Kenyan Culture

Note: This page is focused on the culture observed in Khwisero, which varies significantly from that occuring in other parts of the country.

See also:,

How is Khwisero organized socially and politically?

Is it a patriarchal or matriarchal society?

What are some cultural differences to expect?

It is important to preface that like us, the people of Kenya are intelligent and forgiving of cultural faux pas. Some things to keep in mind that might be culturally different:

  • Men sometimes hold hands.
  • Shorts are not a good idea for anyone, showing legs is not usually the best idea. Women wear slips underneath their skirts, not just by themselves.
  • Kenyan women typically don't wear pants, but once again, foreigners are not held to the same standards.
  • People wear their best clothes usually to meetings, church, etc. It is an expectation.

What is a typical day like?

Well, first you get up, roughly around the time the sun comes up (typically roosters wake everyone up). You might get a chance to take a shower (perhaps a bucket of water or a pitcher), it varies from family to family. Breakfast follows, you might feel obligated to eat breakfast, as refusing food might be considered disrespectful. After breakfast, it's work time, depending where on the project you're working on is. Usually, everyone tries to get back before the rain hits (between 4-6pm), after the rain hits, the day is over.

What is valued within society?

What kind of environment do Khwisero residents usually live in?

Houses are usually a wooden frame that is covered with a mixture of cow dung/clay, and then plaster is applied to cover it. The floors usually have some kind of plaster coating, which is very similar to what people in the US apply to walls. Houses often have thatched roofs, but most have an tin sheet covering them. Richer people use concrete and bricks to construct their homes.

What is it like to travel within Kenya? What difficulties do people face?

There are typically two ways to get around if you must travel a long distance: big buses (Easy Coach) and little buses (Matatus).
The big buses rattle and bump quite a bit, but are generally pretty comfortable and are usually pretty safe. They run on major routes within the country (you would typically use one to get from Nairobi to one of the larger towns in or near Khwisero).

Matatus are packed with people, a little uncomfortable, they are usually 15 passenger vans packed with more people than they should be. Sometimes people hang off the sides.

For shorter journeys, you may either walk or ride on a boda-boda (bicycle taxi) or piki-piki (motorcycle taxi). The bikes and motorcycles have extended seats so that the passenger(s) may sit behind the driver. Kenyans probably have a broader idea of what constitutes "walking distance" than Americans do, since the cost of transportation is prohibitive for poorer families.

Outside major cities, most roads are dirt and turn to slippery clay mud when it rains. This makes travel more risky and provides yet another reason to reach your final destination before the evening rains hit. Roads dry out quickly, but you might want to avoid traveling in the early morning if there were heavy rains the previous night. If you are riding a taxi when the rains come, your driver may look for a place to stop and get under cover.

More information about transport in Kenya.

How are property rights divided up in respect to items such as water and land?

Most of the land in Khwisero is divided into small plots and is privately owned. On a local level in Khwisero, there is no formal legal system that we know of for determining the ownership of water. Most water resources are understood to have common ownership, even if they are located on private land. A landowner who tried to restrict access to a spring on his property would probably face reprisals from the community. However, there is generally no common system for maintaining water sources and ensuring that they stay clean, and it is not uncommon for the community's drinking water to be fouled by cattle or have dirty motorcycles washed in it. Other natural resources (e.g. fish and huntable game) may be similarly unmanaged, but there are government restrictions on cutting trees on public land. Illegal timber cutting seems to be a problem in some areas.

What does a typical family own?

A family in Khwisero usually owns a small plot of land (an acre or so) with a house, a latrine, and possibly some small outbuildings. Most of them will have a small field of maize (the principal crop), and possibly other food plants such as plantain trees and arrowroots. Most families have a flock of chickens, one or more goats and/or cattle, and perhaps a "pet" or two; you might also see other livestock, including pigs, rabbits, and guinea pigs. The houses contain some minimal furniture; aside from pictures on the walls, decorations and luxuries are not much in evidence. Some families own electronic devices such as radios and even televisions (accompanied by a generator or solar panel, in remote areas), but these are not necessarily common.

