7 Most Interesting But Obscure Kenyan Laws

Written by | Listicles

If you Google obscure Kenyan laws, you are most likely going to find three. There are several more, mostly colonial laws that we’ve never bothered to change. Some are now obsolete, like one that made it illegal to be broke, but some still work, like the one that outlines how you can get your own coat of arms.

  1. The Law on Witchcraft

Kenya has an entire law, enacted in 1925, on witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act doesn’t ban witchcraft, but rather attempts to regulate it in the most roundabout way possible. It offers penalties for people who try to use charms or “witch medicine” to “Cause fear, annoyance or injury to another in mind, person or property.” If you are not using it for any of these, then it seems you are safe.

What’s interesting is that in one section it makes it an offence for chiefs to allow witchcraft in their area, and in the next gives the District Commissioner the powers to order witchdoctors to live in specific areas. Then it gives the Provincial Commissioner the power to overrule his juniors at any level. I have so many questions about this one, because it barely even describes who is a witchdoctor and who isn’t. It also makes calling another a witch a punishable offence, unless you do so to a police officer or a government administrator.

This law also makes it an offence to pretend to be a witchdoctor. No quacks allowed. Side note: is it a calling or a profession?

The law was last amended in 1964 and has been left intact since.

  1. Asian Officers’ Family Pensions Act ( and Asian Widows’ and Orphans’ Pensions).

There are actually two laws around this, and they were part of a scandal in 2011.

Enacted in 1942, the Asian Officers’ Family Pensions Act, was amended 18 times between then and 1971. Together with it’s supporting law, Asian Widows’ and Orphans’ Pensions Act, the law was meant to give Asian government employees retirement packages. From the racial demarcation in the labor market, Asian employees didn’t fall under the lucrative European Pensions laws or the non-existent ones for Africans.

It established a specific fund and a board to handle the pensions of Asian officers. It previously required registration but after March 1964, any Asian officer employed by the government became an automatic member. The law is fascinatingly detailed in how it would go about it. For example, anyone who earned less than 120 pounds per annum or was older than 54 wasn’t eligible. It has detailed pension tables, and formulas for calculating pensions for both married and unmarried Asians working in the government.

By their design, they were meant to be partly funded through savings and partly by the government. The Asian Officers Family Pension Fund was worth Shs. 417 million in 2011. It had 1100 living members at the time, with only 37 widows living in Kenya. Its European version had been repealed after an agreement in 1977, but that didn’t stop Treasury from paying 149 million shillings to both of them in 2010.

  1. The Building with an Entire Law

At the top of Wabera Street, guarded by two stone lions, is the iconic McMillan Memorial Library. It is the only building in Kenya exclusively protected by an Act of Parliament. In a country where land grabbing is a noble profession, that’s a good thing.

The McMillan Memorial Library Act was passed in 1938 and has been amended six times since, the last being in 1966. Compared to our verbose laws, this one is actually simple and straightforward. The library was built with a grant from the McMillan family (and the Carnegie Foundation) to celebrate their burly American patriarch, William Northrup McMillan, who died in 1925.

The law revolved around the trust that would run the then seven-year-old library. It establishes a trust and how the Trust Fund would work. An interesting part, now outdated, is that it listed a few members by name. The first wasn’t even Lady Lucie McMillan but rather a military officer, Ralph Beresford Turner. Turner’s name is in several other provisions, including one that outlines how he can transfer his position or appoint a proxy. He was in fact, the only person with the power to appoint a lawyer for the trust. He died in 1972 at 93 years of age. In fact, all the Trustees specifically named in it are long dead, and the City authority has run the library since 1962. But how has it survived land grabbing? A genius provision implanted right in the law, that’s how.

The law gives the Trustees the power to buy and sell any land, other than LR 209/1890. That’s the land the library sits on. To sell it would require the law to either be repealed or amended, and even then the building would fall under sites and monuments. This isn’t a challenge, land grabbers.

  1. Animals and Trauma

Image by Joshua Wanyama.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act is an important law that has several obscure parts.

It makes it an offence to slaughter an animal in the presence of another awaiting slaughter. It’s oddly specific on that-with no provision for if the other animal isn’t going to be slaughtered. It is also one of the few offences in the law that don’t have a defense offered within. The preceding section, on cruelty while slaughtering, is offered several: religion, any place other than an abattoir, or if it was for private consumption.

It also makes organizing animal fights illegal, which means bull fighting and the occasional fighting are offences. We see you, Ikolomani.

There’s also a point where it makes it an offence to poison animals, but quickly says that killing rats, mice and other vermin is a solid legal defence (Phew!). It?makes it mandatory to kill an animal if it is in distress, whether due to injury or disease. This means it is an offence not to perform euthanasia on animals.

Another related, bizarre law on animals is a Nanyuki Town by-law which prohibits female donkeys from the town center. The story behind it is rather stupid: a white shopper leaving Settlers’ Store in 1949 happened upon two horny donkeys mating. She panicked and collapsed, and since she knew people, moved to have female donkeys banned from the town center. No one has ever bothered to change that.

  1. The Bridge with a Law

The current bridge. Image by CrazyKanga.

There is an entire law on one contract, the Mtwapa Bridge Act.

