Profile: The Kenyan Middle Class

Let’s put things in perspective now.  If you are young and unmarried, and not living in Nairobi, you could be paying as little as 700 /- a month for your one-room rented apartment.  If you are on the coast your home is most likely in the style of a “Swahili house,” where each room opens onto a shared courtyard, there is a shared outhouse, and if your village has electricity you may be paying a bit extra a month based on your meter-usage (add around 200 /- a month).  You may spend anywhere from about 100 /- to 200 /- a day on transport, though this is a very high estimate, and you could easily pay as little as 40 /- a day.  For example, I pay 30 /- each way to get from my house into Mombasa town.

If you want to go to lunch, you can get a rice and beans meal from street-side vendors for as little as 30/- in larger towns.  Move up into a local-cuisine hoteli and lunch is costing around 100/- to 150/-.  You may be able to afford more Western-style, “fast food,” lunch, costing anywhere from 250/- to 500/-.  If you cook yourself, your dinner may cost as little as 30/-, but adding meat into the meal also gets expensive.  You may go food shopping at a supermarket, but that actually doesn’t add to the cost and may be less expensive then purchasing from the local dukas (shop-stalls).  However, being a bachelor, you may forgo all this and pay someone to cook and clean for you, or you may eat with a local, older family.

You have gotten this far most likely because your father was a land-owner on top of working his own trade.  The stereotype is that you are of the Kikuyu tribe which comprises 30% of the population here and are notoriously good businessmen, but the fact of the matter is that modern-day successful Kenyans come from all tribes, and may even be inter-tribal, with parents hailing from different tribes.  You may be the first-born of the family and thus allowed the most privileges, given the most opportunity, but also the greatest burden because there is an expectation that if your family cannot afford to help all their children equally, then those children that do succeed will help out their younger siblings.

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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.