Since I have left Djibouti, I have returned to Nairobi three times. Staying with my friend for a total of almost one month. There is something about the country that I feel I am returning home. Not that it is my home, but a sort of home away from home. A sort of relaxing and calming feeling consoles my body. It may be that I have found my soul sister, my best friend’s family and I have become close, welcoming, and everyone speaks English. But I think there is more to it.
Some basics about Kenya:
Kenya is located in East Africa. It has 224,445 mi². It has a population of 44.35 million. Its capital city is Nairobi sitting in the central region. According to the World Bank, Kenya is rated 71st in the world for GDP, but is the largest commercial and economic hub in East Africa. Agriculture and service are Kenya’s major employers with its lush landscapes, especially in the central region surrounding Nairobi as well as its variety of Kenya is considered 93rd in the world in pure democracy (by the way, the U.S. is rated 20th). One could say Kenya is a leader in Africa. This is why it hosts many Embassies. The U.N. has one of its offices in Nairobi. Mortality rates
Most current and past politics surrounds its development post- colonization. Germany and Britain maintained the country from mid- 1800s through most of the 1900s. Kenya has played an important source of resources and manpower during both World Wars, of course for Britain and inadvertently, for the Allied powers. Post- WWII, many British and other Europeans re-located where they took land from many Kikuyu’s and proceeded to grow and sell tea and coffee, putting Kenya on the international market and creating a hub of commerce. Sadly enough, without Kenyans leading this economic adjustment. After many years of rebellion, Kenya began to become independent in 1957, but officially proclaimed and recognized internationally in 1964 with the election of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Therefore, most of the past 60 years of Kenyan politics center around the country’s development as one, struggles within the country’s tribes, and becoming a true democracy without corruption.
In reflection, I have come to a few conclusions as why I might feel at home in Kenya. Kenya has many similarities with the United States. Not only for its strong economy and private sector and its leadership throughout East Africa, but due to its culture. Perhaps it is because of the English influence both stateside and in Kenya, but the links shared between the US and Kenya are strong. (But this is from an American perspective; an English lad might have varying opinions.)
I should note, before I discuss these similarities, there are still many differences and cultural oddities that exist. I still am white with blonde hair- it is obvious I am a foreigner. Although Nairobi is very diverse, in traveling around the country, I am easily pointed out by being a mazingu, a white person. There have only been a few times out and about where I have found other Caucasians in the same room. Diversity is rising, but mostly the diversity is trans- African. Africans from other countries come to Kenya for business, university, or family.
Roads, shopping, and public transportation are still completely opposite of anything that I have ever experienced stateside, but overall, the sort of mentality and cultural priorities are similar to the states and my personal background that I have easily accepted, appreciated, and respected the culture as a whole.
Kenyan and US Similarities
Pride- Kenyans are proud people. They are proud of where they come from and who they are. This can be seen with Kenya’s national phrase “Pride of Africa”. Talk to anyone and they will tell you they are the best country in Africa. It might come off as cocky, but I personally think it is deeply rooted in their history and culture.
Kenya is made up of about 42- 47 tribes scattered across the country (depending on who you ask). Some of the main are: Kikuyu (22%), Luhya (14%), Luo (13%), Kalenjin (12%), Kamba (11%), Kisii (6%), and Meru (6%). Meet up in Nairobi and one of the first conversations you might hear of people introducing themselves is “Which tribe are you?” Not where you are from, however it is embedded in the question. As every Kenyan knows at a young age which tribe they are from, which tribes they can mingle with, and which to avoid. They know which tribes live where throughout the country. Even if you live in the city, each child knows where their rural, home village is and which tribe it falls under.
For the longest time, inter-marriage was taken negatively. It still exists today between some tribes. Eastern and central tribes might mix with each other and Southern and Western mix, but it is seen as a negative to marry someone from a western tribe if you are from the East and vice versa. This is mostly because each tribe has strong cultural traditions. In the central, Kikuyu’s keep their first-born son living next to the mother and the men living around them, which in the end, creates a small village around the mother. Where as in a western tribe, a mother/wife has the opportunity to leave their husband at any point and without reason. If they do, children are left with the father and she has no responsibility to them. There is no way a village could be built or constructed around the mother if she continuously leaves.
