4 Reasons Why I Have No Local Friends


We’ve been in Kenya for two months, and I don’t have any Kenyan friends.  Sometimes I feel sad or guilty about it (I mean, I live here, how do I have no local friends!).  But when I think more deeply, I can understand why none of my friends in Kenya are Kenyan.  Here’s why:

1.  I know I’m not going to be here long, so it’s hard to invest in new friendships.  Making new friends takes time.  I know it sounds bad, but I’m reluctant to invest the time and energy into making friends with locals because I know I won’t be in Kenya very long and we’ll probably never see each other again after I leave.

It’s easier to become superficial friends with Americans because we have so much common ground.  I don’t have to explain why I don’t have kids yet, or why I don’t feel like eating goat for dinner.  It takes a lot more time to develop a friendship with someone whose life experiences and cultural values are different than my own.

2.  I’m usually friends with people who are similar to me.  Even in Atlanta, none of my friends are locals.  They are all recent transplants, just like me.  Most of them have travelled a lot, are liberal, city dwellers and hold an advanced degree.  It’s not like I shun people who don’t fit this mold, I just happen to meet lots of people who do fit the mold.

It was the same in Rhode Island; most of my friends were transplants who had come to Rhode Island to go to graduate school, just like me.

Just by virtue of growing up in a different country, in a different education system, in a different part of the world, most Kenyans are very different than me.  I’d like to have friends who are very different than me, but the reality is that I just don’t.

3.  I interact with Kenyans daily, but our interactions always have an economic angle, which isn’t conducive to friendship.  My taxi driver is Kenyan, my maid is Kenyan, my Kiswahili teacher is Kenyan.  But I am paying all of them for a service.  Starting a friendship with one of these people would immediately be tainted by a power dynamic rooted in our economic exchanges.

If I went out to dinner with Peter, the taxi driver, would I pay him to drive me home afterwards?

4.  I often make friends through work, but now I work alone.  In the past, I spent so much time at work that many of my close friends were coworkers.  I work from home now, so I don’t meet anyone through work.  My husband works with Kenyans, but because he is specifically in Kenya to do Human Resources projects, it isn’t prudent for us to become good friends with any of his coworkers.

Work is a natural place to meet people, and one of my biggest adjustments to the trailing spouse life has been the transition to working at home.  In some ways, it frees up my social life, but that’s only helpful if I already have a group of friends to spend time with.

I think about friends and friendship a lot because it’s something I can’t take for granted.  For those of you who are more rooted, I would love to hear your thoughts.  Do you tend to befriend people who are similar to you, too?  For those of you who are abroad, how do you cultivate friendships with locals?

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23 Responses to “4 Reasons Why I Have No Local Friends”

  1. Maureen says:

    I understand your thoughts about making local friends, it’s difficult when you think differently and do things differently from them. I’m Kenyan and I went to college in the States. I made some friends thanks to campus life, and I belonged to a church and they mostly became my friends as well. The good thing about making friends who are locals is, it stretches you, culturally, mentally, emotionally which makes you grow in some way. In college I could have spent all my time with Kenyans, but I realized that I would leave the United States and still have a Kenyan perspective of life there. I would have robbed myself of immersing myself in another culture and having new and different experiences that were sometimes good and sometimes bad but were worthwhile.

    • Emily says:

      You are right– having local friends is so worthwhile and it really deepens your experience in a country. In Ghana and Vanuatu, I had local friends, I’m just finding it harder to make those kind of friends here in Kenya. (Hence the post!) The blog helps though, and I’m looking forward to meeting up with you sometime soon!

  2. Waegook Tom says:

    I think it’s only natural to befriend people who are similar to you. At first, I had no local friends here in Korea because I thought I’d be out in a year – now, three years later, I’ve made a lot of Korean friends and my partner is Korean, too.

    The economic slant does make things a bit awkward when it comes to friendship, you’re right. It’d feel like you’re paying a friend – better always to keep things business in that way, but gifts and tips on birthdays and every now and again instead. That’s my opinion at least.

    • Emily says:

      Yeah, I think you’re right about keeping business things separate.

      Also, thanks for sharing your experience. It’s reassuring to hear that at first you had no local friends and now you’ve got plenty. I don’t think it would be an issue if we were here long-term, but knowing we’re only going to be here for a short while changes my priorities.

  3. Steph says:

    Even though I have some great friends in Colorado from Grad School, I still find myself calling girlfriends back in Maine/NYC when I have things to vent about. This weekend I’m having a video chat: “we’ll have tea, it will be like we’re in person!” :)

    • Emily says:

      I should do that more often, it’s such a good idea, and with facetime and skype, it’s not too hard. I talk to my family a lot via video, but it’s hit or miss here because the internet is unreliable.

  4. Bobbie Ezzell says:

    In the last forty-plus years, I have moved so very many times. Speaking from experience, one problem with not trying to make friends where ever you go is that eventually you forget how.

    • Emily says:

      Yikes, I guess it’s going to be a constant effort then. Social media helps me stay connected to old friends, but I know I really need local friends too!

  5. Judy says:

    As you say, when you know you’re only going to be there a short time, and there are socio-economic barriers as well, it’s very hard to make friends in the same way as you would back home. But I have found that through volunteering with locals (ie working alongside them in a situation where no one is paid) I’ve been able to develop meaningful relationships as well as learn a lot about the country I’ve been living in on a much deeper level.

    • Emily says:

      Yes, in my other travel/living abroad experiences I have really made great friendships through volunteering. Now I need to think about why I haven’t started volunteering here yet!

