-Where were you born?
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota; grew up in Austin, Texas; lived as an adult in Seattle, Washington, USA.
-In which country and city are you living now?
In Kenya. I live in a small village called Malava in the Western Province.
-Are you living alone or with your family?
Alone, but I have a great roommate
-How long have you been living in Kenya?
-What is your age?
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Kenya?
I worked for a nonprofit in the States, and traveled for fun whenever the opportunity presented itself. I’ve loved volunteering in Central America, working in Europe, and visiting as many other places as I can to meet new people and learn about new cultures. Some of my favorite places I’ve visited are India, Costa Rica, Egypt, Mexico, Guatemala, England, Europe, and China. Last year I decided if I could find a job with a nonprofit, that happened to be overseas, it’d be perfect for me. Kenya fit the bill and now I’m here getting paid to work at a centre for disabled children.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
Tourist visas are valid for three months, cost $50, you can get them at the airport upon arrival, and you can renew them for another three months. Work permits, however, tend to be much more difficult. Getting my work permit is a long, boring story. Feel free to skip over it. Local friends speculate that the government is cracking down on ex-pat work permits in retaliation against the US government being equally tough on allowing Kenyans entrance into the States. It’s also common knowledge that the government is often corrupt (even if the current administration is way better than the last administration).
Short story: after 10 months, lots of headaches, and lots of money, I was finally approved for my work permit.
Long story: My first application was eventually discovered to be “lost” with no apologies, even though I had copies of all forms and had the immigration-issued receipt for the application. Sadly, I’m living in a rural village and it’s a 9-hour bus ride from the Immigration offices in Nairobi. Each time I had to make the trip to/from immigration to check on status, resubmit, haggle, etc. meant time away from work and long travel days on bumpy Kenyan roads. The second application was also “lost” with no apologies. Eventually a bribe was demanded, and when we refused, my application was “denied” within 24 hours. By that time, so many months had passed that my tourist visa, and my visa extension, had both expired. Immigration told me I’d need to cross the border and return to get a new tourist visa while they process my paperwork (it’ll be done any day, they kept saying, despite the fact it’d been “lost” twice already). Unfortunately, while my village is only 1.5 hours from the Uganda border, we were told we’d have to cross into a country that wasn’t part of the East African Union. So after an expensive, but very fun, week away in South Africa, I returned to Kenya, lied to immigration, and got approved for another 3-month tourist visa.
Two months later my permit application that was “lost” twice was apparently found and the powers that be decided to “defer” my application. My second three-month visa extension expired. And now, after 10 long months of jumping through hoops, extension application and fees, and a mandatory trip to “cross the border,” I somehow lucked out and actually got the work permit approval.
It’s very possible to get work permits, but I suspect a little bribery will go a long way towards getting it in a timely manner.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
I signed up for HTH Worldwide before I came. They’re a global company and have doctors on the network in Nairobi’s big hospitals.
-How do you make your living in Kenya? Do you have any type of income generated?
I work for a nonprofit here that serves disabled kids, and they pay for my housing as well as a monthly salary/stipend.
-Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
The business language in Kenya is Kiswahili and the government language is English. I find that Swahili isn’t required in much of Kenya... as many people have been learning English since they were in primary school, especially in big cities like Nairobi where almost everyone speaks some English. However, it’s definitely been helpful to have some Swahili skills... even if it’s just enough to carry on simple conversations. Shopkeepers, vendors in the markets, and folks on the street are even friendlier when you can speak a bit of the local language. And it’s always helps when I’m bargaining for veggies, transport, or gifts... if I can speak a little in Swahili, the common reaction is to immediately retract the tourist price, offer me a way better deal, and then start up a conversation. “You know Swahili! How long have you been in Kenya? Where do you stay? How do you find our country?”
Beyond Swahili, each of Kenya’s 42 tribes has their own language, and some have many dialects within their own language. In Western province where I stay, people speak Luhya and Swahili. But even the Luhya varies within 20+ dialects that are incredibly different depending on where they are in Western Province. It’s been harder for me to learn Luhya since there are no books or language schools that can help me, but I’ve picked up bits and pieces. However, learning Swahili was very easy. Peter Wilson wrote a great book that’s aptly called “Swahili” and it’s the Bible for anyone learning Kiswahili. I’ve been teaching myself and his book has been extremely helpful.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
I love my family and friends very much, but don’t actually find myself missing them. As one of the only foreigners around my rural area, I find that I’m always surrounded by new friends and by people who want to meet the stranger. There’s no shortage of invites to go to people’s homes (mud huts) where we usually eat chai and mandazi, followed by soda and ground nuts, followed by tours of their shambas (farm), followed often with dances by the children, nieces, and nephews. Adults here tend to dance lots too... so I’ve been dancing in many, many front yards and with many, many primary school kids. It’s great fun.