Colonisers and governments routinely got into contracts with private companies to fund public infrastructure projects. The government couldn’t afford to handle everything, so it allowed a little capitalism in public goods to ease the burden. In Mombasa, the Mtwapa and Nyali bridges were built by private companies, which then charged a toll for everyone but government vehicles using them.

The law was passed in 1959; it was a ratification of the agreement between the government and Mtwapa Bridge Limited. Under its provisions, the company’s officers could arrest and control traffic, and had the same powers as police officers on the bridge.

Immediately after independence, there were efforts to nationalize the bridge. The problem was that the law gave the company twenty years to run the bridge and operate a toll system. It also gave it a monopoly to run a suspension bridge above Mtwapa Creek, and said the government couldn’t operate more than one ferry service in Mtwapa Creek without the company’s consent. If the government ever wanted to buy the bridge, it had to wait eight years, and then give an entire year’s notice. Then it would part with seventy-seven thousand pounds and three thousand pounds for every year, adjusted for inflation.

This law is obsolete now, since the original agreement expired in 1978. Both current bridges were built in 1980. It is unclear when the toll fees ended because they were still being charged in 1984-the cheapest was 10cts for a pedestrian, and the most expensive 10 shillings for a bulldozer.

  1. The law that allows you to have your own coat of arms

The official seal of the Institution of Surveyors of Kenya.

Remember the feeling when the Stark banners hang at Winterfell last season? Seeing that gray direwolf in a field of white hanging at the castle was one of the most exhilarating feelings in the emotionally trying history of the series.

Enacted in 1968, the College of Arms Act is a law that makes it possible for anyone in Kenya to have a coat of arms. A coat of arms is an official shield or seal. Any school you ever went to, from primary school all the way up, had a coat of arms. Then of course you know the Kenyan coat of arms, with its lions and shield and spears. Counties now also have unique sigils, and they must be registered.

You can actually have your own personal coat of arms in Kenya.

What you need to get a personal coat of arms are six copies of the design, a blazon, and an application filing fee. Once you have these you then send them to the Registrar of the five-member College of Arms. The College of Arms is currently within the Registrar-General’s office at Sheria House, and is chaired by the Attorney General. It is a heraldic authority we inherited from our good old colonisers; the only similar ones around are in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s basically like the maesters of Westeros, with an oddly specific role that your taxes pay for.

What these guys do is then assess the propriety of the design and whether it has been used elsewhere: basically whether its appropriate and if you’ve stolen it. If not, then they approve your coat of arms and you have yourself a design for your banners. What’s left is now to have your standard bearer carry it to the front of your forces, and then go ahead to confuse your enemies with its awesomeness!

If you or your heirs ever misuse the arms without a license, then you are liable for a fine of five thousand shillings.

  1. When it was Illegal to Walk Around Broke

Yes, it was once illegal to walk around broke and unemployed in Kenya. Well, technically.

Under the Vagrancy Act, passed in 1968 and repealed in 1997, there was a broad definition of who exactly a vagrant was. It said it was anyone without lawful employment or lawful means of sustenance. The paragraph then goes ahead to single out prostitution as unlawful employment. Then the next sections define a vagrant further as someone with no fixed abode, is unemployed, and has no permanent means of providing for himself.

It was a rather stupid law, and racist. It was based on a similar British law passed in 1824 to control unemployed veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. By the time it made it to Kenya 74 years later as Vagrancy Regulations, it was both racist and classist. It could be used to arrest any African walking around a white area, and together with other laws that made such things as the Kipande mandatory, worked to restrict the movement of Kenyans anywhere. It was mostly a supporting law, helping others find reasons to force people to work, even if it was for nothing but food.

Technically, if you were broke and unemployed, you could be arrested and hauled into a rehabilitation center.

It was also illegal, for a long time, to make rude gestures to a woman. Under the Penal Code Section 144 (3), it was an offence “to insult the modesty of any woman or girl.” It went into few specifics, but mostly allowed judges to punish whatever they thought wrong. A constant one was calling a woman a harlot or making obscene catcalls. The first part of the preceding sentence was subject to a nine-year legal dispute between two women that ended up in the High Court. One had called the other a prostitute in Kimeru, the first time in September 2001 and then the next month, when she went to court and sued for defamation. She actually won 10, 000 bob in round 1, but lost in the appeal in 2010.


There are many other obscure laws. For example, if you publish a book or newspaper and don’t submit a copy to the Registrar and the national library, you can be jailed for a year of fined 1 million bob. It used to be ten thousand bob but that changed in 2002.

Another, the Breast Milk Substitutes Act, is the reason why you don’t see any adverts on breast milk supplements and related products such as teats, feeding bottles and formula. You can’t even promote any of these things with things like coupons or discounts. Last year, a section was also added in the Health law requiring employers to provide breastfeeding stations for nursing mothers.

Also, there is an entire law on how you can “force” the local authority to adopt your street, in a rather roundabout way. Adopt means register; which actually changes a lot of things. First you apply to be allowed to construct a street. If approved, then then go ahead and level, pave, kerb, channel, light, sewer and drain the street. Once done, the local authority will swoop in, adopt the street, and place its future maintenance on the taxpayer. You’ll be paying for it still, but indirectly.

Which other obscure Kenyans laws do you know?

Research by Gragory Nyauchi, Martin Maitha (Website), and @Owaahh.

Owaahh, 2017

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Last modified: April 13, 2020