10 Things You Need to Know About Moving to Africa

Yes, you should move to Africa! I lived in Nairobi, Kenya for 3 years – and I don’t regret a minute of it. Here are 7 mistakes to avoid when you’re moving to Africa, 3 tips from expats living overseas, and a list of things to take to the African continent.

Moving to Africa was the biggest adventure of my life. It wasn’t easy, though. Living in Kenya was difficult in many ways and I often wanted to go home. I’d signed a 3-year teaching contract at a school for missionaries’ and ex-pats kids in Nairobi, and I could’ve broken the contract if I needed to…but I stayed.

I don’t regret living in Africa but I found it emotionally, physically and socially difficult. I share a few insight below; my thoughts might help you decide if you should move to Africa and how to prepare for life overseas. Feel free to comment if you have any questions about or tips for moving to Africa. And, you’ll see from the comments section that many readers disagree with the way I portray life in Africa! That’s okay. I don’t mind 🙂 Remember that this is just my own personal experience, and that Africa is a huge continent. My experience of life in Nairobi, Kenya 14 years ago won’t be the same as moving to South Africa or the Congo today.

I taught at an American school in Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa for three years. I loved it and hated it; it was both the best and worst time of my life. I wish I could do it over, and I never want to move to Africa again! That’s how moving to Africa was for me, but it’ll be different for you.

Some people move to Africa and never move back.

If you’re a Christian and aren’t sure about moving overseas, consider a short-term mission trip! I wrote a little blog post about my experiences on a medical missionary trip to Haiti a couple years ago: What Introverts Need to Know About Going on Missions Trips.

10 Things I Learned While Living in Kenya, Africa

Here are the mistakes I made while living in Kenya, East Africa. I taught at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi for three years, and didn’t get the most out of my life in Africa. I was scared most of the time, which wasn’t the best way to live.

1. Don’t allow fear to rule your life in Africa

10 Things You Need to Know About Moving to Africa
Living in Kenya

When I moved to Africa, Nairobi was one of the world’s most dangerous cities. I was scared to leave the school’s protected compound after dark, scared to spend a lot of time downtown Nairobi, and scared to cycle the Rift Valley. I did it, though! I biked up and down the Rift, camped in Kenya, and ate lunch downtown Nairobi. But, I didn’t let myself loosen up and enjoy it. I allowed my fear of things like the baboons on the side of the road up and down the Rift Valley steal my enjoyment of the experience. I worried about my safety and didn’t let God lead the way. If you’re moving to Africa, don’t let fear taint your adventures! Be cautious, but don’t let fear swing you round.

2. Don’t bring all the “comforts of home” with you

Before I left Canada, I sent myself two boxes of stuff to my new home in Africa. I’d heard that most of my favorite things wouldn’t be available (eg, Crest toothpaste, Twizzlers, Tylenol, etc). So, I packed up a couple boxes of my favorite stuff and sent it to Nairobi, ahead of me. This was incredibly expensive, and my stuff didn’t get to Africa until three months after I’d settled in. I was so disappointed when I opened my boxes of home goodies! I had already started using the African or European version of what I sent myself, and I had no use for anything in the boxes. If you’re moving to Africa, I encourage you to live like the locals. Use local toothpaste, eat local sweets, and tend your headaches the local way.

3. Carefully research what you should take when you move to Africa

At the end of this article you’ll find a list of things to pack for people moving to Africa. What you take depends on where you’re moving (eg, Cape Town versus Sudan), your health (do you need prescription meds, are you on a special diet?), and your lifestyle (eg, if you love to read, get a Kindle or digital reader!). What you should take really depends on you, but there are some things we all need. See the “things to take to Africa” list below.

4. Don’t put barriers between you and the people of Africa

I regret saying that I didn’t make African friends. I spent time with my fellow teachers and my Bible Study group, but that was it. I didn’t make expat friends, Kenyan friends, or African friends. I isolated myself for several reasons, and didn’t connect with African people on a deep level. I also lived on the school’s private, protected compound, which didn’t encourage me to meet people outside of work.

If you’re moving to anywhere in Africa, go out of your way to make African friends. Try not to isolate yourself in your own little American, Canadian, or home-culture bubble.

Are you looking for a job? Read How to Find Work in South Africa – Tips for Ex-Pats.

5. Learn Swahili, Zulu, Amharic – the language of your African country

I didn’t learn any Swahili when I was living in Africa, and I regret it now. I would’ve liked to but I just didn’t have the emotional, physical or intellectual energy to try to learn a new language. If I were to relocate to Kenya again, I’d try to learn at least a little Swahili before actually moving.

