Happy couple

Some people are in fulfilling relationships, some are battling divorces while others are having liaisons despite being married.

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The chaos that is Kenya’s dating scene 

What you need to know:

  • Welcome to dating space where convenience partnerships are the norm, having multiple lovers is fashionable and deceit is the name of the game.
  • Married Kenyan men and women seeing younger people, sometimes up to 20 years younger, is commonplace.

Many believe that getting a soulmate is the cure-all for lightening the problems plaguing an individual. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it means inviting more troubles.

From infidelity to strange secret arrangements, toxic masculinity and femininity, dating or being in a relationship comes with a cocktail of problems.   

Perhaps intrigued by the level of sadism,  Muthoni Kimemiah recently tweeted: “I hate how the world hardens people. I miss parts of me that were softer, kinder and more loving. Naïve even.”

And recently, a Kenyan tweeted rather sarcastically that every relationship in Nairobi has a branch in Thika. This seemingly simple one-liner might cause you heartache because, well, the dating scene in the city – and by extension in Kenya – is brutal and most of its players unapologetic sadists. 

Lifestyle brings you a glimpse into the dating scene in Kenya and how the pandemic has shaped it. But what is it like to date in Kenya? Who is dating? What do men and women look for in potential dates? 

We spoke with a number of people for perspectives and their experiences are bittersweet.

Some, like Hellen, a Nairobi resident, seem to be enjoying a healthy and solid dating life; one that inspires hope and a sense of responsibility.  

There is Lucia, a 43-year-old lawyer seeing two men as she recovers from a nasty divorce.

Then there is Tyrus who is seeing an older woman and James Ndirangu, who has a number of standards for his Miss Perfect. It is a rowdy marketplace.

The bottom line is, Kenyans never let a chance pass to meet new people in all sorts of social places, and to create connections, selfish or otherwise, temporary or permanent. Anyone dates whomever for whatever end. 

For the past two years, Lucia has dated four men. Divorced in 2018, the lawyer is currently seeing two men, a divorcee and, ironically, a family man. 

Why such a high turnover of lovers, though? 

“It’s a form of therapy. My husband cheated on me. I don’t want to be heartbroken again. That’s why I avoid attachment to one person.”

There are mixed emotions when Lucia talks about her dating life. But none quite as profound as raw bitterness: “My husband humiliated me when our marriage broke down. It became worse during the divorce proceedings.”

The mother of a 16-year-old daughter belongs to a support group for divorcees in Nairobi, men and women who’re looking to fill the same voids and to heal wounds like hers.  

“I met one of my current dates in September 2019 in the community,” she says. Any plans to introduce him to her family? 

“Not quite. We agreed to do this when we’re both ready. We’re both fine with the loose arrangement.”

And the married man? 

“What about him?” she asks mischievously. “It’s just for convenience. That’s all.”

Older woman

Married Kenyan men and women seeing younger people, sometimes up to 20 years younger, is commonplace. Tyrus, 27, for instance, has been seeing an older woman for three years now, a decision he says he doesn’t regret. His argument? Women his age are “too dramatic and needy”. 

Says the fashion designer: “She’s 46, a family and career woman.”

Why someone nearly twice as old as he?

Tyrus chuckles wryly and says: “I’m trying to find my footing in life. My girlfriend, though, is well established and has money. She even pays my rent sometimes.”

So, he is in it for money? Not at all, he denies fervently. 

“We satisfy each other both emotionally and sexually. We’re a perfect match despite our age difference,” Tyrus says, adding with a straight face: “I love her.”

Still, there are conservative Kenyans adults who are content with one partner, men and women who build a relationship for the long-haul. 

Hellen, 23, says she has dated the same man since 2014, a long time by Kenyan standards. Says the journalist:

“We met when I was joining university. I was 17.”

Her desire? To remain with him. For obvious reasons. 

“We’ve grown up together and grown into each other too much to lose it all. I don’t see myself dating again, if all goes well,” she says.

Unlike Hellen who is in a consensual courtship, others like Leah have found themselves in undefined, loose relationships, commonly known as “situationships”. These often end in either unfulfilled expectations, heartache or humiliation. 

Since last year, the interior designer had been in such a relationship with a man she has known for three years. 

Leah says she mistakenly assumed there was “a special mutual bond” between them when the man moved to her neighbourhood mid last year.  

“We’ve been hanging out frequently, including indoors sometimes. We’ve even slept over at each other’s houses. I had feelings for him.”

Until she sought clarity on the relationship. 

“He said he enjoyed my company. At that point, I discovered we were reading from different scripts.” 

Leah was upset.

“Thankfully, we hadn’t been physically intimate. We’re still friends, though.”

The boundaries are also clearer.

