10:46 pm
25 October 2016

Kenya Approaches 53 years of ‘independence’ – 10 things you might not know about this East African powerhouse

KENYA is celebrating 52 years of internal self-rule Monday June 1, ahead of full Independence from the United Kingdom which it celebrates on December 12. The country has established itself as the leading East African economy and regional financial, transport, and logistic hub.

It is also a key geopolitical state in the wider eastern Africa security set up.

Despite setbacks in recent years, it remains a tourism destination and well-known  internationally for its world-dominating long-distance runners, and more lately Oscar-winning actors like Lupita Nyong’o and the fact that US president Barack Obama’s father was Kenyan.

It seems inconceivable that there is still anything about Kenya that is not widely known, but there might. The country is full of firsts and secrets that might just still still surprise many.

In celebrating its 52nd birthday, here are 10 things you may not know about Kenya:

It is a geothermal powerhouse: Kenya was the first African nation to drill for geothermal power. The first geothermal exploitation started in the 1950s and by 1967, 27 shallow wells were dug at Olkaria, in Nakuru County. The Olkaria I Power station was completed in 1981 and was Africa’s first geothermal power plant. In 2014, Kenya launched the world’s largest single turbine geothermal power plant.

Kenya was the first testing ground of Ushahidi: Meaning “testimony” or “witness” in Swahili, Ushahidi was a website that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Combining social networking with Google maps, it rapidly collects data from the crowd and visualises what happened, when and where. Now it is the mostly used crisis mapping platform in the world

Also related to technology, Kenya was the first developing country to have an open government portal, the 22nd country globally. In July 2011, Kenya launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative, becoming the first sub-Saharan country to do so and second African country after Morocco, later followed by Tunisia and Ghana. This made key government data freely available to the public through a single online portal.

Kenya was the first country to destroy stockpiled ivory: In 1989, former President Daniel arap Moi torched a 12 tonne pyre of ivory tusks. Since then a number of countries have followed suit by destroying stocks including France, the USA, Belgium, Zambia, Gabon, the Philippines, Hong Kong and China who destroyed 6 tonnes in Guangzhou in 2014.

Kenya was the first country to introduce Islamic banking in the Eastern and Central African region, a decade ago. According to the Kenya Bankers Association, Islamic banking is a system of conducting trade and banking activities in line with the principles of Islamic Shari’ah, avoiding prohibited activities such as interest or Riba, Gharar, financing of haram trade and businesses.

Despite the wars the country is facing with regards to wildlife conflict and poaching, Kenya strives to be a leader in ecotourism. It was the first African country to establish an Ecotourism Society, the first to set up a certification scheme to evaluate performance of hotels/lodges based on eco-principles and hence among the first countries to lend credence to the concept of ecotourism through practice.

Kenya was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to establish a national family planning program, launched in 1967. Despite this, In just over four decades it population has nearly quadrupled in size, from 10.9 million in 1969 to almost 45 million people today.

Kenya was the first African country to establish marine protected areas, the Malindi and Watamu Parks and Reserves established in 1968. The original motivation for their establishment was mainly the need to earn foreign exchange through tourism. Other parks and reserves have subsequently been set up in reaction to perceived problems such as the over-exploitation and destruction of marine habitats.

President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya was the first sitting head of state to appear at the International Criminal Court: He went before the court in The Hague on October 8 to deny inciting post-election violence in 2008. The charges against him were dropped on December 5th when ICC prosecutors announced that they had still not obtained enough evidence to prove his criminal responsibility beyond reasonable doubt.

More renowned, Kenya is famous for it’s world-beating marathon and long-distance runners, but the details of their domination are fascinating: Kenyans hold the Boston marathon record for men and women, have won virtually every single marathon at least once and have claimed two of the top three places in steeplechase in the IAAF World Championships (held every two years) since 1991, with the exception of 2003 where only one Kenyan made the podium.

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing Kenya particularly stood out, taking away 6 gold, 4 silver and 4 bronze medals. The late Sammy Wanjiru became the first Kenyan to win the Olympic marathon in an Olympic record time of 2:06:32.

In the 2011 World championships Kenyan women runners took the limelight, occupying the top four positions in the marathon and the 10,000m and the top two positions in the 5000m. The most notable performance was that of Vivian Cheruiyot who won both the 5000m and the 10,000m.

Bonus point: The Kenyan musical group, the Moipei Quartet, recently the became first non-Americans to sing the American anthem before the NBA playoffs match between San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in Texas. As an all-girls group, producing high art, in several ways they represent  one of the most important faces in both the shifting gender politics and the place of youth in cultural creation in modern Kenya and Africa.