Expats moving to Nairobi will be living in one of East Africa’s largest cities. Nairobi is a regional transport hub, the seat of important political organizations, and the economic “growth engine” of the East African Community. The influential metropolis is a fairly young city, though. Until the 1890s, the area was mainly an isolated swamp with little settlement. As such, what has now become modern Nairobi has a twofold heritage.
The city of Nairobi is a colonial creation. The first people moving to Nairobi were British settlers, who were encroaching on Maasai and Kikuyu lands. Around 1900, Nairobi was nothing but a depot for the British East African Railway. The colonial town took its name from the Nairobi River. The watercourse is, in turn, named for a Maasai expression: Enkare nairobi or engare nyarobi simply meaning “a place of cool water”. Since the Kenyan independence movement gained momentum, Nairobi has been the proud capital of this East African state.
When moving to Nairobi, you will soon notice that a good many Kenyans take great pride in their nation and its symbols. The Bendera ya Kenya — Kenya’s flag — displays a Maasai shield and spears on a black-red-green background. The colors are those of the Kenyan African National Union, a former anti-colonial organization and now one of Kenya’s major parties. Black represents the mostly African population, red is the blood shed during the struggle for independence, and green stands for the land itself. The added white stripes symbolize the peace to come with a united Kenya. Once in Nairobi, you will see the national colors on display in front of many official buildings.
Nairobi is not only Kenya’s capital, it also constitutes a province of its own. At least, this was the case under Kenya’s old administrative system, which has been undergoing major reforms. In 2013, Kenya’s eight provinces were subdivided into 47 counties. However, the new Nairobi County is basically identical to the old Nairobi Province, except for the name.
Stretching 20 km from north to south, Nairobi covers an area of approximately 700 km². It comprises 17 so-called constituencies, which are subdivided into 85 wards. The wards are frequently named after residential areas, but neighborhoods may cross the invisible borderline between adjacent wards.
As a geographical rather than an administrative entity, Nairobi is situated in a favorable spot. The city is close to the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley. This range of volcanic mountains and lakes runs through the whole of Kenya. Its high elevation above sea level (1,660 m) and its proximity to the equator make for a pleasant climate.
Expats moving to Nairobi will be glad to hear that, due to this high elevation, temperatures are moderate. With an annual low in July (10°C on average) and the hottest days in February (between 25° and 26°C), the weather is likely milder than at home. Nairobi only has two seasons: the wet one, particularly from March to May, and the drier months.
Unless you are independently wealthy, you will hardly be moving to Nairobi for its natural beauty alone. The political institutions in the CBD, the multi-national companies in Upper Hill district, and various NGOs or IGOs, like the United Nations, offer jobs to locals and expatriates alike. Furthermore, tourism is a large source of income for the Kenyan economy: Nairobi has the nickname “safari capital of the world” for good reason. These employment opportunities attract lots of new residents moving to Nairobi.
The population has been expanding rapidly: In the early 20th century, Nairobi was a small, albeit bustling town with around 10,000 inhabitants. In contrast, the last census in 2009 features government statistics of a population of over 3.1 million residents, and the annual growth rate ranges from three to four percent.
According to unofficial estimates, there might even be up to four million people in the city — it’s hard to keep track of people living in Nairobi’s shantytowns. Indeed, moving to Nairobi will show you the vast rift that divides Kenya’s society. Upmarket areas, with malls, an international school or two, and luxury housing, are reserved for and home to affluent expats and Kenya’s upper middle class. However, such Nairobi suburbs exist side by side with infamous shanty housing slums like Kibera or Kangemi, home to thousands living in poverty with limited access to water, medicine, work, or schools. Nonetheless, the urban middle classes keep growing, gradually changing the socio-economic make-up of Nairobi’s population.
When it comes to demographics, Nairobi is a fairly multicultural city. Most residents are black Kenyans with various ethnic backgrounds, such as Kikuyu or Luo, but Nairobi has a sizeable Asian community as well, which includes quite a few residents of Indian or Pakistani descent. Lastly, there is a small minority of white Kenyans, many of whom are Britons from former settler families. Due to the presence of global companies, numerous embassies, and several aid organizations, the city has a large expat crowd, too.
Lots of Kenyans are bilingual — or even trilingual: many residents of Nairobi grow up with the language of their ethnic group, such as Bantu languages or Hindi. Swahili, originally the vernacular of the coastal area, is the official medium of communication. Owing to Kenya’s past as a British colony, English is also very widespread. Thus, the language barrier is one practical aspect of moving to Nairobi that you really need not worry about.
As far as other practical issues are concerned, read on to learn about housing and personal safety in the rest of our guide on moving to Nairobi.
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