Why I don’t pay too much attention to travel warnings by embassies

is it safe to travel to kenya

and what I do instead for my safety

I am often asked: Is it safe to travel to Kenya? In my view, safety begins in my mind and here is my take on the topic:

Before I published this article for the first time, the UK embassy to Kenya issued an advice for their country people to avoid certain places along the Kenyan coast and in Nairobi. The advice followed several attacks and threats by terrorist groups like Al Shabaab. It had a tremendously negative impact on the region which highly depends on tourism.

The Kenyan authorities pleaded with the UK embassy and also the US embassy, who had issued similar warnings, to lighten them again. I have to say, I went to some places they had issued the warnings about, and I am still alive and kicking.

Then they lifted the ban.

Some warnings were still in place, but many locations didn’t have to be avoided anymore, according to the UK embassy. It all happened barely a week after an attack on a military base in Lamu, in which several militants, including a Briton, were killed.

This shows that such warnings are sometimes politically motivated or even random.

I used to be on the newsletter list from the German embassy, but I unsubscribed. Because I mostly got warnings and comments that didn’t apply to my daily life in Nairobi. Some examples:

  • Don’t use matatus (public mini busses), they are dangerous. (Well, if I don’t want to sit in my house day in day out, I necessarily MUST use matatus because they are the only available means of transport.)
  • Avoid crowded places. (Nairobi Downtown, where the end station of my matatu line is situated, is by default a crowded place which I have to pass through if I am going to the City Center.)
  • Welcome to the Kenyan October Fest. (I don’t even go to the German one, so why should I join the Kenyan one? I hear last time they didn’t even have German beer. And besides, to get there, I would have to use several matatus and pass crowded places.)

What I do instead to keep safe:

  • I am known in my street and interact a lot with people. They know that I am not a tourist anymore, but a resident of the area.
  • I also have a lot of friends around who know me AND the town and who can estimate well how I should behave in order to be safe.
  • If a Kenyan tells me, I should avoid certain places at night, I do.
  • I usually walk with a Kenyan friend in town when it is dark.
  • I never look lost, I always know where I am going.
  • I don’t wear a money belt. I also try not to look like a tourist.

In that way I feel safe and comfortable. Much more than if I would follow the politically motivated or random advices from my embassy or others.

 

Being sick and getting well

sick abroad

Experiences in Kenya

Falling sick in a foreign country is annoying. Especially when you actually just want to enjoy your trip and need to be at the top of your powers.

I have been sick several times and developed a mind-set that helps me get well quickly again.

I follow the rule “the earlier the better”. If I feel feverish, weak, dizzy and stomach ache, I go to see a doctor or chemist. It doesn’t always have to be a hospital. Especially in Kenyan public hospitals you sometimes have to wait for a long time. Chemists or private clinics will also do the test and then prescribe the proper medication.

When i am not feeling well, it is usually because of malaria or stomach problems.

Malaria

The symptoms always start with some pain in the joints of my fingers. Then it spreads across the whole body. I feel weak, a general disease and a bit dizzy. It happens often when I am back from the countryside, where malaria is more common than in Nairobi.

I go to the doctor, get pinched in the finger and the test is done. Then I get six times four yellow tablets which I will take over the course of three days and that is it.

Malaria is not to be joked with though, so even if you take prophylaxis and always cover yourself in mosquito repellent – whenever you feel the slightest discomfort, go for the test.

We once dragged my whole family to the doctor just to be sure, and nobody had it. That was also a relief to know.

That said, malaria is also not the end of the world and easily treatable. Even in rural areas there are health facilities around, so don’t shy away from visiting them.

Stomach problems

We foreigners are not familiar with how to wash our hands, how to clean specific food, and how to generally keep a certain level of hygiene in new circumstances. Therefore it is common to get some stomach problems. Some can be solved with anti-diarrhoea medication. I always have some available. But if the condition persists longer than a day, I go to see a doctor.

