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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The Hustle

One thing I’ve learned from my Kenyan friends is how to hustle. Hustling involves trying to make ends meet and bring in extra income. Kenyans are very clever at finding ways to have several small streams of incomes. Some of our friends started out by renting a tuk tuk while at college, then owning one, then renting it out and finally selling it. Other sell rice and soap on the side. One sells sweets and biscuits, while having a part time job and learning to sew so that she can put herself through uni. Another mate when he is driving 8 hours to his village will stop at a bus park and offer a seat at a reduced price, that way his petrol is covered.

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You’ll see very few beggars compared to other countries because people get it that asking for money doesn’t really work – but doing something, even if it’s small, makes a difference. There’s no social welfare here so you work or you don’t eat.

We live on a very small budget. In fact a usual missionary/development worker the average budget is $45,000, we’re on half of that. A huge influence is the exchange rate and over the last year we’ve seen the Aussie and Kiwi dollar go down the toilet. So if there’s anything extra that comes our way, well, we have to trust God to get us through. As things are so expensive here, we make sure we buy items when we travel as they are WAY cheaper overseas. But for dental and optical needs it’s cheaper in Kenya, so we get that done here.

However, it’s not just about praying and hoping, it’s using your brain to see where you can ‘hustle’.

So we started thinking about how could we bring in money when we couldn’t hold down employment in another country. We are now kid free so have two bedrooms and a spare bathroom available. While it can be a hassle having extra people at home, the monetary benefits are worth it – most of the time. We’ve met some great people from lots of countries, with some of them still keeping in touch years later.

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This has enabled us to pay for extras like car repairs and travel. We have a bunch of supporters from New Zealand and Australia that help us get buy each month but there’s always things we can’t budget for. Our car is a big one because the roads are so rough. Every three years we need to cover our visas to stay in country and you can kiss goodbye $1,500 on that one.

When we head back to New Zealand and Australia (which has been way more often than we ever intended). People often ask Pete to do some painting of their house. He always gives a really cheap rate but the same people also put us up at their house and feed us.  Pete started his handyman business when we lived in Sydney and he is really good at what he does. He won’t compromise on quality and always does his best. It’s helped us to buy tickets home. It will also help us have a family holiday together for the first time in 8 years.

8 years ago there was no son-in-law nor grandkids!

And there’s the occasional time that people give us extra money to hire cars or buy tickets. It doesn’t happen a lot but when it does its mega awesome. When Pete’s dad passed away, it was a couple of people who stepped up and covered both of our flights. Trust me, it was really expensive in January. It’s always very humbling when people partner up with us because we know it’s a huge sacrifice for them. They could be spending it on their own holiday but they give it to us, with no strings attached.

Everything we have in our home is because people have generously donated towards us. From the TV to the beds to the microwave to every other piece of furniture in our house.

The time is coming soon when our car, which is costing us more in repairs than every before, will need replacing. We’re not sure how that will happen and we’re not stressing about it (not right now anyway) but Pete does have his eye on another one.

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We’re also working with our team on how our organisation can raise more funds for projects and office costs. So we’ve been all learning how to make such things as hand made soaps, candles and bracelets to possibly sell at markets both here and overseas. It costs around $500 a month just to pay our staff and run the office, so we need to find that extra.

Here’s a couple of questions to ask yourself:

  • What can I do in my situation to bring in a few extra dollars?
  • Can I cut back some areas in my spending?
  • Do I really need those new clothes, shoes, car right now or can I save it and wait?
  • Do I have some painting that Pete can do for me in 2019?

 

 

Can you have Christmas without Candy Canes?

In another week, most people around the world will be celebrating Christmas. Some will be with friends, others with family and way too many people will spend the day alone. Probably for most it will be about Santa and gifts, for some it’s the time to remember the birth of Jesus Christ.

There’s always competition on who can have the best lighting show on their house and the most impressive gift given.

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We have some traditions for Christmas. The tree goes up on the 1st December, followed by the lights. Each year we each go out and choose a decoration for the tree. Sometimes we’re in different countries so it’s nice as a memory of our travels.