6. Share your experience of living in Africa

I never wrote online about what it was like to move to and live in Kenya. I wasn’t a blogger then (like I am now). I wrote in my private journals, but I didn’t share my experience moving to and living in Kenya. I regret that, now! If you’re moving to Africa, consider blogging about your experiences. Writing is a great way to sort through your thoughts, express your emotions, and share what it’s like to live in Africa.

Are you considering a volunteer position in Africa? Read Volunteer Work in India – How to Make It Amazing. I know Africa and India aren’t the same place, but my ideas will work in both places 🙂

7. Get involved in African culture, events, experiences

moving to kenya africaWhen I lived in Kenya, I didn’t own or lease a car. The school I taught at (Rosslyn Academy) loaned cars to teachers and staff, so I didn’t feel the need to buy my own car.

In hindsight, not buying a vehicle was a mistake because it limited my activities and excursions. I didn’t venture far off campus, and I missed alot of Nairobi life! But, on the bright side, I saved a lot of money. Cars were expensive in Africa, and I was living on a poor teacher’s salary.

If you want to get the most out of your African life, find ways to be mobile and independent. Don’t restrict yourself to a small, safe life.

8. Travel around Africa during your work or school breaks

Instead of deeply exploring other African countries, I went home to Canada every summer. Now I believe that if I’m living overseas then I should immerse myself fully in the country, culture, climate. I wouldn’t go home when I had time off from work or school (although friends and family back home really wanted to see me). Actually, looking back I remember that I really needed to see them — my family, friends, and home country of Canada in the summers. So, perhaps going back home isn’t a mistake to avoid when you’re moving to Africa…but it’s valuable and good to explore the African continent while you’re there.

3 Tips for Moving to Africa

The following three tips are from expats’ blogs about moving to Africa…

1. Talk to expats about moving to Africa

“South Africa generally, and Joburg, particularly, often times take a big hit from the press and those who have chosen to leave. Surely there are issues in South Africa, but there are many expats living here – by choice (myself one of them) – who are leading meaningful and interesting lives. I would really urge you to speak to as many people as possible, but to concentrate on those who currently live where you are considering living. This is not to say that people who have chosen to leave South Africa have not had valid reasons for doing so. But many have chosen to continue living in South Africa, and some are now returning after years of living abroad. Those reasons are also worth listening to. This is a very profound and intense society on the move. Remember that no place is without difficulty, it may just come in a different package.” – from 10 Tips for Living in South Africa.

2. Bring print copies of pictures with you to Africa

Tips for Moving to Africa kenya nairobi
Blossy – Moving to Africa

“Yes, like actual physical prints of 4×6 pictures. In Nigeria (and I’ve heard this is the case in other African countries) people love seeing photos, especially of your family.

It’s nice to have an assortment of 25-30 pictures in a small album to “tell” people about your life back home. It’s also nice to have photos to put around your new living space, even if it’s just arranging a bunch of unframed pictures on a wall in your bedroom. It can make the place feel more homey and bring a bit of comfort when you’re feeling lonely.” – Moving to Africa- General Packing Tips.

3. Prepare for culture shock

“The adjustment [of moving to Africa] was massive, but not in the ways I expected. Squatting over a stinky hole in the ground to do my business? Piece of cake. Sleeping under a mosquito net, purifying my water, and never walking after dark—these are effortless accommodations, the new facts of daily life in Africa. What is hard is the emotional part. I never imagined I’d walk past a little girl asleep in a wheelbarrow and do nothing to help her. What is bad is not that she is poor; it is that she lacks proper nutrition and clean water and a roof over her head. These are the issues my non-profit organization is working to address. Picking her up out of her wheelbarrow won’t give her a better future, but providing women with sustainable incomes will. It still breaks my heart. Life in a developing country requires a thick skin if you are going to be useful, but it is hard to grow it nonetheless.” – from Volunteering and Living in Kenya.

For me, culture shock was one of the hardest parts of moving to and living in Africa. I think that’s partly where my fear came from – which was my first tip or mistake to avoid when you’re moving to Africa. Don’t let fear dictate your choices or the way you live your life!

Things to Take if You’re Moving to Africa

One of my most practical tips for moving to Africa is to get a Ziploc Space Saver Set – 15 Bags. I packed everything I wanted to take in two huge hockey bags, because I didn’t realize how much space you save when you suck the air out of your clothes and other items! This is huge – I could have taken twice as much with me if I had a space saver set.

I welcome your comments about moving to Africa – or avoiding mistakes when moving overseas – below. If you changed your mind about moving to Africa, read What to Pack for a Beach Resort Vacation.

May your move to Africa be blessed, filled with adventure, and more meaningful and fulfilling than you dreamed possible.


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