Nigerians and Kenyans have different sensibilities, including very different attitudes to the stresses of life, whilst their politicians are very much the same in that they continue to line their own pockets.
Kenya is largely known for its dominance in endurance sports and for its beautiful wildlife and Safaris; you would imagine that because of this – the wildlife – they would be instinctively predisposed to sprinting, to being fast. But no, the Kenyan way is decidedly laid back. In context, it is little wonder that they excel at endurance sports and long-distance running.
AMBITIOUS NIGERIANS JOSTLING FOR POSITION
For a Nigerian in Kenya, it is a shocking change of pace, and for a Nigerian who has spent any amount of time in the South-West City of Lagos, it is near impossible to adapt. Kenyans do not possess that automatic disdain and vehemence that comes with living and trying to get ahead in a country with 160 million souls trying to do the exact same thing. That necessary defence mechanism that comes when you live in a country where people are obsessed with getting ahead of the next person, where people are forever jostling with each other to secure the best position for themselves; some call it ambition.
In Nigeria, it is evident in everyday situations like traffic: the constant blaring of horns, the yelling, cursing, and the promise of doom and eternal damnation hurled from one car window to the next, the last minute decisions to swerve in front of oncoming traffic, all just to get ahead of the next person. This is regardless of the fact that you will all have to slow down at a traffic light or a speed bump. “Naija no dey carry last”, this ethos has become ingrained in our collective identity and persona in more ways than we realise.
KENYANS AND “SAWA”
Standing with a group of Kenyans, you don’t feel that immediate sense to impose yourself on the conversation, to elevate your status beyond what it is- when someone mentions a job title, it is done so matter-of-factly, there is no pause to allow the import of the position take its toll, to soak in. When someone mentions that they work for the United Nations for example, the rest of the group won’t casually mention how interesting that is and how they have been trying to get a proposal in, while they all silently calculate the salary. Everyday Kenya conversation is bereft of all that. It is decidedly very simple. Or as they say here in Kenya, it is Sawa, the Swahili word for O.K.
This is their ethos. The Kenyan standard that everything will be O.K. is magnified in one of their most popular phrases, made so by the Disney film The Lion King, “Hakuna Matata”
This is their ethos. The Kenyan standard that everything will be O.K. is magnified in one of their most popular phrases, made so by the Disney film The Lion King, “Hakuna Matata”, it means No Worries. When a Kenyan has money, he spends it. He will fuel his car and drive, this means Nairobi’s already horrific traffic is particularly trying during the end of the month. When there is no money, he will park his car and use public transport. Nigerians also share this ethos of destiny working its magic and things working out eventually. It is embodied in the widely used phrase “E Go Better”. Yet, a Nigerian who can afford a car will not park it simply because he or she is out of money. One way or another, that car must and will be fuelled.
Our belief in fate and destiny is limited to it working out in our favour permanently, a thing getting better is a permanent fixture. E Go Better tomorrow but maybe not the day after, doesn’t really work for us. Ergo, if a car is bought, it must and will be fuelled at all cost. Blood, urine, anointing oil, palm oil, orijin, whatever, a motor spirit will move that car.
It is what feeds the sense of limitless opportunity in Nigeria, the sense and quite often the reality that the rainbow with the pot of gold isn’t too far away.
Life however doesn’t always work like that, the forces of fortune and good grace do not always respond to sheer willpower as evinced by all the uncompleted buildings and roads in all major Nigerian cities. Nigerians, however, do not allow a little thing like fact or simple reason deter them; the fact that the building in the city was left incomplete will not stop the builder from beginning a new one in the village.
It is why Nigeria has one of the highest ratios of new charismatic Pentecostal churches; it is why Nigerian politicians haven’t been sacked, because every Nigerian realises that fortunes can easily be reversed and to slow down or not move faster than the next person is to admit that things may not change.
