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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Why I Don’t Run Anymore

I have been running pretty much my whole life. I remember my dad kicking all 4 of us kids out the door to go running with him. He died when I was 14 and I think it was part of the grieving process that I just kept it up.

Throughout high school I entered races on sports day but I was never THAT good, especially the sprints. Doesn’t help when you have the New Zealand champion at the same school.

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I think I like running because it’s just me and my headphones out there. It’s a great way to shake things off, especially if you’re in a grump or trying to work things through in your head.

I took a break when my husband and kids came along. We were youth workers and threw ourselves into that 110%. New Zealand winters are wickedly cold and there is no incentive to go skating on black ice when you’re running. That’s the bonus of living in Kenya, you never get great highs and lows in the weather.

When we moved to Sydney, Australia, we lived close to the beach. There is nothing like the smell of salt water mixed with fresh air. It’s quite magical down by the ocean. You can have a really crappy day but head down to the beach and it all melts away. Most mornings I would get out for a run and then a quick walk on the beach.

I also like running because I like food. I’m not a piggy, I just appreciate food. However, as you get older, shedding the weight becomes a major challenge. Running on sand as well as up and down stairs gives you great thigh muscles. But, nothing ever came off the waist. Science tells us that something like 80% of weight loss is from the food we eat and only 20% from exercise. I’m not disciplined enough to go super healthy.

We’ve been living in Kenya for 5 years now. For the last couple of years it feels like I’ve been more out than in because of international travel. Mostly it’s for family stuff but also fundraising. Overall this year I’m 6 months in Kenya and 6 months overseas, with me being away for 6 weeks at a time.

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If only the place I went running was as good as this.

So I’ve decided for the rest of the year that I won’t go running. I’ve found it pretty impossible to go running when I’m on the road. Most of my friends who travel for work stay at hotels that have a gym. Me, I stay on people’s sofas or spare room. While I do find that going out for a run is a good way to get a lay of the land, I am the worst when it comes to directions. Also, because I move from one town to another after a few days and spend at least the first week trying to get over jetlag it’s near impossible to get into a routine.

Instead of running which I can’t sustain when I’m on the road, I’m power walking. It’s easier on the knees and it looks just as good as my ‘granny shuffle’. It doesn’t build as much muscle but I’m compensating by doing some exercises like situps and squats. So my ‘plan’ when I’m travelling is to at least walk three times a week for 30 minutes, which is what I do when I’m at home. At least that way I’m getting some form of exercise.

Will I ever go back to running? I hope so. I’ve finally found a better route that has less people walking on it and less potholes or a footpath. There’s no sewerage filled streams to run over and lots of trees. My running shoes are more than 5 years old so will pick up a spare pair I have in New Zealand and hopefully get back into it. I can’t see myself entering into any 15km ‘funruns’ but I can see myself enjoying the great outdoors.

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My typical running gear. This was in NZ when I tried walking on the beach as my exercise.

I’ll be 49 in a few months but I’m not going to let that nor my environment dictate my health to me. I hope to get back to running, I really do like it and at the same time I hate it because it’s such hard work. But then, I do like eating a lot!

 

 

 

The Challenge of Exercising in Nairobi

Nairobi is not the easiest place to keep fit. There are lots of gyms popping up but there are very few places you can get out in the fresh air. We have Karura Forest which you can walk or run through, for us it’s a 30 minute drive away. If you’re into tennis there’s a number of courts to hire. Some people risk their lives biking. I think Nairobi has one actually hockey field but it’s under construction. We have the only ice skating rink in East Africa and costs $10 for a one hour session.

 

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My faithful runners have kept me going for 5 years

So there’s not a lack of variety of things to do, you just need to have the budget and time to drive to where you need to go. Liz plays soccer (we call it football here) on Saturday mornings and she’s just discovered volleyball on Friday nights.

For me I like to run.

I like getting out there as soon as the sun rises and it’s safe to be out there by myself. This means the earliest I can go is 7am. Because we’re close to the Equator the sun starts rising at 6.30am, every day and it’s pitch dark by 7pm.

