14 interesting facts about life in Kenya

Throughout the course of this blog I’ve shared numerous points of interest regarding Kenyan culture, but today I figured I’d focus on some things I’ve discovered that probably wouldn’t make it into a regular blog post. Whether you’re planning on traveling to Kenya, you have a general interest in Kenyan culture, or you’re a Kenyan checking to make sure I’ve got my facts straight, I hope you enjoy this post.

Greetings

Kelly, fellow expat and friend, recently wrote a blog post about her first year in Tanzania. One of the areas she focused on was greetings. Greetings here are similar, with just a few differences:

  • Normally you don’t smile at strangers or passerbys in Nairobi. As a woman, if you smile at a dude on the street, he may very well believe that you’re flirting with him… a little something I discovered during my first trip to Kenya.
  •  When you encounter people you intend to have a conversation with, always shake their hand or hug them first (they do it the British way – clasp hands then hug right and left) and use the following greeting:

                         Old School

                          Question: Habari? (How are you?)

                          Response: Mzuri (good)

                         New School (Sheng)

                          Question: Sasa?

                          Response: Poa

Side note: if you’re traveling to Kenya and you’ve found a book that tells you the proper greeting is “Hujambo”, it’s wrong. If you use that greeting, you’ve just stamped “noob” on your forehead. People in the coastal region use it, but you’ll definitely get some side eye if you use it in the other parts of the country.

  • If the individual you’re speaking to is with friends, you typically shake everyone’s hands or at the very least acknowledge their presence by nodding at them or speaking to them. When you enter a room of people, make your way all the way around the room shaking hands before you’re seated.

Ray had a hard time with this one in the States. It really confused him that after he met someone the first time, he wasn’t obligated to ever shake their hand again. Here you do it every time you see someone.

Petrol Stations

  • Kenyans refer to gas as petrol, so if you use the term gas, they think you’re referring to cooking gas.
  • People are not allowed to pump their own petrol. You are helped by an attendant at all times.

IMG_7248

Total Kenya

When Ray came to the States, I asked him to pump gas in my car, not realizing that he’d never done it before. I had to teach him, multiple times actually, because every time we stopped to get gas there was a different system.

Once he got the hang of it, he loved it.

Once he got the hang of it, he loved it.

  •  Everyone that I’ve ever ridden with only puts enough petrol in their car for what they need that day. They calculate how much they’ll need to get from point A to point B, and that’s all they put in the tank. You never know when you’ll need that money for something else.

Children

  •  Kids gain autonomy very early in life. Around the age of the three, they’re sent to baby class (the equivalent of our pre-school), where they have homework assignments and get a jump start on their education career.
  • By about the age of seven, sometimes before, they’re able to be sent on errands for the parents, even riding on the back of motor bikes by themselves or walking home from school or the bus stop with their younger siblings.

students

girls coming home

  • They can also cook with fire or even help slaughter the chicken for dinner well before they’ve reached adolescence.
  •  Unless I’m with American friends, I rarely see car seats. Kids can sit in the driver’s lap, in the passenger seat, or even crawl back and forth between seats.

kids in front seat

Money Matters

  • When driving through any town in Kenya, you’ll notice that every other shop is painted green with the words Mpesa displayed in bold lettering.

Mpesa

  • Mpesa (mobile money) is a method of transferring money via your phone. You can connect it with bank accounts, use it to buy airtime, send money to other people, and purchase goods and services. It started in Kenya and has spread to other countries, but it’s a very impressive money management system. If Ray’s at work and I tell him I need money for groceries, he just sends it to me via Mpesa, I go to the nearest station and withdraw, and it’s a done deal.
  • I’ve previously shared that there are small makeshift dukas (shops) where you can buy veggies or staple items right outside your home (the picture below is the duka directly in front of our gate)

duka

  • But I neglected to mention that they tend to operate on an honor system. Often times if we don’t have the money at the moment or can’t break a big note, we can still go down and ask for bread, eggs, milk, or whatever we need and not pay until we have the money. It’s astonishing to me that people who may need the money would allow you to get what you need at their expense until you’re able to pay. Just another great example of the importance of relationship in this culture.
  •  Secondhand clothing from the UK, US, and China come through the Mombasa port in droves. Thousands of people make a living in the secondhand clothing trade (mitumba). There’s a great post about it here.
come rain or shine

I took this photo the first time I came to Kenya while we were driving from Nairobi to Bungoma. Markets like this can be found almost everywhere.

  •  One major item Americans seem to think they should send overseas is clothing, but you’d be surprised to discover you probably already have clothes here if you’ve ever donated them to a charity (check out the article). My two cents on the matter is that there’s enough secondhand clothing here. It seems more beneficial to send money for people to buy clothes here so that you’re not only helping the beneficiary of the clothes, but you’re also helping others here who are trying to make money by selling the surplus stock of clothes they already have.
  •  Hair is a bigger market here than it is for African-American women in the States. No matter what your socioeconomic status is, if you have some money, getting braids or weave is a priority after getting food. I’m not joking either. That’s why aside from Mpesas and dukas, kinyozis (barber shops or hair salons) are probably the next most frequent shop you’ll see in any town or on any side road.

kinyozi

  • Some of you know that I’m a natural hair advocate, but I was surprised to see that the natural hair movement is still fairly new here, and it’s mainly based in the upper class. If people in the lower class are natural, it’s usually for practicality, not style, and their hair is usually shaved very short. It’s not practical or as enjoyable to do your own hair, so most women opt to visit the salon multiple times a month. I still get blank stares when people find out that I do my own hair. My sister-in-law told me that women will pay 2,500ksh ($32 dollars, which by Kenyan standards is pretty high) to have someone do to the same thing to their hair that has become a nightly routine for me. The hair culture is very different here.

