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Here's What Black Expats Wish They Knew Before Relocating To East Africa

TravelNoire logo TravelNoire 5/20/2022 Amara Amaryah
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There is something about relocating to East Africa that gets us excited and ready to book that one way ticket, immediately. With Black expats taking the cues and making homes around the world, East Africa is a favored destination. Rich traditions, bustling art scenes, magical safaris and diversity in languages and landscapes, this is a top Travel Noire region.

We spoke with four Black expats who live or have lived in various East African countries to share their experiences. They have a lot of eye-opening thoughts to share about the expat journey, here is what to know:

Ethiopia

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Expat and YouTuber, Princess Living Free, moved from the U.S. to Ethiopia to enjoy life in East Africa. Having lived in Ethiopia previously for 2 years as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, she was pretty familiar with the country and what to expect before returning again. This time round, she had never lived in Ethiopia as a wife and mother, nor had she lived in the country’s capital city, Addis Ababa.
Here are a few things this new experience has taught her so far:
There is a detox period: You may have left Babylon/the West, but Babylon/the West may not have left you. This is one thing that I also experienced during my first-go-round in Ethiopia but definitely hit me harder the second time around. During the first 4-6 months after arriving to Ethiopia (and likely to other African countries) you may experience “Western world withdrawals” especially if you came from Europe, America or places like those. Ethiopia is a developing country, so many of the comforts, standards and luxuries that exist in developed countries are not yet in place. For example, power and water outages are certainly not uncommon in Ethiopia, and there may be more flying and crawling “guests” in your home than you’re used to. The accessibility and reliability of Wi-Fi also leaves much to be desired. Of course these issues aren’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it does take time to get used to a new way of living. However, if you stick it out, you will make it through the detox period and the West will be purged from your system. When I first arrived in Ethiopia more than 10 years ago, I seriously questioned my decision to come. After my first 2 year stint in Ethiopia, I had become so well adjusted that I cried hard when it was time to leave. I knew one day I would return.
Addis Ababa is very expensive: If I am not mistaken, Addis Ababa is the most expensive city on the continent, per capita. I repeat, do not be fooled by the attractive U.S. Dollar to Ethiopian Birr conversion rate! Trying to buy Western foods, clothes and overall lifestyle will cost you and your money will fly away and disappear if you don’t spend and save wisely. However, for your mental sanity there are a few things I would definitely advise that you splurge on including a washing machine and a house/decor that makes you feel comfortable in your space. Other than that, try to bring other products such as clothes, shoes, lotions and cosmetic items that you’re used to from home – and bring extras! You can always have people bring you things, send you things, or you can go get stuff when you visit. Unfortunately, Amazon does not deliver here.
Choose location over house:  What I have found out very quickly since living in Addis is, the location you live in is more important than the kind of house you live in! I do not care how big, beautiful or new the house is. If the house is not in close proximity to groceries, restaurants and cafés, you will feel stuck in the house. This is because English is not widely spoken in Ethiopia and traffic is often heavy in the city. A few tasks that might take an hour or 2 in the West may take all day in Addis (if those tasks even get accomplished that day lol). Being within walking distance or even a bajaj ride away from everyday necessities is a must in my experience and opinion. Of course, this does not mean that you should settle for living accommodations that you are not comfortable with, but it does mean it may take you some time to find the right place, for the right price, in the right location.

Kenya/Djibouti/Somalia/Tanzania/Ethiopia

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Fay: The Nomad has been based in East Africa for over seven years. She relocated from London in 2015 and has since lived in Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti, Somalia and now resides in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. 

  • As someone from the diaspora moving back to homelands, you’ll be full of excitement and hopeful for opportunities, but it’s also important to recognize privilege and to be mindful of not occupying opportunities that are there for citizens. Complement where possible and where there are skill gaps, find ways to support, share insights and knowledge. 
  • Embrace the local culture and food, avoid the expat traps of hanging out in silos. 
  • Get out of the capital cities! It is so easy to get lost in the bustling cities that you overlook the beauty, culture and the authentic scene and vibe. 
  • Expand your creative network and circle, there is so much talent and innovation in East Africa and tapping into that network sometimes is hard, especially as a newbie in the city. I love to create guidebooks as a way to connect with people, explore new places, and start conversations. My goal is to make it easier for other expats and diaspora folks to get to know a new city, whether its learning relocation tips or simply visiting whilst transiting through Africa. 

