How do you experience culture?

This time I want to write about me experiencing Kenyan culture. The longer I stay on my PULSE assignment, the less sensitive I get to the cultural differences, I simply get used to them. So I feel it’s the right time and place to capture some of the things that have impressed me so far.

How do you experience culture? When we were starting our PULSE journey, on a training we were asked to bring artefacts that would best represent our country. Most people brought something related to food. So I start with food.

The food

I found a good article that represents just about everything I tried and like in Kenyan cuisine. To my great relief (I love to eat!), food is very delicious here – with different herbs and spices, it’s full of taste. You can eat really eco-bio here – freshly squeezed juice and lots of fruit, home chicken, home milk… The most “exotic to my taste” food I tried? Probably cooked bananas with tomato paste for breakfast. The traditional drink? Tea of course. Although Kenya is a big exporter of coffee, tea is traditionally served everywhere, my favourite is masala tea, slighty spicy, mixed with milk and sugar.

Many offices have the practice to support a cantina for employees. Traditionally for lunch you’ll be served meat (chicken or veal stew or roasted meat), ugali (cornmeal staple) or rice, chapatis for bread, and fruit as desert. For the vegetarians there’s cooked lentils or beans, salads of raw or cooked cabbage, or cooked greens (sukuma wiki).

You pay a minimum amount on a weekly or monthly base, and get a really good lunch! And Kenyans, as hosts, do want to make sure you eat well. One of the nicest things that happened to me was when one day a colleague came to my desk and told me – team was observing me during lunch time and she wanted to discuss with me an important matter. Oh! oh! I told myself, I forgot to pay my lunch! I felt quite embarrassed. And then imagine my astonishment when in fact she told me, they were concerned I don’t eat well, and asked me what I would request for lunch, anything special to cook for me. I think that was really sweet, and it just shows an important aspect of Kenyan culture, community takes care of each other.


The market

You have not experienced fully local culture, if you have not been to the market place. The taste of it? Crowd, diversity, chaos, color. Open markets and tents and street sellers are everywhere – along the city streets, on small street corners, in dedicated market places – and you can buy literally everything, everything, from clothes, shoes, furniture, decoration, to fruit and veges. It’s a common view to see women baking corn on the street, men cutting to pieces sugar canes and selling them in small bags on the main road, women selling chips or bananas, or men walking with one bucket full of boiled eggs and another one full of chilli sauce. As a “mzungu” (white person) you would normally be overcharged, so it’s a good idea to know the price you want to pay or go with a local. And be ready to negotiate. In fact a visit to a Maasai market for gifts and jewelry will be a big training in negotiations skills. You learn different techniques – look as if you don’t care, make the tradesman offer you, never accept the first offer, give a contra-offer, which is 30-50%% of the original price, of course the seller will not agree to it, so it all depends on your willingness to buy the item – state it’s now or never and get ready to leave, go away and come back and ask the same price again, agree to the price if you buy 3 for the price of 1. I’m very bad in such negotiations, but it’s a game tradesmen are expecting and willing to play, as long as it ends with a sale, so you’ll be surprised on what you can get.

The transport

Boda bodas (motorbike or bicycle taxis) are widely used for transportation in Kenya, although companies advise against those, because a lot of road accidents and crime cases are associated with them. Yet, it’s a common view to see 2, 3, sometimes even 4 passengers on a boda boda. People use them all the time – to go to work, to drop their kids to school, carry grocery after work, transport big items like bicycles or furniture… The fact is, boda bodas are an integral part of society, they are cheap and easily accessible way of transport. They are everywhere! The other popular transport are matatus (mini buses), which are typically crowded, and probably the most risky drivers on the streets  of Nairobi. Still, these add a lot of color to the roads. Each single matatu is uniquely branded, quotes, biblical texts, pictures, colors… Normally the driver is accompanied by a “navigator”, a person who manages people getting off/on the matatus, gives signs to other drivers (who needs light signals, when you have such a navigator :))

With a journalist we were covering a story about a boda boda driver, so of course I tried!

Respect the local traditions

Bungoma county, Western Kenya, is a very peaceful place to live, so imagine my concern when early one morning beginning of August I saw on the main street a large crowd of people running, singing, shouting. It’s a local community event, my colleagues told me, it’s the month for circumcision. Every second year in August boys who reach certain age get circumcised. They go to the riverbank, where the procedure takes place, huge crowds blocking the roads, cheering the boys, to encourage and support them. And as in many other occasions you get one piece of advice – respect local culture!



  1. Wow Vanina it’s lovely to see my country from your perspective. The bargaining trick for Masai Market is spot on and don’t forget we have Uber now too incase you don’t want to risk the boda bodas 😉 Have a good one!

  2. Great blog, Vani, thanks. Remember when haggling over prices, if you agree to pay the first price, the initial reaction of the seller won’t be ‘great I got a good price’ it will be ‘drat, I should have asked for more’. So you’ve paid more than you should and the seller isn’t happy either. If you haggle and get a discount you pay less and the seller feels like she’s had to work for her money – so you both end up happy!

  3. I’m enjoying your blogs Vani. I routinely took boda boda rides and had several drivers #’s that I could trust on my phone. Occasionally I would come across a new or drunk driver that made it dangerous. Do you like the ugali? I don’t know many mzungus who like it.

    1. Thanks! Your comments are very valuable to me 🙂 and yes, I have tried ugali but you are right, not something I eat frequently. On boda boda, I am still hesitating and probably will not use or will try just once…

  4. Great blog Vanina! I see some of what you describe in Rwanda. You really bring it to life and I hope to visit Nairobi this fall. Cheers.

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