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Normal 7am traffic

I’ve never been a fast runner, in fact it’s probably more jogging than running. I’ve dubbed it my ‘granny shuffle’.

It’s not exactly easy to run here though. Hundreds of people are walking on the side of the road to get to work. 85% of Nairobians rely on public transport. That means they walk as far as possible to reach a bus to take them to work. The average person spends 1 – 2 hours each way to work. That means I have to run in between people, and most don’t move over.

There are very little footpaths in our area. You simply walk on a dirt track on the side of the road. More footpaths are being built which is great, but not around us. I try and run on the road when it’s clear but with the condensed traffic it doesn’t happen much. Some idiot on a local building site decided to put the broken tiles and bricks into a shallow ditch that suffices as a path. It’s really dangerous whether you are walking or running. It’s easy to twist an ankle.

 

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The ‘footpath’

Buses are my biggest annoyance. The other morning there were 3 school buses outside our compound picking up school kids. The blocked the whole road and don’t care about pedestrians. Just up the road a bus pulled up in front of me and parked up on the only footpath we have. There’s plenty of private schools in the area and kids are picked up from 6am onwards. It’s sad to see the little preschoolers being picked up super early and then they get dropped off at 5pm.

Between the traffic, dirt tracks and people it’s a real challenge to even want to get out there.

However, I’ve found a secret place.

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A 5 minute walk from our house is a gated community full of huge houses hidden behind large fences and security guards. Pete tells me there are a few politicians living there which explains the niceness of it all. Only residents can drive in there, there’s painted lines on the road and there are no potholes at all. In fact you don’t feel like you’re in Nairobi at all.

Running along there with the beautiful green trees, no noise (except the guard dogs) is just serene.

 

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The entrance into the gated community

Over the last couple of months of exercising there I’ve seen the regulars and spotted the new ones out there either walking or pounding the pavement. There’s even a small fitness group with a personal trainer that meets a few times a week.

 

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A little slice of heaven

We move out of our place at the end of the month and I often wonder if we will get an apartment in the same area when I return in September. If not, then I’m going to have to start finding a safe running area all over again. This one took me 2 years to find this one, I wonder how long it will take to find the next one.

 

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How red I get at the end of it all

Neways, Maccas and Corruption

I’ve spent the last 6 weeks travelling through New Zealand and Australia talking with both younger and older people about Africa and the work we do there. It’s been quite a transition in getting used to the convenience of life here and trying not to speak in Swahili and then the biggest shock of how expensive food is.

There’s a few things that we don’t get in Kenya where we are based.

Neways. These are a great range of products that have ingredients that don’t harm us. You’d be surprised what chemicals are in our hair, skin and household products. When we lived in Australia we converted as much as possible to Neways products and really saw the difference. 18 months later we still have some shaving gel left, but everything else has been used up. It’s a real bummer that we can’t get Neways in Kenya but that’s not all we can’t get.

neways McDonalds. Yep, while there’s KFC there is no sight of Maccas. Kenyans love chicken and chips, but there are also some burger bars around the place. KFC is extremely expensive and because I’m a coeliac, can’t eat it anyway. KFC is so popular that sometimes you have to wait 30 minutes for your order.

maccas There’s a big difference on why both Neways and Maccas aren’t in Kenya and it’s very simple – corruption. For any international company to get established in a country across East Africa, there would have to be a lot (and I mean a lot) of ‘incentive dollars’ or ‘lunch money’ handed over. I’m not saying KFC or any other business is corrupt, but I do know for a fact that both Neways and McDonalds could if they wanted to, buy their way into East Africa.

Corruption has strangled the advancement of developing countries. In 1963 Kenya and Singapore were both on the same economic level. I know that there are several reasons why Kenya is in it’s current economic state but everyone knows that corruption has eaten away at the quality of life there. It goes through every level in our communities and it is a horrible thing. It is common practise to be pulled up by police for lunch money, or be given a different price because we are white. While we will do pretty much anything to not be thrown into a Kenyan jail there is always the fight to do what is right.

The pastoral team at our church have made a stand not to give in to corruption even if they have to go to jail. Now, if we can get the other 43 million in our country to do the same maybe we might just be able to turn things around.