  6. Abby says:

    I’ve found it difficult to make friends outside of the activities I do, like book club and piano lessons (and work). Not that that’s a bad thing, but sometimes it feels a little restricted, like I’m missing out on potential friends that I just don’t know how to meet. But interestingly, I gradually became friends with my piano teacher, who’s just a few years older than I am. I pay her for my lessons, at my lessons, and we occasionally see each other for other activities. I admit that feels a little weird, but I’m getting used to it. It seems to work to divide up the time: we have a lesson and I pay her, and then we split up and meet up again another time for a drink or party.

    • Emily says:

      Hey Abby, it’s great to hear how you’ve worked things out with your piano teacher (and that you’re taking piano lessons!). I think your advice to divide up the time is probably right on. I bet it’s easier to start the relationship as a business one, where you pay her for a service, and then move into friendship, then vice versa.

  7. Diana says:

    What an interesting post! Even when I was a child, I sought out friendships with those who weren’t my same race, religion, or socioeconomic status. I can’t say this was ever intentional, it’s just this instinct I have. I am a liberal with a best friend who is conservative. I am a white Christian married to a African Muslim. Who knows why this is? One of the things I have loved most about my expat experience is befriending local people even though my time in the country would be only a few years. I like the challenge of trying to assimilate and make friends, but this is my first assignment outside a Western culture, so let’s see how it goes. Fingers crossed.

  8. Slackmaster General 2J Constantine Esq of the Donna Santman Army says:

    Just for the record, your work friends miss you.


    ESPECIALLY at summer institute. I need you there! They are all getting wise to my mean grumps. YOU WERE ALWAYS GOOD AT DEFLECTING THEM FOR ME. Frauenhofer just joins in! It’s the worst!

    And, just for the record, I am COMPLETELY willing to pay someone for friendship. I know that wasn’t your point, but the more I think about it the more great it is. LAUGH AT MY JOKES MORE. THIS IS YOUR FORMAL EVALUATION AND IT IS NOT VERY GOOD. MORE LAUGHS PLEASE AND ALSO MORE CHUCKLES WOULD BE GOOD.

    • Emily says:

      Hahaha! Your author name made me laugh so hard! And you didn’t even have to pay me!

      I miss you all, too! (I’m going to email you– must catch up on the LCCS gossip.)

  9. I understand you, Emily. I make friends with people who are similar to me, at least who have a similar lifestyle as we can understand each other easily. Some of them are locals, though (not in Kenya :) )

  10. Amelie M says:

    First off, whee! Now that I’m officially a “trailing-live-in-girlfriend” (not to be confused with a “money-leeching-tramp”), I am having a great time with your blog!

    Second off, this several-months-old-post (I’m prone to hyphenations and parenthesis, both of the written and mental/spoken varieties. Bear with me.):

    I just came off a two-year stint living in Chicago, where I moved primarily because my boyfriend lived there, and secondarily because there were no nursing jobs to be found in the Seattle area. 1.5 years into Chicago, I decided to come here to Amsterdam with him, so at 1.5 years in Chicago, I shifted into that exact “I’m leaving so why bother” mode. I can’t think of any job I’ve had where I’ve been super-keen on socializing with my coworkers during non-work hours. I usually love my coworkers mightily; I just don’t want to see them for more than 8 hours a day.

    So, this happened to me, for the first time in my life: I became a “regular customer” of two places. The first was Beans and Bagels, a cafe and panini place around the corner from work, barista’d by hip, smart, bike-riding, endearingly sarcastic employees. The second was the hair salon in the super-gay neighborhood where my boyfriend lived, where I got my hair chopped boy-short and returned monthly to the same “salon artist,” as much for our hilarious story-swapping and conversation sessions during the cut as for the great snipping.

    Somehow, I achieved making friends with the people who serve me. Reading your post, I think that it is easier to befriend the employees of the business owner more easily than the employer, who is counting on you and hundreds like you to make his bottom line. Especially when they are happy employees who feel comfortable enough in their place of work to be relaxed and be themselves. You aren’t paying the employee directly, you are paying the cash register, and the boss pays them. In some settings, like health clinics, banks, employees are expected to be formal and professional at every moment and don’t make “friends” or much casual banter with customers. But if you make yourself a regular of a place where you can idle with the employees multiple days a week so that they can recognize your face, habits, favorite drink, and so on, you can develop a fun sort of friendship. There are limitations, you probably won’t be inviting your hairdresser over for dinner, but you will get to the point eventually where you talk about your personal lives, hobbies, the crazy hippie wedding you went to last weekend, etc, and leave happy and energized. The baristas and the salon artist will be sad to see you leave, and you will promise to write postcards.

    All that’s to suggest: Become a “regular” of somewhere!

    • Emily says:

      Yay, glad you’re enjoying my blog. (And I hope you’re enjoying the aptly named “trailing-live-in-girlfriend” lifestyle.)

      It’s great to hear that becoming friends with someone you originally met through business has worked for you. I think you make a great point that when it’s not the owner of a business, it’s a different story. Plus, I think if you connect with someone, a friendship will naturally develop, and it won’t feel awkward.

      I appreciate your advice on being a “regular” somewhere. I’m kind of a regular at a coffee shop right near our house in Nairobi, and I felt kind of embarrassed about how often I was going there! Now, I’m just gonna own it and try to start up some conversations! Thanks!

  11. Amelie M says:

    Oh migosh, that double-posted. I’m so sorry!

  12. Kate Hall says:

    Boy, I would have the same struggles as you. I know I would. I struggle to make friends with my neighbors, here in the US. Thank God for social media. But it is nice to have physical friends too.

    • Emily says:

      Yeah, I think I might struggle MORE to make friends in the U.S. because many people are quite settled and have a strong friendship group. In a foreign country, lots of expats are looking for friends, so I find it easier.

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