Nairobi, Kenya Report of what it's like to live there - 12/06/18
Personal Experiences from Nairobi, Kenya
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No this is our second tour, with our first being served in Doha, Qatar.
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?
Pittsburgh, PA by way of Washington, D.C. It's a brutal travel day, with flights to London or Amsterdam, then long layovers and what seem to be the worst planes in the fleet getting you down to East Africa. Total travel time ranges from 22 to 30 hours.
3. How long have you lived here?
We have been at post for sixteen months.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
US Department of State. My wife is a USDH, and I am an EFM.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is nice. We live at a compound not far from the U.S. Embassy in Gigiri, and it's certainly the most desired location in the housing pool. Our compound has a market, a restaurant, tennis and basketball courts, a soccer pitch, a playground for the kids, a dog walk and more. It's really a nice place to live.
As for our residence, we are in a townhouse that suits my wife and me. It's plenty big and roomy, and when properly decorated, it can feel really cozy. The property has it's issues, as ceiling leaks are notorious, as are the light fixtures.
Even without air conditioning or proper heat, it's a very nice place to call home.
A quick word of advice: use your home improvement allowance to install more window screens. It helps keep the mosquitoes out.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Between shopping at Village Market, Two Rivers and amazon.com, we've been just fine. The quality of items here are, for the most part, are pretty good. Grocery costs are mixed. Meats are lower quality than the States, but cost significantly more. Same with cheese, which can be shockingly expensive, but produce is really high quality, always available and super cheap.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Take a gas grill to post and have it converted to run a local gas tank. Gas grills here are outrageously expensive. Local potato chips are pretty weak, so you might want to take those, too.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Before coming to post, my wife and I watched a video stating that Nairobi's food scene rivals that of London. After living here for a while, I'm not buying it. To be sure, there are some good restaurants in town. In fact here are some I'd recommend:
Harvest, 360 Degrees Pizza, 45 Degrees Kitchen, Talisman, Lord Erroll, Art Caffe, Wasp & Sprout, Open House, Mercado, The Alchemist, RocoMamas, the Taco Place at Village Market. There are also a few American chains here: KFC, Pizza Hut, Dominoes, Burger King, and Hardees just opened their first location at Two Rivers Mall.
But by and large, there is a lot we miss. We have a 75% rule in our house, meaning that if a given restaurant is better than 75% of the quality we'd expect at home, we're happy.
Worth noting is Jumia, which is a food delivery app - kinda like Uber Eats. It's really great for home delivery.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We've had one hell of an ant infestation in our kitchen. They're like the T-1000 and they just don't stop. Ever. And we keep a tidy kitchen, mind you. We constantly find bugs and living things in our home. One time my wife found a giant grasshopper in our bed. Under the sheets. WTH? Then there was the time I went to pick up cat poop, only to find it was a giant millipede. We also had Sykes monkeys get into our kitchen - twice in fact - and steal our bananas. Yes, this actually happened.
So yeah, you could say that there are problems with bugs and living creatures here, but to be honest, most of these encounters make for some great stories.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the embassy's DPO. We typically receive Amazon packages in seven to fourteen days (on average).
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is plentiful and inexpensive. The quality of service can vary greatly, so make sure you take plenty of interviews and speak to their references when possible.
We've been very happy with our household help. We have a maid/cook who comes three days a week. She cooks, cleans, does laundry, changes the bedsheets, etc. We pay her US $185 a month.
We also have a fantastic gardener who works for us on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We pay him US $100 a month for his services.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is a small gym at the embassy. I've never used it, though I've heard it's okay. There is also a gym at Village Market that's huge and looks pretty rad. When we priced it out, it compares to the monthly gym costs you'd find in the U.S.
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?
We use credit cards at the more well-known or high-end establishments. Your Carrefours, your Art Caffes, places like that, but we'd always have some Kenyan shillings on us, as it is the preferred method of payment.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I'm not religious, but I know most Kenyans go to church on Sundays. Over 90% of the population is Christian. There is also a pretty substantial Muslim population in Nairobi.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
None. You don't need Swahili to get around here, but it can't hurt to learn a little. Post's language program is really good. The little I picked up in classes went a long way with the locals.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I'd think it would be extremely difficult to get around Nairobi if you were disabled. Heck it's hard enough for me to get around as-is, and I'm pretty darn spry. There are sidewalks here and there, but their quality is well below average, and the roads here are atrocious. There are elevators in most multi-level facilities, and there is handicapped parking in most if not all venues.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We aren't permitted to take local buses, matatus, boda-bodas or anything of the sort. We are only permitted to use vetted taxi services, and that's it. However, these approved taxi services know that we are limited, and they'll charge us through the nose.
Which is why we use Uber (gasp!). We aren't supposed to, but I'd say at least 90% of COM folks we know use it. We find it safe and have never had a problem.
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?
One you don't mind getting beat all to hell. We didn't purchase or import a car, and thank God, as the roads here are not in good shape. They don't seem to be well-kept, and there are massive, axle-cracking potholes everywhere. The traffic in general here is not good. Wanna get downtown? Expect a seven mile car ride to take at least 90 minutes.
