Strangers in a Strange Land

Happier times!

Yesterday marked six months in Kenya! And yet it’s only going to be next week that we move into a house with furniture that will be ours, and ideally into a house that we can feel comfortable long-term.

We’ve had a difficult time this past month, with a lack of Christmas spirit, and a forced move. I’m going to be intentionally vague because issues are still ongoing, but it’s important to chronicle the good and the bad here.

We’d gotten our original house before we ever arrived in Kenya, desperate to find a place to settle with the kitties since I had to start working the day after we arrived. And of course there are things you expect.  The house being furnished, maybe the furnishings will be fabulous, and maybe they’ll be awful.  And, as an expat, you expect to be paying more than others.

But in the last two months, it became a bigger, less funny issue.  Our landlords seemed to be trying to trick us into paying fees we weren’t responsible for, and when trying to confirm what our actual responsibilities were for things like electricity, we discovered that we were paying twice as much rent per month as our neighbors.

And it becomes really easy to go from feeling like you’re in someone else’s realm (with their furniture, etc) to feeling like you’re being taken advantage of and unwelcome in your own home.

At the end of the day, when living abroad, you’re reliant on crowdsourced information to find out what’s fair and good.  “How much did you pay for a taxi between A and B?” “Who made your furniture and how much did they charge you?”

To some extent as well you’re reliant on the honesty of your host country delegates, too. Though my interactions with my Kenyan landlord were amicable, the shock of feeling like she was dishonest at the end of our relationship was a reflection on Kenya.

It’s easy to start feeling beleaguered too; you’re not familiar with rules and regulations here. It’s not your home country, and the learning curve when it comes to serious matters feels like a real deficit. A lot of it comes down to following your gut, and if someone doesn’t seem trustworthy, it is a good idea not to give them any more money.


Our new furniture

Being emotionally unsettled is obviously a side effect of being physically unsettled.  To protect ourselves (and our finances) we had to leave our first house and move in with friends.
We’ve found a new house, and, for the first time, we’ll have furniture of oour own.  I am feeling the urge to nest and buy cushions and lamps, and hang my art properly, and try to find solace in Kenya again.


Baobob Christmas Tree

It does mean that Christmas will be odd. We’re trying to make do, and find Christmas cheer where we can.

Yesterday I went to the Maasai Market and bought some ornaments and a homemade “Christmas tree”(/earring holder?)  and decorated it while listening to Christmas music.

I feel a bit better, having engaged a lawyer and scheduled a minibreak holiday, but there’s still an element of shellshock.

In fits of self pity too, I’m upset that my old landlords spoiled Christmas, and that our rapid need for moving made me cancel holiday crafting and my Christmas caroling party.

We have amazing friends here already. I have incredible people that work for me and that I work with.

Things will improve, but the point of all of these public feelings is that there are issues you can come across living abroad that are hard to grasp, and are definitely alienating.

New house, new furniture, new year.  Bring it on, 2014.

“Whole Berry est mieux” – International Thanksgiving in Nairobi


Bon Appetit!

It was like a holy grail-type mission.

There had to be cranberry sauce somewhere in Nairobi, and I was going to find it.

There are lots of items, many of which I described in an earlier blog post , that are clearly imported just for expats. And, while Americans are probably the least numerous here when ratios of country population are factored in, it made sense that some stores would likely order things like cranberry sauce specially.

I visited Nakumatt, the largest grocery store chain in Kenya, only to be informed that they had ordered cranberry sauce on the Monday prior to Thanksgiving, and that it would arrive by the following Monday.

Strike one.


Ever resourceful, I figured if there wasn’t pre-made sauce available, that maybe I could buy frozen berries, or maybe even fresh cranberries!

I should have figured that cranberry bogs are not really a hallmark of AFRICA, let alone KENYA so that route was also a fail.


traditional carving time!

Desperate, I posted in a community Facebook group, hoping to crowdsource cranberries.  Nairobi Expat Social — where did they get theirs?

I’d describe the experience as akin to playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. One person would report having seen ONE jar somewhere — other American cranberry sauce poachers would join the thread, indubitably rushing to check on the purported jar.

