This is a message I received a few days ago from a very nice man whose name I left as anonymous, because thats a thing.
Subject a general interest
Message You raise some very interesting points. I like others I suppose do view Africa in a somewhat negative light. My view is formed from limited news reports usually revolving around rampaging warlords or poverty. Then I see pictures of beautiful, bustling cities and it makes me wonder at what I do not know. I will be following your blog for at least a while and am glad I ran across your article. I am curious about some of the racial aspects. While I don't see myself as overtly racist I do know I have biases. On some level most people do. Can you tell me what it would be like for a white American moving to a city like Nairobi? Would there be racism? Danger? Curiosity?
I figured it would be of interest to many people reading this who wonder what it would be like for them coming to Africa, so I decided to respond in an article.
First of all, this is just an article and I cannot possibly cover everything, so check out the book What It Means to Be African for a more comprehensive yet simplified understanding of Africa in general. Nonetheless, I will talk about a few key things that a foreigner will encounter or find interesting when coming to Nairobi.
Being a world class city, (yes, imagine that. It was even recently ranked among the top 20 most successful cities in innovation, liveability and capacity to reinvent itself) Nairobi happens to have a few different races. Another reason there are many white people is because of colonialism. While most colonists chose to leave afterward, many stayed, and are considered Kenyans by law like the rest of us because their I.D.s say so. That being said, the common mwananchi (that is the Kenyan way of saying ordinary citizen, mwananchi is Kiswahili for citizen) does not consider them truly Kenyans, so they do not generally interact with them unless they are really outgoing, or the white person reaches out first. People will probably know you’re not from here though, as white people who live in this sun-all-year-round, tropical climate of ours are quite tan, and you will look very white in comparison. Tourists are generally treated in a very friendly manner, because African values dictate hospitality for visitors, plus we’re used to them. The tourism industry is one of Kenya’s biggest revenue earners.
There is a catch.
White people here are expected to have money. This is because the white people here usually do, as they are either former colonialists/their offspring, expatriates working here or tourists just visiting. They figure why would you come to my country if you’re not rich enough to travel/are not being paid enough to be here? There are no poor white people in Kenya. This means that you will be expected to have more money, so prices will go up for you. Furthermore, white people usually don’t know the regular prices, so it would be quite easy to just quote a figure. The guy on the street will increase his prices by a factor of at least 5 if it’s a white person buying, same as the shopkeeper who doesn’t display prices or the lady at the market, just the same way the price would be different for me if I’m walking versus if I’m driving by. So if you can be with a Kenyan while trying to buy things where the price is not displayed, that would be best for you.
Where do I even begin? Sheng is Kenyan slang, and basically everyone in urban areas speaks it. Well… everyone who isn’t white. White people in Kenya do not generally speak slang, but there are exceptions to every rule. The kind of slang you find will differ with the people. The upper and upper middle classes tend to speak slang that is simply English with a few words or phrases from Kiswahili, which Wikipedia has decided is called ‘Swanglish’. It can also be mixed with other local languages. The thing you need to know about Kenyans is that we are mostly multilingual. Kenyans who live in urban areas are generally exposed to at least three languages; English, Kiswahili and your native language. There is also likely to be a fourth or fifth depending on where you grew up and which school you went to. The lower and lower middle classes tend to speak sheng that is a bit more proper slang, that is, an entirely different language on its own, with its own words and rules. This also tends to be mixed with Kiswahili though, and a few of the words make it to the mix that the upper classes speak.
Street stall advert for Ghetto Radio, a station that prides itself in conducting all its' programming entirely in Sheng
So, many people speak using two or sometimes even three of the languages at the same time, and they may not notice they are doing it because it is so normal. It may be difficult for you to understand some things because of this. Worry not! Just ask. You might learn a few cool things.
Rich and poor exist side by side
The percentage of Kenyans that lives below the poverty line is 47%. Kenya has one of the greatest divides between the rich and the poor, with a Gini coefficient (an indicator used to measure inequality) that is legendary. That basically means that while there are more people who live above the poverty line than those who live below it, there is more tension between the rich and the poor because the rich are really rich and the poor are really poor. So for example, although slums are present in Nairobi, we also have a real estate boom in the luxury real estate sector. Okay, we have a real estate boom in general, but the prices that have been growing the most are those in the high end markets. So while there are extensive green, leafy suburbs, there are also those proper ghettos you see on TV. The high-end mall business is really booming and these days it feels like a new mall is opening every other week, generally populated by the upper and middle classes who spend their weekends hanging out there or in bars and restaurants. We have IMAX here by the way, so you won’t have to miss anything that comes out while you are here.
