You are here: American University AU Nairobi Kenyan Culture

About Kenya

Kenya is one of the most diverse countries in Africa. Its geography extends from the warm coastal waters of the Indian Ocean to volcanic mountains in the Great Rift Valley to the lacustrine highlands near the largest freshwater lake on the continent. Many languages, religions, and cultural traditions converge in Kenya making it a dynamic and vibrant place to visit and experience.

Discover Kenyan Culture


AU Nairobi students with program staff and Kenyans.

‘Jambo’, is what you are most likely to hear if you look like a foreigner. Down the road, however, after you get a grasp of Kiswahili, you will discover the proper greetings ‘Hujambo,’ or ‘Hamjambo’ if there are more of you. Or a host of other greetings, some slang, depending on what part of Nairobi or Kenya you are in and who you are hanging out with. That is the dynamism of Kiswahili language. And Kiswahili is only one of the few dozen languages spoken in Kenya. Forty-two is the official number. More if you take dialects into account. One language alone, Luhya, is constituted by sixteen dialects. Yet, despite having these many languages, a foreigner can get around Kenya with relative ease by speaking English, or Kiswahili.

Two Kenyans at an outside event.

But, not quite so easily… the average Kenyan with a high school education speaks at least three languages; English, Kiswahili, and their mother tongue. Frequently, and unconsciously, many people use all the three languages simultaneously in a conversation. A sentence would start in English and down the road, wanders off into some other language before finding its way back to English. Or not. Do not be surprised if a conversation you thought you are a part of winds up in another language. You will understand if you speak more than one language, that sometimes it is a lot easier for people to express particular concepts in one language better than another. Often too, folks speaking English fluently would use non-English affixes and words in a conversation. This might happen in a formal conversation as well, like briefing sessions in your internship, lectures during field trips, and classes you may be taking in our partner institutions.

AU Nairobi staff and students on a rooftop.

American English is only one of the versions spoken around the world. You will attune your ear to the version spoken here. Kenyan public schools are taught in the British version of English. Infuse that with influence of local languages and you have a version of Kenyan English that takes good listening to understand. Be cognitive of the fact you too speak with an accent that may not be familiar. On the same token, Kenyan English, as with American or any other version spoken around the world, has culture-specific expressions and dictum. When you make an acquaintance with a Kenyan, and exchange phone numbers, you will likely be asked to 'flash' them, meaning, call their phone to confirm you have the correct number. You are best served asking for clarification rather than making assumption. It is all a part of the experience.

Being Vegetarian

While it is not impossible to live on a vegetarian diet in Kenya (there are many people descended from South Asia who are vegetarians), expect to see meat in many Kenyan diets. If you know that you are going to visit someone's house for lunch, it is advisable to warn them beforehand so they do not go to the expense of purchasing meat. Cooking at home, you will have no problems finding enough proteins to supplement your diet. Tofu is available at health food stores and sometimes at larger grocery stores.


Nairobi grocery stores are filled to the brim with various food items.

In Nairobi there are a large number of food options that you might expect to see in America. Most of the brands carried are from Kenya, South Africa, different parts of Asia, and even America. You might pay a little bit less (flour, milk, sugar) or a little bit more (cheese, pickles, etc.) for the foods you would normally eat in the United States.

Kenyan woman cooking with a bio-gas heated stove.

Common Foods in Nairobi

Kenyans love carbohydrates! There are many English foods incorporated into Kenyan life from colonial times that include chips (french fries) biscuits (cookies), etc. Kenyans usually cook their food in oil for long periods of time before being eaten and use lots of salt. Unless they are eating South Asian food not many other spices are used. Kenyans usually never eat alone or 'on the go' as we are used to in America.

Kenya is known for several well-known dishes in East Africa.

Nyama choma. In this case, roasted goat leg.

Nyama choma - (roasted meat in Swahili) Kenyan staple; heavily roasted goat and beef are most common choices, usually eaten with hands and every bite dipped in a bit of salt.

Kachumbari - Kenyan version of salsa. Tomatoes and onions, and possibly garlic, carrots, and spicy pepper. Typically a side dish with ugali, sukuma wiki, and nyama choma.

Chapati - Kenyan version of a heavy tortilla, made with flour and fat, fried and best eaten hot.

Chai - Kenyan style tea, made with black tea leaves, whole fat milk, and sugar (sukari).

Mandazi - Kenyan version of a heavy donut, typically eaten with a cup of hot chai.

Chips - French fries.

Masala chips - French fries coated with a tomato base and plenty of spices.

Maize - Street food; unsweetened corn roasted over hot coals, most commonly served with chili lime salt.

Pilau - Indian origins; rice, typically with goat meat, with lots of spices that might include cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves.

Passion fruit are fun to eat!

Fresh Fruit – bananas, mangos, passion fruit, and other deliciousness is colorful and plentiful.

Irio – Kikuyu staple; mashed peas and potato mixed together with maize.

Githeri – Kikuyu staple; beans and corn mixed together, with our without another vegetable.

Sukuma Wiki – (push week in Swahili) Kenyan staple; originally named when used to push through the week because there wasn’t enough money to afford anything else. Kale boiled and fried with tomatoes, onions and oil. Commonly eaten with ugali and meat if available.

Ugali – Kenyan staple; made with corn meal and boiling water into a heavy paste with the consistency of play-doh, only eaten with another dish such as sukuma wiki, nyama choma, or another vegetable or meat.

Dukas make for an easy shopping experience.

In Nairobi there are many kiosks (roadside stands) where local people sell fruits, vegetables, and legumes on the street that are grown within the region. Not only are these foods inexpensive to buy, but by buying them one is promoting the local economy and directly helping someone to support their families. Small dukas (roadside stores with a permanent structure) sell things like toilet paper, phone cards, eggs, and soda.