When asked to write a piece listing fun facts about Kenya, my country of birth, I immediately thought it would be easy peasy. After all, this East African gem is well documented for its wildlife diversity, has made many headline news in the last decade in its fight against illegal ivory trade and is globally renown for its long-distance gold champions.
In fact, my own oldest brother’s first ever trip to the US, while walking in the streets of NYC, was accosted by strangers who wanted to know if he was a famous Kenyan runner in town for the New York Marathon. Granted, my brother is tall and lanky but, like the rest of his siblings, the athletic genes skipped our generation. But what he lacks for in running, he more than makes up for on a basketball court. He didn’t reveal that of himself though, instead he ever so diplomatically explained to the group that he was in the US to present a speech at the Model UN conference. That was not as exciting and nobody asked for his autograph.
Many Kenyans in the diaspora can attest to such encounters with people from other countries assuming we are all gifted marathon runners. Or that every Kenyan male has hunted and killed a lion. Or that majority of the country’s population live in the wild, coexisting peacefully with the Big Five. This is information that I gathered in online discussion forums.
At the same time that I discovered that the task of compiling fun facts about Kenya was not going to be a walk in the savannah. I decided instead to find less-known facts of Kenya’s contribution to the global world, things that emerging global citizens can relate to and learn to appreciate about this great African nation, popularly referred to as ‘MagicalKenya’.
10 Fun Little-Known Facts About Kenya
Fun Little Fact #1: Apple’s Siri Originated from Swahili
You may know that Swahili (and English) is the official language spoken in Kenya, but did you know that your favorite imaginary iPhone friend received her name from a Swahili word, which means Secret? According to Siri co-founder Adam Cheyer, the name came up after several other contenders. For this Norwegian-American global citizen, the name was nostalgic for its double meaning. In Swahili, it means secret, while in his Nordic tongue it translates into, beautiful woman who leads you to victory. Adam had even considered naming his daughter Siri, but discovered that in Japanese, a similar word spelled as shiri means butt!
Fun Little Fact #2: Kenya is Known as the ‘Flower Garden of Europe’
Let’s put it this way, there would be no Valentine’s Day without Kenya. Well, not quite. But if you received a stunning, deep-red, fragrant bouquet of roses this past Valentine’s Day, chances are that they made it to your doorstep via a direct flight from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. How’s that for your carbon footprint count? That’s because Kenya is the third largest producer of roses in the entire world! These roses are also compressed into an oil that is used in famous perfumes such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris and Hermes’ Rose Ikebana. Roses, also widely known for their medicinal value for their high concentrations of vitamin C, can be made into a deliciously delicate nigh cap that aides in regulating sleep patterns for sweet dreams.
Fun Little Fact #3: A Paradise of a Thousand Birds
Kenya is home to 1,132 species of birds. In less than 24 hours, 342 of those can be seen in one park, an official world record that Kenya set for the greatest number of bird species spotted in a day. What’s more, over half of these bird species can be found in the capital city’s Nairobi National Park, conveniently located next to the country’s international airport. This simply means that if you were transiting through Nairobi and had a few hours to spend waiting for your next flight, you could exit the airport (visas on arrival available for most passport holders) and take an exhilarating bush safari through the park- a 70 square miles of wildlife sanctuary, where 4 of the Big 5 wild animals can also be spotted. Nairobi National Park is also unique. It is the only national park in a capital city of any country in the world. It is home to the brilliantly colored lilac breasted roller, Kenya’s national bird. Interestingly, this bird is known to be notoriously monogamous.
Fun Little Fact #4: There are Famous Marathon Runners, then there are Maasai Cricket Warriors!
The internet is filled with search results of famous Kenyan runners who for decades have continued to nub gold, silver and bronze medals (sometimes all three at a go) in NYC, Boston, and London. The highlands Kalenjin tribe that produces most of Kenya’s long-distance runners has been a topic of much genetic research. It is said that a combination of factors led to their athletic prowess- high altitude training, lean bodies and possibly diet. But did you know about the Maasai? Not their warrior skills, but their athletic skills too? A few years ago, an all Maasai warrior cricket team adopted the game and represented Kenya at several world cricket tournaments. This gentleman’s game was easily accepted into Kenya’s original nomadic tribe, the custodians of the country’s vast drylands, proving that Indigenous communities can easily integrate with the modern world.
Fun Little Fact #5: First African Woman Nobel Peace Prize Winner
When Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s own Nobel Peace Prize winner begun her famous ‘Greenbelt Movement’, it was her call from Mother Nature that she was answering. Little did she know that she would also be answering the global call to produce the first African woman to be granted the highest peace prize. Wangari, or ‘Mama Miti (Mother of Trees) as she is fondly remembered, had one mission. To plant as many trees as she could in her lifetime, and she did it by enlisting the help of women from her rural home near the slopes of Mt. Kenya (also the second tallest mountain peak in the world, which the country is named after).
Greenbelt was quite literally, an aerial vision of a belt-like image of green across the country’s landscape. So far, it has planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya! Global kids will enjoy reading Jeannette Winter’s classic children’s book Wangari’s Trees of Peace. A visit to the country’s capital will also provide a chance of a walk through the Ngong Forest, the only forest of indigenous trees to be found in a capital city in the entire world. This forest is three times the size of NYC’s Central Park and is home to 190 of Kenya’s bird species as well as more than 200 species of indigenous trees. Visitors to the forest are encouraged to leave their greenbelt footprint by planting an indigenous Kenyan tree, such as the Nandi flame, one of Wangari’s favorites.
