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17 Things They Don’t Tell You About Visiting Nairobi

Picture of Imani Jaoko
Imani Jaoko
Updated: 9 February 2017
Nairobi is a great place to visit. Like anywhere, there are some things to know before you travel, so The Culture Trip has put together some important tips on navigating and understanding the city and its residents.This will help you prepare for your visit, which, in turn, will allow you to enjoy your stay right from the start.

Traffic Lights Are Simply A Suggestion

While you may have heard about the notorious Nairobi traffic, no one may have told you about traffic lights. In general, traffic lights and traffic signs are decorative. So don’t be surprised if pedestrians cross the road while it’s red or cars keep moving, just don’t get too frustrated. This means that you should always be on the look out when driving or walking, don’t rely on the lights all the time.

Don’t Cross The Street While Talking On Your Phone

While this seems like basic common sense safety advice, it’s also important to realise that this is against the law and can get you in trouble if you are caught. Given that the streets are so busy, you may not even see the officers coming, so just put the phone down for a few seconds.

Not All Kenyans Run

Please, for the sake of all that is good, don’t go around asking every Kenyan if they run. A very specific tribe in Kenya is famous for running, they make up about eight percent of the population. The rest of the Kenyan population are equally impressed at their athleticism. If this was your go-to joke, you may need to change it before arrival.

Don’t Worry About The Time

While this may seem rude to those of European persuasion, the reality is that events don’t start on time. In order to avoid scrolling on your phone aimlessly as you wait, give events a few minutes before arriving. Of course, you shouldn’t show up an hour late for a two-hour event either.

You Should Always Accept Food

Most Kenyans feel insulted when you don’t eat something they’ve offered you. So even if you have to politely nibble, do it. Most times, your host went slightly out of their way to offer you something to eat, so it’s disappointing to them when you don’t accept it. You might also find something you like. It is a fantastic way to try new foods

Don’t Go Around Asking People Their Tribe

This is a tricky one. Kenyans are not overly sensitive about this question, it’s something we acknowledge. However it does get a bit old, so try not to bring this up at every conversation. Many tourists are fascinated by this concept and tend to ask this question. While it’s not entirely offensive, it is weird. Especially refrain from doing this in a large group of Kenyans. Save it for friends, or people you meet one-on-one.

No One Says ‘Jambo’

You may have read it in a travel guide or seen it in a movie, but no one here says ‘Jambo!’ You might as well walk around with a sticker on your forehead saying ‘foreigner/tourist.’

Mobile Money

Mobile banking is huge in Kenya, so don’t be surprised if people don’t always have cash on them and want to send you money this way instead. It’s also very convenient and safe for you to have some of your money stored this way, so register as soon as you land. It’s quick and simple, not to mention free to do so.

Learn A Bit of The Lingo

Most people in Nairobi speak English. However, some local words are such a fabric of the language that Nairobians assume that they’re part of the English language and that you know them. To avoid miscommunication, learn some basic words like sawa (okay), kesho (tomorrow) and sasa (hello). They’re usually thrown around casually in conversations so don’t panic.

Not Everything Is Negotiable

It’s true that local merchants tend to overcharge tourists for certain items. While this may make you feel unhappy and drive you to question the price of everything, what you also need to know is that sometimes haggling too much on the price can also be seen as rude. Like any other merchants, those in Nairobi can get emotional about their craft and its value so don’t overdo it.

Maasai Markets Are Everywhere

Kenya is famous for local crafts and artifacts. Many tourists are excited to get their hands on stone carvings and beaded jewelry. What you need to know is that there are hundreds of these markets everywhere. So don’t feel pressured to buy the first thing you see, you’ll get another chance, several in fact. Most people go on a shopping spree at the first market they go to only to realize that the same stuff is everywhere. Don’t be one of those people.

There Are Security Checks Everywhere

Don’t be surprised if you have to be frisked at every building, security checks are very important in Nairobi.

Kenyans Dress Up

Kenyans don’t really do sweatpants in public. Keep this in mind so that you don’t always feel like the most under-dressed person in the room. Of course, we’re not expecting high fashion, Kenyans just care about their appearance, so pack appropriately.

Politics. Politics. Politics.

Kenyans talk politics day and night. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Vegetarianism Is Incomprehensible

Kenyans love their meat. If you’re a vegetarian, you might have some difficulty with this. Always call ahead and let your host know you’re dietary requirements, chances are that they are serving meat for dinner. (Remember what you must do when offered food.) Many restaurants are popping up in order to cater to vegetarians, but for the most part, meat still rules the menus. In response to being offered salad, don’t be surprised to hear a Kenyan say ‘I don’t eat rabbit food!’ or ‘I don’t eat grass.’

Don’t Call Kenya ‘Africa’

While in conversation with Nairobians and when talking about Kenya, be careful not to refer to it as ‘Africa.’ They do not appreciate such generalizations. So don’t just say you’ve visited ‘Africa’ before, be more specific. It’s much more interesting. (Do this always, not just when in Nairobi.)

You Can Get Most Things Here

Nairobi is pretty advanced. Don’t panic about your trip. There are major banks, popular fast-food joints and nearly everything you can buy back home. So don’t overpack. There’s no need to drag an oversized suitcase halfway around the world.