Official name: Republic of Kenya
Area: 582,650 square kilometers (224,962 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mount Kenya (5,199 meters/17,057 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Eastern, Northern, and Southern
Time zone: 3 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 1,131 kilometers (703 miles) east-northeast to west-southwest; 1,025 kilometers (637 miles) west-northwest to east-southeast
Land boundaries: 3,446 kilometers (2,141 miles) total boundary length; Ethiopia 830 kilometers (516 miles); Somalia 682 kilometers (424 miles); Sudan 232 kilometers (144 miles); Tanzania 769 kilometers (478 miles); Uganda 933 kilometers (580 miles)
Coastline: 536 kilometers (333 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Kenya is located on the equator in eastern Africa. The country has a southeastern coastline along the Indian Ocean and shares land boundaries with Ethioh2a, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. With a total area of about 582,650 square kilometers (224,962 square miles), the country is slightly larger than twice the size of the state of Nevada. Kenya is divided into seven provinces and one area.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
There are no outside territories or dependencies of Kenya.
The climate of Kenya is as varied as its topography. Weather conditions range from the tropical humidity of the coast and the dry heat of the northern plains to the coolness of the plateau and mountains. The coastal temperature averages 27°C (81°F), but the temperature decreases about 2°C (3°F) with each increase of 300 meters (1,000 feet) in altitude. The annual average temperature in Nairobi is 19°C (66°F), whereas in the arid northern plains it ranges from 21° to 27°C (70° to 81°F).
Seasons are determined by rainfall rather than by changes of temperature. Most regions of the country have two rainy seasons: the long rainy season between April and June and the short one between October and December. The average annual rainfall varies from 13 centimeters (5 inches) in the most arid regions to 193 centimeters (76 inches) near Lake Victoria. The coast and highland areas receive an annual average rainfall of 102 centimeters (40 inches).
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Kenya has a great diversity of terrain, ranging from barrier reefs off the Indian Ocean coast to sandy desert, forested uplands, and the perpetually snow-covered Mount Kenya. A particularly prominent feature is the section of the Great Rift Valley of East Africa that runs through Kenya. The most striking geographical distinction, however, is the difference between the higher land, encompassing the southwestern one-third of the country; and the remaining two-thirds of the nation, consisting of low plateaus and plains. Geographically, the country may be divided into seven major regions: a coastal belt; plains adjoining the coastal strip; a low plateau; northern plains; the fertile Kenya Highlands; the north-south Rift Valley Region bisecting the Kenya Highlands; and an area of western plateaus that forms part of the Lake Victoria basin.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Seacoast and Undersea Features
Kenya faces the Indian Ocean to the southeast. A coral reef running for more than 480 kilometers (300 miles) lies just off the Kenyan coast and protects its coastal beaches from destructive waves. There are three marine parks along the coast: Kisite, Watumu, and Malindi.
Sea Inlets and Straits
Ungama Bay is a small, curved inlet of the Indian Ocean located along the coast north of Malindi.
Islands and Archipelagos
The most notable island is Mombasa, which lies off the southern coast and has been used for centuries as a port. The Lamu Archipelago off the northern coast was formed by the submersion of the coastline as a result of a rise in the ocean level.
Extending about 402 kilometers (250 miles) from the Tanzanian border in the south to the Somalia border in the north, the coastal region exhibits somewhat different features in its southern and northern parts. The shoreline in the larger southern part (below the Tana River delta) is formed largely of coral rock and sand and is broken by bays, inlets, and branched creeks.
Mangrove swamps line these indentations, but along the ocean are many stretches of coral sand that form attractive beaches.
The coastal hinterland, forming the southern part of this region, is an erosion plain (formed by soil erosion) broken only in a few places by small, somewhat higher, hill groups. The plain rises very gradually westward, from an elevation of about 152 meters (500 feet) at the coastal ranges on its eastern edge, to about 304 meters (1,000 feet) where it meets the Eastern Plateau Region. The Tana Plains section of the region is mainly a depositional plain (formed by deposits of soil from river flooding). It extends northward from the upper part of the Coastal Region to the northern plain lands and is equally featureless and deficient in rainfall. The Tana River flows across the plain on its course from the Kenya Highlands to the Indian Ocean.
6 INLAND LAKES
Kenya has two significant lakes: Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana (also called Lake Rudolf). Lake Victoria is shared by three nations: Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. It has an area of 69,490 square kilometers (26,830 square miles) and lies 1,130 meters (3,720 feet) above sea level. Only one-third of Lake Victoria is within the Kenyan border. The lake is 337 kilometers (209 miles) long at its greatest length and stretches about 240 kilometers (about 150 miles) at its greatest width. It is the world's second-largest freshwater lake, after Lake Superior in North America. Lake Victoria is the principal source for the Nile River.
