new internationalist
issue 256 - June 1994

Country profile: Kenya

Where is Kenya? There is a striking contrast for the first-time visitor to Nairobi between the prosperity of Kenya's capital city with its tower-block landscape, and the grinding poverty that exists in the shadow of bank buildings and tourist hotels.

Kenya became independent from Britain in 1963. Under Jomo Kenyatta, the first President, agriculture became the basis of an economic 'miracle'. Good agricultural land has always been at a premium, concentrated in the fertile highlands and covering less than one-fifth of the total land area. As early as 1902 the first white settlers established their plantations here.

Those dispossessed of their land, largely the Kikuyu people, later became the driving force behind the Mau-Mau revolt that led to independence. Although initially smallholders were able to buy land cheaply from departing white settlers, land ownership is still highly concentrated. Under Kenyatta, a Kikuyu élite occupied many of the top positions in government and the civil service, maintaining privilege for the few.

The record of Kenyatta's successor, Daniel arap Moi, who took over in 1978, has been tainted by similar accusations of a lack of genuine commitment to democracy. Political dissent by opposition MPs and the press is suppressed, often violently. Economic mismanagement, government corruption and the absence of political reform led to the suspension of vital foreign aid in late 1991. The ensuing severe economic recession dealt a particularly heavy blow to the poor.

Karanja is typical of a growing number of urban slum dwellers. He works as a messenger for Sh 1,200 a month (about $25) but after inflation effectively slashed his real income, he can no longer afford the Sh 400 rent for his flat.

Street children and families like Kavanja's in shantytowns are a growing phenomenon in urban areas. The problem is amplified by refugees from neighbouring countries. Violence among different ethnic groups has worsened since the 1992 multi-party elections when the political parties split along tribal lines. This has forced many to flee to the towns.

Life in the rural areas is not easy, notably for women who do most of the farming. With unpredictable rains in recent years, farmers have been by turns washed out by floods and desiccated by drought. It is also quite common for men to migrate to the towns to look for paid jobs as people's priorities are cash to pay for children's secondary education. But as many as 300,000 children are estimated to be orphaned as a result of parental deaths from Aids.

Following the multi-party elections, the World Bank's agreement to resume aid included a commitment by the Government to cushion the poorest people from the effects of further economic reforms such as cuts in public spending. It remains to be seen if this rhetorical commitment will translate into real protection for the most vulnerable groups facing the deep inequalities that exist in Kenya today.

Ben Oakley


LEADER: President Daniel arap Moi

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US $340 (US $22,240)
Monetary unit: Kenya shilling
Main exports: Coffee, tea, fruit and vegetables, cement and sisal; tourism is main foreign exchange earner.
Main imports: Petroleum, machinery, food. Agriculture is mainstay of the economy. Food crops are maize, sorghum, cassava, beans and fruit. Cash crops are coffee, tea, sugar, cotton, pyrethrum, sisal, tobacco, pineapples and wattle.

PEOPLE: 25 million. Almost half of the population under 15 years old. Kenya has one of the fastest population growth rates in the world.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 51 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: About 40 ethnic groups including Samburu, Masai and Kikuyu; also significant Asian (80,000), Arab (27,000) and European (25,000) communities.
Religion: Christian, with a minority Muslim population around the coastal areas. Animism important in the lives of many Kenyans.
Languages: Swahili and English are the official languages, but Kikuyu and Luo common. English vigorously promoted, especially in schools.

Sources: Third World Guide 93/94; The State of the World's Children 1994; World Development Report 1992; World Tables 1992; Child mortality since the 1960s, 1992; Trends in developing countries 1992; Economist Intelligence Unit 1992-3; African Development Indicators (UN) 1992.

Last profiled in January 1984



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Poor suffer disproportionately from effects of economic recession.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
69% (women 58%) Improving.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Exports earn less than imports cost. World Bank support resumed in 1993.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Harassment of the media and political opponents.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Formal political participation low but grassroots organization growing.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
59 years.

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Politics now

Politics then

Centre-right. 1992 multi-party elections gave opposition parties a platform, but Moi and ruling KANU party retain power.


NI star rating

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