They will ask for a stool sample, which is not everybody’s favourite, but a necessary means for a proper diagnosis. Common cases I experienced were infections, amoeba or h. Pylori. There are always medications against them. I always make sure to ask what I am allowed to eat or drink and what not.

Medication

Sometimes the price for the medication is negotiable. However, it depends on the place and the drugs. There are certain brands and labels that are cheaper, and others more expensive. We once had a case of a mouth infection, and we bought the required mouth wash much cheaper in the supermarket than from the chemist.

Pain killers

Usually, chemists or doctors give me some pain killers, too. (Mind the fact that especially with stomach problems you can only take a certain type of pain killers.) Therefore we often have a stock from last time and I tell the doctor that I don’t need them.

Natural remedies

My mother-in-law used to have a pot of home-made herbal medicine that cured basically everything. She helped me get rid of a terrible diarrhoea with two cups of a very bitter herbal drink. If you are open for these things like me, they are worth trying. It’s old knowledge that has proven to work for generations.

Dosage

Ask how many pills you will have to take at which time of the day. I always confuse the numbers and amounts which the chemists write on the small paper bags to indicate the dosage.

In general: try to not overreact.

I don’t question my doctor in Germany, so why should I do it in Kenya? They know what they are doing. They have studied those things and they are not helping people for the first time.

I generally talk a lot when I am seeing a doctor, just to make sure they get all the information, and I get all the instructions right.

Go to the doctor or chemist early. Make sure to communicate much, well and politely. Follow instructions. And then get well soon!

 

Why a Kenyan village went crazy about Obama’s visit to Kenya

Luo culture Obama

or: The story of my several husbands and co-wives

Obama’s father is from Kenya, from a place in the West of the country called Kogelo. The area is dominated by Luo culture.

But Obama himself was born in the US, obviously.

Otherwise he couldn’t have become their president. Therefore many people didn’t understand why the country made such a fuss about Obama’s visit to Kenya in 2015. And particularly people from Kogelo and the surrounding county were not being understood or even ridiculed for welcoming “their returning son”.

After all, he is not their son.

He is American, and apart from a few visits has nothing to do with Kogelo, right?

Wrong!

At least for Kenyans, especially Luos.

There is a complex cultural structure underlying this issue.

The role of men in Luo culture

In Luo culture, men often remain in the homes while women leave when married. Men mean strength and security for the whole extended family. Everyone has a role in this tight relationship network of family and clan members.

This sounds strange to us. In the global North, the individual and their success is more important while in Kenya, values are derived from the community. None of the systems can be judged “better” or “worse”. Both of them function, with advantages and disadvantages.

Changing cultural rules

Nowadays, people are not entirely staying on the countryside and in the value system of the community anymore. Many live in Nairobi, where the rural rules don’t apply so much. But it is very common that they go home regularly and try to balance things. Some rules can be bent with the consent of everyone, or they can be changed into some equivalent procedures.

This also applies for people who are abroad and who don’t have the chance to take the next bus going to their rural home. What is important is the deep identification with the land itself.

The identification with land

In Luo culture, especially boys belong to the father. If something happens, they have the right and the duty to appear and demand help and support, including a piece of land. If a boy is left to grow up with his mum or maternal grandparents, he won’t be able to attain land from them, which is the resource for his future life and even the place where he will be buried.

People will therefore accept homecoming sons in cases like funerals. Nobody will be utterly surprised if a son that nobody knew of suddenly appears.

You come from where your father comes from. Otherwise you can even be seen as an orphan who doesn’t know his home and doesn’t have direction.

Being raised in a Luo community

That is a deeply rooted cultural knowledge. It is given through society and while growing up, children learn where they come from, and fatherless children or those away from their father’s place can even be mocked.

Going back to the roots therefore implies respect. As a Luo, and as a Kenyan in general, you are not successful for yourself. You will be the pride of an entire location. The results of the final exams of high school are announced and celebrated publicly by an entire village. And it is this village that comes together to raise funds in order to send “their son” or “their daughter” to university.

