Moms Around the World:
Cultural insights and advice for parents planning travel to Nairobi with young children from a local mom in the know.
Elizabeth Mwangi with husband Lincoln and daughters Ayana and Annessa in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by Classic Model Studios, Nairobi.
Kenya is a nation of many contrasts, with some 19 national parks and wildlife refuges, sweeping plains, and soaring mountains, yet it is also home to East Africa’s most populous city: Nairobi. Nairobi itself, with nearly 3 million residents and an expected increase to 5 million by 2015, is where all of these contrasts collide. Known as “The Green City in the Sun,” at just over 1 degree south of the Equator, it remains a surprisingly green urban space with numerous parks and overall a dense tree cover. Skyscrapers loom over the bustling metropolis, which was a British protectorate until just 1963. Yet, you don’t have to look too far to find the four-legged favorites of Hemingway and Roosevelt, as just 4 miles from the city center is Nairobi National Park, home to a successful rhinoceros sanctuary, giraffes, leopards, and lions, to name a few.
Elizabeth Mwangi lives in Nairobi and works for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community. As a Justice and Peacebuilding Officer, she helps oversee projects that promote justice, human rights and equality across Kenya. Elizabeth is also the mother of two small girls, and she was very kind to answer my questions about raising small children in Nairobi. She also shared her tips for anyone who might be visiting the area with young children.
Q: Elizabeth, you haven’t always lived in Nairobi. Can you tell us a little about the place where you grew up?
Elizabeth: I was born and raised in Nyeri town, Central Kenya. In comparison to Nairobi, Nyeri is a small laidback town situated 150 km north of Nairobi with a population of about 350,000. The majority of the inhabitants belong to one ethnic group. The main economic activities are growing coffee and tea and subsistence farming. Some of the landmarks surrounding the town include Mt. Kenya (the second highest in Africa), Mt. Kenya national park, and Aberdare National Parks. Treetops Lodge is also nearby, where Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the English throne while on a honeymoon retreat in 1952. A number of renowned people have hailed from Nyeri, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2004, Wangari Maathai, and Mwai Kibaki, Kenya's current president. My family returns for visits at least four times a year.
Q: So when did you come to Nairobi?
Elizabeth: I moved to Nairobi in 1992 to attend the University of Nairobi. Since then I have lived in the capital. Nairobi is a vibrant metropolitan city and the hub of financial and economic activities in East Africa. It has a population of about 2.7 million. The population is racially and ethnically mixed.
Q: How does Nairobi compare with Nyeri?
In comparison to Nyeri, Nairobi has a lot of advantages. Most headquarters of government and large companies are based here, you can get anything you need in the major shopping malls and markets, and the city has a vibrant social life. While Nyeri is generally cold and rainy, Nairobi weather is perfect for kids’ outdoor activities during most of the year. This is great for my family, as we have two daughters: Ayana who is 4 years old and Annessa who turned one in April 2009.
Q: Where are your favorite places to take your kids in Nairobi?
Elizabeth: One of the favorite places is Jolly Rogers Theme Park and Restaurant. The Park is designed along a pirate theme, and kids’ activities include inflatable bouncing castles, water slides and fighting rings, fishing at the nearby lake dam, rock climbing, swimming and swinging.
We love Jolly Rogers because of the child-friendly staff who monitor and supervise the kids so the adults can relax and chat without worrying about the safety of their kids.
Ayana loves visiting the Nairobi National Park’s Safari Walk and Animal Orphanage. The park is situated about 7 km from downtown. The Safari Walk is a raised boardwalk that meanders around unique plants and animals that are threatened. The animal orphanage is home to old and rescued animals and birds of Kenya. The best time to visit is around 2:30 pm, feeding time.
The Village Market shopping and recreational complex is also a great place for the entire family. From monster waterslides to swimming, bowling, a mini golf course and bouncing castles for younger children, every family member can find an activity they like.
