How to Adapt to Kenyan Culture

July 11, 2011
Cootie Catchers and Male Advances in Kenya. How to Adapt to Kenyan Culture

Karibu, Kenya! I’ve been here for about three weeks now, and it has been a journey. I have an internship at a primary school in Kakamega, a city in the Western province—and it is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It rains pretty much every day, and there is lush green landscape as far as the eye can see. In the city, buildings are dilapidated and falling apart. There are men on the side of the road in packs, looking listless. Street vendors sell anything you could possibly think of on the side of the main road. Women walk with baskets and bags balanced perfectly on their heads. In many ways, Kenyan culture is what I expected. However, I did not expect to feel so conspicuous. For my first time to Africa, I’m just pleased at my survival thus far.

This is no place for the demure, especially if you are a mzungu (a white person). To clarify, I am not “white” by American standards—but in Kenya, no matter what your ethnicity, you will most likely be labeled a mzungu. People will shout this word at you in the streets, children will whisper it in awe as you walk by, do not be alarmed. At first, you will feel incredibly out of place. But, soon, you’ll let it roll right off your shoulders, head up, eyes forward, as you ignore all the people clamoring for you to buy something or hop on their motorbike. One thing to remember is that being a mzungu, to the majority of Kenyans, means you have a big dollar sign tattooed on your forehead. Even if you are a poor college student (like me).

So, to avoid getting ripped off and paying twice the actual price for something, here are some tips:

Learn some Swahili

I mean words like habari yako (how are you) and asante (thank you). Even if you’ve never been to Kenya, you might give off the impression that you’ve been around before if you start off the conversation in Swahili.

Don’t dress like a mzungu

The majority of Kenyan culture is fairly conservative. Where I live in Kakamega, women in trousers are rare. Cleavage is unheard of. Respect these cultural norms in the way you dress, and it will pay off in your interactions. I don’t leave the house in anything but a long skirt, and a top that covers at least my shoulders.

Haggle like it’s your job

Whatever price the shopkeeper/taxi driver/street vendor gives you, assume it is considerably higher than the legitimate price. Even if you don’t know how to haggle, just pretend. Keep your poker face on.

Don’t pay for directions

Sometimes, when you ask for directions, the person who gives them to you might say something like “10 shillings.” It is not some Kenyan norm or common practice to give someone money for giving you directions. Don’t buy it.

Exude confidence

Always walk and talk with confidence. There’s nothing worse than obvious vulnerability here. As a woman who just reaches over five feet, I learned this the hard way. It’s not rude to just stare ahead and not look at someone when they shout to you. Be wary of your eye contact and whom you smile at. This is not only a financial precaution, but also a safety one.

That’s it for right now. I am off to write lessons by gas lamp—the power is out frequently here, as I’ve learned. Asante sana, marafiki!

How to Respect Kenyan Culture


How to Adapt to Kenyan Culture top photo by Tarn Hildreth on Unsplash

About Nadine Ajaka

Nadine Ajaka served as a volunteer in Kenya and a Fulbright scholar in Jordan.

5 thoughts on “How to Adapt to Kenyan Culture

  1. ritah
    April 3, 2013

    am very sorry for that..its too sad that people always like taking advantage of others..but that God u made it..

  2. October 25, 2011

    Sorry Samatha that is the big town “Nairobi” even the locals are robbed and what Nadine says is tru and another advice thou prefer “Mashabani” village than large town is cool. Next time visit the coastal region especially Malindi you will love it. Karibuni Tena

  3. Samantha
    August 21, 2011

    Such great advice! I wish i had known all of this before coming to Kenya. I’ve been living in the slums of Nairobi (Kariobangi) for 3 months now and am a white female from Canada.

    It’s extremely difficult to make friends as the majority of the people living here either see you as a symbol of money or sex. In up country where you are this is probably not as large of a problem but in Nairobi theft is a huge concern. I myself have been robbed twice now, so be careful if you’re ever in the city. Hide your money in different locations!

    Enjoy your stay!

  4. Geoff
    July 29, 2011

    Found your article while searching for something else. I used to live in Kakamega, at Kefinco. It is a very nice spot, and i much prefer the weather there to Nairobi. I used to play with Nzenze at Club Westlife. Pop in there some Friday or Saturday night and mention Geoff on the trumpet. He will remember.

  5. Sheillah
    July 20, 2011

    You are such a confident lady, keep the fire burning.

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