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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Kenya

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Life in Kenya

At a Glance:

  • One big perk of Kenya is the marvelous landscape with its exciting flora and fauna, which is also ideal for family activities.
  • The quality of medical care in Kenya is not always up to Western standards, but private hospitals in big cities provide good care.
  • Certain vaccinations are a must before a move to Kenya.
  • Many expat parents opt for international schooling for their children due to challenges within the Kenyan education system.

Expat living in Kenya is not just one long safari. However, while you will soon discover contemporary life beyond the clichés, your time in Kenya as an expatriate does offer some opportunities to play the tourist. In doing so, you’ll be supporting the local hospitality industry, a sector of undeniable importance to Kenya’s expanding economy.

Country vs. City

Many expats living in Kenya take some time out of their everyday routine to immerse themselves in the country’s natural beauty. Admiring impalas and zebras near Lake Victoria, relaxing on the tropical beaches of Kenya’s south coast, and hiking in the forests around ragged Mount Kenya may all become some of your most wonderful memories of living in Kenya.

Even if daily life in Kenya’s expat hotspots, i.e. Nairobi and Mombasa, is not quite as exciting as your first safari, it’s a lot closer to the experience of Kenya’s growing urban middle-classes and still provides you with plenty of leisure options.

How to Entertain Your Family in Kenya

As you can probably imagine, in Kenya activities for families are not lacking: from safaris to natural parks, it must be the dream of every kid (and adult).

In Nairobi, for instance, you can feed giraffes at the Langata Giraffe Centre or pet baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. If your kids are little train enthusiasts, they may enjoy a family outing to the Nairobi Railway Museum — a favorite destination for local school students on field trips.

Moreover, shopping malls in neighborhoods like Gigiri and Westlands offer more than an assortment of shops and boutiques; some also boast family-friendly cafés, playgrounds, bowling centers, miniature golf ranges, and movie theaters.

For spectacular snorkeling, swims, and boat rides, the Malindi Marine Park in Malindi is the ideal destination. In the same city, you can find the Crocodile Farm and the Snake Park if you want adventurous activities. In the Watamu Marine National Reserve, you and your kids can observe the marvelous marine fauna of Kenya.

Enjoy the Exotic Food

“Foodies” living in Kenya can look forward to a range of culinary delights. Much local fare, such as ugali (cornmeal mush), sukuma wiki (kale stew), and nyama choma (grilled sheep or goat), is simple, plain, and rustic. While this kind of cooking reflects a rural way of life, the coastal Swahili food blends African, Arab, and Indian influences. Savory dishes like kuku paka (chicken in coconut curry sauce) and mtuzi wa samaki (a fish-based curry from Zanzibar) are the culinary equivalent to the melting pot that is life in Kenya.

Both the coastal metropolis of Mombasa and the capital city, Nairobi, also feature a variety of restaurants dedicated to international cuisines. Luckily, you need not forego your favorite Italian, Japanese, or Lebanese food, here. When going out in Nairobi or Mombasa, though, don’t forget that Kenya has some complicated rules as to where and when alcohol may be purchased. As long as you consume food as well, you may buy a drink in a restaurant. Bars and nightclubs, however, need an official license and heed the Alcoholic Drinks Control Act of 2010, which, among other things, limits the times for legal alcohol sales depending on weekday and occasion.

Art, Culture, and Entertainment in Kenya

Is culture more to your taste than a night out on the town? Nairobi may not have the same established entertainment venues as other cities of comparable size, but it’s far from a cultural wasteland. The larger cinemas at the malls show mainly Hollywood blockbusters in their English-language program. Cultural institutions, such as the British Council or the Goethe Institut, often host movie nights or film festivals, many of them in cooperation with East African film-makers and cinema-enthusiasts.

Not just in Nairobi, cultural institutes are generally excellent locales for expats who are interested in the contemporary arts scene, be it music, the fine arts, or literature. There are also several low-budget and (semi-)amateur societies for the performing arts. It’s not unusual for musicians and actors to put on a play or give a concert at local schools, for instance. Braeburn International School in Nairobi, among others, is fairly popular as a venue.

Contemporary art galleries aren’t lacking either. Among the most famous in Nairobi, the Shifteye Gallery features a lot of visual art. For contemporary art from Kenya and Africa in general, the Nairobi Gallery is the place to be. Lastly, the Banana Hill Art Gallery displays sculptures and works from Kenya and East Africa.

Generally speaking, Kenya has an incredible mix of traditions and cultures, which is represented through its people. The Kenyan art is reflected in daily life and is visible in jewelry, clothes, tribal masks, and mats. Its music is similarly very rich, combining different styles.

Take a Dive into Kenyan Literature

When your daily activities in Kenya have left you a little exhausted, curl up in a comfy chair, under a mosquito net, and lose yourself in a good book. Kenyan experiences are the subject of quite a few old-fashioned memoirs from the British colonial era, e.g. Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa or Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika.

However, you shouldn’t miss out on modern African writers’ take on life in post-colonial Kenya! Contemporary classics like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child and new voices like Binyavanga Wainana (One Day I Will Write About This Place) share with the reader diverse insights into the country’s vibrant lifestyle.

Healthcare in Kenya

What to Expect from Medical Care in Kenya

In Kenya, medical standards, like income distribution, reveal huge differences between various segments of the population. On the one hand, Kenya is still a developing nation in some respects. The average Kenyan has a life expectancy of about 63 years. Several factors affect this in a negative way: Maternal and infant mortality remain high, an estimated 1.6 million people are living with HIV according to UNAIDS numbers from 2014, and the degree of risk of infectious disease, e.g. hepatitis, malaria, and typhoid, is also high. There are too few physicians for the growing population, and only 30% of all Kenyans have access to improved sanitation and around 60% to clean water.

On the other hand, well-to-do Kenyans and affluent expats may notice little of these issues. The medical care available in Nairobi’s and Mombasa’s private hospitals is good and continually improving. Furthermore, the living conditions among well-off residents hardly expose them to the kind of health risks from which poorer Kenyans suffer. So, if you follow your doctor’s health recommendations and have the right insurance, you need not be unduly concerned about your health in Kenya.

The Necessary Precaution: Vaccinations

Before moving to Kenya, make sure to get all the immunizations you need. You should see your family doctor for either booster shots or new vaccinations for the following diseases:

  • TDP (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis)
  • MMR (measles, mumps, rubella)
  • hepatitis A and B
  • typhoid fever
  • polio (proof of vaccination may be required upon exiting the country if you’ve been in Kenya more than four weeks)
  • rabies
  • meningococcal infections (type ACWY vaccine)
  • yellow fever for high-risk areas

A varicella (chicken pox) vaccine and your yearly flu shot are also recommend preventative measures.

Important Health Tips for Kenya

When you have arrived in Kenya, remember some basic health advice. The tips below cannot replace an in-depth talk with a doctor for tropical medicine, but they give you a general impression of what to expect.

  • Protect yourself against insect bites to help prevent malaria, dengue fever, sleeping sickness, and leishmaniasis. Dengue fever cases in particular have been on the rise in recent years, though recent fumigation of public areas and elimination of mosquito breeding grounds has reduced the number of reported cases in 2014. Nevertheless, knowing how to best prevent insect bites is of crucial importance.
  • Take anti-malarial drugs as medical prophylactics, but make sure to consult with your doctor about potential side effects first.
  • Don’t drink any tap water or consume raw produce.
  • Make sure to keep flies away from your food, and wash your hands often.
  • To avoid parasitic infections, don’t bathe in rivers or lakes. Swimming in the Indian Ocean or chlorinated pools is fine, though.
  • Pay attention to where you sit down and put your hands to avoid spider or snake bites.
  • Be careful around all pets and especially wild animals due to rabies.
  • Don‘t forget to use sunscreen.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, and make sure to repeatedly apply insect repellant (with DEET).
  • Sleep under mosquito nets.
  • Avoid creating potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes, e.g. by covering and/or regularly cleaning water containers in and around your house.

The Only Option: Private Health Insurance

Expats settling in Kenya require private health insurance. If you would like to travel around East Africa while living in Kenya, remember to take out a travel insurance policy as well. If you only have a medical healthcare plan for Kenya and then have an accident across the border in Tanzania, your insurance won’t cover it.

Last but not least, your insurance policy should include repatriation for medical purposes. In the — hopefully unlikely — case that you need prolonged treatment or complicated surgery, this enables you to go to a South African clinic or return back home.

What to Do in Case of Emergency

In addition to having insurance cover from a reputable company, including an emergency evacuation plan, you should sign up for an AMREF Flying Doctors membership. This organization provides air ambulance services throughout East Africa. If you need their help, as a paying member you will not have to reimburse the transport costs afterwards.

In case of an emergency that requires consular services, you should have your embassy’s contact details and their hotline number at hand.

