Nairobi, Kenya Report of what it's like to live there - 07/22/16
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?
No, I've also lived in Copenhagen.
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?
Washington, D.C. The shortest available trip takes about 26 hours with a connection in Doha.
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?
We have a stand-alone house in a compound. Houses and apartments are generally on the large size and are in several areas of the city. Commutes are always longer than you'd expect, given the "wild west' mentality of Kenyan drivers. There are no traffic laws, merely suggestions. Also farm animals and wild animals are frequently sharing the roads.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There is much variance in pricing. Shopping at the supermarkets is on par with American and European pricing. If you do things the old fashioned way, utilizing butcher shops and green grocers, your food budget goes further. I've also found that going that route brings higher quality.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Our family is fairly accustomed to adapting to local availability, though we do ship in a few items. The kid's snacks and the peanut butter, mainly. Local peanut butter is dangerous to the gastrointestinal health of most westerners.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are lots of decent restaurants, and many are al fresco with children's play areas. The new Westgate Mall has many Western-style options, such as KFC and Pizza Hut, as well as local chains like Art Caffe and Urban Burger. Village Market, another shopping mall, is geared toward expats and has good dining possibilities. There is a very good Italian restaurant there.
Food delivery is very prolific, with options ranging from groceries to full catering services. There are many Indian options, some sushi, and decent pizza. One thing to remember- it will take at least an hour for your food to arrive.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Termites and ants are particularly determined around here. Most structures are made of stone or concrete, so termites feast mainly on firewood. Ants are best thwarted with bait traps, kitchen cleanliness, and a gardener's assistance in locating colonies.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I have no experience with local post, as we have an embassy mail service. I can say that there is no home delivery of mail in Kenya, though. I would imagine that the services offered at post offices are questionable, given the rampant graft in country.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
House staff is very affordable and most people hire a daily housekeeper, a gardener, and a driver. Kenyan nannies are wonderfully caring and competent.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are gyms at most embassies and the United Nations that are low in cost and adequate. Additionally, most compounds have pools.
There are several league options for basketball, ice hockey, and the like, as well as horseback riding in many locations around town.
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?
Credit cards are widely accepted, though safety is variable. I wouldn't use a local ATM.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I imagine that most religious services you would want are available. The Kenyans have a very good grasp on British English, and are a very religious society. The only major religion I've not seen represented in Nairobi is Judaism.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Kiswahili is not strictly necessary, but it is an easy language to get a basic handle on. There are many tutors available. Again, most Kenyans speak British English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, there is little accommodation for those with physical challenges. Even for the elderly I would imagine that free movement in Kenya would pose real challenges. For example, a typical car ride through Nairobi would knock the dentures right out of someone's mouth.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Some taxi companies are good, but it is important to settle on fares before your trip. There is a tradition of haggling here that is pervasive and drivers will usually start negotiations at about twice the amount they are willing to accept.
Local buses (matatus) are not for expats. They are poorly maintained, poorly driven, and poorly regulated. Trains are antiquated and not expat-friendly, as well. When traveling to areas outside Nairobi, flights are the best bet, outside personal vehicles.
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?
Large all-terrain vehicles are the only way to go. Land Cruisers, Land Rovers, and the like are most widely available. Nothing with a low ground clearance, nothing fancy.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is available and relatively quickly installed (within a week or two), though many technicians will try for a bribe to hurry along the process.
Because of the unreliability of power here it is best to have a few UPS units in the house and a generator to avoid interruptions.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
SafariCom is the only way to go. The plans are pre-paid and you have to monitor closely to avoid shut-offs, whether accurately done or not. Reconnecting service is another opportunity for techs to make some pocket money.
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?
There is no quarantine on cats and dogs, and we've found a few highly recommended vets in Nairobi. There are kennels and groomers, and most gardeners take on daily dog walking duty as part of their job.
Getting animals into the country is somewhat different than we'd seen in the past as far as airlines go. We had to use a freight importation company when coming from the U.S. due to local regulations.
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?
Many expat spouses stay home, as locally available jobs are somewhat scarce and pay is low.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are many children's homes in the area which always welcome people willing to help.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual/casual generally. Women are typically more modest in dress than in the west. Rarely have I seen women in shorts, and local women mostly wear skirts, not pants.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Absolutely. Robbery, muggings, burglary, car jacking- these are regular occurrences. These are mostly crimes of opportunity and can be prevented with common sense practices such as using alarm systems, locking car doors, avoiding questionable areas, and being aware of your surroundings.
