Profile: The Kenyan Middle Class

Recently, an fellow online Peace Corps volunteer directed me to a recent blog post of his entitled, “How (Not) To Write About Africa.”  In it, he syndicates another article written by a Kenya, Binyavanga Wainaina, which goes at length to satire the most common topics of white Westerners writing about Africa.  I don’t want to take the time to go and compare all of my blog entries against the list, but I am sure I myself have written in this stereotypical fashion at points, though there really are monkeys all around my house that I frequently catch engaging in the most monkey-like antics you have ever seen!  With these points in mind I thought I would write about the least stereotyped topic I could think of that I have more than average engagement with: the Kenyan middle class.

Let’s start with what everyone is most likely curious about: what kinds of jobs employ middle class Kenyans?  Well, ask yourself , what kinds of jobs employ middle class Americans?  I think you will find the intersection of cultures to be quite large in this regards.  The, “middle class,” of Kenya is a large and diversified group of professions from factory managers to government professionals to computer programmers to research scientists.  If my perception is correct, and Kenyan friends please correct me in comments here if I am wrong, positions such as high profile doctors and lawyers and the largest land-holders and most certainly politicians, are the beginnings of the Kenyan upper class and are thus not profiled here.  As a side note, Kenyan politicians are some of the highest paid politicians in the world, paid even more than US Congressmen.

Starting off, your salary is as varied as the position you hold.  All prices are in Kenyan shillings because converting them to US dollars would distort the complete image and people might start interpreting numbers incorrectly.  Remember, the standard of living is different here and you need to adjust your perception of purchasing power accordingly.  The lower middle class positions such as entry-level teachers might start out making around 8,000 shillings (/-) a month.  Going up from there you have semi-skilled laborers making 12,000 /-; factory managers, 28,000 /-; middle-level government professionals, 43,000 /- and it continues to go up from there.  I am under the impression that in order to make more than 25,000 /- you need some level of bachelor’s degree, or what is called a diploma here.  Again, please correct me if you know otherwise.  The upper middle class is starting to make around 150,000 /- a month.  It is quite a range, much like the US.

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6 responses to “Profile: The Kenyan Middle Class

  1. lovebug35

    interesting

  2. Some of this reminds me of when I was in Brazil. In the cities, you would often find these harsh gated homes with the broken glass cemented into fences, people pretending they’re hard done by, and the problem of everyone asking you for money if you have it. At the same time, there was a very strong sense of community, and especially within family circles there was much financial support. This is all from my short time with a few select families from urban rio, sao paolo and the countryside of minnas gerais, but it sounds like a similar experience. Perhaps the emerging middle classes really do think alike – at least in these post-colonial examples.

  3. Jan

    A very interesting post on a topic we don’t read about much in connection with Africa. The “seemingly continuous level of opportunity” that we have enjoyed here in the U.S. is being threatened by the recession and it’s the middle class being squeezed the hardest. I wonder if we are looking at a generation who will have to adjust to much more limited opportunities, without the sense of community that Kenya still enjoys as compensation.

    You don’t mention the prospects for Kenyan women, beyond becoming someone’s wife and or mistress. What can a smart, motivated teenage girl from the middle class aspire to?

  4. The topic of women is interesting. On paper, women are equal. In fact, on paper, Kenya is a fantastically functional, multi-culture, completely egalitarian society. Except for Gay people. They don’t technically exist on paper here, or at all. And it is in no way uncommon to find successful women, especially in Nairobi, but also in other large cities. Women are principals, they are business owners, they are landowners, they are politicians. There are women walking the same paths through life as their male counterparts.

    But the objectification that i have seen in both conversation, and written about in the papers is disgusting. Articles are written by female journalists about what makes a good wife, what makes a good mistress. Men still look at women as property, even those that do not take mistresses or girlfriends. Successful women are expected to serve tea to their colleagues at the workplace (especially in rural areas), And the mindset exists on both sides of the gender barrier. Males and females alike subscirbe to this notion.

    If you are a teenage girl however, finishing up secondary school, it is much more common (though not the most prevalent), to focus on continuing education before getting married. For example, the host family I lived with for two months was made of primarily girls, and even in a rural setting, the focus was on getting them as best an education as possible and then if unable to continue, as good a job as possible. I would say that the first major population of women in the workplace was the previous generation’s, and that the teenagers and young adult women nowadays will have even more expectations of their rights and lives.

    As always, the here and now is still a pretty bleak picture when you scratch beneath the surface, but give it a generation or two and things will really start to change en masse. I hope the same holds true for a lot of things in Kenya.

  5. Jesse

    I love Binyavanga Wainaina.. he’s written a few satire pieces that I have read. I think every PCV should read this, because it really is about acculturation. Putting every African situation into a small box doesn’t do anything of value. Sadly.. there are people I’ve met who think Africa is a country.

    The Kenyan middle class excited me when I was over there.. they were more concious and outspoken then most Kenyans, perhaps because they have certain advantages over poor Kenyans. Intellectuals are also a fast growing part of this group, and it will be interesting to see how they shape political discourse in the future.

  6. wambui

    Well researched article without the usual anecdote that I have come to expect from foreign writers writing about Kenya. On the sponsorship for studies overseas, some middle class can afford to send the children without asking for sponsorship, ‘why deplete my money/savings while my fellow countrymen can chip in almost 100% in the spirit of “Harambee” they question.