Before leaving the U.S., I got a book called Culture Smart! Kenya. The book bills itself as “the essential guide to customs and culture” in Kenya. So far, many of the things I’ve read in the book have been accurate.
Here are a few of these truths (as I’ve experienced them):
“White visitors may find that they are mistaken for another white person, to whom they can see no resemblance whatsoever. This is due to the often-voiced perception among Africans that ‘all white people look the same’”.
My husband and I went to the market, and several of the sellers were astounded that we were married. “But you look just like brother and sister,” they said. I think most non-Africans would agree that we don’t look anything alike. Then again, we were wearing matching flip-flops, so maybe that confused them.
“For many Kenyans tribal ethnicity is the single most important part of their personal identity.”
Not only is ethnic identity important, many Kenyans we have met unabashedly stereotype members of other ethnic groups.
When we visited the Bomas of Kenya with James, our Luo taxi driver, he had some very nasty things to say about other Kenyan ethnic groups. Similarly, my Luhya kiswahili teacher said that Luhya women make the best wives, while Luo women will leave a man if he doesn’t make enough money. I’m not used to people being so vocal with their stereotypes.
“Kenyans are meticulous, stylish, and fashionable dressers. No matter how humble the home from which they exit, the suit will be pressed, the dress smart, and the children faultlessly presented.”
In my chunky sneakers, dirty jeans, and stretched-out shirts (no drier means things stretch out a lot), I feel positively frumpy compared to the Kenyans I meet. Almost everyone is stylish, their outfits are coordinated, and the women wear cute shoes all the time. Luckily, there are great used clothing markets here, so maybe I can upgrade my wardrobe.
“Until recently it was unusual to see couples holding hands on the street, while kissing in public still isn’t done.”
I’ve actually never seen a couple holding hands here, although men will often hold hands with each other as a sign of friendship. PDA just isn’t done. According to my kiswahili teacher, it’s considered rude to hold hands or kiss in public because it’s like you are rubbing it in that you have a significant other when other people might not.
It can be fun, but also exhausting, to uncover these layers of cultural beliefs. I just hope I’m not embarrassing myself! (Or at least not embarrassing myself beyond my slovenly appearance.)