Do you remember Erin Allan’s home tour? If you need a refresher, she was the one living in the outskirts of Nairobi, running a community-empowering company and…hmm, what else was I going to tell you about her? Oh, yes! Sometimes she chooses not to bike her kids to school because of lion sightings or a wayward bunch of baboons. Now do you remember?
I’m so happy to follow her through a random Thursday. It’s the similar yet so strikingly different things we all do that makes this so interesting to me. How we errand, how we balance work and play, how we stay home or venture out, and how we avoid the dangers in our path like it’s no big deal. It’s all fascinating, isn’t it? (I hope you are nodding your head.) Please enjoy Erin’s day!
Q: Good morning! How did your family wake up?
A: It’s Thursday, so the kids don’t have to be at school till eight, which means we all wake up pretty naturally at seven. As we are on the equator, it gets light the same time every day and the chickens outside are a natural alarm clock.
Tor wakes first. He’s eight and seems to have a large quota of words he has to say every day and starts right away. This morning it’s ‘You are not allowed to fly on the platypus plane!’ There’s no stipulation that the words he says have to make sense! He’s got a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humour, so he is able to get everyone laughing at an early hour.
Nina is next. She’s ten and needs a few more minutes to start her day, like her dad. She might have a few minutes on her tablet or play some piano before breakfast.
Jan is the slowest waker upper, but that’s allowed; many mornings he’s out of the house at 5:30 to go to a site. He designs and fabricates tents for luxury safari camps and lodges, and spends a lot of time in the bush. He’s just got his pilot’s license and can now fly himself to site, which means his days are far more productive. He has a workshop at home so he can get up later and still be in the office by eight today.
Q: What are you having for breakfast? What are you all discussing this morning? Anything in particular on your mind?
A: We are lucky to have house staff. It’s a kind of given here that people employ househelp; it’s almost considered rude not to, as there is very high unemployment and providing jobs is a way to give back. We have two house girls, which is admittedly extravagant. They’ve been with us for ten and nine years respectively and I am not sure how we will ever downsize. I really don’t like firing people.
So this morning it’s Berldin who comes in and starts the kids’ breakfast. The kids’ granny just found a huge beehive in her roof with 50 kilograms of honey in it and some relatively nice bees, so the kids are eating lots of that on yogurt and rice cakes. And of course fresh fruit – we are so lucky to have a lot of tropical fruit options. This morning the kids are having apple slices (which are considered exotic here as they are imported!), mango, and tiny bananas.
Jan and I went out to dinner last night, so the kids stayed with the ‘ayah’ (nanny in Kiswahili) and there was a bat in their room. This takes up most of the breakfast table conversation. I’m trying to play it cool but ewwww! Sort of glad I wasn’t there. It has happened before and I can’t say I handled it that well.
I get dressed quickly. It’s hot and dusty now as it’s our summer, so a sundress and flats will do nicely. I opt for my open toe shoes, knowing my toes will get covered in dust on my way to the car.
Q: What’s next? Do your kids go to school or have other plans?
A: The kids share a room and I’ve laid out their uniforms, and we begin the daily routine of putting all the clothes on in between chatter and goofing off. As if they’ve never done it before, every morning I have to nudge Tor to stop talking and put on each article of clothing. Lots of excitement today as he has a hockey match – I’m not allowed to call it field hockey as there is no other kind of hockey here – and will get to go on the school bus.
There’s very little consumerism here so the kids don’t know much about fashion; it’s all about practical stuff that is easy to wear for them and that I don’t mind them getting dirty. We pack up the science and English homework, art work from after-school art class, hockey sticks, gum guards, and sports kits.
We have way too much stuff to bike to school today, so we drive the seven minutes to school past a troop of baboons. I’m glad we didn’t bike today! We are between the Nairobi National Park and the Giraffe Sanctuary so there is a lot of wildlife. We had lions around the neighbourhood for a while and you can still hear hyenas at night, so it’s always something to consider when biking to school.
They go to the same school their dad went to and even have some of the same teachers. It’s a tight knit community and most parents walk their kids to their classrooms, so the drop off is a very social event. It’s a British school so there are many expats there, mostly European and British, but quite a few from other countries in Africa as well as Asia. And bonus! My kids have cute little British accents.
