Kenya cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Kenyans are multi-tribal, multi-racial society. In the cities one will encounter the ’changing face’ of Kenya. There is the ’mostly westernised’ Kenyan, and then the ’mostly traditional’ Kenyan. In the rural areas and villages, one encounters the ’mostly traditional’ Kenyan. On a first meeting keep to neutral topics to ’feel the waters’.
If you mention your reaction to seeing, say an elephant, be prepared for the fact that some Kenyans, whether they be farmers, businessmen, politicians or teachers, have never seen one and may not own up to it. However, it is still an ok topic. You can also talk about the experiences that have opened your eyes, like your first reaction to being a visible minority. The weather is not a major opener but floods and unusually hot/cold days make good discussion topics.
Where s/he is from, then family, work, if you do not know where they work follow their lead and ask only if they are not uncomfortable about openly discussing it. Avoid asking about a person’s tribe because some people feel their tribes are stereotyped. There also those who are not confident talking about their education.
Avoid critiquing and/or suggesting solutions no matter how obvious the solution seem, unless asked. Most Kenyans still have the British colonial system in mind and feel they should find their own solutions to their problems. How and when humour comes in will depend on the rapport established in the contact
Kenyans always like to talk about their hometown. If you find out where some one comes from and you know something about that town or village, then you will have a good conversation topic anytime, anywhere.
Family is also a good conversation topic. As a man, I find that with other men, marital status and family matters are easy to discuss and share. With women, it is more difficult. However, if women offer family information, then it is a good opening. Talking about education for children is always an important item for most Kenyans.
Employment is also a good "starter" topic, especially if there some areas of common professional and background experience to discuss. Travel is another good topic to discuss with Kenyans. If they have travelled outside of Kenya and to Canada, there will be a kind of brotherhood bond immediately. If you have enough knowledge of Kenya to make some comparisons with Canada, then you’ll have easy conversation with new acquaintances in Kenya.
It is not a good idea to talk about politics on a first meeting with a new acquaintance. Everyone is a politician in Kenya and often there are deep ethnic bonds with political parties. One must know a lot about a person before "talking politics".
Kenyans tend to stand very close to someone when they are speaking. Personal space is not a major issue especially when in queues where Kenyans pack very close to each other. Most Kenyans will feel someone who keeps a distance while speaking is being aloof; the westernised Kenyan is likely to expect personal space and give the same. Kenyans of all ages shake hands within and across genders. Among some tribes teenaged girls cannot shake hands with men who are old enough to be their fathers.
Some Kenyans maintain the handshake throughout a conversation. Though rare, this is a sign that the person feels comfortable or is attracted to the person whose hand s/he is holding. Others shake hands to agree on a point made. Friends and business people do this.
A new trend among Christians in Kenya is a hug among same gender. Many Kenyans in the rural areas do not maintain regular eye contact when speaking. It is not necessarily sign of dishonesty; an elder might even address the floor when s/he is speaking to one. Urban Kenyans are more likely to maintain regular eye contact and lack of it therefore is likely to mean disinterest or dishonesty.
Most Kenyans gesture a lot for emphasis when speaking. When angry or excited some will gesture so close that it is a warning that a physical altercation is eminent. Keep in mind that most gesturing, though vexing, is harmless. Pointing is not a rude gesture unless accompanied with obvious menacing words. Winking can be seen as lewd, sticking middle finger or tongue out is rude. Flexing one’s muscles is menacing.
City dwellers are most likely to use loud voices only in disagreements. In rural areas Kenyans greet each other loudly across fences and rivers valleys. Among friends, people tend to use a variety of different tones of voice.
Kenyans always shake hands when meeting and before beginning any discussion. Kenyans like a comfortable distance in conversation, similar to western ways. The normal practice is to engage in eye contact when in conversation. However, persons who are your juniors in age, profession and class may feel reluctant engaging in eye contact for any length of time. Your peers and superiors will always feel free to engage in direct eye contact.
Other than shaking hands at the beginning of a meeting, there is no need or preference to continue physical contact with a person in conversation with you. Kenyans definitely smile a lot compared with Canadians. They smile regardless of whether or not there is humour in the content of the conversation.
Never point a finger at a Kenyan—this is a very offensive gesture. Kenyans will often fold their arms over their chests and/or put their hands behind their backs when in conversation. Others use hand gestures quite freely to explain and animate a conversation.
Even voice tones are best. Because English usage is different in Kenya than in Canada, it is best to use straightforward and simple language and to speak clearly and slowly. Canadians often ask a question with a statement and an "Eh" on the end. This confuses Kenyans who don’t know if you are asking or telling them something.
