Monday, April 27, 2015

Decoding Kenyanese (for new arrivals)

Although English is one of Kenya’s first languages and is spoken brilliantly here, there is some slightly strange terminology that takes a little time to get used to.  Here’s a helping hand to get any new arrivals up and running.

Kenyan Traffic Police
 On the road

Traffic jams, traffic police any anything relating to traffic will become central to your life in Nairobi as so much time is spent on the road.  Watch out for those cops who will pull you over not for just speeding, an out-of-date insurance sticker or for talking on your mobile phone but also for overtaking illegally, cutting through a petrol station (as a short cut), cutting into a filter lane of traffic at the wrong point, U turns and numerous other offences. Watch out for new speed limits too.  If cars around you (and especially public buses) are inexplicably driving at 50Kph on a dual carriageway – you would be well advised to follow suit.  There’s bound to be a speed check (numerous police standing on the side of the road ready to pull you over) up ahead.

Here are some useful words that will help you decode your offence:

Overspeeding  - means speeding.
Overlapping – means to overtake.
Alcoblow – is the word for a breathalyzer test. Yes, they do have the equipment here now and I’ve been advised that the tolerance level is set to zero.  I’ve also heard that if you pull in at a petrol station just before where you see a road block ahead (police checks are normally positioned on major highways), there will be a ‘sober’ guy there who is willing to drive your car through the road block for a fee. Hey, did I not already tell you about the entrepreneurial spirit here?!
Notice the women riding side saddle

In spite of these strict laws, you will encounter all sorts of vehicles on the road, many of which we would normally deem unsafe – but they are out there nonetheless so forewarned is forearmed. 

Lorries with no headlights and no brakes (no really! They can be seriously overloaded and crabbing to one side precariously).  
Bowser – is a water lorry, often painted blue. Running water cannot be taken for granted here
Exhauster lorry or honey sucker – extracts sewage from septic tanks (often orange in colour)
Matatus – or 14 seater public minibuses (the same word is also used for the larger buses). Also known as ma-three (ma3 – get it?).
Mkokoteni carts (also known as mali carts) – hand pulled carts carrying anything from fruit and veg to building materials or home furniture.
Bodaboda – motorcycle taxis.  Due to crazy traffic, hopping onto the back of a motorbike is a popular way to get around.  A bodaboda can also be a term used for a regular bicycle that you can catch a ride on, usually in more rural areas.
Pikipiki – is also the word for a motorbike
Not forgetting – cows and goats and numerous jaywalkers.  The word pavement or sidewalk is not commonly used here, simply because there aren’t any (except on the newest stretches of road).

Modern Nairobi - It's time for the old hand cart culture to go.

 If someone refers to meeting them or dropping them at the ‘Stage’, then they they are talking about a bus stop.
To fuel – is used as a verb here. Ie  ‘I need to fuel my car’.

*A word of warning – though to be honest, I experienced this more in rural Tanzania.  Two things. When asking directions to a place whilst seated inside a car, don’t expect the answer you get to refer specifically to ‘the time it takes to get somewhere in a car’. The answer given could be an approximate time that it might take to walk to the destination you are going to (ie 2 days). Do not assume that everyone you meet on the street will be familiar with how long a journey takes in a car.  Also, due to the politeness of society in these parts, you are highly likely to be given an answer that you want to hear (i.e. it's not very far, or, you are going the right way). You may be given information that is just plain wrong (keep going straight).  Most people would rather guess an answer than put up their hands and say ‘I don’t know’.

this is Chai
Ironing Box – this is an iron
Power – (or lack thereof) means electricity to you or me
Paper bag – Can be confusing this word is commonly used for plastic bags too
Chai – sweetened tea made by boiling milk, water, sugar and tea leaves.
Tissue paper – toilet roll
It got broken’ – there is not really a phrase for ‘I broke it’
Ugali – maize flour that thickens when boiled with water or stock. A popular carbohydrate/staple and often an alternative to rice or potatoes.

Indispensable Swahili words that don’t exist in English but you’ll love them and will probably adopt them for the rest of your life – no matter how long you live in Kenya.

  • Pole – (pronounced pole-ay). This means ‘sorry’ but more specifically, ‘sorry for what happened to you but I am by no means responsible'.  Ie Sorry you tripped over, you got wet in the rain, you were late for a meeting or your mum died.  There’s a different word for I am sorry  for something I did (samahani).
  • Kali – this is a great catch all word for spicey, spiky, strong, angry.  It specifically means ‘fierce’. Food or a person can be ‘kali’ in equal measure.
  • Hodi – is called out when entering a home, as in, is anyone home?
  • Fundi – is the word for a skilled worker; a carpenter, electrician, mechanic, tailor, welder, hairdresser – you name it.  If you are an expert on flora and fauna, you are then known as a ‘fundi’ of your chosen subject. i.e. ‘He’s a great fundi on Kenyan history’.

