American Expat Living in Kenya - Interview with Heidi

Published: 28 May at 9 AM
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Filed: Interviews,Kenya
Heidi has lived in several different places in her twenty-seven years: Georgia, Florida, multiple cities in Minnesota, and now Kenya. The constant moving has encouraged her itch to travel and better understand the world.

When Heidi was a child, she wrote plays and short stories and made her stuffed animals (or her little brother) act them out. This was only the beginning of a lifelong love of storytelling. In university, she studied creative writing but never expected that she would become a missionary. Thanks to On-Field Media, there was a specialized slot on the mission field for both her and her videographer husband.

She is most inspired to write when she’s walking through the north woods of Minnesota, during those rare quiet moments in Nairobi when the breeze rustles the palm fronds, and, most commonly, in those last few minutes before sleep takes her. Heidi's expat blog is called Thulins in Africa (see listing here)

Family photo with our dog, Ginger
Family photo with our dog, Ginger

Here's the interview with Heidi...

Where are you originally from?
Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A.

In which country and city are you living now?
Nairobi, Kenya

How long have you lived in Kenya and how long are you planning to stay?
I've lived here for a year and a half, and I currently don't see myself leaving this place anytime soon.

A week's worth of food
A week's worth of food
Why did you move to Kenya and what do you do?
My husband and I are missionaries with Africa Inland Mission. We work with their media team, and alongside other talented photographers, videographers, writers, and web designers, we are dedicated to capturing missionary stories and using them to enhance project awareness, prayer support, and partnership development.

Did you bring family with you?
Yes, my husband, Josh.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
Some days, it was really hard, especially during the first three months when we were searching for a car. It was the middle of a Kenyan summer, when the equatorial sun is at its hottest, and our Minnesota skin had not yet adjusted to the sun's strength. For those three months, we walked or rode matatus (harrowing public transportation vans) the six miles to our office. White people don't normally walk down the main road, so we were always noticed, and my introverted self grew more anxious with each passing day.

After a long roller-coaster journey to the vehicle we eventually purchased, things seemed to become much easier. We could go to the grocery store and buy Oreos whenever we wanted. Heck, we could go to the movie theater! And it was the little American things thrown into this new Kenyan life that made the transition much easier.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
We moved to Nairobi thinking that it would be incredibly easy to meet and befriend Kenyans, because we had learned that, within an African worldview, community is everything and everyone is very friendly and open. People will stop by to visit you at all hours of the day, without notice, and that is completely acceptable.

We quickly learned, however, that life in a capitol city is very different from life in a village. Here, everyone lives behind tall cement walls, usually with barbed wire on top, which makes it a bit more intimidating to meet your neighbors. And we realized that our neighbors, who are also middle-class workers, are just as busy as we are, and when they come home, they'd rather eat a quiet dinner and spend time with their family.

So far, the majority of the people we know are expats from our own organization or who attend our church. Even though we come from different countries, we have a very significant thing in common: we all left our comfort zones to come here. It creates almost instantaneous bonding, and I have a feeling that some of the friendships I'm making with fellow expats might become my strongest relationships ever.

Nairobi National Park
Nairobi National Park
What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
We absolutely love Nairobi National Park. It's a marvelously strange juxtaposition to be driving through a Kenyan grassland with giraffes and zebra surrounding you and then to look northward and see the skyscrapers of the city on the horizon. The park is a wonderful escape from the noise and traffic. And it's a great place to practice driving on the opposite side of the car!

What do you enjoy most about living in Kenya?
The weather. Coming from Minnesota, where the weather can fluctuate by 40 degrees from day to day, it's a treat to live somewhere that has consistent, fairly predictable weather. It's either sunny and hot (but not too hot) or rainy and chilly. And the lack of humidity makes Nairobi nearly perfect!

Another thing I enjoy is the little shopping area right outside our gate. Yes, there is trash all over the ground, stray puppies wandering around, and rouge busses weaving through the pedestrians, but the place is alive and incredibly convenient. There's a hardware shop, a butcher, a milk parlor, a bread maker, several vegetable stands, a chemist (pharmacy), and a little convenience store. We can buy almost everything we need right there outside our house, and at a great price!

How does the cost of living in Kenya compare to home?
In some ways, cost of living is much lower. Most of our groceries we purchase from vendors along the street near our house, and those prices are astonishingly low, especially any of the produce. But in other ways, this city can be quite expensive. We've found furniture, fabrics, and vehicles to cost much more money than we expected.

A tourist shot on the equator
A tourist shot on the equator
What negatives, if any, are there to living in Kenya?
TRAFFIC! Nairobi has some of the worst traffic in the world (I've seen all sorts of statistics about it), and if anything in this city gives me an ulcer, it will be the driving. There are traffic laws, but there are also a lot of unspoken traffic guidelines, and it took us awhile to figure them out. Having conversations with the people stuck in traffic next to you can reveal a lot of things. Adding to the complications are the pedestrians who don't always understand how quickly a car can stop or swerve. Some days, we just have to laugh about the road circus. I have a strange inkling that if we move back to the States, I will find driving to work really boring.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving to Kenya, what would it be?
Come with a learner's attitude and leave your pride at home. Asking questions about this place and figuring out how you can adapt to the culture are some of the quickest ways to gain respect with the locals. Whenever I tell a Kenyan lady that I enjoy cooking and eating sukumawiki and ugali (a staple food here), her face lights up and she wants to learn more about me. Adaptation is a fast way to make new friends, because when they see that you are interested in them, they become interested in you.

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
At the beginning, the only person I knew in Kenya was the person who traveled here with me, my husband. It's hard to be uprooted from your friends, your family, your work, your church. Everything. It's also disorienting to have no landmarks or street signs that look familiar. We started our lives over from scratch; we came here with only ten suitcases!

In a way, it's a privilege to have the opportunity to undergo a complete restart. It helps you figure out your priorities. But, I can't say that the process was always fun. In fact, it was very, very hard. How do you furnish your house when you don't know where to buy furniture? How do you navigate the negotiating world when you have no idea how much money something should cost (or when you don't quite understand the currency yet)? How do you make friends when you don't understand Swahili?

When you finally return home, how do you think you'll cope with repatriation?

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
  1. Learn the local language. Nothing makes you feel more comfortable than knowing how to effectively communicate with those around you.
  2. Be prepared for hardship. Moving to a place like Kenya from a place like the United States is not an easy thing. It will take a lot out of you and stretch you to the brink.
  3. Be prepared to be changed.
  4. Be diligent in your communications to your family and friends back home. Yes, your life might be incredibly busy and hard for them to understand, but staying connected to those who love you is crucial to how well you survive culture shock. And including them in your new adventures and everyday grind let's them know that they are still important to you.
  5. Get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Is there a strange local dish sitting in front of you? Eat it. Are you considered the guest of honor and they want you to give a speech? Say something. All of these things are priceless opportunities to make new friends and engage with the culture.
Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
My expat blog is my way to bring other people along with me on my journey. As I discover new things, I want people back home (and around the world) to understand what I've learned. I hope that my writings and my experiences will help expand other people's worldview and give them new ways to look at their lives and home countries.

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
Our contact information is on the "About" section of our blog.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingHeidi is an American expat living in Kenya. Blog description: The adventures (and the ordinary) of an American writer in Nairobi.
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