I was asked recently about raising kids in the developing world, which led to the story of why we went to Zambia.
You know that strange look people give you that is part confusion, part pity? That look when they think you’re about to do something really dumb and they’re too polite to tell you.
That was the look I got from my colleagues when I announced that I was quitting my regular office job in Scotland and moving my young family to Africa. I’d recently turned 40 and I think the un-voiced question was whether I should instead buy myself a Harley.
Where did we go and why?
My wife and I are a bit of a mess culture mash-up. I’m Irish but spent my childhood in Latin America. My wife is Zimbabwean, but her family moved to Scotland when she graduated high school.
The next bit is pretty normal. Got married, worked normal jobs, and eventually had kids.
But it was way toooo normal and we were restless.
Then came the opportunity to work for a small healthcare organization in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. I wanted to feel like I was contributing to the world instead of the rat race.
So we went and spent five memorable years in Zambia. The question we often get asked is whether we’re glad we went to the developing world with a young family, and would we recommend it?
The short answer is that we would 100% recommend it. But, like most things in life, there was good, bad and some misconceptions.
One of our main ‘whys’ for going was to work with purpose. I worked for an organization making an impact on the day to day lives of the under privileged in Zambia – which gave real meaning to my work life. We also volunteered with a number of local non-profits working with street kids and orphanages. The need is huge and staring you in the face every day. As is often the case, we gained more than those we were ‘serving’.
There are times when you want comfort. But too much comfort is not good for the soul – or your body.
Adventures and overcoming challenges are necessary for development and growth.
And adventure happens most naturally when we put ourselves in unfamiliar environments. A lot of our adventures in Zambia involved the outdoors. Like tracking an elephant through the bush with our kids. (Though only after checking with a local guide that the elephant was far enough away that we were not going to run into him!)
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all
Living in another culture gives you an appreciation that there is more than one way of doing things – and makes you more open minded to alternative perspectives. The deep value placed on relationships and family in Zambia is something that we learnt from. Though some things will always feel awkward. Like a continuing to hold a good friend’s hand for over a minute after our handshake greeting. Totally normal in Zambia though.
Having a full-time housekeeper / nanny is affordable – and culturally expected – and means very few household chores. A dear Zambian friend explained to me that if you have the financial means, and do not hire a housekeeper, then you are depriving someone from the means of supporting themselves and their family. Therefore, you must be selfish.
For a family with four young kids, this was a God send. We have seen friends in the ‘developed world hamster wheel’ struggling through the work week, only to have to spend the weekend cleaning and washing clothes.
A housekeeper allowed us to arrive at the weekend with a tidy house, clean clothes and able to focus on family time rather than cleaning.
Raising kids in the developing world allows you to see the world through their eyes. And they get excited by things that seem innocuous to you. Like building defenses whilst camping to stop the monkeys stealing our fruit. Or when standing in front of Victoria Falls, they are more thrilled at being soaked and walking across a rope bridge than the actual 7th wonder of the world.
Young kids are like sponges when it comes to learningthrough experiences. So when we went for a sunset canoe ride on the Zambezi river, and our kids saw the crocodiles a few feet away on the bank, they understood why they weren’t allowed to go within 20 feet of the river’s edge at our campsite. One of our twins still refuses to go anywhere near rivers – which is difficult to explain to our Spanish friends when having a picnic by the river.
Any discussion of the benefits of traveling would be incomplete without mentioning the incredible people you meet. Living in the developing world can be stressful at times. Experiencing some of these challenges with others somehow makes the bonds stronger, more real. We made lifelong friendships in Zambia.
The pace of life in Zambia is much slower. That leaves more time for family, but it does mean that things often take much longer than they would in the US or UK. Like 6 visits and 2 letters to my bank to try to close an account. This can be frustrating but does have one big benefit. It teaches patience – if you’re willing to learn.
If you do not have patience you cannot make beer
There is no getting around the fact that being so far from family sucks. Zambia is two long haul flights and a 20+ hour journey away from the UK where our parents live. We were fortunate to have adventurous parents and saw them at least once a year. Many of our non-Zambian friends were unable to persuade their parents to visit since “Africa is WAY too dangerous”. It’s not.
The WHO ranks Zambia in the bottom 5% of countries for healthcare. To minimize the risk, we had a good health insurance plan that included medical evacuation. The plan also gave us access to the best private hospitals in Zambia – though ‘best’ is a relative term…
The local school standards often fall short, and the best international schools are expensive. If the organization you work for doesn’t cover school fees (which often they do), then you have to find alternatives. We found a great little affordable school for our one school age kid. Home schooling is another option…
None of these will be deal breakers for us should we have the opportunity for another overseas adventure. You can almost always mitigate the risks with some forethought.
Only a fool tests the depth of a river with both feet
Most of our British and American friends thought our biggest concern about raising kids in the developing world should be safety. I’m not sure if they were more worried about lions mauling us or armed mercenaries marauding through the streets. As long as you take normal precautions, Zambia is no more dangerous than most other places in the world. I’ve been in parts of London and New York that I wouldn’t wander around in by myself at certain times flaunting a Rolex (clarification – I do not own a Rolex). I thought this was common sense, until I went on a business trip to Bogota, Colombia with a colleague who thought he was being sensible by swapping out his normal Rolex for a Tag Heuer. Don’t be my colleague.
A common assumption is that it’s cheap to live in a country like Zambia. It is much cheaper than the States IF you are willing to live like a local. That means living in a ‘high density area’, sharing a bathroom (with no running water) with four or five other families, and living on maize meal for all three meals a day. But IF you want to live at a similar standard to how you live in the States, then your costs could be higher than the States. Our rent in Lusaka for example, was nearly double what we paid in Scotland for a similar home.
Why not just go on holiday?
One question I often get is whether you can have the benefits of living abroad from a short vacation. My wife and I visited Zambia for a vacation when our eldest was just a year old. We had an amazing time. But it was a completely different experience to LIVING in Zambia. It’s kind of like the difference in depth of relationship you have with someone you’ve met for an hour, or a good friendship of several years.
Does it have to be the developing world?
You can have adventures everywhere you go. In fact, our family is currently in Spain.
But what I would say is that the developing world is more ‘raw’ for want of a better word. There is no safety net. Which is generally fine if you take sensible precautions. But it does mean you are living a little closer to the edge. That creates more challenges. And I think there is a greater sense of accomplishment.
Did we deprive our kids by raising them in the developing world – and should you go?
We want to raise curious adventurous kids who are open minded and appreciative of what they have. We want kids who see the world as a place to be explored with endless opportunities.
Our kids may have a couple more scars as a result of living in the developing world. But they will have stories. Like catching dung beetles for pets and exploring bat filled caves. Or the putze fly stories their mom won’t let them tell their friends and which she has edited out of this post! But our kids are now wired for adventure.
If you do end up raising your kids in the developing world, one thing is sure. You will never be the same again.
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.