The following is a guest post by Mark Wiens. If you’d like to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read our submission guidelines.
“Habari gani” is the most common greeting in Kenya, and it doesn’t mean “hello.”
The direct translation is more along the lines of “what’s the news of the day,” or in other words, “how’s it going?” It’s a friendly invitation to say a little more, explain something personal or just express what happens to be on your mind.
Being friendly and halting a busy schedule in order to hang out with friends is the first step in how to be a local in Kenya! Master the first step and the other steps will fall into place!
Don’t Worry About Time
In Kenya, there’s absolutely no need to worry about or even know the time. As in much of Africa, things just fall in to place at the right moment and there’s no need to rush the process.
Learn to Carry Things on Your Head
It’s not a joke, most people in Kenya (and all of Africa) are experts at carrying things on their heads. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bucket full of water, a simple notebook or a take away lunch, it’s much more convenient and resourceful to carry it on your head. Think about all the relief it gives your hands!
Start Speaking Sheng (Kenyan Slang)
Sheng is a mixed combination of Swahili, English and tribal African languages that developed and currently evolves on the streets of Nairobi. There are a host of “wazup,” style greeting like sema, sasa, walapa, and instead of saying “How are you?” the correct lingo is “Is how, you guy?” Many words are shortened or spoken lazily, as with most slang around the world.
Drink Your Beverages Warm
Doesn’t matter if it’s beer, soda or water, refrigeration or the electricity to power it, are not Kenya’s most reliable amenities. This poses no problem for Kenyan’s, because beer is much more appealing in it’s room temperature state. To be Kenyan means learning to drink and crave a warm refreshing beer!
The public mini buses that prowl the streets of Nairobi, known as Matatu’s, are rowdy, chaotic and usually entertaining. In addition to the roller coaster ride provided, many are hooked up with the latest jua kali (fix anything) sound systems and speakers that you can feel!
Nyama Choma Fat!
There’s nothing more Kenyan than eating chunks of pure enriching glutinous animal fat! Eating roasted meat, known as nyama choma is a popular past time in Kenya and something everyone enjoys. After waiting for the meat to finish grilling, the waiter comes to the table and slices up the meat on a chopping board. The man of respect has the initial honor to indulge in the transparent pieces of fat!
Greet Everyone With a Handshake
Greetings are a crucial part of Kenyan culture and handshakes always accompany a “habari.” Kenyan handshakes are not the firm Western style shakes that hurt your hand, but just a soft squeeze of acknowledgment. For utmost respect, shake with the right hand and support your elbow with your left hand.
Don’t Ever Throw Anything Away (It Can and Will Be Fixed)
Those flip flops that broke at the toe, your ancient lawn mower, or even your busted radiator, can and will be fixed by a jua kali method. Jua kali which literally means “hot/fierce sun,” is used to describe fix it men that use their personal creativity and inspiration to repair anything and everything. Their innovative strategies which often involve welding and banging, are not always the best quality, but they have a high rate of short term success!
Drink Chai Sweet
Dessert is not a big part of the Kenyan diet, so when it’s time to drink Kenyan style tea, make sure it is super sweet. Add about three tablespoon to make a proper cup of Kenyan chai.
Walk Around With a Radio
Kenyans love music, but they’re not always listening to Kenyan music, many actually love Lingala music from Congo. It’s a common practice to walk around, battery fed radio in hand, and groove or sing a long to the high pitched Congolese guitars.
Despite these cultural ways to blend into the Kenyan culture, it’s nice to know that the most important way to become a local in Kenya is simply to enjoy the company of others, be friendly and always love a good laugh. Learning a few of these cultural practices may never make you an authentic Kenyan, but you can be assured that locals will smile, be accepting and laugh with you!
About the Author: Mark Wiens is an African raised cultural travel enthusiast and lover of street food from around the world. He enjoys exploring the thrilling side of travel and shares his adventures on Migrationology.