Kenyan Conversationalism

Personal encounters that lead to conversations are a bit different in Kenya compared to those in America, or at least those in America I have ever partaken in.

Oftentimes an American greeting includes an acknowledgement of the person relevant to the time of day, “Good morning,” followed by an inquisitive into the nature of the person, “How are you?” Other more common phrases might be, “Afternoon, how you doing?” and variations on this theme. They may also include slang, such as the popular, “What’s up?” which is not often preceded by temporal-based initiator, but instead stands on its on.  Also, there is usually an accompanied physical motion, such as a hug, or kiss or handshake. With greetings concluded, it is on to the meat of the conversation. 

Greetings are most probably the largest area of difference between the two cultures regarding conversation. Kenyans take their greetings much more seriously. First there is an acknowledgement, such as “Jambo,” or in my case, “Mambo,” which is then followed by several inquisitives. “Habari yako?” “Habari za leo?” “Habari za nyumba?” “Habari za jamaa?” These are the formal inquisitives, asking simply (and in literal translation), “Your news?” “News of the Day?” “News of the house?” “New of the family?” Not all are used every time, but it is very common to hear more than one in a single greeting and each one requires a response.

I personally will usually start my conversation with a “Mambo?” followed by a quick, “Habari yako?” “Habari za leo?” The correct response to all these habari’s is “nzuri,” which translates to good. Everything is good in Kenya, all the time. Sometimes you use a “Si mbaya,” which is, “not bad,” but you never, ever, ever say that something is bad, ever.

If you are greeting an elder, you start the conversation with, “shikamoo,” which translates to, “I hold your feet,” and the correct response is, “Marahaba,” with a laying of hands on your head. I rarely see this these days, but my compound also does not really have anyone who warrants a shikamoo.

None of this includes the slang you’ll get. For example, sometimes greetings just get out of hand, and you get strings of “Mambo? Poa! Vipi? Poa! Sema? Poa! Niaje? Nzuri! Salama! Ayeya. Habari yako?…” I kid you not, this is a series of hellos I went through just the other day.

There is also a culture of greeting the white person in English.  Kenyan children are drilled from infancy (I know, I’ve seen it happen), to ask white people, “How are you?”  The correct (and in some cases only) understood reponse is, “I am fine!” This is the case everywhere except for Malindi and parts surrounding, where the children will shout, “Ciao,” due to the high population of Italians and Italian tourists in the area.

Kenyans take their greetings very seriously.

The actual discussions though are a bit interesting. For the most part a discussion is comparable to an American discussion.  However, I notice a lot more repetition, both in Kiswahili or English, during conversations.  Also, like most other cultures, Kenyans are very quiet, especially when compared to us loud Americans.  Finally, there is the stereotypical talking around the problem, though you will notice with the youth and with many of the more urbanized Kenyans there is less and less of this.  Maybe in the more rural villages, but you will need to ask my colleagues.  Most of my conversations are very direct, on both sides of the discussion.

With farewells, some major differences arise again.  Americans will usually end a discussion quite explicitly, and should parties depart, there is usually some level of physical contact, whether it be a hug or a kiss or a handshake or whatnot, followed by a distinct, vocalized, farewell, whether it be, “goodbye,” or, “Nice day,” or, “I will see you later,” etc.

Kenyan casual farewells are different.  Sometimes a party will just leave after they are finished.  There is not as much a perceived necessity to agree upon departure.  If there are vocalized farewells, they are few.  Kiswahili has a translation for goodbye, it is “Kwaheri,” but rarely do Kenyans use it in my area.  Sometimes you will get a, “Good day!” in english, and in fact this is the most common I have noticed applied to me.  But still, many times conversations just end and people walk away.  No hugging or handshakes either.

Finally, it is very uncommon to hear “please,” and, “thank you,” (tafadhali and asante respectively) here.  You just don’t.  In fact, I was told by a culture instructor that it sometimes makes Kenyans feel uncomfortable to hear it so much from the Mzungu, because they are unaccustomed to it.  And it’s not that they either appreciate it or don’t appreciate it, it’s just not part of the culture.

There ya have it.  A very brief recount of some bits of Kenyan conversationalism.  Look forward to other posts this week potentially regarding the Kenyan educatuion system and why Linux just isn’t ready for the Big Time yet.

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3 responses to “Kenyan Conversationalism

  1. Jesse Osmun

    Ah.. yes.. I got use to it when I was there. I must have done the whole “Mambo?/Sasa? Poa/Fit” exchange daily. The “How ARR YUUU?” thing with little kids got a bit ridiculous, but I was complacent in my part of the ritual.

  2. Leah

    You could follow-up with a little about phone conversations. Like how Kenyans just hang up, without any sort of sign off…

  3. Are “mzungu” foreigners?

    I think its all kind of funny. And I think it has alot to do with the development of Kenya vs Canada or Japan for example. We have so many established pleasantries that have slowly become integrated into our lives through technology (phone etiquette, bus etiquette, train etiquette, flight etiquette, etc) as well as through the growth of business culture (business etiquette, retail greetings, customer relationship language, etc) or even through strict hierarchical social structures (Japan). Slowly everything blurs and mixes in with our everyday language and we are left with today’s mix of jumbled greetings and expressions. Its so interesting when you see differences around the world.

    I hate linguistics, but I’d love to hear more about this haha