Kenyan children in 1968.

A few weeks ago I was in the café in Eldoret and there were a large number of foreigners with T-shirts saying “African Volunteer” and the Citibank logo. I got into a conversation with a few of them. I found out that they were from many foreign countries and volunteering for a month on enhancing small-scale enterprises in Eldoret. They were being sponsored by Citibank. When I told them that I had first come to Kenya in 1968, one of them asked me what changes I had seen since then. I hadn’t really thought much about this and so gave an adequate, but lame reply. Since then I have given this some thought and decided that this would make for a good Report from Kenya to compare Kenya fifty years ago to today.

The most obvious change is that in 1969, the Kenyan population was 10.87 million while today the population is about 50 million, an increase of over four and a half times. Nairobi which in 1969 was a nice, clean, no-traffic-jam city with half a million people is now approaching ten times the number of people with heavy pollution, numerous slums, and horrendous traffic jams.

The fertility rate in 1969 was over 8 children per woman, then considered the highest in the world. This was obvious. There were children everywhere. Almost every woman of child-bearing age had a child tied to her back, was pregnant, or both. Many children were poorly dressed with no shoes and some had obvious signs of malnutrition. Today the fertility rate has declined to 2.8 children per woman. Most children are adequately to well-dressed. This is partly due to greater prosperity in Kenya and partly due to the importation of second-hand, inexpensive clothes. Unlike fifty years ago, I have not seen a case of obvious malnutrition in rural Kenya in the last 12 years I have been here.

Kenya now is much more prosperous than it was fifty years ago. In 1969, Kenya was considered a poor country, but recently the World Bank has raised its status to a “middle-income” country. Most years in the past half century the Kenyan economy has grown from 3% to 7%. Over those many years this small annual increase has added up. Kenya’s per capital income is now $2010 per person or $3867 in purchasing power parity (a calculation based on the fact that many items, particularly labor, are cheaper than in the United States). Yet there are still many extremely poor people in Kenya, particularly in the semi-arid and arid parts. Income inequality has widen considerably with a larger “pie” to cut up.

Years ago when I first came to Africa, the airfare was $1200. There were also only seven passengers on my plane from London to Africa. Last month when I went to the US, the cost was $943 and flights were packed to near 100%.

Infant, child, and maternal mortality were extreme high in 1969. This has been reduced substantially over these five decades, but there is still a ways to go to reach acceptable limits. Life expectancy has increased from 51.64 years to 67.03.

Beginning in 1968 I was the founded principal of a secondary school in Kenya, now called the Mua Hills Girls Secondary School. In 1968 there were few secondary schools, particularly for girls. Any successful graduate of secondary school could easily be employed by the government or business. Many children did not even attend primary school, at least long enough to graduate or even to become functionally literate. Today children are required to attend primary school through eighth grade while beginning this year all primary school graduates are required to attend secondary school.

In the 1960s Kenyan leader Tom Mboya was working with the John F Kennedy’s family to bring plane-loads of bright Kenyans to the United States for university education. One participant in this exodus to study in the US was Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama, Sr. The University of Nairobi was the only university in Kenya and at that time it was small. In 1970 it graduated 460 students. Today it has around 65,000 graduate and under-graduate students. Moreover it is only one of many public and private universities in Kenya. About a year ago, I attended the graduation of one of our nieces, Jili, from Moi University outside of Eldoret. There were over 10,000 graduates that year and at least 80,000 happy parents and relatives were attending the ceremony. I was pick-pocketed for the first time in my life by one member of the crowd. Kenya now has many unemployed university graduates.

Buses moved people around fifty years ago, but now they have been supplemented with 14-seater mini-buses and motorcycle taxies. TV was confined to the few cities and now is countrywide for people who can afford the satellite disk. Likewise landline phones were confined to the cities and major towns; now everyone who wants one has a cell phone. Banking then was for the wealthy only; now most people bank and send funds on their cell phones.

And yet, and yet.  Things haven’t changed much. People are still as friendly and welcoming to strangers as before. Kenyans eat the same foods. Roast goat meat is still the Kenyan favorite. People mostly eat ugali (corn meal mush) and giteri (mixture of whole beans and corn). Rural people still live on their small farms. City people’s hearts are still in their original home area. Family and community life continues robustly.


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David Zarembka

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Reports from Kenya: