Wednesday, June 15, 2022

THE FASHIONABLE TIES THAT BIND: Interacting With Italian Culture in Kenya

 by Alexander Nderitu


Kenya’s contact with Italy goes back over a century. It is believed that the first Italian missionaries came to Kenya in 1902. The most famous of these would be Blessed Sister Irene Stefani - the first Catholic to be beatified in Africa. Blessed Sr.Irene Stefani was born in Anfo, Brescia (Italy). During WWI (1915 – 1918), she worked in military hospitals in Kenya and Tanzania. Between 1920 – 1930, she worked around my hometown of Nyeri where she was nicknamed ‘Nyaatha’ (‘Mother of Mercy’). In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the issue of Decree on her “Heroic Virtues” and Sr. Irene was proclaimed Venerable. In 2014, Pope Francis put his signature to the Decree of the Beatification of Sr. Irene Stefani.

During their decades-long interactions with Kenya, the Italian touch has been felt in multiple sectors including business, leisure, security and sports. The famous world heritage site known as Fort Jesus (Mombasa) was designed by an Italian architect and engineer. Joao Batista Cairato was hired the Portuguese to design the port at the end of the 16th Century. It was meant to help secure the Portuguese ‘secure their position on the coast of East Africa’. (It should come as no surprise that Italy produces world-class architects. Just look at Roman architecture. Art apparently lies in the Italian gene.)

Since then, Italians have built churches, villas, hotels, various businesses, and even a space agency on Kenyan soil. The Coast-based space agency is credited with being one of the reasons for the high Italian population in Malindi. According to Franco Esposito, a formerly a manager at San Marco space agency, about 120 Italian nationals came to the country to do space research after an agreement between the two governments was signed:

‘However, they later brought their families friends and the number increased as each of those who visited fell in love with Malindi. Since then, Italians began investing heavily in tourism resorts which attracted more tourists.’

One of the more recent space-related projects is the IKUNS (Kenyan ItalianNanosatellite University) project. IKUNS project was coordinated by the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI) with the support of the Kenya Space Agency. Touted as ‘example of Italo-Kenyan cooperation’, it was jointly developed by University of Nairobiand “La Sapienza" University of Rome, with the aim to develop a CubeSat for Earth Observation and to pursue training and educational goals.

Portraits of Italians in Kenya, is a book that was published by the Italian Embassy and the Italian Institute of Culture in Nairobi. In the Foreword, former Italian Ambassador to Kenya, H. E. Mauro Massoni, wrote:

 ‘The ability Italians abroad have always shown to actively integrate themselves in the social, cultural, scientific and economic fabric of their host country has certainly been a key element of their success in this rich and generous African land. An attitude that has been well combined with the typically Kenyan curiosity for everything that, extraneous to the culture of the country, constitutes a tool for human development and improvement of living conditions. The result is a profound interpenetration of two cultures and a fruitful transmission of specific knowledge that has enabled our compatriots not only to assert themselves on a professional level, taking advantage of the many opportunities offered by Kenya, but also to contribute to the economic and social development of the country.’


'And here I am, in Kenya, the country where I would like to stay for a while...It (vlogging) can also be a resource for tourism because making people travel with their eyes and thoughts reactivates the desire for holidays and also to tell Kenyans about the beauty of places like Malindi, Watamu or Diani, for example. I hope that more and more sponsors, as is already happening, will put their trust in me. I am Kenya's most famous "mzungu" vlogger.' - Michele Ponte, Italian-born vlogger

                                                                    Map of Kenya         ( 

It is estimated that about 5,000 Italians live in Kenya. And out of those, as many as 4,000 are said to live in an around Malindi (at the Kenyan coast) alone. It is for this reason that Malindi has been nicknamed ‘Little Italy’. 

Malindi is a popular tourist destination and many Italians have invested in the hospitality industry, among other sectors. Perhaps the most famous investor was Italian billionaire and former F1 boss Flavio Briatore. As sleek as a tomato-red Ferrari, the flamboyant Flavio Briatore lives a jet-set lifestyle that most people can only dream of. He has owned property in Kenya and often visited the sea-side resort with then-girlfriend Super model Naomi Campbell. (Briatore is currently married to Elisabetta Gregoraci).  Naomi’s numerous visits – and her unabashed love for the country – was a great boost to local tourism. So much so that she was later officially appointed ‘Tourism Ambassador’ by the Kenyan Ministry of Culture!

