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those cops who will pull you over not for just speeding, an out-of-date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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!