I was interviewed over the phone some years ago by Radio Westcountry – or something along those lines. As I stood there, shut into the smallest room in the house (this is literally a cupboard and was in the days when land-telephone lines worked) on a hot day with the door shut – obviously in Kenya – slightly concerned that the phone line would inexplicably cut off, or that my kids would burst in through the door and demand attention or else start screaming right outside the door – and aware that my parents in Wiltshire were listening in to my conversation with the radio host, who was supposed to be asking about post-election violence; when apropos of nothing he said;
“So what’s expat life in Kenya like then? Is it still all jumping into bed with each other?”
I let out a prudish shriek and “No!” I exclaimed. “Not at all!”
The line was crackly. I hope I made my point. To be honest, it sounded weak.
Let me explain. An expat wife in Africa or ‘trailing spouse’ has many freedoms. Freedom from the repetitiveness of childcare, housework etc. due to a (possibly fading?) tradition here of employing armies of domestic staff – but to be honest, there’s not much independence. You can’t just stride off for a walk. People live behind gates and walls – you most commonly see expat wives behind the wheel of their cars dashing from A-to-B with no time to stop and chat in between. There really isn’t much compulsion to walk unless you pre-plan; ie. drive to some gated community and take a walk or jog in a ‘secure’ environment. There is no public transport to speak of so there’s no jumping on trains or buses to ‘go and see’ stuff like museums, interesting exhibitions, quaint towns or parks (most of those you have to visit by car and pay entry) and obviously there are no old friends or relatives to drop in on or visit.
Sadly, nights out come with a security warning as well. Make no mistake, this doesn’t stop people from going to find the nearest party and there’s plenty of night life on offer – it can be lots of fun – but if you are driving home as a woman alone – your heart will definitely be in your mouth until you are safely tucked in your bed – and even then you tend to sleep with one ear open in Nairobi.
So, as an expat wife – at some stage you need to find yourself a purpose.
1. ‘Get a job’ would be the most common assumption to make, in order to fill that void. Why not just get a job? Well, the pay is often lower than you might expect and the lifestyle more expensive (it’s common to assume that life in East Africa must be ‘cheap’, but it’s not) and before you do anything – you will need a work permit. Work permits take a good few months to arrange and are by no means guaranteed. The Government reserves the right to refuse an application if they feel that someone local can do the same job just as well – and this stamp in your passport will set you back a good few thousand pounds for a 2 year period only – not a figure to be sniffed at if you plan to work part-time.
2. Charity work – could be another ‘purpose’ – but hang on, you need a permit to do this too and don’t make the mistake of arriving here thinking that you can necessarily change, ‘save’ or improve things in ‘Africa’. This path is never for the fainthearted and for some, has been not only thankless but literally soul destroying. Read more here: Friends who tried setting up an orphanage
The orphanage/school that was set up in Kibera in partnership with my kids’ school, also ended in a story that left a very nasty taste in the mouth. There are lots of small ways that you can help as an expat wife – but don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that you can wave a magic wand and ‘fix’ things – this is patronising and fairly divorced from the reality of life here. (wow – I am going to get crucified for that one).
I believe that if you have any qualifications or work experience that you can pass on through working to the very best of your ability with a local team surrounding you (as in, employed work) – then this a good idea.
1. You will learn so much yourself in a liberated environment where you are free to try new things
2. You will see the fruits of your labour very quickly because of the freedoms here to try something new. Input = Output. Why not raise the bar by doing your very best. The best advice I ever had? Never patronise or dumb down. That’s a highly naive mistake to make.
3. Oh, then there are the bed-hoppers. Not really – but if you felt like it, then you could live an entirely celebrity lifestyle and delegate the entire running of your family life out to third parties. There are a very select few who seem to do this (mainly trust-fund-afarians). By delegating out your wifely duties you can keep your days entirely free to get up to whatever mischief you want. A nanny could look after your kids while you either work or just play golf. Some people even have ‘night’ nannies for babies so that someone else can deal with those troublesome broken nights. A driver could take your kids to school, collect them and even pick up any grocery shopping for you. You might want to employ a cook to prepare all of your meals. This is all in addition to the full time cleaner, gardener and night watchman that you will doubtless employ. It’s a cultural thing because most middle class Kenyans employ domestic staff or have unpaid family members working in their households. Just be aware that there is no 999/911 number to call in an emergency situation and so there’s a fairly hefty level of trust involved here. Enough said.
4. You make yourself into the most informed tour/travel guide that there is and give a packed itinerary of visiting friends and family the most fabulous holidays available, by stocking up on insider knowledge and stretching budgets to ‘make the most of‘ the time you are here. This strategy works best for transient families who plan to stay no longer than two or three years (since this is unsustainable).
5. Finally, you could just drink a lot of cappuccinos, get furiously fit at the gym, perhaps join a school parents association, take an interest in wildlife conservation and the rest of the time, watch your nails grow.
Most of us have to find a balance.