Kenya (582 640 km2 - roughly 225.000 square miles) is a country of stunning contrasts between widespread and almost empty regions that are heavenly for tourists looking for safaris, and overpopulated areas with land issues that are becoming very worrisome. Almost 60% of the population lives on less than 8% of the country's surface. Ecology and History explain this situation.
Located in Eastern Africa, this equatorial country, a former British colony that became a member of the Commonwealth in 1963, shares borders with Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania. The landscape is the result of a large tectonic accident: the Rift Valley is a depression formed by a group of trenches stretching from Djibouti to Lake Malawi, crossing along a quasi-meridian direction the western half of Kenya.
The formation of the Rift went through many paroxysmal phases and provoked the extrusion of large flows, essentially basaltic, that overflowed the trench mainly to the east, north and southwest. The bottom of the Rift is very irregular and has different altitudes. It rises by levels from Lake Turkana to Lake Naivasha, before lowering towards Lake Natron, at the Tanzanian border. The area is interspersed with volcanoes (such as Longonot) and sometimes broken up with a dense network of meridian fault lines. On either side of the Rift, the eastern and western Highlands are morphologically different. To the east, stretch regular slopping plateaus. To the west, on the other hand, the lava flows are less important. The base rock, full of fault lines, shows up more often: boulders (Nandi and Kisii country, and Luhya plateau) or collapsed areas (Kavirondo gulf, next to Lake Victoria). At a distance from the Rift, large volcanoes dominate the landscape: Mount Kenya (5 199 m/17.000 feet to the east), the almost perfect cinder cone of Mount Elgon (4 321 m/14.000 feet) to the west, Marsabit to the north. The Kilimanjaro (5 892 m/ 19.300 feet) is located to the south, in Tanzanian territory.
The low monotonous peripheral regions, to the north and east, are the result of the leveling of the base rock (like in Nyika country, between the capital Nairobi and Mombasa) or of volcanic flows. Their desolation is accentuated by the drought, for example in the Marsabit region. There are isolated areas of altitude: residual elevation in the base rock (Kamba, Taita), alignment of volcanic cones (Chluyu). Only the coastal fringe, where rainfall is sufficient to allow for agriculture up to the Somali border, has a varied landscape: a succession of elevations and depressions that have exploited the uneven resistance of cretaceous and tertiary sedimentations. At the edge of the Indian Ocean, coral reefs have developed.
Climate and vegetation
Despite between located in both hemispheres, Kenya does not get much rainfall. The equatorial climate has two rain seasons, around October and April. Low regions get less than 600 mm, insufficient for agriculture but enough for high quality grazing fields. Rains exceed 1000 mm in the elevated regions (over 1500 m/4.900 feet) and around Lake Victoria. The fundamental contrast between the Highlands and the low lands is a defining trait of Kenyan geography.
The overall shortage of rainfall and topology affect the hydrography: few waterways reach the sea. The only of importance are the Tana and the Galana. To the northwest, the Kerio and the Turkwel are tributaries of Lake Turkana.
The low-lying areas hold vast expanses of dry formations: steppes, savannahs with acacias, bush, to desert in the north. A richer vegetation characterizes the areas to the north, a mosaic arranged according to the elevation and orientation of the slopes. Between 1600 and 2700 m (5250 and 8850 feet), the forests, which have declined due to human activity, are often replaced by grass formations with pennisetum (Kikuyu grass) and cynodon (star grass). Higher up one can find areas covered with bamboos, an altitude forest with epiphytes and alpine prairies. Apart from a favorable rainfall, the elevated regions enjoy varied soils along the slopes, richer on the basaltic flows although honorable on the base rock. It is therefore understandable that the differences in density and the summary distribution of the country between pastoral and agricultural regions have an essentially environmental reason.
The Kenyan population stems from very different cultures and languages. With one of the world's highest natural growth rates (2.6% per year) [1997 estimate], the population, estimated at 32 million  has tripled over three decades. The impact of AIDS, however, has not yet been measured. Despite birth control programs instituted very early on, demographic growth passed 4% during the 1980s, compared to 2.5% during the post-war period. The demographic transition was based firstly on the decreasing of the infant mortality rate (184 per thousand in 1948; 65.8 per thousand in 1992). In forty years, life expectancy at birth increased from 35 to nearly 54 for both sexes [1997 estimate]. The composite fertility index reached 8 during the 1980s. The pro-natal practices of local political leaders are comforted by tradition that values numerous descendants. However, since 1985, the fertility rate has decreased and is around 6.3 children per woman . However insufficient, family planning programs have started to have some impact: 27% of women today use a means of contraception compared to 7% in 1978.
