Profile: The Kenyan Middle Class

Where you go to school depends on what your family can afford.  If you don’t get into the best provincial-level secondary school then you can kiss your dream of attending university goodbye.  You may have a Western sponsor whom you have never met but is paying for your secondary school (I wish I knew the percentage here, but I don’t).  Even if you do get into a good secondary school, you still need to be in the top 10% of scorers on the KCSE, the university-level entrance examination taken by all secondary schoolers in their form four year (senior year), in order to get into university. On top of that, university costs a lot of money even though it is partially publicly sponsored. You will find people coming from all parts of Kenya and going to university, but it is a small percentage when compared to Western attendance rates.

If you don’t make it into university, it’s off to a college-level program.  Here you can study to become an advanced trades-person, or maybe a teacher or a nurse or get further business classes.  You attain certificates and diplomas and all manner of recognitions to prove you have done something, because in this job environment if you cannot prove with an official piece of paper that you have participated in some form of education or another then your experience is worthless.  I experience this problem first hand when people ask if I give out certificates when I teach computer class and the answer is no.  Without a certificate proving your actions, you might as well do nothing at all.

You get your first job, but the schooling is not over yet.  You go to your job during the day and go to classes during the night to continue to improve your professional level.  Your employer may be paying for this or you may be paying for yourself.  On weekends you go out with your friends to the clubs and bars.  You watch football, shoot pool, you discuss politics, sports, girls. You dance and fraternize with the ladies. There is a good chance you are well versed in the highs and lows of the Kenyan social and political landscapes, but you feel far removed from it, there’s nothing you can do but complain and hope it will be better later.  On Sundays you go to church.  During the week, if you have free time, you watch television and listen to the radio or read the paper, or watch movies from DVDs.  You also look for a wife.

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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.