Phantom cranberry rumors persisted deep into Thursday, when I feared I’d have to resort to cheap Arabian strawberry jelly in lieu of proper cranberry sauce. What was next?  Chicken in a tin as the main course?

Someone mentioned off-handedly that Prime Cuts, the expat-o-centric butcher in Village Market, renowned for their hard-to-find meats and cheeses as much as they are for their high prices, had the sauce. I called them and they told me that they’d have it delivered after 3pm, and immediately mobilized some of our dinner guests to be perched, ready, to buy it ASAP.

Juliet, our friend and neighbor within Fourways, had been at a work meeting in an odd area of town and saw a supermarket in the same plaza.  Enterprisingly, she went inside and found TWO jars, and, rather than fighting the old man going for one of them, purchased just one.  But we were going to be 12!

As we spent the moments before everyone had arrived Skyping with our parents in America, my French colleague called me from his strategic post at the butcher’s.  “They have Whole Berry and Smooth,” he said to me in French. “Hold on, Dad,” I said in English, then, in French, “Whole berry is better.”   If you’re not American, of course you wouldn’t know. But our cranberry sauce problems were solved!

One of the best parts of Thanksgivings as an expat is that you not only get foods and experiences from other countries and cultures, but you get traditions from other parts of the US! Everyone has turkey, sure, but thanks to Carlos’s demands, we also had Macaroni and Cheese, which is one of his Thanksgiving favorites.


Plum-ish pudding-esque

Kate, our dear Australian friend, made some sort of Australian Christmas treat that was described as “like plum pudding” (which I’ve never had so cannot verify its authenticity) but it was complete with festive little “pokercandy” on the top in Christmassy colors.

All in all, we had 7 countries represented: America (of course), Germany, France, Mauritius, Australia, the UK, and India.






09-20131128_180913We had at least 70 stomachs worth of food represented too!

  • Mashed potatoes (2 kinds)
  • Sweet Potato Casserole with the 5 marshmallows we could find in Nairobi on top
  • Macaroni and Cheese
  • Turkey
  • Ham
  • Stuffing
  • Cauliflower-Broccoli Gratin
  • Balsamic Vinegared green beans


And, because it was Kate’s birthday this past Wednesday, I surprised her with cupcakes. Shockingly,  Priscilla’s delicious pecan pie, the cupcakes, and the plum puddings did not really get eaten.

17-20131128_192905While we waited for people to digest, we subjected our guests to a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Maybe we’ve been kibitzing too much during our weekly Bad Movie Club, but Charlie Brown has never seemed so funny or outrageous before.

The nicest part of the whole evening was getting to share love and tradition with my friends here in Nairobi. My family, while non-religious, always sang the Doxology while holding hands around the table.  My friends obliged me, thankfully, even though it was only Adam and I who sang.

Most of them had never been to a Thanksgiving before, or eaten a lot of the foods that we consider holiday standard.  We’re thinking maybe next year we should invite the Economist after our friends here in Nairobi ended up in the Wall Street Journal! 




And our food was delicious — even delicious-smelling!  The proof is this stray cat who spent most the night wanting to be inside:



It was a beautiful night. And, thanks to the ubiquity and ease of househelp and the fantasticness of our employee Rachael, I have not had to wash a single Thanksgiving dish.


Happy holidays, everyone.

Westgate today

I had the opportunity to visit the Westgate Mall site as part of my executive duties last week. It was extremely sad, which should go without saying, but for those in the West unsure of the extent of the damage of Westgate, the photos will make it very clear.

Please be aware that these photos may be upsetting

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How does your garden grow? – Living in Nairobi post-Westgate



A lot of people look at me askew when I say that I live in Kenya, mostly because the Western Media really has made sure that everyone knows that Kenya is Full of Terrorists™.

But, having been someone actually in New York City for 9/11, I learned that really bad things can happen anywhere and there isn’t any predicting or preventing events like this one. They’re horrible, and traumatic, and they don’t get any better if you inflate them and obsess about them.

