I’ve received quite a few questions from people overseas who are planning to move to Kenya. Comments and queries such as:
‘I have been offered a contract in Kenya to begin in the next few months and am not sure whether or not to take up the post. I would love to contact you to ask about the cost of housing, security, cost of living.’ Or:
‘Please would you write about the schools, cost of living, housing etc. for those who are thinking of moving to Nairobi? Now that, for me, would make an interesting post.’
If I was about to move here, my first port of call would probably be to contact someone ‘on the ground’ too, but sadly, I’m not really qualified to answer all these questions accurately and it would be too time consuming to look into the cost of living in Nairobi for all budgets. I did once do a Google search and found that the UN site on Kenya/Nairobi was quite up to date and informative as regards cost of living, security and cost of rental accommodation here. However, take it with a bit of a pinch of salt as it comes across as a bit dry and businesslike and may turn you off making the move as much as help you.
In an attempt to be helpful, I’ll try to paint a picture of how Nairobi is today.
First, it’s an incredibly friendly place with the overwhelming majority of people being happy and approachable. Even if someone has only met you once, however briefly (ie. filling up your car at a petrol station), they might surprise you by tapping on your car window to smile and wave in a familiar manner. It’s even customary to greet people you don’t know. This can be disarming if you have recently arrived from the West where people learn to mind their own business, especially when living in large cities. In addition, the majority of people are polite. When forming a queue at the cash point, people will coyly stand ten miles behind you as you withdraw money, so as not to crowd around. Others will step aside if you are in hurrying or carrying a heavy load, many even offer to help. Your children will be welcome, fussed over and spoiled everywhere you go. Kenya and even a big city like Nairobi is a place for making friends, especially if you keep an open mind. Everyone makes time for a chat or a shared joke.
Living in Nairobi can also be enormously frustrating. Even the nicest, most level headed person can be driven to distraction on a particularly bad day when events seem to conspire against you. ATMs might be inexplicably ‘down’ and banks closed when you most need to withdraw money. Phone lines go dead, there’s no broadband internet connection (apparently it’s coming but major office buildings have Wireless, at home we struggle with slow mobile or landline connections). There are long hours of power outages, there’s always heavy traffic in all corners of the city with lumbering Lorries and hundreds of crazy mini buses. The roads are full of potholes and there are numerous police road blocks. The air is thick with pollution. The old fashioned bureaucracy is maddening and a task that should take one minute can take up a whole day. You might experience a total communication break down when trying to arrange something that can be enough to drive you mad.
In spite of the noise and pollution, living in Nairobi is largely about being out of doors, sun on your cheeks and air. There are lots and lots of people: walking, cycling, selling things, carrying things and pulling hand carts. The sun shines all year round. It never gets particularly cold. The most you’d need to wear on a ‘cold’ day is a light sweater and jeans. When it rains, it’s often dramatic and exciting with electrical storms and tropical downpours. Children play outside all year round and it never gets too hot either. There are itinerant herds of cows and goats grazing on the roadside that look a little incongruous amongst the bustling traffic.
Nairobi has been going through a significant economic boom, the flawed December 2007 election notwithstanding. This can largely be seen through the huge amount of property development going on in the shape of shopping centres, luxury town houses and apartment complexes and shiny high rise office buildings. Space is becoming a bit of an issue. The roads are also filling up as there are more and more vehicle owners and a growing population.
Much of the housing market in Nairobi is moving towards the ‘secure compound’ approach where apartments or townhouses are built on plots of land in some cases (described as ‘luxury’) with shared gym or swimming pool facilities. Even lower cost housing is now often clustered into gated areas. The further you get out of town, the more space there is. In various Nairobi suburbs it’s still possible to find old 1930s or 1950s houses standing in large gardens, but if you rent one of these, the onus is on you to organise your own security. Some of these plots have been subdivided and you might have the original house with one or two other houses built within the same garden and sharing an entrance gate in more of an ‘organic’ arrangement than you find in the modern complexes.
Security is an issue in Nairobi, which is why the developments of houses or flats within walled and gated compounds are proving popular. The threat of an armed break in or car jacking is always present. Nairobi residents approach this problem, where possible, by spending as much money as is possible on preventing it happening to them. This comes in the form of electric fences, employment of night watchmen (there are numerous private firms) and living within ‘secure’ walled and gated plots. However, if you are unlucky enough to be the victim of a crime, it’s most likely going to be due to very bad luck rather than poor planning. The South Africans I know who live here think that living in Kenya is a picnic compared to the state of things down south. In addition, we don’t spend much time worrying about our children being abducted in shopping centres by paedophiles as one does when back home. From day to day living here there is a bit of innocence about the place and trust in others that perhaps has been a bit lost these days in the ‘developed’ world (…I say tentatively).
Meat and delicious vegetables are plentiful and very reasonably priced here. When my family come to visit from England, they remark on how tasty all the food is and how healthily we eat which may be due to the fact that comparatively little fast food or ready meals are available. Fruit and vegetables look like they have just been plucked from the ground or trees and often they have been. Supermarkets sell local produce and lots of imported goods (ie cereals, biscuits, cleaning products, jams) but if you are tempted to buy too much of the latter, you’ll find that your budget won’t stretch very far. You can get almost everything but please note: when planning a special meal, always see what is available in the shops first. There’s nothing worse than chasing all over town for an elusive ingredient that is there one week and gone the next.
Modern Shopping Centres
Nairobi has a central business district where many office buildings and shops are located, but for some time the city has been decentralizing, with satellite shopping centres and office parks popping up outside the CBD. Some of the new retail centres are very modern and of ‘first world’ standard. They offer secure parking and inside you can catch a film, find an excellent bookshop, buy clothes, new shoes, grab a burger or a cappuccino in a food court or find a smarter restaurant for more of an occasion. Before you assume that these shopping centres are kind of ex-pat hang outs, I would like to point out that the majority of patrons are Kenyan (before I’m accused of being racist or exclusive or something….).
Hospitals and Schools
There are loads! Nairobi's hospitals are excellent (see previous post on cosmetic surgery) and so are the schools. The choice is very wide. Most people choose schools according to proximity to where they live, but if you set your heart on somewhere further afield it's always possible. Some people feel that if they are in a critical situation they would prefer to be medi-vac-ed home and choose a health insurance policy to cover this. Others choose overseas education for secondary level in order to widen their children's experience. All of this is personal choice.
It’s possible to get some excellent clothes and shoes from the second hand markets dotted around town. Crafts, fruit, vegetables and flowers are often sold on the roadside. Living in Nairobi is colourful and vibrant, dusty and hectic, it feels free from the nanny state restrictions of the West and though sometimes it's sad, most of the time it’s fun.