Windhoek, Namibia Report of what it's like to live there - 05/13/13
Personal Experiences from Windhoek, Namibia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
We've previously lived in Vancouver, Canada and Baku, Azerbaijan, but I grew up military and also spent time in Germany and Korea as a child.
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?
We traveled from DC through Frankfurt, then Accra. The entire trip took about two days. Be prepared to check and recheck your luggage---Air Namibia doesn't have any agreements with other airlines.
3. How long have you lived here?
We've been here almost a year.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The commute to the embassy will take 5-10 minutes, tops, depending on what part of town your house is located in (the embassy housing is scattered all over), but you will need a car to get you there, and hiring a driver isn't really done here. All of the houses here have their own pools (it gets into the 100s in the summer, so you'll use them, but they're all fenced off for safety). And while the bedrooms tend to be on the small side, there's always something interesting about the house that everyone else will envy---be it the size of the pool or the shadiness of the braii (barbecue) area or the set-up of the kitchen.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Grocery shopping can get ridiculous here. You have to hit two stores (at least) to get good produce, and then you get meat at another place and canned staples at still another. We're spending an average of $150 a week on groceries, not counting the Amazon and Netgrocer supplements, and only certain members of the embassy are eligible now for VAT refunds. Pharmaceuticals are completely overpriced here as well. You can find household supplies, but the sponges aren't exactly sturdy, and the dish soap doesn't clean as well as Dawn. Fairly typical stuff like that.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
LIQUIDS: contact solution, dish soap, kids' shampoo, spray-on sunscreen---which can't be mailed at all. Also Mexican food. Things that aren't flavored (finding potato-chip flavored potato chips here is a major challenge: everything here is either sweet chili or peri-peri flavored, it seems). Bring some gifts for children; the toys here are very expensive and of dubious quality.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
The only American fast food is KFC, and calling it fast is a bit of a stretch. It can take 20 minutes to get your stuff. There are some South African chains: Nando's, Steers, Spur, and Wimpy's, that can serve up chips and burgers or chicken. In general, the food here is very meat-centric (the braii is a national pastime, or near enough): grilled things covered in sauce. It's unusual for an entree to cost more than $20US, and there are some decent places to eat, but the restaurant scene here is fairly volatile with places opening and closing monthly.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
The millipedes and grasshoppers are the size of a grown man's hand, and there are scorpions around, but mosquitoes aren't really a problem in this part of Africa. Ants also get everywhere in the houses (the doors don't go all the way to the ground, and insulation isn't something that is used here). I'd pack more plastic for pantry items if I could do it over again.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Windhoek is a pouch-only post, and we get mail once a week. Pouch regulations are very strict about weight, length, and height, as well as the amount of liquids you can send through. They will absolutely turn your package around if you have 16.9 oz of liquid instead of only 16. When it takes three weeks to get something through the pouch to begin with, that gets frustrating fast.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
There's a relatively finite pool of domestic help that all of the expats seem to pull from. You can get a nanny or a housekeeper, but finding someone who does both really well doesn't seem to exist. We have a housekeeper who comes twice a week, and we her pay roughly $200US a month, plus two meals while she's here. Also a gardener who gets $20 Namibian an hour (about $2US), and a pool guy who gets $10US a visit.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are a few at the mall, but we haven't joined them.
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 do most of our transactions using cash. Credit card skimming isn't unheard of, and the grocery stores' credit card systems crash with enough regularity to make it not worth the trouble. ATMs are all guarded by private security firms. (EVERYTHING here is guarded by private security firms.) So if you use common sense, I think they're fine.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Most religions are available here: Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, and various Christian denominations. There might only be one church of that variety, though. The Catholic church offers three Masses a weekend in English and one in German. And one of the English Masses becomes Portuguese on the last Sunday of the month.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There are English-language Namibian newspapers (although the news inside is of varying quality), and many of the embassy houses are already wired for AFN if you have your own box. There's also local cable available, but we have AFN and don't know how much DSTV costs.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Namibia is an English-language country, so most people speak English as one of their several languages. But Afrikaans is what you'll hear most often on the streets. We only speak English and get around fine.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
The sidewalks range from cobblestone to non-existent, and the pedestrian crossings (when they exist) aren't timed for actual humans to be able to make it from one side of the road to the other. I've seen folks with wheelchairs around, but it's not going to be a super-easy ride.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Not so much. The buses only go to and from the outer settlements of Windhoek, and the cab drivers are, like everywhere, out of their minds. Embassy folks are discouraged from riding in local taxis. There's no internal public transportation for the city.
