A few weeks ago a friend sent me an article about the middle class in Kenya and it got me thinking….about my life in Kenya and other people who have chosen (or fallen into) this middle class existence in Kenya.
Before I made a decision to come back to Kenya I lived in Washington, DC. My existence was pretty banal, I worked at a local NGO coordinating events and that was it. What bugged me the most about my life was that I was 30 years old, working and living in someone’s house (renting a room) paying minimal rent for the privilege of living in DC, which I could barely afford.
I looked at the people around me, they were all on the rat race. Most of the people I interacted with did not give you even a second glance if you did not mention an influential government official, statesman or international organization. Many people were out looking for their next big break, and sleeping on sofas while at it.
When I first decided to relocate to Kenya on a 6-month trial basis – it was 2012. I was tired of organizing events and kept on wondering what my Master’s degree was for if I was to be relegated to event management (no offence to those in the profession). I was determined to get a job that was worthwhile and that would get me to be able to be a director in a local NGO or at least a program manager.
For 6 months I only got one response to a job which I applied for and eventually led to my decision to quit the States and settle in Kenya; well, at least for the moment. In January 2013, as I returned to Kenya I was looking forward to a life of fulfillment, promise, a moment to pursue and capture my dreams and most of all to enjoy the middle class existence of Kenya.
So what do the middle class in Kenya do….I soon discovered. I quickly realized that all the people on the same pay grade as I was owned a car, although I couldn’t understand how they afforded it. With my earnings going to rebuild a life I did not feel the need to own one.
The pressure was very real and repeated to the point that some people felt I was being unreasonable and hard-headed. I still do not drive. I have chose to live near the public transport and drive to work. Saves me the stress of traffic jams and the expense of keeping, fueling and servicing a car.
I also learned that the middle class apportion their weekends to heavy spending on entertainment. For a person my age that means drinking and clubbing from Friday evening until the week hours of Sunday morning. Then Sunday is spent in recovery mode. I quickly got tired of the life.
I hated having hangovers as my weekend story (which apparently is glorified in Kenya as a sign of living ‘the life’), I then tried the regular weekend events. They turn out to be full of the same rowdy, party crowds who often get drunk and obnoxious and behave inappropriately.
Desperate for some fun time I joined a weekend getaway club…..except it was a getaway to drunkenness and debauchery…I quickly started ignoring the club’s suggestions.
Meanwhile at 32 and single I am the butt of most people’s jokes in the office. Many colleagues attribute any displayed shortfalls to my lack of a ‘husband’ and even begin to offer unsolicited advice in regards to getting a partner. As I am not desperate to get married I ignore them. Only for the same to be reiterated by friends, relatives, neighbors, strangers, the doctor, the nurse…
When I mention all these issues to friends they tell me the problem is that I am aged and single and so I should retire to a world of being a housewife and having babies. Then I can graduate to hanging out with other parents.
Travelling is my thing and when I get the chance I travel outside the country. When my colleagues realised how much time and money I spent on travel, they chastised me….I should have used the travel money to buy a piece of land or get a mortgage, travelling is a waste of money.
How am I investing in the future? I shot the statistic back at them, Kenyans barely live above the age of 45, why should I try to postpone all my happiness? For all I know I will be knocked down by a bus on my way home from work (this happened to a colleague recently) so as I understand it….I should enjoy my life.
My colleagues concluded that I must be dumb. Kenyans have had a wave of obsessions with buying land and houses. The obsession is so bad that people have ended up with a lot of fraudulent deals and debts. There is a general belief that owning land or houses is the ultimate Kenyan dream….I am beginning to wonder if that should be every Kenyan’s dream.
So this is what middle class is about. Pressure to spend money which you may or may not have, pressure to fit it. Pressure to show up at every important event that means anything. Those who are in their 30’s are pressured to get married and get children as fast as possible.
At the same time they have to drive the right car, shop in the right malls and show up in the right circles. All this, in the name of living the life. It is a sad existence and it is unreal. I find it strange that people in their 30’s have let their dreams slip, are no longer interested in achieving many of the things they wanted earlier in life and did not achieve. They find their identities in their workmates, neighbours, friends.
As I finished the article I began to understand why I don’t fit into the Kenyan middle class. I work for a bank, in a managerial position. I do not own a car, I use public transport. I do not have a mortgage neither am I a landowner. I rent a small one-bedroom flat outside town. I do not make it a point to show up at prestigious events, neither do I drink and club all weekend.
I do enjoy others ‘company, but on my terms. I travel as much as I can and as far as I can. I collect stories as I go and share them widely. I am not particularly concerned about marriage, I believe if I was meant to be married then I will get married as some point. While I struggle against the grain I wonder whether it is worth being different in your own home country.