Sunday, March 29, 2015

Life for an Africa Expat Wife, or 'Cappuccino Girl'

I was interviewed over the phone some years ago by Radio Westcountry - or something along those lines.  As I stood there, shut into the smallest room in the house (this is literally a cupboard and was in the days when land-telephone lines worked) on a hot day with the door shut - obviously in Kenya - slightly concerned that the phone line would inexplicably cut off, or that my kids would burst in through the door and demand attention or else start screaming right outside the door - and aware that my parents in Wiltshire were listening in to my conversation with the radio host, who was supposed to be asking about post-election violence; when apropos of nothing he said;
"So what's expat life in Kenya like then? Is it still all jumping into bed with each other?"
I let out a prudish shriek and "No!" I exclaimed. "Not at all!"
The line was crackly. I hope I made my point. To be honest, it sounded weak.


Let me explain. An expat wife in Africa or 'trailing spouse' has many freedoms. Freedom from the repetitiveness of childcare, housework etc. due to a (possibly fading?) tradition here of employing armies of domestic staff - but to be honest, there's not much independence.  You can't just stride off for a walk. People live behind gates and walls - you most commonly see expat wives behind the wheel of their cars dashing from A-to-B with no time to stop and chat in between. There really isn't much compulsion to walk unless you pre-plan; ie. drive to some gated community and take a walk or jog in a 'secure' environment. There is no public transport to speak of so there's no jumping on trains or buses to 'go and see' stuff like museums, interesting exhibitions, quaint towns or parks (most of those you have to visit by car and pay entry) and obviously there are no old friends or relatives to drop in on or visit.

Sadly, nights out come with a security warning as well. Make no mistake, this doesn't stop people from going to find the nearest party and there's plenty of night life on offer - it can be lots of fun - but if you are driving home as a woman alone - your heart will definitely be in your mouth until you are safely tucked in your bed - and even then you tend to sleep with one ear open in Nairobi.

So, as an expat wife - at some stage you need to find yourself a purpose.

1. 'Get a job' would be the most common assumption to make, in order to fill that void. Why not just get a job?  Well, the pay is often lower than you might expect and the lifestyle more expensive (it's common to assume that life in East Africa must be 'cheap', but it's not) and before you do anything - you will need a work permit.  Work permits take a good few months to arrange and are by no means guaranteed.  The Government reserves the right to refuse an application if they feel that someone local can do the same job just as well - and this stamp in your passport will set you back a good few thousand pounds for a 2 year period only - not a figure to be sniffed at if you plan to work part-time.

2. Charity work - could be another 'purpose' - but hang on, you need a permit to do this too and don't make the mistake of arriving here thinking that you can necessarily change, 'save' or improve things in 'Africa'.  This path is never for the fainthearted and for some, has been not only thankless but literally soul destroying. Read more here: Friends who tried setting up an orphanage 

The orphanage/school that was set up in Kibera in partnership with my kids' school, also ended in a story that left a very nasty taste in the mouth. There are lots of small ways that you can help as an expat wife - but don't ever make the mistake of thinking that you can wave a magic wand and 'fix' things - this is patronising and fairly divorced from the reality of life here. (wow - I am going to get crucified for that one).

I believe that if you have any qualifications or work experience that you can pass on through working to the very best of your ability with a local team surrounding you (as in, employed work) - then this a good idea.
1. You will learn so much yourself in a liberated environment where you are free to try new things
2. You will see the fruits of your labour very quickly because of the freedoms here to try something new.  Input = Output. Why not raise the bar by doing your very best. The best advice I ever had? Never patronise or dumb down.  That's a highly naive mistake to make.