Windsor Golf Club in the suburbs, with Nairobi city far in the background
The biggest problem with this (which is how it could affect you) in a major city is obviously crime. But like anywhere else in the world, you just need to be smart about your safety. You need to figure out where you can and cannot go and when.
I will give you a few pointers.
There is a road running across the middle of Nairobi's Central Business District called Tom Mboya Street. This street is the unofficial boundary between uptown on the Western side of it, and downtown on the Eastern side. If you are white, do not cross that street. Stay on the Western side. Regular Nairobians who are not necessarily from those sides can cross that street but only if they know what they are doing, and they know what they are getting themselves into so they are fully alert. People who are from those sides/have to be on that side for various reasons; such as transport terminals being on that side or they actually work there; usually know how to handle themselves while there.
The second pointer is that night time is run by the cops and the criminals, stay out of their way. You certainly do not want to be walking around at night. Just drive or cab to wherever it is you are going. In fact, just cab, because you do not know Nairobi’s streets and which ones are not safe at what times. The cab people would know best. Even then you need to know where you can and cannot go. If you are white, I would recommend staying in the more affluent areas, because if you go anywhere else you would really need to understand the city or be with someone who does.
The second way it could affect you is by people asking you for money, either homeless people or just beggars. Give or move on, they’re people too.
MPESA is everywhere
For those of you who have not heard of MPESA, it is the biggest invention ever to come out of Kenya, and the reason Kenya is the world leader in mobile money.
Yes, that’s right, we’re good at things other than running.
MPESA is a mobile payment system that works using phone SIM cards, so one can transfer money using their phone without any financial institution involved. It was invented by a young Kenyan guy, launched by the mobile network Safaricom, and was adopted all over the country, to the extent that it has become ubiquitous in Kenya. It especially works since almost everyone has a phone; over 90% of adults. You don’t even have to bother carrying more than, say, Ksh. 500 (about $5) in your pocket if you have this, because businesses and people everywhere accept payment through MPESA, more so than credit cards because credit cards don’t do very well here. Kenyans seem to have a problem with the concept of paying for shit *ahem* items with money you don’t have. So there are very few credit cards actually in circulation. Where cards are used, they tend to be mostly debit cards. So what you carry will depend on where you are going. The big places, like the really nice hotels, restaurants, the mainstream supermarkets, and clothing stores and so on will have a card payment system for sure. Usually VISA and Mastercard. These kind of hotels and restaurants do not generally accept payment by MPESA, for snobbish reasons I suspect, but the supermarkets and clothing stores do. Nonetheless, if you’re out going to the common mwananchi places, they will accept payment via MPESA. From fuel to public transport, school fees to rent, all the ordinary payments you need to make can be paid by MPESA. If they would let us buy cars using MPESA we would! Yes, you cannot buy a car using MPESA, at least not a very nice one. For one reason and one reason only, there is an amount cap. You see, mobile money here generally operates within a legal loophole. They are not technically a financial institution so they are not regulated by the Central Bank. This was a problem at first but Safaricom had built enough goodwill with the government to be allowed to continue operating this way, with a few conditions. One of them was that any individual’s account balance or daily transactions cannot exceed a certain amount, which is just under $2,000. So if you need more than that on any given day then stick to cards.
Please note that MPESA is the one that was launched first and is the biggest, processing over 90% of mobile money transactions, but all the other mobile networks also launched their own mobile payment systems i.e. every carrier has its own. So every reference in this section to MPESA should be construed as referring to mobile money payment systems in general, it’s just that MPESA is the default and any visitor should use that because it has all the essentials and is the most far reaching.
We do not all run, do not ask that, people don’t like it
The people who are busy winning marathons and making us look awesome are mostly from the highlands, waaaaaaay outside Nariobi.
The ‘highlands’, by the way, does not necessarily mean rural. It’s a part of Kenya that is high in altitude, mostly rural but a few urban and peri-urban areas there. It is speculated that the high altitude is one of the reasons for their success in athletics. There is less oxygen up there so their lungs are used to that, lower altitudes are easier for them to tolerate. Not to mention there are training camps in the highlands where Kenyan runners undergo a heavy training regimen, and they are sometimes joined by foreign runners who want to learn their secrets.
For Americans who are coming here, you should just know that Kenyans love Obama. He is technically Kenyan for us, because his father was Kenyan and it doesn’t matter that he was born in Hawaii. He is so well-loved here, when the U.S. election was being held the first time he was running for president, a parallel mock election was held in his home village to vote for him. It was hilarious. There is also an alcoholic beverage that came up that was named for him, it is called Senator.
