I’m Nadine, a British expat and mum of 3 kids living in Nairobi. I moved from the UK 8 years ago and lived in South Africa for 6 years but only when I moved to Kenya did I feel I had moved to the most real version of Africa. Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya, a land of safari, wild animals, tribes and volcanoes. Land of the Great Rift Valley, the largest inland lake and the Great Migration – it’s wild, wicked and wonderful, and a million miles away from my life in sleepy old England. I’ve learned a lot about living in Nairobi, and it makes me happy to share my experiences with others.
I have lived in Nairobi for three years. We came, as a family with my husband’s work. I tagged along, a typical trailing spouse, but living in Nairobi gifted me with so many magical experiences that I felt compelled to write a blog about my adventures. And now my blog, The Expat Mummy, has turned into work and just like that our African adventure has become home and I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else.
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Moving To Kenya
Kenya is a former British colony which has been independent since 1963. Despite this finding work as an expat in Kenya and obtaining the necessary visas is fairly difficult. As with many countries any person wishing to move here is required to prove that they can do a job better than a local. As my husband is in a science field this proved easier for us than most, but still the visa process took months and nothing was guaranteed. In fact, we lived here on a tourist visa for the first 6 months while we waited for papers to be stamped and officials to be obliged.
I adore living in Nairobi. Compared to the modernity and scrubbed European cleanliness of my life in Cape Town, I feel that Nairobi shows its African roots. Animals are a part of daily life, I have giraffes, monkeys and hyena in my back garden, warthogs play on the school fields and sometimes at night, I can hear lions. Tribal culture is very much evident, to spot a Maasai Moran shepherding his cattle is a daily occurrence. I love to see people selling unusual fruit from the side of the road, or brightly coloured Kangas from makeshift stalls. I love the warmth and friendliness of the people, the bright smiles of children who have so little and yet seem far more content than my spoiled western kids. I love the great landscapes of the bush, the blue of the Indian Ocean and the vibrancy that living in Nairobi brings to my life.
Day To Day Life as an Expat Living in Nairobi
In Nairobi, expats tend to stick together and build communities. Nairobi is an overwhelming city and traffic is so bad that travelling outside of your area can take hours. There is little in the way of public transport, so you tend to find your part of town and stick to it.
Excursions into town are an event, not a daily occurrence. Even within the expat communities, there are labels; wealthy Gigiri and Muthaiga are close to embassies and the American International School (ISK) so the area tends to be populated by Americans.
Karen in the far south was rural until a few years ago. White Kenyans lived here on huge tracts of land, running horse farms and safari companies. Nowadays Nairobi and Karen have collided and the land is being subdivided and sold off. There is still many a KC (Kenya Cowboy) here, but owing to the very good British curriculum schools in the area it is also popular with the British expat crowd.
The Expat Community in Karen
I live in Karen. It’s a leafy, green area that is close to Nairobi National Park (the wildlife park that is home to 4 of Africa’s Big 5), the Giraffe Centre, the Elephant Orphanage. The area still feels rural with large expanses of forest which house leopards and hyena and warthogs ambling along the road outside your house. The plots in Karen are large, each at least an acre and houses are crumbling colonial fortresses or snazzy modern Kenyan new builds, pools are common, horses are too.
Weekends are spent at the restaurants or each other’s houses, drinking and eating until nightfall. Or we go on safari at the National Park or for weekend breaks to Naivasha, Nakuru or even a hop down to the coast (just an hour away on a plane). It’s a boozy affluent, outdoorsy lifestyle with animals at the forefront of our thoughts. Everyone runs a safari outfit or knows someone that does, everyone safari’s regularly and cares about conservation and protecting our wildlife.
The Adjustment of Living in Nairobi
Kenya’s colonial past means that most Kenyans speak English. The Kenyan Cowboys, are the ancestors of those colonists, for which Kenya is a beloved home. Despite the lack of a language barrier immersion into Kenyan society isn’t as straightforward as one might think.
In an expat community the turnover of people will always present a problem. Many expats live in Nairobi just for a year or two. After a few years of making and losing friends, most people decide not to bother.
Eventually, different groups of friends evolve, those that are in Kenya indefinitely and those who are short term residents. Whichever you are there is a niche for you, but it is hard to pierce the shell of the more permanent crowd.
Additionally, the monetary divide between some local Kenyans and the rich expats makes friendships hard to maintain. Friendships are often built on similarities and shared interests, with two people sitting at opposite ends of the financial scale it is hard to find those connections. It’s not impossible but sad to note the subsections of society that are driven apart by differences in their economy.
Missing Home and Life in the United Kingdom
Kenya seeps into your soul, it utterly entraps you, but that’s not to say homesickness doesn’t strike.
I’ve lived abroad so long now I don’t actively miss my family every day, but when times are hard then I want nothing more than to see them. As a mother, I am sad that my children don’t know their cousins, aunties and my friends.
I also miss the luxuries of home… there are few clothes shops here, limited toys, if we want something special, we order it from the UK and wait sometimes months for it to be shipped in.
The food isn’t the same, local vegetables and fresh seafood is amazing but I miss plump corn-fed chicken, pork pies and stinky cheeses.
We connect through WhatsApp and Zoom and try to visit home once a year, but often visits home are painful. In a two-week holiday and with a large family we only manage to see each person a couple of times, it never feels enough and everyone feels denied. Sometimes it feels easier not to go home at all.