Lake Turkana (Rudolph) is approximately 250 kilometers (155 miles) long and has a maximum width of about 56 kilometers (35 miles). It currently has no outlet; however, researchers believe that there may have been an earlier connection with the Nile River, since the lake contains a number of giant Nile perch. The area west of the lake is quite arid; annual rainfall is less than 25 centimeters (10 inches). Drought occurs in this region in some years. The Turkwel and Kerio Rivers, which originate in the Kenya Highlands, empty into Lake Rudolf during the rainy seasons. At other times, these rivers dry up. Water holes remain, however, and at various other points water lies only a short distance below riverbeds.
Lakes of less significance, such as the Baringo, Nakuru, Naivahsa, and Magadi, lie in or near the Eastern Rift.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
Most rivers and streams in Kenya originate in the Highlands Region and radiate eastward toward the Indian Ocean, westward to Lake Victoria, and northward to Lake Turkana. Some rivers formed in the southern highlands of Ethiopia extend into Kenya along the eastern section of their mutual boundary. These rivers are all seasonal and those that receive sufficient water during flooding to reach the sea do so through Somalia.
The two largest perennial rivers are the Tana and the Galana Rivers, both of which empty into the Indian Ocean. These are also the only navigable rivers in the country. The Tana River, at approximately 724 kilometers (450 miles), rises in the southeastern part of the Kenya Highlands. From there, it flows in a great arc northeastward along the highlands, then enters the sea at Kipini. The Galana River rises in the southern part of the Kenya Highlands and, with its tributaries, flows into the Indian Ocean north of Malindi. Several smaller rivers that originate in the eastern Kenya Highlands area usually disappear in the semiarid region east of the highlands. On the western slope of the Kenya Highlands, rivers that are generally parallel empty into Lake Victoria. The largest river in that area, the Nzoia (about 257 kilometers/160 miles), eventually reaches Lake Victoria after flowing through Lake Kanyaboli and the Yala Swamp.
The Chalbi Desert is Kenya's only terrain that is classified as a true desert. A lake, which was formed by damming from lava flows from volcanic activity in the Mount Marasabit area, once covered this extensive area. The plains around Mount Marasabit consist of a vast lava plateau; those plateaus situated farther eastward developed on the continental base rock. The landscape here is dotted with inselbergs of varying shapes and sizes. Inselbergs (also called monadnocks) are hills or rock masses that were formed as the land around them eroded. At the center of the desert is Lake Turkana.
DID YOU KNOW?
With a total length of about 6,693 kilometers (4,160 miles), the Nile is the longest river in the world. Even though the river does not run through the country, about one-tenth of the land in Kenya is part of the Nile River Basin. This region, located near Lake Victoria—a primary source for the Nile River—is the wettest area in the country. As a result, about 40 percent of the population in Kenya lives in this area.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
The vast Northern Plain Region stretches from the Uganda border on the west to Somalia. It consists of a series of plains of differing origins, mainly resulting from erosion or formed by great outpourings of lava, and includes Lake Turkana and the Chalbi Desert. The entire area east of the Chalbi Desert supports vegetation of only the semidesert type. Certain spots have more dense flora, however, including Mount Marasabit, which at higher elevations may receive 76 centimeters or more (30 inches or more) of rain annually and has an upper forest cover.
South-central Kenya features savannah grassland, and in the south near the Tanzanian border the Amboseli National Park protects grassy plains that are home to elephant and cape buffalo herds.
Much of the original forest has been cut down and the land is now used intensively to grow crops, both for subsistence and for cash. Forest still covers large areas of the northern part of the western highlands. In western Kenya, the Kakamega Forest Reserve, an area of tropical rain forest, is found in the midst of agricultural lands. The forest supports diverse plant and animal life, especially a number of primate species.
The Great Rift Valley is a massive fault system that stretches over 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles), from the Jordan Valley in Israel to Mozambique. In general, the Great Rift Valley ranges in elevation from 395 meters (1,300 feet) below sea level at the Dead Sea to 1,830 meters (6,000 feet) above sea level in south Kenya. The western branch contains the troughs and rivers that have become part of the African Great Lakes system. A large number of volcanoes lie along this rift, which was created by the violent underground activity and motions between the African Plate (Nubian) to the west and the Eurasian, Arabian, Indian, and Somalian Plates to the east.
In Kenya, the Great Rift Valley extends from the Lake Turkana area in the north generally southward through the Kenya Highlands and into Tanzania. In the vicinity of Lake Rudolph, the elevation of the valley floor is less than 457 meters (1,500 feet) above sea level, but southward it rises steadily until in its central section in the area of Lake Naivasha the elevation is close to 1,889 meters (6,200 feet). From that point southward, it drops off to about 610 meters (2,000 feet) at the Kenya-Tanzania border. High escarpments envelope the central section of the valley, which is about 64 kilometers (40 miles) wide. Extensive volcanic activity takes place on the valley floor, and several cones rise high above it. The area remains one of potential volcanic eruptions, with hot springs and steam emerging at numerous spots. The northern and southern parts of the valley receive a yearly rainfall averaging from 25 to 50 centimeters (10 to 20 inches).
