Nairobi, Kenya Report of what it's like to live there - 07/31/15
Personal Experiences from Nairobi, Kenya
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
not my first, previously lived in 3 South Asian countries
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
D.C. Long flights. GSO city pair contract requires you to connect in either Zurich or Amsterdam, which is a pain, because there are other, cheaper connections.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Most Embassy housing is located close to the Embassy, from 5 - 20 minutes away. You must drive; there is no save public transportation. Coming from farther away, if you don't leave super early in the morning and get off early, you can face a commute of 1-2 hrs on an average work day. The commute from the airport in the evenings (which is when most international flights arrive) is over 2 hours (in fact 2 hours is good).
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries aren't cheap- about like in the States. The produce is phenomenal, however. Best to go to a local market or stand and haggle. You will never find better carrots, cauliflower, mangoes, greens, or pineapple.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Trader Joe's items, esp decaf tea and coffee
good surge protectors; UPS are better (uninterruptable power supply)
Not a TV unless you already have a 220v. Get one here (store or from someone departing post.)
The highest number sunblock you can find. Even walking from the car to the Embassy every day gives you lots of exposure.
Bring lots of step-down converters (220 to 110) and adapters. Type G plugs in Kenya.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
They now have KFC, Dominoes, even a Coldstone ice cream store. Other fast food I would avoid. Around the upper-class neighborhoods and Westlands there are decent restaurants. Indian food is great; there is a large Indian community. A couple of good Italian restaurants.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes are getting to be a problem, although they are not malarial - most houses do not have screens on the windows because there hasn't been a need. In Embassy housing there is a screen on at least one window per room, and you can get a carpenter (such a one of the Embassy's, moonlighting) to custom-make more.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO is great - just got an award for being the "best DPO in the world" or something, and it is a high-volume mail post. Pouch is OK but takes much longer.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
CLO does an annual survey. Here are 2015 results (in shillings, which is @ 100=US$1. Unfortunately these are only highs and lows, not broken down by most common salaries. Most are proportional to the complexity of the particular household.
Low 2015 High 2015 Average
Housekeeper: 15,000 32,000 23,000
Cook: 13,000 27,000 19,000
Cook/Housekeeper: 14,000 37,000 23,000
Nanny: 13,000 28,000 21,000
Nanny/Housekeeper: 16,000 36,000 25,000
Driver: 16,000 35,000 25,000
Driver/Gardener: 12,000 34,000 22,000
Gardener: 12,000 24,000 19,000
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes. A minimal but OK gym in the American Embassy and right across the street at the U.N. a fabulous facility with large pool; they offer paid memberships. Many private gyms too but you'll find them on a par with American gyms as far as price goes.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
DO NOT USE THEM AT ALL except when charging a lump sum for trips (to a game drive operator, etc.) and for paying hotel bills. ATMS are frequently rigged with skimmers and we hear even major banks are in on it. Cash checks at the Embassy for cash.
Best deal of all is Mpesa, where you deposit money at a branch and it is instantly available for transferring, paying people or bills, through your cell phone. Very safe and everybody takes Mpesa. Nobody has bank accounts.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Not much - greetings, thank you, etc. are enough but more is better. There's an excellent Kiswahili teacher in the Embassy offering lunchtime and evening classes or as-needed.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes--it's horrible for mobility-impaired. Most sidewalks, where they exist, are broken up and frequently end mid-block. Lots of dirt piles, mud, and deep holes in sidewalks. Mostly there are dirt paths. No really servicable ramps except in major restaurants/hotels.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
NO, no, and no. The Embassy has a contract with JimCab, located adjacent to the campus, to keep costs at a fixed rate depending on the destination (but you have to go through motorpool to get the contract rate.) As a result, they are horrible drivers and often are late, or don't know directions. Why should they? They have the contract.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Oddly, a huge 4-wheel drive is not necessary - for game drives you will be with a company; they use big "Born Free" safari trucks with canvas sides and roof that can be rolled up. For in-town a smaller, even 2-wheel drive, will do but get the highest clearance you can. You can get another inch or so purchasing the largest tires you can get without hitting the wheel well. Most cabs are Toyota Corollas.
Cars are very expensive to buy here, even from departing expats (who are trying to recoup the high price they had to pay.) Plus a used car from here has had a lot of punishment already, even with just a couple of years use. Order a right-hand drive from Japan before you come. Toyota parts are easiest to get here and there are good mechanics, even some who come to you.
Recommendation: get a personal driver at least for the commute. Interview for one who really knows cars--he will know when and where to get good service.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High (comparable to U.S.), and with spotty service. Zuku is cheapest (cable TV and internet) but the service is very fragile, goes down often, and customer service is bad. This is especially irritating the more things you cloud, because you often can't download your book or music. Video streaming is next to impossible.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Unlock your phone before you get here or order one on line. They're very expensive here. Phone service is cheap, though, and it's relatively inexpensive to call the States.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
They don't need to be quarantined but they are required to be shipped in cargo, so processing them in can take a very long time (after they've already endured a long flight.) There are good vets here.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
YES. And the American Embassy is very aggressive in hiring EFMs.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Tons of volunteer opportunities. Orphanages, clinics, wildlife protection, all the usual things too.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
business casual. Africans dress up more. Every day you can see ladies walking to work--picking their way around mud, holes, and boulders--wearing high stiletto heels.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes, plenty. Car break-ins while parked OR moving, home invasions, pick-pocketing. Given the widespread corruption, it's not unusual to hear of a guard burglarizing the homes they're supposed to be guarding.