Display of emotion
Affection is not openly displayed. Kenyan couples might hold hands briefly but few kiss in public, it is considered western and inappropriate. Displays of anger in public are allowed but insulting language is considered shameful.
Women may grieve and sob in public. It is not acceptable for men to do that.
Other than smiling a lot, Kenyans refrain from showing affection in conversation. Kenyans also say "thank you" a lot. And don’t ever point your finger at someone. Showing emotion is considered weakness in Kenya. Showing anger is considered a sign of being "mentally unstable" in Kenya. Control of emotions is important in public presentations in Kenya.
Dress, punctuality & formality
In Kenya workplace pace is generally slower than in Canada. Punctuality is expected but many Kenyans regard 30 min as acceptably late.
Deadlines, punctuality, productivity and absenteeism are issues taken seriously in the private sector where the pace is faster. In the public sector the pace is slower.
Men in the office tend to be more formal in suits and ties. Women wear knee-length or longer skirts and dresses and do not wear pants to work, although this is slowly changing in the cities. On the other hand, the traditional garb of Maasai and Turkana women is comparatively skimpy. This is acceptable if you are a member of these tribes or you live among them. Otherwise, it is not advisable to report to work in that dress.
Formal dress for men (tie and jacket) is required in Kenya for the workplace environment. For women, dresses that go over the knee and cover the shoulders are required and suits (trousers and jacket) are now accepted widely in the workplace environment.
You should always refer to your peers and supervisors in a formal way (Mr., Ms. and Mrs.). You may refer to your juniors without the formal prefix, but many men prefer that they a commonly called by their last name and not their given name.
In Kenya, life comes before work. If people have things that need to be done in work time but for home and family life, they will knock-off work to complete those tasks and then return to work again. It is considered a perfectly acceptable reason to show up late for an assignment and for deadlines to be missed just so workers can keep their personal affairs in good order.
There is a lot of absenteeism for family reasons. The illness or difficulty of a distant family member may be enough to call in sick for the day. Very often, workers will be required to travel to their hometowns to attend a funeral and/or to help or visit a sick relative. Funerals and visiting sick family members are also considered a perfectly acceptable reason to show up late for an assignment and for deadlines to be missed.
Preferred managerial qualities
Superiors in the Kenyan private sector owe their positions to experience, education and ability in that particular sector. Hard work is a must. Approachability is less appreciated than ability to make the staff productive. The younger and better-educated superiors are more open to new ideas. Those of your peers who are well educated and confident of their position and ability at work are more likely to tell you openly how they view you. The Kenyan public sector has many superiors who owe their position to politics and nepotism and education and experience are much less a factor.
Education level is highly regarded in Kenyan culture. Even if one person has a more relevant experience, the person with higher education will be regarded by others, and will feel himself or herself to be superior.
Decisiveness is respected in Kenyan leaders. Often leaders are receiving benefits from their positions in organizations that are not official and not also distributed to lower levels of staff. If an expatriate tries to change this practice, often other senior managers will ostracize the expatriate. Some of these types of practices may be considered "wrong" in Canadian terms, but it is probably better to accept them as "different" practices instead of "wrong".
It will be unusual for staff to directly let an expatriate manager know when they did not like their approach, style and decisions. This information would come from a second party—another senior manager. If the expatriate’s performance is good and the staff like the approach and style, staff will freely offer this information. Good news sort of flows easily in a cross-cultural setting but the bad news usually does not.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In the public sector all decisions are made by the superiors and brought down to the staff. Ideas may be generated by staff or superiors of a department. It is acceptable to go to one’s supervisor for feedback. In the private sector more ideas are generated by the staff than by the superiors but most decisions are still made by the superiors. Feedback and question-answer between staff and superiors are expected.
Decision-making and authorities are typically held to high levels in Kenyan organizations. Decisions will often be defaulted to unnecessarily high levels in organizations. It is not common for decision-making to be based on consensus. The big "boss" makes most of the decisions.
The boss will offer most of the "official" feedback on performance. The unofficial feedback will come from staff, close associates and peers. Some bosses will push undesirable decisions to new expatriates, who have been placed in organizations and departments because of their expertise. This approach saves their own reputations if they can succeed to pass the blame for tough and undesirable decisions to expatriates.
Decision-making is often very slow in Kenya, especially undesirable decisions. This is partly because decisions are often defaulted to higher levels than is necessary and very often key persons responsible for decision-making at these higher levels are either absent or insufficiently informed of factors that are necessary to know in order to make a reasonable decision. Other times, information for decision-making is not freely offered, leaving the decision-makers to do their own research for facts necessary for decision-making.
