Although she's lived in Kenya much of her life, journalist, parent and GSGI Kenya Editor Juliet Barnes' travels and life have made her think like an expat. But her piercing take on moving to Kenya is a must-read for anyone thinking about going or already there.
Moving to Kenya is a positive experience for most expatriates, who often do anything they can to renew their contracts, or find some other way to stay on. English tends to be widely spoken, especially in the Nairobi area, and Kenyans are generally friendly, genuine and delighted to meet people from other parts of the world. The down side of that can be that Kenyans are so anxious for you to feel welcome and happy in their country that they will tweak the truth in order to give you the answer they think you want, so don’t believe all you are told!
Finding somewhere to live is a priority
People advertise properties to let on notice boards at shopping malls, in the local papers, and there’s usually a selection at www.xpatlink.info (which also advertises vehicles, furniture items etc for sale by expatriates leaving, amongst many other useful services and information). If you’ve got kids, you might need to look hard at the schools first, because there’s plenty of choice, and with Nairobi’s infamous traffic jams, it’s probably worth trying to live near school.
Properties vary from older houses with plenty of character (and occasionally the interesting plumbing and rat-gnawed electrics to go with it) to very modern houses, which might have a few teething problems. During the dry seasons, water can become an issue in Nairobi, so it’s worth checking out that there really is a reliable water supply before you move in. If things do go wrong, plumbers and electricians are plentiful, cheap and great improvisers - even if their methods might seem a little too alternative to the uninitiated.
The suburbs differ, depending on their proximity to town – Karen, Langata, Limuru and Tigoni often have properties with larger acreages: you can keep horses, cows and chickens on a ten+ acre property. Westlands, Hurlingham, Lavington, Runda, Rosslyn, Kileleshwa, Kitisuru and Muthaiga tend to have houses on smaller plots. There are an increasing number of new, secure apartment and housing complexes, which are popular and can be quite expensive. Very few people live in the city centre, but Nairobi’s many sprawling and pleasant suburbs have easily accessible shopping centres and malls (Nakumatt is a very popular chain), as well as smaller, friendlier stores.
Your Year of Eating Dangerously (but Really Very Well)
One expat wife says: “Everything tastes so much better here – it’s not so watered. The quality of the local fruit and vegetables, as well as the meat, is fantastic!” Eating out is also excellent value in Nairobi and you can get most types of fare, from European to Lebanese, while Indian and Chinese restaurants abound.
Popular Kenyan fare is not appealing to all palates, and expatriates should be wary of their delicate stomachs initially…but it’s worth a taste of the staple maize meal baked to a cake-like consistency (ugali) and usually served with a fried green vegetable (sukuma wiki, literally translated as “push the week”, as it’s the poor man’s vegetable). Ugali can also be served as a porridge (uji), usually taken by school children before a long day at school, often taken with chai, tea leaves stewed up with milk and plenty of sugar. There are local tribal favourites too, varying from curdled milk mixed with cows blood and urine if you are Maasai, to the Kikuyu dish irio, a mixed mash-up of potatoes, beans, maize and sometimes nettles. Food from the Kenyan coast tends to be spicier, while country-wide there’s the highly popular nyama choma, literally translated as burnt meat. Kenyan sheep and beef are excellent, goat tends to be fatty, and it’s always worth confirming exactly what you are eating. At a more expensive version of Kenya’s popular roadside barbecue kiosks, you can eat your fill of succulent meats at Nairobi’s famous Carnivore restaurant.
Some restaurants serve ostrich or crocodile – not exactly traditional fare, but people enjoy trying them. The sale and consumption of wild game meat is actually illegal in Kenya under the hunting ban, unless farmed, so you won’t get to try impala steaks, or buffalo stew.