In an article for The Star newspaper, titled ‘More Rich Italians Invest in Malindi’ (March 16, 2018), Charles Lwanga wrote:

‘An Italian investor has opened another multi-million shillings luxurious hotel in Malindi, in addition to two others he built on the shores of Indian Ocean…Mr Rosso who also owns Diamonds Dream of Africa and Sandies Tropical Village hotels in  Malindi says he is optimistic that the coastal town will soon become the next Miami in Kenya.
“The beautiful beach, a marine park neighbouring Gedi Ruins, Arabuko Sokoke and Tsavo East National Park have made the historical resort town a tourism destination,” the investor told BDLife while accompanied by his son Paulo Rosso and daughter Sara Rosso    —who manage his properties.

 Flavio Briatore, a former Formula One boss who owns two hotels in Malindi also plans to set up another property in Mayungu, where he said he has huge tracts of land. His hotels are frequented by rich tourists, his ex-girlfriend and presumptive business partner Naomi Campbell and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.’

 In an article for, titled ‘Why Italians Fell in Love With Malindi’, Faith writes:


‘They loved the weather, pristine beaches, warm and welcoming locals and the abundance of seafood. By the 1970s the Italian community had begun to take shape with many of them settling in the area and pursuing opportunities in the tourism industry. By the 1980s and 1990s an estimated 4,000 Italians were residents in Malindi 30,000 others visiting annually.’

It is a testament to how comfortable Italians feel in Kenya that in 2022, an Italian man joined the race for Kilifi governor in the General Elections! (Malindi is in Kilifi County).

Elsewhere, the website InterNations have a page where Italian expatriates in Kenya can connect with each other:

‘The relations between Italy and Kenya are progressing and deepening, thanks to the increase in the volume of our commercial exchanges and the growing interest of Italian enterprises wishing to invest in Kenya. I take particular pride in the invaluable contribution of the many NGOs and religious men and women who every day stand side by side with the most disadvantaged in this country; and the increased interest coming from Kenyans to study in and visit Italy.’ - The Star'Kenya-Italy Relations Deepen', H. E. Mauro Massoni 
                             Map of Italy         ( 

Kenya has an embassy in Rome while Italy has an embassy in Nairobi. In 1985 a bilateral agreement between Kenya and Italy was signed. It covered cooperation in the technical, economic and development. In 1996, both countries signed the agreement on the promotion and protection of investments.

Here are some examples of high-level Kenyan-Italian co-operation:

- In 2021, the E4Impact accelerator programme - sponsored by the Office of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) - was launched in Kenya. The aim was to catalyze the attainment of the United Nations 2030 sustainable development goals. The accelerator programme will provide Small and Medium Enterprise businesses (SMEs) with training, linkages with local and international business connections, seed funding, CT as well as satellite communication services and office spaces. (Source: Kenya News Agency)

- Italian ambassador to Kenya H. E. Alberto Pieri announced his government will spend Sh780 million to rehabilitate dilapidated roads in Malindi and support the development of the blue economy in Kilifi County.

- In 2021, Kenya Exports to Italy were valued US$29.74 million, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade.

- In 2020, Italy exported $358M to Kenya. The main products that Italy exported to Kenya are Planes, Helicopters, and/or Spacecraft ($138M), Nitrogenous Fertilizers ($29.5M), and Washing and Bottling Machines ($8.11M). During the last 25 years the exports of Italy to Kenya have increased at an annualized rate of 3.27%, from $160M in 1995 to $358M in 2020.

Also In 2020, Kenya exported $37.8M to Italy. The main products that Kenya exported to Italy were Refined Petroleum ($6.5M), Other Processed Fruits and Nuts ($5.11M), and Cut Flowers ($4.16M). During the last 25 years the exports of Kenya to Italy have decreased at an annualized rate of 0.57%, from $43.6M in 1995 to $37.8M in 2020.

