Frances Woodhams has lived in East Africa for more than a decade, and she's been writing a blog about Nairobi expat life since the start in order to dispel any myths about Kenya living, such as those promoted by popular media like Out of Africa, White Masai, White Mischief! She wants to let people know what Kenya is really like and why expats love living there. Frances writes the entertaining blog africaexpatwivesclub.com.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: The United Kingdom
Q: Where do you live now?
A: Nairobi, Kenya
Q: When did you move to Kenya?
A: In 2003, but before that I moved to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania as a newlywed in 1999.
Q: Did you move here alone or with family?
A: I moved to East Africa with my then new husband. Now we have three daughters aged 15, 13 and 10.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: My husband grew up in Mombasa and he yearned to come back to Kenya. We met in London and when he heard of a job opening in East Africa, he leapt at it. I thought, why not?
Living in Kenya
Q: What do you enjoy most about Nairobi? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the UK?
A: Nairobi is changing so fast. It’s an exciting place to live and there are huge opportunities here. We have made sacrifices and taken risks by living out here, but we now have a very good quality of life, one that is possibly better than the one that we could have built in the UK over the same amount of time.
Q: What do you miss most about home?
A: Family mostly. I used to miss the shopping, but you can buy so much here now and a slightly restricted choice (of clothes, food and going out) has never been a bad thing for me as it put the brakes on my potential spending.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Nairobi? Did you experience any culture shock in Kenya?
A: The level of security (or perceived insecurity) comes as a shock to most people. There is a distinct lack of decent public transport and so your independence is limited. In this way, it is different from living in a ‘developed’ capital city. We all live in our cars and think a little bit when going out at night (although the nightlife is there and it’s fun). Most people hire a night watchman to guard their homes at night and many employ a full-time gardener to be home during the day. The hiring of a night-watchman is uncomfortable for me and something I’ll never get used to.
Q: What’s the cost of living in Kenya compared to the UK? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: What is expensive is the cost of hiring private security guards, subscribing to emergency response services etc. We also buy drinking water. Food and utilities are more expensive than back home, but the weather is mild year round so you obviously save on heating your home as it is unnecessary. Frankly, there is also less to spend your money on as compared to back home, so fewer temptations. The clement weather means that there is no need to change our wardrobe for the seasons and the good news is that the coffee here is second to none and a cappuccino is cheap! There are some really good coffee houses. Eating out, though not cheap, tends to be cheaper than the equivalent back home.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Nairobi?
A: Public transport system in Nairobi consists only of minibuses (matatus) and buses that the majority have to rely on to get around. The vehicles are poorly maintained, drive dangerously and I wouldn’t recommend using them, so having access to a car is extremely important. However, since all cars are imported, purchasing a car locally is extremely expensive. Second-hand cars cost double what you might pay back home.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Nairobi?
A: Healthcare in Nairobi is pretty good. There are some very good private hospitals; The Aga Khan, Nairobi Hospital and Gertrude’s Garden (children's) Hospital are all good and, as a family, we have had various healthcare issues here that have been dealt with well. It is easy to get same-day appointments and the charges for consultations and medicines are not too high. Having said that, for any major health issue, emergency repatriation is definitely recommended for your private healthcare insurance.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Nairobi?
A: People are fearful of the reputation that ‘Nairobbery’ has, but on arrival, most are taken aback by how friendly and welcoming the city is. In fact, I don’t know of a city that it more friendly than Nairobi. Everyone will greet you with a smile, a joke, a laugh and most expats love it and end up living here for a long time or extending their posting. In my view, Nairobi is very far from the ‘hardship posting’ that some international organisations refer to it as – so in expat circles Nairobi is a best-kept secret.
To be honest, the friendly and relaxed vibe of the city sometimes lulls you into a false sense of security. As with any capital, just be aware of your surroundings, keep your bags close when sitting in restaurants etc, don’t leave valuables lying around, don’t get into unmarked vehicles (ask your taxi driver for ID), keep doors locked when driving etc. As an expat, you are a target but the irony is that the Kenyan middle classes are much more prone to petty cons, scams and home break-ins as they do not have the big cars, private home security and higher profile that the expats have.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Nairobi?
A: Having lived in Nairobi for the past 13 years, the housing market has changed radically. Expats used to be able to expect to rent a self-contained former colonial style bungalow or house with a sizeable garden but due to the radical rise in land values, the norm is now more apartment living or for families, townhouse dwellings (clusters of 10 or so 4-5 bed town houses on a shared plot). Rents are also expensive, so be prepared. Apartments cost upwards of 100,000 Kenyan shillings per month ($1,000) and larger townhouses with gardens can cost 280,000-350,000 Kenya shillings ($2,800-3,500 approx).
Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: There are so many great suburbs and nowadays, most have satellite local shopping centres providing services, restaurants, cinemas etc. There are also some very good schools around the city. When moving to Nairobi, do bear in mind where you workplace is and try to live fairly near or at least, work out your best route to work. Also consider location of schools for your kids. Rush-hour traffic is world famously bad and the last thing you want is a crazy commute if possible.
Lavington – getting more built up but still some nice family homes available.
Kileleshwa, Kilimani – younger crowd, more apartments.
Karen, Langata – far out of town but many commute from here to the industrial area and the new ‘Southern Bypass’ that runs through Karen means that you can get into Westlands via a circuitous route, avoiding traffic. Benefits are larger houses and gardens/more space.
Runda, Gigiri, Muthaiga – northern suburbs near the UN headquarters and embassies.
Westlands – this used to be the ‘going out’ centre with lots of shops and restaurants but increasingly there are major office developments here. Many apartments and/or smaller town house options.
