Middle class is a label that acquiring common usage but what does it actually mean in the Kenyan context. From a general understanding of Kenyan social ordering, society can broken down into the rich (Sonkos), the middle (Mababi) and the working class (watus or common mwananchi).
You must have met those savvy Kenyans who eat only white meat, as long as it is fried and greasy and swear by prickled green olives for curing hangovers. You may have even run into a Kenyan who thinks Fatou Bensouda is the name of a bombmaker from Tunis because they do not watch local news. When you meet a Kenyan who offers ‘fresh’ juice out of a packet that sat on a supermarket shelf for three months and an additional two weeks in their fridge they are probably aspiring middle class.
Kenya’s aspiring middle class can be defined by their fad driven consumer tastes, shocking ignorance of local affairs and a penchant for living in self defined bubbles. They live by the mantra. If it is expensive, I must have it. So tastes change overnight after an encounter with pink champagne. Aspiring middle class Kenyans are committed to success, status, style and the good life. They band together in gated communities. Marry within their class, add golf memberships on their resumes and enroll their children in private schools.
The aspiring middle class are consumer hedonists and their grasp on brand trivia borders on the pathological. They stay on track with international fashion trends. Image is everything and not switching your wardrobe every half year is a social crime that could indicate that you are not ‘doing well’. The aspiring middle class use the term Africa to describe any local product that has attracted the attention of international trend setters like Oprah. So when they talk of Afro print they are referring to good ol’ Kitenge.
They track the latest gadgets because possessing an iPhone that has been on the market for over year will ruin your tech credentials. They have a fixation with collecting useless Apps the kind that can help reveal your true pirate name.
The typical aspiring middle class can be very patriotic but the only time they vote is during hyped game shows such as Big Brother Africa. Politics is given only peripheral attention and participation only occurs when a politician directly interferes with one’s happiness. It is at the point that they lash out on twitter complaining to their followers about heartless politicians who overlap in traffic.
Most of people who view themselves as middle class often need to qualify that statement with aspiring. They aspire for financial security, high status, luxurious trappings and are committed to swimming their way through debt to keep up with the Kardashians.
Traditional middle class families in Kenya had clear life style benchmarks and understood that wealth was accumulated over time. They owned a house, a paid up car, could afford private health cover, the funds to send kids to college abroad and take an annual holiday at the coast. That version of middle class pragmatism is diminishing by the day to be replaced by instant gratification seeking herd animals milling about in the glass towers. There are known as Nairobi’s emerging corporate elite and they are the reason wasabi paste sales are soaring in the supermarkets.