Beloved Kenya, sand sea and sun!!

Recently a dear friend who’s never been to any African country asked me, “How does it feel to come from a holiday?”  The question made no sense but was perplexing.  She went on to explain that whenever she thinks of Kenya, she thinks of wildlife, exotic people aka the Maasai, sun, sea and white sands.  I smiled, thanked her for the compliment (always done as an afterthought because it’s just not natural), but decided to ‘educate’ her slightly about Kenya.

In Kenya children go to school, adults go to work, some people stay at home, some people are poor, some people are rich, some people have never seen a lion, other exotic people exist aka Kikuyus, Luos, Tugens etc – the list is too long.  Some people have never left the country or their villages for that matter, just like some people in Texas or Cardiff who I hear have never set foot outside Texas’ or Cardiff’s borders.  And so and so and so.

She’s right about one thing though, Kenyans are happy people, we give the impression that we are on holiday 24/7 and most times our lifestyles portray that.  Our favourite pastime is socialising while drinking copious amounts of alcohol and consuming food.  We take this culture with us around the globe.  Once, I heard that during the last rugby sevens tournament, Australians were warned to get there on time “before the Kenyans drank all the beers!” Swag.

Saskia, my dear white sister, is of a positive disposition and Kenya, compared to her bleak and grey country with no wildlife, surrounded by rocky pebbly beaches, (which can’t qualify as beaches because the waves from the sea are not gentle, they crash against the rocks and sweep anything or anyone in their path), is paradise.  I agree.

Her country gets one month of summer in a year, where the days are 18 hours long and the nights are 6 hours short.  The rest of the year is either raining or super cold winters where the days are 6 hours short and nights are 18 hours long.  The country has a high suicide rate due to SAD.  In winter, if you throw a bucket of hot water in the air, it spectacularly freezes mid-air.

She’s also fascinated by the number of languages spoken in Kenya – driving my point home that not only the Maasai populate my motherland.  At this point, I mention that the Maasai are in Tanzania too.  She asks “Where’s that?” I answer “Another Kiswahili speaking country bordering Kenya in the south”.  Their Kiswahili is concentrated and pure like Russian vodka, ours is diluted and garnished with the local lingo and English, “don’t be surprised if there are a few Somali words or Arabic in the mix”, popularly known as Sheng, don’t even go there!!

At this point, she is totally sold and declares “I want to go there soon. I want to make love to a Maasai man in the wild.  Please teach me Swahili”

First, the language is Kiswahili, Swahili is the people and we are not all Swahili people.  I am a blunt tool as far as Kiswahili is concerned – my Tanzanian friends can tell you.  Therefore, I can only teach you what works, besides why would you want to learn a few words in a language you won’t understand when spoken back to?  If I teach you how to ask for water, how will you know if the answer you get has anything to do with water or the person will be plotting something ungodly?

The best approach is to be well equipped with information and knowledge about how Kenyans communicate, talk and /or behave. Most times, we don’t even talk, we gesture.  For example – at a table, a Kenyan will point with their lower lip at a general direction, say at condiments and expect whoever sees this gesture to understand that they want the stuff to season their food.

Our queen’s English is pristine, however, we can’t help baptising sentences and/or words with the local lingo and Kiswahili.  For example – someone might ask “kwani you haven’t done this and that”: I can’t even articulate sensibly what ‘kwani’ means in this or any other context, but, it’s nevertheless part of the sentence, just like so many others ebu, kumbe, si, jo etc.  You just have to know it exists.

Learn the unnecessary words that are interjected between sentences too.  For example – someone might say, ‘last night you disappeared bana’, this sounds broken and bana is ‘bwana’ shortened for whatever reasons.  Apparently, it’s supposedly an endearing addition to make the person feel important.

We also tend to marry a Kiswahili or local lingo word with ‘ring’ or ‘ad’,  For example – one might say “I hope you fikaad home safe” because it’s too much energy to say arrived.  Or “I’m chunguzaaring why abc happened” too heavy on the tongue to say investigate.  Too difficult to say the whole sentence in Kiswahili, and even worse to write it down.

