When visiting Kenya, a vibrant country in East Africa, make the most of your shopping experience with these tips. Explore the bustling markets for unique crafts and souvenirs, negotiate prices with friendly vendors, try local delicacies at food stalls, and remember to carry cash in smaller denominations for easier transactions. Enjoy your shopping adventure in Kenya!
Kenya boasts a thriving industry in wooden carvings, making it one of the world's leading manufacturers. These carvings range from peculiar-looking animals to exquisitely crafted bowls and plates. The majority of carvings are skillfully created by Kamba carvers. However, the most remarkable pieces are produced in the captivating Makonde style, inspired by the Makonde people of Mozambique and Tanzania, some of whom reside west of the Taita Hills.
While Makonde carvings were traditionally made from endangered ebony, the current practice primarily employs blackened rosewood or similar materials, ensuring the preservation of ebony. Another popular material utilized in Kenyan carvings is steatite, commonly known as soapstone. This soft and lustrous stone is sourced from the Tabaka region near Kisii.
Soapstone's versatility makes it a favored material in the carving industry, despite its tendency to fracture easily. It is employed in the creation of a wide range of items, including plates, bowls, boxes, and utensils. Additionally, soapstone lends itself well to decorative pieces like chess sets and candlesticks, further expanding the scope of the carving industry in Kenya.
The Kamba people possess incredible skill in the art of basket-making. Their baskets, known as chondo (or vyondo in the plural), are exquisite works of art. These baskets are available in a wide range of patterns and are crafted using various materials such as sisal, nylon string, and, occasionally, baobab bark twine. Intricate beadwork is also incorporated into some designs, adding to their beauty.
Despite their aesthetic appeal, Kamba baskets remain true to their functional purpose. They are lightweight, making them convenient for everyday use. These baskets have gained international recognition as fashionable accessories, resulting in a significant increase in their price. However, purchasing directly from the weavers can still offer excellent value, particularly if additional embellishments such as leather straps and decorative elements are yet to be added.
Beadwork, known as ushanga or mkufu, and tribal regalia are significant cultural artifacts found in various regions. These items include weapons such as spears and clubs, shields, drums (ngoma), carved stools, headrests, traditional utensils made from gourds (sometimes adorned with beads), cowhorn keepsafes, and metal jewelry. While these items are relatively common, it's important to note that genuine pieces tend to be more expensive compared to those produced for the tourist industry.
If you're interested in purchasing metal goods, the northern region is your best bet. The Turkana region, in particular, offers some remarkable examples of lethal weaponry. These weapons are crafted with exceptional skill, serving both as objects of art and tools for potential assault. Whether you seek a striking piece for display or one with historical significance, the north provides ample options. Notably, bracelet-like wrist knives called aberait, used for slashing enemies, are particularly impressive in their design and craftsmanship.
When shopping for traditional weapons like clubs, knives, swords, spears, and bows with arrows, it can sometimes be challenging to differentiate between authentic items and those made specifically for tourists. You may encounter individuals selling these items in various locations, making it crucial to discern their origins. For instance, an elderly man you come across in Machakos carrying two bows and a quiver of finely crafted arrows, selling them for Ksh20 each, is likely catering to the needs of local hunters and security guards rather than souvenir seekers.
Rediscover the charm of exquisitely designed wire toys that capture the essence of nostalgia. In the past, young boys in rural areas were delighted with push-along buses, cars, and lorries crafted entirely from wire. These marvelous creations featured tall rods topped with steering wheels, often bestowed upon lucky youngsters by their older brothers and uncles. While these traditional wire toys may be scarce today, they have been replaced by a plethora of mass-produced, yet still handcrafted, wire vehicle toys. These charming mementos are popular among tourists and make for unique souvenirs. Additionally, you'll find an array of amusing push-along toys depicting birds, monkeys, and cyclists. As they are rolled, these whimsical creatures flap their wings, bob their heads, or pedal their way into playful adventures.
Fabrics and textiles hold a special allure as souvenirs, carrying a sense of authenticity when worn locally. While they are often imported, they make for practical and affordable mementos. On the coastal regions, there are two types of must-have items: the vibrant printed women's wraps called kanga and the sturdy men's sarongs known as kikoi. These items are excellent purchases, and older pieces hold value as collectibles.
Kangas are always sold in pairs and are crafted from cotton. They feature intriguing Swahili proverbs, adding an element of intrigue and cultural richness. When visiting local markets, seek out these colorful wraps, as they make for fashionable garments or unique home decorations. If desired, local tailors are available to transform kangas into personalized garments at reasonable prices.
While exploring the vibrant markets of the region, don't miss the opportunity to acquire these unique textiles and sandals. The fabrics not only make for practical souvenirs but also carry a distinct local charm. Whether it's the allure of the printed kangas with their Swahili proverbs or the artistry behind the beaded leather sandals, these items are a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the area. With their vibrant colors and quality craftsmanship, they add a touch of style and authenticity to any wardrobe.