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Kenyans must let go obsession with status symbol

By XN IRAKI | June 10th 2014

One of the national trends among the Kenyan elite in the last decade or so is the obsession with status symbols. It might be one of the lasting legacies of 70 years of colonialism. I however find this obsession with status symbols paradoxical because in the last decade or so, we turned East, where status is less of a concern.

Before turning East, we had crossed the Atlantic and got Americanised. America has less emphasis on status symbols. Her war of independence included doing away with British class system.  A good example; when former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kenya in 2008, she was just referred to as Condoleezza Rice, not Dr Rice or Professor Rice , though she was a professor at Stanford.

 If she was a Kenyan, she could have ranted how we are ‘disrespectful’ by not calling by her proper title. Recall when Kenya’s leaders were queuing to get ‘doctorates’ from an obscure US college. Titles particularly Dr is one the most trending status symbols. Noted how every State and corporate big Whig is now Dr?

Other popular status symbols include the car you drive, is it a Vitz (like mine), a Probox, a Lexus, a Mercedes, Porsche or Maybach. Visibility of this symbol makes it very attractive. Cars also connote power; seen a GK Vitz? Others symbols include residence. Do you stay in Karenview (Ongata Rongai) or Karen itself?

Do you stay in Tatuview estate (Githurai) or Tatu City? Do you stay in Muthaiga View (Pangani) or Muthaiga itself? Needless to say, the most prestigious residences are not within Nairobi, they in the wild! Are you a member of any club excluding a chama? Where do you frequent for entertainment, a joint or a Five-Star hotel? Which game do you play? Golf or pool?

Sound systems

The church you attend matters, is it one of the many around the church crescent along Nyerere/Kenyatta Avenue or is far into the estates where sound systems of many churches compete for your attention?

Where did you school? Did you go to one of the original national schools like Alliance or more recently the international schools?  Or did you go to local schools like the curiously named Mung’etho Secondary School near Nyahururu? More curious is where your kids currently school?

Other status symbols include family name; do you use Kenyatta, Mwangi or Onyango as your family name? Another status symbol is your network, which can be proxy by the contacts on your phone.  Who is the highest-ranking contact? Your chief or a cabinet secretary?

The only annoying thing about most of these status symbols except the family name is that they can easily copied. You cannot stop people attending your church or living in high-class neighbourhood, even if it is a slum. By working hard in school, you could get into a prestigious university. You can take a loan to buy a big car or commit a fraud to get one. To large extent, status symbols drive corruption.

Pricing cap

The elite have been creative in ring fencing their status to stop copying or dilution. Pricing has been the most powerful tool. If you are from The University of Nairobi main campus, you may not frequent Norfolk or Mount Kenya Safari club because of pricing, yet you just need to cross the street. On a transcontinental flight, someone might be sleeping on a bed in first class as you try walking around the plane to relax! High rents will keep you from some neighbourhoods where there are no matatus! 

Incidentally, some cities by laws try to dilute this exclusivity. The Kenya elite has finally come up with a genetic status symbol that is difficult to copy. Have you noted the rising number of mixed race kids in prestigious neighbourhoods like Westlands?

Have you noted the number of elite Kenyan women who hyphenate their names e.g. Jane Kamau-Thompson? You are unlikely to find Jane Kamau as Jane Kamau-Njoroge if married to Njoroge. Marrying across the racial divide has become the ultimate status symbol.  Parents will go to any length to inform you of their daughter who married a mzungu. If Jane marries Onyango or Kibet, you will hear that she married Kibet or Onyango, but if she marries a mzungu, you will not know his name!

Does marrying across racial line raise the status of Kenyan men too since they do not change their names? Some could argue that there is nothing about status in such marriages; it is a consequence of globalisation and international travel.

Kenyan elite

I deliberately think it’s more than travel.  Why are there so few Kenyans married to Asians despite their 100 or so years presence in Kenya?  Observers will note that despite 70 years of colonialism, there were not many kids of mixed race like South African coloureds.

The new status symbol is hard to copy; you cannot take a leave to go and look for a woman or man of another race to keep up with your peers. In the next 50 years, we shall have a browner elite in Kenya. The socio-economic and may be political effects of a browner Kenyan elite would constitute an interesting research.

Will the browner elite have the economic influence equivalent to the one currently enjoyed by Asians and Wazungus? Will it compete with them?  How will the hoi polloi react?  Keep a copy of this article and we compare notes in 2063, it does not matter where I shall be…

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