African American Entrepreneur in Kenya Shares Advice And Reflections On Life in Mombasa

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Meet Jamal in Kenya! Jamal first landed in Mombasa as a study abroad student in 2000. After making fantastic friends in his host community, Jamal ended up making the beautiful coastal city of Mombasa home. He’s also spent time living in Oman! He is a true testament to the phenomenal paths a life abroad can take you!


How long have you been living in Kenya and how did you end up there?

During this time, I’ve been living in Kenya since July 2013. My initial move to Kenya is a much longer story. I first came to Kenya as a study abroad student in the fall of 2000. During my time as a study abroad student, I became very close with a local family who essentially invited to become a part of their extended family. This was the family of a well-respected man named Mzee Ali Abubakar and he was the director of Fort Jesus Museum, which is one of the largest museums in Kenya. After my study abroad ended, I returned to Kenya a number of times. A few years later, this same family introduced me to my wife, whom I subsequently got married to in the summer of 2004.

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Is Kenya the only country you’ve visited in Africa?

No, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a few other countries. I’ve been to Tanzania, which is just next door. I’ve also been to Madagascar, which is amazing. Finally, I’ve been to Egypt which was a wonderful experience.

What are you doing professionally there?

I have my own company here in Kenya, WakeUp International. We offer consulting and regional representation services for international companies seeking to enter the East African and Kenyan market. I have regional representation for companies based out of the United States, Turkey, China and Oman (it may sound like I’m doing it big but I’m not there yet, lol).

Do you have any job or immigration-related advice for potential expats in Kenya?

I would honestly suggest an individual do some research on what opportunities or products they intend to engage in before making the jump. Also, be sure that you have reliable connections in different places to facilitate business and professional opportunities. One important thing is to plan financially, and then plan again. While the impression is that since its Africa, things must be cheap, the reality is very different. Life can be quite expensive and you have to plan accordingly.

For immigration, I would strongly suggest to be ready to spend money to stay if your intention is to be here long-term. While you can get a three month single entry visa upon arrival, you can only extend it once. After six months, you have to not only leave Kenya, but actually East Africa. Thus, if you plan to reside in Kenya, either be prepared to get an investment visa or a long-term residency visa. Both can take a long time, so also one should have patience.


What’s life in Kenya like for you?

Life in Kenya is interesting. However, because I’ve spent so much time here, things have become a bit normal. I know a lot of people in the city, and I’ve come to learn of the shortcuts for roads, where to buy the best food and the day-to-day living issues. I have my office, however, I do spend a good deal of time in Nairobi and some of the other counties on business related issues. Sometimes, I am very busy, whereas other times, I have a lot of time on my hands.

What do you love the most about living in Kenya?

There are a lot of things I love about Kenya. The people are very friendly and down to earth. They are very open and you genuinely make good friends here. I remember when I first came here in 2000 and I used to frequent one small store to purchase juice. I would have a small conversation with an older lady who was the owner of the store, and one day I didn’t have any change, so she said to me “don’t worry about it, you’re my friend.” Coming from the States and more specifically Philly, you almost never become friends with someone after knowing them for only a few months. However, in Kenya it was different. We had actually become friends and it was just a normal thing that if two nice people meet, and they speak to one another, they are friends.

From a social and family perspective, it’s good for my family. We lived in the Gulf for a number of years (Oman, Saudi Arabia, along with a lot of visits to the United Arab Emirates) and in between, some time back in Philly. However, it got to the point in which as my children began to get older, I knew that it was important for them to be close to at least one side of the family. Thus with more business opportunities being apparent in Kenya, we decided to move here. Who knows, maybe at some point we’ll be going to Philly.

What have been the easiest things to adjust to?

The easiest thing to adjust to is not feeling like an outsider. I’ve been to a number of countries in which it’s obvious that I was not from there. While most people are friendly, some still do stare. However, here in Kenya, with the exception of people who know me, it would be impossible for anyone to know that I’m not from here. So from that perspective, it has been an easy adjustment.

What have been the most difficult things to adjust to?

From a business perspective, just the lack of movement and for the lack of a better term “getting things done”. It can take weeks if not months to get a simple response on business matters. That in itself is an article unto itself. 

For me, the food is okay and probably because I’ve been eating it for the past 10 years, although my wife has done a very good job in adjusting to cooking American foods.

Jamal in Madagascar.

Jamal in Madagascar.

what's the general cost of living in your community?