Also scattered terrorism - bombings etc. So far American housing and the Embassy have been safe (at least since the Embassy was bombed in 1998). Your FACT training will come in handy.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Embassy health unit is great and accessible. Some good hospitals with specialists in all areas. There has been NO ebola in Kenya. In fact, because of the epidemic in W. Africa the big hospitals have equipped special wards just in case, and have trained their personnel accordingly.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Generally okay except when you are on city roads. Trucks and buses especially belch large quantities of thick black smoke. It's not unusual to have cars 4-5 car lengths ahead completely obliterated by a couple of large trucks' exhaust.
Be advised, the main way to mow the grass is to burn the yard. Trash too. So there are little plumes of smoke rising from all over, which can linger even though it stops after dark.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Dust, dust, dust. And with so much sun and dryness, grass allergies seem to act up, and mold in the rainy seasons.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Best in the WORLD. Although equatorial, the elevation keeps the temperatures even in the summer months (Dec-Jan) relatively cool. There is no need for climate control (houses do not have heat or a/c.) Winter is basically sweatshirt weather. Dry and sunny most of the year, in the 70's-80's F. Never saw this wonderful climate even on vacations. San Diego, N. AZ nothing can come close. There are 2 rainy seasons, "long rains" in Apr-May but in 2015 it is still going and it's July. Having lived in SE Asia, by "long rains" I was expecting monsoons. However, it's usually a thunderstorm or lingering drizzle. "Short Rains" in Oct - Nov are just short cloudbursts. AND - ALMOST ALL THE RAINSTORMS ARE AT NIGHT.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
International School of Kenya is good
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Lots of expats. With so much aid coming into Kenya there are large functioning embassies from all the larger countries, and the UN complex here is one of the largest in the world. Lots of International NGOs too, hiring many Europeans and Aussies.
Morale seems high. The Embassy community is very sociable and close-knit. The thing that gets people down the most is the traffic (and bad roads.)
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
dinners with friends, hiking, traveling.
You have to get out of Nairobi every couple weeks just to remember there is a wonderful country here outside the city limits.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
families and couples, pretty good. Couples - night spots themselves might be okay, but there are predators outside and on the roads home. There is MUCH drunk driving - be alert.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, however, there are a few in the expat community. Be prepared to be homebodies or to pretend when going out.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Most common are tribal prejudices. They stick together no matter what in hiring, helping out, etc. Misogeny abounds but as one commenter says, it's mostly Kenyan to Kenyan and they leave muzungas (a slang term for white people) alone, particularly if not from Africa.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Safaris in multiple areas of Kenya. Especially Masaai Mara, Samburu. You can see the big 5 (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo) inside a few hours, easily.
You have to get out of town often to maintain your equilibrium.
The CLO's office organizes LOTs of trips and day-excursion. Take advantage!
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
TONS. Safaris are the best in the world. Nairobi National Park, which is right in Nairobi, is an easy self-drive park where you can see giraffes, rhinos, lions, zebras, hippos - everything except elephants. The CLO organizes many good trips to other game parks around the country, including to the elephant orphanage.
Also great places to hike and white water rafting. Volleyball is a popular sport, and of course Kenyans are crazy for soccer.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
coffee and tea - the best in the world (although there is no decaf)
vegetables and fruits
carved items (you MUST haggle)
beaded items "
going to Uganda or Rwanda to see the gorillas
safaris anywhere in Kenya!
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Amazing things to do outside of Nairobi.
Amazing fruits/vegetables. Mangoes to die for.
Weather is excellent. This is what I'll miss the most.
10. Can you save money?
Yes if you're not paying a mortgage at home. Plus, it's a danger post so currently, US Gov employees get danger pay.
One good thing is that, as an Embassy employee, you will get an East African resident card. this will get you into the national parks at a fraction of the cost they charge regular tourists (the going rate is US$60-80/person.) Even out of country (i.e. Rwanda for gorilla tracking). Unfortunately it takes about a month to get one but don't let that stop you from going on safari soon after you get here - it's worth it.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
--how expensive the cars are, how horrible the roads are, how bad the traffic is. Not that you could do anything about it but it would have been good to be braced for it.
--there is no decaffeinated anything
--the temperate weather (being equatorial, I expected the tropics)
--Kenyan culture is to not plan ahead financially. As an employer you will be asked for extra money all the time for school fees, funeral or wedding arrangements, etc. so get your loan/gift policy straight with a prospective employee before you hire.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
heavy coats and boots, all winter gear.
Seeds. American seeds often won't even sprout - get them here.
Trust. Lying is commonplace; bribes are extorted at all levels, particularly by the police.
4. But don't forget your:
sunblock (equator again)
good, lightweight hiking shoes
lightweight boots for outside of Nairobi. The ones that lace up with canvas uppers seem good.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"Into Africa" about Stanley's search for Livingstone. An unlikely page-turner.
"Blood River" by Tim Butcher
West with the Night,
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood.
All the ones recommended here: http://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/africa
Anything on the development of any African country, even though the title's probably depressing
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
All nature films about Africa and of course, Out of Africa, which was filmed just outside Nairobi. You can go to Karen Blixen's house.
7. Do you have any other comments?
Corruption shows itself everywhere - police, merchants, anywhere a bribe may get you "better" service, or any service at all. This is not an exaggeration. Lying is also commonplace. You'll do well to expect it and not get your feelings hurt.
Kenyans remember EVERYTHING. They'll know your name even if you only met them once at a function 8 months ago. They will remember how you take your coffee after the first time you order. This is really nice!