(Source: The Observatory of Economic Complexity )

 - In 2015,  The Italian Government offers to extend and expand its debt swap program, a move that will see Kshs 4.2 billion injected into key socio-economic projects in Kenya. The decision was reached at a meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Rome, Italy.

- In 2013, the Italian-Kenyan Trade Association was founded. The stated aim was ‘to create a portal for the activation of political, economic and cultural initiatives, expressions of the emerging specificity of the two countries. The first important milestone which, among other things, gave an acceleration to the initiatives of the Association itself, was achieved with the signing of a Mou with Kenya Invest (body of the Ministry of industrialization with responsibility for investments and internationalization).’

- Kenyan-Italian ties go beyond economics interests. For example, the Embassy ofItaly in Kenya awarded The Order of the Star of Italy to Wangu Kanja for social work. The Wangu Kanja Foundation was created from challenges that the founder experienced after being raped in a carjacking incident in 2002. Her traumatic experience led her to the realization that she needed to take action to address sexual violence by creating awareness and prevention. Since then, the foundation has worked tirelessly to support women survivors of gender-based violence by ensuring that survivors have access to comprehensive medical, psychological and legal support.

The Ambassador of Italy, Alberto Pieri, awards Wangu Kanja with the Honour in the Rank of Knight of the Order of the star of Italy.  (Photo: Wangu Kanja Foundation


 ‘I’d love it if I were multi-lingual. If I had many different languages, I’d be a richer person. - Prof. Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics, MIT

Like Kiswahili, Africa’s most popular indigenous language, basic Italiano is not difficult to learn. However, to master any language, one needs an adequate amount of time and lots of practice. Also, when it comes to language, there can be different dialects or variations depending on geographical region and other factors. And since language is a part of culture and cultures vary, the structure of a language can vary. That’s important to remember if you’re switching from one language to another: different language equals different reality. In the quote below, Danielle from Learn Italian For Travel YouTube series gives us an insight into learning Italian as a second language:

‘In Italy, there are actually two different ways in which you can address people. You can address them in a formal way or you can address them in an informal way. And this has to do with different words and different contexts; also with different verb conjugations. So, when you don’t know somebody, you’re going to use the formal form. It’s showing a form of respect.When you’re good friends with somebody, you’ve known them for a long time, family – you use the informal form.’
Here’s an example of those two forms of language work. Let’s say it’s morning hours, I’m at a conference in Italy, and I want to greet to the stranger next to me. I would say:

‘Buongiorno, sono Alexander Nderitu. Piacere di cornoscerla.’
('Good morning, I’m Alexander Nderitu. Nice to meet you.’)

 But if I was being informal, I would have said something along the lines of: 

 ‘Ciao, sono Alexander. Piacere di cornoserti.’
(‘Hi, I’m Alexander. Nice to meet you.’)


Here are a few more common Italian words. I’m sure you’ve heard some of them before, either in TV/movies or even in actual conversations during mixers:

Ciao = Hi
Grazie = Thanks
Prego - You're welcome
Yes = Si
No = No
Please = Per favore
Excuse me = Mi scusi
Good morning = Buon giorno
Good evening = Buona sera
Good night = Buona notte

The best place to learn the Italian language in the country is, of course, the Italian Cultural Institute (IIC). It is the centre for certification exams for the knowledge of the Italian language (CELI) issued by the University for Foreigners of Perugia. The certificates are valid for the workplace and for further studies. One can also get a lot of extra information from the IIC, eg. about scholarships, studying in Italy. An excerpt from the official website of the IIC:

‘Italian is a language of culture. Knowing it means having access to a literary heritage of fundamental importance for global history, gaining the opportunity to understand a tradition ranging from Dante to Galileo, from the Commedia dell’arte to contemporary cinema, from opera to design.

 But it is also a language of study and work: there are many students who every year decide to attend our places of knowledge, as well as the managers, scientists, investors, workers of every field who come into contact with the Italian industrial, artisan and service world.

 Italian is a working language. Managers, investors, technicians, workers, workers come into contact with the Italian industrial, artisan and service world, which crosses the borders of our country.’

