May 22, 2021


Ahmed the elephant is just one example of how deeply ingrained in Kenyan history, culture and society Kenyan Somalis are.

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The Somalis in Kenya, History, Culture, Society

The Somalis in Kenya, History, Culture, Society

The bones of the largest known elephant are held in the National Museum in Nairobi and he was called Ahmed. If elephants had passports it would be Kenyan: but he would have Somali ethnicity. Ahmed the elephant is just one example of how deeply ingrained in Kenyan history, culture and society Kenyan Somalis are.

One-in-Ten of the Population

Kenyans of Somali ethnicity form roughly 10% of the population (between the Kamba and Kisii in terms of numbers) and that is without the refugee population in Kenya’s two unofficial cities, Dadaab and Kikumu. They are concentrated in the border counties of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa as well as Isiolo and Eastleigh in Nairobi. But those are just the major Somali hubs: it is unlikely that there is a single town in Kenya (or on Earth) that does not have a Somali somewhere.

The Kenyan Somalis – and they are firmly that, and in that order – are also omnipresent in government and the security forces. The infamous ‘Pink Card’ was a defining moment for Kenyan Somalis in that it indicated what particular ‘flavour’ of Somali the individual was: Kenyan Somali or a Somali in Kenya. It was a Kenyan-Somali who thought up the idea of the Pink Card.

Fanatically Pro-Independence

The Kenyan Somalis were deeply anti-colonialist (remember the shifta) and fanatically pro-independence for Kenya, not the concept of the Greater Somalia (which would strip Kenya of its border counties): at one point Jomo Kenyatta was hidden by a Kenyan Somali family during the Mau Mau period.

After independence the Kenyan Somalis proved to be a potent force in government and the security forces. A Kenyan Somali rose to be Chief of the Defence Staff and was pivotal in putting down a rebellion against President Daniel Arap Moi in 1981.

Even now, Kenyan Somalis are disproportionately represented in the cabinet. It is an open secret that Kenyan Somalis are amongst the most vigorous and the most efficient members of the security forces, especially against the al-Qa’ida linked al-Shabaab.

In the forefront of Innovation

Kenyan Somalis will tell you that business flows through their veins, not blood: they eschew the traditional Kenyan preference for agriculture (they are, after all, natural nomads) and specialise instead in transport and logistics as well as property. Kenyan Somalis are always at the forefront in terms of innovation and embracing new technology.

Sadly, this breeds resentment. Somalis often remain in enclaves, avoiding even non-ethnically Somali Muslims in Kenya (such as the Burana and the Swahili).

Some Somalis are extreme in their adherence to the Wahhabist form of Islam (full veiling, not educating girls and so on). But this is inconsistent with the previous, exceptionally spiritual Suffist form of Islam that predominated in Somalia itself before its descent into chaos in the 1990s. And that remarkably cheap flat screen television you can buy in Eastleigh is a street level example of a consistent refusal to play by the rules – rules like paying tax.

There is an old saying: you can choose your friends, you can’t choose your family. These days Kenyan Somalis are often judged by their Somali family, not their Kenyan friends, with whom they have lived for decades and often helped out in a myriad ways.


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