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.

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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

Gun fire in the streets: 5 minutes of panic

Rongai shooting

Ray looking out from the second floor of the mall at the area where the shooting occurred.

This morning, well fairly close to noon, Ray woke me up to tell me he was heading to work.

He normally leaves around 9am, but lately he’s been going to the office later so he can work on the Internet at home before meeting with clients. Recently I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been getting annoyed when Ray stays home late because it interrupts my “me” time, but today I was extremely grateful that he delayed.

Alarming conversations and unnecessary delays

Ten minutes after Ray left, my friend Whitney sent a text and asked me if Ray was at work. Thinking she was in the mall and wanted to stop in and say hi, I told her he was on his way and should be there shortly.

A few seconds later she called.

“There’s heavy gunfire going on right now at Maasai Mall (where Ray works), tell him to go home!”

All my grogginess suddenly disappeared.

About a year ago most of you probably saw coverage of the mass shooting at Westgate Mall, but what is not reported across the pond is the frequent bombings, shootings, and national threats that happen on the regular here. Just a few months ago a bomb exploded in a bus just down the road from Ray’s old apartment.

You can imagine then the horrific thoughts there were running through my head.

As I was trying to call Ray, my phone flashed “battery low” and threatened to shut off in the wrong place at the wrong time forcing me to delay placing the call while I searched for the charger.

I finally reached him and began breathlessly telling him to come home, but within thirty seconds I ran out of airtime and the phone cut off (I wasn’t kidding about short phone conversations here).

All of these delays were really doing a number on my mental stability. I was this close to throwing on my clothes and running down the road to see if I could just find Ray myself when he called me back.

He was coming home.

Takeaways from today

Later, as Ray contacted guys from work and Whitney updated me, we discovered that four thugs had tried to jack an armored car near the mall and there was a gun fight between them and the police in the streets. All four thugs were killed, and as far as we know, there weren’t any other casualties.

I hate to think of what could have happened if Ray had left for work just a bit earlier and was walking on Magadi Road when all this was going down, but I’m thankful that that’s not how it happened.

If anything, today’s incident has further increased my desire to quit being a baby about the days Ray sticks around the house and to cover him in prayer every time he walks out the door. One of the habits I had as a newlywed of praying for Ray as he left was dropped once his office moved from Nairobi city to Rongai, but I was putting way too much faith in Rongai being “safer than the city” and not enough faith in God. I definitely need to continue covering him in prayer every time he steps out of the house.

We’d love your prayers as well.

Uhuru Gardens

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nairobiA few weeks ago I mentioned that Ray and I attended a cake festival here in Nairobi, but I neglected to mention that it was held in Uhuru Gardens. I didn’t take many pictures because there was too much going on, and my hands were full of cake, but here’s a few snapshots of the sculptures in the park. Maybe next time we make it out there I’ll get more. 🙂