Learn the local language or get into trouble

Prachy Mohan
Sep 6, 2019 · 5 min read

About 6 months ago I decided to move to Nairobi without doing much research into what that would be like. Now that I’m writing this, I realise it wasn’t one of my brightest moments. But at the time, it made logical sense to me: I didn’t want to come here with too many preconceived notions and instead be an open vessel that takes in the new life as it comes. So I was set.

What I didn’t realise however, was that I would blend in like a local due to the large Indian population here. And that not learning the local language would put me in strange situations.

One Monday morning, I took a trip to the immigration office with my friend Jeel to sort out my paperwork. On our way to the city centre, we chatted about expectation versus reality in Nairobi, our usual topic of conversation for the first couple of months here. Nothing out of the ordinary happened — we waited hours to finally be escorted into a small office where three men shuffled through hundreds of envelopes to find our work permit.

Happy to be out of the grim and stuffy building, we quickly got into our Uber and headed back to work.

Before I tell you what happened next, let me share with you some background on matatus, public buses and mini-vans, which are the primary mode of transportation for most locals.

Matatu scenes in the city

Matatus are notorious for rash driving, ruthless conductors, and generally for bringing noise and chaos into the city. Though some have become a cultural phenomenon with their thematic graffiti, loud music, and screens displaying music videos, the government has tried their very best to bring some order to the chaos. One of the rules they implemented was to ban matatus from entering the city center.

That day, thousands of locals walked more than an hour just to get to work. Uber, Safe Boda, Taxify had hit their supply limit and prices had sky rocketed! Locals paying just 50 Shillings ($0.50) for their commute were now quoted more than 400 Shillings ($4). Chaos and delays ensued. No one got to work or back home on time.

As someone who walks to work, this whole ordeal didn’t impact me directly, until I almost got arrested outside of the immigration office.

When Jeel and I got inside our Uber, we realized after a few minutes that we weren’t moving. A few men were blocking our way and a very tall, large man made his way to our car. He greeted us in Swahili and immediately went in to shake Jeel’s hand and then mine. With very confused looks on our faces, we shook his hand and looked at each other dumbfounded, unsure of what to make of this situation. He continued to talk to us in Swahili though we mentioned we didn’t understand him. Our Uber driver, Cleverance, and this man both ignored us and continued to banter in Swahili while Jeel and I sat in silence looking very confused.

We kept hearing the word ‘matatu’ and I assumed he wanted a ride to the matatu hub as they weren’t allowed inside the city. I sat up alert, looking back and forth between this man and our driver, hoping that if I concentrated hard enough, I’d magically understand some Swahili. Lost in this concentration, I suddenly jumped as this man opened the car door and came to sit right beside me! Why were the doors not locked? Why had Jeel sat in the front with the driver? What would this man do to me?

Judging by his size, he could break me in half within seconds.

So Jeel and I broke into panic mode, asking what was going on but it seemed like no one wanted to keep us in the loop. Swahili banter continued and our voices were drowned out. Nervous energy hung in the cab like sweat clinging onto Cleverance’s scrunched up face.

It felt like years had passed until the man finally left our car. As if in slow motion, I remember his arm with a large silver watch reached the door handle and he crouched down to half his size to set out of the car.

That was a close call. But what had actually happened?

The average policeman in Kenya earns about Ksh 400,000 ($4,000 USD) per year. Side hustles being a common practice among all locals, the police also partake in small ventures to make that extra cash. And that’s exactly what was happening.

This man in plain khaki pants and a white shirt was no regular civilian. He was a policeman who wanted to arrest us because we were in a matatu in the city centre when they were banned. Clearly, we were in a car and not a mini-van but this day represented an opportunity to make a few hundred shillings so he took his shot.

Among all the Indians in the city centre, we probably stood out as foreigners and so were targeted. But what’s more interesting is that Cleverance never realized that we couldn’t speak Swahili. Though he really had our back (and his own!), not knowing the language left us totally defenceless. A very classic foreigner problem but with a twist, since we are often mistaken as Kenyan Indian.

Music video playing in a matatu

Prachy Mohan

Written by

Kenya’s 48th Tribe

An expat’s experiences in Kenya for a year.

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