8 Things That Surprise Foreigners About Kenya

Even after reading guidebooks, many tourists still go to Kenya expecting to see only tribal culture and lions. While they probably will see those aspects of Kenya, there are a lot of other things they’ll see that they weren’t necessarily expecting. Kenya’s colorful history and growing economy mean that the country is more diverse and nuanced than typical Western stereotypes lead us to believe. Rural populations have become more urbanized, wildlife can be found in unexpected places, and culture means more than just “tribal.” Here are 8 things that surprise foreigners about Kenya.

getting around nairobi

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It can be very congested

Many travelers fly directly into Nairobi and are surprised how bad the traffic can get between the airport and downtown, and on the arterial streets. Those heading out on safari during high season are also surprised at the amount of vehicle traffic in some of the popular parks. They finally realize that Kenya, like many other countries, is a busy place, and they obviously weren’t the only person with the idea to go there.

coffee on table


It can be hard to find good coffee

Coffee lovers heading to Kenya might be expecting to enter a mecca to the cherished bean, considering that so much coffee is grown in the country. However, coffee culture hasn’t quite developed in Kenya (or Nairobi) the way it has in cities like Seattle or Rome. There are definitely some good coffee houses around the country, but tourists may be surprised when they are served hot water and Nescafé. Head to Narobi Java House (multiple locations in Kenya), or a traditional coffee house in Mombasa for the best results.

Personal care (Martin Roell/flickr)

Personal care (Martin Roell/flickr)

Personal care products can be hard to find

When tourists are looking for their favorite brand of shampoo in Kenya, they are often surprised it’s not available at the local store. Sure there will be a few substitutes, but it’s best that travelers bring their own stuff if they are picky. Travelers likely won’t find a shampoo aisle like the one pictured above in Kenya.

nairobi fashion

Courtesy of upnairobi.com

The people are very stylish

Travelers coming to Kenya might expect to see people in tribal dress (if they are going to rural areas), or ragged people living in poverty in the cities. However, that isn’t exactly the case. There is a lot of money flowing through Kenya and a lot of stylish people, especially in Nairobi, which is home to an annual fashion week.

cold mount kilimanjaro


It can get very cold

Tourists looking at Kenya on a map will notice that the equator goes right through it, which might make them think it’s nothing by HOT. However the high elevation in many parts of Kenya means that it can get very cold at night. For instance, nights in Nairobi average around 48-56F (9-13C) throughout the year, and if travelers head into mountain terrain, they are likely to run into snow.

giraffe nairobi skyline

Courtesy of Clara Sanchiz / Wikimedia Commons

The wildlife can be very close…

Especially if you go to Nairobi. Tourists are often surprised that they don’t actually have to go that far to see wildlife in Kenya, as opposed to other countries in Africa, where you may need to drive several hours. In fact, people often see a giraffe grazing as soon as they land at Jomo Kenyatta airport. Nairobi National Park is located in close proximity to the city’s CBD.

malarone malaria

Brendan Howard / Shutterstock

Locals don’t take malaria tablets

Most tourists who come to Kenya are armed with a pouch full of malaria tablets to take every day of their trip. However, they are often surprised to find out that locals rarely take them. To Kenyans, malaria is just like the common cold or flu, so they don’t bother taking a preventative for it.

packed matatu kenya

Courtesy of Tabrez / Picasa

There isn’t much personal space

Western travelers are often surprised when visiting a bank or grocery store in Kenya, because of how close people stand to them. This feeling is magnified when they attempt to ride in a matatu (shared taxi). Fortunately, most travelers eventually get used to it, even if they aren’t initially comfortable being so close to other people.

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