Kitisuru, Spring Valley, Lower Kabete – Western suburbs with good access to Westlands.
Meeting people and making friends in Kenta
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: As I mentioned before, people in Kenya are completely charming. The society is fairly conservative and old-fashioned in many ways (conservative dress and old-fashioned manners), so it is important to stay respectful and make an effort to fit in. Most conversations should start with ‘how are you’ rather than demanding immediately what you want. People respond best to politeness and a smile is always appreciated.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: To be honest, it is not all that easy to meet other people. If you live in a townhouse complex, then you may meet neighbours. Kids of school-going age are always going to help you, but there isn’t a cohesive expat scene. Instead it is mixed – your neighbours will be Kenyans and expats mixed together, which I think is a good thing.
I have a mix of friends. Mostly expats like me who have been living here long term and some local Kenyans (both Indian and Kenyan); both sets of friends have mostly come to me via the school network. Many make friends through work if it is a foreign organisation with a group of expat employees. Quite a few of my expat friends have moved on, which is always sad. I mainly keep busy through working on various freelance contracts. You can also make friends through local health clubs and activities. There’s a good website called Kenyabuzz, which has listings of clubs etc.
Working in Kenya
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit?
A: Getting a work permit is a bit of a nightmare and very costly. You’re looking at spending around 300,000 Kenya shillings ($3,000) for a two-year permit (for an investor’s permit for freelance work, or an ‘A’ permit for full-time employment). The official fee is just over 200,000 Kenya shillings and the processing fee is another 100,000. I used an immigration consultant and most of these are accountants or lawyers. There are a number of hoops to jump through when applying for a work permit (such as providing original education certificates etc) and the process can take upwards of three months. Plus a positive outcome of getting a permit is by no means guaranteed.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Nairobi? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job in Kenya? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Somebody recently described Nairobi as ‘being on steroids’ and I think that she was spot on. The speed of how fast the city is developing is breathtaking. There has been a building boom for the past 10 years and infrastructure is struggling to keep up. We have had Obama visit Nairobi in July 2015 and the Pope is due here this month (November 2015). This high-profile attention is testament to the growing importance of, not just Nairobi as a hub, but East Africa on the world stage. Regarding, looking for a job: I’d try LinkedIn and there are local employment agencies. Keep your eyes on relevant websites too.
Q: How does the work culture differ from the UK?
A: The work ethic in Nairobi is fairly strong. Most people will get up at around 5am to be in the office early. They then knock off at 5pm in order to battle the traffic home. You will find that many Kenyans have a ‘side hustle’ business as well as their 8am-5pm job. This is a nation of entrepreneurs.
Family and children
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to living in Kenya? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: Many people have problems adjusting due to the reduction in independence you might feel, especially as a trailing spouse. You can’t just jump on a train to get out of town, or ride a subway to cross town. You are bound to getting around by car, which can be time-consuming and frustrating. There are incidences of muggings even in quieter neighbourhoods, so many people do not walk or jog around the streets near their home without thinking twice. It’s unusual to see an expat walk down to their local shops; you are more likely to drive to a secure mall. It’s hard for teenagers as Nairobi city life can be the most restrictive for them in some ways. Many rely on private drivers to get them around and going out at night is perceived to be more dangerous than back home, so parents will worry.
Q: Did your children settle in easily?
A: All our kids were born here in East Africa, so that is a tricky question. Having said that, life for younger kids is great. First of all, parents of small children can enjoy the benefits of employing a full-time nanny or ayah. This is the norm, not just for expats but for most working and upper-class Kenyans too. The climate is such that kids can play outside every day, year round. As the kids get older, they can enjoy the benefit of some very good private kindergartens and primary schools with lots of great outdoor sports on offer. The field narrows a bit when you get to secondary level, but there are still good options.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: The main private schools that expats choose in Kenya follow the British national curriculum and are members of the IAPS (Independent Association of Preparatory Schools). There are also a couple of schools that follow a US or other international curriculum (International School Kenya/ISK, Rosslyn Ridge, West Nairobi School). There are also Montessori and Waldorf primary schools, as well as a dedicated French and a German school in Nairobi.
Primary school recommendations (many have kindergartens attached)
Peponi Prep - feeder kindergarten located nearby is Kabete Kindergarten. Located on Lower Kabete Road not far from Westlands.
Kenton College - no feeder kindergarten but many kids go to Kensington Kindergarten nearby. Located in Kileleshwa, (near Lavington/Kilimani).
Braeburn School - with kindergarten (?). Lavington.
The Banda - with feeder kindergarten on same campus, located in Langata (good for a commute to the industrial area/airport road).
Hillcrest - with feeder kindergarten on same campus, located in Karen.
Brookhouse - also in Langata.
Pembroke House boarding school, located 2 hours out of Nairobi but is a popular boarding prep school with horse riding etc.
Secondary school recommendations
Braeburn and Braeburn Garden City
St Andrews Turi (boarding, located 3 hours from Nairobi)
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Take the plunge as the benefits are huge. What I love about East Africa is that you are free to give anything a go without so many of the formal restrictions of the Western world. For me, living overseas has given me the opportunity to explore writing and editing as a career, without having too have much in the way of formal training. Take a lead from the Kenyans around you and flex your entrepreneurship muscle. Enjoy the fact that you are living in a space in the developing world that is, in some ways, more sophisticated an environment than back home. Kenyans are well educated and speak a minimum of three languages. There is a lot to learn. Corruption may be endemic in Kenya’s major institutions, which is a problem for the country, but there is a huge swathe of Kenyan middle class who are moving forward at a great speed in spite of this. My best piece of advice: keep an open mind.
~ Interviewed in November 2015
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