Again there is heavy dependency on senior levels of organizations for new ideas. The origin of new ideas often comes from experience and often experience of more junior ranks but it is the seniors in the organization that form them and put them to action.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Men are regarded as the "first" gender and expect to be treated as such; women are "second". Women are not supposed to have a voice and if they do voice their opinions publicly, they open themselves up to insult. In the workplace: A woman supervisor has a harder task at work even when she is supervising other women.
Most Kenyans are Christians. There is a large population of Muslims on the Kenyan Coast. There are also traditional religions coexisting with these two major ones. Many Christians and Muslims have found a way to accommodate both culture and religion, thus changing both the culture and the religion to suit each other.
In the workplace: A firm in Mombassa has to take into account Islamic holidays more than a firm in Nairobi.
Political leaders and the wealthy are deferred but there are no castes. In the workplace: Staff members with money or connections expect special treatment.
Every Kenyan is affiliated to a tribe or a race. The local culture is therefore a patchwork made from 30 or so representative groups and a large influence from religion. Regional cultures play a part too although it is not major in the larger picture.
Women are regarded as being designed for menial tasks and labour, not for political and religious work. As such, women have much less power and rights than men in Kenya. In the workplace, women tend to require higher qualifications and experience than men before they will be hired for the same job and their upward mobility is slower.
Religion is popular in Kenya. It is safe to say, everyone is religious in Kenya, whether Christian, Muslim or Animist. Practising religion is also important in Kenya. Almost everyone goes to a church or a mosque or maintains their animist beliefs. There is growing religious divisions and discrimination in Kenya as fundamentalist views become entrenched in both some Christian and some Muslim people.
In Kenya, class is derived from traditional tribal positions (e.g. Chiefs and elders), from wealth and from education. In the workplace, class divisions are quite strong. Persons associate with their peers. They are not allowed to associate with their superiors and they avoid associating with staff more junior than themselves.
Ethnicity or tribalism is strong in Kenya. A person in a senior position will be expected to take decisions that benefit his/her own tribe and which will be to the disadvantage of other tribes. There are deep animosities and distrust between tribes in Kenya, in the workplace and outside of it. Much of this animosity comes from historical rivalries and competitions. Now these rivalries are being played out in broader social, political and government systems and in decisions that affect business, employment, contracts and other benefits.
Establishing a personal relationship with a colleague or client is important in that you will get your ’yes’ or ’no’ sooner than later and thus it tends to yield better results. Inviting someone to a cafe for a cup of tea or coffee is a friendly gesture. Discussing goals and aspirations and the fears and problems to be overcome to attain those goals helps in creating relationships. Facing and solving work-related problems together helps alot.
In Kenya, one never jumps straight into business. Greetings and sharing personal notes on health and happiness are required before business can be started. Often refreshments will be offered before meetings or work sessions can begin. However, meetings, especially first meetings, can be quite formal.
Achieving a personal relationship with an associate is important for effective work and this can often be initiated by sharing meals (offering a meal) and/or drinks after hours—that sort of thing. This unofficial relationship building and networking is often very important for good and effective partnerships and associations for deal making and decisions.
Privileges and favouritism
Yes, some colleagues might expect preferred treatment, such as hiring their relative.
A peer would not likely expect privileges based on friendship and personal relationships. However, a more junior worker would most likely expect benefits based on a relationship. If an employee does something extra or is asked to do something extra, they will definitely expect favours in return. Sometimes, an employee will do something for you, give you a little gift, give some food or drink and then expect special favours or favourable decisions from you. These favours could be wide ranging, such as pay increase, hiring of his/her friends or family. These arrangements, once started are very difficult to end positively and amicably. They can often lead to unbelievably complex situations. It is definitely better to refrain from participating in this type of reciprocity of benefits, if at all possible or at least until you know a lot about your work environment.
Conflicts in the workplace
A colleague that used to be chatty with you and all of a sudden is not could be a sign that all is not well. Other colleagues might mention it to you. If dealing with tribal elders, they might send a message through a third party.
Avoid confronting problematic people and colleagues in the workplace directly. Alternatives should be sought. Preferably, through a peer colleague, one can communicate concerns to the problem colleague. Going to your supervisors may result in even more difficult situations for both you and your problem colleague.
