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Everyday Life

KENYA | Thursday, 10 December 2009 | Views [1237]

So I was thinking, there are all the fun adventures that you have when you are travelling, but what about the mundane, the everyday? The things that become so much habit you don't even think to mention them when people ask you about your experiences? To help my much-beleaguered brain I've divided my life (rather unrealistically) up into sections, and hope that I can throw in some insight into life in Kenya along the way.


Well firstly there's work or more importantly (as they say) the people I work with. I'll start with the interns of which there are a lot, from Martin (a fourth year medical student), to Tina and Malcolm studying nursing (Tina is my boss Victoria's daughter, and Victoria said that she always comes in to volunteer her time during university holidays, and often brings along friends to work with her), to Sarah and Noah studying business administration (Sarah is the Professor's niece), to little old me. We stake out behind whichever computers are free, trying not to get in the way of the researchers and administrative staff (hardly a mean feat given that the whole organisation squeezes into 5 offices and a reception area, tucked away within an unassuming blue-rimmed building in a leafy suburb 10 minutes southwest from the city centre).

The Africa Mental Health Foundation (or AMHF) is an advocacy and research organisation that aims to improve the mental health of poor Kenyans, especially those living in the slums and rural areas. Due to internal migration to the cities, nearly all the psychiatrists are concentrated in the urban areas. Further, a significant proportion of those psychiatrists remain in private practice, providing services to only those who can afford them. This means that the majority of Kenyans are without access to a psychiatrist. In most regions outside the urban areas there are more than 1 million people without a single psychiatrist. AMHF was started in 2004 by Professor Ndetei along with some of his students from The University of Nairobi to attempt to address this issue. Their goal is to work towards the provision of affordable, available, accessible and appropriate mental health services for all Kenyans.

All manner of work gets done here. There is my immediate boss Victoria's PhD research into PTSD in vulnerable children affected by the 2007 post-election violence, as well as PhD projects spearheaded by the three other researchers Dr Khasakhala, Dr Warsame and Dr Solomon. There is also the volumnous work carried out by the organisation's founder, Dr David M. Ndetei in his various capacities as researcher, Founding Director of AMHF and lecturer at the University of Nairobi Department of Psychiatry. Then there are the indispensible additional worker bees, the administrators Grace, Susan and Kyalo, Daniel the accountant, and a host of associate researchers scattered across the globe and who visit the centre semi-regularly to participate in projects. And, of course, us interns, some local and others international like me.


Next, a very important component of my week- drinking with fellow interns and local AIESECers, which mostly occurs at one of three bars within walking distance of the university (sound familiar?). Tuesday's venue is always the CoCo Lounge, where everyone congregates on the small balcony for a weekly catch-up. Showing up there for the first time, I was amazed by how many AIESECers and interns there are in Nairobi! It's a veritable little community, and a handy one if you want to plan joint trips to the coast or other fun misadventures. The other major venue (at which our attendance usually follows the weekly Thursday AIESEC meeting) is called Central, and is interestingly located in the same building as the local police station (thus the name) although this does not seem to affect its patronage one bit. Among the university crowd it's a good place to go and drink KK - Kenya King vodka (or it is gin? the debate continues) - which comes in 260mL bottles generally costing just over A$1, and is a good cheap, quick way to get completely legless. Nights start and finish early on weekdays,as everyone is keen to get home before 8:30pm (the city isn't nicknamed Nairobbery for nothing), however on the weekends everyone lets loose, and (don't worry mum) at the end of it all we all safely catch taxis home. :)


I hate to say it (again don't worry mum) but muggings are all too common in the city and the more prosperous suburbs (where muggers know they stand to collect). However, I have not heard of any intern who has (recently) been harmed and usually if you hand over your wallet/phone you will be let go without any hassle. A friend of mine got his phone taken last weekend, and nearly everyone I speak to who has been here for more than 4 months has lost something (usually their bag), however Nairobians treat this as a part of life, and something that, while frustrating, has to be tolerated along with the traffic and everything else that gives the city "character". Thankfully (touch wood) I'm yet to lose anything, although of course I am by nature a hideously careful, conscientious and responsible human being ;)

Matatus and Buses

So it has to be said, Nairobi is a congested city. With a public transport system that relies completely on buses and matatus, the roads regularly clog and it can take up to an hour for me to get from the city to my host family's house in Westlands, a distance that can be covered in 10 minutes when the roads are quiet. Up until recently most matatus (and some buses) sported impressive decorations showing Snoop Dog and Tupac at their gangster best, Beyonce and Shakira pouting alluringly, and all manner of other rappers and singers splashed across the sides of the vehicles. Unfortunately, since a recent government crackdown on this colourful public service you will be more likely to find matatus displaying signs stating that "Jesus is King" or "God Loves All" while booming gospel music at much the same decibel level as the now retired hip hop, although this is still an interesting sight.

