Friday, April 24, 2009


My time here is wrapping up (Friday is my last day of work, then travels). Almost three months have elapsed since I touched down at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, and over that time I've noticed many interesting/peculiar habits of Kenyans. Sensing a blog post in the making, I started keeping a list, originally written, then mental, and now not so much of either. Below are some of these musings.

The front seat

not so much Kenyan's sit in the front seat of taxis and chauffeured cars. A pretty simple observation, but striking in it's dissimilarity with American (Western?) custom - have you ever pulled opened the front door of a cab, when there was no one in the back? In fact, many cabs front passenger seats are so riddled with newspapers, CDs, empty coffee cups and other random shit that they only begrudgingly let you into their cabin.

Here, not only do taxi drivers not mind if you sit in the front, some might actually be offended if you do not. On a recent two hour commute home from the airport (Nairobi traffic is horrible), I was seated in the back and my colleague in the front. After dropping we made the first drop-off, I remained in the back. "You can come up front," the driver said. "I'm alright," I replied, quite comfortable the way I was. "No, no, come up front" he quickly retorted, seemingly offended, and swung the door open for me without leaving his seat. Tired and not wanting to argue, I acquiesced.

Why was he offended, though, I wondered, and am still pondering. In the US, moving to the front after a fellow passenger is dropped off is customary when riding with someone you know, so that the driver does not feel like a chauffer. But when the driver is a chauffer, what does he have to be offended about? I am paying him.

Not all drivers exhibit this behavior, but almost all Kenyan passengers do; that is, they prefer the front seat, opening the back door only if the front is full. This probably has something to do with the fact that the front seat is not covered in random shit, and there is no bullet-proof separator limiting the recline/extension of the bucket seat, but I don't think that is the whole story.

Passengers converse with their drivers - not just small talk, but (relatively) substantive discussion - and it’s easier to hold a conversation from the front seat. The driver-driven relationship is much friendlier than the typical transactional one between cabbie and rider. Of course, this is partly due to the basic fact that people actually have drivers here (if not personal drivers, favorite taxi drivers, since much of Nairobi is not dense enough to sustain perpetual cab flow). I've not yet experienced daily chauffer service in the states, so I can't comment on the equivalent driver-driven relationship with certainty, but I suspect the banter - let alone anything more involved – in black cars between Wall St and the Upper East Side is minimal.

Furthermore, and more interestingly, the front seat dynamic seems in no small part due to a less pronounced class barrier between the driver and driven. Part of this is simply that there is less of an economic gap: From what I can tell, cab drivers are relatively well paid compared to their counterparts in the US (in purchasing power parity terms), and development workers, while also relatively well-paid compared to American non-profiteers, are far less affluent than the financial titans and CEOs who employ chauffeurs back home.

And in addition to, or perhaps because of, the narrower financial gap, the social division also appears less marked: besides conversation, driver and passenger also share afternoon tea and Friday night beers.

Perhaps I’m overanalyzing this, and perhaps the analysis portrays a bit of pretentiousness on my part. In any case, at the least, this points to a random but interesting difference between American and Kenyan culture.

An inconvenient package*

sauce. Soy sauce in a plastic bag. Chili sauce in plastic bag. A kilo of sugar in a plastic bag. Milk in a plastic bag. Milk in triangle-shaped Tetra-pak (similar to cardboard). Cashew nuts in vacuum-sealed plastic. Rice in aluminum foil. An oversized plastic box with no lid and a hamburger-shaped cutout for my salad.

What do all of these types of packaging have (actually, lack) in common? At least two things.

One: Resealability. This simple, amazing feature, conjured up by CPG marketing folks years ago, to get us to buy bigger and better product, is now almost taken for granted. Starting with the twist tie and rectangular-plastic-thing for bread, it spread to the tab-and-hole in cereal boxes, plastic milk and soda bottles, the Pringles can, zippered shredded cheese, and on an on. And where we don’t yet take it for granted, inventions such as the chip clip have filled the void, allowing us to enjoy a 24 oz bag of Jalapeno Crunchers for weeks not days.

Conversely, here I have to empty my cashews into an old Planters container I brought over from the States. Or I must fold the top of the pasta bag over and position it tightly against the side of the cupboard. Or I need to discard the top Oreo every time I revisit the tubular aluminum package.

Two: Useability. While resealablity is mostly germane to goods bought in the grocery store, useability is most relevant to take-away (why does no one else in the world say “take-out”?) restaurant food. American Chinese restaurants pioneered this feature with their (resealable) pentagonal boxes, suitable for vertical eating (and sharing) via chopstick. And with the boxed food comes soy sauce and hot sauce, either in small, pre-perforated packets or circular plastic containers with lids. Both make for easy pouring over food.

In Kenya? My vegetable fried rice comes wrapped in aluminum foil, immediately spilling out, ever so quietly, as I unravel the package. And the soy sauce? It’s in a 10 inch, tightly-knotted plastic bag, from which I have to pour very carefully lest it a) spill the entire 5 oz onto my food and/or b) spill all over the table.

Why haven’t these two innovations reached the African continent yet? Not sure, though I suspect there must not be enough demand. Such value-added features add a few pennies (or more) to the cost and consumers are presumably less willing to pay for these unnecessary bells and whistles. Perhaps IP-ownership issues play a role as well - Western firms own most of the innovation, and while American and European goods are available here, they are often sparse and significantly more expensive than local product.

Reading this, I’m sure you’re thinking I sound a bit spoiled. It’s true, I am. Actually, we [Westerners, particularly Americans] are. Spoiled by ever-lasting freshness, by convenience. By Pringles, by Ziploc. By 33% more free and Costco-sized boxes. By variety – which leads to firms having to innovate on all four Ps (including Packaging) in order to distinguish their products. But most of all, we are spoiled, and tremendously privileged, by our prosperity, which allows us not only to enjoy all these things, but analyze and write about them as well – in research papers, magazine articles, PowerPoint presentations, textbooks, and, of course, blogs.

Other interesting Kenyan tidbits

  • The phrase “it’s ok” is heavily used, often as an affirmation (and in many other unusual ways). Example:
    • Me: Can I have a bottle of water please?
    • Waiter: It’s ok.
  • When available, elevators are used – even if it’s only 1 flight and the car takes 5 minutes to come
  • People call each other “boss”
  • “By the way” [as a conversation starter] and “serious?” are disproportionately-used phrases

I had several others, but that’s all I can think of now…will post another list if they come to me.

*In case you couldn’t guess, facts presented have not been verified

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