Kenya, officially the Republic of Kenya (Swahili: Jamhuri ya Kenya), is a country in Africa with 47 semiautonomous counties governed by elected governors. At 580,367 square kilometres (224,081 sq mi), Kenya is the world’s 48th largest country by total area. With a population of more than 52.2 million people, Kenya is the 27th most populous country. Kenya’s capital and largest city is Nairobi while its oldest city and first capital is the coastal city of Mombasa. Kisumu City is the third largest city and also an inland port on Lake Victoria. Other important urban centres include Nakuru and Eldoret.
Nilotic-speaking pastoralists (ancestral to Kenya’s Nilotic speakers) started migrating from present-day Southern Sudan into Kenya around 500 BC. European colonisation of Kenya began in the 19th century during the European exploration of the interior. The modern-day Kenya emerged from a protectorate established by the British Empire in 1895 and the subsequent Kenya Colony, which began in 1920. Numerous disputes between Great Britain and the colony led to the Mau Mau revolution, which began in 1952, and the subsequent declaration of independence in 1963. After independence, Kenya remained a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The current constitution was adopted in 2010 to replace the 1963 independence constitution.
Kenya is a presidential representative democratic republic, in which elected officials represent the people and the president is the head of state and government. Kenya is a member of United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, COMESA, and other international organisations. With a GNI of 1,460, Kenya is a lower-middle-income economy. Kenya’s economy is the second-largest in eastern and central Africa after Ethiopia. with Nairobi serving as a major regional commercial hub. Agriculture is the largest sector; tea and coffee are traditional cash crops, while fresh flowers are a fast-growing export. The service industry is also a major economic driver, particularly tourism. Kenya is a member of the East African Community trade bloc, though some international trade organisations categorise it as part of the Greater Horn of Africa. Africa is Kenya’s largest export market, followed by the European Union.
Swahili culture and trade (1st century–19th century)
The Kenyan coast had served host to communities of ironworkers and communities of Bantu subsistence farmers, hunters and fishers who supported the economy with agriculture, fishing, metal production and trade with foreign countries. These communities formed the earliest city states in the region which were collectively known as Azania.
By the 1st century CE, many of the city-states such as Mombasa, Malindi, and Zanzibar began to establish trade relations with Arabs. This led to the increased economic growth of the Swahili states, introduction of Islam, Arabic influences on the Swahili Bantu language, cultural diffusion, as well as the Swahili city-states becoming a member of a larger trade network. Many historians had long believed that the city states were established by Arab or Persian traders, but archeological evidence has led scholars to recognize the city states as an indigenous development which, though subjected to foreign influence due to trade, retained a Bantu cultural core.
The Kilwa Sultanate was a medieval sultanate, centred at Kilwa in modern-day Tanzania. At its height, its authority stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast, including Kenya. It was said to be founded in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, a Persian Sultan from Shiraz in southern Iran. However, scholars have suggested that claims of Arab or Persian origin of city-states were attempts by the Swahili to legitimize themselves both locally and internationally. Since the 10th century, rulers of Kilwa would go on to build elaborate coral mosques and introduce copper coinage.
The Swahili built Mombasa into a major port city and established trade links with other nearby city-states, as well as commercial centres in Persia, Arabia, and even India. By the 15th-century, Portuguese voyager Duarte Barbosa claimed that “Mombasa is a place of great traffic and has a good harbour in which there are always moored small craft of many kinds and also great ships, both of which are bound from Sofala and others which come from Cambay and Melinde and others which sail to the island of Zanzibar.”
Later on in the 17th century, once the Swahili coast was conquered and came under direct rule of Omani Arabs, the slave trade was expanded by the Omani Arabs to meet the demands of plantations in Oman and Zanzibar. Initially these traders came mainly from Oman, but later many came from Zanzibar (such as Tippu Tip). In addition, the Portuguese started buying slaves from the Omani and Zanzibari traders in response to the interruption of the transatlantic slave trade by British abolitionists.
Swahili, a Bantu language with Arabic, Persian, and other Middle Eastern and South Asian loanwords, later developed as a lingua franca for trade between the different peoples. Swahili now also has loan words from English.
Throughout the centuries, the Kenyan Coast has played host to many merchants and explorers. Among the cities that line the Kenyan coast is the City of Malindi. It has remained an important Swahili settlement since the 14th century and once rivalled Mombasa for dominance in the African Great Lakes region. Malindi has traditionally been a friendly port city for foreign powers. In 1414, the Chinese trader and explorer Zheng He representing the Ming Dynasty visited the East African coast on one of his last ‘treasure voyages’. Malindi authorities welcomed the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498.