The types of people you meet in Kenya are as varied as the kernels of maize in the hills…uh, songs by Yvonne Chaka Chaka, whatever. Truly, the people of Kakamega, Kenya have been marvelous and disappointing and heart warming and tragic. However, there have been a few certain types of people I have come to know so far that have been replicated more than a few times since I’ve arrived. Just as in America, you can identify your hipsters, Reganite yuppies, and hip-hop wanna -be’s, so in Kenya, there are some types easily identifiable. Each type has its benefits and detriments, but all of them are peculiarly spectacular.
After the break, a look at a few of these prevalent groups of people.
Mamas: Probably my favorite of the types of Kenyans you will find, these are generally older women with a stubborn streak, wide smiles, and endless energy. Because men in Kenya are generally referred to as “professional sitters”, women have assumed the role of worker in Kenyan society. No one has perfected this better than the mamas. They are hard workers and hard talkers. Constantly chatting, dancing, singing, and celebrating life, these women are the backbone of Kenyan society. And they know it. One piece of advice if a mama offers you chai (tea), always take it. You don’t want to insult a mama.
Neighborhood Children: Always a joy and a nuisance, neighborhood children will follow you, stare at you, sometimes cry if you to come too close, and continually ask, “How are you” in exaggerated, high-pitched voices. They will yell this often enough that you will begin to wonder if you actually sound like that. As long as you are kind enough to give them a little of your time, smile, and respond “Good” or “Safe” in Kiswahili or really freak them out and say “Karina” which means how are you in Kiluhya, they are not much of a problem. They are just kids who are curious and who want to meet you. This is true even after you have been living in the same neighborhood with them for about a month.
Glue Sniffing Children: Unlike the Neighborhood Children, Glue Sniffing Children are contained to cities and larger towns, and they are only a nuisance and rarely a danger. They will repeated ask you, “Muzungu, give me pennies” and for a seemingly interminable number of blocks they will follow you, waiting for you give in, which may easily be well before they give up. Although one is free to give food or a kind word to these tragic orphan children, they are generally high and will steal from you if given the chance. They are an unfortunate and frequently forgotten segment of Kenyan society.
Peace Corps Volunteers: Nice enough people, but they think they know more than you. It’s nice to talk to other muzungus from time to time (and if you’re at a restaurant, the waiter may seat you with them under the assumption that all muzungus know each other), but Peace Corps can sometimes seem like a club. The longer one has been there, the more one tires of the newbies.
Bodaboda and Matatu Drivers: Although these are two very different segments of society, they have some of the same characteristics: very pushy, very grabby, very poor. Both groups will harass you endlessly. However, they’re out there trying to make a buck, ahem, schilling just like everyone else. If you get a chance to talk to one of them, and he doesn’t propose to you (and then call you selfish when you refuse), they’re very interesting people. Additionally, many bodaboda drivers are battling HIV. Give them a break and just take the harassment. Only blow up when they take your bags or arm to lead you to their bike/ matatu. Then it’s fine to yell a bit.
Older Men: I have found that older men, especially between the ages of 30 and 55, are looking for you to do something for them. Whether it is giving you hundred bob to buy them a Safaricom scratch card from across the street (which they are invariably closer to than you) or to get a lucky American to sponsor their youth soccer, they are looking for you to do something for them. And why not? They did the same thing when they were younger. In Kenya, the older a person becomes, the more respect they assume. Older men, especially, justify laziness as a reward for paying their dues. Like I said, they are professional sitters.
Young Women: This segment of society appear to receive little respect, but they deserve it more than many others in Kenyan society. Whether it be raising their children, farming, cooking ugali, running their own small businesses, catering to their (sitting) husbands, going to PTA meeting, attending church, opening an orphanage or any other number of activities, young Kenyan women are busy. Generally, they accept their responsibilities with stoicism and grace. I find it incredible.
These are just a few segments of Kenyan society that I have been exposed to so far in Kakamega, Kenya. Always surprising and never dull, these individuals each flavor life a little differently and absurdly.