There are also lots of European Kenyans; my husband is fourth generation Kenyan. I straddle the two groups and love the range of friends I’ve made through the school. It took a while to become accepted amongst the ‘settler’ population here; they are wary of two year wonders who come to change Kenya and leave a few years later, so had to prove I was going to become a permanent resident. I think I’ve done so now and as my contribution, I host a big Halloween party every year for the 80 kids in our neighbourhood!
Q: How is the early part of your day structured?
A: If I am not exercising right after school drop off, I rush home to make use of the seemingly few hours I have to work. My office and our small workshop are twenty foot shipping containers about thirty feet from our house. I love the space and love that I don’t have to drive anywhere for work. I started Toto Knits to create a flexible working opportunity for single mothers, and I also benefit from the flexibility. I have five knitters who to come this workshop, but the other workshop is in the village where the women live so they too don’t have to spend time and money on transport and can work as and when they like.
Kathy, my assistant, is taking the morning off to study as she’s a student at night at the Nairobi University. So I’ve got to organize deliveries for local shops, print out web shop orders, and answer emails. I chat with some of the knitters about some new pieces we are working on. I’m involved in a scholarship for my high school in America which gives out an amazing scholarship for Kenyan students to study there, and have to help register them for the SSATs. Our tenant is moving out of the guest house so she comes by to collect a few bits and show me things that need fixing in the house; it’s the first straw bale house built in Kenya so it has lots of quirks and little things that need fixing before the new tenant moves in. Eliza has been there for six years so it’s sad to see her go! I take a few photos of our knit Easter Eggs but not sure I’m happy with them and might have to call in the professionals.
Q: Do you have lunch plans? Do you talk to anyone that really makes your day better?
A: Normally I eat lunch with Jan on the veranda, but Tor has a hockey match on the other side of town so I meet up with some friends to drive together. The Chinese have come to Kenya in a big way. They are building roads to accommodate the new Nairobi, and a burgeoning middle class means there are 5000 new cars on the roads every month. They’ve been using road plans from 1955 till now and it’s a mess! This is when you really feel you are living in the developing world; the roads literally change every day with so much construction going on, and there is building everywhere.
We take the new bypass road and I feel like I am in Europe; there are no potholes, the lanes are demarcated, and it’s smooth sailing with no traffic! Until a huge building truck comes barreling down the road the wrong way, that is! I remember my husband’s admonishments to watch out as many drivers aren’t sure how to use these new roads!
It’s a real treat to go out for lunch on the other side of town, especially as it’s Asian cuisine. We have a few restaurants within twenty minutes of us, so the options are slim and we are all excited to eat somewhere different, and especially in the middle of a work day. Ten of us meet up for a bite before the game. As a born and bred San Franciscan, I miss Asian food the most (Mexican second!) here.
The game is such fun and I kind of understand it. I struggle with Cricket, rugby, rounders, and netball as I’m still getting used to the terminology and rules. Tor’s team loses but he got to play the whole game and played well, so he’s in good spirits!
Q: How are you errand-ing today?
A: Nairobi was just voted one of the worst cities to drive in – in the world! So it’s all very strategic. Both my husband and I are so lucky to work at home. And while so many things are tricky here, there is one thing that has made life exponentially easier: Mpesa, which is basically mobile banking. I can sit in my office and pay bills, people, and more through my phone. It’s fantastic and makes a big difference to me.
I’ll do anything to avoid the traffic, which sometimes means I live in an insular bubble, but I’ll take that over exhaust fumes, wild drivers, and corrupt police any day!
We have our veggies delivered once a week from a farm. Big fresh eggs, live herbs, and homemade jams and chutneys, too. The other days I go to the local grocery store where we have an account. I always feel like it’s Little House on the Prairie! I can get in and out in less than 15 minutes, and that’s with saying hi to everyone. I’ve been going there for 13 years and know all the shop clerks, the butchers, the (surly) baker, and the veggie lady. I try to go once a week but people keep eating the food I buy so it’s usually twice. The little shopping centre is 20 minutes away so I have to strategize and only go if I have two or more things to do.
