Carien Westerveld – The African Dream


About the book

People are increasingly aware that the continent of Africa has far more stories to tell than those of poverty, conflict and famine. My book tells one of those stories, and it is more topical now than ever.

This book is about people in Africa who do everything they can to make it in life, hence the comparison with the American Dream


For whom is the book intended?

I wanted to write a book in which I could tell the human story behind major developments in economics, growth and progress. It is intended for both experts on Africa, people who have a professional (business, diplomatic, academic and non-profit) or private interest in Africa, and also for readers who love good literary non-fiction, who have broad interests, enjoy reading personal stories and want to know more about current developments and recent history elsewhere in the world.

Nowhere in the book do I make comparisons with the Netherlands, Europe, the West etc. It stands by itself.


The African Dream is about people in their twenties and thirties in Nairobi who belong to the middle class. People like you and me, but in Africa. They live in apartments or terraced houses, some have cars. They lead modern lives in the big city and do all they can to be successful. I call them ‘upgraders’; their lives are dominated by efforts to upgrade, to be able to afford a nicer car, live in a better area and send their children to good private schools. Collectively they are one of the main driving forces behind rising consumption patterns, modernisation and economic growth. At the same time they are still strongly bound to tradition and culture, which creates tension between individual desires and social pressure.

Two examples: 1) Money plays a hugely important part in almost all aspects of social intercourse. How? People often have to make tough choices. If they find a job in Nairobi and become successful, they will often break off contact with poorer relatives in the countryside to avoid having cousins, brothers and sisters continually showing up on the doorstep asking for money. Otherwise they would remain poor themselves. This creates an image of a society in which everyone is thrown back on their own resources and focused on themselves alone. What are the implications of these attitudes for relationships between individuals and for the ways in which they relate to society as a whole?

2) When a young, educated ‘modern’ woman with a good career gets married, her future husband is still expected to pay a dowry to her parents, often in the form of cows, a water tank, a watch, and money. Moreover, many men expect their wives to be subservient at home and regard themselves as the head of the family. This conflicts with the way in which women have developed over recent decades. Women in Kenya are increasingly well educated, have careers of their own and are therefore less dependent on men. They call themselves ‘emancipated’and ‘empowered’. Yet many career women still expect their husbands to be financially responsible for the shared household. To the question ‘what are you looking for in a husband’, the majority of the women I interviewed said ‘financial security’. These differences in expectations lead to immense friction between husbands and wives. On the radio people talk of little else. What is going on? What is the effect of the tension between tradition and modernisation on relationships, and what does that mean for personal lives?


The middle class in Africa
Who belongs to the middle class? To put it briefly, in Kenya more than half of the population is poor. The elite makes up no more than five per cent. The middle class is composed of those in between.

Why is the African middle class interesting and important?

This group is seen by analysts, researchers and businesspeople as the engine that drives economic development and democratisation. The middle classes have more and more to spend, and because of their financial power they are expected to place more and more demands on the government and to be a driving force behind democratisation and social change.

Which leads us to one of the central questions in the book: is the middle class in Kenya indeed a driving force behind democratisation? The answer is: no, not really, and I explain why. In the first few chapters I look at subjects including money, religion, generations and relationships, enabling the reader to understand more about attitudes to life among the new middle class. This knowledge led me to write the final chapter, about politics. Drawing upon personal stories, I describe how tribal politics works, what the effects of a corrupt political class are on the electorate, and how violence and social codes influence people and the way in which they make political choices.


Style and approach
I switch between personal stories about the main characters and history, observations and analysis, as well as including quotations from Kenyan writers and novels.

Perspective: all-knowing narrator.

The main characters are three people whose progress I have followed for the past four and a half years, two women and one man. They work in journalism, marketing and healthcare. Over those years I interviewed them at length about how they grew up and about all the great themes of life: love, faith, money, work and politics.


Participatory research
To gain a better insight into how people deal with money and religion (both extremely important in Kenya) I carried out participatory research. I took a course on personal finance and getting rich. There were eleven meetings with a group of forty people in their twenties and thirties. It was truly fascinating. One of the most important insights was that growing up in poverty has a major influence on the way people make financial decisions, and that there were often tensions about money at home because each parent kept his or her own income a secret from the other. Even today, couples often don’t know each other’s income.

I also joined a bible group at a ‘born again’ (evangelical) megachurch. Churches of this kind, sometimes called Charismatic Churches, are the fastest growing churches worldwide, and especially in developing countries with an expanding urban middle class. They are very popular in Nairobi, drawing many young middle class people. Becoming a member of such a church and such a bible group is a real trend among the young urban population, which I found fascinating. Studies confirm that the church is hugely attractive to young people, but I wanted to know why. What were people of my age looking for in that church, and what did they find there? I decided to become a member of a bible group that met up every week. As a result I had a chance to experience from close proximity the impact of the church on personal lives, and to see how hugely important church attendance and religious belief are for people in this segment of society as they attempt to achieve their ‘upgrade’ to a higher standard of living, status and success.

A violent society
I pay special attention to violence in personal lives and in society. Kenya is a country in which a great deal of violence takes place: in families and in schools (assault, rape), in society at large (violent robbery, rape, lynching of criminals), between ethnic groups and between the government and citizens (executions by the police, violent suppression of protests, arrests, intimidation, political violence, murder, disappearances, colonial violence). Furthermore, Kenya is surrounded by countries that are highly unstable: Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia.

I investigate the effects of this violence on the way in which people grow up and live together, on their attitudes to life and on their stance towards the government.


Why this book

I have an MA in International Relations and have worked at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations as well as for several publishing houses. From 2010 to July 2017 I lived in Nairobi, where I witnessed the tremendous speed at which the city is developing and the role played in its development by the middle class. I was curious to hear the stories behind the headlines, in which Nairobi is portrayed as a hub for large multinationals, and about increasing consumerism in East Africa, its economic growth. I realised that little was known about the people who are part of these major economic trends. Even in Kenya articles are appearing about ‘the mysterious middle class’. Having lived in Nairobi for an extended period, I had access to this population group and was able to tell their story.