Looking After Your Mental Health Abroad

One thing I can tell you from living in parts of the world that are considered ‘developing’ there are many challenges you don’t have to face in a First World country. All of us expats agree that it’s not for the faint hearted.

mental

Lack of freedom would be the biggest loss you face. Not traveling far when it gets dark. Locking your car doors and not putting your windows down. Security checks for bombs and weapons to get into a mall, mosque, government office. Not to forget getting your bags checked several times a day. It’s a hassle but it’s life here and there are other places that are way more strict than Kenya.

The separation from family is a daily challenge. We’ve got it lucky though because of technology. But when you’re reminded how many birthdays and Christmases you miss, milestones in your grandkids and the fact that they only know you through a computer. It is 8 years since we have had Christmas with our kids. A few years ago we made the decision that 2018 we would get together and after much saving and scrimping, it is only a few weeks away.

christmas

One thing people aren’t aware of is the loneliness that can eat away at you. I’ve got expat friends who move every few years because of their spouses work. It’s hard for them to connect with people as they know they’ll be gone soon. It’s also hard to find info about basic things like where to buy stuff and how the system works here. It’s okay if you’ve got kids and work but what if you’re the trailing spouse?

It’s expensive. There’s the assumption that Africa is cheap to live in. Sure, the local fruit and veges are a good price but pretty much everything is as expensive as in Aussie, but mostly twice the price. For us our funds come from New Zealand and Australia and we lose about one third of our income because of the exchange rate. Some expats who are employed here get bonus packages (housing, travel, insurance etc) which makes it very attractive for them. Not in our case as development workers.

Some companies send out their expats every 3 months on a 6 day paid holiday. We saw that and totally understand why. The pressure of being a foreigner and the daily living conditions put on you a pressure you that you don’t have to face in your home country. A few times a year we try to get out of Nairobi, grab our tent and get among the wildlife. It’s really good therapy.

wild

A really big challenge is not having someone to talk to about the issues you face within your marriage, family or life. A local doesn’t understand what it’s like for foreigners and have those pressures. I’ve come to the thought that the challenges you might have in your home country and you get through them, become really big cracks when you are in a developing country. We’ve had good friends who didn’t really have issues until they went to another culture but through the pressure of having to come up with the finances of putting their kids through international schools (super expensive), trying to set up their work in a place where people didn’t understand English too well and struggling to get an income, was just too much for them. Some returned to their home country pretty quickly, while others separated.

Broken Relationship

Looking after your mental health is really important, anywhere in the world. So, if you’re out on foreign soil for a long time, here’s some of my suggestions to help you last the distance:

 

  • There’s nothing wrong with taking time out! Our Christmas break is actually an investment into our mental health. I’m calling it my mental health break after a really challenging year.

 

  • It’s okay to get out and have some fun every now and then. A missionary over here said to us ‘Don’t let people see you’re out having a coffee or people will think you’re mis-using their donation’. That’s ridiculous! You have to have an out. I go to the movies a few times a year (only $4 here) and Pete indulges in a bought coffee. Anywhere there’s nothing wrong with that. You have to live a real life.

 

  • Enjoy the journey, don’t endure it. You are in a unique part of the world so go and experience the things you can only do there. A few years ago I went white water rafting on the Nile. Who else says they’ve done that? We have got to know some absolutely amazing people that we wouldn’t have if we’d stayed back in Aussie.

 

  • Mostly, remember why you’re here. I say to Pete when he gets over something ‘We chose to live here and have to put up with the crap that comes with it’. Stay focused on why you chose to come here and remember that no one forced you to do it.

 

Have you lived in a developing country before? What we’re some of your challenges?

 

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I’ve a Split Personality

I’ve been away from our African home for 3 weeks now and I’ve suddenly realized that I’ve got what used to be called a split personality, now it’s known as having a Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Here’s one definition:

‘dissociative identity disorder is a severe form of dissociation, a mental process which produces a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity’ (webmd.com)

Most of us turn towards Hollywood on this issue where we see someone suddenly transform into a totally different person and go ‘Oh, they have a split personality’.

Why on Earth would I confess to this?

It’s quite easy really. I was in the car with Pete and we agreed that we felt like fish out of water in a country that we call our ‘other home’. Sure, we hold an NZ passport but it doesn’t make us Kiwis. We are a mixed breed – born in New Zealand, spent a good number of years in Australia but Kenya feels more home than any other place.

tea 2

This does not taste like Kenyan tea.

We literally have to speak a different language, dress differently and act differently. I still get shocked that there is no place in cafes to wash your hands before you eat. It rains here A LOT and it’s the coldest we’ve been in a long time. Temperature wise it’s not that cold but it’s a chill that goes to the bones.

It’s almost like we have to put away our ‘Africa lifestyle’ and pretend that we belong here.

But there’s this tugging of a war inside of me. I’ve adapted and become someone else who doesn’t fit in here, I’m just pretending. I feel like the real me is waiting back in Nairobi.

It’s not that I’m not making the most of it, it just feels weird. I’m loving time with family and the food here is phenomenal, there’s no doubt about that. When I’m skyping my team back home I can slide back into my comfort zone. Even after a few weeks of being away, I feel like there’s a strong pull to East Africa while here I am not connected to much Kiwiana at all.

So what’s the answer?

I think I will embrace my very different ‘mes’, while I’m full on Kiwi on the outside, on the inside I’m very Kenyan. I’ll keep speaking English out loud and Swahili in my head. I’ll use knife and fork with my chicken here but gladly use fingers in Kenya.  I’ll get to understand how this new country of mine (for 2 months) works and then miss the simplicity of it when I return home.

sevens

And yes, the Kenyans beat the Kiwis in the sevens.