Cousin-brother – it’s best to understand that if someone is your brother or sister is not a strict definition.  A ‘brother’ could be someone who grew up in the same neighbourhood as you and no blood relation, or he could be a distant relative. Same goes for mother. A ‘mother’ could be an aunt or a great friend of your mum.  Thus when someone says ‘my mother died’  - then it could be a close friend of the family rather than an actual mother. A new Eastern European friend of mine reassures me that it’s the same in Serbia.
 You are lost!’ – means, ‘I haven’t seen you in ages’.
Keep on keeping on, or rather keep pushing (sukuma) on is a Kenyan way of expressing the fact that life is struggling on as usual and this expression is invariably delivered with a smile.
A retort to the question ‘how are you?’  (or Mambo in kiswahili) can be ‘Fit’ or ‘Fit sana’ or ‘Very Fine’.
Oh and, for a nation of small holder farmers, rain is always considered a blessing – however inconvenient you might think it is.
To Flash someone is not as bad as you think. It means calling somebody's mobile phone so that it rings once, then the caller hangs up immediately in the hope that you will call them back. The calls for the instigator are therefore free. This is generally acceptable practise. 

Again, as mentioned above, when asking for something, often expect to be given an answer that you want to hear. For instance, when inquiring ‘when will you get here?’ of, say, a plumber, expect the answer ‘I am on my way coming, I am nearby or I am close’ – even if the person in question hasn’t even left their home or office yet.  Similarly ‘when will my car be fixed?’ might merit an answer ‘by end of today, or by tonight’ when work hasn’t started and it might take at least a week. You just have to roll with it, alternatively narrow down your line of inquiry to more specific questions.

Street food
Kenyan street food offers a smorgasbord of options that are often not as unhealthy as you might think.
  • Mandazi - deep fried, triangular shaped doughnut. Sweet and delicious. Just add jam.
  • Chapati – a deep fried Indian pancake.
  • Rolex – this is an omelette that is fried then rolled into a chapati. Served warm.
  • Nyama choma – literally means barbequed meat cooked over charcoal (beef, chicken or goat).
  • Crips – More commonly known as crisps
  • Kuku na chipsi – chicken and chips
  • Fruits –  (Always referred to in the plural here). You can buy fruit direct from a hand cart, often the vendor will cut the mango/melon/pineapple for you with his giant, very sharp knife.
  • Sugar Cane – served whole, or peeled and cut into inch long chunks in a plastic bag. Chew and spit, chew and spit.
  • Maindi – whole corn on the cob. Green corn husks are roasted over a charcoal grill and served as ‘maindi choma’.
  • Samosas – triangular shaped pastry parcels filled with spicy/chilly meat mince or vegetables and deep fried.
  • Smokies – frankfurter sausages served hot and often accompanied by kachumbari (a mix of finely chopped tomato, onion, coriander and perhaps chilli) and/or a boiled egg.
  • Mutura – locally made sausage made from beef/goat offal and once boiled and grilled, purchased in slices.
  • Cassava crisps – deep fried cassava (a tuberous root and also a popular staple). Can also be served boiled then deepfried whole with pink chilli powder.
I am sure that there are tons that I have forgotten. Please do write in and remind me and I’ll add them to the list!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Africa expat life on TV

Over the years, via this comparatively long running blog (yikes, I started this in 2006!!), I have had approaches by TV and film company researchers asking various questions about expat life, apparently exploring the idea that a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary, fiction series or reality TV that might make great viewing for the folks back home. Do I know anyone who has recently moved here from the UK who might be willing to be filmed 24/7 for TV? (answer: No - are you joking?).

It's not hard to understand why they got in touch. Expat life in Africa has long been fascinating, ever since the Out of Africa and the White Mischief movies were made (thank you to early adventurers Karen Blixen, Idina Sackville and Lord Erroll for making it so, and to 1980s film makers for bringing it all to life so evocatively). But since the 80s, there has been a bit of a lull.  The Constant Gardener was filmed in Kenya, then there was ‘The Last King of Scotland’, the Idi Amin Biography filmed in Uganda etc. Other than that, if you want to see anything remotely contemporary (other than gritty homespun drama Nairobi Half life), then you are in the zone of wildlife documentaries like Big Cat Diaries.

I think that what the researchers were after was a modern day series on a par with ‘Bridezillas’ or some such. Imagine a newly arrived expat who is unused to employing domestic staff, riding around in a four wheel drive car with nothing to do all day but experience frequent culture shocks while going about a daily routine and basking in the sunshine.  Throw in a bit of intrigue and imagine how well that would go down during and English winter?  It was also once suggested that I have a go at writing something about expat wives that perhaps could be on a par with Jilly Cooper’s ‘Riders’. Problem was, there was no way I could do it (in spite of a few fairly concerted efforts!)

