Seasoned expat Tara Wambugu moved to Kenya with her husband and baby daughter in 2011. Now, more than four years later, they still call Nairobi home and Tara blogs about her experiences raising a family in this bustling African city. You can read her blog at mamamgeni.com.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Massachusetts, USA
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Nairobi, Kenya
Q: When did you move here?
A: August 2011
Q: Did you move here alone or with a family?
A: My husband is Kenyan, and we have two young daughters. Many people ask if my husband and I met here in Kenya, but in fact we met in Uzbekistan! My husband and I have been working abroad together since we met in 2005, and we moved back to Kenya as a family in 2011, with our eldest daughter who was then two months old.
Q: Why did you move?
A: My husband and I always planned to settle in Kenya. When we started dating 10 years ago, I told him I wanted to live abroad long-term, and he said he hoped to eventually move home. Luckily for us, raising our family in Kenya met both of those goals. I now stay at home with my girls and write a blog about our life here.
Living in Kenya
Q: What do you enjoy most about Nairobi? How would you rate the quality of life?
A: I absolutely adore Nairobi’s proximity to amazing national parks and reserves. I love city life, but I also love getting out of the city for camping, safari, game drives, and enjoying the spectacular sights and wildlife of Kenya. Quality of life in Nairobi is pretty amazing. For expats who need the creature comforts of home, you can buy almost anything you want or need here, although the supply can sometimes be erratic. Nairobi has great restaurants, a fantastic nightlife, and a very active social scene.
Q: Any negatives about living in Nairobi?
A: My least favourite thing about living in Nairobi is the driving. The roads are swarming with matatus (privately-owned minibuses that serve as public transport), which are notorious in Nairobi for their terrible driving. They rarely follow the rules of the road, and they are shockingly aggressive and dangerous. But they are a fact of life here, and if you can master the art of defensive driving, you’ll do just fine!
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Nairobi? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock in Kenya?
A: Despite having lived and worked several years in various African countries, I definitely experienced some culture shock when we moved to Nairobi after spending a year in England. During our first week, we had power outages, a water shortage and a massive ant infestation in our bedroom. My husband and I had both quickly become accustomed to well-established infrastructure and services in England, despite having lived there for just a year.
Q: What’s the cost of living in Kenya compared to home? What is cheap or expensive?
A: Housing is cheaper here than it is in the US. We rent a five-bedroom house in a fairly upmarket neighbourhood in Nairobi – something we could never afford to do in the US. Food prices are fairly similar overall, with some items being more expensive (imported goods like cheese), while other items are much cheaper (locally grown fruits and vegetables). In the end, I spend about as much on my weekly food shopping as I would at home.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Nairobi? Do you need to own a car?
A: The only real public transportation in Nairobi is the network of matatu minibuses that circulate throughout the city. Only very brave (or very budget-minded) expats use matatus as their main mode of transport. Most expats either use taxis or buy their own car. I went without a car for the first few months that we lived here, which was only possible because we lived within walking distance from a supermarket and shopping mall. I felt incredibly liberated when we finally bought a car and was finally able to go wherever I needed to go without calling a taxi.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Nairobi?
A: There is a huge spectrum of available healthcare in Kenya, from the very questionable clinics available in the slums, to very modern, reputable private hospitals accessible only to those with means. As an expat (especially if your employer offers you health insurance), you will have access to the finest doctors and hospitals in Nairobi. Sadly, the same is not true for all Kenyans. My recommendation if you have kids is to find a good paediatrician as soon as you arrive. We love Dr. Nesbitt at Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital in Muthaiga. As for hospitals, The Aga Khan University Hospital is widely regarded as the best hospital in Nairobi.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Kenya? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Road safety is probably the biggest safety issue we face in Kenya. We have a family policy of seat belts and child car seats for ALL passengers in our cars. Walking can be dangerous, depending on several factors. Like any big city, there are opportunistic thieves who will take advantage of you if you walk alone at night, or in insecure neighbourhoods. Our policy is to follow the lead of the local population – if you don’t see Kenyans walking at night, don’t walk at night.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city? What different options are available for expats?
A: Housing in Nairobi is quite nice, with a variety of options available. There are furnished apartments, unfurnished apartments, and houses for rent in various good neighbourhoods around town. Nairobi is quite a green city, so you’ll find that most places have a green space within the compound, which is really pleasant. Many apartment complexes also have swimming pools.
Q: Any areas and suburbs of Nairobi you’d recommend to expats?