When you see me, feel free to say ‘habari za asubuhi’ (good morning) and you will make my day, but I warn you, my Kenyan side might come out in full swing!

 

 

The Tourist v The Resident

We often get short term visitors here in Kenya, some for just a night, others for a week. Not many come for a couple of weeks as they’re usually passing through on their way to another country. We always go out of our way for visitors, but I think they assume that’s how it always is. For our last visitor we bought bacon but I don’t think he has a clue that we only buy bacon once or twice a year – it’s way out of our budget.

We’ve been living here for 5 years and before that travelling back and forth for another 5. The longer we are the more interesting observations we’ve made.

 

Clothing

Tourists like to wear khaki coloured shorts or shirts. Naturally, when they go out on safari, this is the chosen colour. They also wear funny looking sandals. Too often, we see people wearing inappropriate clothing – like super short/tight shorts – it doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

As a resident, you know to wear covered in shoes because its so dusty and the ground dirty. I’m always jealous of Africa women because they can get away with brightly coloured clothes. Me, I’m just emerging into florals. Khaki is only for safaris that’s for sure. Unfortunately we are seeing more locals wear shorter clothing but nowhere near what we see in the West – thankfully.

tourist

 

Photos

Yep, you can spot the tourists as they all hang their cameras around their necks. They whip out a camera and take a billion and one shots – without asking the person. They are happy to shove a camera in the face of a stranger and snap away and then wonder why the person asks for money.

As a local you learn pretty fast that you don’t win friends that way. No one likes having their photo taken without permission. It’s also not safe to walk around with a camera. Nothing says ‘steal from me’ than a camera on your body.

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Security

I feel afraid for people when I see them walking around as it gets dark. It starts getting dark at 6.45pm and pitch dark by 7pm, it happens that fast – every day. I also see people on the back of motorbike taxis with no helmet or safety gear. It’s not like you can grow another head or anything!

Our daughter Liz travels lots of places on the back of a bike, but only if she wears a bright protective jacket and she has her own helmet. Once, her driver skidded on mud while he was taking a short cut and she ended up on the ground. It totally shook her up but reinforced the need for safety gear. We try not to drive long distances when its dark, there’s just too many people who walk around and vehicles without any lights to make it worth it. You have to have a plan if you want to last long term here. That includes not walking around when it starts getting dark. There’s been way to many muggings for that.

bike

Money

Tipping isn’t compulsory here but when you get good service, it’s appreciated. Our biggest note is 1,000 shillings, equivalent to $10USD. At one meal out with some visitors someone dropped in a whole 1,000 shillings, against our protests. For him it was nothing, but for us we could see the ongoing issues with it. The waiter was impressed because he was getting a great amount, but then it reinforces the thought ‘all foreigners are wealthy and we ‘poor Africans’ should be looked after’.

If we are just getting a coffee, we’ll give 50 shillings (65 cents), if it’s a meal, it will be 100 shillings ($1.30). If there’s a large group we’ll add another one hundred shillings. You have to think about the affect of what you do on the communities you work with.

 

So when you come, and we hope you do, please listen to us – we might just know a thing or two about the place, the culture, the people. This is their home, this is our home.

 

Not Quite What I Thought It Would Be Like

Yesterday we moved our belongings into an apartment. For the past 6 months we’ve been living out of suitcases while we went on a fundraising tour. Pretty much we were in a different bed every second night, so we got into a routine and where everything went. We had our ‘speaking clothes’, ‘casual wear’ and ‘travel clothes’. We knew where our toiletries would be and most importantly, where to find the hair brush.

Of course, after 6 months it did get a bit tedious but we were there for work so we made it the easiest for us.

So when we decided to return I was really looking forward to settling down and having a home to ourselves.

However, it hasn’t turned out so wonderful as I thought.

I thought finding an apartment would be easy. What I didn’t take into account was how prices for rent had risen since we’d been away. We were pretty specific on what we wanted. We needed a balcony for our BBQ (and I love sitting out there) and I wanted somewhere for my washing machine. I also wanted to drop how much we would pay per month because we hadn’t raised our personal income enough to spend more.

To find a place here you decide on the area you want to live in, then go from gate to gate and ask the guards if there is anything available. After a couple of fruitless days we employed the skills of two agents. I’d had other agents call me after I made some enquiries online but they all wanted $50 upfront for a commitment fee. At least these two guys wanted nothing (they got paid by the landlady).

We ended up with two options, none we were 100% happy about but we needed to find something this week. On the Friday we signed for the apartment and then discovered that the President announced a public holiday on Monday. Thankfully, the guy we’ve used before was able to bring together a team to work on the Monday anyway.

I’m used to moving so it was no big deal to do it for the umpteenth time.

What got me was when we started unpacking the 30 something boxes. I got so overwhelmed by the amount of stuff we had accumulated over 4 years. I was used to just a few clothes and here I was looking at more clothes than I ever saw. Then when I went to unpack the kitchenware I got annoyed with myself in how many plastic containers we had. Seriously, did we need that many containers? Did we need that many clothes and shoes?

I know after a few weeks I’ll adjust but right now I’m staring at my wardrobe and already deciding that if I don’t wear them in the next few months, I’ll pass them on to someone who actually needs them.

We do have to ask ourselves if we really NEED the amount of belongings we own. While travelling I’ve seen some people who have a whole room dedicated to just their shoes. Isn’t there a better investment in life than that?

Stuff disintegrates, but the investment we can make into the lives of people is what continues forever.

That’s where I’ll be making more of an investment in. What about you?