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Observations of the Differences Between Kenyan and American Cultures

Whenever I blog about a trip we take, it’s a habit to blog about whatever I have a picture for. And since I took over 1,500 pictures, I figured there’s plenty to blog about, whenever I find the time.

But then when people asked about my impressions of Kenya, I find myself talking about the stuff that a photo could never tell. Sometimes it’s a cultural difference between Kenyans and Americans that stand out, but how to you capture in a photograph a mentality, a way of doing things that’s different?

Is There A Doctor In The House?

While walking back from having lunch with Mutile, one of Nduku’s friends, in an area called Upper Hill, there was an accident. Looked like a car hit a guy on a motorcycle. The motorcyclist was on the ground with dozens of people standing around, some trying to help. Cars drove by, rubberneckers stared, people’s pockets were probably getting picked. In American, people are on their phones dialing 911. There are sirens getting louder as the EMTs are coming to the rescue. People clear the way for the professionals to do what they do.

In Kenya — good luck.

There’s no 911. And if you really, really, really needed a cop and call the police station, lets say you got robbed at three in the morning, there might not even be anyone there. Or they might tell you they don’t have enough gas to get there. Or to call them back in the morning.


You mean to tell me someone just got hit by a car, is in obvious pain and there’s probably no ambulance on the way? What I find shocking is how shocked Kenyans are that I’m shocked.

I did see a few ambulances, though, on their way to an emergency [or clearly traffic to get home]. Our ambulances look like mobile emergency rooms with a night club-like light show and sirens loud enough to hear blocks away. They’re huge, have state-of-the-art technology and highly skilled people who can bring people back from the dead.

An ambulance in Kenya looks like a matatu minus the “Believe in Jesus” graffiti. And sounds like one of Najwa’s toys. And I think it had lights, but then again, I can’t remember. And there was one person driving. If there were others in the back, I’m not sure if there would’ve been enough room for a victim!

Kitu Kidogo?

And then there are the cops. In America, we may talk badly about them, complain and ridicule them, but at the end of the day, we respect them. Most of them at least. We sure don’t want them to stop doing what they do. For the most part, we feel safe walking around at any time of day and night knowing one phone call and three minutes later, a bunch of burly guys armed and trained will come screaming around the corner to save us.

In Kenya, you avoid them at all costs. If you don’t, it may cost you, literally.

I heard all about kitu kidogo. It’s Swahili for a small bribe. After two weeks, though, I thought all the Kenyans in America were exaggerating. Cops don’t ask for bribes. They’re cops! Cops catch people who ask for bribes. In America, you risk going to jail for bribing a cop. In Kenya, you risk going to jail if you don’t bribe a cop!

So on our way to the airport to return back to America where ambulances respond to 911 calls, we reached a checkpoint on the street leading to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Cops manned the checkpoint, and with the amount of violence going on around the city, it made sense they would want to increase security to the airport.

Everyone got to talking. In Swahili. So I had no idea what was going on or being said. The cab driver said something. The cop smiled and said something. Mzee said something but his facial expression said something else. And then it started to dawn on me that the cop wasn’t asking how was our trip.

Apparently, the cop was saying there were too many people in the cab so someone had to wait at the checkpoint while the others got dropped off at the airport and someone could return to pick up the person who was left behind.

Huh? Seriously?

Mzee and the cop kept going back and forth. I’m not sure what the look on the cop’s face said, but it was obviously mzee wasn’t having it. His words I couldn’t translate but his tone said, “C’mon man! Get out of here with that…”

We didn’t pay a bribe, but the sheer audacity amazed me nonetheless. The sad thing about it is the cop wanted 50 KSH. That’s how much a newspaper costs. A coca-cola. One U.S. dollar is worth 85 KSH. I mean, if you’re going to ask for a bribe, at least ask for a dollar!

Maybe It’s Their Custom

Though I mentioned it earlier, I’ll retell my first experience with crookedness. We just landed in Kenya and I’m wide-eyed and in awe of being in Africa. I’m tired from the long flight with a two year old. I’m hungry, I’m jet-lagged and I’m a bit anxious of meeting Nduku’s parents for the first time.

Just before leaving the airport, Nduku tells me not to speak or even acknowledge a single person. Just look straight and walk. No problem. I can do that. In DC we are harassed by panhandlers all the time and I’ve mastered the art of acting like he/she isn’t talking to me thought I’m the only person here.

I’m following Nduku as she heads out the door. On the way out a guy in a uniform with a walkie-talkie gets my attention. I repeat — a guy in a uniform. How was I supposed to know that Nduku meant ignore the customs agents!?

I looked towards Nduku to make sure she didn’t walk out not knowing I wasn’t behind her and when I saw the look on her face — part nervous, part pissed at me — that’s when I realized a customs agent in Kenya is not like a customs agent in America.

The customs agent asked where I was coming from when it dawned on me he was going for kitu kidogo. I read a bit about it and knew if he got his hands on my passport, it was over. I responded I came from Turkish Airways. He didn’t look pleased, but it didn’t look like he interrupted it as me being a smart@ss, rather this was a game for him to beat me to my money.

He asked how long was I staying in Kenya. I told him it was in my passport, the guy who issued the visa put it there. He, naturally, asked to see my passport, which explained why Nduku insisted on carrying it. I motioned to her and the look on her face was less nervous to full-blown pissed off.

Nduku then said something in Swahili and the customs agent just waved us off. I guess it’s easier to get bribes out of unsuspecting tourists without a local who knows what’s going on. Nduku wasn’t happy with me, but who in their right mind would walk past customs ignoring them in America? I’ve ignored panhandlers, street hawkers, fat girls at clubs wanting to dance, but never a guy in uniform.

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