General emergency numbers for Kenya are:

The Main Healthcare Facilities in Nairobi and Mombasa

Medical service providers in the government healthcare sector are seldom used by Western expatriates. Private clinics incorporate hospital services, consulting doctors, and pharmacies. The following facilities are popular in Kenya’s expat community:

Education and Transport in Kenya

Understanding How the Kenyan School System Works

Kenya’s education system follows the 8-4-4 formula. Eight years of primary school are followed by four years of secondary education, and ideally, four years of university. Kids often attend one or two years of kindergarten before starting elementary school at age six. Over the following eight years, called Standard 1 to Standard 8, they benefit from a free education and prepare to take the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE).

According to their academic achievements in elementary school, Kenyan students attend certain types of secondary schooling. Government-funded national schools for the top students are the most prestigious ones. So-called harambee schools are often supported by entire communities and take in less successful students as well. Finally, the more expensive private schools often follow the British model rather than the local system.

All three kinds of secondary school end with the final exams for the Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education. After successfully graduating with the KCSE, students may attend one of Kenya’s 44 universities or numerous vocational colleges.

The Schools of Choice for Most Expatriates

Unfortunately, Kenya’s schools have to contend with a variety of problems, such as low literacy levels among many students, unreliable allocation of funds, very high student-to-teacher ratios, and drop-out rates among older kids, especially girls. While such problems are worse in impoverished and isolated regions rather than urban middle-class neighborhoods, many expats prefer international schools for their kids.

International schools often have a nursery and pre-school program, international diplomas, and language support for non-native English speakers. Such schools, however, are also quite expensive, and their tuition fees make up a large part of the family budget.

Popular international schools in Kenya include:

Flying into Kenya

Most expats arrive in Kenya by its busiest airport, the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, located in the southeast of Nairobi. However, a major fire in August 2013 damaged large parts of the JKIA terminal, which up until recently resulted in significant delays due to the limited availability of key airport facilities.

The fire may, however, have been a blessing in disguise. Because of it, the Kenyan government pushed for the speeding up of construction on a new terminal that had previously experienced setback after setback since its foundations were laid in 2010. The result was the opening of Terminal 1A (called Terminal 4 during construction) and a restoration of the airport’s functionality.

Mombasa airport  is the second largest airport in the country. Tourists make use of this airport as well, as there are, for example, 18 airlines flying directly from and to Europe, and connections to over 20 cities in the region itself.

Limited Options for Public Transportation in Kenya Once you have landed safely at one of Kenya’s international airports in Nairobi or Mombasa, you will soon notice that the public transportation network is somewhat lacking. There is only one major train line, which runs from Nairobi to Mombasa two or three times per week. This route, which used to run to Kisumu and was known as the “Lunatic Express” in colonial times, is now mainly a haunt for European tourists on a nostalgia tour in first-class compartments.

Intercity transport has been taken over by a bus network, particularly near Nairobi, on the coast, and in the west and south. If you book a long-haul ride with one of the bigger, reputable companies and travel during daylight hours, it should be pretty comfortable and comparatively safe.

At any rate, travel by coach is still safer than Kenya’s ubiquitous matatus or mini-buses. These vans (mostly brightly painted Nissans) are plentiful, cheap, loud, and rather dangerous. Although the government introduced stricter safety regulations, we strongly advise against going by matatu. There’s a reason why the front-row seat next to the driver is called “seat of death”; head-on collisions are sadly frequent on Kenya’s roads.

Braving the Roads in a Cab or Car

Taxis are somewhat over-priced and not always comfortable, but they are indeed the most convenient and safest way to travel around Nairobi and Mombasa. You can find them near international hotels and most tourist sites, and they are usually marked with a yellow line on the side of the car. Attention, though: There is no meter, and you have to agree upon the fare in advance. A ride from central Nairobi to Westlands is about 1,000 KES, for example.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a company car service or cannot afford to hire a good driver (which quite a few expats do), you can venture onto the roads yourself. You are allowed to use an international driving permit or a foreign license from a Commonwealth country for up to three months.

You should then get in touch with the National Transport & Safety Authority or the Kenyan Automobile Association and ask if/how you can exchange your foreign license for a Kenyan permit. Always remember to use the left-side of the road and to drive as defensively and risk-aware as possible.

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  • Mario Rimardi

    Wish I had discovered InterNations before I relocated to Kenya. It's really helpful on both a private and a professional level.

  • Caroline Hayes

    Expats on InterNations gave us valuable hints for finding an appropriate school in Nairobi for our two children.

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