How to spot a Kenyan – by Kenyans
There is nothing quite like Kenyans when it comes to our propensity to laugh at ourselves. I discover this every so often on Twitter, when making a few comical observations: often the hashtag created will go viral in a matter of minutes, as Kenyans on Twitter pile in with their own rib-tickling insights.
#HowToSpotAKenyan was one such recent hashtag, and it had many of us regaled for hours, creating 1.5 million Twitter impressions and reaching an audience of hundreds of thousands. I thought I should bring the best of it to those of you who still prefer the more civilized practice of reading things on paper, on a Sunday morning with a cup of tea.
So, how does one spot a Kenyan? We undoubtedly have some peculiar characteristics that mark us out in any crowd. The Kenyan abroad will often sport distinctive attire in international airports: cowboy hats for the men, and jogging suits for many a lady. They will carry many peculiar Kenyan foodstuffs in their luggage: tea from Kericho, Royco mix, even Farmer’s Choice sausages…not forgetting those sturdy souls who carry 30 mangoes in hand luggage.
And once Kenyans return, something interesting happens to their accents. Many wags pointed out that even a weekend somewhere can change the accent dramatically. Or a student returning from India might inexplicably have acquired an American accent. And one wit suggested that even driving past the American embassy can give certain Kenyans an American accent…
We can’t discuss Kenyan peculiarities without looking at peculiar calling habits. Those folks who call at 2.00 am to ask “umelala?” Or who flash you to call them back, and when you do just explain they wanted to “say hi?” Or who call one mobile network to ask questions about another?
At the workplace, more hilarity can be observed. We all know the Kenyans who wait for 10 minutes for a lift…to go one floor up. Meanwhile, they will keep pressing the lift button even though it’s lit up, and then will charge into the lift before the occupants have disembarked. What of the bosses? Those who wear the most expensive watches, but can never be on time for anything? Or those who display top-of-the-range smartphones, but end up asking you how to use their features?
A Kenyan giving a speech will invariably begin with “Mine are just a few small remarks.” Three hours later, he will end with “Na kwa hayo machache tunasema…” oblivious of the fact that his entire audience is either (a) fast asleep, or (b) tweeting.
Some of our habits are not so hilarious, though. Like rushing to a disaster scene in huge numbers, oblivious of danger, making it worse for everyone; like overtaking like brainless maniacs on corners or near the top of hills; like walking on ‘superhighways’ pointedly ignoring signs and dancing with imminent death.
I document all this to make some deeper points. First, that our ability to laugh at this stuff is what keeps us going. Life in Kenya is hard, and especially so for the badly off. We must keep remembering as we laugh that the mission beyond the laughter is the creation of a better life for more Kenyans.
Second, note that social media is a potent force in Kenya these days. We are watching the emergence of a highly tech-savvy generation, who have adopted social networks faster than the denizens of many other countries before them. All this crowd-sourced irreverence is good for us, as it makes us challenge the status quo and encourage the spirit of enquiry. Amidst all the laughter, there echoes the feeling that we can change Kenya for the better.
My thanks to the many witty Kenyans who contributed to the hashtag. They are too many to record here, but you can discover them for yourself on Twitter.