Billboard welcoming Obama to Kenya for his 2015 visit. No other head of state receives the kind of welcome he does here. Image Source
So if you are going to criticize him you better have some facts and you better be nice and objective about how you say it. Although you might be lucky and find the few naysayers, but in general, people love him.
It’s a very innovative, capitalistic society
Jokes are made about the number of bloggers and photographers per square kilometre in Nairobi. So do not be surprised if you meet a lot of them.
Nairobi is the leading city in Africa in terms of innovation and the drive for technology, evidenced by the recent ranking I mentioned earlier. There are a number of technology and innovation hubs, and smart phones are everywhere. The youth here particularly are very tech savvy, and you can safely assume people have heard of and use social media. Like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram are all really big here. You can also assume people have heard of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Kenyans are early adopters, so if you want to promote something you’ve invented/some technology, you should absolutely come here. Uber works here, Netflix became recently available, Whatsapp has a stranglehold on texting, and like I said, MPESA is now used for EVERYTHING.
Everyone has a side hustle, Kenyans rarely just stick to the I-have-a-job-the-end way of life. Either they are part of some investment group, or they are running a small business on the side, or they own some real estate that they are renting out, there is always some kind of side hustle. I suppose that contributes greatly to our constant economic growth and development, in defiance of all odds and news reports. This also means that you could get hustled to buy something at any time if you’re in the streets.
Kenya is one of the more Westernized and more tolerant African countries
This is particularly so in Nairobi, where you can be or do many things, within reason. You can have heated debates on religion, or politics, or world events without someone calling you a socialist or fascist. Despite the fact that we have also had terrorist attacks, a politician in Kenya would not stand up and say anything Islamophobic, because we recognize that those are extremists. The younger generation particularly tend to be much more tolerant and open minded than the older generation. There is a growing community of atheists and agnostics, who are becoming more open about their views.
Do not expect to see people walking around in traditional wear. And although African fabrics are very popular, they tend to be reserved for weekends. You want to see traditional things, either go to any of the numerous cultural centres and events specifically for that, or travel outside the urban areas. And even when you go out into the country, it will be very difficult for you to find traditional wear since most people just put on modern clothing.
Nairobians are huggers, we hug people we are acquainted with on a personal level to say hi and bye. But there are still some complex rules about this. You do not generally hug elders, unless it is a female relative or really close friend or family. Men do not generally hug each other, unless they are close friends or close family, and even then, only if they have not seen each other for a while or they are congratulating for something. Women can technically hug everyone, and younger women do in fact tend to hug everyone they know within their generation, as a warm greeting or goodbye. The hug can be substituted for a kiss on the cheek with good friends. Friendly younger people may also hug people they do not know if that person is with a friend that they have just hugged, just to offer a warm greeting and to avoid awkwardness of hugging one or more and leaving out one. But women do not generally hug the older males unless the rules above apply (close friend or close family), and Muslim women do not hug males at all, but again, exceptions. It’s complicated, for a white male or really just any visitor, the safest bet is to wait to see how the other person will greet you, and respond accordingly.
But this is still an African country with African values, so while gay people would not be stoned on the streets or anything like that (well at least it hasn’t happened so far), it would anger a lot of people if two men were just walking around holding hands and looking lovey dovey. Things might quickly get out of hand. Two women is not a problem, again African values. Women are allowed more leeway in terms of showing affection, but of course they can’t start making out on the street. In fact, Public Displays of Affection are generally frowned upon, and people don’t do it in the streets. But things are different within bounded places, for example at a mall it would be surprising to see people make out, but most people would just move on with their lives. Parents with kids might be concerned though, and ask you to do it elsewhere. Again, if gay, do not try this. Within people’s houses, for example during an event of some kind, it depends on who you’re with. Generally straight couples can make out in people’s houses but gay ones, it would only be tolerated with the younger generation. Bars and clubs are the same, you can make out as long as you’re straight. For gay people it would have to be a very tolerant place with a very tolerant crowd, again, mostly young people and more acceptable for women.
Nairobi is a party town
Galileo Lounge in Westlands, Nairobi
Nairobians party Monday to Monday. Every single day of the week there is a party atmosphere going somewhere. If you want to go out and party any day, you can. It used to be that you could actually go out and drink at any time of day or night, so much so that it was considered a problem, because a lot of young people would get lost in that fast lifestyle. So laws were enacted to limit the times that bars and clubs can be open, or the times that you can buy alcohol from the supermarkets. While it has certainly reduced, people still party hard. It’s just that if you want to start early you should have your own alcohol, which some people do anyway and start get-togethers in their houses. Do not be surprised if you walk into a get-together at 11a.m. and find people with alcohol in their hands. Although don’t get me wrong, this is usually over a weekend.
