Africa Expat Wife, “I always experience culture shock on annual trips home!”
The major cities of Kenya have seen an increase in expatriate community partially fuelled by the robust economy. Jumia Travel set out to understand the experiences of settling into a foreign country and the hurdles crossed in being so far away from home by interviewing Frances, a freelance writer in Kenya.
- What is ‘Africa Expat Wives Club‘ all about?
I started the blog back in 2006 to try to give a more accurate picture of day-to-day life in Kenya for a British expat today. Back then, I think that there was a general lack of information for anyone who was thinking of moving here and a slightly scary assumption (thanks to the way safaris etc. are marketed) that life in Nairobi must still resemble Karen Blixen’s book ‘Out of Africa’.
In fact I still believe that many people living overseas have scant knowledge of what an exciting place Kenya and Nairobi are nowadays with the Silicon Savannah boom, infrastructure development, great schools, fabulous restaurants, huge new shopping malls popping up and very sophisticated cultural scene.
In 2015 I moved the blog to my own domain and redesigned the page to bring it up-to-date and give it more of a pop with lots of images. Blogging is huge in Kenya and so the competition is fierce!
- What makes Nairobi different from London?
In many ways, life in Nairobi is not so dissimilar to London – as evidenced by a recent article in the UK/London Evening Standard newspaper.
Currently there is an arts, theatre, fashion and food revolution taking place here and it’s extremely exciting to witness (though sometimes hard to keep up!). However, what I do miss is a reliable public transport system which would allow for increased independence and an ability to get around without being stuck in bad traffic jams. If you are creative and plan carefully, then you can do the things that you want to – but getting across town takes effort and makes life so tough for commuters.
- Given you’ve lived in Kenya for a decade, do you get culture shock whenever you visit UK?
Yes! I always experience culture shock on annual trips home. Mainly it is the growing number of people in the UK and the huge amount of shopping that everyone is capable of that shocks me. I remember one year I thought it was odd that the number of store security officials had gone up, before I realised that people were all on mobile phones, chatting to themselves through earphones while they walked, ate and shopped. Last year I was surprised by how much cold calling marketers prey on older residents and felt relieved that we don’t really operate with fixed phone lines here in Kenya any more. Another change last year was contactless payments where you just wave your debit card at a sensor and the cost of a coffee or bus ticket is automatically deducted.
- What’s that one bad experience you had whilst living in Kenya to the point that you almost packed your bags?
I think that the 2007/2008 contested election and the Westgate crisis were definitely very low points. I never gave up on believing that Kenya would bounce back but it definitely tested all of us in terms of personal security.
- From the article on Kenya’s middle class, you dismantle the stereotype that most Europeans have before coming to Kenya. What was your perception of this country before you moved here?
I first moved to Dar es Salaam from London in Tanzania in 1999 as a newlywed. In fact we had our honeymoon on Zanzibar before taking the ferry across to Dar to start a new life as a married couple. At that time, tourism in Zanzibar was restricted to a few brave backpackers as there wasn’t much in the way of a tourism infrastructure. To be honest, on arrival I was in total culture shock. Before leaving home, preconceptions I had had of ‘Africa’ were centred around Band Aid, negative news stories about drought and suffering when in fact the reality was a lush world in technicolor (after drab London), which was unfamiliar but very exciting. Four years later and we moved to Nairobi, which was an easier transition as, by then, I had learned some Swahili and adjusted to life in the region.
- Most Kenyans also stereotype the expat life as smooth sailing, problem-free and flamboyant. However, on reading one of your blog posts, this is not the case. What prejudices have you personally faced?
I did a writing course here years ago with some fun Kenyan students and they said that they would be interested to read my blog as expats seem hidden away behind closed doors, behind gates and behind the wheel of big cars and they wondered what an outsider’s impression of Nairobi might be. I hope that the preconception of expats has changed recently, since the city’s social scene is so vibrant and today you get loads of young expats in Nairobi caught up in the Silicon Savannah who are jumping on boda-bodas to get to work and hanging out at the Alchemist Bar etc. It’s no longer just the trailing families of CEOs who arrive and leave again. I think that expats do face the challenge of loneliness (the world over), since they are far from support networks provided by family or old friends, however Kenya is an incredibly friendly and welcoming place, which goes a long way toward countering that.
- Have you attended a tribal/cultural event that you really enjoyed?
We were so lucky to have attended the promulgation ceremony for the new constitution. To this day, I can’t really believe that I was there. In future, I would love to attend a funky fashion event like the Fashion High Tea or a Thrift Social event but I think that I’m well on the spectrum of too old and not trendy enough for that kind of thing!
- What have been your 3 favourite destinations in Kenya and why?
My three favourite destinations have to be:
- Watamu. We keep going back as a family because it ticks every box for beautiful beach, great restaurants and bars (don’t miss the Italian ice cream shop, which is to die for), fantastic swimming and snorkelling and more recently activities like kite surfing, paddle boarding, quad biking and even sky diving have become available.
- Mount Kenya and Laikipia. That might sound a bit general but we’ve been lucky enough to stay in a few conservation areas there and our safari experiences never fail to be magical. When we reach Nanyuki and first spot Mount Kenya, we get so excited and swinging in to Barney’s for a coffee or lunch to break the journey is a must.
- Lamu. I’ve only been once, so have only just scratched the surface of the place but stepping off a plane and straight onto a boat is unbeatable. The culture and architecture is ancient and fascinating.
If I’m allowed a 4th it would be the incredible Masai Mara and 5th would be Amboseli – so famous for it’s elephants and the Mount Kilimanjaro view (but I’m cheating now, I know!).
- Any advice for 1st time tourists who want to tour across Kenya that you wish someone had given to you before coming to Kenya?
Always keep an open mind and roll with any delays or changes of plan, it’s all part of the experience. Enjoy the incredibly friendly welcome you will receive and try to kick back and soak it all in (without worrying about WiFi connections or fussing about prior expectations not being fully met). There’s sometimes a tendency for foreign tourists to see a trip to Kenya as an opportunity to change or fix things in an often misguided effort to help. Try to drop all pretensions and enjoy every moment of the experience for what it is. I challenge any visitor not to love every minute of their time here.