3. Oh, then there are the bed-hoppers. Not really - but if you felt like it, then you could live an entirely celebrity lifestyle and delegate the entire running of your family life out to third parties. There are a very select few who seem to do this (mainly trust-fund-afarians).  By delegating out your wifely duties you can keep your days entirely free to get up to whatever mischief you want.  A nanny could look after your kids while you either work or just play golf.  Some people even have 'night' nannies for babies so that someone else can deal with those troublesome broken nights.  A driver could take your kids to school, collect them and even pick up any grocery shopping for you.  You might want to employ a cook to prepare all of your meals.  This is all in addition to the full time cleaner, gardener and night watchman that you will doubtless employ.  It's a cultural thing because most middle class Kenyans employ domestic staff or have unpaid family members working in their households. Just be aware that there is no 999/911 number to call in an emergency situation and so there's a fairly hefty level of trust involved here. Enough said.

4. You make yourself into the most informed tour/travel guide that there is and give a packed itinerary of visiting friends and family the most fabulous holidays available, by stocking up on insider knowledge and stretching budgets to 'make the most of' the time you are here. This strategy works best for transient families who plan to stay no longer than two or three years (since this is unsustainable).

5. Finally, you could just drink a lot of cappuccinos, get furiously fit at the gym, perhaps join a school parents association, take an interest in wildlife conservation and the rest of the time, watch your nails grow.

Most of us have to find a balance.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ngong Road on Saturday Morning

It's all there, people busy at 9am on a Saturday morning constructing wrought iron gates, washing second hand car tyres, selling garden furniture, bunk beds, sofa sets, cots, chests of drawers, plant machinery for hire and wooden hand carts (mkokoteni) ready to be rented out for a day's work. There's even a ready-made, 'welded from metal sheets', shop for sale (painted black).  That reminds me, I must chase up my fundi friend on Ngong Road about our dining room table...

See the hand stone cutters in the background

Fancy having a sign hand-painted?

Heavy work - these barrels are full of water

Street selling, A far cry from the shiny shopping centres with the banks of security guards who check our cars on entry but yet they sit side-by-side.

*Thanks to my daughter for recording the street scene while I drove and to my long suffering husband for editing and setting to music .... Not that easy as it turns out!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Am I a bad person?... When I lose my temper....

I get cross on the phone, frustrated and I don’t like how my voice sounds.  Is this happening more and more? I sincerely hope not.

So, yesterday I bought a set top box for the lady who works in our house.  Kenya has now (finally, after long threats and court cases) moved to a digital system - so old analogue TVs no longer work.  Bad news for hospital waiting rooms - not such big news for us because we have a big shiny TV that is already digital but annoying for Gladys as we gave her one of our old TVs a few months ago and now it doesn’t work because of the digital migration. I felt bad for her but didn’t get around to doing anything about it for ages – that is, until yesterday.  Fortunately a subscription free set-top box (or decoder), new, costs around 3,500/-

First, I tried buying the box by simply throwing it in my shopping trolley – but was told that it first had to be registered and unlocked.  This process took half an hour and I felt that I was pretty cool about the wait. 
‘How long might it take?’ – Half an hour had passed and I had already filled in some time getting other shopping, in the hopes that she may have finished when I got there.
‘Would you like to sit down?’ the tech savvy shop assistant said in response, clearly worried about my advanced age.
‘No, I’m fine. It’s just that I would quite like to go soon.’  I looked at my watch.

In fact I was transfixed by Britney Spears gyrating on a High Def TV that was about 3 inches from my face (the shopping aisles are tight) – so was quite happy, though I did wonder, quite seriously, about Britney's choice of skimpy leotards and bikinis she was keeping my mind off things. Plus it was hot up in the top floor of the supermarket too. (Temperature wise - not just Britney)

‘It will just take 10 more minutes’, the shop assistant assured before passing me off to be dealt with a new a male assistant.
Britney kept me entertained, the digital box seemed to ‘load’ and I was assured that it was in perfect working order.
Next I went downstairs to pay for said decoder and then managed to leave said box on the packing side of the supermarket till.  The problem we have here in Kenya is that we have someone very nice to pack our bags for us at the other side of the till, so I don't know what the mix up was, but the decoder did not walk out of the shop with me.  I didn’t realise my mistake until I got home (30 minutes drive away) so when I did, I found my receipt and called customer service quickly.

