Nairobi, Kenya Report of what it's like to live there - 12/03/11

Personal Experiences from Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya 12/03/11


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

2nd expat experience, previously in Eastern Europe.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Flew from DC via London (several day stopover -- very nice!) About nine hours from DC to London, then about nine hours from London to Nairobi.

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3. How long have you lived here?

9 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Spouse employed by the U.S. government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

We lived in embassy-provided housing. There are a few compounds, but mostly stand-alone houses. Most housing is spacious with lovely yards. Currently there is a housing shortage, so many people are in temporary housing for awhile. Most housing is within a 15-minute drive from the embassy. Some residences are about 20-30 minutes normally. Traffic can be insane.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Cost comparable to DC or higher, with the exception of some produce bought from roadside stands. It's odd the things that are available and aren't. A lot of it varies.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Holiday items (candy canes, candy corn, decorations, wrapping paper) are good to ship. Clothes are expensive and not of great quality here. I’d stock up ahead of time. There are great used markets, though, if you are willing to sort through things. The mud here is RED and kids’ clothes seem to get stained and worn out, even if your household help is amazing with laundry (ours is). Crocs or sandals are great for kids, wellingtons, extra shorts, jeans, etc.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

KFC opened two locations in the past six months -- the first western fast food. There are South African fast food joints, though. No decent pizza is available, unless you make it yourself. The restaurant options, though, are quite good! River Cafe, Art Cafe, Medditeraneo are some of my favorites.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Organic produce is available.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes, but not malaria-bearing ones in Nairobi. No need to take anti-malarials on a regular basis.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Through the embassy mail room. Very difficult to mail/get packages if you are with an NGO or nonprofit. It is easiest to have things brought with visitors.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

I really love having affordable household help. I feel like I can do all the good-mom things I want to do, because someone else is keeping up with the laundry and kitchen. Housekeepers and ayahs are paid from US$120-$200/mos. Gardeners from US$100-$150/mos. Experienced drivers from US$150 - $300/mos. Roughly. It changes. It's easy to find good helpers -- but you should still have plenty of recommendations and be cautious.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?


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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I don't use the ATMs, though some people feel safe with Barclay's Bank ATMS.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

We were disappointed in the lack of good religious options in Kenya, considering the long history of Christianity here and the preponderance of churches. A lot of expats attend the International Christian Fellowship (which meets at Rosslyn Academy.) All denominations are represented here, but many can feel very different due to cultural differences. Even though we've worshiped in other cross-cultural contexts, it's been more challenging here. Many of the good options are a long drive from where we live. Kenya also has a sizable Muslim and Hindi populations, and so those are available as well.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is one of the official languages of Kenya. It's good to know some polite words in Swahili.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

The embassy premises are quite accommodating for those with disabilities. The general community (housing, shopping) is not. However, as household help and drivers are very affordable, some families may find it worthwhile to choose Nairobi as a post. Nairobi has more opportunities for therapies, etc., than many countries and would be worth looking into. I know several families with children with disabilities (both young and adult) who have found this to be a good post.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

I've known someone to take and enjoy the train from Nairobi to the coast. Local matatus (minibuses) and buses are not safe -- drivers are crazy, they are overcrowded, and traffic accidents are a key cause of death in Kenya. If you are light-skinned, you'll also stand out as a target for robbery if you take public transportation.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

If you want to drive outside of Nairobi, getting an SUV is almost a must. That said, we know quite a few people with small cars or minivans who do fine with those in the city. There are a LOT of speed bumps and potholes, and so we’ve needed to rotate/balance tires and adjust alignment quite frequently. Labor is cheap, parts are expensive. Many people order a used car from Japan before coming to post, and that is highly recommended (cheaper, better condition vehicle.) If you do that and know the tire size, I would highly, highly recommend including four tires in your HHE. Tires here are expensive and shipping them from the US is expensive. Don’t count on vehicles from people leaving being available to purchase once you arrive: sometimes there are, sometimes there aren’t. Used vehicles here are quite expensive –- but most people sell them for about what they paid when they leave. Large families have an especial challenge. Many of the SUVs here or from Japan are smaller. Even a 7-seater is smaller than most 7-seaters in the US.

