Kenya, Rants

Kenyan Queue Dynamics

Kenyans have weird queue dynamics. First, I understand that the word “weird” is relative/subjective, but I hope it’s not offensive. Second, I may not be Kenyan, but I’ve lived in Kenya since 2007 (yes, including ocha, the village… for two solid years). I’m not bluffing when I say that I’ve stood in plenty of queues during my years in Kenya.

In the Bank

Yesterday I was at the bank waiting to see a teller about a wire transfer. The place was a bit hectic, but the line wasn’t too long. After a few minutes of waiting I was in the front of the queue, the next person to be serviced. Another few minutes passed and a chair finally freed up, but I still stood there in the queue—I wanted eyeballs, body language or some other form of confirmation from the teller that she was ready for me to come sit down.

After no more than five seconds of hesitation, the man behind me pointed and told me, “You can go there.” Our ensuing dialog was as follows:

  • Me: “I’ll wait until she calls me.”
  • Him: “She won’t.”
  • Me: “She will.”
  • Him: “She won’t.”
  • Me: “She will.”

After another ten seconds the teller was free and signaled me over. As I went to sit down I turned back and told the man behind me, “It’s polite to wait.

Maybe Kenyan culture is different, but it just feels right for me to wait. Is it safe to assume that, because the man behind me was Kenyan, and because the teller was Kenyan, that she would have expected me to behave in the same manner? Were it me behind the desk I would have thought it rude for clients to simply barge forward, out of turn. What do you think?

At the Grocery Store

I was baffled again by queue dynamics a few weeks ago when standing in line to checkout at the grocery store. It was around 8 or 9 in the evening, and I had ten or so items. There were two people in front of me, and one or two people behind me. I was just chatting with Cassandra when, all of the sudden, a dude with a bag of spinach squeezes by us with all sorts of haste and intent.

Assuming he was with one of the people in front of us, we made that courteous, passive sound you always tend to make in that situation, and scooted over so he could pass easily (you know that sound, it’s something like, “Ooop!“). When he passed it became clear that he didn’t know anyone up there, and that he was just cutting.

I was a bit put off. When I have one item and the line is long, I just stand quietly in the back and wait for my turn to checkout. Some nice person inevitably says, “Oooh, it’s ok, you can go before me.” That way everyone wins, right?

It’s entirely possible that it’s a Nairobi thing… Kenyans, what do you think?

6 Comments

  1. Mom

    It is definitely a cultural difference. I remember that happening a lot in Mexico. If you were not pressed up against the person in front someone would cut in as soon as there was a space. I agree it seems rude but I think it is just a difference in cultural norms.

  2. Wairimu

    Honestly, it’s just rude. One thing I will miss about the States is that people line up politely (for the most part). In Kenya sometimes people act like they just came from some institution where resources are extra scarce and therefore you have to push and scramble for everything – matatus, supermarket checkout…

    I worked in a group home once where a patient who’d been previously institutionalised behaved like that.

    I guess the ‘institution’ is Kenya :(

    I can only that these tabias will improve in time.

  3. Christine

    i am Kenyan and i think some behaviors are just in born although my mum would cringe at the site of my pushing and shoving cutting up queues. Having queued several times in banks, waiting till the teller signals is quite rare. I’ve tried several times to wait till they signal and most of the time they don’t and when they do they send an angry look as if am wasting their time. Two days ago i tried the same thing and lucky you, you had someone to exchange opinions on whether to wait or not, because, i just hesitated for a sec in an attempt to wait for a signal and the guy behind me just dashed to the teller and got served…
    when it comes to queues in a grocery store cutting up a queue is plain RUDE! I would not allow it. i wouldn’t care who you are, go to the back of the line. I happened to accompany my mom grocery shopping at Sarit Center Uchumi recently and we had queued for a while and when we were 2nd from the till some man comes and places his wine bottle on the counter saying that he just had one item. To my utter surprise my mom told off the guy, telling him the people queuing were not Mannequins and his money was not more valuable than ours and have more respect for other peoples time by going to the back of the line. he did, with an embarrassed face off course.

    1. Alan Author

      Yeah, courtesy is a two-way street… ironically, if the wine-bottle dude would have asked politely you very well may have let him go in front! But it is just so irritating when people just assume and go right in front.

  4. silver darling

    “I’ll wait until she calls me”

    – or just go sit down and she’ll ignore you until she’s ready anyway? noted the wide adoption of ticketed queues in West African banks (wait till your number comes up) saves all the inter-intra cultural angst. and gives an idea of how long you’ve got for coffee…

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