If you shop in Nakumatt, you’ll get just about anything under one roof, including most imported items - although there are occasional shortages - or the exact wine you want might be out of stock. But in most suburbs there are plenty of smaller butcheries and greengrocers for good quality, too. Most supermarkets take credit cards, as do the restaurants; smaller shops, once they’ve got to know you, will usually take a cheque, but for market shopping you need cash – with change.
Market kiosks, which are periodically knocked down by authorities, but spring up again days afterwards, are found along most roadside and are always a good bet for cheap fruit and vegetables or second-hand clothes (you can sometimes find a designer label for a couple of quid!). Bargaining is part of the course – local vendors tend to double the price at the sight of a foreigner, but it’s always a friendly and humorous business. For local crafts the Maasai market at Village Market shopping centre on a Friday is fantastic value for money. (Markets aren’t anything like in UK: apart from the Maasai one, they are haphazard and illegal… can you tell?).
The service is usually excellent in Kenya. Shop assistants automatically carry your heavy shopping to your car, fuel stations aren’t self service, and you’ll get an under-the-bonnet check and windscreen wash thrown in too. Tipping is appreciated, but nobody expects very much, if anything at all.
Medical service in the private hospitals is also worth mentioning because people actually come from UK to Nairobi hospital for routine operations thanks to better quality of service - and it’s cheaper. Nairobi Hospital, the Nairobi Aga Khan Hospital and Gertrude’s Garden children’s hospital have excellent doctors and facilities, while the nurses are friendly and kind, if a little laid-back for some. Private dental care is also of a high standard.
Banking, Phones and Internet
Expatriates do have their complaints: setting up local banking arrangements and dealing with the banks and their queues has people spitting nails, and – even more irritating - overseas banks sometimes refuse to send your cheque books and cards to Kenya. Then there are those frustrations at home like power cuts, unreliable telephones and difficult or slow internet connections. But it’s easy to get a mobile phone, or sim card, and the two major competing networks, Celtel and Safaricom both offer GPRS internet connection, post-paid and pre-paid services, and their sales staff are generally well-informed and helpful.
Security often concerns people arriving in Kenya: recent post-election violence didn’t help, and small incidents involving anybody remotely foreign-sounding is often exaggerated by the overseas press. If there is anything going on, local radio stations are usually more helpful advising you which routes to take. The foreign residents already established in Nairobi range from calm and blasé to neurotic and paranoid. “It’s worth steering clear of demonstrations, especially political, and ensuring you aren’t being followed at night,” says one expatriate, “but generally things are fine in Nairobi, even when the overseas news is full of drama and disaster!”
There are plenty of security companies offering emergency services, as well as night and day guards. Most houses also have good security already in place. Petty theft and crime is worse in some parts of town and sometimes one suburb will experience a wave of break-ins, but neighbours generally establish a system of helping one another and the police - who will pursuer the offenders and quite often catch them.
Laws and Licenses
However relaxed about it others might become (in Kenya there does seem to be a contagious tendency to ignore laws) it’s worth staying on the right side of the law. Speed limits are 50 kph in city environs, and 100 kph elsewhere, but don’t expect signs to let you know this! Seatbelts are compulsory, and you are required to carry warning triangles in your car in case of breakdowns. You can only drive on a foreign licence for a limited period, so you will want to know about the courier and messenger services that will make getting a Kenyan licence (and many other time-consuming, potentially frustrating exercises) simpler and less stressful: Muthaiga link, Langata Link, or Karen Connection can do it all for you at very reasonable costs.
Kenya has large numbers of unemployed people, so it’s easy to find domestic staff but it can be overwhelming because there are so many people looking for jobs. When you find someone with good recommendations letters and references, hire him! (and you’ll find his extended family all need jobs too). Labour laws are strict in Kenya, (regarding leave, maternity, dismissal, compensation for injury, overtime etc - worth adhering to or you’ll find the local labour office on your back).
