The Arabs and Persians who brought the Islamic faith and culture to the East Africa Coast carried out trade with the local natives and developed city-like towns. They intermarried with the East Africa natives and gave birth to a mixed Arab-African tribe – the Waswahili, whose language Swahili, is today spoken over nearly half the African Continent. The enlightened coastal traders – the Arabs and the Waswahili expanded their trading enterprises to the hinterland looking for ivory, spices, rhino horn, gum-arabic, tortoise shells and slaves whom they used as porters to transport the rest of the commodities down to the coast. During their travels in the hinterland, the traders met hostile natives who sometimes butchered them or robbed them of their iron wares and other valuables. The Nilotic Maasai of the interior, for example, defended their territories courageously against any intruders. Not even the organized Arabs and Swahili caravans could traverse their kingdoms without paying heavy prices for permission to cross their country. Other tribes also controlled and defended their territories against foreigners. That was the state of social organisation in the East African region when in 1880’s European interests started to focus on the African Continent. The continent was subsequently divided into various European spheres of influence. The present Tanzania went to Germany. What is Uganda and Kenya today went to British. The British Government gave a private company, the Imperial British East African Company, under Sir William Mackinnon, the authority to develop and exploit the resources of the two countries.
From 1886, British pioneers began to move inland following the old Arab caravan routes. They were learning the social organisation set ups of the African tribes. They also sought ways in which to unite the warring tribes and establish their authority over the locals in order to form an orderly Government.
Apart from the Arabs and the Waswahili, there was a group of closely related tribes, the Mijikenda along the Kenyan Coast. Inland from coast before reaching the slopes of the Central Highlands were the Wataita and the Wakamba – both pastoralistic and hunting tribes who traded in ivory and rhino horn in exchange for beads, ironware and clothes from the Arabs and the Waswahili merchants. On the eastern slopes of the Central Highlands was the Gikuyu and their close relatives the Embu and Meru, both agricultural tribes. The Maasai, a strictly pastoralistic tribe, occupied the dry acacia woodlands and open grasslands including the floor of the Great Rift Valley and down the valley to northern Tanganyika (Tanzania). The Kalenjin, another pastoralistic tribe of Nilo-Hamitic origin occupied part of the Northern Rift Valley and western slopes of the Central Highlands. The Gusii and the Luhya, both agricultural tribes of Bantu origin occupied the land between the Western slopes of Central Highlands and the Lake Victoria basin. The Nilotic Luo inhabited the lake basin and lived on fishing and subsistence farming. The much drier North and North-Eastern Province was occupied by the Hamitic and Islamic Galla, Boran and Somali tribes who are traditionally more related to the Arabs than African origins. The rest of the country was occupied by splinter sub-tribes of the major tribes, mostly of Bantu origins.
The I.B.E.A. Company faced the problem of lack of means of transport and communication with the interior. There could be no rapid economic development and efficient administration without effective communication with the interior. The British Government therefore decided to build a railway line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. Work started in 1896. To help in the construction of the railway, the Government brought in over 32,000 Indians from India. After the construction work in 1901, many Indians went back home but some decided to stay and carry out business in the country to benefit from the prosperity of the railway they had helped to build. To make the railway line profitable and pay for its cost, it had to carry commercial goods down to the Coast. Since the native African tribes were mainly hunters, pastrolists or subsistence farmers, the British Government decided to bring in white settlers to develop commercial farming in the Central Highlands. This led to the alienation of land belonging to the natives for white settlers – a move that caused bitter feelings between the White immigrants and the Africans. The conflict erupted in the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952. The ten years of warfare that followed led to the British handing over power to the Africans in June 1963.
A national population census is conducted every 10 years. Kenya’s estimated population currently stands at 26 million people. The 1979 official census figure of 17.5 million constituted an increase of more than 40% over the total in 1969. With an estimated annual birth rate of 3.5%, one of the highest in the world, Kenya’s population is expected to double by the year 2000, and triple by the year 2020. This rate of population growth poses particular problems for Kenya, given the limited availability of arable land. Only 18% of Kenya’s land area can support agriculture without irrigation. These regions are now generally overpopulated. This population growth rate reflects, firstly, a continuing high birth rate with a reduced death rate, particularly infant mortality, from improved standards of nutrition and hygiene.
Kenya’s high population growth rate has produced a relatively young population. In the 1979 census 48.5% of the population were less than 15 years old and this is estimated to have risen to 55% in 1988. The workforce is now smaller than its dependants. Most of Kenya’s population live in the rural areas. In 1988 an estimated 18% of the population lived in urban areas.