I have finally purchased a sofa set for my living room. Mr. Katiku, the Carpentry instructor, kindly went with me to the furniture shop in Likoni to make sure I got as fair a price as a mzungu will ever get. For this I am grateful.
Shopping for furniture in Kenya, is like all things (besides Nakumatt), slightly different from America. You do not have books of patterns, swaths of fabric or even many styles from which to choose. Instead, on the side of the road are rows of sofas and chairs. There are two chairs and one sofa, pre-built, of the same design and with matching fabric. They sit out under the sun and rain and dust all day, waiting for the day some Kenyan family comes to purchase them. There are different price ranges, but they are not nearly as bargain-able as other things. For example, I could bargain a bar of soap from 20 /- down to maybe 5 /-, but a sofa, you only get maybe a 5% bargaining window on price.
You are not paying for comfort in these price differences, and in fact comfort does not actually seem a factor in purchasing at all. The pieces are actually so squished together in the rows that there is absolutely no space to sit down on them to test, and they do not even keep the cushions on the furniture. The cushions themselves? They are single foam pads with a case of matching fabric and come in either high-density or low-density foam. The high-density is only available at certain shops. This means that even if you pay more money for a “nicer,” set, your rump will still be sitting on the same cushion as a less expensive set.
So why are there price ranges to begin with? First is fabric quality. A good test of fabric quality is how well it survives being outside before being sold. It is clearly visible that the more expensive sofas do actually have better fabrics that will hold up to the wear and tear of life in Kenya. Second is build construction. I don’t know if the high-priced sofas use more wood or nails or what, but we were literally shaking the pieces to see how they held up, and the less expensive ones warped and bent too much. I was with a carpenter, I assume he knew what he was talking about. And the third mark of difference? Garishness. The less expensive the sofa, the far more garish the fabric (I ended up purchasing a mid-range set, the lowest-priced set without garish fabric). These three held up at all shops we stopped at.
Which brings me to differences in values, as illustrated by furniture, between Kenyans and me. Though never having bought furniture for myself alone specifically, I have certainly been a part of many a sofa-purchasing decision. The most important ratio of worth for me is certainly the price to comfort ratio. Highest level of comfort for the best price, using other factors such as style and material as tie-breakers or unavoidable factors due to price circumstance.
However, when furniture shopping in Kenya, it was very apparant that comfort was least amongst concerns. The most obvious concern was appearance, and a fabrics ability to maintain that appearance despite the harshest of circumstances, which seems to be quite the pervasive theme in Kenyan culture. When I showed Mama next door my new set, her comments first began with, “Very smart!” which is the same comment anyone receives when they dress up nicely. I do not know if Kenyans always judge substance based on presentation, but so far it seems they certainly do evaluate based on presentation more than substance. In fact, Mama never even sat on the furniture to try it out. She just looked at it, said very smart, and was sure of the quality.
I know not all Kenyans feel this way, or act this way, or think this way, but there are certainly indicators that the society as a whole values one thing over another, and in this case it certainly is appearance over comfort. The way all the shops had their wares squished together. The way even Kenyans said the lower-priced options were ugly and garish. And the proclaiming quality without even sitting on the set! These indicate to me that at some level appearance certainly ranks higher than other qualities to a Kenyan. At least in furniture…