Kenya shopping is an activity that just about every visitor will participate in – even those who hate shopping and vow that they simply won’t buy souvenirs. The amount and variety of items available is really quite amazing, and numerous items provide wonderful memories to bring home. The first glimpse you will get of the array of products will probably be onboard your airlines to Kenya, as these airlines’ in-flight magazines will feature articles and advertisement for the kinds of local goods that Kenya markets have to offer.
Once you land at the airport, you will pass by scores of shops offering everything from hand-carved chessboards to packets of locally grown coffee. You cannot buy these when you arrive, but remember them for the trip home, as you will pass by the same shops when you depart. These shops in Kenya are great places to pick up that last gift you’ve forgotten about. While these shops usually have higher prices than you will find elsewhere, the prices are not high compared to what the items are worth in a shop, say, in the United States.
The currency of Kenya is the Kenyan Shilling – written Ksh 00.00. Exchange rates vary, but Kenyan currency is really not necessary for the vast amount of your purchases. US dollars are accepted virtually everywhere except in the most remote places. US dollars and other hard currencies like the euro are, in fact, preferred by almost everyone whether it is for tips or purchases. Kenyan currency (although technically a “hard” currency that is traded internationally) is virtually worthless elsewhere in the world. You want to exchange your dollars in small amounts as you go along in order to have as little as possible when you depart. You don’t even have to change money when you first arrive at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi or Moi International Airport in Mombasa. Taxis and all other forms of transportation will take dollars.
There are banks and exchange bureaus in all major cities and towns, and you can exchange your dollars for Kenyan currency at most hotels and wildlife lodges. It is true that hotels and lodges will not give you as attractive an exchange rate as banks, but it is not usurious and banks can be crowded with long lines. You can also find a limited number of ATM machines in the larger cities and towns. There are even ATMs in the little border town of Namanga at the Tanzania border. Be aware that ATMs may not be working on a particular day and that you will receive only local currency.
Kenya shopping offers numerous goods and items that are made locally. While some things (like wood carvings) are fairly universal, each region boasts certain specialties. On the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley overlooking Nakuru there are many sheep and cattle ranches. Here are little Kenya markets and souvenir shops that sell cowhides and sheepskin hats. On the predominantly-Muslim coast from Lamu and Malindi to Mombasa, popular items are the elaborately carved furniture that has its roots in early traders from India and Oman on the Saudi Arabian Peninsula. These items include everything from tables, chairs, and beds to the beautiful carved doors and window shutters for which Lamu is famous. Few visitors have suitable luggage to carry a bed or door home, but there are many reputable shops and woodworking factories that will reliably ship your large purchases home.
A significant percentage of Kenya shopping purchases include woodcarvings, and to a lesser degree stone carvings and sculptures. They can be found all over the country, and each region is known for different forms. One of the most famous (and valuable) are the Makonde carvings originally produced by the Makonde people of southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique. These became so sought after that many of their distinctive styles are made all over East Africa. If you are looking for genuine Makonde carvings, you should confine your search to the better shops and galleries in Nairobi or wait until you are in Tanzania. These are made from African blackwood (called “mpingo” and ebony). However, do not turn your nose up at the carvings made elsewhere. Many of these are beautiful and display superb craftsmanship. Look for carved figures and busts (sometimes entire family groups), carved animals, masks, and what is called a tree of life consisting of many figures carved from a single piece of wood and in the shape of a cylinder. These can be relatively small (six to 12 inches) or up to several feet high. Mpingo and ebony are dense woods and extremely heavy, and it is also not feasible to carry anything larger than six to 12 inches home with you. Numerous reputable shops and galleries will reliably ship these to you. In particular, some of the animal carvings can be as much as 20 or so feet high (perhaps a giraffe) and weigh hundreds of pounds (perhaps a hippo or elephant). Jade and soapstone carvings are also popular. While soapstone (that comes from the Kisii area around Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria) is quite lightweight, the stone is easily broken. Should you buy an item, you need to ensure it is packed and carefully padded in your luggage. Jade is more resilient and heavier, but small items can be easily carried home. Larger items will need to be shipped for you.
Beautiful fabric and traditional garments make great souvenirs and gifts. Look for the kikoi (or kikoy), a striped cloth of varying colors traditionally worn by Swahili men of the coast as a sort of skirt. You can buy shukas, the red and blue plaid blankets worn by Maasai and Samburu men – or the kanga worn by women all over East Africa. This is a colorful fabric (usually with a Swahili proverb printed on it) that women wear as skirt or shawl or use to swaddle babies to their backs as they work. South of Nairobi towards Amboseli National Park at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro and towards the famed Maasai Mara Game Reserve is home of the colorful Maasai tribe, famed for their beautiful beadwork in the form of bracelets, necklaces and decorated gourds and hides. The closely-related Samburu tribe lives in the semi-arid regions north of Mount Kenya, and are known for similar beadwork, all of which is available for purchase in Kenya markets all over the country. Many wildlife safaris will include a visit to a Maasai and/or Samburu village, and during these you can purchase the items directly from the people who made them. Around Lake Nakuru, famous for its thousands of pink flamingos, you can but some novelty items made from the pretty pink feathers. There are all kinds of small trinket type items that are extremely inexpensive and make gifts when you get home. It’s possible to bring enough beaded key chains, ebony letter openers, and similar knick knacks home for all your friends, family, and coworkers for about $25 or so.