When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable. — Clifton Fadiman
This entry is dedicated to all my friends who studied International Development with me, have been, are or will be expats. And all my other fans who still read my blog entries even when it is not really that relevant to them .
The number of expats in Kenya keeps rising. However, I see expats making the same mistakes year in year out. To try and assist them, I recently conducted an independent research, interviewing both locals and expats in Nairobi. Here are some dos and don’ts suggested by both groups. And a few additions of my own since I consider myself an expat. I also trained a number of expat groups when I lived in the US. These dos and don’ts will help expats be more productive, have a better time, and better relationships with locals. There were more don’ts than dos. Don’t ask me why.
1. Research extensively about the country you are going to. The culture, tax laws, property markets and day-to-day expenses. These vary from country to country. Even if you are returning to a country that you have lived in before, tax laws change over time.
2.Get adequately trained. Typical programs for the expat and his/her family should include:
•cross cultural training •language training •documentary and practical information on the new location • sensitivity training • arrival orientation • field trips where possible
3. Get a repatriation program. You may be going to a volatile location. Ensure that the company/organization sending you there are ready and able to repatriate you if need be.
4. Learn the language: If you did not receive language training as suggested above, try to learn even if it is just a few basic phrases. Most locals agreed that they were warmer to foreigners who could say Habari, or any other form of greeting.
5. Bring the best from your country, especially technology, company culture and management integrity.
6. Try local foods. You might get a case of food poisoning once in a while, but chances are that the food is clean, and yummy. Ok. Strike the food poisoning part.
7. Make friends with locals. Most expats just hang out with other expats. Then they just look like an unapproachable sorority. I am not saying that you shouldn’t hang out with your fellow expats. Yes, celebrate 4th of July and Thanksgiving together, but also celebrate Jamhuri or Madaraka day with Kenyans.
8. Communicate with people back home often. Call your people. Share success stories. When you go back, the gap will not be so big. You will adapt more easily than if you were not communicating.
1. Don’t complain throughout about everything! The queue is so long, it’s too hot, too humid, too cold, this necklace is too expensive, this street is too dirty. Yes, Nairobi’s traffic is too crazy even for me as a local. But why whine about it all the time? It is not going to improve just because you did.
2. Don’t try to fix everything. Yes, you came here to work for human rights, but you can’t fix all the problems. The politicians are crooked, the pot holes on the roads need to be filled, there is a cholera outbreak at the refugee camp, matatu drivers are so reckless (my greatest pet peeve), the country has so many problems….You can only do so much. Unless you are super man (who has a kryptonite by the way), you will experience a bad case of burn out and you will be back to your country before you finish your task.
3. Don’t be a know it all. One of the annoying things expats do is to act like they know everything about a country after a year or two. Even if you have been there for ten years, there is always something new to discover. When there is a new expat, share the knowledge, but let them learn some things on their own. Don’t deny them the joy of discovering things for themselves.
4. Related to 3 above. Don’t insist that your way is the best way. Yes, you are trained as a Development Specialist and you have studied that country extensively. You have a Master’s in Project Management, and those on the ground have no idea what a Log Frame is, but they have tested many development strategies. They know what best practices are for that community project. Consult them and see if your ideas and theirs can be used together. If you insist on ‘your way’ all the time, you will be frustrated throughout and you won’t enjoy your work.
5. Don’t ship everything from your home country. You might be surprised to find your brand of body lotion in Nairobi, but if you cannot find it, ask for recommendations on local brands.
6. Related to 5. Above: Don’t shop at expat stores throughout. Their prices will be up the roof. In Kenya, you can find almost all the items you need at the local supermarkets such as Nakumatt and Uchumi. For veggies, go to the local farmer’s markets. You will find your organic tomatoes for cheaper.
7. Don’t exaggerate! E.g. when I worked in Dadaab refugee camp in 2005, my project provided housing for half a million refugees. (That number is too high. The number of refugees was about 200,000 then). Most expats do amazing work in harsh locations. You do not need to boast or exaggerate for people to see you are doing significant work.
8. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Yes, we know you are on a serious mission. But if you don’t laugh about the language blunders e.g. the time when you asked the waiter for mavi , (excrement) instead of Maji (water), then you will not last long.
9. Don’t leave the country for vacation all the time. Why don’t you explore the country? Visit the touristy areas. If in Kenya, go for a safari. Go to the Maasai Mara; visit the coastal towns like Malindi, Mombasa, Lamu; or climb Mt. Kenya.
10. Don’t judge other expats. You may not approve their choice to wear a hijab, or eat nyama choma, but let them be.
11. Related to 10. above. Don’t expect your spouse and children or even other expats to adapt to the new location in the same pace. Your wife may not be able to learn Swahili as fast as you and your son may not be ready to wear local garb yet. Give them time, be patient.
12. You can watch CNN, BBC, or DW news, read the NY times online but don’t ignore the local press. Buy the local newspaper. Watch the local news. Visit a local theatre and watch a pantomime.
13. Related to 12 above. Don’t be addicted to social media. Don’t be on facebook, twitter throughout. Turn them off and go outside! There is a beautiful coffee shop that you won’t discover if you are on facebook.
14. Don’t live in fear. Oh my goodness, I just saw a mosquito—I will get malaria. OMG! Did you hear there was a bombing in Kenya? Sudan is next to Kenya so it’s next. I can’t use the bus. The general elections are around the corner—let’s get out of here! Things might become volatile. Ok. Some caution is important but don’t let fear rule you.