My host family

A major part of my time here has been spent at home, or rather at my Kenyan home away from home - my host family's house. We are a motley crew, comprising of myself, my host mum Victoria, her son David (23y), her adopted daughter Naomi (16y), her sister Anna, Anna's daughter Vivian (10y), and various cousins and friends who regularly stay over and bring a bit of diversity into the household. Victoria works for a large Kenyan development agency, where she is responsible for policy development, giving advice on proposed project direction, and drawing up project proposals. While the NGO industry (like most in Kenya) is plagued by corruption, there is still much amazing work being done by people like Victoria, and it is a great place to learn about the realities of development, in order to build a more realistic picture of "starving Africa" than the images displayed on many a Western television.

My hosts sisters Vivian and Naomi have been heaps of fun to hang out with and it's been lovely to spend time with them, from dancing crazily around the kitchen to perusing the latest fashions at the market to sitting on my bed together reading or chatting. Unlike many children in Kenya (where boarding is common) Vivian and Naomi live at home during term time, and I was amazed when Vivian told me that her school started at 7am! Needless to say the early start took me a little to get used too.. The work day also starts early, with 8am the norm (although I still stubbornly cling to the fact that my job description states 9am as the start time!) and people often work long hours.

Anna (kindly) cooks most nights with the help of the girls, either ugali and vegetable and meat stew, or cabbage, sukuma wiki (spinach), rice and even sometimes spaghetti. Breakfast comprises of bread with butter, peanut butter or jam, accompanied by steaming (often very sweet) milky tea. Similar to India, it is mandatory to have at least 3 sugars in your tea/coffee and interestingly despite Kenya's superior coffee industry everyone drinks Nescafe.

Our house, located in prosperous Westlands (home of many expats including the large Indian community) is owned by Professor Ndetei. It is accessed via an imposing stone driveway locked always with a large silver padlock. Walking down my street the houses on either side are bordered by high stone fences, topped with broken glass and barbed wire- this place is security central! But given the high crime and affluence of its residents, the strict security measures are understandable.

AIESEC in Nairobi

Since I arrived in Nairobi the AIESEC office (tucked away at the end of an underground corridor in the Mahatma Ghandi wing of the University of Nairobi) has been a great first port of call for anything I need help with and a good space to hang out with local AIESECers. Although my working hours mean that I cannot make it down that often, I have tried to come to a few of AIESEC UON's LCMs (local committee meetings), which are held every Thursday from 4:30-5:30pm. Of the local AIESECers some deserve special mention for all the help they've given me since I arrived. These include Michael, Bishar, Hafsa, Asha, Will, Kim and Stella, who respectively helped organise my internship, settled me into AIESEC in Nairobi, introduced me to my workplace, organised fun activities for me to do with other interns, accompanied me around town during my first couple of days, and put me up for my first night when I had nowhere to sleep! Thanks guys :)

It's also been heaps of fun hanging out and going on short holidays with the other interns, from a kaliedoscope of countries including Germany, Japan, Canada, Rwanda, Congo, South Africa, Brazil, India, Netherlands, Estonia, Czech Republic, New Zealand and Australia, among others. Everyone is doing interesting work here, with some people teaching in the slums, others working for NGOs, others in IT and still others in marketing, fundraising and finance!


Kenya is a deeply religious country no matter which faith group you belong to and religion is definitely worth a mention as it is a very hard topic to avoid. In Nairobi the majority of people are Christian, with about a 50/50 Catholic/Protestant split, although there are many different Protestant churches with new ones (genuine and not so genuine) springing up all the time to take advantage of the tax breaks awarded to churches in Kenya. Atheism is uncommon and saying that you do not believe in God or even that you do not attend church will be met with surprise. The public stance on homosexuality is unforgiving, and homosexual people have even been known to be ejected from buses, and the recent marriage of two Kenyan men in the UK has launched spirited debate on the moral implications of homosexuality for Kenyan society. The population along the coast is more Islamic due to a long history of Arabic influence through trade, and Judaism, Baha'i, Hinduism, and tribal religions are also influential throughout the country.



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