This is probably the most frequent question I get when I tell people I am working in Kenya. The string of terrible bombings and shootings in Kenya makes news all around the world. I also travel to Nigeria on a regular basis, and the horrific abductions of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram are even worse. So it is entirely reasonable to wonder what it’s like to actually work here, and whether it is as horrific as the media reports make it out to be.
To start with, I can honestly say that at no point since I arrived here have I felt in physical danger. I have been offered dubious taxi rides, shaken down for bribes by police, and received all manner of offers from attractive, unattached women to go places that would not be likely to benefit my long-term health. But aside from being given the opportunity to decline some monumentally stupid ideas, I have at never actually had my safety threatened.
You might ask, “Isn’t it scary knowing that kind of danger could always be just around the corner?” The best way I know to answer that is with a metaphor: I once had a conversation with a guy who trains lions, tigers, and other big cats for a living. I asked him if it was scary working every day with animals who could eviscerate him in the blink of an eye, simply because they happened to be in a bad mood that day. He told me that the key to not living in fear was developing a strong sense of respect. “Never forget what the cats are capable of, have that respect guide your interactions always, and just enjoy their amazing presence.”
So how does that respect manifest on a day-to-day basis? It starts with learning some basic ground rules. Don’t walk outside after dark. Only book a taxi from your hotel or some other trusted source. Never use an ATM that isn’t inside a secure building. The first time you go someplace new, go with someone trustworthy who is familiar with the area. It doesn’t take long for these kind of considerations to become second nature. In many respects it is like being an American, going to the UK, and driving a car on the wrong side of the road for the first time. Initially quite daunting, but over a surprisingly short period of time, you adapt and get on with your life. We humans are astonishingly good at that.
There is an important caveat to the perspective I just shared, which is that my professional life in Nairobi unfolds in a series of very secure locations. My hotel, my office, and my client sites are protected by both hefty physical measures and professional, decently trained security teams.
Many people, both foreigners and locals live in communities that do not share the same level of security, and burglars in Kenya are no joke: they usually operate in heavily armed gangs of 8-12 people and violence is their first resort in the event of meeting any resistance. For anyone thinking of living in Africa, I can’t stress enough that choosing a secure place to live is the single most important choice you will make in your time here.
On the other hand, dire warnings like that only throw in sharp relief how delightful Kenyan people are. Kenya is far more unsafe for locals than it is for foreigners, yet despite all the troubles they endure, most Kenyans are resolutely happy, friendly, and delighted to engage. Mind you, I’ve lived in the UK for the past decade, so saying that people are socially outgoing compared to Brits is damning with faint praise, but even compared to my native California, people here tend to be cheerful, social, and welcoming.
So to answer the original question, is it safe? By any objective standard, the answer would have to be no, but that is no reason to shy away from the experience. The metaphor of training big cats is once again a very apt one. Imagine having the opportunity to interact with a fully grown tiger. Most of us would not turn down the chance, but we would also treat the situation with the caution and respect it deserved. Thus it is with living and working in Kenya. Maintain a healthy respect, and savour what a delightful experience you are having.