What difficulties do people in the area face on a daily basis?

Just making a living can be a problem. Even people who have "day jobs" (e.g. teachers) often need to go home and farm in the evenings to support their families.

How has the political system of Kenya and specifically Khwisero changed throughout the past few decades?

What foods are typically eaten?

For breakfast, typically an egg, hard boiled or fried. White bread, Blue Band (nutrient-fortified margarine) and red plum jam.

For lunch, potatoes or plantains, lentils, rice and red beans. Lunch is a non-finger (spoon) food, because you have to go right back to work. Eating with your hands is OK, but don't eat with your left hand (it's the hand you use to wipe your posterior). Usually, you get some fruit (oranges, mangos, bananas, the rare papaya).

Dinner - always includes ugali, the staple food (boiled cornmeal loaf/porridge, kinda like silly putty that you eat). You are also likely to see chapati (flat fry bread), sukuma wiki (like steamed kale, with little tomatoes), or another green vegetable prepared in a similar manner. Usually some beef or chicken is served as well.

Other foods you might see include andazi (unsweetened triangular donuts) and samosas (small pastries with meat inside).

Tea and soda are the beverages of choice. You are likely to be offered soda at most meetings. The tea is served with heated milk.

While it is important to eat when food is offered, and it is better to eat everything offered, it isn't evil to pick and choose.

How do citizens of Khwisero view foreigners?

Typically, as foreigners. "Muzungus" is usually the term that is used to describe foreigners, particularly white foreigners. People might refer to you as this on the street, but this is not generally considered rude. Generally this is not a bad thing, and people usually think you have quite a bit of money. You are a rarity, interesting. Kids are excited to see you.

People might try to take advantage, trying to charge you a higher price, things like that. This is not just towards white people, but foreigners in general.

In our experiences, Kenyans have been very friendly with us. Some consider it to be a prestigious thing to have foreigners over for dinner, keep in mind that like in the US, some might be offended if you decline.

What are their attitudes toward animals and the environment?

The Kenyan attitude toward animals that we've observed is largely utilitarian. Even animals that Americans would think of as pets (dogs and cats) are often kept for a purpose, such as mousing or guarding. Travelers are advised not to feed cats/dogs at the table or otherwise encourage excessive friendliness; a cat that becomes a "house cat" may be considered unfit for mousing and summarily disposed of. Many Kenyan families have enough trouble taking care of themselves without worrying about animals too much, so you probably won't find an animal shelter in Kenya, and some of the animals you see may be underfed.

Interestingly, some Kenyans seem to be disturbed by caterpillars (the way we are by spiders and cockroaches). This might be due to the fact that some caterpillars in the region have stinging spines and are not safe to touch.

Some level of concern for the environment seems to be present in the culture, but it probably takes a back seat to practical realities much of the time.

Which tribes live in the area, and how do they relate to each other?

What is the education system like?

There are 58 public primary schools in the Khwisero district. There is 1 private secondary school in the district. There are approximately 7 private schools. The rest are government run public schools. Similar grade system to what we have here. Eight elementary grades are considered primary, then if you can, go to secondary schools, which is considered 9-12th. People take a year off before they go to university. There are no universities in Khwisero, you have to go somewhere else. The closest university is in Maseno.

Which religions are prevalent, and how do they figure in daily life?

Christians (many denominations), Muslims and Mormons are all represented in Khwisero; However, the large portion of the population identifies as Christian. Prayer at the dining table and before meetings is common. Much as in rural areas in America, church on Sunday (or Saturday) is a social event. Church services last for a large portion of the day and include singing devotions and choirs in some instances.

Issues with what is "Khwisero Culture"

There is certainly a historical context in which the people in Khwisero live. In general it seems that when one wants to define a culture it is historical traditions and practices that are of the greatest importance. With all the modernization and external influences (including our own influence) what were long standing cultural traditions are now changing. What is acceptable varies from person to person especially across large age gaps.

Related Reading and Documents

Open secrets: everyday forms of domination before 1990
An extensive document highlighting culture and politics in Kenya