Moving to Africa was one of the best – and hardest – decisions of my life. If you have the opportunity – or even just the desire – to live and work in Africa, do it! I lived in Nairobi, Kenya for three years – and I don’t regret a minute of it. Here are seven mistakes to avoid when you’re moving to Africa, three valuable tips from expats living overseas, and a list of things to take with you.
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 three-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 15 years ago won’t be the same as moving to South Africa or the Congo today.
10 Things I Learned While Living in Kenya, Africa
If you have the chance to move to Africa, do it. At the end of your life you’ll regret what you didn’t do more than you’ll regret what you did do. 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.
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. Fear will control you – and ruin your experience – if you let it
Every morning in Africa, a Gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a Lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest Gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Lion or a Gazelle… when the sun comes up, you’d better be running. Don’t be afraid. Just keep running.
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 such as the baboons on the side of the road in the Rift Valley steal my enjoyment of the experience. I worried about my safety and didn’t have faith in my travels, or even in God. If you’re moving to Africa, don’t let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around! Be cautious and courageous.
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.
Sending that box of stuff was extremely expensive, and it 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.
The most important thing you can take if you’re moving to Africa is good health! That includes your guts. Read Should You Take the Dukoral Vaccine to Prevent Traveler’s Diarrhea?
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.
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.
If you’re prone to homesickness, read Are You Traveling Alone and Feeling Homesick?
7. Get involved in African culture, events, experiences
When 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
“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.
If you have a soft spot in your heart for animals, you’ll be sad when you see some of the dogs and cats when you’re living in Africa. Read How I Coped With Seeing Starving Dogs in Nepal.
Essential 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.
- Cocoon Silk MummyLiner – “If you are planning to stay in India [or Africa] for long, particularly if you are working or volunteering, the Cocoon Silk MummyLiner can come in handy,” says Shalu Sharma, author of Essential India Travel Guide: Travel Tips And Practical Information. “Made of silk, it’s ideal for hot countries because it allows one to feel cool in the hot summer and is warm in the cold winters. It’s hand washable, and can be washed and dried easily.”
- The SwissGear USB ScanSmart Laptop Backpack – abrasion-resistant, travel-friendly laptop backpack with a lock for safaris and travel within Africa. Don’t wait until you move there to discover how Africa can be rough on your clothes, housewares, and equipment. The dirt and heat is brutal on your travel gear, backpacks, even cloth grocery bags. You can carry your laptop in this backpack, plus a pile of other things you want to take when you move to Africa.
- Hand Cranking Solar Powered Rechargeable Flashlight Emergency LED Flashlight – The power goes out all the time in Africa – even in big cities like Nairobi and Cape Town. A wind-up flashlight (which is called a torch in Africa, Britain, and India) works best. You won’t have to worry about buying or charging batteries. Many wind-up flashlights LED lights and even a radio. Bonus! You can listen to English radio programs and get the latest updates on the power.
- Africa Travel Plug Adapter (Type M) – 3 Pack [Grounded & Universal] – for your phone, laptop, tablet, kindle, and camera. Keep your electronics as fully charged as possible at all times, because you just never know when you’ll lose power. You may have a generator but they run on petrol, and petrol doesn’t last forever.
- SteriPen Adventurer Opti Water Purifier – for when you can’t boil or filter water. I took iodine tablets when I went to Nepal last month, but they tasted like iodine.
- Adventure Medical Kits World Travel First Aid Medical Supply Kit because you just never know when those unexpected lumps and bumps will hit you. This isn’t something you need for Africa, it’s for your own home, too!
What have I missed? A lot, I bet :-) I’m trying not to write a book, but there are lots of things you need to know before you move to Africa.
A Few Random Packing and Travel Tips
These Africa travel tips are focused on Kenya but apply to all parts of Africa. They’re helpful good for women over 30 traveling solo; that’s who I was when I lived in Nairobi. I traveled to South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Zanzibar. Here’s what I learned…
1. Take bug, citrus, or lavender spray for bedbugs and other insects. I don’t think Africa is any worse or better than other countries for bedbugs. But, no matter where I travel, I always take insect repellant. Before bed, I spritz or dab it on me or the sheets (or both, depending on the room I’m sleeping in). If you’re touring Africa and beyond take bug spray, and be generous with it.
2. Research the current malaria concerns in places like Nairobi. When I lived in Nairobi, there wasn’t a problem with malaria because the city was at a high altitude (mosquitoes don’t survive at that altitude, if I recall correctly). But, traveling to other parts of Kenya may be riskier – it’s good to check with your consulate or travel clinic before you go. And be prepared for conflicting evidence! When I went to Costa Rica last month, some doctors advised malaria precautions, and yet few of our fellow travelers did. If you’re packing for and traveling to Africa, do your health research at least three months in advance of your trip, as some meds require multiple dosages and/or time to kick in.
3. Seriously consider Swahili lessons with Africans. The Kenyans I met and worked with (I was a teacher at the Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi) were incredibly friendly. I wished I learned Swahili before I went there – and I unfortunately never took the time to learn more than the basics when I live there. This is a great travel tip, no matter where you go: learn a bit of the language, so you can reach out to people in their own words. Even if you make mistakes and butcher your accents or grammar, you’ll still build good relationships.
4. Learn what you can about kidnapping and assaults. As far as I can recall, assaults were rare, partly because of the harsh penalties (I know of one Kenyan man who was beaten by other Kenyans who found out that he attacked a girl). A basic travel tip for Africa is to wear clothes that aren’t revealing, leave your jewelry at home, and maintain a friendly but aloof manner. Regarding kidnapping – it’s not likely you’ll be grabbed in broad daylight, especially if you’re with other people.
5. Avoiding carjackings and muggings. This was no doubt the worst part of living in Africa. As a general rule, it was too dangerous to drive around after dark (6 pm!) – but I did occasionally. When I drove during the day, I made sure that my windows were rolled up and all my doors were locked – even the hatchback. I was never mugged, carjacked, or hurt…but I did have friends who were. When you’re traveling in Kenya, East Africa — or anywhere — don’t carry all your money or important documents with you when you’re exploring. Use a hotel safe.
But, don’t let the crimes rates in Nairobi scare you! Before I moved to Kenya, I’d read all the horrible crime stories – and yet in three years, I never experienced a single bad moment. And I even camped in the wilds of Kenya with my students three times, camped with some of my colleagues in different parts of the country, and went on four day bicycle tour through the Rift Valley. I ran through my neighborhood four times a week — the Kenyans stared at me with their jaws dropped — but no one every hurt me. All my African experiences were exciting and fulfilling … and safe.
If you’re nervous, read 4 Ways to Calm Travel Anxiety and Fear. And feel free to share your thoughts – big and little – below.
Are you moving to Africa? Use your head and watch your back (like you would anywhere in the world). Travel in faith, be transformed, and enjoy your adventure!