The agricultural intensification policy has, to a certain extent, been successful. The productivity of the farmers neighbors that of the plantations. Exportable productions, essentially coffee, tea, off-season fruits and vegetables, are stagnating. Food farming, among which corn, that despite not being adapted to the irregularities of the climate, is the essential staple, has a hard time keeping up with the demographic growth. In this respect, the Highlands are also a zone of contrasts: to the east, the proximity with Nairobi and the large number of roads allow for the development, especially in altitude, of fruit and milk production; to the west, however, where the demographic pressure is sometimes higher, the successes are mitigated and commercial cultures are less widespread. However, many livestock farmers, the Nandis for example, have adopted the plough and developed the culture of hybrid corn. The larger cereal-growing farms of the Rift Valley are prosperous. The zone between Naivasha and Nakuru concentrates large farms and most of the plantations. Luhya country, next to the Ugandan border, is frankly destitute, while Luo country, disadvantaged by its reputation of opposition to power, was given few irrigated perimeters for cotton (an attempt that resulted in a failure) and sugar plantations. The expansion of large exploitations producing wheat (Naivasha) reduces the areas available for small agriculture even more.
The modernization of coastal agriculture is more recent. Today, the Mombasa backcountry is a pioneer front where migrants of different origins make profit from the expansion of the urban market, of the Kenyan port and from tourism.
Pastoral regions are overall more neglected. Some Masai, who have the advantage of having watered pastures (regions of Naruk and Kajiado), have been able to modernize their livestock farming. In the north, however, the growing insecurity renders all initiatives vain. A growing intensification of the cultures, combined with an agrarian reform in the Rift Valley, would meet many demands.
Industry and services
The industrial development, entrusted to private investors after Independence, has suffered from the scarcity of non-agricultural raw materials (Magadi salt is the sole mineral production and Kenya does not have energy resources), and from the disappearance of the east-African community in 1977. Import-substitution industries, pretty well developed, are concentrated around Nairobi and Mombasa. The secondary sector ensures only 20% of GNP.
Kenya is developing a very important service sector. Tourism, the leading source of foreign currency, is centered on Nairobi and the natural parks, which the affluence of visitors and poaching has degraded. Mombasa and the coast also attract a large part of tourism flows. Kenya has also benefited from infrastructures dating back to the colonial period, of its excellent air services and the reputation of being a stable country turned towards the West to attract regional headquarters of large firms and international organizations. The Kenyan commercial network, still largely at the hand of Asians, overflows into Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, as much for legal transactions as for contraband/smuggling.
A mosaic of groups, Kenya, where Leaky discovered some of Man's earliest ancestors, has gone through successive population phases until the beginning of colonization at the end of the 19th century.
An ancient Cushitic people, originating in the African Horn and under Asian influence, left traces of constructions, namely irrigation networks, which the newcomers sometimes took over. The wave of Bantu populating, including among other the Kikuyus, the Kambas and the Luhyas, spread starting in the first millennium of our era. It reached the coast after the first trips of the Romans. Migrations, more recent, of diverse Nilotic groups, Nandi, Kalenjin, Luo, Masai turned towards livestock farming, went for a large part towards the western Highlands of the Rift Valley. The Swahili civilization (which peaked during the 13th and 14th centuries) settled on the coast, where merchant cities thrived (Mombasa, Lamu, Pate). A synthesis of Bantu, Arab and Asian elements, it became in part Islamic. The last of the Africans to arrive, Oromo and Somali Cushitic shepherds appear to be the first autochthonous people of Africa's Horn.
During the second half of the 19th century, Kenya was characterized by the combination of already dense agricultural islands, deprived of central political power and whose members tried to gain always-vaster shepherding spaces. Masai shepherds, although few, controlled immense territories, which, for a large part, from the Elgon to the Nyika country and present-day Tanzania, were farmable.
The rise in the level of education of women, especially in urban environments, speeds up the evolution of customs. The illiteracy rate, which reached 80% at the moment of Independence, has regressed thanks to school decentralization and to the construction of schools. The literacy rate is nowadays among the highest in black Africa. The universities in Nairobi and Eldoret (president Arap Moi's home city), despite a certain form of conservatism, are of a very honorable level.
Education efforts haven't much changed habits in the area of sexuality. The effects of AIDS on the demography are still ignored. This has long been a taboo subject, if only not to frighten the tourists away. The WHO estimates that Kenya is particularly affected, notably because of a high rate of urban prostitution and of polygamy in rural areas. The fiasco that was the latest census, which some believe was not fortuitous, prevents any serious analysis. All the while, the virus is rapidly propagating.
Kenyan society has preserved a certain freedom of expression, in the manner of the written press, which includes three daily newspapers (Nation, Standard, Times) and weeklies of repute, such as the Weekly Review. Television, however, remains the spokesperson of the authorities and also the echo of Kenyan athletes' exploits, especially those of long-distance runners.