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
The Kenya Highlands region consists of two major divisions, lying east and west of the north-south Great Rift Valley. Tectonic activity played a major part in the formation of the highlands. Plate motion created the Kenya Dome and the faulting and displacement, both major and minor, across this dome that produced the Great Rift Valley and many of the region's numerous escarpments. Great outpourings of lava have added thousands of feet to the elevation over broad areas.
A striking feature on the eastern edge of the highlands is Mount Kenya, an extinct volcano and the country's highest point, which rises to 5,199 meters (17,057 feet). An important subdivision of the eastern highlands is the area east of the Aberdare Range, which is populated by the Kikuyu, the country's largest ethnic group.
The Aberdare Range, which lies east of the Great Rift Valley and the Kinangop Plateau, has elevations above 3,962 meters (13,000 feet). On the valley's western side is the Mau Escarpment, rising to nearly 3,352 meters (10,000 feet). Farther north are the Elgeyo Escarpment and the Cherangai Hills; the latter have elevations over 3,352 meters (11,000 feet).
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
Kenya has a number of caves of various origin. Various ethnic groups, rebels, and outlaws have sought shelter in these caves as recently as the 1980s. One of the most well-known cave systems in the country, however, is currently being used by elephants.
Kitum, Makingeni, Chepnyalil, and Ngwarisha Caves are only four of the approximately one hundred caves in the Mount Elgon National Park. Kitum is the largest of these, with a length of about 200 meters (656 feet). Members of the Dorobo ethnic group occupied the caves until the area became a national park. Now, large groups of elephants use the caves as sleeping quarters. They also feed off the salt deposits that cover the walls of the caves.
The Akamba people once inhabited the lava tube caves of the Chyulu Hills, but the Akamba abandoned them, probably due to the lack of fresh water. Lava tubes are formed when lava streams flow continuously in the same river-like channel for many hours, or even many days. The outer edges of the flow begin to cool and form a solid crust, creating a tube through which the molten lava continues to flow. Parts of the tube remain once the initial eruption is completed, and the molten lava drains to lower ground, leaving behind a long tunnel. The longest lava tube in the area is called Leviathan. The total length of its passages is about 11 kilometers (7 miles), with a diameter from 3 to 10 meters (10 to 33 feet). It is one of the longest lava tubes in the world.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
The Eastern Plateau Region consists of a belt of plains extending north and south to the east of Kenya Highlands. Elevations run mainly between 300 and 900 meters (1,000 and 3,000 feet) except for the Chyulu Range and the Taita Hills, both of which rise to over 2,134 meters (7,000 feet). The region appears monotonous except for the isolated hills and pinnacles (inselbergs) that were left during the erosional development of the plains. The southern part of the region includes the Ambolesi Plains, known as the site of the Ambolesi and Tsavo National Parks.
The Western Plateau Region forms part of the extensive basin in which Lake Victoria lies. The region consists mainly of faulted plateaus, marked by escarpments that descend in a gentle slope from the Kenya Highlands region to the shore of the lake. The Kano Rift Valley divides the region into northern and southern components, each of which has different features. This faulted valley lies at a right angle to the main rift running through the highlands and is separated from that valley by a great lava mass.
To the southwest of Mount Kenya, the Kinangop Plateau, a relatively small, 60-kilometer- (38-mile-) long plateau with some of Kenya's densest forest cover, is home to Aberdare National Park. The park is home to elephant, rhinoceros, and antelope. The Kinangop Plateau lies east of the Great Rift Valley and rises about 610 meters (2,000 feet) above the valley floor.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
There are no major man-made structures affecting the geography of Kenya.
DID YOU KNOW?
Tourism related to wildlife safaris is a mainstay of the Kenyan economy. Kenya contains some of the best-preserved national parks and game reserves in Africa. Within these wildlife areas, visitors can see a wide range of animals, including lions, cheetahs, hippos, buffalo, giraffe, zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, black & white Colobus monkeys, Sykes monkeys, bongos, giant forest hogs, and many more. Conservation of wildlife and efforts to restore the endangered African elephant and black rhino populations within reserves are a high priority in Kenya. Five biosphere reserves have been recognized under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO's) Man and the Biosphere Program.
14 FURTHER READING
Maxon, Robert M., and Thomas P. Ofcansky. Historical Dictionary of Kenya . Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1999.
Ojany, Francis F., and Reuben B. OgendID. Kenya: A Study in Physical and Human Geography . Boston: Longman Publishing Group, 1975.
O'Toole, Thomas. Kenya in Pictures . Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Company, 1997.
Stein, R. Kenya. Chicago: Children's Press, 1985.
Embassy Avenue: The Embassy of Kenya in Japan. http://www.embassy-avenue.jp/kenya/profile/geo.html (accessed April 24, 2003).