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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Nairobi, Kenya

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?


Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?


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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

No, English is generally spoken in Kenya. It is however good courtesy to learn Swahili so that the basic greeting and negotiation can be done. It will drop your food prices at the market my 2/3.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?


How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

I have expected the potholes, bad roads, filth etc. and this I found. I was pleasantly surprised with the modern city centers and large malls. I have expected some basic items such as toiletries and basic food items to be scarce, but reality is there is a wide variety of almost any item available. Maybe not in the brand I am used to but still quite a variety. Most items have imported brands as well, especially from Italy. The most difficult adjustment for me was the difference in value systems. What South Africans regard as corrupt, extortion and blatant lies are part of everyday business life. To the point that you do not only need to bribe the government official but also the person that knows him that acts as the middle man. It took a while to start seeing this as just another business expense.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

Yes, there are stages and I believe a person will find it more difficult to move from the shock to acceptance stage if the number of facets of the culture shock are diverse. I only experienced the culture shock in the moral value system even though I have expected a degree of corruption that is known and expected in African countries. With only one facet it took me three months to adjust to the impact of this in business life. I expected corruption to be hidden, behind the scenes and ad-hoc, while in reality it is blatant and expected. A known and accepted source of income.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

I went from a degree of shock to disgust to a mild form of acceptance.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

Conservation has a new meaning to me. I am used to large game parks with big 5, but the abundance in the smaller game parks here surpasses what I have experienced in South Africa. I honestly thought that all the game would be eaten by now, but reality is that they are well preserved.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

A person learn to trust friendly people faster and tend to accept customs as a given. What caught me off guard is that the Kenyan culture has a very strong emphasis on good interpersonal relationships to the point where you will be extremely friendly with the person you are lying to and that you are in the process of deceiving. I found it difficult to learn not to trust a person just because he/she is friendly and apparently sharing as it took me a knock or two to realize the depth of receipt the friendly people are capable off. Corruption is everywhere and only power and money controls it.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

Yes. A very friendly person taught me the local custom of calling a person by his surname instead of by his first name as a form of acknowledging friendship and honoring his bloodline. When she then called a person by his first name I asked why without thinking. I did not realise that I was putting her in a very bad spot as it blatantly highlighted a sensitive political situation.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Don't go home too often during the first 3 months as you will tend to keep comparing two worlds. Live the new world and try to adjust not only your day-to-day living routine, but also your social life style and business value. Try to put the differences into a perspective by trying to understand the history of the differences. It is easier to accept a difference if you understand where it comes from. Do not allow yourself to even consider bailing out within the first 6 month as you will then not do the adjustment but only postpone it.

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Comments about this Report

May 18, 2011 15:19

I'm Kenyan and I find it very interesting to see my culture through someone else's eyes e.g. the friendliness. I assumed we were a friendly nation coz we're awesome :) Yeah, that's part of it but there's more sometimes and I do think foreigners can get caught off-guard quite easily. Good luck and great advice, btw :)

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