Culture and etiquette
Although it’s not essential on a short visit, understanding something of the subtle rituals and traditions that underpin everyday life will make a big difference to your appreciation of Kenyan culture. And if you’re staying for an extended period, you’ll need to make some adjustments yourself.
Every contact between people in Kenya starts with a greeting. Even when entering a shop, you shake hands and make polite small talk with the shopkeeper. Shaking hands upon meeting and departure is normal between all the men present. Women shake hands with each other, but with men only in more sophisticated contexts. Soul-brother handshakes and other, finger-clicking variations are popular among young men, while a common, very respectful handshake involves clutching your right arm with your left hand as you shake or, in Muslim areas, touching your left hand to your chest when shaking hands.
Traditionally, greeting exchanges last a minute or two, and you’ll often hear them performed in a formal manner between two men, especially in rural areas. Long greetings help subsequent negotiations. In English or Swahili you can exchange something like “How are you?” “Fine, how’s the day?” “Fine, how’s business?” “Fine, how’s the family?”, “Fine, thank God”. It’s usually considered polite, while someone is speaking to you at length, to grunt in the affirmative, or say thank you at short intervals. Breaks in conversation are filled with more greetings.
Hissing (“Tsss!”) is an ordinary way to attract a stranger’s attention, though less common in more sophisticated urban situations. You may get a fair bit of it yourself, and it’s quite in order to hiss at the waiter in a restaurant: it won’t cause any offence.
If you’re asking questions, avoid yes/no ones, as answering anything in the negative is often considered impolite. And when making enquiries, try not to phrase your query in the negative (“Isn’t the bus leaving?”) because the answer will often be “Yes” (it isn’t leaving).
Body language, gestures and dress
You are likely to notice a widespread and unselfconscious ease with close physical contact, especially on the coast. Male visitors may need to get used to holding hands with strangers as they’re shown around the guesthouse, or guided down the street, and, on public transport, to strangers’ hands and limbs draped naturally wherever is most comfortable, which can include your legs or shoulders.
It’s good to be aware of the left-hand rule: traditionally the left hand is reserved for unhygienic acts and the right for eating and touching, or passing things to others. Like many “rules” it’s very often broken, at which times you have to avoid thinking about it.
Unless you’re looking for a confrontation, never point with your finger, which is equivalent to an obscene gesture. For similar reasons, beckoning is done with the palm down, not up, which if you’re not familiar with the action can inadvertently convey a dismissive gesture.
Don’t be put off by apparent shiftiness in eye contact, especially if you’re talking to someone much younger than you. It’s normal for those deferring to others to avoid a direct gaze.
In Islamic regions on the coast, wearing shorts and T-shirts (which are considered fine on the beach) won’t get you into trouble, as people are far too polite to admonish strangers, but it’s better to dress in loose-fitting long sleeves and skirts or long trousers. Lamu calls more for kikoi and kanga wraps for both sexes and, because it’s so small, more consideration for local feelings.
For women, even more than men, the way you look and behave gets noticed by everyone, and such things are more important if you don’t appear to have a male “escort”. Your head and shoulders and everything from waist to ankles are the sensitive zones, and long, loose hair is seen as extraordinarily provocative, doubly so if it’s blonde. It’s best to keep your hair fairly short or tied up (or wear a scarf). Topless sunbathing is prohibited.
You’ll also need to be suitably attired to enter mosques and in practice you should take advice from your guide – you can’t enter unaccompanied, and women often won’t be able to enter mosques at all.
In central Nairobi and Mombasa beggars are fairly common. Most are visibly destitute, and many are disabled, or homeless mothers with children. While some have regular pitches, others keep on the move, and all are harassed by the police. Kenyans often give to the same beggar on a regular basis: to the many Kenyans who are Muslim, alms-giving is a religious requirement. This kind of charity is also an important safety net for the destitute in a country with no social security system.
Although there is a certain amount of ethnic and religious variation in attitudes, sexual mores in Kenya are generally hedonistic and uncluttered. Expressive sexuality is a very obvious part of the social fabric in most communities, and in Muslim areas Islamic moral strictures tend to be generously interpreted. The age of consent for heterosexual sex is 16.
Female prostitution flourishes almost everywhere, with a remarkable number of cheaper hotels doubling as informal brothels. There are no signs of any organized sex trade and such prostitution appears to merge seamlessly into casual promiscuity. If you’re a man, you’re likely to find flirtatious pestering a constant part of the scene, especially if you visit bars and clubs. With HIV infection rates extremely high, even protected sex is extremely inadvisable. On the coast there’s increasing evidence of child prostitution and, apart from the odd poster, little effort by the authorities to control it.
Sex between men is illegal in Kenya, and homosexuality is still largely a taboo subject; lesbianism doubly so, although no law specifically outlaws it. Many Kenyans take the attitude that being gay is un-African, although male homosexuality among Kenyans is generally an accepted undercurrent on the coast (msenge is the Swahili for a gay man), and nightclubs in Nairobi and on the coast are relatively tolerant. Fortunately, visiting gay couples seem to experience no more problems sharing a room (even when opting for one double bed) than straight travelling companions, and the prevailing mood about gay tourists seems to be “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Nevertheless if you are a gay couple you may have to be discreet. Public displays of affection are out of the question, and while holding hands may not bother anyone, you might be unlucky, so it’s best to avoid doing even that.
Gay Kenya Trust (wgaykenya.com) is a human rights and advocacy organization gay men, and for the wider LGBT community.
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