Mising home is a natural part of the expat experience. Prolonged and/or severe bouts of sadness can be expat depression. Be aware of the difference and seek help when you need it. Learn more about Expat Depression HERE.
Working and Schooling as an Expat Living in Nairobi
Work in Nairobi is hard to find for an expat. The KC’s run safari camps or tours or work in animal conservation. The expats usually come with large corporates; Diageo, Coca Cola and Unilever, or are part of Embassy or NGO contingents. The best way to seek work is to come through your current company, there is little in the way of job boards or employment agencies and those positions will always go to a Kenyan first.
Conversely, there are many good schools for people living in Nairobi. As a Brit with young children, I have four or five excellent early years and pre-prep British curriculum schools to choose from. These schools maintain good connections with UK private schools, use a mix of Kenyan/British teachers and are highly recommended.
In secondary school and beyond the choices considerably thin. Many expats choose to send their children to boarding school back in their home country, to the American school or to a boarding school upcountry (out of Nairobi).
Much of the expat culture revolves around schools. As with picking your area of Nairobi to live in, what school your child goes to will dictate who your friends are. Schools are a big part of the community. Children go to school for long hours (8- 4) and often have matches after school or on weekends.
The City of Nairobi
Nairobi is a new city, not much more than 100 years ago it was a gathering of huts atop the Great Rift Valley, a location favoured by colonists for its cooler highland weather and temperate climate.
Today Nairobi is a city in a rush to grow. Everywhere you go there are building sites and tower blocks climbing towards the sky. It is Africa’s third-largest economy and a mecca for those looking for work in East Africa. Yet despite its burgeoning population it retains much of its backcountry charm.
Nairobi is the only city in the world to have a national park within its bounds. Nairobi National Park is a 110 square kilometres of wilderness on the city borders. It’s also home to most of Africa’s wildlife. Lion, leopard, cheetah, buffalo, rhino, hyena, jackal, hippo, crocodile and many more animals live in the park as they have done for millennia. Until a few years ago elephants were also found in the park but had to be moved due to human/wildlife conflict.
The Cost of Living in Nairobi
The cost of living in Nairobi is very different as a local and as a foreign expat. There is a hugely noticeable rich/poor divide. Not just within the expat communities but within the Kenyan community itself. Many Kenyans are successful business people, living in grand houses, running multinational businesses and sitting on vast tracts of land.
Conversely, the majority of the local Kenyan population live below the poverty line and survive on a couple of hundred dollars a week. They live in small one-roomed houses often shared with other families, eat a basic diet of ugali, Sukuma, and locally grown vegetables, and rarely go out other than to church.
As a British expat, we are in the top 5% of salaries in Kenya. We live in comfortable houses, send our children to private international schools, eat out regularly and often holiday within the country and internationally.
I feel we have a responsibility to give back to Kenya. This includes employing staff. When I first came to Africa, I felt ashamed to have someone to clean my house, tend my garden and drive my car. The longer I spend here the more I realise that by employing people you are offering someone a job. In Kenya, people will work for a pittance but I believe we should pay fairly. I try to pay above-average salaries and supplement with bonuses, loans, food, clothing and more.
The Cost of Common Expenses in Nairobi, Kenya
The below prices represent the amount I spend on items in Kenya as an expat. They are not true for every Kenyan resident.
Cost of Housing
- Large 4/5 bed house Karen area with security, garden, and possibly a pool 350,000 KSH / 3500 USD PCM
- Medium 2/3 bed house Karen area with garden 200,000 KSH / 2000 USD PCM
- Apartment (1 bedroom) Karen area: 70,000 KSH / 700 USD pcm
- Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre 80,000 KSH / 800 USD pcm
- Apartment (3 bedrooms) in city centre 200,000 KSH / 2000 USD pcm
- Apartment (3 bedrooms) Karen area 150,000 KSH / 1500 USD pcm
Cost of Transport
A local matatu (bus) or Boda Boda (bike) will be around the dollar mark, few expats use public transport and everyone drives. Cost of cars is horrendously high. This 15,000 USD for a 20-year-old basic 4×4.
Cost of Food And Drink
- Meal for one at a mid-range restaurant: 2,500 KSH / 25 USD
- Imported Beer (0.33-liter bottle): 250 KSH / 2.50 USD
- Cappuccino (regular): 230 KSH / 2.30 USD
- A small bottle of water: 46 KSH / .46 USD
- Milk 1 litre: 100 KSH / 1 USD
- A loaf of Fresh White Bread: 100 KSH / 1 USD
- Eggs (12): 150 KSH / 1.50 USD
- Local Cheese: 700 KSH / 7 USD
- Chicken Breasts (500g): 650 KSH / 6.50 USD
- Apples (1kg): 300 KSH / 3 USD
- Bottle of Wine (Mid-Range): 1,200 KSH / 12 USD
Domestic Salaries in Nairobi
- Domestic worker/house help: 35,000 KSH / 350 USD pcm
- Security guard: 35,000 KSH / 350 USD pcm
- Gardener: 25,000 KSH pcm / 250 USD pcm
- Driver: 35,000 KSH / 350 USD pcm
Nadine Murphy is a travel writer and blogger at The Expat Mummy. In 2011 she abandoned both her career in marketing and her native England to embark on new adventures in Africa. Nadine writes about her travel and expat experiences in Kenya and life in the wild with three feral children.