The Kenyan identity is mostly chosen for us right before birth. Once brought into the world, we get to make our own decisions, redefine our values, beliefs and cultures.
Whenever people talk about the authentic Kenyan culture or experience, it’s almost always synonymous to the Maasai and Turkana who have over the years maintained their rich culture (and sometimes outdated traditions as is with any of the other 40+ tribes). We buy our foreign visitors Maasai Shukas, the colourful beaded necklaces or the now global beaded bracelets that have their name engraved and fully convince them that could well be our national cloth.
Hardly do we mention the richness and uniqueness of the subcultures which have influenced our way of life. Today we explore the diverse modern Kenyan subcultures built upon the larger culture that have continued to expand and intertwine over time in ways we cannot control – in diversity, uniqueness and peculiarity. A collection of pop influences, cultural references. You name it, we’ve got it.
There’s nothing quite Kenyan like our ability to laugh at our pains as a coping mechanism. In moments where the future seems bleak and the silence is too loud amidst calls of accept and move on, Kenyans have retreated to the ever-reliable meme culture. This is ably supplied by the gift that keeps on giving, the meme-generator-in-chief or the kijana fupi amenona round vault that never runs out.
Oh, you’ve definitely seen those.
In his book The Peculiar Kenyan, Sunny Bindra writes “In fact, our peculiarity may be the one thing that unites us. At a time when our nationhood is in peril and we are retreating back into ethnic kingdoms, let us come out and celebrate the fact that whether we emerge from lakes, mountains or oceans we are uniformly peculiar! Anyone looking for a means of uniting Kenyans need to look no further than our national eccentricities. Perhaps we have uncovered a national asset…”
The meme culture despite its misgivings for when we truly cannot express ourselves in words, has come to save us all from the tribal jokes which were the epicentre of comic relief for a very long time.
“This strength and support that is found in the African family is the most important part of our culture and should be preserved and nurtured at all costs.” — The Late Margaret Ogola
The urban entertainment scene currently is a mouthful of rather strange anecdotes that have dominated pop culture references for a hot minute. Lambo Lolo, a song that I’ve laboured to understand has grown on me and gained wide notoriety. You can’t ignore the new crop of teens who’ve have joined the music scene and carved a niche for themselves. Their popularity obviously aided by the quest for new niche audiences after Just A band’s cult of Makmende and the now easily accessible way of sharing music – Streams and Youtube.
Anyone who comes to visit Kenya will probably learn the word Lamba Lolo before Hakuna Matata and its variables or even go an inch farther and release a song like Mr Eazi. Sheng/Slang is a way of life. The uniqueness and authenticity of a Kenyan experience are so strong that Indigo Traveller in a series of Youtube clips went from absolutely detesting the insecurity of downtown Nairobi to gleefully sharing how he will miss Kenya and its welcoming people with every fibre of his being. It was hilarious to watch Kenyans in the comment section also go from absolutely “can’t stand this guy” to “oh wow what a funny mzungu.”
Wakihesabu tuna hesabu, wakianika tunaanua.
That’s the Kenyan thing to do. On social media, KOT as fondly called, is not to be messed with. When Vogue published a piece on the many facets of Nairobi culture from the cool girls perspective, it was not well received, to say the least. The reasons were to the effect that it was not anywhere a reflection of what Nairobi truly is. Sometimes we can go beyond the intentions and get outrightly annoying but perhaps that’s the only time we show support for each other. When rallying behind a cause or a troll.
You then wonder how selective the support is when conversations surrounding #PlayKeMusic and support Kenyan content creators arise. One man who’s warmed his way into Kenyans hearts and not complaining about Kenyans who have by now taken full control over his playlist is That Fire LA who reviews music videos.
Mpesa was one of the earlier pioneers of modern technology that revolutionalized how money is transferred efficiently. While i was met with slight resistance initially, there’s not a day one goes without mentioning Mpesa.
“Tuma na ya kutoa” (send extra for withdrawal charges)
“Send Mpesa” – an emotive one in the scamming scene.
“Toa ya macho”
Kenya boasts a diverse dining culture of countless cuisines in different cities served in fine-dining restaurants and local establishments that draw on African and wider international influences. The classics (depending on your taste buds and a tinge of elitism) such as Ugali, Nyama Choma, Mukimo, Matumbo, Omena, Chapati, Matoke, Pilau and Avocado will always have fan wars for as long as the Internet is available. I’m more interested in our street food culture which unfortunately isn’t embraced or highlighted enough. Is it the stomach bug or the chicken that doesn’t really look like chicken but tastes divine?
Nairobi Nights are precious if you still have room to wiggle. Make no mistake that Kenyans still believe they are a binge drinking nation even after reports to the contrary were released earlier in the year showing that we probably drink the least amount of alcohol in the continent.
Art on the street in form of murals and graffiti as a form of expression and Art on the move reflected in the matatu ‘mayhem’ culture which has long been the bulk of transportation and a way of life, continue to transcend generations offering cultural insights even as they face massive opposition. Similarly, the emerging controversial betting culture gets the same treatment.
The film industry is also evolving. It’s beautiful to watch conservatives go into fits over a new film or music video that doesn’t seem to conform to African societal expectations.
Kenyans may be the most hardworking across the EA region but we also have a casual approach to time. We do things last minute. Someone would wake you up in the wee hours to ask you if you are awake.
The jury is still out on the deeply religious nature of Kenyans, on our tipping culture or whether Kitenge/Ankara is a preserve of Kenyan wedding culture.
Na kwa hayo machache…