How to Live Like a Kenyan

Culture Tips/Etiquette , Kenya Apr 29, 2018 No Comments
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The Basics

Kenya is the most developed country in East Africa, with a large middle class. The country was occupied by Portugal, then England, and gained independence in 1963. It is diverse with a mix of indigenous Kenyans, Europeans, Asians and Arabs. Christians, Muslims and other religions are represented, and freedoms are guaranteed.

For most Kenyans, the family is the most important social connection and responsibility. Time is more relaxed in Kenya than European countries, so it is best to be flexible. Food is an important part of the social fabric of the country. Kenya’s cuisine is diverse, and it is polite to finish everything on one’s plate. Some food is eaten by hand and washbasins are sometimes provided before dinner. When it comes to drinking and smoking, laws are strict. Plan on using a driver, taxi or Uber if you drink, as laws are enforced. Smoking is banned in most public places. Women generally do not smoke in public.

The Essentials:

  • Kenyans are mild-mannered and polite. Hospitality is important.
  • Full titles are used; hierarchical relationships are honoured.
  • Shake hands to greet someone, but always with the right hand.
  • Muslim men and women do not shake hands with the opposite sex.
  • Mature women are addressed as ‘Mama’ and men over 40 as ‘Mzee.’
  • Displays of affection in public are inappropriate.
  • Displays of anger and insulting language are inappropriate.
  • Eye contact signals trust. People stand closer together than Europeans.
  • Indirect communication is used to ‘save face’ and protect relationships.
  • English and Kiswahili are official languages; 69 languages are spoken

How to Act Like a Local:

  • Generally, dress in Kenya is conservative. Kenyans like to dress up for special occasions, such as going out dancing, to dinner or to church, and they rarely wear shorts. In lodges or at the beach, you can wear what you wish unless there is a dress code. At a pool in a private home, do as the host does.
  • Kenyans perceive swearing and displaying anger as indicative of a poor upbringing and a weak character.
  • Shouting is considered insulting — you should never shout at anyone for any reason, even if the message is positive.
  • Pointing is considered very rude in Kenya.
  • The left hand is reserved for restroom tasks and the right hand for eating, touching or passing objects.
  • It is customary to offer small gifts to domestic workers, tradespeople and service workers at Christmas, along with the 13th-month pay, the extra month’s base salary.
  • Kenyans prefer practical gifts.
  • Usually, Kenyans do not point with a finger but will instead use the chin or lips.
  • Winking may be perceived as lewd.
  • When greeting a Kenyan, if your hands are dirty, grab the other person’s elbow.
  • Exchange money by handing it with a cupped right hand with the left hand resting on the right arm, just behind the right hand, which signifies an honest exchange involving no trickery.
  • When entering a Kenyan’s home, you should take off your shoes and accept an offer of tea, as this means that one accepts the host’s hospitality.
  • Kenya’s currency, the shilling (Ksh or KES), is sometimes referred to as a ‘bob,’ the old English term for a shilling coin.
  • Tipping is not mandatory in Kenya, though tour guides, safari drivers and cooks will expect a tip at the end of a tour. It has become the norm to tip at restaurants. The amount of the tip is based on your service. You should tip porters in hotels, as well. Lodges generally have a tip box; these tips are shared equally among all staff, including those who do not have direct contact with guests.
  • Taxi fares are negotiated in advance. Only give a tip if the service has been better than expected.

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