Kenya  |  General Info
 
 
Situated on the Eastern coast of Africa, Kenya is set astride the equator and is bisected from North to South by the Great Rift Valley. The country covers a total area of 580,530 square kilometers, including 13,395 sq. km of inland water. Its Indian Ocean coastline stretches for 480 km. Nairobi, the capital city of the country, is a colorful striking city 500km inland from Mombasa, the major port on the Indian Ocean. The official languages are Swahili and English. The country has an estimated population of more than 40 million people.
Although made up of many diverse ethnic groups and tribes, Kenyans have strong sense of national pride which may be due in part to unity in the struggle for Uhuru (Kiswahili: "freedom") – independence from British colonial rule, achieved in 1963. In 1964, the country became a sovereign republic within the Commonwealth, with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta as its first President and remained in office until death in 1978.
Kenyans understandably pursue the business opportunities offered by tourism with a zeal that may be off putting to some visitors, but are usually open, talkative and friendly once business matters have been settled.

Although foreign visitors are now a common sight in many parts of the country, there still exist vast areas off the beaten track where a white or yellow face will attract cries of "Mzungu! Mzungu!" (Kiswahili: "white person") from local children. Visitors to these areas should think especially carefully about the long term effects of their visit on the local community, and should for example avoid giving out sweets or money without restraint – merely playing with children, or talking to and helping villagers will yield far better results than merely giving out handouts.

Hominid fossils of significant scientific interest have found in the Rift Valley area, and it is often believed that this area of Africa is where the human species originated from.
Although one of Africa's more powerful economies, Kenya is still a developing country and so certain aspects of the country's society and infrastructure may come as a shock to some visitors from developed countries who are unfamiliar with the levels of poverty and poor quality of life experienced by some Kenyans.

 

Visa

Visas are not required for the following nationalities: The Bahamas, Barbados, Botswana, Brunei, Burundi, Cyprus, Dominica, Fiji, the Gambia, Grenada, Grenadines, Ghana, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritius, Maldives, Namibia, Nauru, Rwanda, Papua New Guinea, St.Lucia, St.Vincent & the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, the Seychelles, Singapore, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad & Tobago, Turkey, Tuvalu, Uganda, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Zambia, & Zimbabwe.

For all others, visas may be obtained through an embassy prior to departure, valid for six months from the date of issue. The current (Feb 2009) costs for visas are: US$20 (transit), US$50 (single-entry), & US$100 (multiple entry). Unlike some contries' visas, the application for a Kenyan visa is short (1 page) and not very detailed and will be returned in 10 days, except 12-16 days during the busy May-August season.

Visas are available at international airports on entry. There is a separate line at immigration for those who require tourist visas. Ensure you are in the correct line at the airport to avoid additional wait. No photos are required, just US$50 per person for the most common single entry visa.

 

By AIR

Kenya Airways (KQ) is the national airline. KQ has extensive regional – (Jo'burg-South Africa, Harare-Zimbabwe, Cairo-Egypt, Entebbe-Uganda, Accra-Ghana, etc) and international connections (Dubai-UAE, London-UK, Amsterdam-Netherlands, Mumbai-India, etc). It is also a SkyTeam associate member.
Kenya has three International airports:

  1. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) in Nairobi. Approximately twenty minutes from the main business district.
  2. Moi International Airport in Mombasa.
  3. Eldoret International Airport (local flights and cargo only).

Jomo Kenyatta is the primary arrival point for visitors flying into Kenya. There are excellent flight connections provided by KQ to major tourist destinations such as Mombasa, Kisumu and Malindi.
Major airlines that serve NBO are:

  1. Air India
  2. Air Malawi
  3. Air Mauritius
  4. Air Tanzania
  5. Air Zimbabwe
  6. Brussels Airlines
  7. British Airways
  8. Delta Air Lines
  9. Egypt Air
  10. Emirates
  11. Ethiopian Airlines
  12. Kenya Airways
  13. KLM Royal Dutch
  14. South African Airways
  15. Swiss International Airlines
  16. Turkish Airlines
  17. Qatar Airways
  18. Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines)
  19. Virgin Atlantic

An increasing number of airlines are flying to Kenya, and Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has become a hub for East and Central Africa. National carrier and biggest airline in the country is Kenya Airways, which (among others) also provides direct flights from Nairobi to several West African countries, e.g., Lagos in Nigeria, Bamako in Mali, as well as direct flights to Bangkok and connections to Hong Kong and China. A recent code-share agreement with Korean Airlines has also brought the Korean peninsula within reach.

 

By train

Kenya does not have a passenger train service linking it with neighboring countries, though there are cargo lines.

 

By car

The roads may be poor, but all neighboring countries can be accessed including Ethiopia via the border town of Moyale, Uganda via Busia, and Tanzania via Namanga.

Beware of overland routes coming through the northern deserts as these are essentially lawless regions. Most vehicles traveling through the area travel via armed convoy.

 

By bus

Regular bus services operate between:
Nairobi (Kenya) & Arusha (Tanzania); Nairobi (Kenya) & Kampala (Uganda); Mombasa (Kenya) & Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania); Kisumu (Kenya) & Kampala (Uganda);

 

By boat

This is limited to Lake Victoria (e.g., Mwanza in Tanzania to Kisumu in Kenya) and the coastal area (e.g., Mombasa-Zanzibar cruises).

 

By plane

Most international visitors will arrive through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi (NBO). If you are already in Nairobi and need to get to the airport, please make sure that you plan at least two hours to get there as the main road to the airport has heavy traffic jams, and security checks are tedious.

Kenya Airways (KQ) offers the most scheduled connections from JKIA and regular daily flights to the following destinations: Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and Kisumu. If you are flying from another destination to Nairobi and using Kenya Airways in the tourist high season (July-September, December-February), note that KQ flights are frequently delayed and preference is given to international connecting passengers, platinum frequent-flyer card holders, and first-class passengers.

A low-cost, no-frills airline Fly540 also flies from JKIA and offers scheduled connections to Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu, Kisumu and Masaai Mara. Plans are to extend the service to the East African region.

Another airline Airkenya flies from Wilson Airport Nairobi to Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu, Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Meru, Nanyuki and Samburu. The lounge features a Dormans cafe. Check in can be done up to 15 minutes before departure. Wilson Airport was once the busiest airport in Africa outside South Africa and still remains a major hub for local flights to the nature reserves in Kenya and to cities in neighboring countries. Anyone using Airkenya is advised to lock their checked-in bags. Things have been known to go missing from luggage while in the care of Airkenya.

The East African Safari Air also flies from Nairobi to Malindi, Kisumu and Lokichogio.

Most charter tourists fly directly to either of the coastal airports of Mombasa or Malindi.

 

By bus

Kenya has a network of long distance bus lines. Speed is limited to 80km/h, and the highways can be very bumpy and dusty, so be sure you pick a comfortable and reputable coach company for the long journeys. Travelling during the day is preferable to travelling at night due to the threat of carjackings and road traffic accidents.

Local buses in town are run by private companies, such as the green and yellow Citi Hoppa, which provide transportation for an inexpensive fee. They have regular services in and out of the Nairobi city suburbs. They usually seat 20-35 passengers (no standing passengers allowed by law) and are a cleaner and less hectic mode of transport than matatus, while still plying many of the same routes.

 

By matatu

Matatus are privately operated minibuses, typically for 14 or 25 passengers and operating over short and medium distances. Travel by matatu can be somehwat risky as the vehicles are sometimes extremely badly driven, with matatu drivers swerving in and out of traffic and stopping at a moment's notice by the side of the road for passengers. Some are poorly maintained, and many are to be found in fascinating and colorful decor, which is a major feature of Kenyan urban culture. Previously matatus were usually packed to well over capacity – up to 25 people in a 14-seater vehicle – but in recent years there has been increased government regulation and policing of matatus, especially in the larger cities, and now most matatus provide seatbelts and do not exceed the vehicle's stated capacity. An unfortunate side-effect of better regulation has been a loss of individuality and character of some of the vehicles, and drivers and conductors are now obliged to wear set uniforms. Tourists should be careful to ensure that they are wearing the seatbelts provided, unless they wish to find themselves taken on an inconvenient unscheduled trip from a road checkpoint to the police station.

Although most matatus ply their trade along set routes, it is often possible outside of major towns to charter a matatu on the spot as a taxi to your your desired destination. Make sure you have categorically confirmed your negotiated price and exact destination before the vehicle goes anywhere, or you may find yourself in the shadier areas of Nairobi at night at the mercy of an indignant matatu driver.

Matatus provide a very cheap and quick method of transport in all the major towns and many rural areas. The name matatu hails from the Kiswahili word for the number three – tatu – because some time ago the standard fare was three ten-cent coins.

