Muted Valentine's Day celebration a sign of Kenya's economic reality

Financial Standard
By XN Iraki | Feb 20, 2024
A withered flower abandoned on a bed after Valentine's day. Does love fade the same way? [Courtesy]

Are we getting tired of fads or economic reality is at play? A walk on St Valentine’s Day along Koinange Street at around 5pm left me asking that question.

My intention was to have a feel of how the day was celebrated. I did little to celebrate the day, do not ask me why.

Clearly, the red colour has lost its magic. I saw few Kenyans wearing red, except one security guard, whose red tie I suspect was part of his uniform.

Flowers were on sale at the junction of Koinange and Monrovia streets. A stem for Sh100 while bouquets ranged from Sh500 to Sh2000. Down the road near Kenyatta Avenue, a bouquet was going for Sh4,500, pimped with ribbons and chocolate.

Clearly, most Kenyans were just going on with their business on that day. It seems the excitement of Valentine's has slowly faded. Or has our love grown cold?

Maybe we got used to the day and it no longer excites us. The law of diminishing marginal utility probably set in. That usually happens as we grow older, we find few exciting things. But how do you explain the fact that only a few youngsters were adorned in red?

Did Ash Wednesday mute Valentine’s Day? The confidence of the two days was very symbolic. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, that one day we shall all return to dust. Valentine’s is about love, and perpetuation of life, extending mortality. The two days are more complementary than contradictory.

I met one familiar Kenyan heading to mass, but the rest of the Kenyans were heading home. It’s all economics. I asked one flower seller to compare last year and this year’s Valentine’s Days. The answer startled me: “It was Uhuru, now it’s Ruto.” She did not elaborate.

Celebrations are usually the first casualty of hard economic times. We indulge in fun because we have disposable income. Do you buy flowers or unga? Do you buy flowers or keep the money for the next day’s bus fare?

Many Kenyans would love to express love through flowers or any other symbols like a candle-lit dinner. But the economic reality can’t allow. A visit to a downtown hotel at 6pm on Valentine’s Day found no overflow of ‘red’ couples. 

It’s unlikely that Kenyans’ love for one another has grown cold. You need money to celebrate not just Valentine's but graduations, birthdays, baby showers, and weddings, among others. Paradoxically, we have more of these celebrations - some argue to raise money, more than to celebrate.

Beyond flowers, one highrise building near Westlands had an electronic display of the Cupid and Happy Valentine's. What did Kenyans think about it?

If I had time I would have visited slums, leafy suburbs and rural areas to investigate how different socio-economic classes celebrated Valentine’s. By the way, I never heard of Valentine’s Day till I came to the city as a schoolboy. There were more pressing issues as we grew up, beyond display of love or lack of it.

The state of the economy has subdued Valentine’s just like the shilling, which is fighting back. Why can’t we be creative and shift the celebrations to a later date away from December and January expenditures? What name, preferably in Swahili, should we give our Valentine’s?

Some argue the fading of St Valentine’s Day is good for love. Love should be distributed across all the days of the year. We should feel loved every day, not just one day.

Maybe without an obsession with Valentine's, we shall take love for what it is, a mysterious feeling that can’t be explained using words or a bouquet of flowers.

We know flowers symbolise love. But what is love - it has defied poets, writers, preachers, philosophers and even witch doctors. How can the mystery of love be sorted in one day?

The truth is that lovers rarely benefit on that day, except through feelings.  It’s the businessmen who make money selling flowers, meals, and other merchandise. Economists would call the spending on St Valentine’s Day an economic stimulus, just as Christmas spending is.

How did you celebrate Valentine’s? Was the state of the economy a factor in your celebration? Would the number of stems of flowers sold in each Valentine's be a better indicator of the state of the economy than GDP growth rate? After all, the stems are bought with love and sincerity, unlike other necessities such as sugar or salt.

Finally, have you noted that many African languages have no word for love? Does that mean we were loveless or love was so abundant it needed no special word? How did we express our love traditionally? Were there hugs, kisses, holding hands? What role did charms play, still play?

Please find out and report back to us. Let’s hear from you on this mysterious love. So mysterious is love that I doubt if any economist has tried to model it! 

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