Then there’s the bulletin board, where you can find a house, a pet, or find out about local goings on. An old fashioned Craig’s List! The chemist is across the parking lot, and they know us as well so I can often skip the doctor and just tell her what ails me or my husband or the kids. Of course the downside is that it’s inevitable that someone else you know will be in there so they will also know what ails you or the husband or the kids!
My one errand today is going to buy a parka for our ski trip in April. I’m sure they are not even called parkas anymore but I’ve not been skiing in 15 years so I’m desperate for something to keep me warm. As you can imagine, there isn’t really anywhere to buy ski clothes here, but someone sent me an email about a lady selling a ski parka so I drive to her house and go up to her bedroom – even though she has guests for drinks at noon! This is shopping Kenyan style. I buy it even though it’s probably 20 years out of date. There are some fantastic markets called mitumba which get all the charity shops cast-offs from the UK. I will get the rest of our stuff there; it’s used goods but you can find some real gems in the stacks and piles. I have a bit of a reputation for being an amazing mitumba shopper.
Q: Did you carve out any personal time during your day? Do anything to recharge a little?
A: I have a hot bath every evening once the kids are asleep. I read a lot and it’s my little luxury to read in the bath for 20 to 30 minutes. Books are expensive here and I go through a lot of them, but it’s something I’ve learned to allow myself! I consider getting my hair done a real treat, so I very much look forward to that indulgence paired with a manicure/pedicure.
Q: When do you meet back up with the rest of your family? What are you talking about tonight?
A: Nina has gone to a friend’s house and Tor’s mates want to come to ours, so I head back to the office for a bit more work while they play football in the garden. We live on a five acre plot which we share with Jan’s brother, his wife, and their three kids. The three year old twins come up to our house many times a day, and it’s such a treat to have all the cousins playing together. Four o’clock is usually tea time, a sanctioned break which is such a nice tradition, but I’m skipping it today for the precious extra time in the office.
I go collect Nina and a neighbour’s kid who is playing at the same house and head back home. We take this whole ‘it takes a village’ thing seriously! Berldin calls the kids in for dinner. I usually sit with them for the daily round-up, but another neighbor is coming for a glass of wine and to collect her kid. And because our husbands work together, her husband is coming, too. So Jan joins us on the veranda while the kids play in the garden and the sun starts to set. We are planning a singing routine for a friend who is leaving the country – so many expats mean life is full of leaving parties, and this will be a sad one. Jan’s brother joins us for a bit and then it’s time to get the kids bathed and get their homework done. My kids are the kind that need a lot of sleep so I really like them in bed at eight, and tonight we just make it. They read for a bit but it’s relatively quiet without a lot of the giggles and usual shenanigans. Thankfully!
Q: Describe the evening rituals for us. What makes the end of your day special?
A: Normally it’s bath and homework. The kids spend so much time outside that they are usually pretty grotty by the end of the day. While water is an issue here, they have separate baths because Tor’s is often too mucky to share! If it’s not too late, Tor will convince one or two of us to play in the garden; anything with a ball will suit him just fine, thanks. Nina prefers board games, cards, and puzzles. We just got Netflix so the kids might watch a bit of TV or play on their tablets which they just bought with their pocket money. I let them have 30 minutes a day of screen time, but many days are so full we don’t even get to that. Tor loves someone to sit in the bathroom while he natters away, and Nina will practice piano or work on a school project. Jan and I eat later so often the kids will come join us just before bed for a few sneaky bites of our dinner. Luckily they aren’t too old to be tucked in, and this is when a lot of the good conversations happen.
Q: Please finish the sentence: The last thing I usually think about before falling asleep for the night is…
A: I’m usually shattered by ten, and fall asleep while reading. Often, I will stand back and look at things and wonder ‘Hey! How the heck did I get here?’
I went from the West Village in New York to a British influenced village in Africa. And then I laugh at how I’ve become Erin Blixen, suburban African field hockey mum with bats in my house. Never would have imagined it, but I feel very lucky indeed.
Erin, you’re so adventuresome! I think if someone put up a sign that there are rumors of a lion sighting, nothing my kids could ever say would persuade me to play outside after dinner! If ever. I’m so happy that – bats and all – you’ve fallen for Nairobi and your days seem quite sweet. Bravo.
Friends, what are your baboons during your day? Is there something that pops up so unexpectedly that you’re forced to regroup pretty quickly? I always love your stories.