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?
Bring something with high clearance if you're wanting to get out of the city. We have a sedan right now, and it's pretty tough going off of the main highways, which you have to do to get anywhere really interesting. You need a right-hand-drive car, and you really need two if you don't want to either play shuttle driver to the embassy twice a day or get stuck in the house. Windhoek isn't really walkable, and the embassy houses aren't close enough together that you can walk from one to another. There are normally some cars available through the embassy, as people leave and don't need a right-hand-drive at their next assignment. We ordered ours through Japan. Make sure to order waaaaaaaaaay in advance of arrival, though, or you'll be stuck for months.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
The internet provider here charges you for the bandwidth they wish they were giving you rather than what's actually coming into your home. But it's enough for Skyping back to the States (even if you'll be a little pixelated at times) and downloading shows and movies (if you're patient).
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We brought ours from the States and got local SIM cards and have been just fine--the embassy issues phones to employees.
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?
Home quarantine once the pets arrive, but getting pets here at all is a giant PITA. Go through a pet shipper.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
I haven't heard of anyone using the kennels for their pets; we tend to do rotating petsitting among ourselves. But there's a vet right next to the embassy that people seem very happy with.
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?
There are the usual spots open in the embassy for spouses, and sometimes the other embassies open their positions to expats. But the local economy pays in local money, which isn't exactly a ton. Everyone I know who wanted a job has found one.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Embassy dress is pretty standard for an embassy: dress shirts, ties, dresses. Out in public it's more casual: jeans are acceptable even at expensive restaurants, but I wouldn't go out in short shorts or a miniskirt.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Petty thefts (and not-so-petty thefts) are a big problem here---the gap between the haves and have-nots in Namibia is stark. U.S. Embassy homes are equipped with guards, alarms, electric fences, and metal bars on all of the windows and doors---and if you set them all, you won't have any problems. If you don't... well, there have been break-ins at embassy residences where people weren't so security conscious. Most of those are those of opportunity, so don't leave anything valuable or shiny in your cars.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The RMO and RMO-P are based out of Pretoria, but in the year we've been here we've only had one visit from the RMO, and that was with about two days' notice. The local NP hooks us up with local doctors who are all South African trained (Namibia's medical school will graduate its first doctors this year). Specialists are few and far between: there are two ob/gyns in the city, and about the same number of pediatricians. But the air quality is good, the tap water is drinkable, and---other than dry skin---there have not really been any health concerns for us.
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?
Namibia is one of the darkest places on the planet. You will never see stars like you do here---they're absolutely incredible. Bring a telescope or head out to a few of the lodges near Windhoek that have their own giant telescopes set up to really enjoy the view.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The weather pattern is dry-and-hot, dry-and-REALLY-hot, about two afternoons of rain, and dry-and-coolish. The embassy provides humidifiers for the bedrooms, but ours have done nothing but leak, even after having them all replaced twice. We just stopped asking. Pack a ton of hand and body lotion---you'll go through it all here.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There seems to be a general "eh-ness" about the international schools, with many parents trying several different places during their tours. Namibian children, even in the expensive private schools, aren't taught how to read until they are seven, which leads to some heated discussions among the expat preschool set. Parents choose between Windhoek International School (which is not at all preferred for high school level), DHPS (a German school that teaches in English and German), St. Paul's, and St. George's. The best I've heard any school described as is "fine."
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I haven't really seen anything that would make me believe that special-needs kids would be all that accommodated here, I'm sad to say.
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?
