Heidi: This Coming Horizon
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Kenya, etc.
Hi! I’m Heidi Thulin, a Minnesotan who moved to Nairobi, Kenya with my husband. For two years now, we have worked with a media team here, and the job has taken us to several other African countries and locations.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started blogging about our experience several years before we even set foot on Kenyan soil. I wanted to document our entire journey and that included the years of preparation. One of the biggest benefits to blogging is that I stay connected to our friends and family back home. They can journey with us, and we don’t feel so far away.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
My most popular post is called “The Un-intentions of Donating Clothes to Africa” and it begins a conversation on the downsides of charity. I also wrote a post revealing my shock about the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall, a place only ten kilometers from where I live. On a lighter note, I wrote a short series about my learning how to drive a manual transmission vehicle and the second part.
And I explored what it’s like to be a tourist in an African country after having lived in an African country. A recurring series of mine is called “Africa Sketches” where I explore and describe specific places I’ve visited and show my readers how many different landscapes and cultures make up this continent. One of them focuses on Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Lastly, I am at my most vulnerable in a post I wrote shortly after coming back to Nairobi after a four-month furlough in Minnesota.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Kenya differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
In some ways, life is simpler in Kenya. For example, we have a house helper who comes once a week to do the cleaning. And it’s easier to develop better eating habits here, because fresh produce is so inexpensive and readily available. But in other ways, life is harder here. We need to visit several different stores (a butcher, a produce shop, a roadside kiosk) in order to get all of our groceries. Or we need to battle terrible traffic to get to and from work. And a Kenyan’s sense of time is different than an American’s. Showing up hours late to a social gathering is completely acceptable.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Kenya? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
No, I don’t think anyone could fully be prepared for what awaits him in a new country. We had the benefit of moving to a very international city that imports lots of foreign goods and comforts. If we had known what things were available here, we would’ve packed our ten suitcases a little differently.
But the most shocking thing was realizing that everyone in Nairobi is really busy. Before we moved, we’d heard that Africans are very communal, hospitable, and eager to meet new people. Yes, this is true in the village or town setting, but not in the city. Here, houses are surrounded by security walls, which make it a bit ominous to knock on the door and meet your neighbor. Also, because the city is so expensive, both spouses need to work and by the time they come home, they are tired and want to spend time with their family. We were very surprised and disheartened by this discovery. Urbanization definitely has its pitfalls.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
Yes, I’d love to.
We had been living in our new house for only a few months when we started noticing cockroaches in our front yard; one on the wall, one under the car, one in the garden. But we didn’t know where they were coming from.
One evening, we saw one emerge from the drain below the outdoor faucet. Just in case there were more living down in the dark pipes, my husband, Josh, grabbed a can of Doom Spray and doused the drain.
Within seconds, dozens of huge cockroaches rushed out. They fanned out across the yard, skittering up and around everything. Think of the scene in The Mummy when all the scarab beetles swarm out of the tomb. Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.
“Well, I found them,” Josh calmly said.
I stood paralyzed in the yard, staring at the unbelievable scene and shuddering as the masses moved in my direction. Josh, using the Doom Spray as a weapon, spun around and attacked the insects that got too close to his feet.
The roaches were spreading out, and we could hear their rustlings as they walked on the dead leaves in the garden. By this time, our night guard had arrived to sweep our driveway and, using his grass broom to whack the roaches’ dead, he joined heartily in the current festivities. Whack, sweep. Whack, sweep. Such efficiency.
It took about a half hour for all the roaches to die and be swept away. But it took even longer for our adrenaline to calm down enough for us to make dinner. The next morning, we found yet another dozen roaches in our yard, contorted with their feet in the air and ants feasting on them.
We have since learned that it’s best to not rinse food particles down the sink drain, because the pieces get stuck in a groove in the pipe and tempt the roaches to return. Now, just in case we make a mistake, we regularly pour bleach water down the drain and hope it discourages any new colony from taking up residence.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Kenya?
- Learn about the culture and ask questions. There are so many things that are done differently here, and sometimes those ways don’t seem to make sense. It takes humility to admit to being confused, but you’ll find that your vulnerability and curiosity will inspire Kenyans to help you. As long as you’re respectful to the people, their culture, and their country, you will discover lots of new and fascinating things.
- Study Swahili. Nothing makes you feel more comfortable in a country than understanding the heart language of the locals. Plus, it thrills Kenyans when they hear you speak Swahili. It shows them you are invested in their country and can relate (somewhat) to their way of life.
- Be vigilant and always aware of your surroundings. Nairobi is a big city, and like all big cities, it has its unsavory characters and its dangerous places. Do your research, read the newspapers, and be wise with how you present yourself in public. The more unassuming you are the better.
How is the expat community in Kenya? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
Because of all the embassies and the UN workers, there is quite a large expat community in Nairobi. It was a bit shocking, actually, to discover so many other foreigners. But, in the end, we greatly enjoy their presence. Having so many other white faces around makes our white faces less of a novelty.
We did not struggle to find other Americans. Our organization has many U.S. citizens living and working over here, so we instantly had that small community. It’s very helpful to find friends who share your background. We find it helps with homesickness.
How would you summarize your expat life in Kenya in a single, catchy sentence?
I’m an introverted Minnesotan trying to navigate and thrive in Kenya’s Big City.