Carjackings, car theft, etc., are rampant. You must keep your wits about you at all times.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, high-speed fiber internet is available. At least on our compound it is. We use Zuku. For Africa, the service is very good. Compared to the States, I'd say it's slightly above average. We were able to stream movies on multiple devices at the same time and all, but service would randomly go out for no apparent reason, and at the most inopportune times. From what my wife told me, set-up was pretty quick.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Bring your own unlocked mobile phone and get a Safaricom sim card. You pay-as-you-go here, but it acutally works out well. Our monthly fees are probably around US $20 or so per person.
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?
Yes, we like our vet very much. We see Dr. Z.A. Cockar off of Rosslyn Lone Tree, and he's been wonderful with our cat. Dr. Cockar is well-trained, professional and respectful. Highly recommended.
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?
Most spouses who want to work, do so at the embassy. There was that hiring freeze when we first arrived, so spouses weren't working for the first year or so of our tour. It's been really tough on a lot of the EFMs.
There is a bilateral work agreement with Kenya, which is great. Unfortunately the rate of pay here is incredibly low, so any job you find won't be worth the trouble, as you'll be making literal pennies on the dollar.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
It's bountiful. Orphanages, schools, animal shelters, you name it. We even have some friends who volunteered to pain the local police station. If volunteering is your jam, you're coming to the right place.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Nothing out of the ordinary. Kenyans wear a lot of really colorful and eye-catching clothing, made from some really outstanding local fabrics. Otherwise, it's pretty normal. Folks at the office wear slacks and ties and such. On my free time, I'd wear shorts and flip-flops.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes. As our RSO will happily tell you, Nairobi is one of the ten most dangerous cities in the world. We are constantly treated to horror stories about robberies, rapes, carjackings, home invasions and more. There was a shootout a block or two from a school bus stop one morning. Hell, even I was assaulted at a local casino.
It's imperative that you keep your head on a swivel in Nairobi. Don't let it deter you from this post, but you do need to be aware that the crime here is serious and not to be taken lightly.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Because Nairobi is on top of a mountain, malaria-carrying mosquitoes don't live here. Other mosquitoes do call Nairobi home, and they are out and about most of the year. Food safety is a health concern. I got a wicked parasite my first month here. I lost 30 pounds, so I'm not complaining.
Nairobi sits at 6,000 feet above sea level. It's one of the highest cities in the world, so be prepared to take it easy when you arrive, as it can take some time to adjust.
General healthcare is surprisingly good. The Health Unit at the U.S. Embassy is hit-or-miss, but mostly hit. My wife became pregnant here and she has had a really positive experience with our local OBGYN, Dr. Patel. Highly recommended. You'll want to medevac for the big stuff, but for most day-to-day medical needs, you should a-ok on the local market.
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?
Air quality is usually pretty great, but then that depends where you live and how much time you spend around burning trash and exhaust fumes.
Burning trash is very common here, as is burning animal excrement. There have been times where I can feel the toxins sticking to the back of my throat. And unfortunately most of the world's cast-off vehicles end up in Africa, and I don't believe they've ever heard of emissions testing. It can be pretty bad. Black clouds of poison constantly spewing out the back end of matatus and trucks, but like I said, most of the time the air here is wonderful. Clean, dry mountain air. I'll certainly miss it.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
There are so many living things here, like crazy plants I've never seen before. Wild animals are everywhere. So if you've got allergies, come prepared.
As for the food, most reputable places will work with you to adjust their dishes to suit your allergies. But don't assume that will be the case if you're digging deep into the local cuisine.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
There is no such thing as SAD here in Nairobi. Being just south of the equator, the sun always sets at 6:30pm, and the weather is one of the best parts of being stationed in Nairobi. Otherwise, it's the usual afflictions you see pop up at every post: EFM boredom leading to depression.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The weather here is wonderful. Summers are warm but never brutally hot. Winters get chilly in the evenings, but never freezing cold. Spring and fall are gorgeous, outside of the rains. The weather in Nairobi is some of the best in the world, and is one of the biggest highlights to living here.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We don't have kids, but I know most Americans send their children to the International School of Kenya (ISK). There is also Rosslyn Academy, which is right near the Embassy. I believe it's Christian leaning, so worth keeping in mind.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
Most folks we know hire full-time nannies to assist with their children. And there's a Montessori school on Gigiri Lane, only about a 1/4 mile from the Embassy if that's your preference.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community here is massive. There are a ton of folks here from around the world for a wide variety of reasons. As for the American government community, it too is big. U.S. Embassy Nairobi is the ninth biggest Embassy in the world. We have DOS, USAID, DOD, DHS, CDC, etc. The list goes on.
Morale appears to vary, though it's generally positive. We've had a good time in Nairobi, as have most of our friends, but there are others who dislike it here and find the safety concerns to outweigh the positives.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
House parties, the Watering Hole, golfing, hanging out at The Alchemist, going to the movies (there are some really good theaters here), beach weekends with your friends. There are plenty of ways to get out and find some positive work-life balance, granted you're willing to give it the ol' college try.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I would think a single man could have a hell of a time here, so long as he was smart and kept his wits about him. Single ladies, yeah I'd think they could do well here, too. My wife and I are a childless couple and have found plenty to do most of the time. There does come a point where you've kinda maxed out what there is to do in Nairobi proper, though.