Fun Little Fact #6: A Giant Well under a Hot Desert is Home to the Original Human
The Northern part of Kenya is one of the hottest and most arid places on our planet. Kenya’s indigenous Turkana tribe inhabit this area, living in impoverished conditions in drought and a lack of water. But why do they stay? They are a nomadic tribe who are known to ‘follow the water’ and yet they watch their livestock and children die of hunger and thirst for generations with their only movements circumventing the very desert where nothing grows. As legend has it, they believe to be ‘sitting on water’, with the diminishing L. Turkana as proof of this mysterious phenomena.
It turns out they might be right as recent scientific research has led to the discovery of a giant aquifer, a large underwater reserve that runs deep below the façade of the desert, which scientists claim could quench the thirst of all of Kenya’s 41 tribes for the next 70 years. That’s 48 million people, the population of both California and Ohio combined. This desert region is also home to the oldest known human fossil to be discovered. Dubbed the Turkana Boy, this human fossil was discovered in 1984 by Kamoya Kimeu who was a member of a research team led by world-famous anthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey. A bronze replica of the skeleton can be seen in the gardens of the famed Matt Bronze art gallery in Nairobi. Perhaps there’s some truth to the legend of the water below the desert, where Man first claimed his first footprint on Planet Earth.
Fun Little fact #7: There’s the Big Five and then there’s the Marine Five, all Found in Kenya
Most safari guides in Kenya can name and spot the elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo, better known as the ‘Big Five’. But did you know that Kenya is also home to the Marine Big Five? The Indian Ocean lies in the south of the country and its pristine white, sandy coastal line stretching across a vast 1,420km – more than classic coastal destinations such as the Seychelles and Barbados. Deep in the ocean is a thriving marine ecosystem lined with coral reefs, majestic islands, and, under the surface, animals bigger than any of the land’s Big Five. These include- the humpback whale, the great white shark, the orca, the giant manta ray and the tiger shark. Even the great blue whale was recently spotted more than 30 times on the Kenyan coast!
Fun Little Fact #8: Coffee is Produced by Kenyans who Only Drink Tea
It is a bit of an oxymoron but while the largest economic contribution to Kenya is coffee production, most Kenyans do not drink coffee. Instead, they drink tea. Lots of tea. Coffee is produced and exported worldwide and in fact, Kenya is ranked as the world’s third largest producer of coffee with popular cafe chains such as Starbucks proudly displaying Kenya-grown coffee beans. But back in the country, most Kenyans stick to the colonial beverage known locally as chai. Thus when you order for a ‘chai tea latte’, a Kenyan would interpret that as ‘tea, tea latte’. Iced tea is also a foreign concept to most of the older generations of Kenyans. Tea is boiled with a generous helping of creamy milk and sugar.
Fun Little Fact #9: Kenya is an Old, Old Country that is Still Splitting
Most Kenyans arrived in Kenya via different migration routes. Most split up with their cousins in North Africa who headed further North to the Middle East, while those who settled in Kenya travelled Southwards, intermarrying others on a similar migration journey. Thus, most of the tribes in Kenya are not indigenous to the country but rather, a mixture of ethnicities.
The geographical space that they came to occupy as Kenya lies right on the equator, which is what gives Kenya it’s pleasant temperate climate – neither too hot nor too cold, with temperatures oscillating between 20-25 degrees Celcius. Unknown to most Kenyans and the world, is the fact that Kenya’s Great Rift Valley occurred more than 20 million years ago when the Earth’s crust begun splitting. But it did not stop splitting. Scientists say that the volcanic Rift Valley, which stretches 3,500 km, could eventually break off and form a new ocean like the Red Sea. However, they reassure us all that by the time the continent does break up completely, humans are unlikely to still inhabit the planet as the break is likely to take place in millions of years’ time. Phew!
Fun Little Fact #10: Kenya Contributes to the ‘Most Good’ in the World
Peace and Africa are not often used in the same sentence. This is because most news emerging from the continent paint a picture of deadly diseases such as HIV/Aids erasing entire villages, dying infants in drought-stricken parts of the continent, children soldiers draped in AK-47s at war, among many other grim images. Imagine the surprise of discovering that Kenya is ranked 26 at the ‘Most Good’ countries in the world, in a report that indexes countries that contribute the most feel-good vibes towards global peace!
This is based on the Kenyan government’s devotion to hosting and resettling refugees from neighboring war-torn countries such as Somalia and S. Sudan and the Kenyan populations’ general open-mindedness to issues affecting the global world as well as contributing to the tech industry. In fact, it was out of Kenya that the first mobile money app was designed. Known as Mpesa, it has transformed the lives of people around the world. On this prestigious index of ‘Most Good’, Kenya was the only African country that made it on the list of mostly European nations. Simply put, Kenyans scored top marks in Humanism 101.
Experience Kenya in Your Home
Family fun activity:
For an easy way to learn about Kenya’s historical capital, there’s a Kenyan version of Monopoly known in Swahili as Kumiliki. It is made out of soapstone which is locally used for creating beautiful carvings. It can create hours of fun for children and adults.
Recipe for a Delicious Hot Cup of Kenyan chai kienyeji (traditional tea):
You will need – whole milk, water, granulated black tea, and sugar.
Measure equal parts of water and milk (a cup of the mixture per person) into a pot and let boil. Add a teaspoon of tea (one heaped teaspoon is enough for about 6 small cups of tea). Keep your eyes fixed on the boiling tea/milk/water mixture. Let it rise to the top of the pot then lower the heat and let it boil for a further 2-3 minutes. Strain into your favorite tea kettle and enjoy with as much or as little sugar as you please (usually a teaspoon or two is plenty for a mug). Sit back and enjoy your ‘Out of Africa’ experience, wherever in the world you may be.