It riled me so badly to be in the USA right after Westgate and have people ask me if I knew anyone who was impacted (I do) and then somehow imply it was inevitable, because we all live in Kenya.

When there were rumors that the US Embassy was closing preemptively on the two days prior to my return to Nairobi, and I called the State Department for confirmation, I was basically told by a clearly Western-minded (and snarky) employee that there’d been a travel advisory in place for Kenya for several years and that my going back to my job was somehow foolish and dumb.

The funny thing is, any Western concepts of Nairobi, or Kenya, or “the country of Africa,” were blown away by the footage from Westgate because no one expected the mall to be so NICE.  And it was, really, the nicest mall in Nairobi, an indication of a thriving economy that is not at all related to any potential terrorism or genocide or whatever else it is that terrifies people about Africa.

I spent Saturday of this past weekend at the Village Market, a mall comparable to Westgate in niceness, and usually JAM PACKED on the weekends. It felt strangely empty, and idle chatter in the hall was full of Westgate snippets.  There were many more security guards than normal, and everyone looked nervous and on edge.

I shopped in Tribeca after 9/11, determined not to let tragedy also tank the local businesses there, and similarly, I am glad to have gone and patronized the stores at Village Market last Saturday. Perpetuating terror needlessly, in my mind, is as much a form of terrorism as anything else.

Life in Nairobi was copacetic before the attack.  I planted a variety of flowers in my garden, and I sit on the patio in the sunshine, listening to my windchimes, admiring my roses, and writing this blog post.

These complacent, happy moments are the ones that the Western media won’t show. So many people left Kenya in a fear, continuing the terror and confusion. Many new hires at the UN cancelled their appointments.

Many of my friends here in Nairobi were injured, physically and emotionally, by Westgate and the ensuing terror and despair of having our calm Kenyan lives disturbed.

But, like my sad wilting hydrangeas, with the sun and the calm of Kenya, we will recover together.


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From a Distance

Outside of the Travellers Rest, a primatological “landmark” in Kisoro, Uganda (2006)

I’ve had a number of friends who have said to me over the years that they can’t fathom working in African countries long-term. Visiting? Sure. But do I agree that there’s a certain mettle required to be away from everything familiar as a way of life?


I started working in the field when I was only 22, and I remembered, being engaged at the time, how hard it was during those 4.5 months to maintain communication with my then-fiancé. It was 2002 and the internet was merely a shadow of what it is today, but staying connected back home is still difficult.

Being a part of my friends’ lives has always been paramount to me. I like remembering and celebrating birthdays, and I’ve taken great pains to be present for weddings, births, and celebrations that I know will make benchmark memories for all of us. I think of it like cosmic yarn – the more intertwined I become as strands stretch between those dearest to me and my own trajectory, the closer you get to a warm sweater rather than a spindly web.

When I came back from DRCongo in 2009, I attended 13 weddings in 12 months. I feel like even if you aren’t around all the time, it is these important peaks that you share together that maintain friendships longterm.

As many of you know or may have gleaned from the blog, however, this move is more of a permanent one. And, though I’ve only been away for 7 weeks, I’m already struggling with what it really means to live in Nairobi. Like a tangible reminder, some friends are getting married in Edinburgh, Scotland this week and not only had I not accumulated enough leave, but the flights in and out of the now-infamous Jomo Kenyatta International Airport are insanely expensive.

So I couldn’t go.

Memories are being formed, strings are being stretched, and to have to watch from afar is a too-potent reminder of the things I am giving up, being an internationalista.

To add to the mixture, two extremely dear friends shared some very exciting news with me this week and while I felt nothing but excitement hearing the first, the second threw me for a serious loop.  My peers are settling down, having children, starting families, digging in.

Ladies in Heating – Nairobi-style

And I’ve just moved my entire family across the globe. I’m establishing what I hope to be a career, in a track that is the most career-oriented of any Africa-ing I’ve done thus far. I’m setting up a life here: I have shops I frequent, routines I’m establishing. I have already made amazing friends, including people that I know already will be long-term companions.

