Jambo! Let’s talk about Kenya, the land of Safaris; the Big Five, the great wildebeeste migration, sandy beaches, happy people, “Hakuna Matata” and, generally, Paradise!
Kenya is also known the world over for its athletes, specifically middle- and long-distance runners. The London Marathon has acquired the tag, “30,000 white people running after a bunch of Kenyans” – which is true! That’s the image most people have of the country.
Those with deeper insight know about the Mau Mau war of liberation from British colonialism, the bombing of the US Embassy on 8th August 1998, the fight for Multiparty democracy (successful eventually, sort of) and the 2008 post-election violence, which was mediated by the late former UN Secretary General, Koffi Annan. So far, so good! So, what more is there to know about the country?
Diving right in, here are 8 more facts about Kenya that’ll open your eyes wider!
#1. Nchi ya – Catch-22
In the first place, Kenya is a Catch-22 country in all respects. For those not familiar with the term, Catch-22 come from the novel of the same name by Joseph Heller about a squadron of American soldiers, mostly airmen, based on the fictional Mediterranean island of Pianosa during World War II. These poor young men are forced to fly never-ending bombing missing over Germany. Whenever they think they’re done, Catch-22 is used to force them back into action. Even illness is no help! This funny, witty satire is recommended reading!
The name “Kenya” comes from the highest mountain in the country, which is the second tallest in Africa after Mount Kilimanjaro in neighbouring Tanzania. “Kenya” is actually a mispronunciation of “Kiinyaa”, as the Kamba tribe refer to the mountain, which is called “Kirinyaga” – “The Glorious One” – in Kikuyu, the tribe that has its home on the slopes and surrounding area. Incidentally, Mt. Kilimanjaro was originally within Kenya’s border until it was given to German King Bismark as a “gift” by his cousin, Queen Victoria of England. How and why this happened has always baffled this writer, and a future war to recover our mountain is envisaged… We’ll keep you posted.
#2. Africa Time
When Westerners, Mzungus, to use their local appelation, make an appointment, the usual practice is to arrive at the venue a few minutes before the appointed time. Not so for Kenyans. Very often, a Kenyan will assume that the appointed time for a meeting is the time when they should leave their residence. This will often mean a long wait, up to but not limited to two hours – for those patient enough to sit and fester. Most times, the delayed person will be lucky to receive an apology, or even a text message to say that there will be a delay and giving good reasons. At best, “Sorry I’m late, traffic is crazy today!” is the common excuse given, without much regret or shame shown.
This is easily dealt with by giving an appointment time that is at least 30 minutes before the actual time to Kenyans. Unfotunately, it only works until they twig onto the fact that they’re being hoodwinked when they show up on time, as happens once in a blue moon, only to find no one at the venue!
Talk about Catch-22!
#3. Backpackers’ Paradise
One way to experience Kenya is backpacking hiking safaris. These are for those who want to avoid the 5-star luxury circuit, which tends to be overcrowded, extremely expensive and limited to sites and parks that don’t really show the real Kenya. Backpackers have the freedom to choose when and where they go, control how much they spend and get to experience the REAL Kenya.
This type of tourism has its pros and cons. The main pro is freedom; you can camp out if that’s what you feel like doing, or spend a night in a cheap hotel. You can also visit Nairobi’s slums, the biggest of which, Kibra, has guided tours at reasonable rates. Why one would want to do that is subject to debate – no average middle-class Nairobian would be seen dead in a slum!
Backpackers also get to meet real Kenyans in their true element, experience local cuisine (at the risk of coming down with serious runs!) and oh, the local nightlife! A backpacking tour of Kenya is never complete without buying two t-shirts. “Kenya Hakuna Matata” – Disney can go sue! – and “TUSKER”, Kenyas Gold-Medal-winning lager. A cold Tusker round the campfire, with a shot of chang’aa, the local moonshine, highly illegal but widely available, perhaps accompanied by a roll of “bhang” – very potent marijuana from Western Kenya…
BUT watch out for conmen, bed bugs, and mosquitoes and drink only bottled water! Actually, we have to be PC and say “conpeople” because many a backpacker has found himself ripped off by pretty young lasses, often ending up at their country’s Embassy/High Commission/Consulate naked, red-faded penniless and without passport!
