My friend is buying flowers. And as she points to the ones she wants, I’m leaning over to breathe them all in. I can’t help myself.
The sound of passing cars on the street fades away as I close my eyes to breathe it all in.
“It smells so good,” I exclaim to my friend.
“Yes, says this guy who’s next to me, “we grow them here in Kenya.”
He’s just leaning against the car, hanging out with his friend, the flower man, by the side of the street.
It’s Kenya. And one of the things I love about this culture is that people reach out and connect. And to do so with such warmth and generosity.
This is what the Nairobi travel guides don’t tell you.
I smile at him and share excitedly, “You know when I smell them in Europe and they don’t smell as good as they do here. They’re so fresh!”
But they are still beautiful here in Nairobi.
“Asante.” Thank you, I say to him as I receive his gift and put it straight to my nose, breathing it in.
That’s when my friend teases him in Swahili: “I come here to buy flowers all the time and you never give me flowers!”
“But look how happy she is,” says the friend of the flower man, also in Swahili, “He is giving her a flower because she really appreciates flowers.”
He says this as the flower man also presents my friend with a rose, with a sheepish smile.
She translated this conversation for me later in the car. And I laughed.
The joy of appreciation. And the appreciation of joy.
We talk about it on the way home.
“I’ve been too transactional when I’ve been there. I’ll stop and smell the roses next time,” jokes my friend.
“I couldn’t help myself,” I say. “The roses were right there. I had to smell them. And when they smell so beautiful, I just couldn’t keep it to myself!”
And I start to wonder:
How often do you let yourself express your joy? Even with the little things in life.
Do we allow ourselves to experience things like this? To appreciate it. And express it as a celebration of being alive.
Do we feel safe to do so?
The flower man saw that I was happy. And in the generosity of his spirit, he wanted to make me even more happy.
And for that, my heart felt an immense wave of joy and gratitude.
The Kenyan smile
I have seen cultures that smile abundantly. Like in Bali and Thailand.
But in Nairobi, when they smile, their whole face cracks open. Their eyes twinkle. And their heart is full of warmth.
Nairobi has taught me so much in my short time here so far. Much of that cannot be found in the Nairobi travel guides.
Jokingly called Nairobbery by the locals, it is a city of contrasts. This is what the Nairobi travel guides say.
Home to one of the world’s biggest slums, it is also home to a growing middle class, living in gated estates. This is also what the Nairobi travel guides say.
People tell me “be safe in Nairobi!” The travel guides say this too.
But what they do not say is: “Enjoy the heartfelt smiles and the wonderful people.”
On the busy streets, I see faces that are sombre. The sun is glaring and the air is dry. The rains have not come.
But give them any excuse and those same faces will break open into a smile that moves me with the greatness of the human spirit.
I see people smile here with their eyes. And the depth of their hearts.
I’ve travelled extensively. And I am yet to meet a culture that smiles like the Kenyans do.
The Nairobi travel guides could not have prepared me for this. But I am glad to have seen it for myself.
I’m making generalisations, I know. After all, how else can we talk about culture?
And smiles mean different things culturally. Sometimes people smile out of politeness. Or as a social courtesy. Even here in Nairobi, that is true.
But here, I have also many, many more smiles that are so much more than that. And this is special.
For richer and for poorer
On my third day here, I struck up a conversation with a taxi driver, Joe.
He asked me how long I’d been in Nairobi.
“Three days,” I said, “It’s my first time in Africa and Kenya.”
“Oh welcome!” he smiles with his whole face and his eyes.
I was surprised at how heartfelt his welcome as. Even though every Nairobian so far has responded this way, with delight twinkling in their eyes when I tell them it’s my first time visiting… it’s still a surprise to me.
“Oh, I’m loving it. I’m so happy to be here.”
“What is it you like about Nairobi?”
“People smile here. They are not pretending. They smile with their whole face. And a full heart.” I placed my hand over my heart as I shared this with him.
He laughed with his whole body shaking and slaps his hand lightly on the steering wheel. Kind of proving my point.
“Oh really?!” he said, quite surprised.
“Yes!” I smiled. “You are from here. Maybe you are used to it. But I’ve travelled a lot. And I have not seen this anywhere else.”
“Ah, it’s because we are poor,” he said jovially.
“You think so?”
“Yes. Europeans have everything. But they are not happy.” He said matter-of-factly.
I nodded out of politeness. This generalisation was a can of worms I did not want to open.
“How about rich Kenyans? Do they smile like this too?” I asked.
