Culture Shock in Kenya

culture shock in kenyaThe country is both vibrant and diverse, meaning culture shock in Kenya can come in many different forms. Some expats find living in Kenya so difficult to adjust to that they tend to live entirely enclosed within an expat circle. Locked away, staying within these compounds can often add to the feeling of segregation.

However, some expats may not find the culture shock intimidating. Instead, they are inspired by the generally friendly nature and open nature of locals. Kenyans adopt a welcoming and helpful attitude towards foreigners. There are also expat groups in the large cities like Nairobi and Mombasa that help facilitate the assimilation process. These organisations arrange social gatherings including lunch dates and sporting events. Expats should contact their embassy or consulate to find out more about local expat clubs.


Most expats living in Kenya find themselves within the upper middle class of Kenyan society. They're privy to nice houses, shopping at modern malls and driving comfortable cars. Therefore, most foreigners will find the expat experience to be relatively insulated, although the lives of ordinary Kenyans will be visible everywhere.

New arrivals are often shocked at the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Wealthy Kenyans drive Mercedes, own palatial homes and operate with an abundance of resources. Kenya’s growing middle class is the same as anywhere in the world. Most families have cars, all their children go to school and have a future full of possibilities. For those who can afford it, access to the Internet through high-speed bandwidth has given many a window on the wider world.

However, according to UNICEF, 42 percent of Kenyans live below the poverty line. Although this is largely in rural areas, the situation is very visible in big cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa. The poor live in densely populated communities in and around cities. Areas such as Mathare and Kibera are known globally as large slums that are without proper clean water, sanitation, electricity and educational facilities.

Residents travel great distances by public transport to work in the households of the middle and upper class homes, often working long days for minimum pay. Many have ‘live in’ positions, their jobs requiring them to be always available. They are provided with a small room for their personal needs. Others move to cities from afar in search of employment, leaving their families behind and travelling back to their homes when enough leave is allowed from their jobs.

Language barrier

English-speaking expats will be relieved to find that they won’t struggle with a language barrier in Kenya. English is one of the official languages and many Kenyans, while speaking Kiswahili, are fluent. There is also the possibility of them knowing three languages, as many tend to speak in their more culturally-specific tongues.


It is best to have a mixed wardrobe as attitudes can vary across the country. In areas considered to be Muslim, a more conservative approach to your outfit is considered appropriate. Here, a t-shirt and shorts may not go down well. On the coast, views can be a little more relaxed.

Domestic help in Kenya

One of the biggest luxuries that is afforded to expats living in Kenya is being able to have domestic help. For expats from North America or Western Europe in particular, having household help is a treat and most of them are used to doing basic household chores themselves. In Kenya, however, most middle and upper class families have some form of domestic help. 

Many expats have several people working for their family, such as a driver, housekeeper, cook, nanny and gardener. While some households employ people with several skills, larger, wealthier families tend to employ a person for each task. 

Traffic and road conditions in Kenya

Expats in Kenya soon get used to sitting in traffic and being surrounded by hawkers, who sell everything from newspapers and magazines to car accessories. Maps, phone chargers, toys, bananas, sunglasses and art are just a few of the things on offer. While the constant pressure to buy things can be annoying, expats will soon learn to tolerate these vendors and encourage them to move on.

Public transport options in Kenya are somewhat limited. Driving in Kenya isn't always easy, so expats are advised to hire a local driver, but those who opt to get behind the wheel should drive defensivley at all times. 

Corruption and bureaucracy in Kenya

The economic disparities in Kenya are symptoms of a bigger problem. Corruption and mismanagement of public funds has long been a problem, and Kenyans are demanding more accountability from their government institutions and improvement in service delivery.
When dealing with visas, work permits, paperwork and driving licences, expats will find the delays extremely frustrating. It's often necessary to hire a qualified agent to deal with matters such as these. Achieving the desired results is sometimes impossible without their help.

Cultural do's and don'ts in Kenya

  • Do carry change with you as you might want to negotiate prices
  • Don’t smoke cigarettes in public
  • Do make sure you have the necessary medical supplies and vaccinations
  • Don’t make a show of your expensive jewellery or technology as you may be targeted by thieves
  • Do dress to respect the customs and cultures of Kenya

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Our Kenya Expert

Jerry_Riley's picture
Jerry Riley
Toronto, Canada. Nairobi, Kenya
Jerry Riley is a Canadian freelance photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has worked in Asia, Africa, South America and... more

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