By Jonathan Bii
Jonathan Bii is an early career culture + travel journalist based in Kenya. He is interested in how different aspects of modern culture can be unifying such as street food, music, and dance. As an avid writer and reader, he is currently launching his website intended to document cultures using multimedia journalism. If he is not hunched on a book, learning French or dreaming up potential recipes and destinations, he is out volunteering and mentoring kids in his beloved hometown, Eldoret, Kenya.
An introduction to Kenyan Culture
Image source: Go Nomad; https://www.gonomad.com/2245-a-young-adult-s-trip-to-kenya
Culture is nuanced; we hardly ever notice its influence on us. These days, understanding the impact of culture is no longer a favorite past time or fodder for your next stand-up at the local comedy club, it can be a tool for fostering tolerance and helping cut through biases. To this end, allow me, a proud and somewhat patriotic Kenyan to give you a little glimpse of what my humble country might have in store for any of you out there. It is no Wakanda, I’ll tell you that for free so don’t expect to happen upon warring clans or a trial by combat. And though these sound like charming prospects… Kenya certainly has its own unique, subtle cultural charms that would definitely rival the depiction of African society in even the Black Panther franchise.
“Matatus” are public transport vans but can also mean mini-buses and buses too. It is the most common form of transportation throughout the country. So a quick heads-up for the novice tourist, most “matatus” are not exactly known for punctuality, efficiency and/or politeness, you sort of wing it and hope for the best, lol. A certain level of street smarts goes a long way here, for example, speaking Kenya’s Swahili Slang “sheng” can do wonders. You call the driver “dere”, and his side-kick, the conductor “konda”, throw in those words and you become a homie. For Nairobi, fares tend to spike during peak hours and they do get worse when it rains, Nairobians have a general fear of rain. But “matatus” are an experience, so picking the right one matters, a lot have installed TVs and humongous speakers that blare music like in a night club scene, so if halfway on your way home you end up feeling the need to go clubbing, blame your “matatu”. There is also the calligraphy and art that goes on like this one here.
Image Source: Twitter: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Cw-mlr6WgAAc2TO.jpg
All that is making sure your “hood” i.e. your neighborhood is well represented, like in this music video “Mat za Ronga”, which means Rongai (a neighborhood in Nairobi) “matatus”.
Side note: Matatus would definitely offer any visitor a thoroughly Kenyan-esque experience. However, if you happen to prefer the confines of a private vehicle and the convenience of not being packed in a mobile noisy tin-can like mincemeat in a samosa, then you could always opt for the myriad of cab apps such as Uber or Taxify. These may be more your speed.
P.S: Samosas are a delicious Kenyan snack you should probably try out while in the country.
Our love for chapattis and “ugali” + “nyama choma”
Image Source: Kaluhi’s Kitchen: http://www.kaluhiskitchen.com/butternut-and-dhania-chapati/
Kenyans are not exactly known for having an intricate cuisine unique to us like the French with their croissants or Americans and their burgers, but we do love chapatti. Kenyan cuisine draws heavily from Indian cuisine and “chapatti” is at the heart of this influence! Chapatti is a flat bread that goes with any stew, and trust us to be creative about it! Check this famed Kenyan food blogger and her spin on chapatti. Chapattis are a special revered meal, so if you ever visit someone and they serve chapatti, you must be one dope guest.
Image source: Michuzi Blog: https://issamichuzi.blogspot.co.ke/2012/02/introducing-uwanja-wa-nyumbani-barking.html
Still on food, “ugali” and “nyama choma” is the holy grail of any Kenyan feast. I’ll break it down for you, “ugali” is a white, starch-based food made from maize flour, I cannot guarantee if you’ll like it, because it is an acquired taste but holds strong sentimental value for most Kenyans. Its value is so key that price fluctuations in maize are used as an indicator for the cost of living in Kenya, similar to “simit” for Turkish people. “Nyama choma” is simply roasted meat and roasted goat meat is a crowd favorite. Kenyans will spend a lot especially during Christmas season to have “nyama choma”, and trust me you know a Kenyan party will be lit if there’s “nyama choma”, because there is a high chance that music and booze will be abundant! To top it off, this meal combination is usually served with “kachumbari”, a type of side salad like guacamole and salsa. If you’re not already salivating at the prospect of sinking your teeth into these Kenyan delicacies, then come on over to Kenya and have a look at it. Just one look and I guarantee you’ll be whetting an appetite. Heck you might even move here for good!!
Image source: CIO East Africa: https://www.cio.co.ke/news/safaricom-launches-lipa-na-m-pesa-cash-back-promotion-to-promote-usage-of-the-entity/
Not a lot of people know this, but Kenya has been used as a bench mark for understanding mobile money from as early as 2007 when M-Pesa was launched. M-Pesa is from the Swahili word “pesa” meaning “money”. On my last trip to Egypt, I was surprised at how much I had to use my card or pay in cash, and talking to some Tunisian friends, I was awe-struck at how they found it strange paying from your phone. Kenya is basically in 3126 A.D, haha! So, M-Pesa is a mobile money transfer service that does not use internet! You simply use your sim card and just like that you can send money instantly to a friend or receive money from them, you can buy goods at the supermarket, the market or pay your hospital bills, electricity, water, internet etc aand you can also get to borrow a loan should ever be strapped for cash, and all this will happen in a span of less than five minutes! Cinco minuto! Cinq minute!! The technology is so revolutionary most banks have mobile banking services so now you never even need to go to the bank you simply just withdraw or deposit money from your phone. M-Pesa is so powerful that if you ask any Kenyan to list things that are Kenyan, it will hardly pop up, because most people think everyone is using the service!
Kenyans like to have a good time. Any astute Kenyan businessman will tell you the best business to venture is the clubbing and alcohol business. A look at several towns, even with less than 10000 inhabitants, you are most likely to find a club or “joint” of sorts. But Nairobi, the getaway towns of Nakuru and Naivasha still stand as the places to be when it comes to going out. Check this article I wrote on Nairobi’s night out scene! For a good night out experience, it’s good to leave for the club around 10pm. Before that, you may probably down one or two just to get in the zone. Most clubs do stay open until morning so a lot of dancing right into until 5 a.m. c’est tres normal! And usually everyone has one thing in mind “a good time”, so if you are ever in Kenya, you MUST experience the nigh scene, especially Nairobi’s.
You might have guessed it by now, Kenyans are a happy lot and very in-the-moment. But that does not mean we lack our fair share of issues, for example, there is a lot of government corruption and our leaders aren’t exactly the most endearing people, but which politicians are? Anyway, for some reason, all this mess has been turned into endless memes and jokes. The hashtag #KOT which means Kenyans on Twitter is where you can find Kenyans and their sense of humor. Anything can be a potential joke or a chance to be eaten up by the masses. Something worth noting is the growing and pretty successful comedy scene all thanks to acts of kindness by #KOT (I kid). Some Kenyan comedians are actually more popular and successful than musicians, so I guess you can say Kenyan comedians laugh all the way to the bank (pun intended), I apologize for that horrible pun. But seriously, if you are ever around Kenya, make some time to attend a comedy event. What’s the harm? If the humor goes over your head you could always pretend to laugh hysterically or just leave. But who knows? You might just find your happy place.
That’s it folks! 5 things that are so Kenyan, what do you think? Do I need to go to town and make some reservations for you? *wink*