Profile: The Kenyan Middle Class

Maybe it is someone from your home village, someone you grew up with.  Or maybe it is someone from school, or from work.  Or maybe you found her at the local church.  She is pretty, she is healthy, she has demonstrated her ability to cook, she’s interested in having children.  You have found a keeper.  As you get older, she may not be be as you remember her, maybe she is exhausted from her work all day just like you.  On weekends you find another woman who can keep you entertained.  Or maybe you find this behavior in your peers disgusting and you remain faithful to your wife (there is a clear culture-clash going on, but I will defend the statement that here, adultery is a much more discussed affair, and though I don’t know the levels compared to the US, it seems much more prevalent here, but maybe it’s only because it is discussed so much).

As you become more and more experienced you keep moving from job to job, not settling into a career very early.  First, you may decided to buy some land in your home village, or somewhere in your ancestral homelands based on tribe, near your family.  There you can set up a farm, build a nice permanent home, have your family stay there, near to your relatives who can help out with the children.  It seems that if you are a government employee you especially move around to wherever the government wants you. But instead of burdening your family with constantly moving, they stay on your land, work it, develop it, make it profitable as well so that you have a dual-income and have become part of the landed class.

You may live in Nairobi however and may keep your entire family there.  Life is becoming very Westernized in Nairobi, and that is where you want your family, not out in the mashambani (fields) with the washamba (slang: derogatory for countryfolk).  You may save up to buy an automobile, put your children through the best schools possible, focus on getting passports (much more expensive here than in the US).  Hard work can pay off in the private sector, which is much less scrutinized by the Western politicians.  Nairobi is the path to success and though it may be expensive, it will be worth it in the end.  Just keep working.  Visit the relatives in the village for the holidays.  When you get there you may feel at home and realize you have missed the place, maybe you will look into property after all.  Or, maybe you feel distant, having nothing in common with your friends anymore.  You’ve been the city, you’ve seen the money and power there, these people don’t really know where Kenya is going.



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6 responses to “Profile: The Kenyan Middle Class

  1. lovebug35


  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.