The cost of living can be high, because utilities and food are expensive here. Also, fuel prices are as high, if not higher than the United States. So the pricing is reflected in every other commodity. Also, because I live in the city, there is no way to avoid most costs. We’re working towards purchasing a home and this is the idea as my business grows and develops. However, in hindsight, I should have purchased property years ago. 

Note: If you’re reading this now and have the chance to buy some property near any major city in Africa, buy now! Regardless if you plan to live there anytime soon, buy now and it’s almost guaranteed to appreciate in value within the coming years. You can thank me later.

Do you miss home?

Yes. Next question. Lol. Yeah, I definitely miss home a lot and the older I get, I miss my family more and more. I come from a very big and very close family, both on my mother’s side and my father’s side. Additionally, I have some very good friends whom I’ve known for years. While Facebook and emails are great, there’s still nothing like sitting around and having a good conversation with friends and family. At the same time, this is offset a little bit by the fact that my wife also has a big and close family, along with the family whom I originally became close with here in Kenya. Thus, I have big families on two continents, which is definitely a blessing.

Jamal with his two sons.

Jamal with his two sons.

Some parents have concerns about moving their child into a different educational system overseas. what advice can you offer?

This is a valid question. I’ll say this, within my Kenyan family both close and extended, there is one engineer who is currently living in California, one who owns a pharmacy in North Carolina, two who are in college in Canada, professionals in the United Kingdom and professionals in the United Arab Emirates. My wife has a niece who is currently in medical school in Nairobi and when she left high school, her grades were so good that she could have gone to university anywhere in the world and would have gotten a scholarship. Her sister is currently at the same university and is in law school. Their younger brother is just finishing high school and is planning to study aeronautical engineering either in the United States, Australia or in Turkey.

The bottom line is that, every single one of these people studied their elementary and high school in Kenya and have still excelled. The educational system here is quite good but you’ll have to put your kids in a private school, which is actually the norm here for parents who want their children to have a bright future and can afford it.


Did you always dream of living abroad?

In theory, no, but in hindsight I would say that I was prepared to throughout life. In early elementary school, one of my best friends was a Vietnamese kid and in late elementary school, and high school, I had a host of Hispanic, Italian, Irish and Jewish friends. In college, whether by chance or design, in my four and a half years of college, I had roommates from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nigeria and Trinidad. In theory, it can be said that this was a natural result of growing up in a cosmopolitan city, but in reality, many people whom I went to school with rarely interacted with other people whom they considered different. I would say that I was different and I always felt comfortable around decent people, regardless of their background.

What’s your best advice for someone who wants to move to the African continent?

Do your due diligence. Before you make the move, visit the country more than once. For a one or even two-time visit, you may get caught up in the feeling of being “in Africa”. However, its best to visit a few times so that you can peel back the layers of society and people and get a proper understanding of where you’re planning to live. Also, I strongly suggest people look for business opportunities. While employment opportunities are growing, there are tons of entrepreneurial endeavors just waiting to be taken advantage of.

Do you think enough African Americans visit Africa? What would you say to encourage more to visit?

I don’t think African Americans visit Africa enough. To an extent, some people still hold onto the negative connotations that the media portrays about Africa. I’m sure that there are people who think that I’m living in some wild jungle fighting against the elements and living off the land. However, it’s a society! There is a culture, there are opportunities and things are happening here. I would strongly suggest people look at the business and development opportunities and see how they can either benefit or help others benefit. The reason why I do suggest the business aspect, is because at the end of the day, life in this world is not free. At the same time, you can gain another perspective on the world and your place in it, by visiting Africa. Europe is nice, I see a lot more people are visiting places such as Mexico and Brazil, but Africa offers a unique opportunity to see a society that you can contribute to in a meaningful way.

How long do you plan to stay in Kenya?

To be honest, the goal is to be here for the long-term. My wife is from here, my kids speak both English and Swahili and we’re comfortable. Granted business continues to develop and we’re okay financially, so I can see us settling here. At the same time, I still do plan to spend a lot of time in Philly with my parents and family. Within that scope, I also intend to have my children spend more time in the States, so that they can truly understand that aspect of their identity and past.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Go for it. If a person wants to move to Africa, I would say go for it. Now don’t be foolish and move to a war zone but do your research, make a few visits, have an idea of what you are planning to do and then go for it. Also, do it while you’re younger. And if you’re older, don’t let that hold you back either. Just go for it.

Is there somewhere we can follow your experience?

As of now, not really. However, I have written a book about my experience (I’d like to get it published in the future but I’m in no hurry). Also, I’m looking to write a weekly or bi-weekly column about my experiences here.

Follow the stories of other African Americans living across East Africa here.