Festivals in Kenya: Food, Music and Dance

Festivals in Kenya - feature image

The mighty land of Kenya has been the subject of many an explorer’s bucket list. Vast swathes of raw, untouched wilderness, biodiversity hotspots and beautiful coastlines draw thousands of people to the country every year. It is home to more than 40 tribes and over 30 distinct languages, a rich music scene, hearty and wholesome cuisine and effortlessly warm people. It is a country worth celebrating, and what better way to celebrate all of the attributes that comprise Kenya’s culture, than with a festival. The festivals in Kenya are multifarious, celebrating everything from restaurants and food to arts and music.

music and art festivals in kenya

Music runs through the veins of Kenya, bestowing life and energy upon the land. However, although there are hundreds of smaller, more local music events across the country, usually centred around school children’s performances, there are unfortunately, only a handful of major music festivals in Kenya. The music scene across not just Kenya but all of East Africa is seriously heating up though, so expect great things to come. Moreover, art and music are often a blend at festivals in Kenya, and so in this section I have included some festivals that celebrate local artists too, including writers.

Safaricom International Jazz Festival

Festivals in Kenya - Mambo Tribe at Safaricom Jazz Festival

Safaricom International Jazz Festival is not only one of Kenya’s premier events, but one of East Africa’s greatest festivals. Taking place every year in Nairobi, during February, the festival plays host to a selection of extremely talented jazz musicians. Such greats as Jonathan Butler, Salif Keita and Chris Bitok. Moreover, the stages are honoured by the presence of fantastic Kenyan jazz musicians too, such as Kavutha, Aaron Rimbui and Eddie Grey. The bar scene at the festival is lively, and the smaller shows that kick off after the main festival closes are definitely worth waiting around for. Tickets for the festival are snapped up quickly, so be sure to get yours early.

Rift Valley Music Festival

Festivals in Kenya - Rift Valley Music Festival

Held in the Fisherman’s Camp on the shores of Lake Naivasha, the Rift Valley Music Festival is Kenya’s ultramodern, multinational musical event. The festival first took place in 2010 and is now an annual event in late August. It consistently draws in a wide spectrum of artists, mainly from Kenya and other East African nations. Though international bands and artists have been present before, as with other festivals in Kenya. Visitors are able to camp onsite if they want to stay near the life of the party. But staying nearby is just as easy. You’ll find food and drinks stalls at the festival, with crafts markets and children’s activities too.

StoryMoja Festival

Festivals in kenya - StoryMoja festival

StoryMoja Festival is a celebration of the arts as a whole. It takes place every September, with lots of top local and international musicians and writers as its subjects. It runs for five days, during which time visitors can enjoy the celebration of ideas, stories, writing and culture through books, live discussions, poetry readings and other activities. The festival has previously been described as ‘the biggest book party’ in East Africa, and as a ‘celebration of books, stories and culture’. The evenings and nights tend to be the time for musical acts. Previous StoryMoja festivals have taken place at the Nairobi National Museum, but in 2015 it would move to Nairobi Arboretum.

Africa Nouveau Festival

Festivals in Kenya - Africa Nouveau festival

This festival sees the entire Kenyan art scene gathering for three days and three nights to exhibit the colours of Africa. In showcasing the most creative, dynamic and animated aspects of the continent, this festival offers concerts, DJ sets, exhibitions, film screenings and fashion parades. Africa Nouveau is inspired by the Afrobubblegum philosophy of Wanuri Kahui, the director of the Kenyan film Rafiki. Who believes that African art must be fun and frivolous, with no other purpose other than to bring happiness and joy. The festival is also known for having wonderful culinary delights on offer. You’ll find the festival up and running in Nairobi every March.

Food festivals in kenya

Kenyan food is hearty and wholesome. If you visit the country you’ll no doubt enjoy some Sukuma Wiki (sauteed vegetables), ugali (corn meal paste) and a wide variety of meats. But these are just the staple foods within the Kenya diet, there are so many other foods to choose from. These festivals are in celebration of Kenya’s great dishes.

Nairobi Restaurant Week

Festivals in Kenya - Nairobi restaurant week

Despite the title saying ‘week’, this sumptuous food fest runs for 10 days straight. Taking place in January/February, the Nairobi Restaurant week is a display of culinary excellence. You can expect to eat at some of Nairobi’s finest restaurants at a huge discount. Restaurants offer a special menu with multiple courses and various other companies partner up to provide free drinks. Over 70 restaurants participate in the event. Meals usually range from KSH 950 (USD 8.50) for a two-course and KSH 2,000 (USD 18) for a three-course including a free drink. In essence, it is the perfect opportunity to sample local and international cuisines in Nairobi’s best restaurants.