‘I bought a decoder just now,’ I explained ‘and....’
‘I’ll put you through to the tech department.’ Was the response.
‘No!...’ I said – ‘please don’t put me through to anyone – just check to see if my decoder is still sitting at til number 4?!”
Anyway –  short story is that it was there.  Fine – a 30 minute drive to get it back again but I was going to be going past the shopping centre on the school run, so fine.  It was doable.

Now, Nairobi traffic is no joke at the moment and for some crazy reason (i.e. I can’t delegate), I had a school pick up and 4pm and 6pm yesterday (my middle daughter had a school play practise) and decided to go home in between - Which translated to 2.5 hours in the car in rush hour traffic.  Add that on to an already busy day (starting with the usual 5.40am alarm wake-up) and you can see where I am going with this...

So, I go back to fetch the set top box.  The barriers at the shopping centre have all simultaneously broken down but as I queue to get in (having had my car searched that never fails to feel intrusive, even though I am used to it by now) I don’t get cross.  There’s someone there to help with the barriers eventually and the expat lady in the car adjacent to me seems to be getting cross for everyone, so I keep my head down.

I do all of the school runs and get home with last child after dark, pick up and decide, rather rashly, to try to wire up Gladys’ set top box so that she can watch TV – and guess what? It’s not working. What does the blooming box say? ‘NO SIGNAL’.

I call the store – he says ‘let me put you through to the tech department...’ I wince, but stay quiet.
The tech man is apologetic but says he can’t help. He suggests I try the helpline for the set top box. After a bit of whining at him, I hang up and I call the helpline of the decoder supplier – the lady on the phone says that it’s a signal problem.
‘Try pointing the aerial toward Upper Hill – that’s where our signal comes from.’

It’s not a great scenario.  I’m already feeling bad that Gladys's room looks bare and I should definitely give her a rug and I’m manhandling this human sized TV closer to the door to try and get a better signal and it’s still not working. And the dogs are barking and the kids are supposed to be putting themselves to bed but I bet they're not and it's all falling apart.
‘But the TV worked before!’ My voice raises.
‘Ah, but that was when it was analogue.’
‘So why did I buy your decoder if it has such a weak signal?’ I ask – strained as there’s also no phone signal in Gladys' room so the lady on the other end keeps saying ‘I can’t hear you’ and threatening to hang up.
And eventually I realise that there is nothing more to say, it is just a signal problem, but I still won’t let the helpline lady hang up because it’s 8 O’clock at night and I am disappointed.  Meanwhile Gladys stands to one side looks resigned. 
‘It’s okay Madam.’ She says.

By the way - an added stress this week was recklessly brought on by my offering to make a dress for the Bugsy Malone school play (which I did so willingly). The dress is not even for my child but when I was asked to make a dress for Tallulah - how could I resist?!  It doesn't bear close scrutiny - like most of my creations - lots of loose threads, poorly cut edges and unfinished seams - let's hope it holds up for x2 performances! 

Why didn't I ask a fundi to do it I hear you say?.. I left it too late and the dress rehearsal was today...

The Original Version

First fitting
Final dress  - guess that 'making a pattern from Christmas wrapping paper' trick really paid off,

Kenya - Economic Update

  • So, Nairobi has the highest spending growth rate in the entertainment sector in Africa (according to a new survey released by Price Waterhouse Coopers on Wednesday, covering 30 African cities).  Good news for all you city bars and restaurants.  Kenya’s new middle class is ready for a lot more nights out, apparently playing catch up with their counterparts in the rest of the world.

  • More good news, Kenya ranks top destination for foreign investment and in February this year was ranked Africa’s most intelligent city and was the only African city to make the cut amongst the top 21 global cities (according to the Intelligent Community Forum). 

And Finally...
  • There are yet more $ millionaires in Kenya, 400 up from last year to a total of 8,764 individuals with assets worth over one million $, excluding their primary residences. To put this into context, Tanzania had 78 in dollar millionaires in 2014 and Uganda, 1,556.