Similarly, if you need to find out how you are viewed by someone specifically, or your colleagues generally, it would be better to go to a third party who will able and willing to either provide feedback to you or consult with others to obtain accurate feedback. Going to your supervisor to find out how you are viewed in a project or company can be effective, but so often you won’t obtain accurate and useful feedback because your peers will not have provided your supervisor with such information. Usually, the best approach is to find a close associate who can find the accurate information from the "shop floor" so to speak, and then communicate this accurately to you.
Motivating local colleagues
Good working conditions and competitive remuneration are motivators.
Positive reinforcement on the jobs they have done well and the results they have produced has been an effective motivator. Motivation related to salary and benefits usually only last for a short period of time. Other things need to be done along with salary increase to sustain motivation.
In the context of Kenya, many people are working in environments where they don’t have the proper inputs, equipment, tools and training to do an effective job easily. Providing these inputs and training opportunities along with granting a salary increase can sustain motivation effectively.
Kenyan employees will work longer hours because of the "fear-of-the-boss" factor. However, I’ve not seen this actually results in better more professional work sustained over a long period of time.
Recommended books, films & foods
Africa, Triple Heritage by Ali Mazrui; MOI: The Making of An African Statesman by Andrew Morton; Facing Mount Kenya, by Jomo Kenyatta; Into Africa, by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle; Dispatches from a volatile Continent, by Blaire Harder; and I Dreamed of Africa, by Kuki Gallmann.
People Count, by the National Film Board, Hawa’s Story, also by the NFB, I Dreamed of Africa (from the book by Kuki Gallmann)
Africaonline. com, eastandard. net, nationaudio.com
Learning a few phrases of Swahili will serve you well when travelling and working in Kenya. The Kenyan High Commission may have some interesting cultural information.
some local Bands are Virunga, Them Mushrooms, The Police Band
Daily Nation; The standard; Radio: Kiss Fm; Nation Radio
Ugali (corn/maize meal) with vegetable or meat, Maize and beans, most common Chapati/roti/parata/wraps, a favourite with most Kenyans; Nyama choma (barbequed meat)
Green Corner and Trattoria in Nairobi
In Kenya, there are many cultural shows that can be attended that give good overview of local culture. If one has time, learning Swahili will always be the best way of learning about Kenyan culture. The "Bomas of Kenya" in Nairobi provides interesting cultural dances and folk stories go with these dances.
The events of childbirth and the going-out ceremonies, marriage and weddings and funeral celebrations provide in-depth cultural information. Once you have some close relationships with work colleagues, and if you are interested, they will be pleased to invite you to participate in these key family events.
Jomo Kenyatta -for his freedom fight; Kipchoge Keino - made every Kenyan kid feel they could excel in athletics; Tom Mboya -The first Kenyan to rise above tribal feelings
Kaluki Ngilu - The first woman to run for President.
Jomo Kenyatta was the first President of the free Kenya. Kenyatta is regarded as the model leader for the country but he is not loved by all who are not from his tribe.
Shared historical events with Canada
Kenya and Canada are both members of the Commonwealth but Canada is not viewed as a coloniser.
Canada and Kenya were both colonies in the British Empire and both remain members of the Commonwealth.
There will be many Kenyans who believe that Canadians and generally all white people are rich. North Americans have the reputation of being generous of spirit and material.
Canadians often feel that Kenya is a complicated country and has a complex society. This is because they don’t understand Kenyan culture and society and they don’t take the time to learn it. Showing empathy and intelligent curiosity toward their culture will help you build knowledge and understanding, go along way to removing the mysteries of Kenyan culture and also be good for building relationships with work colleagues and other acquaintances.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Makueni, Kenya in a polygamous family of 13 children. She was raised in her village until 14, when she went to a secondary school in Mbooni, some 100km away. She could not afford High School education so she went to on-the-job training as a Laboratory Technologist with the Kenyan Government. As a civil servant, she got a scholarship to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Ottawa. After graduating in 1989, she returned to Kenya and worked for the Kenyan government in Nairobi, before later moving to Eldoret in the Rift Valley province to work for a corn-products firm. In 1998 your cultural interpreter moved back to Canada and now lives in Gatineau, Quebec (Canada). She is married and has one child.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Saskatchewan the eldest son of six-member family and was raised on a farm. He obtained a Bachelors Degree in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and a Masters Degree in Agriculture in Reading, England. His work sent him abroad for the first time in 1972 where he worked on Agricultural projects in Ghana. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Kenya, where he has worked on multiple assignments between 1988 and 2002. He is currently living in Canada, in Ottawa and he continues to work in international agricultural development. His wife is Ghanaian and he has three grown-up children.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.