01 02 03 Africa Expat Wives Club: Post office in Kenya and the trials of dealing with local emergency services 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Post office in Kenya and the trials of dealing with local emergency services


My husband announced last night that he might like to be a postman one day. I said that’s fine but he’d be hard pushed to be one in Kenya since there’s no postal delivery service here.

It brought to mind the story from a year ago.  The 5 year olds in my daughter’s kindergarten class did a school project which involved writing and posting a letter to their parents. The parents dutifully filled in an address on a form, then the children wrote out a (brief) letter and addressed an envelope. Then followed a class trip to the local post office to ceremonially post the letters, after which 10 tots crossed the road to buy a bag of crisps in the shop.

We use my husband’s work P.O. Box, so the letter from our daughter had some distance to travel, but other parents held their own P.O. Box in the exact same local post office – which meant that letters had only to travel from the post box, to an individual numbered box in the same room.

A good friend’s daughter was so excited about the prospect of her parents receiving her letter, that the next morning she absolutely insisted that she and her mother check their mail box before going to school. With trepidation, they opened the box with their small key from the outside, then imagine their delight and surprise when an actual HAND was on the other side, putting the little girl’s kindergarten letter in the box at that very moment! Not such an arduous task for the postal worker on that occasion!

We don’t really miss the door-to-door postal delivery here, but there are plenty of aspects of the local (admittedly reasonably priced) service which, not to put too fine a point on it, fail to measure up to standards we would like.

1. My father-in-law sent a postcard from Kenya to England last year. It arrived in England 6 months later. The recipient asked; “did you have a lovely holiday?” Reply; “What holiday?” He now puts all of his postcards in envelopes as they tend to arrive quicker.

2. Family and friends have sent birthday and Christmas presents from England via the conventional postal service here and the gifts, mysteriously, never arrived. This caused awkwardness when friends/family fished for a thank you and we had to admit that we hadn’t received anything, thinking they had forgotten. This happened the other way round too when we sent parcels from Kenya to England - cue more fishing emails and text messages on 'did you get the package'.  It's all most disappointing.

3. If parcels do arrive in Kenya from overseas, then you are summonsed to the post office to pay duty on the package. If the sender has written an accurate ‘perceived value’ on the postage label (or bumped it up to look generous), then you end up having to pay that same price again in local currency as an import tax, in order to get your package released. Top tip: get relatives to write ‘no commercial value’ on the ticket at the post office their end.

4. Personal magazines received in clear plastic packages via subscriptions, tend to be distributed on the street via a street vendor. At the very least, your ‘free gift’ will be long gone.

So what is the answer? We try to ask friends and family to post parcels to whoever is due to come and visit us next in person, or send important letters with somebody who might be going to England next. This system is not without its drawbacks too: –

1. If you are the unlucky person who happens to mention a UK visit, then you are inundated with requests to post unstamped letters and parcels by all and sundry – which necessitates a special (and expensive) visit to queue up at a UK post office immediately you arrive (jet lagged) at the other end. Nobody in Kenya ever knows how much a first class stamp in England costs these days, since Royal Mail don’t put it on the face of the stamp any more.  So friends who want their mail posted in England tend to foist a handful of Kenya shillings on you just as you are headed to the airport, an amount that bears no relation to the cost of the UK postage.

(Top tip, buy a book or two of first class stamps in advance when you are in England, there is then a Royal Mail website that allows you to calculate the cost of posting your package fairly accurately based on dimension and weight.)

2. Alternatively you might be the hapless visitor to Kenya who plans to go for some winter sun at Christmas. Within days of booking your flight, curious parcels addressed to not just family who you know, but also total strangers (friends of friends) will start appearing at your door, or pouring through your letterbox. You’ll end up bringing at least one, if not two entire suitcases filled with someone else’s parcels leaving no room for your clothes or toiletries . When an official at Heathrow asks you; “is there anything in this bag that you did not pack yourself?” You are at a loss to answer truthfully. Who knows what’s in there?

The upside of our local postal service in Kenya is that you tend not to be swamped by junk mail.  You only receive the bare minium - local bank statements/bills etc.


In fact, we European and US citizens are thoroughly spoiled by services that we take for granted when back home. No offense but if you dial 999 in Kenya or indeed the correct number for your local police station etc, then you will invariably get an automated message saying: ‘The number you require is out of service/not accessible’.

When a wailing ambulance pulls up behind you on the road in Nairobi, you are surprised at the sight of it (it’s so rare), to the point where you forget what you are supposed to do (get out of the way) – the ambulance in question will generally be a small mini-van from a private hospital.

If you are worried about being in an emergency situation yourself whilst in Kenya, the best thing to do is have your local doctor/clinic numbers on your phone so that you can contact them in an emergency to ask what to do/where is the best place to go.  GPs will often recommend known experts at a particular hospital that specialise in broken bones/heart problems etc.  It's not a bad idea to familiarise yourself roughly with the route to the nearest private hospitals (Karen, Nairobi, Aga Khan, Gertrudes Garden). Also, join AMREF flying doctors and store their numbers in your phone too.

It's not just ambulances.  Police often like to catch a lift to a crime scene in your car because they rarely have fuel for their own vehicles. In Tanzania an expat’s house was burning down. A private security firm’s fire truck arrived after a tip off and asked the individual in question to give credit card details before they were willing to tackle the fire since the guy in question was not a subscriber to their services. City council fire services are pretty desperate and let's be honest, fire engines can take hours to arrive, if at all.

The YouTube clip below taken from the local news recently speaks for itself! At least the newsreader has a sense of humour, though not so funny for the ones who were actually there!

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