 

By train

The Kenya-Uganda railway starts in Mombasa and travels via Nairobi to Kampala, Uganda. This is the famous "Lunatic Express" and was also featured in the Val Kilmer & Michael Douglas film "The Ghost and the Darkness." This train does not currently travel all the way to Uganda but instead stops in Kisumu. The train is considered very dangerous for foreigners and certainly travels extremely slowly. The speed of the train is due to the ridiculously narrow gague track installed by the colonial authorities (or the fact that the Kenyans haven't upgraded their railway over the last five decades). The train does quite often skip off the tracks causing lengthy delays. A more reliable and certainly quicker option is to take the bus.

 

By 4WD

You can hire a jeep and drive through Kenya, though you need to be proficient at traveling, since there is very little signage along the roads and one can easily get lost. Also, bandits may stop your travel and take your property.

 

By Rental Car

Most worldwide rental agencies have offices in Nairobi and Mombasa, and these offer expensive but reliable cars with a full back-up network. One can also rent cheaper cars from local distributors who are mostly reliable.

Getting around in Kenya, especially for roads out of the city, is difficult. Though Kenya does have a lovely countryside,the roads are often in a dilapidated state due to neglect. Rent a heavy duty car/jeep to get you there. A good map is essential, and if you are self driving to game parks and the like a GPS would be very useful - sign posts are rare and you are never quite sure if you are on the correct road, leading to many wrong turnings and backtracking.

 

See

Kenya has some of the world's best game reserves where you can see some of the finest African flora and fauna. The parks are famous for lions, giraffes, elephants and huge herds of zebras, wildebeests and buffalos. It's wise to shop around for tour operators before picking one, to see what's currently on offer, who you vibe with, and to get a competitive price.

The annual wildebeest migration (from Maasai Mara to the Serengeti) is an awesome sight and best experienced in a balloon safari. Bookings to watch the migration are best done months in advance due to the high demand and limited lodging available in the Mara. Migration is during August and September.

Kenya also is a great destination for beach holidays, with several located along the coastal regions and the city of Mombasa.
Kenya is also becoming a golf holiday destination, with an abundance of beautiful courses around the major urban areas. Green fees range from US$15-40 per round, plus a US$5-7 caddy fee.

 

Talk

English and Swahili are the two official languages. You can get by with English in the larger cities, and when dealing with those connected to the tourism industry, but outside of that a few words of Swahili go a long way.

Tribal languages, such as Maa spoken by the Maasai, are commonplace in more remote areas. You will still usually be able to find a local who can speak Swahili — although in such areas a guide will be indispensable. Sheng (a slang of English, Kiswahili and local languages) is spoken mostly by urban youths.

 

Buy

Kenya is famous for many handicrafts, which are often the signature of a particular tribe or region. Look for Kisii stone (soap stone) carvings, Maasai jewelry, Mkonde wood carvings, Lamu chairs and batiks. The largest selection of handicrafts can probably be found at the Maasai Market which rotates and can be found at different locations within Nairobi. For example, on Sundays, they are at Yaya Centre near hurlingham and on Saturdays they can be found at the Central business district near the law courts parking space. On Fridays they are at the Village Market in Gigiri, near the UN headquarters. Gigiri, just like Yaya Centre, is a plush suburb, so vendors price their goods accordingly. There is also a fine selection of stores selling craft goods in Mombasa, where the atmosphere is somewhat more relaxed. However, the best prices can be found by buying direct from the artisans in their villages in the countryside.

Apart from the typical souvenirs such as wood carvings, it may be a good idea to buy one of the large books with photos of wildlife, nature, or culture.

Do listen to and buy some local Kenyan music. Reggae is also quite a frequent feature of matatu journeys.

 

Eat

Nairobi has some of the finest eating establishments in Africa. Many different cuisines and types of restaurants are available, from fast food to fancy. Many five-star hotels have attached fine restaurants, which are expensive but worth it. Many restaurants can be found downtown and in the areas of Westlands and Hurlingham. Among the many cuisines available are Brazilian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, German and French restaurants. Fast food restaurants, mostly by South African chains (Steers, Nandos), are common in the larger urban areas.

