Can you imagine picking up your life and moving half way around the world? Read Lee-Anne’s amazing story to find out about her incredible leap…
Please share your story… what was your leap?
I moved my business, my family, my life & myself to Kenya. On August 7th, 2011 I said goodbye to Vancouver, which had been my home my whole life & hello to Nairobi, Kenya.
What inspired you to take this leap?
I’d honestly like to say it was a well designed, deliberate lifestyle choice for adventure & the desire to do more good but in reality, it was out of utter, complete, overwhelming fatigue.
For 4 years prior I’d been a single, married mama. My husband was doing his PhD & spent most of his time either in Colorado or Kenya. I was in Vancouver running my business, taking care of the kids & our home. When I was regularly too tired to reach down & wash my feet in the shower I knew things had gotten out of hand.
I told my husband I was ready for a big change. Not a little change, but a really big change. (I still remember saying this to him while holding my arms out as wide as I could to symbolize how big of a change we needed to make.)
What is it that made this a leap for you?
Moving to Africa was a huge leap. I’d never lived for any significant period of time anywhere but Vancouver. My roots are & were in Vancouver & they go deep.
All of our family continues to be in or near Vancouver. Our kids are the 4th generation to be born in Vancouver (which if you know anything about Vancouver you’ll know is unheard of).
My husband was moving to a temporary contract in Kenya and there was no guarantee of work for me. I’d spent 14 years building a successful corporate training & entertainment company in Vancouver. What would Nairobi hold for me?
In Kenya everything would be new. We’d be starting from scratch. A new home, new (hopefully) friends, new school for the kids, new culture, new (hopefully) work. Everything. New.
As someone who takes refuge in making multiple to-do lists, this was going to be one massive unknown. The desire for massive change though counter balanced anything and everything. Things weren’t working as they were & that was a huge motivator to change.
How long would you say you thought about taking this leap before you did it?
In my 24-year relationship with my husband, we’ve come to discover a tradition between us. My husband suggests a big change & 3 years later I’m in (he’s a very patient man). This includes deciding to move to Kenya.
He’d suggested it a few years before but I always found a reason why it wouldn’t work. Then in 2009 I got a contract with the UN to write a training manual & design & deliver a 5-day training around it to UN staff from East Africa. Even though I’d been to Nairobi a couple of times before, when I landed with manual in hand, I had the oddest sensation of coming home. (To say this was unusual for a diehard Vancouver fan would be an understatement.)
I already knew my husband could as he’d spent so much time here. So all throughout that visit I kept thinking could my kids live here? Could I?
When it was time to head back to Vancouver those questions were still ringing & unanswered but I was definitely leaning towards yes. My time had felt magical, almost pre-ordained (and I’m not one for woo-woo thinking).
Fast-forward the woo-woo. It was the summer of 2010 & I was driving with our family from Qualicum to Victoria going from one set of friends to another. As the Pacific Ocean stretched her languorous waves beside me I had the strangest body experience. It sank in at a cellular level.
I turned to my husband & said ‘okay, we’re doing it, let’s move to Africa.’
And a year later we did.
If you thought about it for a while first, what changed that allowed you to take action?
I was able to pick up & move to Africa because my natural defenses were down. I was exhausted & ready for a huge change. I was open & receptive to change on a massive scale.
Any thoughts I might have had about ‘would things work out,’ ‘would the kids do okay,’ ‘would I be able to continue my business’ dropped away & oceans of possibilities opened up.
What was the hardest part before you took the leap? Was anything challenging after you did it?
Oddly the hardest part was facing a few friends & family. Telling my mom was hard. Facing some other people’s resistance to the change was hard. Hearing their objections based in fear & misunderstanding grated on my nerves.
I remember telling one person, after I’d heard one too many times how much he didn’t like our decision, ‘I get that this seems like a crazy decision to you. I want you to know we’ve thought it through carefully. We are moving. If it’s too hard for you to show support then it would be easier for me if we simply didn’t talk about it.’ And we didn’t.
The other really challenging thing was how many new things there were to figure out. And fast. I kept Marie Forleo’s mantra that she learned from her mom, rolling through my brain ‘everything is figure-out-able.’