These cases are on the decline, but they still happen, much to the amusement of Kenyans. There are also numerous “fixers”, middlemen who offer all sorts of services, from obtaining said bhang and chang’aa, girls, boys, tours, accommodation, visas, Kenyan identity and travel documents; name it and a “broker” pops out of the woodwork, ready to empty the pockets of the hapless mzungu, Kiswahili for “Englishman” but applied to all Caucasians.
True adventure at extremely high levels of risk! Catch-22!
#4. Asking for Directions
One thing that makes rural Kenyans (and Africans, generally) interesting is their love of interacting with the mzungu tourist with a huge knapsack on his back. Urban dwellers are too caught up in the rat race to be bothered, unless they see an opportunity to turn a quick buck. On the other hand, villagers everywhere will yell a cheerfull “Jambo!” – “Hello!” but really “Something!”, translated directly! – at the first red-faced mzungu to trudge up to them, holding a map and looking lost.
This is an opportunity to show off their learning, and those most conversant with English will be shoved forward to give the poor tourist the information required. “Yes,” the local wag will declare, “Me I know English! What’s the prorem?” They then proceed to give detailed directions to the destination.
“First, take this road we are standing on right now. Then you go straight ahead. Go and go and go for one kilometer. Then you will see a big tree on the right. Leave that one. Go and go and go for two more kilometers. Then you will see a house made of mabati (metal sheets) on the left. That one belongs to the headmaster of our primary school, but he is not there because ‘e was jailed for having sex with the pupils. He is also a drunkard. Do you know, his daughter went abroad two years ago and she has never sent even one shilling to us? Then after that you will see a road on the left. Leave that one and go on for another two and a half kilometres. Then you will come to a bridge. Cross over and you will see a road to the right. Turn right there. After two hundred metres you will see a house with a big black water tank. That is the home of the chief. Go there and they will give you directions!” This delivered in English that cannot be printed here as the Spell-check would crash!
By the way, this predilection for hyperbole also applies to predictions and directives given by the Meteorological Department, the Ministry of Finance and just about any other institution related to government; Catch-22 all the way!
Kenya’s official languages are English and Kiswahili. Kiswahili is actually the national language and is spoken by over 100 million people across East and Central Africa.
That’s KI-Swahili and NOT “Swahili” as some people put it. The Swahili are a tribe who live along the coast of East Africa, and they speak a language known a KISwahili, okay?
Now that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the other languages spoken in Kenya. There are more than 40 distinct ethnic groupings, or tribes, in Kenya, and about 60 spoken languages. Majority of these are Bantu, originating in the Congo and Central Africa area in prehistoric tribes. There are also Cushitic and Nilotic languages. However, a unique language developed in the 1960s and -70s in the urban lower-middle class estates of Nairobi. Known as Sheng’, it is a hodgepodge of English, Kiswahili, Kikuyu, Dholuo and any other convenient language.
Initially, it developed among the youth as a way of being able to communicate in code without adults catching on, but has become a recognized language, with attempts to record it in dictionaries. Unfortunately for those trying to tie Sheng’ down, it is dynamic and keeps changing – practically every neighborhood has its own dialect and grammar! In the 1980s, it became popular to speak words in reverse; for instance, “safari” would be spoken as “farisa”, “kikombe” (cup) as “mbekiko” and so on. Very confusing!
As has been noted before, Disney has copyrighted the words “Hakuna Matata” for use on any consumer product wordwide. Someone in China has the copyright for “kikoi”, a sarong-like sheet wrapped around the waist or body, mostly to be found in the coastal area, and word has it that “kiondo”, a woven basket originating in the Central highlands among the Kikuyu and related Bantu tribes, has been copyrighted in Japan! The Scramble for Africa is far from over! It’s a wonder that no one has laid claim to the word “Kenya” – yet!
#6. Signs of the Times
The surest way to get the average Kenyan to do something is to put up a sign forbidding them to do so. Sounds oxymoronic, doesn’t it? Just take a tour of Narobi, or any city, town or township, for that matter, and look around. Wherever there is a sign saying, “NO DUMPING” there is a pile of garbage. “USIKOJOE HAPA”, meaning, “Don’t Urinate Here” smells of ammonia; in banking halls, the “Please Do Not Use Your Mobile Phone” sign seems to remind people in the queues about important calls that cannot wait.
