On sounds of rioting, public holidays that creep up on me unawares and 49 other things I don’t understand about Kenya

14 Dec

The students at the University of Nairobi are rioting near where we live. I don’t know why. I’m still in the dark about so many things in this strange new land. I can hear the roar of the crowd, the chants, the police firing shots. I do hope the gentle Kenyan cops are firing tear gas as opposed to bullets.

Two days ago, Thursday 12th December 2013, Kenyans celebrated Jamhuri Day, marking 50 years of independence. I didn’t even know there was this hugely significant public holiday until someone who works with us said she was taking the day off. This is the fifth country I can call home and I’m getting tired of not being in the know about public/bank holidays! (I finally almost got to grips with the American ones – even started feeling quite festive around Thanksgiving Day after the second or third year of living there. But I never could remember when Labor Day was or what the one at the end of May was all about.)

So here I am in Kenya, and as the rioting goes on outside, I realise that I’m feeling baffled as to all these national norms that local people take for granted, which I have to learn once again.

So, in honour of 50 years of Kenya’s independence, I am compiling a list of 50 things that surprise  – in a good or bad way, baffle, confuse, delight, amuse or irritate me about Nairobi/Kenya and Kenyans/Nairobians since we moved here under four months ago:

1) Lost in translation – When I say ‘Hi’ to a Kenyan in English (as opposed to ‘Jambo’ in Swahili), they often mistakenly answer back, ‘Fine, thank you’. I desperately want to giggle and reply, ‘I didn’t ask how you are, but thanks for telling me’, but I keep quiet knowing that my little joke would be met with blank looks. Turns out – now that I speak about ten words of Swahili – that there is just one word that encapsulates ‘Hi, how are you?’ in Swahili – ‘Habari aku’, so when someone greets you, you are meant to reply ‘Fine, thank you’. So that explains that peculariarity of Swahinglish (Swahili-infused English!)

2) Ugali – simply don’t understand it. It’s a Kenyan staple food – maize meal that is cooked into a large, utterly tasteless lump and eaten with kale, otherwise known as ‘sukuma’ here. Love the sukuma but don’t get ugali.


3) ‘Karibu, muzungu!’ – As if I didn’t feel enough like a newcomer…it certainly doesn’t help that every time I walk down the street, there are cries of ‘Karibu muzungu’ – crudely translated as ‘Welcome, white person!’ – directed at my person. How can I ever hope to melt into the crowd?

4) Bovine crossings – Entertaining to drive down a Nairobi street and randomly meet a herd of cattle idly meandering along the way blocking the traffic. Also bizarre to see Kenyan market vendors pulling along hand carts with impossibly heavy loads and seemingly totally oblivious to the crazy traffic around them.

5) ‘Pole pole’ – On the one hand, I appreciate the fact that Kenyans are laid-back. Makes a change from the crazy fast-paced life of New York. But why oh why do things take sooooooooooooooooo long to happen? Why do jobs only get half-done? Why are people so accepting of things happening so slowwwly and why is ‘pole pole’ – Swahili for ‘slowly slowly’ – the ubiquitous response to anything not progressing as it should?

6) Kenyan drivers – I have just two words to say to all you Kenyan drivers out there: Roundabout Etiquette. Why does no one in this country seem to understand that if they would only give way to the right, then everyone could get to where they are going much more quickly, and we’d all be much happier and less stressed out people? Instead, every time I reach a roundabout, I have to manoeuvre straight into a major survival-of-the-fittest meltdown going on with cars almost colliding in all directions and everyone getting jammed.

7) Power cuts – The most recent one we experienced lasted four days. Kind of frustrating would be an understatement. Usually the long power cuts only last 24 hours or so – without even mentioning the short ones.

8) Vestimentary colour choices – Enjoying all the garish and wildly clashing colours of clothes that Kenyan women don. Not so sure about the mid-calf skirt length that seems to be the norm (probably still haunted by attending semi-ultra-orthodox Jewish schools in the past where this length skirt was required due to it’s adhering to modesty standards).

9) Even does this make sense? – Another quirk of Swahinglish: wild over-use and misuse (if you’ll pardon my Anglo-English snobbery) of the word ‘even’. Don’t know why but the word ‘even’ pops up in all kinds of weird contexts in spoken Kenyan English. Even I’ve found myself even adding it into my own spoken English even in weirder ways.

10) The police – Soon after arriving here, when we asked what the number for emergency services is, we were told that whatever we do, the police are the absolute last people you should contact in an emergency. Severe case of endemic corruption and so on (See my previous story on the subject of my own run-in with the men in uniform).

11) Dogs and buggies/strollers – missing? Took me a while to realise a couple of things that I take for granted as the norm on the streets of New York, London or Paris are missing as you walk down the street here in Nairobi. There’s not a dog in sight and all Nairobian babies seem to be carried snugly on their mums’ backs rather than in buggies. (Certainly no Kenyan, therefore, would ever dream of pushing a dog along in a stroller, unlike those funny Manhattanites I once blogged about).

12) Monkeys in the trees – Very happy about the fact that at one of the parks near where we live, it is the norm to see monkeys jumping from tree to tree, and especially gratifying to see baby monkeys clinging on underneath to their mums’ bellies as they gallivant through the tree tops.

Well, apparently this list is taking too long to compile. I’ve been at it for hours. I’m stopping at Number 12 for now. But hopefully to be continued in later posts.

Postscript: Since beginning this post earlier this evening, I discovered the reason the students are rioting. Apparently a University of Nairobi engineering student died in police custody and the students are rioting against police brutality. I refer you back to Number 10 on the list above.

Shots are still ringing out.


2 Responses to “On sounds of rioting, public holidays that creep up on me unawares and 49 other things I don’t understand about Kenya”

  1. Aliza Hausman December 14, 2013 at 22:49 #


  2. Rivka David June 14, 2014 at 19:48 #

    Scary place??? The monkeys make up for it a bit though … 🙂 take care of yourself over there! Xxx

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