Profile: The Kenyan Middle Class

Whether in the city or not, you don’t really trust anybody.  Even your friend, he may steal from you (a very serious discussion I had with some teachers).  Your compound is gated.  Concrete walls have glass shards on the top to prevent people from jumping them.  You become successful and slowly start accumulating a savings, but you cannot mention it to anybody.  You are just like everybody else, you are not a shining star. Shining stars attract attention and attention is bad.  If word gets out, people won’t stop calling asking for money.  Everybody will want you to pay for their tea.  You hide your computer beneath doilies; you hide your TV and radio beneath doilies. You tell your wife to not say how well-off the family has become.

But where do you go from here?

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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.