There are over forty distinct ethnic groups living in contemporary Kenya. Many are pastoralists who continue to define their identities by their relationship with the land, but who, like people everywhere, are finding it necessary to explore ways to adapt to new and changing environmental and social realities. Photo by Preston Scott While “recycling” is a fact of life throughout Kenya, contemporary artists at Kitengela located on the outskirts of Nairobi combine many materials and skills with robust imaginations to create living structures that are both functional and playfully beautiful. Photo by Preston Scott Colorful khanga (or kanga) cloth has been used for clothing and other household purposes throughout East Africa since the mid-nineteenth century. Ever evolving, the colorful designs symbolize a range of meanings and are punctuated by a Kiswahili phrase. The Kaderdina family of Mombasa have been designing and selling khanga for more than one hundred years. Photo by Preston Scott Pottery-making is an important craft in many Kenyan communities. Near Lake Victoria in western Kenya, large clay pots are shaped and fired for use as cisterns to collect and store rainwater needed during dry periods. Photo by Preston Scott While jumbo jets, crowded superhighways, and the Internet now move people and ideas around Kenya at an unprecedented pace, the graceful dhow remains a key vehicle for livelihood and exchange between Kenya’s coastal communities and neighbors around the Indian Ocean. Dhow races also are a popular competitive sport along the Kenyan coast. Photo by David Coulson


Mambo Poa

Kenya is a country of deeply rooted traditions and a vibrant cultural crossroads. Some of the oldest artifacts of human communities have been discovered in Kenya, making the East African country truly a cradle of humanity.

Today, it is a dynamic nation that links its prehistoric past to new cultural expressions in a land of great environmental contrasts. Kenya’s diverse landscapes—stretching from snow-capped mountains to the Great Rift Valley, from deserts to lakes, vast savannahs, lush forests, and a sparkling coast—are reflected in the rich diversity of the Kenyan people and their traditions.

Occurring just after the fiftieth anniversary of Kenya’s independence from the British Empire, the Kenya: Mambo Poa program presented the ways in which the people of Kenya are balancing protection of their valued cultural and natural heritage with the challenges and opportunities for change in the twenty-first century.

Festival visitors interacted with exemplary craftspeople who work with everything from clay to soapstone to recycled materials, learned about important fossil discoveries by taking part in a model dig site from the Great Rift Valley, ran with Kenya’s Olympic athletes, danced to both traditional and contemporary music from many regions of the country, discovered how Kenyans live among and work with some of the most magnificent wildlife on the continent, and experienced Kenyan life in the United States.

All of this took place in venues and spaces that reflect the creative and dynamic experiences of the Kenyan people, whether they live in urban or rural, coastal or inland environments.

This program was produced in partnership with the Government of Kenya Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts.

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Curator Preston Scott explains the program in the context of the region’s prehistoric significance and the young nation’s cultural complexity.


The Folklife Festival teamed up with other Smithsonian museums to present a fuller scope of arts, ecology, and culture in Kenya. See the Related Events page for a list of ongoing exhibitions in Washington, D.C.

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