That Obama didn’t “come home” to his father’s place, that is Kogelo, was almost  seen like he disowned the people there. It looked like he didn’t value and respect them. When he identified with the people in Kogelo in his inauguration speech, he made them proud. They don’t just call them their son, to them, he is.

A little story about relatives

There is a photo of a family meeting that shows me with my husband Osero and Mrs Osero who is therefore my co-wife. Furthermore my husband Odhiambo, my co-wives Nyaudo and Mary, and my brothers-in-law Lawi and Paul.

Wait. What?

When I was walking with Antony through his village for the first time, I met about six men who introduced themselves as his father and even more women who said he was their son. I got confused, but by now I myself am incorporated in a wide net of uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and even co-wives! They are not literally my co-wives or fathers, as they are from Antony’s side of the family. But they see me in close relation to them since I have entered their family ties. My decisions and actions not only affect myself anymore. They will always mean something and be interpreted by Antony’s relatives.

Obama was in a similar situation. And he was not the only one. Divock Origi, Belgium born footballer, proudly refers to his Luo roots. And Ali Mazrui, Kenyan lecturer in the US, insisted on his body being buried in Kenya.

What do you think? Was the fuss about Obama’s visit exaggerated? Let me know in the comments below.

How to bargain at the market

I am horrible at bargaining! It’s usually making me uncomfortable. I often pay more than people who are better at bargaining. That’s why I do the little shopping that includes bargaining with my husband. He is great at bargaining and often gets good deals. There are certain rules how to bargain.

Bargaining is an art, and it needs to be approached carefully.

Here are some hints how to do it respectfully. All my bargaining experience stems from Kenya but I imagine that the basics apply to more countries.

What to bargain about

  • Clothes and shoes in markets or stalls
  • Souvenirs and gifts
  • Furniture or anything handmade on the street or in a shop
  • Services like tailoring, repairs, fixing of shoes, although some of them have commonly known fixed prices
  • Household items being sold by street vendors

Asking for a discount

If you buy a big amount of things from one person, you can ask for a discount, that will “make you come back again”. I often get one extra tomato or an extra sweet potato from the vegetable sellers who know me. One chili pepper, for instance, costs one shilling, and if I buy bananas and Sukuma for fourty, Mama Mboga (our vegetable lady) gives me the chili for free. Even the chemist sometimes rounds down the price for tests and medication, if I ask kindly.

What not to bargain about

  • anything with indicated price tags
  • when vendors shout the price
  • food and water
  • public transport (Ask a local friend for the price or other passengers, and before bordering ask the conductor and insist on the amount you know.)
  • goods in the supermarket

How to bargain

  • Be kind and friendly.
  • Make jokes.
  • Bargaining is about finding a price that suits both the vendor and you and not about ripping anybody off.
  • Try it in the local language. You will leave a better impression.
  • Say clearly if you are just looking, and don’t hold or take something you are not absolutely interested in buying.
  • Walk away if you are uncomfortable. Sometimes walking away can also trigger a cheaper offer.
  • Say thank you.

Funny methods

There are some strange insider measures that people use especially for souvenir shopping. You could, for example, get a greater discount by offering a simple pen. A friend told me how she danced and sang a French song with her travel mate somewhere in South East Asia for a better bargain.

Commissions

Guides sometimes have deals with the vendors. If you are brought to a certain market or stall by your guide, he or she may earn a little commission from the vendors for bringing them customers. This commission is included in the price you pay.

Being “ripped off” or a victim of situational discrimination

There is a difference between structural and situational discrimination. Due to structural discrimination, and the fact that the global North still exploits the global South, people from Europe have enough money to fly to Africa and spend some vacation there, whereby many Africans don’t have equal chances.

That is why vendors situationally discriminate possible customers, especially if they are white. For them, white means rich and they can hike the prices for sometimes 1000%. Situational discrimination is not to be confused with racism, because the power structures are very clear:

While you may feel angry or sad about “being ripped off”, in a global perspective you are still privileged.

