Winding back the clock, I used to ask myself why my next-door neighbors Donald and Samantha from the US were very satisfied to live in a foreign country whose living conditions were far worse than where they came from. Many horrible things were happening around me that made life worse. I lived in a shanty neighborhood where water and electricity were scarce, with high crime rates, the extreme poverty and many other afflictions which all made my small community an unpleasant place to live.
While I looked down upon my own society with total humiliation, this lovely expatriate couple on a two-year working contract with a charity organization were, on the other hand, enjoying the same life I despised and were pretty much fine with it. How and why this was the case, I failed to understand but one day I decided to talk to them and from what I observed about them, they always made the best out of every situation with their exceptional life skills as expatriates. As I resented the kind of life in their home country, they were, on the other hand quickly adapting to our local lifestyles and seemed to fairly get along with them.
Before they moved in next-door, I used to have some misconceptions about expatriates, i.e. living a lavish lifestyle and limiting their interactions to only their small social circles but thank goodness, this couple’s openness helped to correct these blunders. My life wasn’t pretty different from theirs as they didn’t own a personal car, so they’d sometimes walk to the market on foot or use public buses to go to work. I looked at them with pride when they regularly adorned our traditional clothing like kitenge, wearing beads, hand-made sandals, and armbands. They were never shy to mimic me in their attempts to study my mother language and their eagerness to learn more coupled with their funny grammatical mistakes kept a wide grin on my face.
Among other things, Donald and Samantha made me their close friend and never kept their life a secret from me. They always invited me to their house for a meal and I observed that they never held back from living like me, eating the same food I ate, using local transport and always reaching out to me for assistance. Their choice of a cottage house in an ungated homestead convinced me that they weren’t living large but modestly like the rest of us did and this taught me that to become an expat, I didn’t have to be super rich but adjustable to every unfamiliar lifestyle I encounter. They lived and ate like us, enjoyed doing things the way we did them despite the hardships we went through and from this, I realized that the expat dream wasn’t far from me.
They also taught me another thing or two; you don’t have to be wealthy to move to another country and start an expatriate life but your commitment to adjust to local lifestyles which require persistence and flexibility. These are the virtues that Donald and Samantha taught me about their decision to move Africa where living conditions are unpleasant. However, they were quick to clarify that this doesn’t mean that life in the US was bad but they did this out of their deep love for Africa and that there are plenty of nice things about the continent that we Africans fail to comprehend.
From their experience, I also noted that to become an expat I needed to pay attention to a few critical things; embracing and appreciating lifestyles different from mine and steering clear of divisive issues particularly concerning politics and religion. In addition, learning the local language brought this expat couple closer to their new home and befriending as many locals as they could also made their settlement abroad a lot easier. They dedicated some time to familiarize themselves with the local laws, followed safety guidelines and turned to locals for useful tips on a variety of issues.
They inspired me to add ‘becoming an expat’ to my bucket list and it’s been more than a year since I fulfilled this wish and am glad to say that the principles I learned from them are still helpful in guiding my young expatriate life. Being an expat isn’t all about living large and lavish just because you have a well-paying job but rather, integrating with the locals and to acknowledge that your life isn’t much different from theirs.