Cake Festival

Festivals in Kenya - Cake Festival

This festival too takes place in Nairobi, specifically in Uhuru Gardens. A premier industry event, the Cake Festival gives small traders and industry regulars a chance to show their baking to thousands of visitors. Not only that, they are also able to build links within the industry. For example with hospitality companies or wedding businesses. The event is enhanced by educational stands about the industry and a variety of other opportunities for visitors. Additionally, the ticket sale money goes directly to different charities.

Nairobi Food Festival

Festivals in Kenya - Nairobi Food Festival

This festival is the country’s flagship event for experiencing local and international culinary excellence. Thousands of people attend every year to sample the food of home-traders and big businesses alike. For the vendors, it is a great event because it means their brand is on display all day in front of crowds of hungry visitors. The event also comes with a beer garden setup and a kid’s village to keep the young ones entertained. In 2020, the event took place in Two Rivers Mall on 4th April.

Lamu Food Festival

Festivals in Kenya - Lamu Food Festival

This festival takes place in Kenya’s oldest, continually inhabited town: Lamu. The Lamu County Government would first organise this event in 2015, as a “gateway to the cultural cuisines of Lamu”. Local cooks and vendors come from all across the County to be here, and they usually setup along the seafront. The festival fills the streets with zesty aromas, and includes cooking competitions, talks from revered Kenyan chefs and food sampling. You’ll find this mouth-watering event taking place over two days in April.

community festivals in kenya

Community has a strong emphasis in Kenyan society. With over 70 distinct ethnic groups and more than 40 tribes, community is given special attention in Kenya. In fact, the term “Harambee” (meaning, ‘to pull together’), is probably the best word to describe the group-orientated nature of most Kenyans. Here are all the festivals that celebrate community in Kenya.

Lamu Cultural Festival

Festivals in Kenya - Lamu Cultural Festival

A colourful and spirited celebration of Swahili culture and heritage, taking place on the enchanting island of Lamu. The event takes place over three days every November and aims to bring together the people of Lamu and beyond. The festival spreads itself throughout the UNESCO listed ‘old town’ of winding alleyways, seafront promenades and peaceful squares. Visitors can experience local Swahili traditions such as henna art, dance, food, poetry readings and craft workshops. Not to mention the dhow races that take place just off the shore, and the donkey races on land.

Lake Turkana Festival

Lake Turkana Festival

Lake Turkana is the setting for one of the most spectacularly vibrant festivals in Kenya. The festival’s milieu is one of joy and happiness, goodwill and generosity. Conceived in a spirit of community and harmonious living, the festival originally grew from the idea of celebrating the culture of the various tribes that inhabit the Lake Turkana region. This was a welcome idea, because historically the tribes had frequently argued over territory. The beautiful setting of the celebrations on the southeast side of Lake Turkana provides a well-suited backdrop for the brilliant cultural displays of the festival. Each tribe will showcase their customs, including home life, clothing and costumes, music, dance and artwork. The event takes place over three days in either May or June in Loyangalani town. This is one for the people backpacking Kenya who want to get off the beaten track.

Maulidi Festival

Maulidi Festival

Maulidi is a week long celebration of the prophet Muhammad’s birth. It takes place in various locations along the Muslim majority coastal regions, and one of the best places to experience the festival is Lamu. Thousand of Muslims travel to the island to pay their respects and enjoy the reverent yet cheerful atmosphere. You’ll see parades, prayers and dancing, and you may even have blessings made onto you. Running alongside the religious activities there are lots of cultural activities to enjoy, like Swahili music and dance.

ride and rally festivals in kenya

Some festivals in Kenya are seemingly more trivial than others, but in matter of fact, the festivals listed below are held for commendable reasons and aim to promote or raise money for great causes.

Maralal Camel Derby

Maralal Camel Derby

This festival began as a result of Kenya’s tourist board trying to promote cultural tourism as an alternative to activities like safaris and beach holidays. The idea being that events like this can encourage tourist income to trickle into more rural areas. The Camel Derby takes place in the northern Samburu area, which provides a spectacular setting for the races and contests. Riders come from all over the world to participate in the races and enjoy the cultural displays.

Rhino Charge

Rhino Charge

The Rhino Charge is an annual off-road race that raises money to support the work of the Rhino Ark Kenya Charitable Trust. The trust’s mission is to save Kenya’s Black Rhino population within the Aberdare ecosystem. The next Rhino Charge event will take place on 3rd June 2022, and the location will be revealed just a few weeks before the races take place. In total, the event has raised over KSH 1.6 billion for the significant projects being run by Rhino Ark.

I hope you have enjoyed this guide to the festivals in Kenya. Attending events like the ones in this article is one of the most effective ways to understand local cultures, and I strongly advocate that you visit at least one of them. Great food, soulful music and dancing, colourful costumes and craftwork make Kenya’s festival scene one of the most enjoyable on the planet.

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