The only sign that seems to work in Kenya is “KOJOA HAPA UPIGWE” – “Pee Here and Receive a Beating” – as long as the threat is followed by action! Even the “PROTECTED AREA. PHOTOGRAPH STRICTLY FORBIDDEN” signs at institutions such as State House and military bases end up photographed and posted on social media! Ah, Kenyans and social media. That is the subject for another book!
You’ll see drivers busy on their phones in petrol stations, right under the sign warning that it is dangerous to do so. Along with the sign warning drivers to refrain from using their phones while fuelling is a sign giving the “PayBill” number with which they can pay for the fuel using mobile money!
Perfect Catch-22! Yossarian would be scratching his head at this!
#7. Moving Violations
Travelling by road in Kenya, as a passenger, is best accomplished while asleep. This sleep achieved by consuming large amounts of Tusker/chang’aa/bhang’! As well as ignoring signs, Kenyans also have a great disregard of traffic regulations.
Official reports indicate that there are about 3,000 fatalities annually on Kenyan roads, most caused by what is know locally as “overspeeding” and, of course “Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol”. Recently, a special police unit was formed to nip drunk driving in the bud. It sets traps along roads along which most such incidents occur and uses breathalyzers to test drivers’ blood alcohol levels. No sooner was it formed than a Twitter group was formed that warns drivers where the traps are! As previously stated, Kenyans and Social media is a book all on its own!
#8. “Flying Out”
Since the first Kenyan students were airlifted to the UK and the US for “further studies”, Kenyans have been obsessed with the idea of their children getting university degrees abroad.
The process involves raising funds from family and friends by having one or several “Goat-Eating” parties. Woe unto the uninitiated who think they’re going to get some free “nyama choma” roast goat or beef, a big delicacy in Kenya.
On arrival at the venue, the guest, especially the unwitting mzungu is welcomed by a bevy of beauties and a decoration is pinned to their lapel – usually a flower or some decorative ribbon.
Sometimes, the decoration has a title printed on it; “GUEST” is for the average person; “GUEST OF HONOUR” indicates the person is expected to sit at the High Table. Drinks and meals are served, and then a person with a lapel decoration with “MASTER OF CEREMONIES” on it takes to centre stage with a microphone and the future of the goat becomes… clear.
“We are here to raise funds to send the daughter of so-and-so to the US/UK/India to study Actuarial Science/Medicine/Computer Engineering…! She cannot go empty-handed; fees have to be paid yada yada…”
Then the extortion begins!
“All bald men must bring 5,000 shillings!”
“All women in red/all men wearing ties/all white men. The guests are picked over with a fine tooth comb until everyone has been shamed into parting with hard currency. It has also become common practice for food and drinks to run out in the middle of the night, and the kiondo basket is passed around again! If you think you can get away with the excuse that you don’t have cash on you, there’s a mobile money account number, a special “So-and-so Education Fund” bank account number and credit/debit card swiping machine available!
Pledges are only welcomed reluctantly, but will be chased down ruthlessly, with threats of public shaming – on social media, of course!
A side note: Kenyans are the only people who go to India and return with US accents.
#9. “A Rose By Any Other Name…”
Titles mean everything in Kenya. And they are for life. A person who was an Member of Parliament for one 5-year term in the 1970s still expects to be addressed as “Honourable so-and-so”! Retired diplomats and military chiefs keep their titles, with the military ones attaching “(Rtd.)” at the end, as in “Major-General (Rtd.) so-and-so”. National honours, awarded by the President on Independence Day, December 12th are much sought after.
These honours have several levels, the greatest being the MBS, “Moran (Masai warrior) of the Burning Spear”. This writer is campaigning to earn the CGH, “Chief of the Golden Heart” or, as one wag (Yours Truly) puts it while inebriated, (which is most of the time), “Chief of the Glowing Hard-on”!
#10. “Kenyans are very peculiar!”
Kenya is a fun and fascinating country. Beautiful scenery, happy, friendly people and great food and drink await all visitors.
Added to all this are an array of local oddities that will baffle and amuse. As the British former CEO of the biggest mobile service provider in the country once bewailed, “Kenyans are very peculiar!” This caused an uproar in the country and was even discussed in parliament, but in true Kenyans peculiar Catch-22 form, the gentleman went on to settle in the country (as many expatriates do!), married a Kenyan girl and became CEO of the national airline! Karibu mgeni!
- 10 Things You Don’t (But Probably Should) Know About Kenya - 26th November 2019
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