Terrorism is a high threat as well, though most attacks are directed at local police and citizens.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Malaria is a concern in country, though not locally. Nairobi mosquitoes don't carry the disease; I believe it has to do with the high altitude.
Yellow fever and rabies are the most recommended vaccinations.
Health care quality is decent, especially for expats. Maybe the most advanced equipment isn't available, but knowledge is solid. Fair warning: hospitals want to see cash up front before admittance, regardless of the situation.
Diplomats are medically evacuated for childbirth and surgeries.
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?
There's a lot of garbage burning in Kenya, as well as fires for heating in most houses and for cooking in the less affluent areas, so the air isn't the cleanest. Also, the growing cycle of most plants doesn't really go dormant, so there are several pollen explosions throughout the year. Allergies and asthma are big issues.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
The air quality issues above.
Food allergen contact would be pretty easily avoided. Schools are cautious about nuts and dairy, etc. As far as that goes, I would say that the schools here are even more cautious than in the west, out of concern for religious dietary restrictions as well as allergies.
Restaurants are able to accommodate food concerns.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
No, not that I'm aware of.
Loneliness and homesickness would be the major challenges, since flights are expensive and long.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Kenya weather is mostly perfect. In the winter, the low 50s Fahrenheit. In the summer, sometimes it hits the 90s. There are two rainy seasons, the more intense one being in the fall. Several roads wash out and buildings sometimes collapse during these long rains.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several international schools and I have known families at ISK, Braeburn, and the German school. I've heard very positive things from all. We have no first-hand experience, as our son is still too young.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are many preschools and day care centers. Compared to other places we've lived, the expense is small. Our son attends a Montessori school, MLC, which has classes for kids from 18 months on to 6 years old. The combined total of the school fees and the nanny's salary are less than we'd pay for child care in D.C.
I'm not certain about before and after care, but I would presume that it's not as necessary here with the widely available household help.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, there are many classes and camps and lessons available. Many companies will come to the house for gymnastics, swimming, music, etc.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge. There are many government missions, the UN, and lots of NGOs here. Morale is good.
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?
Locals are very friendly and hospitable. There are many opportunities to socialize with expats and locals. Pick an activity and you'll likely find a group.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I can speak to the opportunities for families, and they are very good. Kenya loves children. Most businesses are welcoming to little ones and there are fun fairs and playgrounds all over. Nannies are warm and caring, and often very flexible in their work hours.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Not really. There is a strong prejudice against alternative lifestyles and there are legal ramifications for same-sex relationships. It's my biggest disappointment here.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Very patriarchal, with huge differences in pay for men vs. women. Spousal abuse is common among local people, and religious and tribal prejudices are common. Racism is an issue, in that local people will treat white people (mzungu) as a better class of people than themselves. White people are given deference.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
There are great natural experiences to be had. Nairobi National Park is a perfect introduction to the game drive experience. Further afield, hiking, rock climbing, and safaris are the best in the world. The beaches are gorgeous and tour and resort operations are top notch.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Dhow cruises, safaris, The Giraffe Center, the Elephant Orphanage, Masai markets, and former British colonial homes are very diverting. The country is very eager to bolster tourism and great efforts are made.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
The markets are chock-full of "Africrap." Beaded jewelry, paintings, local fabrics and clothing, wood and soapstone carvings, animal pelts and accessories made from them; you can find anything that you would imagine that you would like to take to the folks back home.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The beautiful weather, the hospitality of the people, and the beauty of the natural landscapes make Nairobi wonderful. The availability of household help is also a great boon.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I had known how very poor some people really are. Many times I have been shocked by the disparity in what westerners and East Africans consider acceptable living conditions.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. Nairobi offers a chance to reevaluate necessities, to escape the west's obsession with efficiency, and to truly experience humility.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Fancy clothes and jewelry, winter clothing, expectations of a fair and just government, and need for solid infrastructure.
4. But don't forget your:
Vaccinations, sunscreen, and flexibility.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Any books on the Happy Valley set and British colonization, the Mau Mau uprising, and the establishment of Kenyan government give good insight.
6. Do you have any other comments?
At first, the haggling, the navigation of roads, and the poverty can be very distressing. Kenyan life is often heartbreaking and stressful. The local news media is often questionable. The government is corrupt. But, Kenya is wild and beautiful and worth all of the challenges.