The Unofficial Expatriate Guide To Kenia

You finally got your dream posting to Kenya and you cannot wait to post pictures of your first Safari adventure in the Kenyan savannah. You bought a copy of Obama’s “Dreams of My Father” and finished it on the plane to Nairobi. The excitement as you step off the aircraft onto Kenyan soil is palpable.  You loved “Out Of Africa”, bet on Kenya to win the 3000m steeplechase at every Olympic game and think Lupita Nyong’o is absolutely gorgeous. You can feel the connection and cannot wait to visit the Maasai Mara to meet a real moran and the Kibera slums.

The country seems contradictory. The sunrises are magical and nightfall is dangerous. Nairobi resembles a jail city and there are the layers of barricades in homes.  Everywhere you drive or walk to, there will be someone opening a thick metallic gate, ready to hand you a plastic card. Some of the first Kenyans you will get to know are watchmen who can be exceedingly polite. Followed by taxi drivers who greet all foreigners the same. “Hallo! Taxi!”.

Nairobi is a city of 4 million and a case study in disparity. From the filthy rich, hoping to Naivasha for a lake side lunch in a chopper to the dirt poor, living in urban squalor and affording a smile, on less than a dollar a day.

They are some early stereotype that you have to let slide. All white people are called Mzungu or whites. South East Asians from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand will arouse puzzled faces, “You are Chinese or Japanese or both?” Indians from India will have to get comfortable getting called “Asians”. African American will be referred to as blacks by black Kenyans. Africans from other parts of the continent will have a hard time convincing everyone that they really cannot speak Kiswahili.

The label expats must be seen as compliment. In other parts of the world, expats are known as economic migrants which does not should as posh. Generally what they mean is white, overpaid, worker from Western Europe, North America or Australia, posted in Kenya to either help eradicate poverty, cure disease or provide clean and safe drinking water.

People will assume that you live in one of Nairobi’s upper middle class gated communities, drive a compact SUV, own a shaggy dog and jog early Saturday mornings at Karura forest. These are all indicators of someone likely to pay twice as much for handicrafts made by marginalized women’s groups.

Kenyans have their peculiarities. Kenya may be the factory of world record athletic champions but Kenyans prefer a boring, early season, English Premier League match to watching a man running 42kms in just over 2 hours.  They are addicted to football and probably too emotionally invested in European club title wins. The national side, Harambee Stars’ dismal record is largely responsible for this fixation with football made in Europe.

Kenyans like gather around small tables, in crowded spaces drinking beer or cold sodas and eating roast meat. The beer is served warm and the meat with all bones intact. They spend all their time talking about their frustrating politicians and gossip about who is making money.


Kenyans love to speak English and will insist on speaking it well. At the coast it is more European. Italians and Germans will find that they do not have to speak in a foreign language in some parts of the North coast.

“Jambo bwana! Hakuna matata!” is Lion King Swahili. No one actually speaks like that.

If you are from Europe, it helps to have an opinion about current affairs happening in your country like Brexit.

Nairobi is not Kenya and so enjoy the conveniences and range of options when within it. You can get anything you want and most places have steady wifi.  Outside, Nairobi your options are limited to a mall with a Nakumatt supermarket offering. Wifi will be dicey and the local telco will have an expensive option that is all hat and no cattle.

Kenyan Coffee is excellent and well-priced. The locals fill up coffee shops to drink everything but coffee. You won’t get a good cappuccino outside of the Nairobi. In the smaller towns, a mall is your best bet. They might just have a Java coffeehouse.

“Jambo bwana! Hakuna matata!” is Lion King Swahili. No one actually speaks like that.

Try not to be cliché in your quest to make a difference. Kenyans have been trying for decades but their politicians ensure that citizens’ efforts do not count. Be warned that Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) react harshly to poverty profiling.  Hollywood celebrities visiting slums for photo ops have rubbed many the wrong way.  Whatever you do, do not pick a twitter beef with KOT. It never ends well.

You will know you have been in Kenya too long, when you turn native and become a ‘sponsor’ who singularly supports a beautiful young Kenyan girl with potential and her entire extended family of 40.

Or alternatively, move into a manyatta on the fringes of the Mara to be shack up with your noble dreadlocked warrior.

Nonetheless, Kenya is still one of the greatest countries to live as a Caucasian expat in between the General Elections. It is the kind of comfort zone that grows on you.




Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. Fakit Bhudat

    You forgot the climate !!
    What do you like in Nairobi ? The climate, the climate and the climate

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