Tanzania

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Kathryn (Traveling Sista) is San Diego- born, Newport News, VA raised and is currently living in Dar es Salaam in beautiful Tanzania.

After serving in the US navy for 6 years, she decided to go to school and travel. Upon visiting Tanzania, she knew that it was where she wanted to plant her roots and start her new life. This December will mark her 6 year anniversary living in Tanzania. In that time, she has started her YouTube channel, had a baby, got married, started a successful timber business with her husband, and became a wholesale/ bulk supplier of wild crafted sea moss.

Here is the advice she offers for people looking to relocate to Tanzania/East Africa:

  • Language: If I’m being honest, prior to my move to Tanzania in December 2016, I thought that picking up another language would be easier… it wasn’t. I wish I would have at least taken an online course to learn Swahili. Not only would I be able to communicate more effectively, but I’d understand and connect with the people on a deeper level. Since Swahili is Tanzania’s national language & the primary means of communication, me only being at 40% efficiency has presented a lot of challenges.
  • Tanzania has been a mirror: Tanzania has been a mirror to me. It has reflected to me the great, and not so great parts of myself on this journey. It has forced me to slow down and take accountability for the things within me that I need to heal. It’s made me realize that even though I’m physically removed from America, there’s still conditioning and psychological trauma that I was subjected to for most of my life as an African-American woman. These things don’t just magically disappear once you step foot on the continent. It’s a process. YOU need to initiate your own healing process before you come. Africa won’t heal you.
  • Patience: If Tanzania has taught me nothing else, it’s to be patient! Firstly, people aren’t pressed for time here, ever. People do things on their terms and they take their time. Even though I’m living in Dar es Salaam, and people move at a faster pace here, its still pole pole (slow). Coming from America, time is money which is not so much the case here. Be prepared to do a lot of waiting, and prepare yourself for a lot of re-work. I also find that people generally have a lackadaisical attitude towards things. If you’re not prepared for this, you might even take it personal. This has been the biggest cultural adjustment for me. It’s made me constantly check in with myself and make sure I’m centered. It also made me realize that I didn’t actually need some things that I thought I did in the West. It has ultimately taught me to relax a little.
  • Hustle: Tanzania has stepped up my hustle game by at least 200%! I speak a lot about this on my Youtube channel, Traveling Sista as this is a place where you truly have to bring your entrepreneurial mindset and/or skillset. Even though the cost of living is very affordable compared to America and many places in the West, you will look up one day and your bank account will be depleted, honey. It’s so important that you have some type of sustainable income and or side hustle while you’re out here. Think outside the box. A lot of people are coming with the same ideas and doing the same things, you have to be bold enough to make moves outside of your comfort zone. Your’e in a new country, so try something new.
  • Immigration: Tanzania is not an easy country to relocate to. The immigration laws have very little wiggle room and residency can be a little on the expensive side. Fortunately, my husband is Tanzanian so I get residency through him, but a lot of people coming out don’t have this luxury. Starting a business is a great way to get residency but as I said before, pole pole (slooooow!) It will take a while, and it will cost you. It’s not impossible, as many expats have already gotten residency and are living their best lives. Just be sure that this place is where YOU want to be. Don’t let other’s opinions sway you. This journey is yours, and yours alone. If it’s not an energetic fit, that’s fine. At the end of the day, it’s your life, your peace of mind, and your pockets.

Uganda

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King Obutunda left Virginia, U.S. and relocated to Kampala, Uganda where he documents his travels and new lifestyle on his YouTube channel. This is what he wish he knew before making the decision to relocate:

Before relocating to East Africa, I wish I knew how important it would be to speak Swahili well because this is a common language shared by many East African countries.

Since making the move to Uganda, I have learnt that there are some apps that make the transition even smoother while living in Uganda. For instance, Sendwave (an app that facilitates a safe and secure way to send and receive money in the country) and the currency exchange calculator.

A tip for anyone looking to make the move to East Africa (or the wider continent in general); I highly advise exchanging money in airports instead waiting to get to a forex or your hotel. I say this because you run the risk of getting a lower rate, which means less money back.

These four expats have shared their advice and learnings so you know exactly what to expect when relocating to East Africa. While we know the East African region is vast, the selection of countries in this feature encourages us to see the beauty that awaits. What advice would you give to expats moving to East Africa?
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