Kenya: A Serendipitous Nation?

We were just talking about how Kenya is so different to Europe, in that people in Kenya actually talk to each other – to complete strangers that is. There is a no holds barred philosophy in Kenya. You butt in, interrupt, go over and introduce yourself. Curiosity dominates and with no second thought for interruption (or what us Brits might consider ‘rudeness’), nor is there a fear of rejection or otherwise. It just doesn’t exist. At least, not from what I can tell.

Comparing notes, we realised that in Kenya you can strike up a friendship on a bus, in a cafe or on the back of a motorbike taxi trailblazing over potholes through plumes of black smoke. Questions will be asked, many very personal, but it’s becoming customary to differentiate between cultures and laugh off the differences. Such as being a 30 something year old single female in a country whereby I am considered ‘off the shelf’. An old hag. Or as one charming person put it ‘In Kenya people would think there be something wrong with you!’. I talk of a culture whereby we no longer get married as divorce is too expensive. I say this to a recently divorced woman. Our new Kenyan Mama. A huge smack of a high five follows alongside what can only be described as a deep throated cackle.

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Our new Kenyan Mama. One of many newly ignited bus relationships.

The Kenyan people are so open. They’re not stuffy about personal space, they don’t get irritated by strangers talking to them; or equally do they feel like they can’t approach someone they don’t know. It creates opportunities! We might called it serendipitous, these random convenient acts that keep happening to us, but really in a culture where everyone talks, so many links are made it’s surely just a case of paint by numbers.

Or is it? Sat in a bar earlier, I was having a meeting with a chap I met on the bus, funny enough, a few weekends ago. He had introduced himself to me as the Angel Gabriel, and at first I had thought ‘oh here we go’ admittedly, cynical. Often these exchanges involve questions around my availability. But as we got talking, it turned out he was a lecturer at a nearby university and specialised in Agri-Business. Ah ha! I’d thought. I was in the middle of developing our mentor programme. I had been actively seeking someone from the agriculture world to support one of our young entrepreneurs who’s big dream is to start a farm and employ disadvantaged youths and train them up in valuable skills.

So we had swapped numbers.

A few weeks ago we had gone for a vegetarian lunch at the exotically named ‘Vegetarian Restaurant’ in town and a British man (or so I could tell from his accent) was tucking into what looked like an amazing feast in a huge chrome tray with lots of different dishes on it. Accustomed to the Kenyan way I went over, complimented his meal, and asked what it was. A ‘vegetable Thali’ was the answer – but that’s not the punchline to this story. Andrew, the guy who’s meal it was, then came over after he’d finished, introduced himself properly and we got chatting. Turned out he was in Kenya with his business partner James, a Ugandan, to find a spot to launch a new eco-tourism lodge. This was interesting to us! There is a huge gap in the market for affordable quality lodges for weekend breaks. We recommended our favourite place. He hadn’t heard of it. Numbers were exchanged, and we went on our way.

A week later Andrew got in touch. Turns out he’s a very experienced chartered accountant, Andrew had packed it all in and come to East Africa ready to make a new life. This was music to our ears! Not because we wanted to join him (although it’s certainly tempting) it was just a lovely coincidence as we’d been deliberating over when and how to give our young entrepreneurs their first finance session.

And so yesterday, we delivered the best finance session they could possibly get – not from us, but from someone who knows more about numbers than we ever could have. All because I was curious about his food choice.

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From left to right: Anna, Andrea, Mishael, Andrew, Wellington, Immaculate, Boaz, Christine, Jen

We indirectly returned the favour by sending him to our favourite place – Punda Milias. He went. Had a great time. And randomly he found himself chatting to a lady who appeared to be the leader of a group of bikers on tour. Turns out she’s one of the largest and most influential tour guides in the country. They swapped numbers.

And this is how business is done in Kenya.

Serendipitous?

Or social construction by default of creating the opportunities in the first place? The good old numbers game.

Perhaps this is why it’s hard for Kenyan’s to imagine a lady being unmarried or single at 35.  The concept of not making connections or having suitors presenting themselves to you is hard to grapple.

It make me wander how life could be different in say London, or Berlin, or Amsterdam – if people make just that little bit more effort to talk to strangers. We spend so much time surrounded by interesting people and yet because we’re so busy getting from A to B with our heads down, texting, we would never know who has passed us by.

Perhaps Europe could learn a lot from the Kenyans.

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