9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Africa

You: “I want to move to Africa!” Us: “Know these things first…”

by KAYLAN REID SHIPANGA 

In 2010, I hopped on a plane and left The Big Apple—I was moving to Africa. After 17 hours in the air, I landed in Namibia for a year of teaching English abroad. Seven years later, I’m still here! I’m now married to a Namibian and raising our two-year-old son. What an unexpected turn of events, huh?

Empty road in Namibia
Your commute to work might look a little different…

Since moving to Africa, and over the years, I’ve picked up a few lessons throughout my unexpected journey of life in Africa. For individuals considering taking the leap of faith and moving here like I did, this article is for you. Here’s what I wish I knew before moving to Africa, in the hopes that your transition to an incredible chapter of life here will be as smooth as possible.

1. Don’t move to Africa relying on Apple products.

Macbooks and iPads for living in Africa? Leave ‘em home. Here in small town Namibia, my MacBook and iPhone have turned into the bane of my existence. Outside of capital cities, its hard to find replacement parts or get repairs on them. And this is the case across the continent (and side note: take it from me, China shop chargers will send your iPhone into a tizzy!). Most Africans are using Windows programs and computers and Samsung phones. So, wondering how to move to Africa and stay plugged in? Think twice about your Apple gadgets.

2. Road safety is a major prob.

I initially moved to Namibia blissfully unaware of the car accident stats. I was clueless about how dangerous driving habits were not only in Namibia, but across most of Africa. According to the World Health Organization, Africa is the continent with the highest number of road accidents despite having the least number of vehicles. There’s the dangerous overtaking, speeding, and overall reckless driving. Even I’ve had a few close calls on Namibian roads myself.

Now, I know not to ride in rickety minibuses or be on highways at night—it’s when risk factors like animals and unlit roads significantly increase accident rates.

Shot of persons shoes in the Namib desert
Make time to play! Americans moving to Africa love to travel around the continent in their free time.

3. You might have to break a few immigration rules.

Here’s a little secret. There have been times that I’ve been living in Namibia illegally. Not intentionally though. Just because Namibian immigration can take foreeever (in my Cardi B voice) to process documents. So when you move to Africa to work, you might try to get ahead of the game and submit your work visa docs early. And you’ll stillfind yourself in a state of limbo—where one visa has expired and immigration can’t tell you when your new one will be ready. Or, they just lose your paperwork altogether and you’ve got to start from square one.

This can be extremely stressful. Yet in Africa, trying situations have a funny way of working themselves out. About to move to Africa to work? Pack along a big bottle of patience with some chill pills too.

4. Even you can be an entrepreneur.

No matter where you live in Africa, you’ll be surrounded by a sea of innovation and development. And with that comes a ton of entreprenurial opportunity. Several great biz opportunities have landed in my lap. However, I never saw myself as an entrepreneur, so, the idea of “starting a business” was terrifying to me. I underestimated myself and missed out on some potentially revolutionary business opps.

Don’t move to Africa to work and be afraid to veer off from the 9-5 world. Americans moving to Africa shouldn’t be afraid to leave the corporate mindset behind. But also don’t move to Africa just to be rich and exploitative. Just know that entrepreneurship is a way of life here—you’ve got to grab it by the horns and not look back.

[Get matched with jobs in Africa]

African American woman
Not all black foreigners are necessarily given special treatment while working in Africa.

5. Moving to Africa as a Black foreigner? You may not get the welcoming you expected.

Many African Americans moving to Africa arrive on the continent in a state of utopia. It’s like a 400 years late welcoming home. The hard truth? I have met Africans who didn’t quite embrace me. There aren’t a huge number of Americans moving to Africa. And sometimes, I’m the first African American they’ve met—and though we resemble each other, there’s a silent separation that’s hard to ignore. There are centuries of misconceptions and unfamiliarities to comb through. Looking back, there have been social situations that have left me emotionally drained with disappointment. I wish I had kept my high expectations in check. It would’ve helped me avoid the blues that can come with adjusting into Africa as a Black Westerner.

6. Don’t go crazy trying to “be” a local.

My first visits to my Namibian inlaws village were pretty interesting. They’d be cooking over fires, planting crops, herding cattle… Just a bunch of manual labor all.day.long. But the kicker? They were working under temps close to 100 degrees! I started to compare myself to them and felt like I looked lazy. So, I started milling around too but burnt out QUICK. Now, I accept that I don’t have the same stamina for aspects of rural African life. I make some effort to take part in their culture and chip in here and there. This is enough.