Wages tend to be shockingly low to expatriates, but it’s worth weighing up whether you should employ one person on what might be a vastly inflated salary to most Kenyans, or employ several on standard wages and thus assist more than one family. You’ll inevitably find yourself involved in school fees, loans and family affairs of your staff, but most people are happy to do this in exchange for good work and loyalty. The minimum wages, as set out by law, are so low that most people pay more, but ask around to see what other people pay staff and on what terms, first. It’s also advisable to take somebody on a daily basis for a couple of months before taking them on full-time and thus committing yourself to the labour laws.
Honesty is a tricky one – it’s just not worth leaving large amounts of cash lying around, considering that it might pay an employee’s six children’s school fees for year, or be equivalent to several months’ wages. However many expatriates build up trust with their employees, increasingly leaving their children in their care. Generally Kenyans adore children and are kind and loving towards them, if a little inclined to give children their own way all the time. However, the local papers have as many cases of child abuse as anyplace, so nobody should hide his head in the sand about such issues.
Friends, Clubs and Recreation
Nairobi is very cosmopolitan and people tend to mix freely. At playgroups, schools, churches, sporting occasions and social functions people tend to be friendly and without prejudice. There are several golf/sports clubs with memberships available to expats (without too long a waiting list). Muthaiga, Windsor, Karen and Parklands are popular in Nairobi; up-country there are sports clubs, too, including Ruiru, Naivasha, Nanyuki, Gilgil, Eldoret; and Mombasa club at the coast. These clubs usually require some sort of introduction and have an entrance fee, as well as a monthly or annual subscription rate. There’s always plenty of volunteer work for wives who aren’t working (or want to offer their spare time) and most people tend to hear about it through other mums at their kids’ schools, at work, church, or just socially.
Nairobi gets the latest films right on time, and there are always plenty of live music gigs, theatre, exhibitions, craft fairs (especially around Christmas) and other entertainment to suit all tastes. To know what’s on, get the weekly free e-mails from Kenya Buzz www.kenyabuzz.com
Roads and Driving
Kenyan roads can be an alarming experience for newcomers with their potholes and lack of proper lighting at night, not to mention the Kenyan driving – often aggressive and lacking in courtesy or consideration for other road users. The minibuses called matatus, a local form of public transport, can be particularly inconsiderate. Un-roadworthy vehicles are also not such a rare sight – belching out black smoke, driving askance in crab-like fashion, or even sneaking around at night without proper lights. The threat of vehicle hi-jacking unnerves some new expatriates, but most people do go out at night and plenty of expatriate women drive around alone. Some people have company or private drivers (who might be better at those traffic-navigation tricks than you), or favourite taxi drivers (ditto). Vehicles are expensive in Kenya, and garages to repair them (unfortunately often necessary due to the state of the roads) are many and varied. Kenyan mechanics are inventive when spares aren’t available, and can generally sort most problems even if their methods might be unorthodox. Before buying a second-hand vehicle, though, don’t fail to check whether spare parts are easily available in Kenya.
On the Street
Beggars, street children and even the roadside hawkers are often upsetting and unnerving to newcomers. The general rule is not to give money; instead support the shelters and homes which assist such people. Sometimes, of course, those street hawkers do have good bargains, but beware stopping by the road with your window down – you could lose your handbag, along with your wing mirror.
Out and Around Kenya
Venturing further out of Nairobi, fuel prices notwithstanding, it’s usually advisable to have a 4wheel drive. Very few places are as fun to explore as Kenya with its stunning variety of scenery and wildlife, its many beautiful National Parks, and the great beaches. Whether you want to camp, or stay in the many excellent lodges and camps, there’s plenty on offer, especially in the low tourist seasons; local travel agents are usually well informed about holiday or weekend destinations and residents rates. Kenya is highly geared to tourism, and visitors are made to feel welcome, whether tourists, residents or citizens.
The relatively quick return to normality after Kenya’s early 2008 post-election violence should convince the discerning expatriate that the country is stable, and the majority of Kenyans are peace loving people, fiercely proud of their country.