This year we will be in Kenya for Christmas. We were here last year too but we were actually meant to be in South Africa. That all fell through at the last minute and so we felt a little lost being in Nairobi. All of our friends had gone away, both local and expat. Nairobi pretty much empties out as this is one of the few times people will travel to go and see their families. We knew we would be here this year so planned for it well.

However, the other day I was looking at the tree that Lizzie put up and really missed seeing the candy canes. I’ve never seen them in Kenya and although there is a lot more Christmassy stuff this year, not a candy cane in sight. We went to church on Sunday and there wasn’t even a Christmas tree up. The only decorations was a small wreath and a couple of red baubles. While there was a lot of people saying ‘Merry Christmas’ it didn’t quite have that feel.

Last weekend we took some friends to Thika Road Mall. TRM has the best decorations in the whole of the city. It’s quite marvelous and has such a Christmassy feel about it. There’s nothing like glitz and glamour to walk through. tree

When we lived in Australia it was often around 30 degrees and our days were spent at the beach having fish and chips. Now we live in Kenya with similar weather conditions but the beach for us is a 9 hour drive away. We brought all of our tree decorations with us from Australia and in 2012 we purchased a fake tree which has kept us going.

We have had to purposely make Christmas a great thing here. This year we decided that it would be no presents, but we would go camping instead. We made up 5 food parcels for people who needed them. We bought some Christmas crackers to take away with us. Every now and then Chrissy music plays through our house.

What we have is limited compared to how we would do things when we have greater family around. While it would be really cool to have candy canes, I think we can do without them. We’ve made a decision to make the most of it even if we don’t have much.

The one thing I have learned from living in Africa is that it’s not about the trimmings or gifts, it’s about getting together with family and giving kids what they so desperately want and need – TIME.

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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?

Home and Away

I’ve tried all I can to call Kenya home but it’s not quite working. I thought if I put it into my head that this was ‘home’ it would happen automatically, but it hasn’t. I still call Australia home. While we will always consider ourselves Kiwis, we see ourselves as more honorary Aussies. Of course, when it comes to the rugby we always love the haka. Our 11 years in Australia were some of the best we’ve ever had.

It’s not a bad thing though, pretty much all expats have a place they call home, but that’s because they’re only here for 2 or 3 years on assignment. For us, as long as the money lasts, we’re here.

It’s been nearly 9 months since we’ve been in our own place. For a month our Aussie mum put us up at her place, then we spent a month in the US before coming here to Nairobi. We’ve been house sitting since then. Getting into our own house is pretty important. I was so over having our stuff in boxes that I just had to get some small things out. Some have been packed since a year ago!

A place can be a house but definitely not a home. I’m hoping when we find a place next week that we can really make it our own. It was way too expensive to bring many belongings with us from Aussie so it was just a few mementos and kitchen gear. Everything else we had to start from scratch.

Between the time we came in 2011 and then again in 2012 living costs had pretty much doubled. Still, we press on.

There’s been some challenges to even finding a place. Twice now we’ve been promised an apartment and it’s fallen through. Apparently on the 28th we’ve been guaranteed a 3 bedroom apartment just up the road from the office. I’m not into crossing fingers but I really hope we get it. The owners of the house we’re in are coming back from New Zealand in exactly 2 weeks and we also have some Kiwi friends coming for a week. So, we’re cutting it pretty thin.

apartment

The actual apartment we hope to get.

At this stage we’ll be sleeping on airbeds, but that’s okay, we’ve done it before.

Thanks to some generous friends we will have a couch to sit on! As I’m writing this blog our builder is sitting in our lounge drawing what he’s done. It was meant to be finished tomorrow, but in good Kenyan time it’ll be next week. We are so grateful for all of our supporters we really could not be here without them. When renting an apartment here you even have to supply your own gas oven, known as a ‘cooker’ here. I guess that’s because people steal them when they leave.

One of the reasons we are here is to host the many international visitors who come to Kenya to look at the work we are doing. Every month for the rest of the year we get the great pleasure of having people in our home, whether it be just for one night or seven. In fact, one couple arrive just a few days after we hopefully move into our home! I love having people at our place, whether they are a local or a visitor. To us it’s really really important to have a nice place that people can call their second home.

