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Etiquette in Kenya

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 8 Apr 2018 | comments*Discuss
Etiquette Kenya African Africa Kenyans

Kenya is a truly magnificent African country with its vast wildlife national reserves, awesome landscapes, beautiful beaches and friendly countrymen. Kenyans are very proud of their country, and are known to be very welcoming and warm people. When travelling in Kenya, you should be aware of what is considered to be proper etiquette so that you properly interact and integrate into Kenyan society, making the most of your stay.

Kenyans are quite conservative in their approach to social customs and etiquette in both the Christian and Muslim sectors of their society. However, more built-up urban areas such as the country’s capital, Nairobi, tend to be more accepting and lenient towards alternative lifestyles and customs. You should also bear in mind that this is the opposite for the more rural locations.

You may notice that Kenyan people are also relatively mild-mannered and extremely polite, and so will admire these qualities in others. Always be prepared to offer your thanks and use ‘please’ whenever possible – good, basic etiquette will earn you a great deal of respect as far as a Kenyan person is concerned.

Making Acquaintances

Kenya is home to a number of ethnic groups, each with their own greeting customs. It is best to find out these customs before meeting with any particular group, so as to communicate that you are a respectful and well-informed individual. However, in most circumstances when meeting a Kenyan, smiling and handshaking are usual, although the handshake may be light compared to the firm, solid handshakes you might be used to. To show respect to a superior, you may hold your right forearm with the left hand whilst shaking their hand.

If travelling with children, be conscious that greetings between your child and a senior person may differ slightly. Your child should greet an elderly person with a small bow, which is then met with the flat of the elder’s palm placed on the child’s head.

In Kenya, it is considered proper etiquette to always shake hands with the right hand, as left-handed handshakes, as well as giving a gift with just your left hand, is considered wholly inappropriate.

You may notice that in some cases, eye contact during formal introductions is minimal. This should not be construed as shyness or shiftiness; moreover it is a sign of respect and courtesy. You should therefore make sure to avoid making prolonged and direct eye contact when meeting and making introductions in Kenya. This could be interpreted as fairly intimidating or slightly disrespectful behaviour. However, in most other situations, a degree of direct eye contact and smiling will help to inspire trust and sincerity.

Dressing Appropriately

In line with their common conservative ethos, Kenyans also tend to dress quite modestly. When travelling through Kenya, women especially should cover their shoulders and upper arms, particularly when in Muslim areas.

Men would be best to opt for (cotton or linen) trousers with a shirt or t-shirt, and women should wear longer skirts and dresses, with a modest and unrevealing top. Again, women especially should avoid wearing shorts, although in particularly well-populated tourist areas, this is generally deemed as acceptable.

Beachwear such as bikinis and swimming trunks are accepted, so long as such attire is confined to the beach only.

Social Behaviour

It is regarded as very poor etiquette to partake in public displays of affection in Kenya, and is generally not tolerated at all between same-sex couples. Although this is not so much the case in more ‘Westernised’ areas such as Nairobi, you should still be mindful that some might still find it offensive behaviour.

When travelling in Kenya, also be aware that directly pointing at someone with your finger is considered quite rude. If you need to point or direct, generally a nod of the head or opening your whole hand in the general direction of the person is more appropriate. Likewise, a beckoning motion with the index finger is also deemed improper – again using your whole hand is a better alternative.

There is no doubt that you will want to take many pictures whilst on holiday in Kenya. If you wish to include a person in your photographs, it is considered proper etiquette to politely ask them beforehand. Taking a picture without consent is considered very rude and will be frowned upon.

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While I'm not asking this question based on travel experiences, rather it is based on some photos of a woman form Nairobi, Kenya. She has several photos posted online, but in all of them she does not make direct eye contact with the camera/viewer. This seemed unusual to me as an American, so I've done some sporadic reading and found your site, with the following info: "You may notice that in some cases, eye contact during formal introductions is minimal. This should not be construed as shyness or shiftiness; moreover it is a sign of respect and courtesy." Can you explicate further on this information? It would be most appreciated. Thank you for your time.
VicMAd - 8-Apr-18 @ 6:41 PM
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