Kenya, Rants

White People in Nairobi

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?

15 Comments

  1. M

    I guess on main the reason to avoid interaction is exactly the “something small”. In some other cultures one needs to be very close friend to ask. The question is culturally insensitive and violates the learned “rules of engagement” for many foreigners. One might start avoiding high risk situations because both “no” and “yes” makes one equally uncomfortable until one gets used.

  2. sam 22

    sasa! man hii stiry ni real. but you can attest to the fact that those watcheez ukiwashow hauna but ukiget utawasave wataelewa. kuwa candid msee. na ukibonga swa au engoso watafurahi. thanx 4 living with wasee wetu. at least ur trying. hope umeelewa hii sheng. sasawa basi boss.

  3. Kevin Burns

    Hello!

    I found this article to be quite interesting. I am considering moving to Nairobi to study Development studies. In you opinion do you think that is a good idea? I would be a (white)international student, do you think there is a large international student group there, and is the university good?! I am doing a lot of research and it would be nice to get some other viewpoints! Thanks, please email me if you have any advice/suggestions! KevinBurns94@gmail.com

    kevin

  4. Brenda

    True indeed.There is more intergration of culture in the rural areas.I grew up in Meru/Maua where lots of Americans and British worked In the General Hospitals.We(the kids) played whole heartedly and never did it ever cross our minds that we were different.Nairobi on the other hand….foreigners are treated like monarchs and some want to be treated as such.Still..asking and borrowing money is also common for any Kenyan who seems to have a heavier pocket…Great blogs you have here!!!

  5. Norah

    Hello Alan,
    I hope having stayed a little longer in Nairobi has changed your opinion above :-) I have white friends and I don’t ask them for money and we hang out and they seem quite confortable with me.
    Norah

  6. Well Alan,I must say you are one of a kind English dude.I hate to like give tags such as white or mzungu.I work in the Karen’s suburbs and we both know the majority people living there.My boss is an English woman;and she is somehow like you.Blends well with the locals and there are some mostly our clients who are vastly the English who would walk in the office and feels they can’t talk to anyone else other than the boss.I guess its life,I just wish when it comes to colours one should assort and tag them when STRICTLY & ONLY doing laundry.

  7. Kate

    Hi,
    Its a flawed perception that dates back to colonialism, where the black person was made to belive the white man is superior. It will take time if not eterniy for this mentality to change.Some of our white friends living abroad do not necessarily live better lives there but when they are in Kenya/Africa, they are treated like small gods by those who are not exposed to the western world.People are people and i believe what should matter most is character and not much of the physical that none of us had much say about (born that way).

  8. Naj

    Hi Alan,

    I greatly admire your perspective on the whole issue.It is just the kind of approach needed for this world to be a better place.Noone is different from the other;only unique.I believe we i.e, the human race,are more similar than different.

    As a matter of fact,am doing a research on how our individual diversities affect how we relate and are perceived by others especially those different from us.

    I would greatly appreciate your input and your point of view on the topic.Kindly contact me on najnecy@yahoo.com

  9. I think it is no longer about the color and more about the strength of the currency of your origin :)
    About 10 years ago I used to travel to the Middle Eastern countries frequently and what I found and this is openly accepted, is that a White person can open “doors” faster and better for you. So if you need that appointment and the client is not giving it to me (I being an Indian), then have “Mr.John Doe” call him and you have your appointment! Of course it is upto you now to give the presentation and explain all the tech stuff to the client! But I do find that most White people think out of the box and are innovative in their approach and their attention to detail is truly superior.
    Hoping to travel to Africa (Kenya) for the first time and hence was reading thru some of these blogs.
    Nice!

  10. Ferd

    I like working with whites. My career was built with a white Californian mama who took and nurtured me as her own son in a global community network. I became what I am because of her. I’m ready to work with any other white as a computer operator or volunteer. Am jobless at the moment and life is so hard to manage. Contact me please! Thanks.

  11. Lorna Chepkemoi

    I have just read this and it put a smile on my face. You see i have noticed that most white people keep their heads down while walking and if by ‘accident’ they catch you staring and maybe admiring they quickly look away with some disgust or something! However am glad to read this. It kind of changes an attitude

  12. sasuske

    Hey guys, i am Kenyan I’ve lived in England for around 11 years, and i will be visiting Kenya for a couple of months. I guess once you’ve been exposed to the world, you nor longer habour ignorant notions, about superiority based on the melanin a person seems to express. Character is an important factor in making friendships, and i guess local kenyans feel somewhat inferior so they don’t usually approach “white” foreigners. In England depending on the state/ country you live in, people are usually nice and mix. If you live in london or sounding urban areas you will mingle well, however if you go to the smaller tight nit communities, you might experience some discomfort, simply because you are seen as a potential terror. I am not really that experienced in kenya since last time i was there was in 2009, but i hope you guys welcome me back home for a few months :)

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