It is what feeds the sense of limitless opportunity in Nigeria, the sense and quite often the reality that the rainbow with the pot of gold isn’t too far away. It is why Nigeria has one of the highest ratios of new charismatic Pentecostal churches; it is why Nigerian politicians haven’t been sacked, because every Nigerian realises that fortunes can easily be reversed and to slow down or not move faster than the next person is to admit that things may not change.
In reality, not that many fortunes are reversed. In a country with as many people as Nigeria, how many can come out on the very top? But once again, a little thing like facts or statistics will not stop Nigerians from pushing.
WHAT DRIVES KENYANS AND NIGERIANS?
Kenyans are without this maddening drive Nigerians seem to be born with. They take things at their own pace; it can be very riling for an outsider or a newcomer and it can also be very interesting for the social observer. Nigerians are always complaining about the stress of daily life in Nigeria and how their fellow citizens aren’t polite or patient. Living in Kenya, you will wish for a little injection of that sense of urgency sometimes, whether it is necessary or not.
Perhaps Kenyans have discovered that it is better to live life at a pace that is suited to you or perhaps they have worked out the mathematics and realised that not all of us will be multimillionaires in our lifetime and have decided to enjoy the time they have. One thing is for certain, you will not find that need for ostentation, recognition or titles as a measure of accomplishment in Kenyans, it is not what drives them.
This is not to say that there are no similarities between us, and that all Kenyans stroll leisurely whistling Hakuna Matata into the sunset. In every society there are those who have been left on the fringes and Kenya is no different. These people understand that hunger, despair, the inability to dream, disease, poverty and death are all the same whether you live in Kenya or in Nigeria.
There are other ways we are similar; Kenya is the most prominent country in East Africa, it has the strongest economy and military in the region and is perceived as the regional leader, much like Nigeria in West Africa. Kenyans can often be heard scoffing or dismissing other countries in East Africa; there is a subconscious national agreement that these other countries are not up to par and the region would not be buoyant without Kenya’s participation. This closely mirrors what Nigerians feel about Nigeria’s involvement in the ECOWAS, and for the most part it is true. Shout-out to Jammeh!
Kenya also suffers from the same internecine conflicts and insecurities that have pipped Nigeria’s progress. Kenya’s government and history is interwoven with the majority group in the country; the Kikuyus control government and the economy and feel strongly that the right to govern belongs to them. They too can be heard deriding other ethnic groups in the country; if you changed around some of the names of tribes, you would find that you are also reciting the history of Nigeria.
YET KENYAN POLITICIANS ARE THE SAME AS NIGERIAN POLITICIANS
Kenya recently adopted a bi-cameral legislature and regional Governors for the first time, and while still relatively new, they have become adept at neglecting popular opinion and sentiment or even following the basics laws of logic while simultaneously lining their pockets, much like their counterparts in West Africa.
There are many towns that you drive through and see the corner shop painted in the red of Close-Up or Airtel, or the white and blue of Omo; many petty traders you will see named Gods Fortune Enterprises or Roberts & Son. Drive by the junction and watch how people queue up, waiting for the small bus that cannot possibly carry them all comfortably. Drive by the market and see people haggle over the prices of staples like onions and tomatoes, even as more people haggle over used clothing spread on the floor, forcing buyers to bend down and ultimately select.
You could close your eyes and with all the sounds and the bustle of people and imagine that you were in any busy town or city in Nigeria.
There are more immediate ways that we are different as well; Abuja, the capital of Nigeria is a grand structure by most standards – solid road networks, a world class stadium, remarkable architecture and other supporting infrastructure. Nairobi has begun its journey but isn’t quite there yet, it however does compensate by having large swathes of land in the capital for wildlife in their natural habitat, which for any city is a feat to boast about.
Having spent some time in Kenya, I find myself sometimes drifting into the patterns and beginning to take life at pace, living a life sans fervent activity and planning and sometimes I even believe I am content. Then an opportunity I can exploit comes my way and I quickly remember Naija No Dey Carry Last.
Babatunde lives in Kenya with his wife and child. He heads the Communication and Marketing office for Shelter Afrique, and maintains a keen interest in politics, film and film-making, literature, music, sports and cuisine.