First Impressions of Kenya

Welcome to Kenya

When I was a kid in the late 80’s I went to see the movie “Coming to America”. Maybe I was too young for this R-rated movie, but I thought it was hilarious.  Eddie Murphy played the Prince of Zamunda who, against his parents’ wishes of an arranged marriage, concocts a plan to find an intelligent bride whom he loves in America. And where would a future king find a suitable bride? Well…Queens.


Although the character was from the fictional Zamunda, for some reason in my head I imagined he was from Kenya. And according to the movie, this was a place where safari animals roamed freely in the backyard and African dancers provided nightly entertainment.  From then on, this is how I would imagine Kenya.

Fast-forward to present day

Since living in Tanzania, I’ve heard a few locals speak of people from the neighboring country of Kenya. Most people haven’t actually been there, but they do have a lot to say.  As it turns out, there is a slight West Side Story rivalry happening with a few common stereotypes about Kenyans:

  1. They have no culture
  2. They can’t speak proper Swahili
  3. They are rude & arrogant, not as friendly as us.

I had no idea if these attributes were true, but I would soon find out.

Off to Nairobi

After a few months of rural life we were itching to get to a big city.  And when a long weekend was upon us, we headed to the metropolitan city of Nairobi.

Getting to Nairobi required a 6-hour bus ride and $50 USD tourist visa. The bus ride was smooth and I was impressed by the relative ease of the border crossing in comparison to some other rural borders…yes, I’m looking at you Thailand-Cambodia.

First Impressions after crossing the border:

“Huh, rural Kenya looks exactly like rural Tanzania.”

First Impressions once getting to Nairobi:

“Wow, there is a lot of security here”

Nairobi Gates

Large gates and barbwire fences surround everything. I even saw a couple houses with barbwire around the flowers in the front yard. That may be a bit extreme, but considering the city has been bestowed with the nickname “Nairobbery”, one can understand the desire for protection.

Throughout the weekend the “security” theme continued. Big men with guns on the street, metal detectors at the entrance of large hotels, car checks as you entered shopping malls – I’m sure an addition since the unfortunate shooting at Westgate mall last year.

Did I feel unsafe? Never did I feel in danger, but I did feel required to take more precautions than in some other cities. For example, I stayed around major hubs and didn’t walk outside at night. To be completely honest, I felt more sad then anything else. I felt sad all the security was necessary in the first place and that people have to live in a city surrounded by fences, wire fences, and security checks at every turn.

First Impressions of the People

Could I debunk the labels placed by Tanzania?

1. They have no culture?

People in Nairobi are more modern and cosmopolitan. From their clothes to behaviors, people seemed more evolved. Granted, in Tanzania I live in a rural area, but this seemed even true compared to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s big city counterpart. One refreshing change was witnessing women dressed in suits and working downtown.  I currently live in an area where a woman’s place, (so to speak), is at home taking care of the house & children, so it was nice to see progression there.

Now, does that mean they’ve strayed too far from their culture? I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s something I could fairly evaluate after only being there a couple days.

2. They don’t speak proper Swahili?

English is more predominant in Kenya than it is in Tanzania.  Swahili is spoken, but it’s more casual and sometimes mixed with English. I had heard they speak Sheng, a hybrid of English and Swahili. I later read that Sheng is actually a sort of secret language derived from young people in crowded, poor neighborhoods so they could have a bit of privacy in such close spaces.

The most apparent difference I noticed was with greetings. Formal greetings are very important to people in Tanzania. Everyone must be greeted and in accordance to the age of the person you’re talking to. It is commonly known that the phrase “Jambo” is only used by tourists or locals talking to tourists, (and probably making fun of them.) Greetings here are never cut short, and I have to say, can sometimes be exhausting.  In Kenya, greetings aren’t so important and imagine my shock when I actually witnessed locals saying “Jambo” to each other. Weird!

So, is it they can’t speak proper Swahili or they choose not to? Maybe a little of both. They are more casual by nature and maybe the language formalities are starting to fade across generations. I think it will benefit Kenyans to be more advanced in English; however, it would be a shame is the Swahili language is lost.

3. They are rude & arrogant, not as friendly as us?

I didn’t notice this, however, it could be a matter of perception. For one, the lack of formal greetings could be interpreted as being rude. I think culturally it’s just not as important to Kenyans.

People in Tanzania will commonly use familiar words, Dada (sister) or Kaka (brother) when speaking to strangers wait staff and are more polite when asking for things. In turn, they think Kenyans are cold and distant. Kenyans however, like to keep all requests, short and to the point. They don’t think it’s rude, just efficient. I heard that in Kenya they judge rudeness less by the words used and more by the tone in which something is said.

I have met friendly people in Tanzania and rude people on occasion. I’m sure the same is true in Kenya. I didn’t have any issues with any of the locals and found most people to be pleasant.

To make things fair, let’s turn the tables.

How do Kenyans view Tanzanians?

I asked, “Do people in Kenya have any stereotypes about people in Tanzania?”

And there was only one response:

People in Tanzania are slow.

I could not help but laugh, as it couldn’t be truer. People in Tanzania are slow…at everything. I’m not sure this is a stereotype as much as a fact.  I haven’t come across anyone in a hurry or doing an action with any sort of hustle. For someone like me who values an efficient use of time, it can be frustrating. I try to remind myself that maybe there can be some value in being more relaxed with time, but it’s a challenge.

So which country is better?

I have been in Tanzania for five months, while I’ve barely scratched the surface of Kenya. All of my knowledge about Kenya is based purely on first impressions and what I’ve heard. I can’t judge. I do think it’s fascinating to see the difference between two East African countries in such close proximity to one another. And maybe my 11 year old self was a bit disappointed I didn’t see any animals roaming wild in the city streets or African dancers providing entertainment at dinner.



2 Responses to First Impressions of Kenya

  1. South Coast Kenyan June 6, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    fascinating read. i’m a kenyan who grew up in the south coast of Kenya which is very similar to Tanzania in terms of culture. In fact, I have familial blood across both borders because the countries are split along the traditional boundaries of my community. it’s interesting to catch a glimpse of a foreigner’s perspective. As a Kenyan, I admire the “social” bond amongst Tanzanians and their general ethnic tolerance. Kenya is a bit more globalized but Tanzania has retained much of the “soul” of the old east Africa. I’m sure Kenya beats Tanzania on other metrics but I feel that Tanzania embraces our culture more authentically. Hopefully Kenya and Tanzania can learn and borrow from each other in moving forward.

    • Denise Diamond June 6, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

      Hi Luka – thanks for sharing your insight, I think it’s so interesting to learn more about cultural nuances across borders.

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