Nairobi, Kenya Report of what it's like to live there - 02/23/08

Personal Experiences from Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya 02/23/08

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

I have lived in New Delhi for one year (see the March 2006 RPR).

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2. How long have you lived here?

2 years.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

My husband works for an international organization.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

From the U.S., the best connection is through Amsterdam on Northwest/KLM. It’s eight hours from the Midwest/East Coast to Amsterdam, with another eight hours from Amsterdam to Nairobi. It’s a reasonably OK connection – you get into Nairobi in the evening and there’s enough time in Amsterdam between flights for a coffee and sausage roll. However, we have stopped taking that route, going instead on Emirates (Nairobi-Dubai-Toronto) which makes more sense for us. It is a thousand times more pleasant, and avoids snotty KLM staff. Alternatively, one could route through JFK and Dubai with Emirates, although JFK is truly evil. From DC, the Qatar Airways flight via Doha is very pleasant. Their claim of 5-star service, even in economy, holds true.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Very nice. Coming from India (our last post), housing choices in Nairobi are simply amazing. There are typically more houses than apartments (though this is changing with all of the apartment construction); a few townhouses are also available in which there is a set of 4-6 attached homes in one compound. Houses tend to be rather large with a lot of land (0.5-1.5 acres). Modern apartments (what we live in) are available and quite reasonably priced for the amenities you get (new kitchens, gym and pool on-site).

In most expat areas, rents average about: US$700-$1,100/month for a newish 3-4 BR; townhouses: $1,100-$1,500/month for a 4-BR; houses: $1,000-$2,000+, depending on size, location, and amount of land. You can certainly get cheaper than that, but it may not be as modern. All places have a high boundary wall around them and apartments come standard with 24/7 security on-site (one day guard and two night guards). For houses, you generally have to hire a service; we’re not sure on the cost, but my husband’s work provides an allowance of up to $1,000/month if that’s any indication.

There seem to be four main areas where expats reside. To the far north of Waiyaki Way (the main thoroughfare) are the areas of Gigiri, Runda, and Muthaiga which is where the UN and a number of embassies (including the U.S.) can be found. This area is obviously quite close to work and nearby Village Market, a shopping mall that could be right out of Orange County (thankfully no Mischa Barton sightings!), with nice stucco-and-tiled shops, a bowling alley, and waterslides. Almost everything here is houses. Nearby, but closer to Waiyaki Way, are the neighborhoods of Spring Valley, Nyari, and Loresho, which are similar. On the other side of Waiyaki Way are the neighborhoods of Westlands, Kileleshwa, Lavington, and Kilimani, which are farther from the embassies but closer to town, where NGOs and other organizations are located. Properties here are a mix of apartments, houses, and townhomes. There’s also the choice of living in Karen or Langata, which are slightly out of town, but very pretty with lots of big houses with a lot of land. Of course, commute times will be longer (at least 30-45 minutes to the UN/Embassy area, depending on traffic).

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

There are two big modern supermarket chains (Nakumatt and Uchumi) that have a wide range of food and household items. Prices are not unlike costs in the USA, though certain imported goods (notably peanut butter and breakfast cereal) are quite expensive. Almost everything is available, but not necessarily U.S. brands (no Kraft Dinner, for example) nor are brands consistently available from week to week (e.g., you might get Nestle Corn Flakes one week, then a South African brand the next).The quality of fruits, vegetables, and meat in both chains sometimes leaves a lot to be desired, but a number of locations are in malls with stand-alone fruit/vegetable shops (e.g., Zucchini’s) and butchers, with much better selection and quality. Prices for produce are extremely reasonable. In addition to these chains, there are smaller, more personalized shops that have a good selection and often more in the way of specialty spices or imported goods.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Most things are available here, but certain types of cheap home items (shower curtains, plastic dish racks, etc.) are overly expensive here. Same goes with small appliances – if coming from a 240V country, it might be best to stock up on things like coffee makers, toasters, irons, etc. Do ship any of your favorite brands of snacks or non-perishables and all the clothes you might need, as selection and prices here aren’t good.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Lots and lots of good restaurants of all genres, ranging from fantastic Indian, Lebanese, Continental, Italian, Seafood, Japanese, Nyama Choma (i.e., all you can eat meat), etc. Prices are slightly lower than comparable places in the USA, maybe 10-20 percent lower or so. There is only one Mexican place (in Karen) that is in a mall food court, but is reasonable (there's another in Westlands, but people have gotten sick there!). Likewise, the only good Chinese food we’ve had is also in a mall food court. In terms of fast food, it’s mainly South African chains like Nando’s and Wimpy, which are reasonable and similarly priced as U.S.-chains, though the selection of food is not as diverse. In general, delivery is much less common than other places, though.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

You don't! We have had several experiences of mail sent through the normal post never arriving but that does not always happen. DHL or FedEx are your best bet.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

More expensive than Asia, but fairly reasonable. Figure US$150-$200/month for an experienced driver and maybe $100-$150/month for a maid.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

ATMs abound, but many are Visa-only. This has been slowly changing – it was only Barclays that accepted MasterCard ATMs when we first arrived. We would reserve credit card use to major hotels and restaurants.

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4. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Apparently all are represented, though heavy on the Pentecostal/born again stuff here.

