I wrote a post ages ago (April 2008) on what life is like in Nairobi for anyone who might be thinking of moving here from overseas. Since this remains one of my most popular posts, I decided it might be time to update it for 2011. Most of the info in the original post is still relevant so worth casting your eye over too.
Being an Expat
Before I begin and at risk of stating the obvious, as an expat, you really have to embrace the ‘cup half full’ mentality and try not to be a negative soul. What I love about living here in East Africa is that every day is an adventure and, away from the more formal nature of life back home, it’s a liberating experience and can inspire you to try anything – set up an art gallery, become an expert on conservation, write a blog!
It’s true. Kenya is really such a bubbly, friendly place effervescing with an entrepreneurial spirit which, first and foremost, can be seen in the huge informal employment sector of hawkers and craftspeople all plying their trade at street level; hustling like crazy. If you approach an exchange with a smile, you will invariably get one back and don’t be flustered by curious stares that mean no ill. Accept that you are a stranger and don’t feel threatened. Kids are always an instant ice breaker.
Learning some Swahili and making an effort to understand the culture can go a long way to easing daily frustrations but is by no means a cure-all. The pump attendant might mistakenly put diesel in your petrol car, the supermarket will double charge you for something, the meat the butcher sold you is off. You’ll inevitably have days where you are asked for money by employees to help solve personal problems when you yourself are feeling a tad impoverished (having paid high rent and school fees). The ATM is down and then you’ll get stuck in interminable traffic, held up by senseless road works, a herd of cows or a hand cart.
You might have to wait hours for food at a restaurant, only to fail to get what you asked for. The power might be off for a couple of days, your water tank empty. Quality workmanship sometimes seems an impossible dream.
A word of warning, the crosser you get, the more bloody minded the person that you are 'crossing' becomes – it’s really worth trying to keep that smile pasted on and keep your temper in check. I often find this hard as small irritations added together can occasionally cause you to lose perspective.
Disparity of wealth.
I’ve written at length about this in the past. I find that it’s one of the hard, hard, hardest things about living here in East Africa. After 12 years I am still constantly juggling feelings of guilt and pangs of frustration. Empathy and, if you can, creating employment on any level, helps. (search previous posts on our ex-askari/nightwatchman - resident of Kibera slum)
Security is an issue. Most compounds/houses employ private firms to provide askaris (night watchmen) as a matter of course. However, it’s worth remembering that security reports (that are circulated regularly online or via email) are almost always compiled by private security companies who stand to profit from your fear. There are 3 million people in Nairobi, all equally exposed to scams and petty crime. The expats are almost most heavily protected bunch of the lot and hardest targets for thieves. You are far more likely to be a victim of crime if you live in one of Nairobi’s infamous slums.
Cost of living
The cost of living is high in this region.
The private night security (mentioned above) comes with a heavy price, which in turn pushes up rent. Electricity is fearfully expensive but on the upside, you won’t have to heat your house/apartment! Food costs quite a lot, especially when you are buying imported goods, cleaning products etc. – however fruit and veg are legendary in Nairobi (a major international exporter) and the meat you can buy is delicious and a lot cheaper too. Booze is cheaper, but don’t forget that you’ll probably be buying drinking water, though many people boil and/or filter the tap water as a substitute. City Council water is treated and is not bad but you can never guarantee the cleanliness of storage tanks and many residential complexes draw water from boreholes these days (can be high on fluoride). It’s worth checking where the water in your tap is coming from.
Eating out is cheaper than back home for us Brits but not that much cheaper. I find that our guests often expect living to cost much less here, I guess because it’s Africa – they are always shocked by the prices of lots of things, even local crafts. Clothes are expensive due to heavy import taxes. Even the famous second hand markets (mitumba) are asking higher than Primark prices for almost everything.
Medical bills can add up, but once you tap into the rather informal system here visiting highly qualified consultants based in various hospitals around the city and savvy doctor’s surgeries you will realise that the healthcare in Nairobi is almost second to none. Referrals are quick; Waiting lists nonexistent. Pharmacies offer good advice over the counter (obviously they are experts in tropical illnesses) and will often allow you to buy drugs, even antibiotics, without prescription. You can even join the inexpensive Flying Doctor’s service if you are worried about emergency back up when outside the city.
Once-in-a-lifetime holiday destinations on your doorstep
Kate Middleton and Prince William got engaged here - say no more!
An incredible coastline, Rift Valley, game parks all boasting the big 5 and all within an easy drive of Nairobi. Most of the National Parks and lodges come with a high price tag, though rates are reduced for residents. If you are an intrepid type and want to see lots, buy a tent (take a medical box of emergency supplies), check out places like the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) self catering houses/bandas and go for it!
As Kenya is in a period of rapid urbanisation, Nairobi has been experiencing a property development boom for years now. The majority of residential areas are now dotted with either apartment complexes or gated town house developments but if you have the budget it is still possible to find lovely self contained properties with pretty gardens the further out of the city centre you go. As said before, rents and property purchase prices are high. (More on this on the africaexpat forum: http://africaexpatwivesclub.forumotion.com/ )
The weather really is good! No snow! The temperature in Nairobi rarely drops below 12 degrees. Having said that, the year that we moved here, due to El Nino, it seemed to rain almost every day for 12 months. Everyone embraces rainy conditions here, since, while it’s not perfect holiday weather, it is so much preferable to the sadly commonly occurring alternative - drought.
Shopping is either done in modern shopping centres with off street parking, coffee shops, cinemas and big supermarkets; Nakumatt, Uchumi and Tusky’s, or in the more informal side of the road dukas (shops). Most people seem happy to mix the two from day-to-day.
There are tons of private primary/preparatory schools in Nairobi follow the UK system (Hillcrest, Peponi, Brookhouse, Banda, Kenton, Braeburn – upcountry boarding; St Andrews Turi, Pembroke). International School Kenya has a great reputation too. Secondary level, you have Peponi, Braeburn, Hillcrest and ISK. The intake is mixed Kenyan, Asian, European and the schools are pricey. Cost ranging from 120,000 to 300,000 Kenya Shillings per child, per term.
As a foreigner, don't forget you will need a work permit for residency here. Getting one of these can be costly and time consuming, bureaucracy a nightmare. The applications must show you are completing various criteria such as; being the bearer of a professional qualification, investing not less than a certain amount, creating jobs, providing training. Each work permit needs to be renewed every two years. Spouses and kids are then 'dependants' (applied for separately) on their partner's work permits. It's a bit of a nightmare but not impossible.
Internet Access and communications
Kenya is quite far ahead in terms of mobile phones and a world leader in mobile phone banking. Kenya's fibre optic cable is still in the process of being laid (I believe it is, if not it's complete already) - so broadband access is already possible for some. Alternatively, it's Wireless internet access at home is available via various internet providers. There are also various internet 'hotspots' such as Java coffee house, where you can get free online access and plentiful internet centres. The land line telephone service has been taken over by Orange, who are investing heavily, trying to improve this service (they still have problems with physical copper lines being stolen). Many private homes have given up on landlines, since the mobile network is very good and highly affordable, but most businesses have both working landlines and mobile contact numbers.
Other relevant Websites
Still hungry for information? Check out the following websites: