I don’t want to go see the lions in Masai Mara. And while we’re at it, no, you can’t shine my sandals. I’ve said it before and I can’t reiterate it enough, being white in Nairobi is annoying. I don’t know what’s wrong with white people in Kenya, they’re either too rich or too lazy so they zip around in taxis. Well I’m not rich or lazy, so it annoys the hell out of me when I’m walking in Nairobi and taxi drivers relentlessly ask if I need a taxi. I’ve been good lately, but I know enough Swahili to be pretty rude to those guys.
I guess it varies with my mood. For instance, yesterday was Friday so I wore jeans to work and everyone was a bit relaxed. I was meeting my friend in Nairobi for coffee after work, so I was feeling good. I had just been laughing and enjoying the evening when some guy offered me a taxi. I simply told him, “Si endi mbali” (I’m not going far), and I guess he liked that because he responded, “Poa, asante sana, ndugu. Karibu.” (cool, thanks alot, brother. You’re welcome.). hat’s how it’s supposed to be, and I always feel bad when I diss ’em.
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.
Funny things happen when you’re white and you walk around Nairobi. Here’s a few things I’ve noticed:
- Every cab driver thinks you want a cab
- Every tour guide thinks you want to go for a safari
- Every begger gets excited when they see you, then they give their best “Jambo! Hello!”
- People selling trinkets get excited when they see you (like, “Yeah! Now that you mention it, I DID want a box of matches!”)
- Shoes shiners want to polish your shoes
Sometimes I tell them funny things, like I’ll tell the cab drivers ndio hizi (like, “yeah, these”) and point to my feet, or nataka kuenda kwa miguu (“I want to go on foot”). It’s harder to be nice to the safari dudes; if I’m annoyed I’ll just tell them mimi si mtalii (“I’m not a tourist”). I know that’s a bit rude so I always feel bad after. I guess you can’t blame them for assuming you’re a tourist. The hilarious thing about the shoe shiners is that I am usually wearing sandals when they ask me… they laugh when I point to my feet and say, “No thanks!”
Realistically, any person who isn’t black probably experiences these things (Japanese, Swedish, etc). There are plenty of non-black Kenyans, but I don’t know any so I’m not sure if they have similar experiences. I guess the locals can tell if you’re a foreigner.
Karibu Kenya (“you’re welcome in Kenya”!)