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5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

The Nation and Standard are the major ones; not great for international news, but will keep you informed on all of the political gossip of the day.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is fine though a smattering of Swahili is always appreciated.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

It’s better than in some developing countries as there are modern shopping malls with ramps and elevators but day-to-day living might be more challenging.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Left, like in the U.K., but Kenyan drivers are hard-wired to drive in the middle of the road.

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2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Matatus are cheap but not in the same area code as safe. Taxis are safer, but not affordable at all. Affordable hired transport is a real problem.

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3. 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?

You definitely need something with high ground clearance to put up with the lousy roads and potholes that pervade Nairobi. A small SUV (Nissan X-Trail, Subarus, Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V) is adequate although the adventurous people who want to go out of town more frequently would be best served with a Land Cruiser, Nissan Patrol, or Land Rover. Japanese brands seem to be the most common; it is rare to see any U.S. brands such as Fords or Jeeps.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Quality = ha, ha. Well, it is available in different forms and guises. In addition to dial-up, there are a number of services that market “wireless” Internet, in which the Internet signal is transmitted through towers, much in the same way that mobile phones operate. You then pick up the signal with a phone or wireless modem. This service is relatively new and fairly experimental, with the downside that it tends to be flaky and VERY slow sometimes (but better than speeds at work surprisingly!).Costs aren’t cheap either: figure $100/month for this. When they get it right, it could be pretty cool indeed, but right now, we’re sort of in the Middle Ages. Broadband is also available but at great cost.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

CelTel and Safaricom are the main providers. Both seem fine.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

VoIP via Skype, though bandwidth kind of sucks at times.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There are vets everywhere. We cannot vouch for their quality, but suspect it is pretty high.

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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, if you have specialized skills that local NGOs are looking for, but in general professionals will be competing with highly educated Kenyans and are often a bit frustrated.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

We can’t speak for the embassies but my husband’s work is business causal. Kenyans tend to dress quite formally.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

It is good to moderate at home but very unhealthy when you are stuck in traffic behind a truck or matatu that doesn’t know the meaning of the words “emission controls." There are also the random burnings of things (usually trash).

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

High to extreme. Nairobi has a bad reputation for crime, particularly carjackings, and the omnipresent security presence at malls, restaurants, homes, etc. in the form of 24-hour guards (sometimes toting guns) and high walls with razor wire and electric fencing. In a UN security report back in 2006, the words “hand grenade” appeared in a description of a shoot-out between police and bad guys at a checkpoint on a major road on a Friday night. You definitely have to be careful and aware of your surroundings, but with a few precautions (locking all doors/windows while driving, paying attention to the road and people around you at all times, etc.), you will be fine. Of course, since the elections (December 2007), things have become a little more tense. During the first week of January, we were in lock-down in our apartment and there were protests and street violence near where we live. This has since calmed down, but the peace is a bit tenuous: a lot depends on how well the current political negotiations play out and how long (and if) they stick. Lots of if's.

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Nairobi is pretty healthy in general but going outside exposes you to many nasties (Malaria, etc.).

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Wonderful. Generally ranges from the low-70s to the low-80s (F) during the day, mid-50s to mid-60s (F) at night, with little humidity. It is on the cooler side of those ranges in July and August and warmer in December-January. Whether it is rainy, cloudy, or sunny depends on the season, though you will get at least a little sun most days. Most rain happens March-May and October-November.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

We don’t have any experience with them, but the International School of Kenya has a very good reputation.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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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?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Massive but fragmented, though there are not many centralized groups for meeting. The UN has a spouse club and the embassies take good care of their own. The local AWA is open to members from anywhere in the world and has interesting outings and monthly speakers. People kind of do their own thing.

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2. Morale among expats:

Reasonable for the most part, neither great nor horrible. Kind of beige.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

It is what you make of it: home parties, bars, restaurants, trips out of town. Due to the security situation, most people tend to stay home or in their immediate area at night. Entertaining at home is more common than going out to local clubs like Pavement.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Probably best for families with small children; it's a great place for small kids and the international schools are reputed to be excellent. There are great places for couples and singles but it seems to be an older crowd (45+) here in general.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

We suspect it’s not the best.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not that we have experienced: interracial couples are common and accepted, something we've been pleased to see.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Lots of fun stuff awaits outside of Nairobi, including Masai Mara, Hell's Gate, excursions to the Rift Valley, beaches... not to mention that you are close to many nearby attractions (mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Zanzibar, etc.). In town, you have the Giraffe Centre, Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage (as seen on BBC's Elephant Diaries), museums, etc.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Local art works purchased at the Maasi Market and travel throughout the region.

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9. Can you save money?

Maybe, provided you avoid pricey vacation spots in the region and the Kenya shilling remains at a reasonable level (around $1=Ksh70) as it has post-election. When it was at 61-62 pre-election, there's no way you can save if paid in U.S.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Probably not. We are glad we came and experienced Kenya but find much of the expat community rather closed off to newcomers and day-to-day life can be boring. We'd like to like it a lot more than we do.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Sense of freedom (brick walls, razor wire, and security guards every 20 feet tend to kill that off fairly quickly); air conditioner (it is always temperate here); and hopes that the potholes you keep driving through on your way to work will ever be repaired.

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3. But don't forget your:

Patience, camera with super zoom lens to take on safari, and golf clubs so you can play at one of the great local clubs.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Out of Africa

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6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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7. Do you have any other comments?

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