City livin’ comes with its own nuances too. While it’s tempting to jump right into the local scene, trying too hard can be a little overwhelming to some locals (and to you too). Don’t get me wrong, cultural immersion is important. Still, people want to get to know you for you. Not some idea of how you think you need to act for their acceptance. It’s kinda like learning to swim—would you rather learn by belly flopping or in stages? A good balance between genuine efforts and paced adaptation is your sweet spot.

7. Avoid payday crowds like the plague.

In some African countries, many employees get paid at the same time of the month. So, a lot of folks end up doing the bulk of their shopping at the same time. Supermarkets, post offices, banks, ATM lines, malls… they become semi-chaotic and there are long lines everywhere. There was a time I’d get caught up in the madness—standing in a bank queue for a good hour just to make a quick deposit! Now I know to avoid running errands at the end of the month. I’ve also transitioned to online and cellphone banking. Way less headaches!

8. Your English may not be their English.

You’re a native English speaker living in an English speaking African nation. Chit chat with locals will be a breeze right? Wrong! Some people will find your accent difficult to understand. My sentences got lost in translation many times during my first year living in Namibia. I was speaking too fast and not enunciating my words for the person’s ear which was trained to Namibian English accents. Now, I’ve learned the signals that silently scream, slow down! Like someone saying “yes” when I ask them how their holiday was.

[Custom recommendations for volunteer projects in Africa]

African women in colorful, traditional dresses
So you want to move to Africa? Find work that is meaningful and add depth to your experience.

9. Moving to Africa is exhilarating! But homesickness is inevitable.

When I moved to Namibia, I was on a travel high. My old life back in NYC was the last thing on my mind. I mean, I was living in Africa! Life doesn’t get much more cooler than that. But all travel highs must come to an end. And when mine finally did, I just about fell into a depression. I wish I had mentally prepared myself for the possibility of dealing with homesickness; because when it hit, it hit hard! And I was all the way in Africa, faaar away from home.

When I decided to move to Africa, some research on homesickness prevention and coping strategies would’ve done me well.

There are multiple ways you can move here

Apply for your business visa and open a shop, set up a consulting company and offer your expertise, or buy some property and work towards getting residency. With the right blend of resourcefulness and perseverance, moving to an African nation can be done several ways. Here are a few more relocation routes that you can take.

Volunteering

That’s how I got here! Plenty of foreigners initially move to Africa as a volunteer and end up staying indefinitely. Volunteering is also a great way to get a feel for a specific country and if it’s a good fit for you. Studying nursing? Join an organization that sends volunteers into rural communities to spread health awareness. While you’re helping out, keep your eyes open for professional opportunities for after your service.

Recommended programs:

Cairo skyline
If you want to move to Africa and be rich, we recommend finding jobs in the continent’s larger cities.

Teaching abroad

Also how I moved here! You’ll find schools in just about every African nation with teacher shortages. Especially the government (public) schools. You could sign up with an international organization that places local teachers. Or if you’re really up for a challenge, apply to a local school directly (getting your work visa will probably be tricky). Some institutions may require TEFL certification or a degree in a field related to what you want to teach. Don’t expect huge salaries, they’ll be compropable to the local teachers or less. The good news is that especially when teaching through a non-profit, there’s a good chance that your housing will be covered.

Recommended programs:

Getting a gig & working in Africa

It’s time to evaluate your skill set and get creative with your African job hunt. With the right approach, you CAN find jobs on the African continent. Many African countries have a shortage of skilled professionals across many sectors – education, health, and tech to name a few. Try and get hired with an international org in your chosen country. Or, grab your resume and take a trip to the continent to chat with local professionals in your field about job opps. You’ll likely have to do some maneuvering to get work visas, but it’s totally possible to make it happen.

Recommended programs:

Computer lab
Not all jobs in Africa are at NGO’s or foreign aid. Find work in tech, trade, and resource management.

Two words to describe living abroad in Africa? Absolutely inspirational

When I started Youtubing my life in Africa, I had no idea how much it would resonate with people. I am continually blown away by how much gratitude I get for simply sharing my experience. Folks say it’s because there is so little content out there showcasing everyday African life. There are also so many stereotypes about African life. So, people people admire someone for saying, “I want to move to Africa” and just doing it.

As living in Africa becomes more normal for me, I’ve admittedly slacked on blogging and vlogging. In hindsight, I wish I had broadcast even more of my journey in Africa. The least I can do is inspire people to move to Africa, giving this continent the proper platform she deserves.

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