There are only really three preschools that the expats go to, and they all have enormous waiting lists. If you are coming, mention to your sponsors that you want preschool as quickly as possible. We've been going to Little Penguins, which is considered the premiere preschool in Windhoek. It's Montessori-based, but our daughter, who started preschool in the US, has started regressing on her letter recognition because it's not really reinforced in school. We've started supplementing at home. Other parents have found other Montessori-based preschools or the Waldorf-curriculum preschool, although that one is taught in German. Waldorf is the only one that is amenable to the kids not being there five days a week.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
A lot are available through the schools---my daughter is taking swimming, but there's also soccer, karate, gymnastics, ballet, and horseback riding that I've heard of.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's pretty small. There aren't a lot of other embassies here, but there are other expats (especially Germans) who have moved here for the climate. There are also expats involved in the mining industry. If you join the local international women's club, you'll meet a lot of them.
2. Morale among expats:
The embassy itself is experiencing some bad tour timing, a massive case of tour fatigue. A good three quarters of the embassy is transferring this summer. You're in Africa, and even if it's not "real Africa" (as you will hear again and again and *again*), there are challenges in terms of when things are done, getting them done correctly, and finding things you are looking for.
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?
There's one movie theater that plays about five movies at a time--normally at least one's in Afrikaans--but they do get American movies in a timely fashion. We had Iron Man 3 (legitimately) the week after it opened in the US. "Sundowners" are a popular pasttime here: sitting outside at a few of the wine bars with a view and watching the sunset with a glass of wine or a gin and tonic (alcohol is a fairly major component of life in Namibia). The government tries to curb excess by banning sales of alcohol in stores from 2pm on Saturday until Monday morning. There are some clubs, but they are populated by the local high school students as well as the 20-something crowd, which some people find kind of awkward. Entertaining tends to be fairly individually-driven: a braii or a movie night at someone's house, or it's going to be a really quiet weekend. Windhoek tends to roll up the sidewalks around 9pm, and Sundays are dead.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I'd say this is a very good post for families, especially families with younger kids (because of the less-optimal school situation for teenagers). There's not really a lot to do socially if you're not plugged in either at the schools or through the international clubs.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
South Africa has legalized gay marriage, and Namibia tries to be a lot like South Africa. But I haven't really seen a lot of gay or lesbian couples out in public here.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
This is a post-Apartheid country that is still going through some growing pains. Windhoek's citizens, other than the day laborers who all take buses back to the settlements at the end of the day, are mostly white, and African-American expats have had some problems with shopkeeper rudeness.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We've gone down to the amazing sand dunes in Sossusvlei, home of the oldest desert on earth (or as our preschool daughter thought, the biggest sandbox in the world) and have gone on numerous game drives with our little ones. Namibia is really good about letting the smaller kids be a part of the game drives---we've had no problems bringing our five year old and our not-quite-two year old with us everywhere. Because they're so small, they also aren't charged for food and lodging at the lodges around the country, making travel much more affordable for us.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Namibia is safari country without the tourist mark-ups of South Africa or Kenya. You can see elephants, cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes, lions...my daughter calls it "living in the zoo." If you get out of Windhoek, it's an entirely different country: empty, quiet, and absolutely breathtaking.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
It's not really the *things* here that are interesting (you can get baskets, ostrich eggs, giant wooden giraffes, etc., just like you can in the rest of Africa). We're spending our money on game drives and lodge fees and getting pictures of cheetahs, lions, and giraffes. Namibia's real draw is the experience of seeing everything.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
You're literally minutes from animals you normally only see in the zoo---an animal reserve where you can watch them feed lions is located between Windhoek and the airport. The weather is almost always sunny and dry (mostly "really" dry), and it gets down to freezing during the winter nights in July and August. So if you're transferring during the normal summer season, pack accordingly. It gets back up to the lows 70s in the heat of the day. The city is also relatively quiet for a capital because there are not a lot of people in Namibia in general. Getting out of town is pretty easy (especially if you have a car equipped for it. 4WD isn't required, but an SUV with high clearance will make your trips on the mostly-dirt roads a lot less stressful. And there are plenty of fun places to visit in a weekend.
11. Can you save money?
Well, yes, but you're going to see anything.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
snow boots and any pre-conceived notions of Africa!
3. But don't forget your:
sunscreen, body lotion, camera equipment, pool toys, telescopes, and water bottles!