Mom Story: Erin from Toto Knits
I’m Erin Allan, founder of Toto Knits and mother to two ‘totos’, Nina- 7 and Tor- 5. Having worked in the magazine industry in New York, I moved to Kenya to ‘do good’ – thinking I’d go for one year- and that was ten years ago! I met my Captain Africa (Kenya’s version of Mr Right) ten days after moving here and haven’t looked back since.
What kind of house do you live in – are you and the kids happy here or is there anything you find lacking or would like to change?
We live in a house my husband built when he was a bachelor- on a budget. It’s all recycled materials, thatched roof and very funky. There isn’t a straight wall in the house- which makes hanging pictures pretty hard but it has loads of character. I love the look of the thatched roof but I was not very impressed when we had to replace it last year in the middle of the rainy season- it has to be replaced every 8-10 years.
What do you like best about living there?
We live outside on the veranda. There are monkeys and warthogs passing through the garden and loads of birds to watch so there’s always something going on.
Do you like to spend time decorating your home and your children’s room?
I do but there are limited shops here for tasteful décor so we end up making most of our furniture and décor. The Chandelier is made from metal scrap and old Cadbury Chocolate tins and rope.
Do you keep your children’s play area separate or do you believe they should have a space in every part of the house?
As we spend so much time on the veranda, the kids’ stuff inevitably ends up out there but everything has it’s space so eventually gets put away.
If you are living in a foreign country, how do you feel about it? How do you meet new people, make new friends? What is it that you miss most about 'home'?
I’ve been in Kenya ten years now so it does feel a bit like home but I made a deal with my husband before marrying him that I had to go home once a year. I say it’s to see family and friends but really it’s for the food. There is not a lot of great ethnic food in Nairobi and San Francisco is a foodie’s delight. I start making lists months before I go home of the food I want to eat- Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese and (ahem) chili dogs…
How have your children adapted to the language, food and cultural differences?
Both children were born here as was my husband so they feel more Kenyan than anything. As they should. But it is important to me that they know about their American roots too!
What is it like to raise a child in your town?
We live on the outskirts of Nairobi between the National Park and the Giraffe Sanctuary so it feels less like suburbia and more like being in the bush (for me at least coming from New York and San Francisco!). It is almost expected that you employ staff here to provide employment for Kenyans so we have lots of help and this makes life very different. Instead of worrying about laundry, cleaning the house and cooking, I’m able to play and spend lots of time with the kids. The mix of these two elements- lots of outdoor activity and help make raising kids here a pleasure.
What is your idea of a perfect day with your children?
We love making stuff! Our veranda is often covered in art supplies, tools and scraps of fabric, metal or wood. There are also loads of places to go around Nairobi for walks, picnics and adventures. Ultimately the kids will end up dirty- and that’s how I know we’ve had a good day. One of their favourite things to do is play in mud!
What is a normal day with your children? What do you do on the weekends?
We love going on safari when we’re not working or at school. I don’t love driving long distances on Kenyan roads- they are in bad shape and there are often traffic issues we have no control over but it’s always worth it when we get there! The Kenyan coast is absolute heaven- one of our favorite spots.
Any books you can recommend for parents on how to raise children?
I used the Contented Little Baby by Gina Ford. I didn’t follow it to the letter but kept to the idea that kids need structure and a routine. Both kids have been very good sleepers which has made a huge difference.
What kind of DIY projects do you like to do with your children?
Both my husband and I have our workshops at home- I’ve got everything you could want for sewing and crafty-crafts and my husband has a huge workshop for making tents, metalwork and woodwork. We are often running in and out finding fun scraps to make stuff with. Big cardboard boxes are a favourite for making helicopters, trains, houses and more!
What do you do with all the projects your children make at home or in school?
I keep the kids’ 2D stuff in their own binder and try to remember to date it. I’ve framed a few bits and given them as gifts to grandparents- a huge success!
How do you like to celebrate birthdays and other special days in your house?
We love birthday parties. There aren’t a lot of party things you can buy here which means we have to get creative! We made balloon shaped party bags out of old sheets, a balloon piñata and of course a balloon shaped cake. We had 700 balloons- 400 of them water balloons. It was much cheaper than hiring the bouncy castle and clown which is the accepted formula around these parts.
What are some nice activities you can do with children in your area, and what would you recommend when people are visiting?
We are very close to the National Park which has a baby animal orphanage, a Safari Walk, an elephant orphanage and of course 40,000 acres of park for game drives. On the other side of us is the giraffe sanctuary where they breed the endangered Rothschild giraffe. It’s 100 acres of forest and we love exploring there and ending up at th Giraffe Centre to feed the giraffe. For the past few months there have been lion roaming the neighbourhood so we have not gone on many walks!
Where would you like to go on vacation – with or without your children?
I’d love to go to Japan with my husband. I’m not sure how much fun it would be for the kids or with kids!
How do you prepare for a trip, any useful tips?
I get each child an activity book for the journey and keep it hidden till we leave. I pack a few bribes- I mean treats!- like peanut M and M’s that they are not normally allowed to use in desperate situations. With a 30 hour one way trip to San Francisco, it’s guaranteed there will be at least one melt down! I find if you pack for the unexpected, it won’t happen- a spare set of clothes, wet wipes and antibiotics. I’d rather pack light but I find every time I do, I end up needing that one thing I decided to leave out!
What place do your children love to visit?
San Francisco is a children’s paradise. We don’t have playgrounds here so that in itself is a huge treat. The novelty of first world cracks me up every time- just feeding a parking meter is a big deal to them (even my husband)!
What are your tips for traveling in a plane or on a long road trip with your children?
Nina has a safari desk – it’s like a kids’ briefcase with pens, tape, scissors and lots of paper. I call it a Kenyan iPad.
What a lovely Mom Story, thank you Erin!
*If you are interested in being considered for a Mom Story, please contact Tiffany – tiffany.bloesem(at)gmail.com