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It's Festive Season in Kenya!

Guest post by Gloria Teimuge

Gloria is a public health practitioner and consultant, photojournalist and writer living in Nairobi, Kenya. This is part of our series highlighting the culture of Kenya.

As we get into the holiday mood, I’d love to share some of my experiences of what I’d describe as a Kenyan holiday. This year is different, for all of us, but there are some things that still keep the holiday spirit alive.

December is typically sunny. The children are on a break from school. It’s just after a harvest season (maize or wheat), and it is time for hundreds of sherehes (Swahili for occasions) - engagements, weddings, circumcision ceremonies, graduations. These occasions are feasts where people gather, eat, and make merry. Kenyans are always ready for a good time and the holidays are not any different. With the Covid-19 pandemic, gatherings are limited or prohibited, the short rains have carried on to December and most people are not in a position to splurge on festivities like previous years. Let me take you through a journey of festivities. Please tag along.

Engagement Parties

Engagements or traditional weddings are ceremonies in honor of the bride-to-be. This occasion is a bridal send-off of the lady from her home to join the groom’s family. In order of events, after the proposal, there’s a ‘show-up,’ which is an official sit-down with both family members to discuss bride price/dowry and to knit family ties. (See photos below.) The show-up is also meant to ascertain no blood ties between the families of the betrothed by tracing the family tree and clan totems. A date is set for the engagement and wedding. The engagement is an all-invite ceremony. Large numbers of people show up, hundreds to thousands. There’s a lot of food, music and dance, colorful outfits, cultural activities. The couple then goes ahead and plans the wedding.

Pictured above: Top: Samburu wedding (QIP Photography); Kalenjin engagement; Middle: wedding (QIP Photography); Mijikenda engagement (Maisy); Bottom: Samburu wedding (QIP Photography); engagement.

Rites of Passage

Circumcision is a rite of passage. For about a month, a group of boys within the same age set go into isolation. While there they are circumcised and undergo training that is to transform them from boys to men. Different tribes have different cultures and methods on how things are done but at the end of the isolation, there’s a celebration. During that period, under the cultural circumcision, the boys wear traditional clothes sometimes sackcloth, smear themselves with ash and are not allowed to interact with any women. It’s the men who take care of everything. On the day of the feast, they are re-introduced to the community and sometimes with new names. Most of the ceremonies coincide with the harvest season of December.

Jamhuri Day

Jamhuri Day (Republic Day) is a national holiday that celebrates the date Kenya became a republic on 12th December 1964. We celebrate our country’s cultural heritage and the heroes who fought for our country. As a public holiday, there are a lot of events, concerts and parties all over the country. The Kenyan flag is hoisted on almost every building and the television stations play live recording of the national celebrations where the president is in attendance. The national anthem is played severally, together with covers by different local artists.


After the 12th, the next holiday is Christmas! A week before Christmas, thousands of city dwellers leave for the country-side. It’s typically Christmas when you get to spend the holiday with family and friends and no one likes to be left out. A continuous entourage of buses and cars snakes its way to risaf leaving the cities deserted and seemingly uninhabited. In the country-side, its pomp and color by the third week of the month, with the decisions being which party to attend next. Food is in plenty and a crowd of merry-makers is seen in almost every homestead.

plate of food in Kenya
A colorful meal in Kenya

The Christmas mood hits with Christmas décor and music. Every shop and restaurant playing Christmas carols on repeat. All TV stations religiously bring up Christmas movies. Christmas Eve is mostly spent around family, a big dinner, laughter and stories. Some spend it in church, awaiting the birth of Jesus Christ. On Christmas day, there’s usually a short sermon in church, followed by gatherings and feasts at home. Some people visit children’s homes, hospitals and shelters to share the love and joy of Christmas.

Local delicacies such as nyamachoma, chapati, ugali, and traditional vegetables are a staple in these feasts. Neglected greens such as black night shade, leafy vegetables, and salads always make an appearance. Sitting around a table with family and friends, or on a bench under a tree or on a picnic blanket, it’s the feeling, the togetherness, the love and joy that matters. The radio or television would sing one particular tune on repeat, “Mary’s born child, Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day!”


Between Christmas day and New Year’s, there are several get-togethers with different groups of people. Friends, relatives, prayer groups, chamas, class reunions, and neighbors. A chain of ‘Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year’ messages go around. Everyone staying up late around the bonfire, the flames crackling drowning the bouts of laughter and banter. We go through the year, sharing our experiences and getting updates about things that we probably missed. The village gossip is served steaming hot.

New Year’s Eve is either spent in church or at home. Some people party and gas up, waiting for the countdown. It’s a time for a yearly review and gratitude, and for some, resolutions for the coming year. Fireworks display, more music, more dancing and a hope for a better, more prosperous year.

Swahili Vocab

*Risafv - countryside

*Nyama choma - barbecued meat

*Chapati - a pan-fried flatbread made from wheat flour

*Ugali - stiff porridge made from maize flour

*Chama - an informal co-operative society that is used to pool and invest savings

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