Leafy suburb children know the flavors of please and thank you. The please and thank you offered to parents and their influential friends. The please and thank you weaponized against friends and acquaintances not from the leafy suburbs. The please and thank you to dismiss domestic workers, the cruelty of manners. Using please and thank you distinguishes leafy suburb children from others. But it’s not that others do not use please and thank you; it’s that leafy suburb children have learned the many ways to use please and thank you: as gratitude, as put down, as insult, as dismissal. You say thank you to fire someone; it’s all about tone.
As a leafy suburb child, I knew how to say thank you to tell someone to fuck off. I knew how to say thank you to punctuate a sentence. I knew how to say thank you to stop a conversation. The difference between a tone and half-tone, the slight sharp or flat—leafy suburb children take music lessons—that others who used please and thank you could never learn. The leafy suburb child knows that a well-used thank you need not be loud to be emphatic. It need not have raised eyebrows and pursed lips. It simply needs a well-trained voice, fed on privilege and music lessons.
I do not recall hearing the term “leafy suburbs” in the eighties. Perhaps the phrase was impeded by the bougainvillea fences that separated houses, or maybe, it was absorbed by the many trees that give the leafy suburbs their names. Even before Kenyan wealth was measured in United States $$—before Kenya’s business papers measured prosperity by the number of Kenyans who have at least a million dollars, approximately 100 million Kenyan shillings—wealth was measured by proximity and access to green spaces.
Public parks were free, though threatened by developers; the Nairobi Arboretum was free. But neighborhood parks were virtually unknown, so you had to plan when you could enjoy free green spaces. And Uhuru Park, perhaps the most famous of those free green spaces, was monetized in the 1980s: instead of a (relatively) quiet place to enjoy with friends and families and dates and social groups, it was turned into a meeting ground for religious crusades and political meetings. Not all the time, but at times when it was convenient to go, after work and on the weekends. It was still possible to go there over your lunch hour, if your workplace or school was located nearby, but the events that took place there lingered. Eager young evangelicals would swarm around Uhuru Park, seeking converts, interrupting whatever quiet time you might have.
Here is where I say: full disclosure, I was once one of these evangelicals. In groups of two or three, we would map the park, looking for people to convert. Age and class dictated our choices, though we would not have admitted it; we from the leafy suburbs and elite schools would descend on people who were not from these spaces, preach earnestly, and demand something. But evangelical zeal is driven by arrogance and indifference. We did not ask what potential converts were doing at the park. We did not question how class differences had taught them to listen to people who looked like us—well-fed, healthy—and sounded like us—the eloquence from going to good schools and good churches and knowing the world made space for us. Not all of us who descended on the park were from leafy suburbs, but we had the aura of people who were.
Leafy suburb children are anxious about being declassed. They whisper about former neighbors who had to move after a bad business decision or a family tragedy, offering the woiye that means “glad it wasn’t me.” They monitor each other for signs of class slippage: Are you using a knife and fork? Do you use the right soaps—not Lifebuoy or Rexona? Do you use the right scent? Do you attend the right religious institution? The right religious institution has important members, people with power and in close proximity to people with power.
It is not important to be “trendy.” A leafy suburb household will have a 40-year-old car, and comfort is more important than trendiness. Comfort is knowing who to call when someone needs to be called, knowing your neighbors and their professions, knowing how to get out of trouble, and, for leafy suburb children, knowing you will be got out of trouble
The leafy suburb child knows that being expelled from one school simply means moving to another school, whether in Kenya or abroad. They know failing out of one expensive university means simply moving to yet another expensive university, and changing countries if that is necessary. There are always options, and then more options.
The most important duty for the leafy suburb child is to reproduce other leafy suburb children. One is trained how to spot the right partners, taught to ask questions about background and profession, schools and hobbies. One is taught about degrees of separation: a conversation with a stranger always begins by trying to establish shared ground, friends of friends, parents of friends. Even when one is declassed, one tells one’s children that they descend from the leafy suburbs, and they have a duty to uphold the codes of leafy suburbs. Comfort. Respectability. Privilege. Entitlement.
You might no longer have the phone numbers you had if you’re declassed. Those who picked up your calls no longer do so. But you will dine on the memories of people you used to know and who used to know your name. And when you meet them, they will shake your hand, hug you, exchange pleasantries, promise to call, and gossip about you to their fellow leafy suburb children.