This infographic should help you to better understand the concept of structural and situational power and discrimination.

infographic structural power and discrimination, situational power and discrimination

Alternatives for bad bargainers

If you are as uncomfortable as me when it comes to bargaining, there are several alternatives:

  • Buy things in supermarkets or shops.
  • Ask for help in bargaining from a local friend.
  • Before you go, try to find out the approximate prices for the goods you want to buy and take those as points of orientation.
  • If you stay somewhere for longer, frequent the same vendors and build relationships. You will get to know each other and be able to estimate each other’s expectations.
  • Ask for discount (see above) in a friendly way. And if you promise to come back and buy again – do it!

What are your best tips about getting good deals on the markets in a responsible way? Let me know in the comments below!

How I travel on a low budget in Kenya

travel on a low budget in Kenya

and why a change in perspective is the key to all richness

Just to warn you: This is much more a blog post on your own attitude and how it can help you deal with the money issue while travelling. It’s not a guide to travel on a low budget in Kenya. BUT: With the right perspective, money issues become much easier to handle.

I went to Kenya as a volunteer because I didn’t have money. Or at least, that was one of the many reasons. The African continent fascinated me and I wanted to get in touch with people instead of visiting the place as a tourist.

In fact, travelling as a volunteer may not be as money-saving as you think.

I paid for my flight tickets, the German organisation that connected me to the Kenyan one, and for them I paid again, for hosting and food. Regardless for me, after finishing school, volunteering was a cheaper option to travel.

It is always good to have a bit of a buffer on your account when going abroad. Many people work extra and save money for their big trip. Tara wrote a non BS guide on how she earns money for travelling.

It’s hard earned money. And it’s precious, so you don’t want to waste it.

I lived very modest in Kenya, never bought sweets or anything that appeared luxury to me. I hadn’t done that in Germany either, in order to keep my bucks together and make this trip happen.

It took me many years to realise two things:

  1. The fact that I am in a position to work extra, earn and save money for a flight ticket, is a privilege that not many people have.
  2. And: Some people in Kenya would have preferred me to send them the money instead of coming.

Some people see me as a walking wallet. Because I do own more money than them.

The most important thing to keep in mind when travelling to the global South is that you as a traveller from the global North will always have more money, better ways to get money and higher financial security than many people you will encounter. Think health insurance, visa card, student loans, help from your family, etc.

Many of my Kenyan friends don’t have a bank account. It’s not necessary for them.

Keeping my privilege in mind makes it a bit easier to decide on what to spend on and it helps to understand certain situations.

Volunteers invited my husband to a fancy restaurant once. To get there, he spent half of the money he had that day on transport and remained with another 80 Kenya Shillings, just enough to get back home. After the meal, where he only took tea which was already expensive enough, the inviting volunteer left a tip of 400 Kenya Shillings on the table. Tipping is generally not very common in Kenya, and there was my husband, spending his last bucks on transport, leaving 400 Shillings on the table of a noble restaurant.

I still don’t spend a lot of money when travelling, mostly because I don’t have it anyway.

  • I don’t need much anymore, as my life has become more minimalistic.
  • I personally don’t give money to people begging in the streets, whether it is in Kenya or in Germany. Even though I could. I may write about my reasons for that another time.
  • I developed a feeling for when something is expensive. I buy local food on the market. I use public transport and don’t join all-inclusive safari packages. Goods and services are cheaper compared to what I would have to pay in Germany. But that is not reason enough for me to abandon my modest lifestyle in Kenya.
  • I don’t invite everyone all the time and pay for everything, just because I feel guilty about having more money than many of my Kenyan friends. But I sometimes cook for them, I help them when they have funerals or hospital bills. Not because I have money, but because it is very common to do that in Kenya.

To me it is important to add value to people’s lives and make them know that they are adding value to mine. Money discussions are still uncomfortable, but I know my privilege and that makes me more open towards the Kenyan culture of dealing with money. I have learned to develop my standing point when it comes to what to pay for and what not.

How do you deal with “the money issue” while travelling? Do you have any good tips or tools you use? Let us know in the comments below!