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Expat Tales

The Sunday Times, Home section were asking for expat tales;
'we want to hear your stories of the ups and downs of expat life and any useful tips for readers who want to follow in your footsteps.'
(thanks to my mum in law for forwarding all these UK newspaper suppliments - we love them!)

I wrote in, doubtless along with many thousands of other expats so, as it is unlikely to get published in the paper I thought it might be fun to paste it in here:

Africa Expat Wife

It’s coming up to my ‘ten years in Africa’ anniversary as an expat housewife and to be honest it has been a rollercoaster ride. We bid tearful adieus to all our family and friends at our wedding and then hopped on a plane two days later for a honeymoon in Zanzibar. Marrying in February in England on a grey drizzly day, followed by choosing an eco hotel at the hottest time of year in Zanzibar (no air conditioning or ensuite facilities), was perhaps ill advised but we were planning our move around the inception date of my husband’s new job and within the constraints of a tight budget so were left with little choice. Our honeymoon was memorable because of the heat, the diarrhoea and vomiting and the fact that having never been to Africa before, I felt I had just landed on another rather exotic and colourful planet.

One of the first and best things I did on arrival in my new home, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was sign up for Swahili lessons and knowledge of the language has stood me in good stead over four years in Tanzania and six in Nairobi, Kenya. At the time I did it because frankly there was absolutely nothing else to do between sitting in internet cafes where the power kept cutting out and killing time at the British Council reading two week old copies of the Times or Penguin Classics,. Initially my husband came home to our ‘studio apartment’ for a hot meal every lunch time in the sweltering heat because I was working through my Delia Smith complete Cookery book (a wedding present), until he announced that he could bear it no longer. Trying to find smoked haddock or summer fruits was a challenge. I had to learn new names for fish; red snapper, dorado, parrot fish and feast instead on mango, pawpaw and passion fruit. We couldn’t get fresh milk or decent cheeses and imported food from the supermarket was prohibitively expensive. Filling hours in the day was tricky as requesting two expat work permits per family in Africa is considered greedy. We joined the Hash House Harriers in an attempt at meeting people but I spoiled it a bit because after becoming properly initiated members I managed to poison the entire group by feeding them dodgy paella. After a brief stint working as local hire for the British High Commission, therefore on British soil so no work permit required, we moved into a proper house and I had my first baby. Her arrival opened up a new world of coffee mornings, baby groups and pedicures. I have not looked back since.

Living as an expat in Africa, there are issues of safety and security. It cannot be denied that employing night guards and locking car doors before setting out for the shops are a part of our life. Stories circulate around our small community of break-ins and carjacking, but somehow these horrors are outweighed by the quality of our family life together a long way from the rat race back home. In some ways the lifestyle in East Africa resembles what I imagine 1950s Britain to have been, where we ‘make do and mend’, there are shortages in the shops, power cuts, intermittent water supplies and we make our food from scratch. Supermarket ready meals might be a way off being available but we are spoiled by the locally grown fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers available in abundance. There is time to stop and chat in the shops and everyone is unfailingly friendly and open. That said twenty first century apartment buildings and shopping centres are sprouting up at a rapid rate so we are by no means stuck in a time warp. There is also political uncertainty and a huge disparity of wealth to come to terms with, though the gap in Kenya is closing with the emergence of a growing middle class.

I was slightly perturbed on our arrival in Kenya, to find that Swahili is far from the first language spoken here. In fact tribal languages and English come first but I obstinately continue to use my Swahili so as not to forget. A low point was finalising the purchase of our beautiful house in Kenya at exactly the point that the country descended into election chaos in early January. The highs however, have been innumerable. We now have three children aged eight, five and three and their ‘African’ childhood has been idyllic with all year round sunshine punctuated by far flung safaris, quality time with visiting family and frolicking on palm fringed sandy beaches. I have thus far eluded stress, grey hair and wrinkles thanks to the support of heroic ayahs who have been patient, kind and loyal both with me and the children! Now that we have been away from England for so long, it is hard to contemplate a return but when the children hit their teenage years and want to branch out we may be forced to decide. For now life as expats in Africa suits us very well and we wouldn’t change it for the world.


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