I’ve got so many more notes to share, but to keep this post from getting too long, I think I’ll just break it up into a series. Feel free to shoot me questions if you want to know anything in particular. I’ll do my best to answer your question!

Photo creds: Ray Wasike

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20 Replies to “14 interesting facts about life in Kenya”

  1. Kelly

    I loved this post! Its so easy to forget how many things are normal every day things in east Africa but that my friends state side have no idea about.

    Reply
    • Sambrosia Wasike

      I enjoyed your post too, Kelly (hence the shout out). Even between the two of us, it’s funny to see the different perspectives between muzungu stories and natural hair schhtuff. haha

      Reply
  2. Rudo

    I love following your blogs and I continue to be amazed by the fact that you took the big step to move to a totally different culture…

    Reply
    • Sambrosia Wasike

      Ruuuuudo! Long time, friend. Well you technically did the same, just the reverse. It just makes it so when we connect again, we’ll have lots of stories in common to share with each other. 😉

      Reply
  3. The Armchair Commentary

    I always enjoy reading your posts about the differences in the culture of Kenya.

    I have a lot of connections to people who live in or are from various countries in Africa and they all say basically the same thing about hair. There are some countries where natural hair is big, but it doesn’t seem like it’s as common as in the States.

    And you could make a killing off of doing hair.

    And I love the honor system with the food stand. How wonderful.

    Reply
    • Sambrosia Wasike

      That’s still shocking to me that natural hair isn’t as common in countries here. Maybe it was just another misconception I held about Africa, but I just assumed the natural hair movement had been done here long before it came to the States. Yeah, if I can convince some women to go natural, I could help out with hair. Girls I know outside of the upper class seem too scared to make the commitment. They all think their hair texture is too rough. If they only knew.

      Reply
  4. Rachel G

    This was awesome to read through and learn! My Dad has been to Nairobi a few times years ago but I’ve never even set foot on the continent. I used to work in the beauty industry so I was very interested in your note on hair culture because I think in the USA, at least within the beauty industry African-Americans are known for taking their hair very seriously and specializing in working with African-American hair can be a lucrative career choice. Here in Asia, though, I can get expat clients easily by mentioning that I have experience with Caucasian hair–in China most stylists have only ever worked with Chinese hair and don’t know what to do with thin, fine hair.

    Reply
    • Sambrosia Wasike

      Thanks, Rachel. Ray and I were talking about visiting China some day. We should swap countries. haha

      You’re totally right about African-American women being very serious about hair. That’s definitely a commonality we share, but even if you go to the poorest areas of this country, you’ll find women will still have their wigs and get braids at least once a month. Appearance is very important here.

      That’s an interesting point that you brought up though about expat clients in China. Honestly, I just assumed that there wasn’t much of a difference between the two types of hair, they both just look soft and silky to me, but it sounds like it’s good for you that they’re not the same. I grew up in the Midwest where there weren’t many people who knew what to do with my hair type, so I can understand exactly why you’d be so in demand!

      Reply
    • Sambrosia Wasike

      Public education is free, but most people opt for private boarding schools. I’ve got more to share in the next post about education. Wait until you find out about college students!

      Reply
  5. Yulunda G.

    Everything I read was amazing. Felt like I was reading a letter from Nettie to Celie.

    Now, I would have 100’s of men accusing me of flirting as I smile a lot. In fact, we went to an NBA game today and as I was walking through the venue, people kept smiling at me. “Oh yeah, they are just smiling back,” I told myself. Clearly I was smiling through the frustration of having spent 35 minutes trying to park.

    Surprising about the natural hair. That is why we should never assume as I would have figured that’s where it was almost birthed.

    Happy Sunday Beautiful

    Reply
    • Sambrosia Wasike

      The fact that you can smile through the frustration of spending 30 minutes parking says that you might be a good candidate for life in Kenya, since setbacks like that will likely happen to you all…the…time. We just have to work on that smiling thing though. 😉

      I know I definitely assumed natural hair was a given here and figured I’d blend in more. You ain’t lyin’ about assumptions!

      Reply
  6. Chris España

    Hi S’ambrosia
    I liked this blog i know somethings about Africa, what i find interesting is the differences even between the different tribes city states the people dont all live the same way or eat the same types of food an some are similar. I really love different cultures.

    Reply
    • Sambrosia Wasike

      Hey Chris,
      It’s so good to hear from you! Thanks for checking out the blog. We definitely share the same love for different cultures.

      Reply

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