Kenyan Culture

Greetings

  • Verbal greetings vary between different ethnic groups in Kenya.
  • The most common greeting among those who speak Swahili is ‘Hujambo’ (‘Hello’) or the more colloquial greeting of ‘Jambo’. Both greetings can be responded with the phrase ‘sijambo’, which means ‘I am well’.
  • Other common greetings in contemporary Kenya include ‘sasa’ or ‘Mambo’. The typical response to these greetings is ‘poa’ (a more casual way of saying ‘hello’).
  • When Kenyans greet one another, they will often inquire about each other’s family and well-being.
  • The most typical gesture when greeting is a handshake. It is expected that one shakes the hands of everyone present. For example, if you enter a room with ten people, it is common that you would take the time to greet each by verbally greeting them and shaking their hand.
  • Supporting the right forearm with the left hand while shaking demonstrates respect for an elder or someone of higher social status. Verbal greetings are usually said before the handshake.
  • If two people are greeting and one of the person’s hands are not clean, they may politely choose to grasp the other’s arm at elbow level as opposed to their hand. This is done out of courtesy.
  • Men may greet other men with a handshake and a hug if they have a close friendship.
  • Between women, a handshake is appropriate in most social situations. However, good friends and family will often exchange a hug and a light kiss on the cheek.
  • When greeting a man, the polite form of address is ‘bwana’ (a combination of ‘mister’ and ‘sir’).
  • For anybody around the age of forty and above, the term ‘mzee’ (‘older man’ or ‘elder’) is used. This term signifies respect for the person, their wisdom and experience as an elder.
  • For women of any age, the typical form of address is ‘mama’. 
  • Children are often addressed as ‘watoto’ (plural form) or ‘toto’ (singular form). 
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