A: The main factor in deciding where to live is the commute – most people choose to live close to where they work to avoid getting stuck in infamous Nairobi traffic jams. Kileleshwa, Kilimani, Lavington, Loresho, Kyuna, Gigiri, Runda and Karen are all popular neighbourhoods for expats and Kenyans alike. Find out where your office will be, and decide accordingly.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: Kenyans are quite open to expats, since Nairobi has had a huge expat population. However, since most expats are short-timers, only here for a year or so, it can take a long time for Kenyans to open up. The best way to connect with Kenyans is to learn Kiswahili, and participate in Kenyan culture (attend Kenyan sporting events, go to Kenyan bars, eat in local restaurants, etc).
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: Since my husband is Kenyan, we had an instant network of friends and family here – which is not the case for most expats. Beyond my husband’s family and friends, I also found my own network of friends here as well. Having worked in humanitarian aid in the region, we have connected with a lot of former colleagues who also settled down in Nairobi. And I have made a lot of friends by connecting with other parents of young children through playgroups and children’s activities.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: We have a healthy mix of Kenyan and international friends, which I love. The best way to meet people, for me, has been to seek out people with similar interests – go to play groups to get to know other parents of young children, join a running group to meet other running enthusiasts, join a dinner club to connect with other food lovers, etc. There are also several Facebook groups geared towards expats living in Nairobi that are a great way for people connect and make friends with other expats living here (Nairobi Expat Social, Nairobi Expat Parenting, Nairobi Foodlovers, etc).
About working in Kenya
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: It has become more difficult to get work permits in recent years, as the Kenyan government prefers NGOs and international organizations to hire locally whenever possible. If you are already employed when you come here, your employer should sponsor you for a work permit. The timelines can be long to process your papers, but your employer will advise you on that. If you come here to seek employment, you might have a difficult time. You can sponsor yourself for a work permit, but it is incredibly expensive. We have always handled the visa / permit process ourselves, to avoid any bribes being paid in our names. It is entirely possible to do it on your own, but many expats choose to hire a “handler” to follow the process for them. It’s a totally personal choice.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Nairobi? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job in Kenya? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Unemployment is very high in Kenya, and as such, the government prefers local jobs to go to local applicants. Most expats working in Kenya work for embassies, NGOs, UN agencies, or international media. My advice would be to find a job BEFORE you arrive, so that hopefully your employer will sort out your visa and work permit for you. Online resources like DevEx and Idealist.org can be helpful.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Kenya?
A: Lunch is really important in many Kenyan workplaces. People are not likely to grab a sandwich and just eat at their desks. Instead, they like to spend the lunch hour sitting, eating and chatting together in a common space. While you don’t need to do this every day, it is a great opportunity to get to know your Kenyan colleagues. While English is the common language of work, Kenyan colleagues will often speak Kiswahili when chatting with one another. It is helpful to learn to speak it, even if just a little. It is a bit of a cliché, and things are beginning to change, but many things do still happen on Kenyan Time. Don’t be surprised if meetings begin late, or things take a little longer than they do at home. Traffic is a major issue in Nairobi, and if you are not careful you can lose hours of any given day sitting in jams. Try to plan your external meetings carefully to avoid busy times and minimise disruption. Kenyan colleagues will likely be very conscious of tribal affiliations. It is important to be transparent and maintain balance where possible. Your Kenyan HR team will be best placed to advise you in this regard.
Family and children in Kenya
Q: Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: I have a lot of friends who came here as a trailing spouse, and I think the key for them, especially for those who don’t work, was to make their own network of friends and make Nairobi their own.
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: My eldest was only 2 months when we arrived here, and our second child was born here, so Kenya is all they’ve ever known! Most children love Nairobi – the climate is moderate, so they can play outside year-round. And what child doesn’t love going on safari, feeding giraffes, and putting baby elephants to bed?
Q: What are the schools like? any particular suggestions?
A: There is a wide range of school curricula available in Kenya, from the local 8-4-4 system, to Waldorf, to International Baccalaureate, to various international schools (British, American, French, Swedish, Dutch, German, etc). Much like choosing a house close to where you work, you may want to choose a school close to where you live, especially if you’re not set on sending your child to a school with your home country’s curriculum. The best is to research the different schools as much as possible online and schedule visits to those that interest you, so you can see what will be the best fit for you and your children.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Try to get out of the expat scene now and again and experience Kenya as Kenyans do. Go out to a local bar or restaurant. Make friends with your Kenyan co-workers and neighbours. Get out of Nairobi and see what life is like upcountry. Learn Swahili! Most of all, take time for travel. Kenya has so much to offer – mountains, lakes, beaches, rainforests, wildlife, bird watching, safari and so much more. After four years of living here, I still feel like I haven’t seen enough!
~ interviewed in January 2016