Tess Lethbridge-Chase grew up in London. In 2013, she and her husband, and their new baby, moved to Nairobi after he was offered a posting in his role at the Foreign and Commonwealth office (FCO). They now have two children and are about to leave Kenya for a new continent…

New world
After months of moaning and fretting about the prospect of being the woman who leaves work and follows her husband’s career to become what they irritatingly call a ‘spouse,’ we took up a two year Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) posting to Nairobi (or Nairobbery as people felt the need to remind me). Neither of us have lived abroad before  – and at the time I remember thinking that if I left London it would somehow disappear. Two years later, my husband and I have two daughters; our eldest, Cordelia is 22 months and Florence is six months.

Having spent so much time worrying about the stigma attached to coming off the work ladder to be a ‘trailing spouse’ (they actually call us that) I now appreciate how lucky I am to have the time I have had with the girls. There is not loads of things for children to do in Nairobi so activities are mostly between people’s houses or meeting at the pool or playground on the British High Commission Compound. Cordy had her first soft-play experience on a holiday recently – it was like watching a crazed child let loose in a sweet shop.

Having said that, there are lots of playgroups rotating around houses, music groups that other ex-pats have started. We found a group of Kenyans who would turn up to your garden for an hour and bring along baby gymnastics equipment every week. Simple but brilliant. If we were in London we certainly wouldn’t have the money for this to be possible… or the garden. Failing that – there is always the option of simply spending time playing on the compound with neighbours and having endless fun with the security guards’ walkie talkies. This proved amazing for that hour or so just before dinner time when I am decidedly wilting and Cordelia is freshly energised after revving up from her afternoon nap.

The way it works
I somehow feel that living abroad puts you immediately in a smaller, tight knit community – especially when you live in a place that is not always straightforward or easy, and where security is an issue. It feels really foreign now to come home to the UK and use legs as a mode of transport and not have guns and security checks every which way. I suppose it’s at a price but the sense of community is second to none. Most of the High Commission staff live in a concentrated area of Nairobi so you are never more than a short (often hell-raising) drive away from your friends and your children’s friends and therefore any activities. You get back from a trip home (turns out London hasn’t gone anywhere) to find your fridge has been filled by a neighbour so you have food for breakfast the next morning… and not because they are desperate for their Ella’s Kitchen or duty free requests.

I still can’t believe that we have had the opportunity to live in a place where going on safari for the weekend is the norm and you can spot zebra and giraffe on your way to the airport. The weather is amazing so children are always outside and we can live in a place with space enough to fit our tiny London flat multiple times over. It’s certainly not our reality long-term – but I’ll take it for now.

Highs and lows
Apart from regularly being told your baby is freezing cold and not wearing enough layers in 30 degree heat, I love the way Kenyans are with kids. They adore children. Cordelia is not fazed by strangers at all and I wonder whether it’s because it’s totally normal for you to have your child taken off you by a total stranger and occupied for a few minutes while you stand by wondering how far you feel comfortable with them walking off into the distance.

On a purely selfish note – I feel that if I were still in London I would be feeling like I had to justify myself for not having returned to work. I would feel I should want the career as well as the children even if I was in the position of not having to go back to work. In the world of Nairobi ex-pats, plenty of people work and take advantage of being able to have affordable nannies (ayas) and plenty of people are taking a career break. Nobody is categorised – you do what you’re doing and no eyebrows are raised. Having been so reluctant to become a trailing spouse I now realise that I am in a bizarre privileged position where I can take a break from work and enjoy raising children. I wish I hadn’t made such a stubborn fuss about it all really as it’s given my husband plenty of fodder for gibes. …what’s a few years out if you can do it when you will be working until you’re at least 65 anyway?

The worst thing? I hate the fact the girls are growing up and changing week by week and my closest friends and family don’t get to see it. I hate the fact that we life in a place where it’s normal to have guns precariously swinging from broad security guards’ shoulders, and where you have to think about what day and time of day it is before you head to a shopping centre. Writing this though it strikes me that despite my being driven totally crazy by aspects of Nairobi and frequently wishing I was home, I’ve written more positives than negatives..

The practicalities
Healthcare in Kenya is very mixed. It’s all private even for those in extreme poverty. What really struck me is the different attitude towards death and diagnosis here. I will never forget a Kenyan teacher who turned up for work the day after her sister died. She didn’t know the cause of death – only that she thought it was respiratory. There was no point in getting her illness diagnosed as they would not have been able to afford treatment.

While Nairobi’s healthcare is good compared to the rest of East Africa it isn’t without its cultural differences. During my second pregnancy I had a 12-week scan that simply consisted of the screen being turned and me being told very bluntly “this is your baby”. The prospect of moving to a country where you probably won’t see ambulances stuck in traffic makes me realise that for the past two and a quarter years I have been, mostly unwittingly, living with underlying niggling stress of being a mother and not being able to rely on 999 should something happen to a member of my family.

Sadly and gladly our Nairobi posting is coming to an end  – we move to Jordan this week so I will be a happy ‘trailing spouse’ for three more years. I’m trying to prep Cordy to love camels as much as she loves elephants – its not working. On the plus side – I hear they have Starbucks. I know I should hate that but I”m afraid I just can’t.

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