“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 takeaway 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
It 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 Kenyans because beer is much more appealing in its room temperature state.
To be Kenyan means learning to drink and crave a warm, refreshing beer!
The public minibusses 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 means “hot/fierce sun,” is used to describe fix-it men that use their 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 tablespoons 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 love Lingala music from Congo.
It's a common practice to walk around, battery fed radio in hand, and groove or sing along to the high pitched Congolese guitars.
Despite these cultural ways to blend into the Kenyan culture, it's nice to know that the most essential way to become a local in Kenya is 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!
Mark was raised in central Africa before migrating back to the U.S. for University. After graduating, he decided to continue traveling the world. On Migrationology, he shares the cultural side of travel from a slow-paced local perspective that often revolves around his love for eating all forms of food. Join him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @migrationology.
Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:
- G Adventures for small group tours.
- World Nomads for travel insurance.
- Hostelworld for booking hostels.
- Rail Europe for train passes.
Thursday 24th of November 2016
Nice stuff. I live in Kenya and operate tour in this great country. That is how we live here, nice way, but for lingala, that must be in Western kenya, in Nairobi it is something else that is more appealing to the younger generation.
Sunday 24th of January 2016
I think u have been to one side of kenya.aftr reading ur blog i kinda notice u were in western kenya.coz in the coast they only listen to taarab,its swahili song with arabic sound bt when u visit central side they listen to mugithi sounds like american contry music wich most people stil listen too
Rob of Nairobi National Park
Monday 18th of November 2013
I couldn't agree more. Kenyans are generally welcoming people and the reason we drink warm soda and beer is that being in the equator, we are used to the warmth. Anything cold can and is mostly lethal. Good luck with balancing stuff on your head!
Tuesday 24th of April 2012
Interesting blog post Mark/Dave. Some of things you mentioned are hilarious when read from an outsider's perspective. I am a Kenyan and I find most of the material you present as true or at least having a shade of truth. Regarding the handshake bit (the left hand supporting the right elbow), it really depends which part of Kenya you experienced it since the only place I have come across it is in Botswana where is more prevalent. Normally, Kenyans greet with double hands or the left hand supporting the right hand foreman/wrist especially when greeting seniors or the elderly.
Sunday 10th of April 2011
Mr Mark sorry to say but you are very ignorant, i am a kenyan citizen and all i can say is that you need to research more. 3/4 of what you have written above is FALSE.
Sunday 10th of April 2011
Can you please be more specific -- what are some examples of the information you believe are false?