If you’re not looking for certification, you just want a basic grasp of Italiano for travel to Italy or interactions with Italiano speakers, then there are several great YouTube channels and websites where you can learn the basics. I particularly recommend ‘ItalianPod101’ and ‘Learn Italian for Travel(Greetings)’.



   ‘There is no sky as big as this one (in equatorial Africa) anywhere else in the world. It hangs over you, like some kind of gigantic umbrella, and takes your breath away.’ – From Rules of the Wild (novel) by Francesca Marciano

Dante holding a copy of his 'Divine Comedy' in Michelino's fresco (left) and the cover of the video game fashioned from 'Dante’s Inferno'

Italy has a strong literary tradition. What member of the global literary community has never heard of Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example? I have heard people discuss Dante’s Inferno since I was knee high to a puppy!

Dante Alighieri, begun his epic poem Divine Comedy c. 1308 and completed it 1320, a year before his death. The first part of this famous 14th-century poem is titled Inferno. It is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. The story told in these the parts is an allegory telling of the journey of Dante through Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. In 2010, an action-adventure video game entitled Dante's Inferno was developed by Visceral Games and published by Electronic Arts for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles. The story is based on Inferno, the first installment of The Divine Comedy.

In 2018, an adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy, titled The Sky Over Kibera, was staged in Kibera slums (Kenya’s biggest ghetto). The project was helmed by Marco Martinelli (founder Teatro delle Albe of Ravenna, Italy), assisted by Laura Redaelli. According to the AVSI Foundation website, Martinelli said of the project:

‘The work on the Divine Comedy has confirmed to us how the narrative archetype is universal", explained Martinelli. "We talked about a man who gets lost in a dark forest, made of fear, despair, lack of meaning in life. How that man, when he hopes to get out of it, finds himself devoured by wild beasts and has the strength to understand that he will not save himself. This is the cry of Dante: have mercy on me. His invocation to the Creation, to the world, to the Other, has effect: someone arrives and holds out a hand, helps him to come out into the light. Therefore, we simply told this story, without the need to face the Dante verses. We have worked on improvisation, actively involving everyone including teenagers.’

There has been some direct cross-pollination between Italian and Kenyan writers/literature over the years. Some examples:

- In 2017, over twenty young Kenyan writers benefited from a literary workshop on the craft of the historical novel.  The event was a collaboration between the Italian Cultural Institute in Nairobi in and the University of Nairobi and Chronicae - International Festival of Historical Novel (Piove di Sacco, Italy). 

The trainers included Carlo A. Martigli, Matteo Ogliari, Ilaria Macconi Heckner and Giacomo Brunoro. The centerpiece was a short story writing competition culminating in a 'Tito Livio Award'.  The winner, Vera Omwocha, got a return air-ticket to Italy, board and lodging for four days and participation in the 4th edition of the prestigious Chronicae Literary Festival in Padua, Italy, in 2018.

Vera Omwocha (centre) at the Chronicae Historical Fiction Festival in Italy. With her are (L - R): Carlo A. Martigli (writer, lecturer, screenwriter and journalist), Francesca Chiesa (former Director of Culture at the Italian Embassy in Kenya), Matteo Ogliari (historian) and Giacomo Brunoro (president of Sugarpulp Cultural Association).

- Prof. Shaul Bassi,  professor of English and postcolonial literature at the Ca' Foscari University of Venice, has over the years organized Italian residences for promising Kenyan writers. Beneficiaries include former Kwani? editor Billy Kahora and  journalist/novelist Tony Mochama. Regarding his experience as a writer-in-residence at the Ca Foscari UniversityTony Mochama wrote in The Standard:
'But alone in Venezia, at least for the first and last week of my month-long stay, I have come to forgive naturalists, and embrace the poets and writers given to solitude, being a rather ebullient if eccentric figure myself (or so I have been told)!

“Far from the madding crowds ignoble strife,” quote the poet, and far from noisy Nairobi, it is true that poetry flowed from the pen like a raging flood in Budalangi. So, I asked myself, why more creativity here than there?'