For mothers will older kids, the Splash Water World and GP Karting are some of the best places to visit. They are located side by side at the end of the Carnivore turn-off on Langata Road. Splash has a variety of swimming pools and waterslides as well as various electronic games. It is next door to Nairobi’s only Gokart track, which has state-of-art Honda-powered carts racing on a 500-metre track overlooking the Nairobi National Park.
Q: Do you have any favorite day trips or special places where you like to take your children outside of Nairobi?
Elizabeth: When we get tired of the hustle and bustle of the city life, Ole Polos is another great outdoor place to visit. The restaurant is located up on a hill in the Great Rift Valley, about 50 km from the city centre. They have mouth-watering roasted meat—called nyama choma in Swahili, Masai traditional dancers, and enough space for the children to play.
Once or twice a year during school holidays, we love visiting the coastal town of Mombasa, on the shores of the Indian Ocean. It’s over 500 km from Nairobi. Normally, we travel with two to three families for maximum fun, including swimming, beach walks, water-sports and family bonding.
Q: Has raising children in Kenya changed very much since you were a child?
Elizabeth: Raising children has changed since the days when I was a child. People used to live with their relatives in the rural areas, while in the cities and towns, most people knew their neighbors well. This meant that any adult who knew a given child could discipline them or inform the parents. Most adults were trusted with kids. Today people live in their own cocoons with little interaction with others living nearby. As a result, there has been an increase in cases of missing children and, sadly, defilements. Now most parents are wary of other adults.
Kids during my childhood were very innovative when it came to making toys (cars, balls, bean bags, dolls) and games. Today, with the advent of PlayStations, cheap toys, the Internet and cable TV, kids hardly interact with others.
Q: Are working mothers in Kenya allowed any kind of a “maternity leave” by the government or private businesses when they have a baby?
Elizabeth: CRS Kenya policy allows 90 days of maternity leave in addition to one’s annual leave, which is typically one month each year. Fathers are also given 14 days of paternity leave. In addition, CRS Kenya’s policy allows expectant mothers to take leave 10 days prior to their expected day of delivery.
Q: Is it common to see mothers breastfeeding in Nairobi—or in other parts of Kenya?
Elizabeth: The government of Kenya has been promoting exclusive breastfeeding for infants from birth to 6 months of age. CRS Kenya promotes this exclusive breastfeeding in the communities where we implement our relief and development projects. CRS Kenya also promotes this breastfeeding in our workplace, giving nursing mothers one hour off each day for breastfeeding until babies are 6 months old. There is also a furnished room set aside for mothers to express their milk during office hours and store it in the fridge. In addition, CRS Kenya policy states that mothers traveling to the field for official duties should be accompanied by their babies and nannies until babies turn 2. This is to ensure continued breastfeeding and is greatly appreciated by new mothers.
Nairobi, however, has very few facilities that cater to a mother with an infant. It is very common to see a mother breastfeeding her baby in public without covering her breasts whether on a bus, in a restaurant, or at the market. Most mothers do not feel ashamed to expose their breasts. In fact, Kenyan society expects you to breastfeed once the baby starts crying, or you’ll be rebuked. This trend is changing though, with most mothers now covering themselves as they breastfeed. Some mother now feel breastfeeding is not so “cool” and stop it after a few months.
Q: What advice do you have for nursing mothers who will be visiting Nairobi and Kenya?
Elizabeth: Nursing mothers traveling to Nairobi should feel free to breastfeed in public if they are comfortable dong so. Most restaurants have no issues allowing mothers to breastfeed at the table. Modern shopping malls are starting to take the needs of nursing mothers into account and provide areas for breastfeeding in the babies’ changing room section of public toilets.
Q: Are there car seat or seatbelt laws in Kenya?
Elizabeth: Not wearing a seatbelt results in a fine of around $6. However, very few people own cars—less than 30% of the population. Although children below 12 years are by law not supposed to sit in the front seat, the traffic police rarely arrests offenders. The Kenyan law is silent on baby car seats, but most upper middle class to rich families have car seats for their babies. Some rental car companies have car seats as well.