My to-do lists exploded. Everyday I’d cross one thing off & add 10 more things. Boring but necessary stuff like life insurance, health insurance, & taxes all had to be figured out & people I’d usually look to for professional advice didn’t seem to know what to do with an overseas move.
It was the beginning of joining a new tribe. A tribe which many people don’t get or understand or have experience with. The tribe of vagabonds & wanderers. Of adventurers & explorers. Of those whose description of ‘where’s home’ is complicated.
How did you keep yourself motivated to stick with the change as it was happening?
Keeping motivated wasn’t an issue. I’m a determined, headstrong woman. Once my mind is made up I forge ahead full steam.
I was super motivated to start with, it was more a case of not becoming overwhelmed with all there was to do & figure out.
I’d travelled extensively & lived in a small indigenous village in Mexico for 5 months but I’d never truly moved overseas. This was taking things to a whole new level.
What to do with bank accounts, mail, our townhouse, our van, my business?
We didn’t get a shipping allowance so we literally boarded the plane with only our suitcases in hand (packed within grams of the airline weight allowance).
I’ve been meeting the same group of 5 extraordinary women monthly for almost 7 years. They played (& continue to play) a huge role in supporting & cheering me on.
In hindsight I realize how important it was to keep a sense of humour. For example health exams for the UN are nothing to sneeze at. When my husband’s mandatory syphilis test (yes syphilis) inadvertently didn’t get done in the first batch of tests it meant he wasn’t able to fly to Nairobi with myself & the kids.
This ended up being a good thing as we miscalculated our passport expiry dates & the airline wouldn’t let my youngest on the plane. At the gate, on departure day we had to come up with plan B & fast.
No worries, my youngest spent a very enjoyable month with his dad mostly fishing, before we were all reunited in Nairobi.
A sense of humour helped in the bookended, inevitable experiences of loosing stuff. In Vancouver, when sorting through years of possessions & taking some 35 boxes of stuff to be donated, my purse went missing. With all my id. A week before we were leaving.
Later, after landing in Nairobi most of our luggage went missing. When more than a week had passed I got a phone message from an Air Canada agent in Toronto wondering why I hadn’t picked up my bag.
Cue the sense of humour.
What was the best part of the experience?
Best is hard to define. The dictionary says it means excellent, desirable, effective, most appropriate, advantageous or well advised.
I’ll define it in two ways:
1. Best as in most educational & good for the soul & the spirit (but not always easy or pleasant).
It is expected that you’ll hire house help when living here. It helps the local economy. Nairobi is 1 of 3 centres of the UN, so there is a huge number of international staff living here, & so, many, many homes who do so. Working with & hiring house help has been challenging to say the least. There are big questions of what is right & proper. The income gap is obvious & glaring. The moral dilemmas & ethics are pressing, where you can give until you bleed & it still wont’ be enough. I’m constantly asking myself where is that elusive line between enabling & empowering, between charity & effecting change.
And if, upon reading this, you snort with some derision, thinking to yourself ‘if only I had the ‘problem’ of house help’, yes, I get that it’s a problem of priviledge. Power & privilege are themes that smack me in the face some days & other days are less obvious, but they are always here in Kenya.
There is a stark difference between the quality of life in Vancouver & here in Kenya. Here I life in a huge house with a massive backyard, a home that I never could afford in Vancouver, with more house help than I ever could have conceived of. We have a full time gardener if you can believe it.
And I acknowledge that my lifestyle is on the shoulders of some others. And that’s uncomfortable & awkward. And that’s part & parcel of the politics of culture, race, power & privilege here.
And while seeing armed guards around the embassies & UN eventually became normal for my kids, recent events at Westgate were as far from normal as you can get. Still, like Mr. Rogers advised, I choose to look for the helpers.
And in doing so, in the face of evil, I was encouraged, relieved & heartened, within minutes of Westgate happening, to have received & sent multiple texts & phone calls. Everyone was reaching out to friends & family, sharing information to help keep everyone safe. And when my teen desperately wanted to do something, we headed to the local hospital to volunteer & donate blood. And I was grateful that the waiting room was full, that people of every shape, size & colour were all there united.
