I left Kenya, my birth country, 15 years ago to study and live in Australia. While I liked visiting it every two years for short visits, I was always happier to come back to Australia. The lifestyle, freedom and independence I enjoyed in Australia was something I’d always craved.
So as a family, when we thought of moving back and living in Nairobi with in-laws for four months (it was temporary, I kept telling myself), I became anxious. Anxious at the thought that it may become permanent, that I would be forced to live there long term, worried how I’d deal with social restrictions and anxiety at how the children would live disrupted from their routine and home environment.
At some point, the country where I'd been born started feeling like an unwelcome guest. Someone who was imposing himself on me, against my will.
At some point, the country where I'd been born started feeling like an unwelcome guest. Someone who was imposing himself on me, against my will. Eventually, I accepted it and decided to make the best of the situation. I tried to keep the goals of our trip in mind: to support in-laws with things that needed to be done and so the children could spend quality time with both sets of grandparents and extended family (living so far away often meant short, rushed holidays).
We wrapped things up in Sydney; notified my son’s schools of his extended absences, bought gifts and packed suitcases. It’s not a small feat to move a family of four halfway around the world! I had to stay organised through extensive to-do lists to make sure nothing got missed.
Arriving in Nairobi this time felt a little more permanent than previous trips. For the first few days, we tried to get over the tiredness from the long flight (22 hours non-stop), while family called or stopped by. I also tried to get the children into a routine so they would feel more settled. Mornings were often spent playing in the garden (for my daughter, 2) and homeschooling for my son (7). Some days I managed to follow the routine, other days family-related things took priority. I tried to be a little flexible as plans didn’t always work out, however it was frustrating too. So used to being in full control of my days here, in Nairobi, I had to go with the family flow. I carved out my own special routine around the bigger one, often staying up late to work or read when all was quiet.
The one thing I noticed in my first week, was that family life revolved around mealtimes. Unlike in Sydney, where eating food is often an afterthought, in Nairobi, leisurely mealtimes were the norm.
The one thing I noticed in my first week, was that family life revolved around mealtimes. Unlike in Sydney, where eating food is often an afterthought, in Nairobi, leisurely mealtimes were the norm. No one hurried through it. People enjoyed what they ate, and I learned to slow down too and enjoy my food. Time often flew by pleasantly as cousins gathered around food and tea sessions. Most importantly, I had the time to spend with cousins, their husbands and kids who I missed dearly because we live so far. The kids also got to know all their cousins, aunts, uncles from both sides and had fun bonding with everyone.
The other huge benefit of living in Kenya was access to cheap, tasty Kenyan food - local snacks and delicacies I don’t get to eat in Sydney like masala chips (hot chips cooked in various spices, tomato paste and coriander which is hugely popular) and maru bhajia (potato slices cooked in chickpea flour with tomato chutney). PS: Indian food is completely different to Kenyan food despite it having similar ingredients.
One of my biggest worries was that I’d lose my independence; walking to the shops anytime or going out to eat when we wanted. Family interference in decision making is often prevalent too in Kenyan - Indian societies, but luckily none of my fears came true. My in-laws gave me all the space and freedom I’m used to here and it made all the difference in how we lived together during that time. We also took time out (just the four of us) and went on short trips away from Nairobi so we could get a break when things got a bit too much.
Would I live more permanently in Kenya again? No.
Day to day life in Kenya is certainly not easy because systems don’t work like they should, and corruption is rife. Groceries and clothes are extremely expensive so one needs a high income to meet most needs. Health and education is highly-prized and also expensive. Traffic can become gridlocked with the slightest rain while navigating around poor quality roads and people dodging cars. Nairobi also has security issues where one’s personal safety is always at risk at any time of the day, even in places like shopping malls or hotels (a former classmate was shot dead in broad daylight at a hotel where terrorists held people hostage).
Each visit, the thing that jumps out at me is the inequality amongst the people, the gap between the rich and poor is large and very noticeable.
Each visit, the thing that jumps out at me is the inequality amongst the people, the gap between the rich and poor is large and very noticeable. It made me feel helpless or angry with the leaders for not noticing or caring. Human beings are dispensable and accidents a part of everyday life. People’s care factor is low and everyone is caught up in their own personal struggles. Family pressures and expectations are also common.
My son also started asking when we’d go back home to Australia. While there were no cultural challenges as such (he speaks our mother tongue and is familiar with the lifestyle), he did struggle with not having his dad’s full attention as he does in Sydney and often got upset because his dad wasn’t available to spend time with him.
My daughter struggled with all the new and unfamiliar faces and became so clingy that she wouldn’t even let me go to the bathroom alone and panicked each time she couldn’t see me. Towards the end of the trip, I was also missing my home, my space, friends and my routine. In hindsight, four months had been just enough time to stop us all becoming jaded.
I learnt that the grass is not always greener in the country you left behind, and it reminded me strongly of all the reasons why I left in the first place.
Australia offers me a better quality of life, I’m happier because I live in a country where things work systemically, there isn’t much inequality and people are judged on merit and achievements, not how much money they have. And I’m free to live my life on my own terms, away from family expectations and pressures.
Kenya has become like that familiar, much loved sweater that doesn’t fit as well. While I love it dearly because it holds some very special memories and people, I can’t wear it anymore.
Rashida Tayabali is a freelance writer.