Q: Is public transportation a good option for parents traveling with children?
Elizabeth: Public transportation in Kenya is not like that of developed countries. Most residential estates and suburbs in Nairobi have public vehicles plying the roads. Each route has a specific number you need to look out for when boarding. The most popular form of public transport is the matatu, a 14-seater Nissan minibus, but they drive very fast and some can be dangerous to use. There are also several bus companies operating within the city areas, with the most common ones being Metro and City Hoppa. These are better to use since they operate under strict company regulations.
There is a train that travels to various parts of the country. If you want to be comfortable, travel First Class. Buses and shuttles to various parts of the countries also run on regular schedules, with various classes of shuttles to choose from.
Q: What is the best way to get around Nairobi with children?
Elizabeth: The best option would be to take a taxi. Even though they are expensive by African standards, they are still affordable, with most rides costing between $3 and $10. Taxis are not metered, and a price should be agreed with the driver before departure. Ask for local advice or at your hotel for appropriate rates. The majority of taxis are marked with a yellow line.
Renting a car is another option, with rentals running around $45 per day. Visitors to Kenya can drive using an international driver’s license. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road. Distances are measured and signposted in kilometers and petrol is sold by the litre.
Q: Is it common to see children in restaurants in Nairobi?
Elizabeth: It is common to see children in restaurants in Nairobi, but toddlers and very young children are rarely seen in restaurants with very formal settings. Most restaurant owners make their restaurants “child-friendly” on Sundays, which is the main family outing day in Nairobi.
In order for both the kids and the parents to relax, restaurants with comfortable seats and safe playing grounds are good choices, including the Carnivore, Jolly Rogers, Mamba Village, Pizza Garden, Panafric Hotel, For You, and the Royale Club out in the suburbs. If you have a small baby and no baby pram, I suggest avoiding food courts at the major malls, otherwise you’ll be holding the baby throughout your meal.
Q: Where can visiting parents find diapers, baby food, and baby medicines?
Elizabeth: Most Kenyan babies are weaned on organic foods, cooked once or twice a day. The typical diet includes mashed bananas, potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, peas and beans as well as fruit and porridge made from a mixture of corn flour and ground finger millet or sorghum. These foods are readily available in Nairobi’s malls and markets. Other imported baby foods, diapers (most people call them “Pampers” after the diaper brand by the same name) and medicines are found in most shops and pharmacies across the city.
In case of urgent need of baby supplies and medicine, several branches of the Nakumatt supermarkets are open 24 hours. Uchumi supermarkets also have a delivery service, but they do not operate 24 hours.
Most people in Nairobi, particularly in shopping malls, speak English, so no special words should be necessary.
Q: Do you have any other tips for parents visiting your corner of the world?
Elizabeth: There is so much to see in Kenya—more than you would ever expect, from the more than 48 wildlife conservation areas, cultures unchanged by the modern world, pristine beaches, coral reef, equatorial forests and mighty snow-capped mountains. Kenya has endless opportunities for adventure, discovery, and relaxation. Families should come and experience our traditional ethnic cuisines, dances and theatres. The tropical weather is perfect for children of all ages.
Just like in any other country, parents need to be careful all the time and travel safely and wisely. In order not to experience major culture shock, it’s also advisable to research and read widely about Kenya, recommended vaccinations and medications before arriving. But overall, you should enjoy your time here.
Elizabeth, I thank you so much for giving us a glimpse of life in Nairobi, and for sharing your photos and tips that I’m sure will help many families planning travel to Kenya. Thanks also to the photographers featured in this article and the corresponding slideshow: N.D. Strupler, Demosh, Paul Mannix, Colin Jackson, and Classic Model Studios of Nairobi.
Shelly Rivoli is the author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby: The Ultimate Guide for Planning Travel with Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler.
Copyright (c) 2009 - 2014 Shelly Rivoli, author of Travels with Baby. All rights reserved.
Adapted from an earlier article by Shelly Rivoli that appeared in the national edition of Examiner.com.