Thankfully it’s not over the top expensive to get furniture made. The same lounge suite we wanted in Sydney is about ¼ of the price to be made here and we only have to wait a week for it. To get a bed made takes around 4 days.

Hence, we’ve started a campaign called ‘House our Home’ to give people an opportunity to partner with us to make our new house (actually an apartment), our home. Check out the link HERE which has a whole list of things people can donate towards. The cool thing is that it doesn’t matter if you’re in Australia, the US or the UK, it’s tax deductible, sorry about the rest of you though!

I’m hoping that when we get into our own place that we’ll feel like this could become our home. We’re not ready to go back to Australia yet, but I think I’ll always call it home (of some sort anyway).

Life In A Shipping Container

This coming week sees us living in Kenya for 2 months. It also sees us moving out of living in a shipping container (converted of course) and into a real, life house. In all we haven’t lived in our own place for 5 months, so we are going to be very happy campers.

Most of the time it’s been great living there. It’s onsite, so we’re close to work. We have some immediate neighbours as there are quite a few people living here too.  However, it’s had it’s challenges and ‘cabin fever’ has taken on a new meaning.

While most people wouldn’t even consider living in a 6 metre container, it’s a good learning curve.

Millions of people around the world for whom poverty is an everyday occurrence live in nothing bigger than a 3 by 3 metre area, usually with 5 family members. It got me thinking about what life in a extremely small area is really like.

 

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. It’s complicated

You plan and then something comes in to interrupt it. The power goes out unexpectedly and if you don’t have charcoal for the BBQ, or it happens just as you go to start cooking, what will you have for dinner. Belongings have to be stacked up because there’s no room for drawers or a wardrobe, it is so easy to mess up. Over the last couple of months we’ve bought some plastic drawers and a sort of freestanding wardrobe. I think to myself of the millions of people who the amount of belongings they have fit into one plastic bag. They don’t have several pairs of sneakers or two jackets for when it gets cold. They wear one set of clothes until they literally fall off their bodies. If their home gets destroyed by fire, war or floods there’s no government handout, but somehow they start all over again.

 

2. There’s no privacy

If I had a lounge, I would purposely sit in it wearing my pyjamas watching a DVD. Where we are living there are two rooms and at any time, the people living in the same compound can come in. Both rooms have doors to outside that have large glass panels in them. I wait some time in the mornings before I open them just to have ‘our’ space. If I were living with poverty, my whole family would use the same room for everything. There’s no ‘time out’ space, if you want to study you have to do with everything else going on.

 

3. It can be noisy

Sound travels and bounces off walls. You can hear all sorts of body sounds, music, animals outside and anything else happening.  While our container is lined and painted, those in poverty may have a shack that leaks, doesn’t lock and is unsafe. When it rains here, it pours, but at least our roof is a good one. I often think of those in places like Kibera Slum whose homes have rushing streams through them when it rains.

 

4. You can use one thing at a time

As with most places, ours doesn’t have lots of power points. We were clever and bought a multi-box with us from Australia which helps. But, our kitchenette (a benchtop) is all we have to work with. If someone is working in the kitchen the other person has to wait. You can’t have two of you preparing vegetables at the same time, the other one has to go outside to do it.  Compared to those living in small shacks in the slum, we are living in luxury. We have electricity (most of the time) and a kitchen area. Often the one room home is shared for all activities. Or, they work outside their house where a dirt track, chickens, an open sewer system is.

 

5. Sometimes you’re climbing over each other

The sink isn’t deep enough to do the dishes. We have a huge bowl to wash our dinner dishes in. However, the person drying the dishes needs the person washing to move over to the right to put the dishes away. But, we have a tap. We have the ability to boil hot water. We have a place to hang the drying towel. What we don’t have to do is walk to the nearest water point and carry back 25kg’s of water after paying for it. While we can pour the dirty water down the sink, many people have to throw it outside their front door.