And for safety, and under no circumstances, do not greet people ‘jambo’, this is very touristy, say things like ‘sasa’ ‘mambo’ ‘ni aje wazee (like Obama did)’; this will instantly promote you to the ‘them’ category.

Mind you, most of this happens in the city limits.  When you are upcountry it’s a different ball game altogether.  People there speak and understand English, but most tend to translate words directly from their lingo (kikuyus are the worst).  For example one might say things like, ‘I will climb a bus later’ or ‘I drink cigarettes’ or ‘I drink soup’; when this happens watch their behaviour and the compound words, then things will make sense.

Beware of our deep accents too, some letters e.g. r, t, p, b and many others don’t exist in some mother tongues.  When speaking, these letters are either mispronounced or left out completely e.g. a car becomes ka, return becomes litan, people becomes bibo.  Sometimes letters are added where they shouldn’t be any e.g. letter m, so people become mbibo at which point nothing makes sense anymore.  Just nod and move along.

Point to note, millennials don’t seem to have these problems.  They have watched too much American TV soaps and dramas, listened to too much American rap music, and now speak with more prominent American tweng (another invention) than real Americans.

Learn our favourite pastimes i.e. drinking and politics.  I can’t teach you much politics because I don’t live there, political shenanigans, new words and phrase are born every minute, and my politics knowledge is despicable.

Newborn words make little or no sense – recently words like manenos have sprung alive all over the place: maneno – is a plural Kiswahili word re-pluralised in English by adding an s – it doesn’t get more bizarre than that.  Then there are words that are meant to imitate sounds e.g. NKT even some Kenyans don’t know what this means.

And then people ask a question instead of answering your question e.g. you ask “can I ‘please’ have a cup of water? Answer: Si you get a cup and fill from tap? Scratch that.. from the boiled water in the corner?  Si – I have no idea what it means, but it precedes many sentences.  Some of our words may be mistaken as rude, for example instead of someone saying ‘pardon’ because they didn’t quite understand or hear what you said, they’ll rudely say ‘ati what’.  Trust me they are not being uncouth.

Saskia is now well equipped to tour Kenya, mingle with the people, see the wildlife, sprawl on white-sand beaches, and most likely sleep with a Kikuyu man masquerading as a Maasai Moran named Ole-Mateso-Bila-Chuki.


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  1. Hehehe.. your writing is absolutely superb. I don’t know how long you’ve been away… But we have found new ways of fusing kikuyu words into English.

    Reke Nemwo is becoming a generally accepted way of saying I can’t. However, for those who would like to use it but don’t completely “catch” the meaning… We tell them it simply means “Let me be defeated”

  2. Love your post! And loved Kenya, tho I spent only a little time there, mainly in Nairobi. Managed to arrive just in time for our taxi from the airport to almost collide with the ambulance rushing (too late)to keep Tom Mboya from dying. That’s how long ago it was–don’t know if you know about that, but I assume your parents or grandparents do. And after a stint in Addis Ababa, Nairobi seemed so peaceful that we (I, my husband and 2 small children)walked around the city that same morning, wondering why there were so few people out. And early next AM, I went alone to the palace to pay my respects before the funeral, realizing how foolish that was and getting back to the hotel barely ahead of the stampede and rioting that started minutes later. We watched from the balcony outside our room until a puff of smoke appeared and our eyes began to sting; And our 8 y.o. daughter never forgave us for rushing her back inside before she could get tear gassed like everyone else.

    And yes–we said Jambo to everyone, thinking we were really cool. And yes, a few years later we took a leave of absence and worked a year in Hawaii before accepting a permanent job offer only because–like Saskia–we’d assumed that nobody really worked here, people just went to the beach on permanent holiday. (That was in 1971. We’re still here. And yes, we went to the beach..and also worked hard until we retired).

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