Our friends with kids all seem to like it here. Their little ones can be outside all four seasons, and Kenyans seem to enjoy children.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It's illegal to be LGBT here. I haven't had a lot of exposure to the local scene, though I'd think in a city this big, there has got to be a healthy amount of LGBT somewhere in Nairobi. We had some gay friends come to visit, and they never ran in to any trouble during their time in-country.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is a lot of tribal prejudice between the 40-something tribes in Kenya. It can get really intense, as it did during the election cycle last year, but day-to-day, things seem to be pretty stable most of the time, though as a mzungu, I'm not the best person to weigh in on generations of Kenyan tribal conflicts.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Kenya is the jewel of Africa. The safaris here are the best in the world, and worth the high costs. Our trip to the Masai Mara was hands down one of the most memorable moments we've had while living overseas. The great Africans plains are breathtaking.
We've also enjoyed our trips to Amboseli, Mt. Kenya, Diani Beach, Chale Island, Nanyuki, Naivasha, Ol Pejeta, Hell's Gate, Crescent Island, Nairobi National Park and more. And we didn't tackle everything we wanted to in-country, let alone in sub-Saharan Africa. There is plenty here to fill your long weekends and R&Rs.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Without question, the best and most memorable event was going to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. DSWT is world-famous for their elephant orphanage. It's amazing to spend time with these little elephants as they devour bottles of milk and play around with their co-horts.
Kiambethu Tea Farm is a lovely weekend outing. As is a quick stop in to the Karen Blixen House. There is also the giraffe sanctuary, which is a few minutes down the road from DSWT. Hitting happy hour at Lord Erroll is a lovely way to enjoy some sun-downers. There are tons of pop-up markets throughout the year, and I'd highly recommend checking a few of these out while in Nairobi, especially the Christmas Box in Karen.
By and large, Nairobi isn't like Rome or Paris. There isn't a boatload of sights to see and places to check off of your bucket list. Instead, the real joy of being here, and the most fun you'll have is getting outside of the city and exploring the country.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Afri-crap is EVERYWHERE! You turn your head and there is someone selling a lion made of bone, or a table made of some local wood. If you want to stock your pad with all things Africa, you can certainly do so here in Kenya. Word of advice: stop in to Spinner's Web. It's a large shop that collects pieces from all sorts of vendors from around Nairobi, and sets firm prices. There isn't any haggling, you just pick what you like, pay for it and take it home. It's well worth an hour-long stop while you're in town.
If you're into high-quality local art from real, actual artists - look into visiting Studio Soku. It's by appointment only and a bit hard to find, but it's hands-down the best studio for local artists that we've encountered in Nairobi.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The natural beauty is the biggest advantage to living in Nairobi. Kenyans are extremely friendly, warm and very outgoing. It's been such a pleasure getting to spend time here and meeting so many nice people.
The amount of outdoor activities, travel and exploration are through the roof. And though it's rather expensive to fly within Africa, you will have access to get pretty much anywhere in-continent from JKIA, the local international airport.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I'd had a better understanding on the Kenyan sense of time. I always enjoy spending time with our Kenyan friends, but they seem to be late or on occasion, don't show up at all. Got an important meeting? Better call your Uber well in advance, because it can take upwards of 40 minutes for your driver to arrive - and they're only coming from a mile or two away.
I also wish I'd known that most Kenyans are always - and I mean always - seem to be on the look-out for extra cash. Even our closest Kenyan buddies are always looking for a way to one-up and get that little extra bit of cash out of your pocket. Kenyans are some of the most generous people, but they're also always looking to get theirs.
I wish I had known how expensive it is to travel within Kenya, and Africa as a whole. It's pricey, even with resident rates.
I wish I'd lowered my expectations for the Nairobi food scene. It's certainly decent, but it ain't what it's cracked up to be.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. I've said it before - Nairobi is the jewel of Africa. It's the cradle of life. It's natural beauty, warm people, wonderful music...it's easy to fall in love with Kenya. It's an emotional place, it gets into your bones and pulls at your heartstrings.
Understand that this isn't Prague or Barcelona. It's not Tokyo or Seoul. Things here don't work quite the way they do in other parts of the world. Though Nairobi is certainly the place to be in Africa, it's still very rough around the edges, both literally and figuratively. It's hard not to see the corruption and poverty and wonder what could be. But as it is, it's still a wonderful place. Kenya will always hold a special place in my life.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Sense of urgency.
4. But don't forget your:
Haggling and negotiation skills, sun-tan lotion, and high-end camera.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"Out of Africa" is a must.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Though we are excited to leave post, we have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Kenya. We can't say the same for our time with the U.S. State Department, but when I compartmentalize it, it's not hard to see that the positives of living in Nairobi far outweigh the negative. This is a magical place and well worth a two or three year commitment.
If you're looking for a high-quality African post, look no further. This is where you want to be.