationism, functionalism, and holisticism.

Communalism emphasized group cohesion. Preparationism prepared children to become useful members of the household, village, clan, and ethnic group (tribe). The preparation of young people was gender specific, where girls learned from women and boys from men. Functionalism is another philosophy that is strictly utilitarian, used as an immediate induction into society and preparation for adulthood, a participatory process. Functionalism incorporates spiritual and moral living, economic communal participation, and job orientation and application.

Another philosophy, perennialism, focused on transmission of heritage from one generation to another. This is the way the civilization of a people is perpetuated and assurance of continuity of cultural heritage. It is a collective means through which the society initiates its young generation. Lastly, holisticism involved learning without any specialization, in which aims, content, and methods are inextricably interwoven. This principle requires critical thinking and creativity (Sifuna 1990).

Sifuna (1990) asserts that, while indigenous education is suitable for Kenyans, it has some weaknesses and deficiencies that would not adequately fit today. These weaknesses include the neglect of the individual, little contact with the outside world due to the confinement to the ethnic group (tribe), and the static nature of a lifestyle where there are few career choices.

Despite these weaknesses, the question remains: Why did the postindependence education reform movement fail to integrate the indigenous aspects of education? One of the reasons was the lack of ideological base, and a leadership that adapted Western ideas in shaping education without integrating them with the indigenous elements that were reflective to Kenyans' psyches and needs. The new leaders were also working with the former colonial expatriates who also shared the expenses. Thus, the educational reforms had to serve the interests of the former colonial government through funding and expertise (usually viewed as "Neocolonialism"). Adapted ideas of political process also contributed to the maintenance of status quo.

The constitutional and the legal foundations of education in Kenya have been shaped and guided by a reactionary, reactive process. It is reasonable to conclude that, after independence, Kenya was mostly concerned with re-appropriating the land to the people. While educational development was not the main focus, it became important as the country developed and started to interact with the rest of the world.

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