 - The Italian crime novel, Involuntary Witness (2002) by Gianrico Carofiglio, was translated into Kiswahili, as Shahidi Asyekusudiwa, by Graziella Acquaviva in 2013. If you love John Grisham-esque thrillers, you’ll enjoy Gianrico Carofiglio’s work. Even in translation, the narratives are quite gripping.

 Some famous Kenyan-based books written by Italians:

 - Kuki Gallman left Italy for Kenya in the 1980’s, along with her husband, Paolo, and son, Emanuele. Paolo would later die tragically and Emanuele would follow later, after being bitten by one of his own pet snakes. Kuki has written several books about her life in Kenya, including African Nights, Night of the Lions and I Dreamt of Africa (which was filmed starring Kim Basinger as Kuki).

 - Rules of the Wild by Francesca Marciano, a kind of modern-day Out of Africa, obviously semi-autobiographical.

Incidentally, my first novel, When the Whirlwind Passes (2001), was inspired by a true-life Italian crime story I read about in the Daily Nation circa 1998.



 ‘There is a signature to Italian fashion that goes beyond a “Made in Italy” label. There is know-how and a level of understanding. That’s why so many fashion prototypes are still made in Italy. Italians are industrially nimble. They’re intuitive and good at finding solutions. Say a designer says, “I want to put a ton of Swarovski crystals on a see-though shirt.” In the United States, manufacturers would just say, “What?” In Italy, they would never say, “No, this is crazy!” There is a maybe. There is never a no.’ - Stefano Tonchi, editor of W magazine

Maasai-inspired couture in Louis Vuitton’s 2012 Spring-Summer collection  
(Photo: Louis Vuitton)

It’s no wonder that Italy is a fashion trendsetter – the entire country is shaped like a boot! Officially, there are four ‘fashion capitals’ in the world: New York, London, Paris, and Milan. But Milan – or Italy in general - is the one most associated with cutting-edge fashion. Think of 10 global fashion brands off the top of your head. Most of them are Italian, aren’t they? (Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Prada, Versace, Roberto Cavalli, Benetton etc)

While Kenyan fashionistas look up to Italian fashion labels, Italian designers have also drawn inspiration from the beauty and majesty of Kenyan landscapes and traditional Kenyan cultures. For instance,

The Louis Vuitton 2012 Spring-Summer collection was clearly inspired by traditional Maasai garb. The Maasai (East Africa’s best-known tribe) are mostly found in Kenya and neigbouring Tanzania. Their traditional attires are astounding in their colour, accessories, and detail. Even the men will be decked out is earrings, beaded necklaces, bangles, head bands, red ochre in the hair, sandals etc and still look masculine. It’s a very colourful and admirable culture. What may come as a shock to foreigners is that the Maasai appeared in Africa relative recently (remember that Africa was the first continent to be populated by humans). From Unnatural Histories –Serengeti, a BBC documentary:

'The most recent people to arrive in the area (Serengeti and its environs) have in many ways become the most iconic: the Maasai.  Arriving from the north of Kenya and Sudan as recently as the 1800s.'

Their exact origins remain obscure. However, it is suspected that cross-breeding between Roman soldiers in northern Africa and Nubians (dark-skinned North Africans) gave rise to this nomadic community which then travelled southwards to their current locales. The Beautiful People of Kenya - a guide book by Mohamed Amin, Duncan Willets, and Brian Tetley – is one of the many sources that espouse this view. A snippet:

‘Yet, striding across the dusty plains, clad only in loose-flowing red robe, spear in hand, skin oiled and gleaming, hair slicked down with a spat of "Brylceem" ochre, the Maasai initiate is the very celebration of the romantic cliché of the African warrior: the epitome of grace and nobility, an ancient Aristocrat often thought to be one of the lost legions of (Mark) Anthony. Certainly no other community in Kenya has had so much written about or observed about them as these nomadic pastoralists who swept south towards their present home during the last 500 years.’

The Maasai warrior class (the ‘Morans’) have been compared to ancient Roman warriors or gladiators. Some say, it’s not a coincidence. And one day, DNA diagnostics might answer the pressing question of which genetics merged to produce the famous Maasi people. 