But I’m struggling. Not only do I not want to be negligent of those dear to me in the US, I do not want to miss out on these benchmark memories. My friends’ children will only see me every once in a while, hearing tales of wacky Kenyan Auntie Laura.

Does it make me regret my decisions? Not at all.

Reading by firelight in the chill of volcanic air – I was hooked even in 2006.

I like following my own path. I know everyone’s lives are different. And in the 1 month+ since I’ve worked at my job, the sense of passion, satisfaction, success and focus I’ve felt has overwhelmed me. There are aspects of living abroad that I can’t find anywhere else, that fill me up.

I love how I feel abroad; how even the most plebeian of tasks feel somehow exotic and special.

But this dream I live?  Not free.



Full Circle: A Weekend with Jane Goodall


Peace Doves 4Eva? JGI-USA team circa 2003

Long ago in 2002, I worked for the Jane Goodall Institute in the US – at the time, the office was in Silver Spring, MD.

In retrospect, I was so young. I’d just come back from working in Kakamega Forest in Kenya, but I worked hard at JGI and made my way from volunteer to intern to full staff member.

It was grueling work; we had a huge amount of things to administrate, from Dr. Goodall’s lecture tour to a variety of projects the Institute ran in Africa. I worked 50-60 hour weeks. I loved my job, but it was hard.

And, as a fledgling primatologist, I got to meet Jane Goodall and be a part of her work. Even now, 10 years later, I can remember how my knees shook the first time I met her.

If anything this past weekend, my coordination and conducting Jane’s visit to Nairobi felt like a tangible, visible ring on my tree of life.

Working for the Institute in 2002, I was on the bottom of the totem pole. There were tons of exclusive events, but I, of course, was not at any of them. I felt honored to be a part of the team, and to facilitate Jane’s various visits to worldwide locations, but the likelihood that anyone, outside of my immediate team, knew what I was doing or who I was would have been extremely unlikely.


Exponential Facilitation – 2013

Since then, I’ve conducted independent research on chimpanzees, plunged myself into one of the most difficult places to conduct science, and have a barrage of field stories of my own. I’ve come into my own.

The bulk of planning and organization for Dr. Jane Goodall’s visit to Nairobi fell into my lap when I arrived here, because of my familiarity with Jane events and considering Jane’s connections to GRASP. After all, she is a GRASP Ambassador.

I was a bit nervous; she usually travels with a familiar troupe, and I never knew even back in the day what the exact protocol was of the inner circle. Would I talk too much? Too little? Forget her white orchids and only-green M&M’s?

Me and John Sibi-Okumu

Me and John Sibi-Okumu (as Jane and the Kenyan leprechaun photobomb)

As it turned out, everything was perfect. I shuttled her first to an interview at Kiss-TV. While I was filmed for the camera during her entrance, I didn’t make it onto the final broadcast. WOE to my MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR KENYAN TELEVISION FAME.

I felt super prepared. I was super prepared. I had every base covered. I had key talking points written in my notebook. I had the schedule perfectly timed. I kept us on schedule, even in Kenya.

The second event, a busier, more chaotic affair replete with gaggles of school children, 500 expected attendees, and a simultaneous Hindu prayer conference, could have been an absolute nightmare. Yet with careful pre-planning and serious logistical frameworks in place, it went smoothly.

I may not feel different than I did 10 years ago, but the fact is, I am. If I can concede anything, it’s that I’ve certainly become a logistics wizard.

And sitting in the back of the car for the extremely lengthy trips on Friday, I got to hear incredible stories firsthand that I’d never read in any Jane Goodall books. Even more amazing, she asked me questions about my work, and we talked about issues facing great apes, and she laughed at my Congo stories, encouraging me to write them up.

I’m in no way as accomplished as she is, but sitting there, chatting and laughing casually, I felt like a peer. Take that, impostor complex!

On Saturday night at my big event, I was behind the scenes, greasing the wheels and making things happen. I sat out on the terrace away from the hubbub, happy, with my friends in a more casual atmosphere, happy that everything had gone so spectacularly.

And because my parents will plotz, enjoy some photos from the weekend.


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Thanks to Yikun Liu for the photographs