2. Best as in most fun & adventurous
I’m grateful to have been adopted into an eclectic group of friends. We go camping regularly with one group. Around 25 of us, will literally be in the middle of nowhere. Memories of watching my 16 year old be inundated by little girls sitting on his lap putting his hair in braids will be forever seared on my heart & in my brain.
And on that same first camping trip I had to laugh, when, with this mad group of adventurers, I overheard a mom telling her kids ‘don’t go down to the river, it’s hippo time.’ I adore being out of my element like that, when I’m not sure which way is up & I’ve got to figure it out. With a little help from my friends of course.
Time flows thicker here. I regularly sit on my patio, watching the sun set, while the breeze flows through the leaves on my banana trees. Banana anyone? How about passion fruit? Perhaps sugar cane? Or woud you prefer avocado? They’re all fresh for the taking in my garden.
I appreciate knowing now to close my office window at the UN lest monkeys get in overnight & leave ‘deposits.’
I’m hugely appreciative of my wide, diverse, eclectic group of friends from all corners of the globe & the intercultural learning that comes from that. I have a Masters Degree in Education, focusing on intercultural conflict resolution, yet there’s nothing like living smack in the middle of so much diversity to truly ramp up your learning.
I’m grateful that my kids get to be kids here. There is less pressure to act older & be cool. It’s okay & even encouraged, to hang with kids both older & younger. The culture here is also less overtly sexualized for kids.
I love the verdant lush landscape. The rarely quiet landscape – where some bug or bird is inevitably humming or buzzing.
And of course while on many a safari, when we drive to a high spot, set out drinks & appies & watch the fiery African sun set on another day, while silhouettes of giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, elephants & more walk by, I’m every so wholeheartedly glad I made the leap.
Living in Kenya has left me gob smacked & grateful. I feel like for the first time in many, many years I am taking full, deep belly breaths. I’m enriching my life & the lives of my family. I’m learning every day & living to the marrow, to my core.
Looking back at the leap you made, is there anything you’d do differently if you were doing it again?
I would have been more patient with myself. I wouldn’t have underestimated the effects of intercultural adaptation. The slow pull on your heart, your head, & your time to respond to differences that make a difference.
What did you learn about yourself from taking this leap? About the world around you, if anything?
When I was 21 & working in Calcutta & the nearby villages I remember watching brightly, sari clad women, after having worked all day in the fields, heed the call of a conch shell, which was the call to literacy classes. The women laboured over small, individual blackboards to the light of a kerosene lamp while they unraveled the mysteries of learning to read & write.
Just before that time I spent a semester going to school on a ship that travelled around the world. I’d never been outside of North America before. I was completely enraptured with unraveling the mysteries of intercultural learning. From an odd encounter with a mysterious Russian man to a Malaysian Buddhist temple writhing with poisonous pit vipers I was hooked.
I started a lifelong search for similarities that are significant & differences that make a difference.
Today, living in such a diverse cultural milieu, I feel like I’ve come full circle & all paths have led to this decision to move here.
I’ve come to understand that being Canadian rocks. I draw on my proverbial Canadian ‘niceness’ almost daily & it makes a difference.
And the stuff (our entire household) I fretted so much about leaving in Canada? I haven’t missed it (well truth be told there’s a few items I’d love to ship over but surprisingly few) – it’s just stuff.
Watching my kids become TCK’s (third culture kids) – how they adapt, what they like, what they find challenging, how they view things – it’s like a multi lensed camera, I get multiple views. And that perspective is priceless.
If you had to describe what making this leap has done for you in one sentence, what would you say?
Friendships are portable.
Old friends travel with you in your heart & Skype is a godsend.
New friends can be found anywhere & come in all sizes, colours & accents.
Home is more about soul than soil (I heard a Ted speaker say that & I loved it immediately).
Is there anything else you want to share about your experience?
Taking a leap doesn’t meant that it’s always going to be easy. Learning to fly after you’ve leaped takes guts.
The challenges of living both in another culture & in a developing country is like having weights around your ankles & your brain some days. It is always intriguing, insightful, interesting & adventurous. And that’s my recipe for a good life.