In 2016, the fashion of Valentino did a promotional Spring - Summer Campaign that captured stunning vistas of Kenya and Maasai culture. The photos and videos were widely shared online. In an article titled ‘Valentino Captures Spring 2016 Campaign in Kenya’, described the promotion thus:

‘With its spring 2016 runway show inspired by Africa, Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli staged the new season’s campaign in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The Italian label tapped Stephen McCurry, a photographer who is most famous for his “Afghan Girl” National Geographic cover.

The full cast of model stars Alice Metza, Cameron Traiber, Greta Varlese, Kirin Dejonckheere and Tami Williams. Also featured in the advertisements are the Maasai people.

McCurry told WWD about shooting the campaign, “The idea of these pictures is to take the viewer on a journey. The clothes were inspired by African motifs, [so] to take the shoot to Africa and show how these things interact and, this connection of the clothes, the models, the environment, the local people; I thought it was a great endeavor.”

BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE: Notice the ancient-Roman-soldier-esque look of the leaping Morans

In 2021, Maison Valentino announced that they would work with Kenyan writer, actor and comedian Elsa Majimbo in “a special project with culminating into a soon-to-be-released collaboration.” For her part Elsa posted, “It’s absolutely insane to me that less than a year into my career I get to collaborate with one of the biggest designers in the world !!!”

I feel that the area of fashion is a gold mine that has barely been scratched.  There could be so many more fashion collaborations between Kenya and Italy: fashion workshops, fashion shows, model exchange programs, Kenya-Italy Fashion Week etc.  It would be a natural fit. Nairobians are exceptionally fashion forward (especially) the ladies. In addition, a lot of raw materials are readily available. We even have prominent colleges that teach fashion, style and modelling, such as Evelyn College of Design and Vera Beauty College. Kenya also has a ready source of raw materials for fashion and accessories. These include cotton, skins and hides, gemstones, sisal, horns and various metals. We also have home-grown fashioned labels. With Italian support, I am certain we can establish Nairobi City as a (perhaps even ‘the’) ‘fashion capital of Africa’. This would also create various employment opportunities along the value chain. A good example of such co-operation was demonstrated by the “Mama Lorenza" Bernasconi (R.I.P) Vocational Centre. An excerpt from an article titled ‘Swiss-Italian Solidarity In Kenya...And Fashion’, published online by


‘The opening of Mama Lorenza's Vocational Centre was intended to provide girls with an opportunity for professional and social integration, and two years ago we opened Emèl, a women's social enterprise that produces and sells high-quality leather and textile products and is led by some of the students who have graduated. Emèl's ambition is to offer secure and challenging employment to girls who have graduated from vocational school. In order to make the company financially self-sufficient and to be able to welcome more and more girls into the team, since last year we have decided to expand sales in Europe, starting with Switzerland."


The latest initiative of the organization has found the support of international designers such as Andrea Renieri (Ferragamo), Luigi Mulas and Silvia Stefanucci (Academy of Costume and Fashion) who have designed the line of bags and accessories (following the realization) that can be purchased from April on the Emèl website and the success of the vocational school can be seen by the fact that at least 200 of the 214 graduates have immediately found work.’



 ‘Look at this: surrounded by Italian singers. Have you noticed, folks, that in our business (American showbiz), most the comedians are Jewish and most of the singers are Italian?’ – American comedian Red Buttons, on TV’s Celebrity Roast of Frank Sinatra 

I Solisti Veneti performing live in Kenya

On 6th December 2013, as Kenya celebrated 50 years of independence, the Italian classical music orchestra I Solisti Veneti performed at the Oshwal Centre in Nairobi. The concert was concert organized by the Italian Embassy. Here’s a brief bio of the legendary performers, gleaned from NairobiNow blog:

‘The “I Solisti Veneti” orchestra which was founded and directed (to this day) by Claudio Scimone in 1959, quickly reached worldwide fame and obtained unconditional enthusiasm by audiences and the critics alike. To its name are almost 6.000 concerts in over 80 countries, participation to the Major International Festivals (more than 30 concerts at the Salzburg Festival), an impressive discography of over 350 titles on LP, CD and DVD editions and a wide range of musical and historical as well as cultural and promotional activities…


The highest awards in the music world were conferred to “I Solisti Veneti “and to Claudio Scimone: Grammy Award, several Grand Prix du Disque and the ‘ Academie du Disque Lyrique’, a number of awards from Discography Critics in Italy and other countries. The brilliant award of the Festival Bar with 350,000 votes from the youngest listeners. In 2008 at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice they were awarded the Arthur Rubinstein Foundation Association prize “Una vita nella musica” (“A life in music”) which is considered by the international critics to be the Nobel Prize of music.’ 

