It’s one thing to be white living in a rural area, but it’s another thing to be white and live in a rich suburb of Nairobi. I spent the last nearly two years living in Tala, where I was one of the only white people. It wasn’t hard for me to make myself at home, my current roommate was even teasing me the other day because I behave like someone from the shamba (farm) — shopping at the budget stores, eating boiled beans and chapati on the side of the road, speaking Swahili, etc. I guess I spent a lot of time learning to be mwenyeji (a local): becoming an expert at local trivia, food, language, geography, you name it. Now that I’ve come to Nairobi I realize the black–white dynamics are different than in Tala, mainly because there are more white people here. White people — Kenyan or foreign — don’t interact with the blacks as much, and they tend to zip around in taxis or private cars, go to separate dinner parties, clubs, etc.
I first noticed this new dynamic when I moved into a new apartment in Nairobi in July. We have security guards manning the gate to the compound 24/7. I see them in the morning when I go to work, and in the evening when I come home. Within the first few days here every single one of the guards had asked me for “something small.” They do it in creative ways, like asking for bus fare, or they tell me there is njeve cali (like “biting cold”, a hint they want me to buy them tea), etc. It’s gotten to the point where I’m wary every time I approach the gate, because I know they’re going to ask me for something. It depends on my mood, and also if I actually have any coins in my pocket, but I usually give them something. For instance, the other day I was eating some cookies when I got home, so I shared those with the two night watchmen.
I’ve gotten the feeling that most black Kenyans think whites don’t interact with the “common” people, like stopping to slap a high five or spout some Swahili slang like, Niaje, boss? (loosely, “what’s up, boss?”) is out of the question. I do it willingly and without thinking, maybe that’s why people feel like they can approach me. I’m stumped (and a bit embarrassed) by the behavior of other whites, maybe they just fear the intimacy because they know it leads to awkward situations?