Local insurance is mandatory, but inexpensive. USAA doesn’t offer any vehicle insurance in Kenya, but Clements does. I wouldn’t have a new car here. People WILL run into you. It’s better to get a nice, used vehicle and not sweat the damage.(Most body damage is pretty easy/cheap to get repaired. Ask me how I know.)

We didn’t get a driver right away when we got at post – and I regret that. While it can be a hassle to “manage” one more staff person, it is GREAT to have someone who can drive you to places you wouldn’t drive alone, to take you around the city so you don’t have to deal with or think about traffic, to run errands for you and to take the car in for servicing (and watch the mechanics to make sure everything is done thoroughly.) I most highly recommend getting a driver as soon as you get to post.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

We have service through AccessKenya. It’s adequate, slow during the day and decent speed after 6pm. We cannot stream anything, and it is very frustrating. If you telecommute, it is not a good option. I’ve heard rumors of good, high-speed internet, but not sure of the company. We paid about $200 for installation and $60/mo for service. We use an extra wireless router to “bounce” the signal throughout the house. Most houses are concrete block, and so wireless doesn’t go far.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Phone service is very cheap. If you bring a phone from the US, it needs to have a SIM card slot. You can get a basic phone for US$20-$40 dollars. A US$10 phone card can easily last 1-3 months. My husband has his work blackberry, and we have three other cell phones for various family members. I like my kids having their own phones to bring to school because of the security issues here.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Yes, but I don't have the details.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Even volunteering (except very casual volunteering) requires a work visa, and finding anything on the economy is challenging. That said, there are quite a lot of spouses working in the embassy in good positions. This is a great post for those who wish to be a stay-at-home-mom/dad or homemaker. Household help is easily available and well worth having. Those with a passion for certain causes can become involved in the community, be active in their children’s schools, Bible studies, volunteers, hosting social events, etc.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Depends on whether you're with a gov't organization or nonprofit. Kenyans tend to dress up more. Most women (except the younger generation) wear skirts and dresses. Expats can wear just about anything they want.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Crime is a big threat. Sometimes there are terrorist threats/warnings due to the presence of Al-S in the Horn of Africa.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

The med unit in the embassy is AMAZING. There are many specialists available here for diagnostic purposes, especially through Aga Khan Hospital. We’ve used the services of a local ultrasound doctor (excellent), gastroenterologist (including exploratory surgery), x-ray tech, blood labs, and an urgent care walk-in clinic. All have been either good or quite acceptable. I personally would draw the line at any procedures that required anesthesia (although the exploratory surgery we had was fine with that.) Nairobi is a medical evacuation point for many NGOs throughout Africa.

I have been VERY disappointed in the options available for dental and orthodontic care. I had thought these would be more easily available and of a quality with which I was comfortable for myself and my family. There is a chiropractor, but the office is hot and crowded and if you need regular chiropractic care, this isn’t a good option. However, there are great massage therapists who will come to your home for either relaxation or therapeutic massages for US$10-20 a visit. If you get regular massages, this is a great place. Bring a massage table for even better treatment!

Many people find Nairobi a great place to be stationed when expanding a family. The med unit currently does all prenatal care and does a great job. The ultrasound doctor locally is fabulous and both has modern equipment and knows how to use it. Most people use maternity evacuation when the baby is due, though some are happy to deliver locally. The med unit recommends medevac due to the limited options for neonatal care. If I stayed here to have a baby, I’d probably go to Kijabe Hospital in the Rift Valley about an hour away -- they have several US missionary doctors on staff, what I think is the best neonatal unit in the country, and good supervision for the prevention of stupid medical mistakes. Stupid medical mistakes are what I’m most concerned about with the medical care in Kenya.

