Things They Don’t Tell You About Visiting Nairobi

Discover what insiders know about Nairobi so you can prepare like a pro for your trip to Kenya
Discover what insiders know about Nairobi so you can prepare like a pro for your trip to Kenya | © ImageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo
Imani Jaoko

Nairobi is a great place to visit, but like anywhere, there are a few things to know before you go. From navigating traffic to social taboos, here’s our guide to the Green City in the Sun of Kenya.

Planning a trip to Kenya and want all the details taken care of? Book yourself onto Culture Trip’s seven-day Kenyan adventure, where you’ll venture into national parks on game drives, visit an extinct volcano and have the chance to explore the best of Nairobi.

Traffic lights are simply a suggestion in Nairobi

While you may have heard about the notorious Nairobi traffic, you might not know about the lights. In general, traffic lights and signs are decorative. Don’t be surprised if pedestrians cross or cars keep moving while lights are red – just don’t get too frustrated. This means that you should always be on the lookout when driving or walking and don’t rely on the lights all the time.

Moi Avenue in downtown Nairobi, Kenya

Don’t cross the street while talking on your phone in Nairobi

While this may seem like basic common sense, it’s important to realise that to do so is against the law here – and can get you in trouble if you’re caught. Given that the streets are so busy, you may not even see police officers coming, so just put your phone down while you cross the road.

Pedestrians cross the road in Nairobi, Kenya

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, the Kalenjin, is famous for running – and they make up about eight percent of the population. The rest of Kenyan society 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 in Nairobi

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, though.

You should always accept food in Nairobi

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 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’s a fantastic way to try new foods.

A person holding a plate of food in Kenya

Don’t go around asking people about their tribe in Nairobi

This is a tricky one. Kenyans are not overly sensitive about this question, but it does get a bit old – so try not to bring this up at every conversation. Many visitors are fascinated by this concept and tend to ask. 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.

The Masai Mara in Ngoiroro shake hands and wear homemade beaded bracelets

No one says “Jambo” in Nairobi

You may have read it in a travel guide or seen it in a film, but no one here uses “Jambo” as a greeting. You might as well walk around with a sticker on your forehead that reads, “Tourist”.

Mobile money

Mobile banking is huge in Kenya, so don’t be surprised if people don’t always have cash 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.

An M-Pesa payment made by mobile phone in Kenya

Learn a bit of the lingo in Nairobi

Most people in Nairobi speak English. However, some local words are so fundamental to the fabric of every day that Nairobians assume 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 in Nairobi

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 can also be seen as rude. Like any other merchants, those in Nairobi are passionate about their craft and its value so don’t overdo it.

Various handcrafted goods for sale roadside in Nairobi, Kenya

Maasai markets are everywhere in Nairobi

Kenya is famous for local crafts and artefacts and many tourists are excited to get their hands on stone carvings and beaded jewellery. These markets are everywhere, so don’t feel pressured to buy the first thing you see, as you’ll get several other chances. Most people go on a shopping spree at the first market they go to only to realise that the same stuff is everywhere. Don’t be that person.

A local woman sells Masai jewellery in the Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

There are security checks everywhere in Nairobi

Don’t be surprised if you have to go through checks at every building, as security is very important in Nairobi. You must carry a form of ID with you at all times.

Kenyans dress up

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

Politics, politics, politics

Kenyans talk politics day and night. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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 your dietary requirements, as chances are they are serving meat for dinner – and 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 here. 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!”

Pieces of boiled corn are served in a wooden container in Kenya

Don’t call Kenya “Africa”

While in conversation with Nairobians, be careful not to refer to Kenya as “Africa”. They do not appreciate such generalisations. Be more specific about places on the continent that you’ve visited before, as it’s much more interesting – you should do this always, not just when in Nairobi.

You can get most things here in Nairobi

Nairobi is pretty advanced, so 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.

The city of Nairobi at daybreak with Mount Kenya in the far distance

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