There have been other Italian orchestra and opera performances in Kenya over the years. In 2011, world renowned maestro, Riccardo Muti and his crew gave a charity concert in Nairobi. It was dubbed ‘the biggest ever classical music extravaganza in East Africa’. He played some of the most famous arias of Italian opera, from Norma (Bellini) to Rigoletto (Verdi) and the Harmonic Hall of Piacenza.

MAESTRO: Riccardo Muti (third from right) and Members of His Orchestra In Kenya (AFP PHOTO/Tony Karumba)
There have also been joint programs such as the ‘Italian Music Kenyan Artists’ event which was held at the Italian Institute of Culture. 

I was surprised to learn that the debut performance of Ondieki the Fisherman (Kenya’s first musical/opera) had an Italian touch. Anne Manyara, member of the International Association of Theatre Critics wrote in The East African newspaper:


‘In Act II of the opera Tosca (1900) by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), the chief of police Baron Scarpia tells the famous singer Floria Tosca that if she agrees to sleep with him, he will release from prison her lover, Mario Cavaradossi.


Distraught at finding herself in such a difficult situation, she sings Vissi d’arte (‘I Lived For Art’) lamenting “I lived for art, I lived for love... in the hour of grief, why, Lord, why dost thou reward me thus?”


As a curtain raiser at the gala night of the first ever Kenyan opera Ondieki the Fisherman, Rhoda Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen sang this famous aria, Vissi d’arte. Even though these particular circumstances were far more appealing than Tosca’s, the title of the song must have rung true for Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen, because this is a woman who has certainly lived for art.’


FOOD – A Taste of Culture
‘You won tournaments before Black men could compete, are you kidding me?
That’s like winning a pasta contest without Italy!’
-          'Lance Armstrong vs Babe Ruth, Epic Rap Battles of History

Ah, Italians and pasta! We have had so much about them from popular culture. But there’s more to Italian food than pasta! There a quite a number of places where one can sample Italian cuisine locally. The best known place is probably the Trattoria, near the Nairobi County Gov’t buildings.
The Trattoria restaurant on Kaunda Street, Nairobi, is a hot ticket for Italian food.

In May 2022, the  Artcaffé Market launched ‘the Italian month’, inviting Kenyans to get a taste of Italian culture and cuisine exclusively at Rhapta Square. The experience ran from May 1 to May 31. On offer were ‘different tasting experiences and events to bring to life the diverse nature of Italian cuisine, including Italian street food, pizza and beer, the art of Apertivo and many more.’ 

Below is a list of places that either specialize in or offer Italian gastronomic delights. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list as it is normal for restaurants to pop up or close down over the years. (Some might also be temporarily closed due to COVID-19 impact). 

4.      Artcaffe
8.     Utamu Restaurant
9.      Mediterraneo
10.   La Cascina
11.   The Arbor
17.   Matteo's
18.   Pomodoro
21.   Marketplace
23.   Lucca 
          24.   La Salumeria 

As with fashion, Italy also produces some world-class wines. An insight from

'Very generally speaking, Piedmont's Barolo and Tuscany's Chianti Classico regions are considered to produce some of Italy's greatest wines. However, Italy's wine production is so vast (it is the world's largest wine producer) and varied, nominating any one region as the best is a recipe for antagonism. Even within Piedmont, Barbaresco could challenge Barolo, and in Tuscany, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano could challenge Chianti. Some will point to Amarone della Valpolicella, others the idiosyncratic wines of Etna or Collio Goriziano.' 

Italian wines are locally available. One point of sale is the Enoteca in Nairobi. Their website describes the establishment thus:

The Italian word Enoteca is derived from the Greek  Οινοθήκη, which literally means ”wine repository”  but is used by Italians to describe a special type of wine shop. Enoteca in Nairobi has been operating since the beginning of 2011 as an importer and distributor of representative products from Italy. We sell wine, pasta and other Italian confectionaries.’

