What You Need to Know When You’re Moving to Nairobi
- Mario Rimardi
Wish I had discovered InterNations before I relocated to Kenya. It's really helpful on both a private and a professional level.
Relocating to Nairobi
At a Glance:
- Nairobi counts around four million inhabitants from various different cultural backgrounds.
- When looking for housing in Nairobi, options range from exclusive Karengata to more affordable but still comfortable neighborhoods such as Brookside and Kileleshwa.
- In order to be safe in the city and at home, keeping in mind some safety rules is crucial.
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 Post-Colonial Pride of the Place of Cool Water
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.
The New Administration and Surprising Climate of Nairobi
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.
Economic and Intergovernmental Opportunities in a Growing City
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.
Nairobi: Host to Many Languages and Cultures
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.
Expat Housing in Nairobi
When moving to Nairobi, expatriates often do not know where to start looking for housing. Nairobi is a sprawling city, and it does not always have the best reputation — the nickname “Nairobbery” from the 1990s comes to mind. As a rule of thumb, affluent residential areas are more likely to be found in the western part of the city.
In the east, you’ll mostly find Nairobi’s industrial sites or lower-income residential areas like Eastleigh. Locals have d믭 the latter “Little Mogadishu”, due to the many Somali migrants and refugees among its residents. However, even upscale neighborhoods may be close to densely populated slums, where many people subsist on an income of a dollar per day.
Unfortunately, it’s beyond the scope of this guide to cover all Nairobi neighborhoods where expats decide to settle. But we will introduce some of the best-known below.
Exclusive Neighborhoods in Nairobi
Karen and Langata
If you have a generous salary or a huge housing allowance, you might opt for Nairobi’s most exclusive areas. The neighborhoods of Karen and Langata, southwest of central Nairobi, have some high-class housing developments. Together, the two residential districts are simply known as “Karengata”, offering plenty of amenities to well-to-do Kenyans and expatriates.
Karen boasts a private hospital, several international schools, an upmarket shopping center, a golf club, and close proximity to the beautiful Ngong Hills. However, the area is somewhat isolated. Owning a car is essential for Karen residents. Langata, east of Karen, is slightly closer to the city center. This does not mean it’s full of urban hustle-bustle, though. On the contrary, it houses Nairobi’s popular Giraffe Centre, the Bomas of Kenya tourist village, and the entrance to the impressive Nairobi National Park.
Gigiri and Muthaiga
The suburb of Gigiri is a particular favorite among the staff members of various embassies and UN offices. It includes the United Nations Complex, as well as the diplomatic missions of Canada and the United States. The latter was built after the devastating Al-Q껚 attack on the old US embassy in 1998. Owing to the heavy expat presence, several international schools and large shopping malls are within easy reach for those living in Gigiri.
Muthaiga may be even more fashionable than Gigiri or “Karengata” — it’s called the “Beverly Hills of Nairobi” for a reason. The home of well-heeled Kenyans, diplomats, and other expats is also home to two high-end country clubs. Expats with kids appreciate easy access to some international schools (especially the German School of Nairobi) and Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital.
Runda and Ridgeways
If you prefer self-contained neighborhoods, perhaps with a quasi-rural flair, you should give Runda or Ridgeways a try. The former includes the Runda Estate, Kenya’s largest gated community, with top-notch security and a very active residents’ association.
Ridgeways, on the other hand, is situated mostly within the Karura Forest. Former home of Kenya’s colonial elite, it now houses wealthy Kenyan residents and well-paid diplomatic staff. Now as then, its main attraction is the luxurious Windsor Golf Club.
Other Alluring, Yet More Affordable Neighborhoods
Obviously, not everybody can — or wants to — live in Nairobi’s poshest neighborhoods. If you are looking for something comfortable, but slightly more affordable, you should focus your housing search on different residential districts. For instance, Brookside, Kileleshwa, Lavington, and Loresho all provide access to private clinics, smart shopping facilities, and selected international schools.
Those who prefer a busier lifestyle might rather go for neighborhoods like Hurlingham, Kilimani, or parts of Westlands. While the former two are characterized by expat residents and upper-middle-class Kenyans, the latter has traditionally been the heart of Nairobi’s South Asian community. Even Aga Khan IV spent some of his childhood there. Westlands is becoming more and more of a business district, but the parts leading to Spring Valley still enjoy quiet residential streets.
Where to Start with Your Housing Search in Nairobi
If you already have temporary accommodation in Nairobi, you can tap into some local resources while hunting for a permanent home. Don’t forget to check the notice boards at upscale shopping malls like Yaya Centre or Village Market. Even in the internet era, departing expats or Kenyans on the move may advertise their housing there. Furthermore, the Homes Kenya magazine is a lifestyle and property publication targeting well-off customers.