Beyond visiting friends, our market day happens once a week on Fridays and it’s always a bustling day full of energy. Both sides of the street are lined with piles of fresh veggies, secondhand clothes, farming tools, mattresses, homemade cooking pans, clay pots for carrying water, tea leaves, and more. There’s music blaring, donkeys patiently waiting, and old mamas balancing their week’s veggie basket on their heads. It might be a statement about small town life, but market day is definitely my favorite day of the week.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
The majority of homes around here are mud huts on private family farms, however you can find apartments for rent in town. Cheap apartments go for about $15 US for a one bedroom, kitchen, sitting room, outdoor shared latrine. A “nice” new 2-bedroom apartment, with electricity(!), costs about 3,000 Kenyan shilling per month ($50 USD). Includes kitchen area (fireplace), sitting room, indoor pit toilet/shower room, and two bedrooms. Very few places have running water in rural areas, but nicer apartment buildings may have their own borehole (well) so you don’t have to go walk far carrying water. Most apartments come with no furnishings but do often have built in clothes closets and storage space. You have to provide your own propane burner for cooking, etc.
I’m renting a house from a local parish and am paying way more than I should. For about $100 USD, it has three bedrooms, electricity, two indoor bathrooms, a large sitting room, a walk-in storage closet, and a separate kitchen. We get water from rain collection in a large tank outside our house, and the extra guest room means I can always host visitors from back home.
-What is the cost of living in Kenya?
Rural areas like mine are very inexpensive. A cup of milk tea and a fresh pastry (mandazi) costs 10 Ksh total (about $0.14 USD). A dinner of beef stew, greens, rice, and soda will only cost 70 Ksh ($1 USD). If you need to go visit a friend, the hour-long walk can be cut down to a 15-minute bike ride, and only costs about 20-30 Ksh on a boda boda bike taxi (about $0.40).
-What do you think about the Kenyan people?
Kenyans are incredibly warm and welcoming people, and they largely seem to love talking to foreigners. It’s not uncommon for a stranger to start up a conversation with “Where are you from? How do you find Kenya?” People always invite me to their home, try to marry me off to their sons, feed me more food, and often send me home with a gift of fresh eggs from their hens or fresh groundnuts from their garden.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Kenya?
Kenya is about the size of Texas or France and there’s always a new town to explore, another national park to visit, a new adventure to be had, new foods to try (usually not that good, but generally interesting none the less), and lots of new people to hang out with. The most positive aspect has to be the incredibly welcoming and kind people, followed by the gorgeous landscape. Western Province is lush with green hills, tea fields and sugarcane farms, the country’s only rain forest, and gorgeous mountains and hills. The picturesque scenery never fails to bring a smile to my face on a daily basis. I’ve been here a year and it’s still breathtaking.
For me, the harder parts of living in Kenya come from some of our cultural differences, poverty, and crime.
Culture – Disabilities are looked at as curses, and sometimes disabled kids in rural areas like mine are locked in cages behind the home so neighbors don’t see them. Sometimes parents here pray for their disabled child to die, rather than pray for the recovery that is often possible with treatment. Also, women are second class citizens, without rights to children, land, shared property, etc. Girls are often married off in their teens so the family can collect the dowry (bride price, often about 12 cows). I love my new friends here, but don’t always agree with all of the customs. As a foreigner, I have to remind myself it’s not my place to judge.
Crime – Nairobi is nicknamed “Nairobbery” because of the thugs and threat of muggings. Rape is a widespread problem for both adult women and young girls. Rural areas aren’t exempt either. In both rural and city areas, it’s not wise to walk around after dark. Because Kenya has so much poverty, people sometimes take desperate measures to try to get ahead. It’s sometimes explained with the idea that “They have so much, and we have so little, so we’re going to take some to even it out.” My small town has mobs of 10 or more armed men that will come to attack at night at someone’s house. The good news is that the muggings and the armed thugs rarely hurt people... they’re usually just interested in tying you up and stealing mobile phones, cash, and any other valuables present.
Poverty – A friend asked me if it was hard to enjoy the beauty of Africa with so much poverty present. The poverty is stark, the disabilities many, AIDS orphans are a reality, and the slums are growing (more than 10% of Nairobi’s residents are living in slums). However, it’s a country that keeps faith. Kenyans have a vibrant energy, a strong sense of community, and are incredibly welcoming. People love to laugh and tell stories, and will dance for hours anytime zilizopendwa music is played. It’s hard not to love the beauty of the people and the land, even in the face of poverty that can underlie many communities.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Kenya?
If you’re planning to be here for a few years, apply for your work permits early or be okay with giving a bribe. Also, I’d recommend getting out of the city to visit smaller, rural areas, even if it’s just for a weekend trip. Nairobi’s very modern and well stocked with familiar items from home, but it can only give you a very limited view of Kenya. Try to learn some Swahili... it’s a phonetic, easy language and is useful for building relationships (not to mention getting a better bargaining prices on goods and services).
Safaris provide amazing scenery and animals, something you’ve got to appreciate in a land this beautiful. Masai Mara is the best safari in Kenya (and the #4 ranked national park in the world). It has all of the big animals (elephants, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, etc.) and usually is done in a 3-day standard trip. Lake Nakuru, with 5 million flamingos in addition to giraffes, zebras, rhinos, etc., is another great national park (often can be done in one or two days).
-Do you have other plans for the future?
Africa has over 50 diverse countries and I want to see more of the area before I return to the States. After I finish my contract here, I plan to spend about six months backpacking from South Africa back up the coast to Kenya, passing through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. At that point, I suspect I’ll need to return to the States, see friends and family, and couch surf for a little while until I find a job and rejoin the working world.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Kenya?
I try to post pictures and stories to my blog regularly at Traveling Cat. Beyond that, my Internet connection is pretty bad so I don’t get much time for surfing the Web.