Since last week, social media in Kenya has been awash with talk on “wash wash” businesspeople — men and women whose business dealings are as clear as mud yet they live large and display opulence with abandon. 

Like in any global city, your next door neighbour in Nairobi is sure to be a stranger you scarcely see. The probability of sharing an elevator in a residential flat with a money launderer is as high as parking your car next to a vicar’s. 

Thorough vetting 

Women such as Elayne Okaya are wary of such people, and especially where matters of the heart are involved. To qualify as a potential date, Okaya proposes an absurd assessment for men.

“Men must now approach us with a business card, work ID, national ID, work contract and a police clearance certificate,” she jokes, adding: “A documents processing fee may [apply].”

So, what are Kenyans looking for in potential dates? Men and women appear to have different expectations. 

James Ndirangu said he prefers a woman who is moulded after his mother.

“I look for my mother in a woman: is she hard working and respectful? Can she take care of me and make a home like my mother did?” Essentially, a submissive woman for the photographer.

His views contrast with those of Janet Machuka, a communication professional. Janet wouldn’t like her man to live by every societal expectation.

“We need to face the reality of life together,” she says. 

Janet’s ideal man is “one who understands that I have both male and female friends. Not one who makes it hard for me to [engage] other people.”

Ndirangu can’t settle for anything short of exclusive: “We’re human and innately jealous. I want to be exclusive with my woman and know what she’s up to.”

On sustaining a relationship, Janet says to men: “Shower your woman with attention lest she gets it elsewhere. She can always get better treatment out there. Never trip.”

Ndirangu believes a woman will end courtship irrespective of the amount of attention she gets from her man. 

“Loyalty is a choice that we make. If she respects you, she’ll be loyal and commit to you. Her choices are a reflection of whether she respects you or not,” he argues.

Covid effects

So, how has the Covid-19 pandemic shaped dating in Kenya, if at all? 

To curb the spread of the virus, the government ordered either closure or suspension of operations in bars, restaurants, movie theatres and concerts, where a majority of people meet for dates. 

Some of these restrictions took away from Kenyans a vibrant social life. Date nights, lunches and social hangouts were bound to suffer. 

But did they? 

Even as the pandemic raged, some Kenyans were still meeting up, cuddling up and everything it leads to. 
The authorities could not limit what Kenyans did behind closed doors. 

“Covid-19 didn’t stop my intimacy,” Edda admits. “I’ve been sexually active throughout, perhaps the most active during the lockdown than I’ve been in my entire adult life.”

Couple embrace

Some of the restrictions imposed by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19 took away from Kenyans a vibrant social life.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Like millions of Kenyans, Edda had to weigh between her emotional and physical needs against her safety concerns. Her emotional needs and desires won by far every time.

“My boyfriend is a nurse. He would come to see and spend the weekend with me in my house. I too went to his place occasionally.”

Wasn’t Edda concerned about possible infection from her boyfriend who was more exposed? Scarcely, she says, adding: “I knew he was taking all the necessary precautions.”

This casual attitude towards the contagion was common among millennials. Some organised parties while others rented Airbnb facilities for merrymaking, the risk of contracting or spreading the virus notwithstanding. 

Even so, most women admit to having raised safety concerns around meeting for the first date. Some like Lucia went a step farther: demanding proof of a negative Covid-19 test.

Says she: “I have a daughter to raise. If an occasional proof of a negative test is too much to ask, then you don’t deserve my time.”

Loneliness and the escape

Psychologist Maryanne Waruguru says the pandemic came with loneliness, which forced some people to try dating as an escape, sometimes at whatever cost.  

“Some professionals had been used to compact schedules at work and, for the first time, they had time on their hands. This allowed them to take a  stab at dating.”

Many, however, took shortcuts, compromising the quality of dating, she notes. 

“Ordinarily, you meet someone and take time to know them: their likes and background. You go out on movie dates, you eat out and visit social places together. Bringing them home comes much later,” says the psychologist.

With social places shut down, most people opted to meet at home. A blunder, she says. 

“Knowing someone is very important. When you forego essential stages and engage in, say, intimacy sooner, you may realise before long that you actually don’t like the person,” advises Ms Waruguru.

Maryanne Waruguru

Psychologist Maryanne Waruguru says the pandemic came with loneliness, which forced some people to try dating as an escape, sometimes at whatever cost. 

Photo credit: Pool

With minimal movement and human interactions, some resorted to online dating. Before 2020, Ndirangu cringed at the suggestion of online dating. But when his relationship sank at the height of the pandemic, he soon found himself scouring the web for potential soulmates. 

His search ended on Tinder. “Nowadays I don’t have a dating life beyond Tinder where I’m very active,” he admits of his dramatic change of heart. 