 

6. One bathroom means you have to wait – even if you can’t

One of our sayings here is ‘Go when you can’.  Once you leave the property you don’t know where your next toilet stop will be because there might not just be one. Last weekend we had a parents meeting but had a huge lunch beforehand. The meeting went for 5 hours and there are no toilets in the slum that we would choose to use. So, the first stop afterwards was at the mall for a bathroom break. It can get frustrating when someone is in the one and only bathroom and you want to brush your teeth. I’m not sure what I’m whinging about though, we actually have our own bathroom and a flushing toilet. We don’t have to do our business into a plastic bag and throw it away, and hope I don’t walk into someone else’s plastic bag.  A billion people don’t have access to a toilet. We do.

 

So, living out of a suitcase for months on end isn’t my ideal, it’s a good reality check and opens one’s eyes to what it’s like for millions of people around the world.

However, I am going to live up being in a house!

 

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Christchurch CBD now is made of converted shipping containers.

Surviving Week One

So, we’ve made it to the end of week one of our new life in Nairobi. It certainly has been an adventure, especially since we spent nearly 3 weeks in the States dashing from one place to another. I will be glad not to have to pack and get back on a plane for a long time. Actually, tomorrow we pack to go to Tanzania on a 7 hour shuttle to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and then fly home.
But we’ll forget that for now and let you in on some of the challenges / pleasures of the week.

1. Accommodation

We were pleasantly surprised to have a cottage to ourselves on our arrival. Okay, it’s 2 shipping containers transformed into a cottage but it has two rooms and a bathroom. We were expecting the 3 of us to be put into one small room and try and not fall over each other with all our baggage.

2. The Team

We’ve joined the team from Afri-Lift and they have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome. There was even a fruit bowl and food in the fridge when we got here. They’re happy to give info on how much to tip, how much we should be charged for either a matatu or motorbike ride to the mall. I even have my own desk in the office!

3. The Weather

I could easily get changed 3 times a day here. Shorts are not what you wear to the office but I’d be more than happy to wear them if I could. Things really heat up here late in the morning and jeans are a killer in it. I spend a lot of time in an office so can get away with it, but am really over them. In January it gets up to 30 degrees, so I’ll be clothes hunting for something that doesn’t look daggy but not expensive. We’ve noticed a real price hike since being here last year.

4. Transport

We don’t have our own car yet, and won’t for a while so are catching pike pike’s (motorbikes) and matatus (mini vans squashing in 14 people). They are super cheap, only about 45 cents to go to the mall. They also move really well through the traffic. Congestion is an understatement here. It can take 2 hours to get back from the airport, for what should be a 20 minute ride. We’ve also been doing a bit of walking cause that’s what the locals do and a lot of the time it’s faster than driving short distances.

5. Security

Our neighbour had her handbag stolen out of her car as she was stopped in traffic. Sure, she should’ve had her door locked and window up but she’s a visitor and wouldn’t think that thieves work in teams. We take as little money with us as possible and even on the compound keep everything locked when we’re in the office. Security is something you can’t take for granted, especially here. You have to keep your wits about you. You also don’t go out at night very far, so for us we catch a taxi. We’ve got someone we can call upon and we can trust to not rip us off too much.

6. Technology

Technology is great when it works, but when it doesn’t it’s a pain in the butt. For some reason my Aussie phone won’t send or receive anything even though I’ve topped it up. When you go from one side of the compound to another you have to log into different routers. Last night we had our first power cut, when Pete was in the shower, which we thought was really funny. When it’s dark here, it’s really dark. Most of the time we have the internet, our local phones work and life isn’t harsh for us, just sometimes inconvenient.

7. The Food

After 3 weeks of eating crappy US food (sorry guys, but so true) it’s nice to get back to normality. Gone is the idea of steak on the barbie, instead it’s often chicken. Pete’s discovered a charcoal BBQ and it cooks chicken really well. I’m surprised that the supermarket up the road has some gluten free items like cereal but I miss a few things like rice crackers and the New Zealand cheese. I’m sure I’ll find them somewhere, well, not the cheese! Pete is loving the Kenyan coffee and there is plenty of fruit galore. We’ve got a small bar fridge so a big weekly shop is out of the question. We send Liz up to the supermarket each day but she is still not confident on crossing one of the busy roads.

I think once we come back from Tanzania we’ll be more settled and in the swing of things. But then we have a camp we’re involved in so who really knows!