Of course, you can start your housing search in Nairobi online. Well-known real estate agents include:
- Villa Care Kenya
- Property Unit
- Property Link Africa
- Lloyd Masika
- Knight Frank
- Hass Consult
High Rental Costs and Handy Utilities
Unfortunately, housing is among the most expensive items in the expat budget. A townhouse or villa in Nairobi’s exclusive suburbs can easily cost around 150,000 to 350,000 Kenyan shillings per month. Even if your accommodation is less luxurious, you should calculate one third of your budget for housing costs. If your employer doesn’t offer you a housing allowance, it literally pays to renegotiate.
Once you find some offers for rentals in Nairobi, check if utilities and security are already included in the monthly expenses — we go into detail concerning safety and security measures in the last part of this guide. Below, you can find a list of Nairobi’s usual utility providers for water, electricity, etc.:
Safety in Nairobi
Although Nairobi often gets a bad rap for lack of safety, the situation is not as dire as some travel warnings and tourist guides make it seem. Most offenses are property crimes. This does not come as a surprise in a metropolis where the gap between the haves and have-nots is huge. Actually, poorer Kenyans who can’t afford personal security are more likely to fall prey to criminals than those with burglar alarms and their own driver.
However, new expats should take the time to become acquainted with the usual safety tips. Hopefully, the advice won’t make you paranoid, but rather serve as a guide until you have settled in. When you are familiar with your new surroundings and feel more at ease, you can judge for yourself which rules make sense in your specific circumstances.
Personal experiences in Nairobi can be vastly different. Some tourists lose all their cash and credit cards to pickpockets. On the other hand, aid workers visiting Nairobi’s shantytowns report meeting impoverished families who want to treat them to dinner in recompense for the medical care they received. Generally speaking, you are much more likely to meet friendly people in Kenya than get involved in sticky situations.
How to Be Safe in Your Home
- Don’t choose a house in an isolated location.
- Your home shouldn’t look too ostentatious: Lavish wealth on display attracts burglars.
- Hire a reputable security company that provides 24/7 service.
- Your house should have an alarm system, barred windows, sturdy doors, and quality locks.
- One fortified room should serve as a “panic room” for all family members in case of a burglary. The panic button must be located in this room.
- The premises should have good lighting, an intruder alarm, and a locked main gate.
- Even at home, it makes sense to store your valuables and important documents in a safe.
- Take the time to get to know your domestic staff (e.g. your maid, your night guard, and your driver), your neighbors and their staff.
- Don’t just let strangers into your home, and have a protocol for answering phone calls and receiving visitors.
- When you hire domestic help, ask them for references and a copy of their ID. Follow up on their references, if necessary.
- Lay down clear and fair rules of employment at the outset, pay a decent wage, and treat everyone politely.
- If you have to dismiss a staff member for some reason, do it at once and give them an appropriate amount of cash as severance pay. If you part on bad terms, you may consider changing the locks.
How to Be Safe When Out and About
- When you are out and about in Nairobi, keep to the main streets. Don’t go into back alleys, footpaths, or unfamiliar areas — especially not after dark or if you are on your own.
- Avoid shantytowns (unless you are a doctor or aid worker), and don’t linger in the area around bus stations in central Nairobi.
- In general, you should not walk in downtown Nairobi at night.
- Stay alert and act confident, even if you should be lost.
- Avoid beggars, pan-handlers, and street-children, if possible. This may feel particularly heartless, but in many cases, they may not even get to keep the money you give them.
- Don’t carry too much cash, don’t wear expensive jewelry, and leave your passport at home.
- Be aware of your surroundings when withdrawing money from ATMs.
- Check your credit card statements carefully and report suspected fraud at once.
- If you take the car, keep the doors locked, and only lower the window by a couple of inches for some fresh air.
- Install a car alarm.
- Don’t stop on the road (except for an official police roadblock), and don’t give lifts to strangers.
- Ask any person who claims to be a policeman for their official ID.
- Take public transport rather than walk at night or in unfamiliar areas, and opt for a taxi rather than buses or matutus.
What to Do in Case of an Emergency
- If you should ever become the victim of a thief, burglar, or carjacker, don’t resist! Just hand over your valuables instead.
- If you are involved in an accident, call the police immediately and wait until they arrive.
- The general emergency number is 999. Additionally, make sure you also know the number of your nearest police station.
- Register with your embassy as soon as you arrive. The bombing of the US embassy took place over 15 years ago, and the post-electoral violence in 2007 was a shock to a previously stable country. However, the sudden, drastic, and bloody attack by armed Al-Shabaab militia fighters on Westgate Shopping Mall in September 2013 showed that terrorism can take Nairobi by surprise. Please always check with your embassy on the current risk level of terrorist attacks, and don’t forget about the registration. If there is any major incident, the consulate will know you may need their help or can at least contact your loved ones back home.
- Regardless of whether or not you are registered, knowing your embassy’s contact details is highly recommended.
With all that advice, your expat life in Nairobi shouldn’t be too troublesome. If you need information on preparing for your move, especially on visas and permits, check out the guide on moving to Kenya.
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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.