“I’m chatting with several women on the site. I’ve even been on virtual dates with some of them.” Except this isn’t exclusive. “I haven’t committed to any of them yet. For now, I’m socialising for fun,” he says, giggling.

For many Kenyans without patience, courage or means to hunt for mates in real social spaces, the web offers a convenient, cheaper and hassle-free way to find love, companionship or hook-ups. 

From DatingMeKenya to Kenyan Cupid, dating.co.ke and Dating Meme, Kenya’s dating marketplace has products of all sizes and shapes to suit different needs, tastes and preferences. 

There are dating sites and groups for residents of Nairobi, Mombasa, Eldoret and Kisumu. Offerings are also available for those looking for sugar mummies and sugar daddies. 

Singles, divorces and people living with HIV too have their platforms. If you’re looking for white, Asian or South American dates, choices are inexhaustible. 

Quite absurdly, though, there are some for those looking for short-term no-strings-attached hook-ups. 

Yet outside of mainstream dating sites, social media is fast becoming a matchmaking avenue where users meet and hit it off. 

In Kenya, links for joining WhatsApp and Telegram dating groups are almost infinite. You only need to click on a link and advertise yourself as “single and searching” and, viola! Potential matches will invade your inbox. Easy-peasy. 

A survey on these sites on Facebook returns rather interesting findings. Cloudromance, for instance, has 55,300 members while Thriving Singles KE has 64,000 members. On the site, more than 50 requests from people looking for dates are posted. 

Kenyan Singles Ready for Mingling and Marriage has 71,000 members with more than 70 posts daily. 

Interestingly, there are also groups such as Muslimah-Christian Dating, with 150,000 members, catering for cross-religion dates.

Posts on these sites border on desperate and hilarious. “Still searching. I’m good in bed,” posts Dennis on Thriving Singles KE.

“Yaani sitawahi pata mtu huku (Is it that I won’t find a partner here)?” a frustrated Joseph wonders on the same group, which attracts an avalanche of responses featuring sympathy and ridicule in equal measure. 

On the quality between conventional and online dating, Ms Waruguru warns about deception on the web. 

“You may talk to someone for a year, but it will always be different when you meet them in person. What if you decide you don’t like them?” poses the psychologist. 

She adds: “Online dating, however, has the advantage of diversity. It’s also easier to tell if your date has the values you’re looking for.”

She observes, though, that it’s quicker and easier to create a connection in conventional dating because “it’s harder to misrepresent yourself”.

Different approaches

In what ways has the pandemic influenced how Kenyans approach dating and life? Ndirangu says he’s pickier now than he has ever been.  

“To me, personal care is a big deal. My potential partner must demonstrate seriousness about her personal care. Being slack about her protection against Covid-19 is a red flag,” he says.

For Janet, the pandemic has been an opportunity for her and her partner “to slam the door on chaos” going on in the world and “to focus on our needs and feelings”.

She believes loss suffered under Covid-19 has made humans more vulnerable and more willing to share their concerns.

“We all have our breaking point where we need compassion, love and emotional support. It’s no longer about who is stronger emotionally. We need each other. You don’t have to die with depression because you’re the man,” Janet says, and insists dates must be on the same “headspace” for courtship to work. 

“Dating is more than sex and the good times. It’s about difficult conversations as well. Does your vision align with your partner’s, for instance? Are you saving together? Is it someone you see yourself doing life with?” poses Janet.

Will dating ignited during Covid-19 outlast the pandemic? Ms Waruguru thinks many stand no chance when normalcy is restored.  

“If the only motivation to date was either to escape loneliness or because you didn’t have anything meaningful to do, it’s unlikely that the relationship will survive when you go back to work and your previous networks are reactivated,” she argues. 

She adds that only those who dated with a “genuine intention to know each other” are likely to stick together even after their collective circumstances change. 

On the future of courtship, Ms Waruguru says dating sites are making people like Ndirangu lazier: “When you spend time swiping right and left on your phone looking for mates, you lose the confidence to go out and meet people in person.”

Yet there’s a more serious problem than lethargy. These sites are now a rich hunting ground for fraudsters, as Joseph painfully discovered. 

“I met a woman on a dating group on Facebook and we instantly liked each other. We even agreed to meet. She asked me to facilitate her from Mombasa to Nairobi. I agreed since she wasn’t working at the time. As soon as I sent her the money, she blocked my number.”

Thinking he could confront her on the site, Joseph soon realised she had left the group and deactivated her account. He was left without a soulmate and Sh3,000 short. But with a lesson. “I don’t entertain requests for money online. If you’re serious about meeting physically, you’ll find a way,” he says.

“Kula fare” is perhaps one of the most popular sayings in Kenya’s dating jungle, which loosely translates to receiving “facilitation” but failing to honour the date.