Sports is probably the most underrated area of Italian interaction with Kenya. There are plenty of Italians actively or competitively engaged in various sports on Kenyan soil.  Both countries have been known to produce world-beating athletes, but in different sports. Kenya is world-famous for producing the world’s greatest long-distance runners. No exaggeration.  Marathoners and trainers come from all over the world to look for our secret(s). Foreign nations offer citizenships to promising Kenyan runners so that they can stand a chance of appearing on the medals tables of prestigious athletics events. There’s even a book titled Running With the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth. The greatest marathoner of all time (officially) is Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge. Incidentally, Kipchoge’s initial attempt to break the sub-two-hour world marathon record took place in Italy. It was sponsored by Nike shoe company and dubbed Breaking2. He completed the challenge in just over two hours, which was stellar but not a victory. (He later broke the record in Austria in 2019, making history.) More recently, Kenyan sprinter Ferdinand Omanyala broke two records (100m and 200m double) at the International Castiglione Athletic Meeting at Zecchini Stadium in Grosseto, Italy. ‘It was a great outing and definitely two competitive races. Winning a double on foreign soil definitely feels great and this is another morale boosting performance,’ Omanyala told Capital Sport. 

Italy, one the other hand, is one of the most successful nations in the history of the FIFA World Cup. She has won the soccer World Cup four times: in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006. For some reason, despite having some talented soccer players, Kenya has never prospered in international soccer tournaments. Should our Italian friends help us in this area, we will say ‘Grazie mille!’ and find a way to return the favour! Already, some Kenyan footballers have had the opportunity to train with or even play for Italian clubs. For example, Kenyan midfielder MacDonald Mariga was signed to three different Italian clubs during his career: Parma, Inter-Milan, and Unione Sportiva Latina Calcio. Soccer is Kenya’s most popular sport.  International stars like MacDonald Mariga, Dennis Oliech and Victor Wanyama have shown that Kenya can contribute a lot more to The Beautiful Game. 

A few other sporting highlights (just a tip of the iceberg): 

- Paul Thiong’o, a Kenyan born soccer star, plays the Empoli youth soccer academy in Tuscany, Italy. Thiong’o was once under the tutelage of current Juventus head coach Maurizio Sarri. 

- Kenya’s AFC Leopards youthful midfielder Richard Odada trains with Italian giants Juventus. 

- Kenyan and Italian athletes excel at the ABSA Kip Keino Classic athletics meeting in Nairobi. ‘The happiness of the Kenyan runner was matched by the excellent performance of Italian athlete Filippo Tortu.’ - 

- Kenya and Italy share honours in Padua Marathon. Kenyan Benjamin Kiprotich shines in the men’s race while Italian Tiziana Alagia does the same on the women’s side at the Sant’Antonio Marathon from Vedelago to Padua. 

- Beach volleyball: Italian test for Kenya in World Championships opener. Kenya’s pair of Brackcides Agala and Gaudencia Makokha get their World Beach Volleyball Championship campaign underway on Friday with a clash against Italian pair of  Claudia Scampoli and Margherita Blanchin at the Foro Italico in Rome, Italy. 

- Italian Lorenzo Gagli is the winner of the 2018 Kenya Open Golf Championship.

As with fashion, I believe that the sports world is an area that Kenyans and Italians can find multiple synergies; co-operate, compliment, and inspire each other. 






 Alexander Nderitu is a Kenyan writer, poet, playwright and critic. Some of his writings have been translated into Swedish, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, French, Dholuo and Kiswahili. His poems have been in many publications, including the World Poetry Yearbook and the World poetry Almanac. In 2014, his poem ‘Someone in Africa Loves You’ represented Kenyan literature in Poetry Postcards distributed during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. He is the Deputy Secretary-General of PEN Kenya Centre and a Regional Editor for the global news portal In 2017, Business Daily newspaper listed him among Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’.  In 2021, he was a co-winner of the IHRAF African Human Rights Playwriting Contest. Official website:


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