Kenya is a welcoming, inclusive and multi-cultural place to live. It’s easy to see why.
It’s home to many people of varying origins, including Europeans, Arabs, Africans, and Asians who between them speak 68 languages and dialects. In such a diverse community, how could anyone feel out-of-place?
For English-speaking expats, relocating there might be even easier than expected because English is one of the official working languages, Bantu Swahili being the other. That said, learning Swahili could certainly help expats integrate and settle more quickly.
But while learning the local language is an important thing for an expat to consider, there are other less obvious things to consider which might help them adjust more comfortably.
For example, knowing how to dress with respect to a country’s culture.
Indeed, understanding what to wear – and what not to – could, in fact, be extremely important for expats to consider.
Be aware of what you wear
When planning their move abroad, expats may not even think about what clothes to wear, or not wear.
This may be especially true if their new country is similar in culture to their home country.
Moving from the US to the UK for instance, isn’t likely to cause anyone to reconsider or restock their wardrobe.
But moving from the US or Germany, for example, to Africa may be a different matter entirely.
It may not even be a case of “choosing” what to wear. Some Muslim countries, for instance, forbid certain types of revealing clothing, either at certain times, places or all together.
The majority of people living in Southern Africa are Christian where as Northern Africa is heavily Muslim, which means, rethinking your wardrobe could be critical to how well you integrate with the local culture.
Expat dress in Kenya
Even though there are no laws banning shorts, miniskirts, or other types of revealing clothing in Kenya, it is advisable to respect the culture and traditions to avoid offending locals and other expats alike.
Take your cue from your colleagues, friends and the public.
The great diversity of people living in Kenya display a diverse cultural, religious and customary dress style which is perhaps why there’s no strict or homogenous dress code.
Though, many Kenyans choose to dress conservatively with men wearing shirts with long sleeves, while women wear trousers or skirts which cover the knee.
In more tourist areas, however, everyday wear can be kept more casual.
Due to the heat and humidity, it’s best to wear light, cotton clothing. The hottest months are usually December to March where temperatures can soar to 38°C (February). Because of Kenya’s tropical climate, it is usually quite humid all year round with an average of 76% (May).
It’s also handy to have a light rain jacket or coat with you, especially in April and November where rainfall is at its highest.
Traditional Kenyan clothing
When relocating to a different country, it can be good for expats to find out about the different traditions and culture, especially when moving from a Western country where the culture may be entirely different to the one they’re heading to.
Locals, tourists, and expats can all wear traditional Kenyan clothing if they wish. This doesn’t mean expats have to wear this style of clothing to integrate, but it’s good to know that they have the freedom to choose what they wear without fear of being frowned upon.
One traditional piece of clothing expats may like to know about is the “kitenge.”
The kitenge forms an important part of the East African culture and is widely worn in other African countries including Uganda, Tanzania, and Sudan, as well as Kenya.
This garment is usually worn by women as a sarong or baby sling and is made with a heavily embroidered cotton fabric.
Kitenges are often bursting with color and known as “the communicating textile” because of the wide array of symbols, patterns, and writings they display, which represent the moods, feelings, cultures, and traditions of the native African people.
Kenyans often wear this style of clothing for everyday use and ceremonies.
Bold colors and patterns inspired by East African and Kenyan clothing have influenced Western fashion over the years, which is evident from the many Western celebrities who have worn these styles on the red carpet and in everyday life.
For instance, Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani, Kim Kardashian, and Solange have all been spotted wearing Kitenge designs.
Another traditional and favorite piece of clothing in Kenya is the “khanga” which is made from cotton and is locally produced in Kenya and Tanzania.
The word “kanga” in Swahili means guinea fowl, and it is believed that the original patterns used on these items of clothing resembled the plumage of the guinea fowl.
Nowadays, the patterns have evolved, and the colors are usually vibrant and bold, much like the kitenge.
Khangas are wrapped around the torso or waist and worn by women, but can also be worn by men. They are often distinguished by a border along all four sides, a central design, and a written message.
Dressing for work
Dress codes for work can alter from place to place. For instance, in the major cities like Nairobi (the capital), it can be ideal to wear more formal clothing to business meetings.
Men may want to wear a formal shirt with smart trousers, or a suit depending on the nature of the meeting. Women can either opt for a formal dress or blouse with a pair of smart trousers or a skirt.
Some offices in Kenya have a “casual Friday” rule, but expats may want to stick to wearing smart-casual attire to avoid dressing too casual because depending on the place of work, you’re still required to look professional in client meetings and the like.
Think “business casual” rather than “home casual.”
To respect Kenyans traditional sense of dress, it’s best to dress modestly for work and to avoid clothing that is deemed too revealing.
For instance, blouses, tops, and dresses with modest necklines that do not show cleavage are appropriate for women.
Both men and women may want to wear clothing which falls below or rests just on the knee.
Kenyans often dress up for special occasions, especially when going out in the evenings to dinner, to religious gatherings at church, and to cultural events.
Again, it’s important to respect Kenyan’s conservative sense of clothing which is why women may want to choose a dress which falls below or just on the knee, especially when attending religious ceremonies and weddings.
Because Kenya is a multi-cultural country, there are no laws or definite rules about what to wear and what not to wear.
To respect the country’s culture and traditions, expats may want to abide by Kenyan’s conservative sense of dress.
Bright colors and bold patterns are adored in Kenya which is reflected by their traditional pieces of clothing such as the khanga and the kitenge. These can be worn for everyday use and casual events such as music festivals.
Khangas and kitenges are not usually worn to formal events, but can be worn to ceremonies especially if it’s a national celebration where national dress is worn.
When attending social occasions like going to church, or out for dinner, expats may want to take their lead from locals who often dress up for social events. Because of Kenya’s welcoming and inclusive attitude, expats should face no problem when choosing what to wear.
This article was brought to you in partnership with Aetna International.