“Oh yes, of course. It is Kenya,” he said smiling.
I smiled at his optimism. But privately, I wasn’t so sure about that.
As I spent more time in Nairobi, I met more and more people who smiled and took delight in the little things in life.
These were the people on the streets. The every day people. Because the typical well-off Nairobian doesn’t walk. They drive.
In my limited time here – and of course, my limited experience – the wealthier people who live in gated estates have been less inclined to crack open that full and easy smile I’ve come to love. Even when I initiate one.
Those same people talk of the problems of living in Nairobi. Of traffic jams and government inadequacies. And their struggles making money.
Nor have many people in offices and shops smiled in that way that made me fall in love with Nairobi in my first few days here.
I have not been here long enough to know. Or to make generalisations.
But I find myself craving more connection with the everyday people on the streets.
Was Joe right? Is it poverty that makes us appreciate more of what we have? More of the little things in life?
Are our first world problems getting the better of our joy and happiness? Even in Nairobi?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. I think everyone has their struggles – rich or poor. In the absence of answers, I can only ask you…
What are you doing to appreciate the little things in life?
What can you experience – so that you can set your smile free?
I’d love to hear your response in the comment section below.
Community and happiness
“I’m here to pick up a pizza for Cece,” I say to the waitress at the restaurant. As she goes to the kitchen counter to enquire, a waiter overhears me.
“Your name is Cece?” he asks.
“No, it’s my friend’s name. She’s in the car waiting for me.”
“Ah, you know the meaning of Cece in (something-something language?)”
I confess, I didn’t catch the name of the language. It’s one of the 60 plus languages spoken in Kenya, I’m guessing. If you know, then let me know too by leaving a comment below!
“No. What does it mean?”
“It means togetherness. Everybody together.” As he says this, his Kenyan accent gets stronger and richer, just as he says that.
“That is a beautiful meaning!” I exclaim.
He nods with satisfaction.
This is one of the things I love about Nairobians.
Complete strangers have reached out to connect. To help me out. Or to help me understand something.
Countless times this has happened. From Nairobians of all walks of life
And they’ve done so with such warmth, care and grace.
Even when they are educating me on a custom or a practice that I – as a visitor – have not grasped.
This is something that they do not tell you in the Nairobi travel guides.
One day, as I waited at the check out counter of a supermarket, a woman passing by kindly explained to me that I needed to weigh the apples first… with complete kindness and understanding in her voice.
In many parts of the world, that wouldn’t have happened at all.
“Is it just me?” I wondered.
Do strangers help me because I look like I’m not from here? So I asked my Kenyan friend if this happens to her too. It does.
On a busy street in Nairobi yesterday, I was physically heckled by an unusually unkempt man.
Another guy was walking on the same street, about 5 metres ahead of me. He around and came to my assistance.
He scolded the heckler and told him to keep away from me. And then he made sure I could continue my journey unbothered, placing himself between me and the heckler for the longest time.
My Kenyan friend assured me that if there had been more people around at the time, they would all have scolded the man and kept me safe. She had seen this happen many times.
Sadly, this has not been my experience living in Australia, the land of the young and free.
In Australia, I remember being more frightened after a physically threatening incident. Because during the incident, no one in the crowded room had stopped to help.
And if no one will help, what safety can there be in a community? Is there even a community?
In “Nairobbery,” I have experienced something different. Something better.
As much as there might be crime driven by desperation, and the greed of corruption here – which I believe happens everywhere in the world – there is still this tangible sense of community here in Nairobi.
Nairobians talk of complex family relationships. And difficult expectations from extended family – socially and financially.
But I wonder if their sense of community extends beyond all that. Strangers will stop and help. Because this is what they do here.
The Nairobi travel guides don’t tell you that either.
Research tells us that our social connections play a major role in our wellbeing and happiness.
Perhaps this is why the Nairobians I’ve met have cause to smile with such genuine warmth.
They are socially connected everywhere. Even on the streets. On the buses. In the shops.
This is what is being shown to me. And it is not something that I found in the Nairobi travel guides either.
Sawa sawa, as the Kenyans say. (Sa-wa Sa-wa)
I asked Cece what that phrase means as we walked into a small grocery shop. Because I had heard it said a lot.
A man sitting 2 metres behind us overhears me and almost shouts, “Everything is good!”
I look blankly at my friend. She smiles and says, “That’s what sawa sawa means.”
I turn around to face this man. He nods at me and we smile.
Nairobi is not without it’s complications. But still, everything is good. And I am glad to be here.