However, what you do find across all tribes is their strong sense of family. Families are large, mostly because they helped each other out for survival, but even today with the corruption in the government, close knit, large families keep the family thriving. This also means your aunt, uncle, grandma are making decisions where you are going to school, the sort of person you are dating, because in the end, the mentality is that any decision you make impacts the family at large. For the independent Americans, this might be bewildering, but it has kept families and tribes growing for centuries.
Though, times are changing. More and more, tribes are intermarrying. My friend is a cucumber. Which means mixed. Today, millennial Kenyans can intermarry without much judgment, but again, the family will be involved in the final decision anyway.
How does this fit into a similarity between the States?
I would compare U.S. states to tribes. Talk to anyone in the U.S. and most people have “hometown pride”, maybe in some areas more than others. People are proud of where they come from and discuss it openly when they move across the country. This is shown in our sports which are located in major cities across the country. Cub fans will be cub fans until they die and that is a cultural representation of American patriotism. Although people move across the country, there are cultural phenomenon’s that occur in the South, East, West, North, and Central. Food changes, accents change, and mentalities change, but in the end, Americans consider themselves Americans. And in the end, Kenyans consider themselves Kenyans.
Food- I find some basic eating habits to be similar. Kenyas have a small breakfast, a larger lunch, and then the main meal of the day, dinner. Kenyans like to drink tea, coffee, and have some toast or bread in the morning.
Their meals always have meat in them. Which is why you find the famous international Carnivore restaurant, where you can order any meat you might wish, and they will bring it out to you. They eat a meat, with some vegetables, most commonly cabbage and greens which we might consider kale or southern greens, and they eat it with a soup- which is a roast of some meat, tomatoes, potatoes, and some other veggies. They eat it with this amazing cooked flour and oil called ugali.
Work, work, work– Kenyans are the most hard working and busy people I have seen in all of East Africa. Unlike Reunion, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, I always noticed that shops were closed early (in my perspective), closed on Sundays, etc. But in Kenya, everything is open early in the morning until late in the evening. Maybe not 24/7 like some of our fast food restaurants, but they will be up early and opening around 5 or 6 am and closing around 10 or 11 pm.
The mentality is work hard, play hard- I would say they drink more similarly to Americans in that Americans are drinkers to let loose where as French and French countries tend to drink more casually as another means of conversation and communal activity. They tend to smoke as a means to commune. Where as Kenyans, and Americans, tend to grab a drink or coffee for business transactions, let loose, and/or come together.
Lastly- Dancing: This is more of a personal reflection rather than an encompassing cultural perception, but Kenyans love to dance. This is more of an African commonality. I don’t know how many times I have received this comment, but at a wedding, grabbing a drink, or out at the club, everyone stares at me and says, “You dance like an African- not a white person.” A strong stereotype, but very much true from what I have found, Africans have rhythm. I think this comes from their culture and history. Africans love to dance- everyone dances. To celebrate, to commune, and to blow off some steam. You find people dancing on the sides of roads, a part of a marriage ceremony and reception party, and at the club. Men are respected and seen as good potential partner if they have good moves.
If anyone knows me, I love to dance. I dance all the time. I danced at a studio from the age of 3 up until I was 18. I even danced competitively. This is one thing I have missed since deciding not to continue in college. Often finding other opportunities to satisfy my dance demand.
However, stateside. Dancing is exclusive to clubs. Perhaps some parts of the country do more dancing than others, but rarely do you find people dancing for the fun of dancing. Weddings have dances, but rarely do you find men on the dance floor. Maybe it is the millennial generation, but many of my guy friends are ashamed and embarrassed to dance. There is a stigma that it isn’t “manly”. Even then, I notice some people judge others for their dancing or they resort to specific moves in hopes to fit in.
That is not the case here in Kenya. People appreciate letting loose and showing off their moves. They appreciate rhythm. They appreciate personal style. No one cares what how you dance and in fact, if you have strong rhythm, you are respected. This is something I wish the states had more of. Dancing has many health benefits, but it also is proven that those who dance tend to live longer, happier lives.
Although I am parting to Zimbabwe tomorrow to explore another African culture, and most importantly, stay with my of my closest friend’s and her family, I do feel I will be dancing my way back to East African home at some point in the future. Hopefully sooner than later.