More generally, if you have allergies, there are a lot of plants that bloom here and you may find yourself irritated by that. Bring zyrtec, dayquil or whatever helps you if you are prone to allergies. Nairobi is at a very high altitude and on the equator. Even though the weather is mild, sunscreen should be used every day. It's good to bring your own, as it is quite expensive here.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Decent, except when people are burning trash.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Never too hot, never too cold. ACs and heaters unneeded. Bring sweaters, though.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are many, many, school options in Nairobi. The majority of kids either attend International School of Kenya (ISK) or Rosslyn Academy (RA). RA was started as a missionary school, but has children from a wide-range of backgrounds (read: teachers and some curriculum are Christian, but students include those of no faith background, Hindus, Muslims, etc. – very inclusive). RA is right next to the Rosslyn Ridge housing compound, and is very convenient to the embassy. Other school options include a French school, German school, Braeburn (great for special needs), and several Montessori and preschool options. Currently there are several families at post that homeschool. This changes frequently, however. The larger expat community has quite a few homeschoolers, though most of them meet/live in different part of town from most of the embassy community. This seems to be a very homeschool-friendly post, and Rosslyn Academy welcomes homeschoolers for classes.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Braeburn has a good reputation for special needs. Rosslyn is able to make accomodations for quite a few special needs, but is more limited.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Household help / ayahs are easily available. I've heard from others that there are great preschools.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Primarily through the schools.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Huge. The US government has a large presence through the Department of State, USAID, and affiliated organizations. The UN has a large facility here, with expats from all over. There are tons of NGOs, nonprofits, and missionaries from all over. Great Britain has a large official presence here, as well as many non-gov't related expats. It's easy to get out of the "embassy bubble" or "American bubble" if that is what you like.

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2. Morale among expats:

Pretty positive. Most people I know alternate between loving it here and feeling like they are going nuts from the annoyances of living in Africa.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

This is not the place to be if you like downtown city living and nightlife partying -- it's just not safe. But there is plenty to do to stay busy, entertained, and have a social life. We don't go out much after dark due to safety concerns.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Great for families! Dating local residents would be discouraged due to the social construct of patron/client relationships (see the book: African Friends and Money Matters for discussion on this) and the high HIV rate.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Same-gender intercourse on the local laws is punishable by up to 14 years in jail. Homosexuality and gay people are ostracized and looked down upon by the wider community, but not the embassy community (even though both are present in the embassy and local community). The HIV rate here is very high (estimates are as high as 30% among MSM and other demographics, and 7% among the general population). We do know gay couples in the embassy community.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Enjoyed safaris, visiting the coast.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Kitengela Glass, Kazuri Beads, Karen Blixen Museum, Crescent Island walking safari, many National Parks to explore, Ostrich Farm, many day trips, safaris, Kenya Museum Society excursions, bird walks, trips to the coast.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Lots of neat, handmade items.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Fabulous weather! Mostly warm, with enough snuggle-in-a-sweater-days to pretend it gets cold. Very affordable household help is great, too.

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11. Can you save money?

It depends. . . Labor is cheap, goods are expensive. Rental prices in safe neighborhoods and used vehicle prices are high. Safaris are expensive (but worth it!) A recent COLA adjustment makes things a bit easier for those affiliated with the US Embassy. Those with nonprofits may have a hard time convincing the home office that basics (vehicle, rent, food, gas) are so expensive -- but they are.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Definitely. This is especially a great place for families -- though if you don't have a vehicle it can be isolating. I'm glad we have two years here. . . Some people say that Nairobi is "Africa lite." That's fine by me. I've enjoyed it, glad we've been here, and really don't have any plans to live long-term in Africa. On the other hand, we know NGO people and missionaries who have been here decades, love it, and consider it to be "home" more than the US.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Expectations of anything being efficient or of other drivers being polite.

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3. But don't forget your:

Gin & Tonic, high quality camera, and sense of adventure.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Out of Africa,
Green Hills of Africa,
The Man-Eaters of Tsavo,
African Friends and Money Matters: Observations from Africa,
The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence,
and field, bird and animal guides for Kenya/East Africa

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Out of Africa
-- Karen Blixen's coffee plantation is now within Nairobi city limits, and you can travel thoughout the country and see places it was filmed.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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