In terms of drugs, weed is quite prevalent in Nairobi, if that’s your kind of thing. It’s illegal, but common. One of those “if you look, you will find” sort of situations. Hard drugs, not so common, although they are still there, like every other city in the world I suppose.
Also, you know how people can be attracted to someone of a different race just because they are a different race? You will get a lot of that. White people at clubs and parties are fair game, because this is a majority black country, even though we have other races represented. Just the same way I would get hit on if I went to party in the more tolerant parts of Europe, simply because I’m black. I won’t get into what will happen in the not so tolerant parts.
Foodies will also love it here
There are many good hotels and restaurants in Nairobi, and we are big on food. The food is pretty great in general, and the taste is good even without seasoning because it is mostly naturally grown here.
For example, as I type this, Nairobi Restaurant Week is just starting. It is 10 days of some of the city’s best restaurants show-casing their good stuff. Many new ones are always opening, and there are a number of food bloggers and reviewers. Diverse cultures and food types are represented here, from Italian to Japanese, Brazilian to Lebanese, and even Kenya’s own unique and diverse cultures, you can find a fusion and mix of different foods and styles in Nairobi. In fact, every day you are here you should eat in a different restaurant.
For a white tourist, you would be served really well and all your needs attended to at any of the city’s food places.
Have you ever heard the phrase “There is no hurry in Africa”? It is a reference to what is known as African timing, which means that people will show up at their own time or pleasure. For business meetings, this is not generally true unless the person is just unprofessional, in which case you should actually leave if you feel they are disrespecting your time. But for other things, be prepared to wait. We’ll go to that place at 11 generally means we will go at 11ish….and 11ish can be 12ish… The train will arrive at 7 means the train will come sometime after 7, but not before. If you’re planning a trip or an event or something with a number of people, everything must be planned with at least an hour’s leeway given. For example, an event that starts at 9 does not generally start at 9, it starts at 9.30ish and even then nothing important will happen till around 10. But this also depends on context. If it is a breakfast meeting that is supposed to be between 7 and 8, a few will show at 7, majority between 7.10 and 7.30. Context.
It can actually be a problem, and many foreigners who come here complain about this. But it’s just one of those cultural things, I think. We’ll get there when we get there.
The point is, once you are here, relax, calm yourself, Hakuna Matata (which technically means ‘no troubles’, not ‘no worries’).
On the same note, Nairobi traffic can also get legendary, so you will need to plan for that too. There are just too many cars in Nairobi these days, which is a thing people complain about but keep buying them anyway. For example, a friend of mine who will kill me for telling this story (bye!) was complaining about the traffic from his place in the suburbs in the morning and how he has to leave the house early. I pointed out to him that he lives in a house that has 5 people (himself, parents and 2 siblings) and they have 5 cars. Each of them leaves with their own car in the morning. If everyone in their area does that, what exactly does he expect to find on the road???
But I digress :-) The traffic entirely depends on where you are staying and where you need to go of course, but generally if you can, avoid rush hour.
I'm sure you've seen these stereotype pictures floating around the internet
Americans don’t have a monopoly on forming stereotypes about other cultures. You will encounter some stereotypes about Americans.
These are actually very simple, do allow me to explain before you run away: that Americans are loud, stupid and fat.
Loud is obvious, Americans tend to be louder/speak more.
Stupid is because Americans are considered generally uninformed about the outside world, and specifically about Africa. We get the news. We know what you think of us. And many people just think you’re stupid for it. Not to mention American news channels and media in general tend to say a lot of ignorant things about Africa, for more on this, refer to my FOUR ENTIRE POSTS on when CNN called Kenya a hotbed of terror. Of course it is not the average American’s fault, African history, geography and current affairs are not things that you run into all the time, unless you go looking for it or it is something negative. So it is understandable. But thinking Africa is a country instead of a continent is absolutely unforgivable! Pick up a Google please!
Fat is also obvious, not just because of the obesity problem that America has, but also because your food just seems so unhealthy.
But of course, these are just stereotypes and it is unlikely that people will actually say them to you. You should just be aware that they exist.
This is a comprehensive guide for a white American, but it can also be a guide for anyone who wants to come to Nairobi or just know more about it. I hope that you find it helpful, please send in your comments or questions through our contact page or through Instagram @what_it_means_to_be_african, even if it’s for a different topic or you’d like to know what an African thinks about other topics.