A Taste of Kenyan Culture

Since I’ll be traveling to Kenya, I find it helpful to brush up on some of the important aspects of Kenyan culture and customs.  In this article, I’d like to share a few I’ve found particularly interesting.

The first thing one notices arriving in Kenya, is the hospitality and warmth of Kenyans.  Sure, in the busy city streets, there aren’t a lot of friendly faces.  But getting to know Kenyans away from the hustle and bustle is almost always an uplifting experience because of the emphasis placed on hospitality and courtesy.

Kenyan Meal

Getting ready for a delicious Kenyan meal, note the ugali in the lower left corner and wash basin in lower right corner

For instance, it’s common when happening on a group where you know only one member to be introduced to every person in the group, complete with a handshake.  This is true even if children are present in the group.  Expect to shake a lot of hands!

When entering a household in Kenya, the visitor says “Hodi,” which means roughly “may I come in?”  The reply will always be “Karibu,” which means “Welcome” in Swahili.

Kenyan food is delicious and less exotic than one might expect.  Most Kenyans make dinner the big meal of the day, and if a guest is around, expect to be treated to the famous African hospitality in the form of a many wonderful dishes.  This is the case even if it means the host will running low on food the rest of the week.

One thing that proceeds every meal is the washing of hands.  A pitcher of warm water is poured by the host over the hands of each guest into a wash basin below.

The core part of many meals in Kenya is called ugali.  It is a thick paste made from cornmeal.  By itself, it can be a bit bland, but it is usually formed into a makeshift spoon and used to scoop greens (called sakuma wiki, or “stretch the week”).  The combination of ugali and greens (often with a sharp taste) makes for a delicious counterbalance.

Of course, there will always be chai, which is hot Kenyan tea.  It is usually mixed with a lot of milk and sugar and tastes more like hot chocolate than the iced tea you might find in Texas.

Any guest that doesn’t eat a huge meal will be reprimanded and told to keep eating!  It’s easy to get stuffed, but I always feel pangs of guilt knowing the trouble and sacrifice the host has probably made to offer such a feast.

It’s all part of Kenyan hospitality, though, so in the end it’s important to focus on the generous spirit in which the meal is offered and be grateful to know such a kind and friendly people.

Leave a Reply