Flowers and Diplomacy

Flags ablazin’

I  thought that when I visited ILRI (the International Livestock Research Institute) here in Nairobi, that it was the most beautiful place anyone could work.

The UN Complex in Gigiri, however, comes a close second, and is definitely one of the prettiest places I’ve worked. I can’t believe I can already find most of the places I need to, even though my most frequent visits are to the cafeterias and the bank.

The services here are incredibly comprehensive.  So, in addition to a bank and potable water drinking fountains, there are travel agencies, health clinics, language course classrooms, and a full commissary that is like a dreamland of duty-free goods.

It hasn’t quite been the typical Kenyan weather, experience, I’m afraid. July is technically Kenyan “winter” and it’s been unseasonably cold even in June. Lots of grey days, chilly air. Every afternoon the sun does tend to come out, and feeling the warmth and the sun makes me realize how incredibly nice it’s going to be to work here for most of the year!

Even the “alley” that goes between the two sections of my office building is gorgeous and bright. I seriously feel like I live in a tropical biodome.

Walkway between buildings

It actually reminds me a lot of the Morningside campus of Columbia University. Though it was RIGHT in the midst of Manhattan, it was separated out, enclosed, and had an interior community that ended up feeling really special and safe.

The UN is a lot like that, though its enclosure is probably due more to security reasons. But we have little cafeterias and restaurants and a commissary and a medical clinic and even what I, as a New Yorker, would think of as a bodega. Oh and a bank! It’s all here. And the people that you see every day are sort of the same mix. It’s comforting.


Flower Gallery on the Compound:

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Getting Kitties to Kenya

Arrival at Jomo Kenyatta

I knew, coming to Kenya for at least 2 years, that one of the most important ways to feel like our new Nairobi house was a home was bringing our cats, Gandalf and Radagast. When you are cat people, you understand that sitting in a living room and not having someone try to muscle onto your lap, jingling all the way … well, that life feels sort of empty.

Bringing cats internationally isn’t something you can do haphazardly, so a lot of work went into getting them here successfully, and I thought I would share in the hopes that  it helps someone else in the future.


I spent a LOT of time before we even left, trying to figure out what the actual requirements were for getting our cats to Kenya, since it seemed like every site I visited either wanted me to PAY for the information or gave information that felt wholly incomplete.

So here is what is actually required to get a cat into Kenya:

  1. Letter of permit request including owner’s name and address as well as pet’s name.
  2. $50.00 Money Order per pet.
  3. Current Health Certificate from the Veterinary Doctor. (Received from Veterinary Doctor 5 to 10 days prior to travel from the country of origin (US))
  4. A return self-addressed envelope, prepaid Priority Mail, Express Mail, FedEx or DHL.


Pets are not permitted to travel in the cabin when they enter Nairobi.

It’s non-negotiable.

The only real impediment is the time limitation — once it’s 10 days before your departure date, you’ve got to be ready. I had my veterinarian appointments in the morning and my USDA appointments in the afternoon.

Once you’re about 10 days out, get your veterinarian to fill out the proper forms, bring them over to the USDA to be certified, and FedEx them to the Kenyan Embassy in DC. They’ll take a couple of days to get them processed, and then, if you’ve included the return FedEx envelope, FedEx them back to you with a receipt.

The best people to talk to at the Kenyan embassy to confirm all your documents are Abdi, George, and Abdul.

SwissAir would not reserve spots for the cats in the cargo hold without a completed Kenyan import permit, so, get this done in a timely manner.

The easiest flight routes with pets are always the ones with the fewest stopovers/country touchdowns.

Our itinerary had us leaving the US on Monday, arriving in Zurich, Switzerland on Tuesday morning, and flying directly to Nairobi from Zurich.

To minimize the potential stress on our cats, and minimize the expense, we traveled with them in the cabin from Cleveland to Newark and Newark to Zurich. It meant that we could keep an eye on them, and it cost us a total of $250 instead of $1600, and that was just for travel to Zurich. (Cargo charges are very expensive)

It did mean that we had to transfer them from soft-sided cabin bags into hard-sided cargo containers once in Zurich. If you contact the Swiss Air Cargo Department prior to arrival, they can arrange to sell you an IATA-certified hard-sided travel container.

There are a number of pet-friendly hotels within a short distance of the Zurich airport that also have free shuttles that go directly from the airport. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express.

We shipped a cat litter tray and food and litter to our hotel in Zurich, so once we arrived our kitties could emerge from their little bags and be free!


Gandalf enjoys the Swiss views.

The cats did well in the hotel, and it was nice to give them a break from flying.

We had to arrive at the cargo office 3 hours before our flight, so we arrived at 6am, loaded the cats into their new container, taped some dry food to the top of the box, but really, SwissAir cargo people are so excellent and just did a lot of the prep (putting on stickers, etc) for us.

Arriving in Nairobi sans cats was slightly stressful, but we had a good taxi man ready and waiting to pick us up. Very few people seemed to know where the cargo area was, but it’s actually NOT walkable from the airport, and quite a distance so prepare to drive.

There are very few signs, and just a huge long loading dock and a small customs office.  I made the mistake of going into the customs office first, making them aware that there was a white person to bilk present.

To make a long story short, even though I had ALL my documents in order, it still took about 2.5 hours to get my cats.

I had my Kenyan import permits and all my documents from the USDA and my vet, and a receipt for the $1600 I’d just paid SwissAir. But the SwissPort Cargo employees were insisting that I pay “Kenyan handling fees” that were mysteriously not including in the “handling fees” on my receipt from SwissAir.  According to these cargo people, SwissPort Cargo wasn’t “the same” as SwissAir.

Eager to just even SEE my cats, since I wasn’t allowed until I’d paid this mysterious fee, I eventually haggled DOWN to a price of $100.

They hadn’t called the veterinarian, who was required to sign off on all the documents as well. So when we arrived at his office, no one was there. The security guard called him, and he requested that we use our cab to drive 2km to collect the veterinarian, who is, ostensibly, supposed to be there 24/7.

But we did. Of course he wasn’t at the gas station when we arrived, taking his time. He finally got into the taxi, and reviewed most of our documents from the backseat.

We arrived back at his office at the airport, and he signed and stamped everything pretty quickly. He then requested/demanded that we drive him back home, insisting that he’d “forgotten his wallet at home” and had no means of getting back.

I didn’t have any space in the taxi, with the bags, the kitties, and Adam, so then he wanted some money to take a taxi home.

I didn’t give him any additional money, because I was fully irked at that point, having spent way more than I’d wanted to already, and way more time.

Radagast sprawled on our furniture

We got the kitties and went home, and the kitties have been supremely happy in our little Kenyan villa ever since.