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.
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!