  • The Carnivore A meal here is a must. (high priced and purely a tourist spot)
  • Mandhari (Nairobi Serena in Uhuru Park) - a 5-star restaurant 
  • Haandi (The Mall in Westlands) - Indian
  • Havana Bar (Woodvale Grove, Westlands) - Seafood & Grill, late night snacks.
  • Trattoria (Nairobi Central Business District) - Italian
  • Mediterraneo (Junction Mall on Ngong Road) - Italian
  • Pampas Churrascaria (Panari Center on Mombasa Road) - Brazilian
  • Alan Bobbe's Bistro (Riverside Road) - French
  • Slims (Lenana Rd) - American Bar/Grill/Steakhouse(excellent steaks)
  • Furusato (Westlands) - perhaps the best sushi in Africa
  • Tamambo (The Mall in Westlands) - very good international cuisine
  • Siam Thai (Unga House, Westlands) - top notch Thai cuisine
  • Kudeta (Bogani Road, Langata) - the best ribs in Nairobi and some of the best seafood too; n.b. may be closed and the road can be dangerous due to carjacking
  • Porini (Mombasa) - Seychellois
  • K'osewe's (Nairobi Central Business District) - traditional Kenyan meals

 

Drink

Kenyan beer is decent. There is one major brewer whose flagship brand is Tusker Lager. Also try the Tusker Malt Lager. Another good lager beer is White Cap Lager. Imported beers are available in supermarkets and better hotels, but the prices are usually high. But imported Tanzanian beer like Kilimanjaro and Safari tend to be cheaper than even Tusker. In local bars, do not expect to pay more than around 150 Ksh for a bottle; anything more is a tourist rip-off.

Imported and local wines and spirits are widely available, and it is advisable to avoid local brews such as "changaa" and "busaa," which are illegal, unhygenically brewed and whose consumption has led to deaths on many occasions.

There is an excellent selection of soft drinks especially from the Coca Cola stable, but try the Tangawizi brand of ginger ale.

If you are in Nairobi, visit the Diamond Plaza in Highridge where you will get a range of freshly squeezed juices including tangerine, sugarcane and mango. In addition, most large malls in Nairobi and Mombasa have juice bars with a wide array of juices on offer. Clubs that you can visit are:

  • Simba Saloon (within the Carnivore in Langata)
  • Havana Its an expats favorite on Thursdays nights.The live band on Saturdays attracts a good cosmopolitan crowd. Bar snacks available throughout the night.
  • Gypsy (Westlands) - popular, if slightly seedy, an ever popular bar that has become something of an institution in the past 15 years
  • Casablanca (Lenana Road) - Upmarket Morrocan bar in Hurlingham, next to Osteria del Chianti restaurant, where you can relax by the fire outside or lie on huge raised sofas inside and smoke a hookah,
  • Mercury (ABC place, Westlands) - Swish cocktail bar that's a good place to start the evening
  • The Moonflower (Palacina hotel, Dennis Pritt Road) - good place, popular with locals, for a quiet drink in a tasteful but cosy setting
  • Outside Inn (Karen Road) - good steak and kidney pie and good for watching rugby matches
  • The Rusty Nail (Dagoretti Road, Karen) - a must for an afternoon drink. It has the loveliest gardens of any bar/restaurant in Nairobi. Come for a Pimms, but the food can sometimes be a little hit and miss. Excellent sticky toffee pudding, though.
  • Karen Blixen Coffee Garden (Karen Road) - good bar (and restaurant), popular with white Kenyans but can be a little empty these days.
 

Learn

There are a large number of colleges offering secretarial and computer courses in downtown Nairobi and Mombasa. There are also a large number of universities, both public and private, and some do participate in student exchange programs with international universities.

 

Work

A high unemployment rate means work permits are required. These can be difficult to obtain unless you have specialized skills that are lacking in the workforce. You are best off being appointed abroad, as local employment opportunities are low-paying and few.

There is a large number of international expatriates who work for non-profit agencies such as the U.N and other affiliated agencies. Their pay is very high in relation to local living standards, and as a result their employees can afford to live in luxury.

There are numerous opportunities for volunteering in Kenya, whatever skills you have. Websites such as Idealist carry details of many of these placements, which could be centered on education, conservation, community development, or a number of similar areas. Kenya's English-speaking history and relative stability (despite recent events following the disputed 2007 elections) make it extremely well suited for this kind of work. In most cases, volunteering can be undertaken with a standard tourist visa, although it is worth checking with your host organization before travelling as the authorities may not always take this view.

If you have specialised skills, there are a number of more focused volunteering programs available. These range from opportunities for medical and engineering placements (for example, with MSF or VSO), to short sabbaticals for people with generic business experience, spent mentoring local businesses, with Skills Venture.