Lines of enquiry quickly run dry as regards filming here. Perhaps because East Africa is a bit 'too' dangerous, a bit 'too' different and ultimately too far away for projects to take off.

I think that expat life in Africa is fascinating, not because of any preconceived ideas of what life here is like but because of the reality.  If nothing else, living in East Africa hurled me out of my na├»ve ‘first world’ outlook that life could be ‘fair’ for everyone. It has taught me that determination and hard work get people very far, but there has to be some luck involved too. It is sometimes possible to help someone and it is possible that trying to help in the wrong way can actually make things worse. Resilience is a catchword in this part of the world and you absolutely never know what tomorrow might bring. I guess for this reason, many visitors to Kenya say that living here makes them feel ‘alive’ and not as if life might be passing us by. Frankly, there's seldom a dull moment.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Interesting article

The former ambassador to Kenya wrote an interesting article for Time magazine, basically saying that this country can't move forward if only terrorist attacks make the international news pages.

Read more here: Look Beyond Garissa Attack to see Progress in Kenya

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Young Expat Life in Nairobi

I’ve just met some of those expat twenty-somethings that I was telling you about recently. The ones who are flocking to Kenya to stimulate social enterprise in tech, investments, engineering - you name it. In fact I actually met a young expat who was working for an investor in social entrepreneurship projects. The investment company she works for finds sustainable, innovative companies to sink money in to and then they hope to see not only a cash return but social good come out of it. I've learned via Google that this is called Socially Responsible Investing (SRI). Investments could be in low cost housing, low cost schools, locally made jewellery/crafts that are being sold to multinational fashion chains, affordable solar lighting – that sort of thing.  

Whatever this business is, it’s mostly spoken in a foreign language. Terms like ‘pipeline meetings’  and 'socially responsible' 'sustainability' etc etc are bandied about and I can actually hear my brain whirring in an effort to keep up. It’s exciting, dynamic and – correct me if I’m wrong - grown out of a need born from ‘rich’ foreigners/investors who – perhaps bored of the limitations of developed financial markets - seek excitement and want to see their money ‘do some good’ in Africa.  A ‘socially responsible’ profit from these canny investments is ripe for the picking and even better, everyone can feel good about themselves.

Entrepreneurship is the buzz word in Nairobi today.  Don’t you know? that is why Obama is coming in out here July. He’s going to attend the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi – and also might find time to see Granny Sarah.

But none of this is the point.  The real point is that I also learned over the past couple of months that there’s this whole, huge, fun social life going on in Nairobi without me knowing.  Shocker.  While hiding in my house, waving goodbye to expat leaving, there has been a whole lot happening elsewhere.
Gypsy's Bar
Suddenly I feel bad for those single girls who have been in contact with me via the Africa Expat Wives Club blog and forum over the years, asking if they should take that posting to Nairobi, or rather choose London.  I thought that those twenty-something girls Nairobi bound from overseas, were in danger of ending up on the shelf having been forced to live a closeted life here.  It’s hard to meet a man if you are locked up in some compound, scared to drive out after dark alone.  But how wrong I am!  That will teach you for seeking advice from someone who is over the hill and past their party prime. Now, with what I know today, I would say, 'come on over girls, it’s on!' There are tons of cool pop-up bars and clubs with live music, djs, whisky and fun (not that I've visited them, or if I have, it was probably the wrong day, or time of day).

Westlands is largely the place to be on a night out (from what I can make out via my binoculars...tee hee). There are tons of young people having 'the best time ever' here. The social life is diverse.  If you are looking for expat enclaves, there are none. The scene is mixed, which is just as it should be. They are free, networking, engaged with life and many are doing things that are making a difference to society.

Kenya has a lot of bad press and no one can deny that horrendous incidents happen with alarming repetition but in spite of this, there is a wealth of opportunity to get stuck into something that you love. It’s a dynamic, fun place to live – especially for the young and single. Nairobi is big and the social life has now been described to me by someone young enough to be in the know (23) as AMAZING! 

So if you are feeling adventurous, don't be alarmed. Get your party on and come on over!

It's slightly out of date, but nevertheless sums up the city well. Read this article for more: Expat Lives: The London of Africa

Also, check out the Nairobi Expat Social (NES) - Facebook page

Check out: The Juniper Kitchen - for a hip and happening weekend hangout in Westlands behind ABC Place.

For more info on eating out click here: Eat Out Kenya
For events and goings on: Kenya Buzz
For listings: Word of Mouth