 

Stay safe

Kenya had an uncharacteristic bout of intertribal violence in January 2008 after a disputed presidential election. Things have now quieted down and the country is considered safe for travelers, but the situation remains somewhat on edge, so follow local news carefully.

Stay alert when walking or driving through Nairobi. You should be careful always to be aware of your surroundings and, if possible, ensure that you have a guide with you. Even daylight muggings on crowded streets are not uncommon. Violent and sometimes fatal criminal attacks, including armed carjackings and home invasions/burglaries, can occur at any time and in any location, particularly in Nairobi. Particularly avoid walking after dark. Take a taxi if you can afford it, or a bus if you can not.

Avoid ostentatious displays of wealth and property, particularly tempting objects such as cameras, mobile phones, laptops, MP3 players, etc. The bus from the airport to downtown is a notorious target for pickpockets.

If you are unlucky and get mugged, a good tactic is to wave your arms and start screaming at the would-be mugger. Confrontations with armed robbers, however, should be avoided – in this instance, remember that your possessions are far less important than your life. Most criminals in Nairobi are more interested in a quick grab and dash than they are in a prolonged encounter. Since robbery is frequently punished by lengthy prison terms or even death, most muggers can be dissuaded by a good show of force. It is perfectly possible to see much of Nairobi without incident if you take sensible precautions.

The north of the country has a reputation for lawlessness, becoming more dangerous the closer you get to the Sudanese, Ethiopian and Somali borders. Armed robberies and abductions by shiftas (bandits) on the roads in these areas are frequent. Avoid travelling to this part of the country if possible, and take special precautions if travelling by road. Armed convoys are normal for this part of the country. Visitors to Lake Turkana (indicated on the map as Lake Rudolf) in the northwest and Lamu in the northern end of the coast should travel there by air. Lodwar, Lokichokio ('Loki') and Moyale are towns best avoided by the casual traveller, unless you have business with the humanitarian organisations based there.

 

Stay healthy

Protect yourself from mosquitoes, as they carry numerous diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever. Get expert advice on malaria preventatives. Guard against mosquito bites. Wear long sleeves and long trousers and apply an effective insect repellent, for example, one containing DEET. If travelling to other East African countries, you should have a yellow fever vaccination so as to prevent complications and paying of bribes at the border. These can be administered at an affordable price at most reliable Nairobi clinics and hospitals.

Malaria prophylactics can be highly effective. Consult your physician.

If you get flu-like symptoms, including fever, consult a doctor immediately. If no doctor is available, take a treatment dose of an appropriate anti-malarial and go immediately to a hospital. While the public hospitals are slightly cheaper, long waits and poor conditions and care at these facilities may make it worthwhile to go to a private clinic. Costs will vary, but a typical trip to the hospital for malaria testing, doctor's consultation, and medication will cost between $12 to $30USD depending on the clinic. As malaria can become serious, a trip to the hospital is recommended at the first symptoms of malaria.

If you get such symptoms within twelve months of returning home, seek a doctor's advice very quickly and immediately tell him where you have been in the last year. Delayed treatment, even by just a few hours, can lead to permanent brain and liver damage or death.

Do not have unprotected sex as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are a risk. The country's Adult HIV Prevalence rate (15th in the world) is over 6% or 1 in 16 adults. Voluntary Testing and Counseling (VCT) clinics offer free testing and counseling for HIV/AIDS.

Cholera is another danger. When in affected areas, see a doctor immediately and drink plenty of water.

All water should be treated, either by boiling or through purifying tablets or filters. This includes Nairobi as well as rural areas. Typhoid fever is a risk and, like malaria prophylactics, the vaccination is not 100% effective. All fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed. While eating from the roadside kiosks is part of the cultural experience that one should not miss, note that such places do not always have the highest sanitary conditions and stomach illnesses can result.

It is advisable to have traveller's and accident insurance.

 

Respect

Although Kenya is predominantly Christian and somewhat liberal, there are areas with major Muslim influence, such at the Coastal regions, where it is considered indecent to wear short dresses. This is true in rural Christian areas as well.

Beachwear is acceptable on the beach but not while strolling around town. Even though some hotels allow topless or nude sunbathing, these are in restricted areas and not in public areas.

Kissing or heavy petting is frowned upon in public, even though Kenyan youth engage in both liberally in night clubs.

Homosexuality is against the law but is practiced secretly. Any overt displays of homosexuality may, at times, result in open hostility. It is best to be discreet if engaging in any such activities with travel mates or locals. However, it is customary to hold a same sex person's hand while engaged in conversation.

 
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