Lilly Bekele-Piper and her husband, who both grew up in the U.S., are raising their family in Kenya after moving there from Ethiopia. Lilly is a podcaster, her husband works in education, and their kids sound like an amazing group of activists, artists and dreamers. Even though Lilly lives in a different part of the world, her days sound so much like most parents: juggling time between work and home, feeding teenagers, homework, and extra-curricular activities.
I think you are going to really connect to her attitude and ideas about what is important in life. Welcome, Lilly!
Selam! My name is Lilly and I live in dynamic and beautiful Nairobi, Kenya with my family of six. We are an Ethiopian/American family who has been living abroad for the last 12 years — four years in Ethiopia and the last eight in Kenya.
Ben and I were college sweethearts at Wake Forest University (GO DEACS!) and this summer we will celebrate 20 years of marriage. Ben is an education researcher; he’s done some cool work to improve reading outcomes for primary-age kids in the region and is the most efficient consumer of podcasts, committed and intense middle school basketball coach, and loving father and partner I could have hoped for.
I fell in love with him at age 19 because he was super cute, smart and had an easy, laid back nature. However, our natural preferences are 180 from each other on everything, so we have learned the art of selective compromise over the years!
I have spent over two decades in education in the US and across the world but have recently taken a hard pivot back to my first love: creative communications. I often speak at our church and in January, I started a podcast and I am working on a few other creative projects. I still work in development but hope to eventually “talk” full time!
Our four kids fill our home with beats and joy. Selah (16) is a high school junior and is a very musical and creative kid who writes music and curates the best playlists for all our moods. She loves football (not “soccer”) and has a real bent towards justice work. She has been involved in menstrual health and vulnerable communities since she was about 12 and got her period on a plane. That interest has informed her view of the world and given her some ideas towards future human rights work. Her annual time-lapse of us putting up our Christmas decorations is a tradition we have come to treasure.
We have twins! This has been the biggest surprise in parenting; it is so fun and complicated, too. Silas (14) is our hyper-specialist; he gets deeply interested in a new topic about every six months. Animals, photography, afros, harmonicas, rubik’s cubes, pancakes; we never know what’s coming next! He’s sees the world differently. He’s currently the rhythm guitarist in a rock and blues band called Refuge; their band is made up of kids with roots in Eritrea, UK, Bolivia, Kenya and Ethiopia and they just released their first EP of original songs.
Solomon (14) keeps tabs on the emotional pulse of our family and has the most gentle heart; his ability to forgive humbles me. He is passionate about sports, fried chicken and relaxing — in equal measure. Most days, he can be found outside working on his basketball skills and recently learned how to dunk. He is easy-going, wickedly funny and a good friend to everyone in our family. And perhaps, the only kid who once asked to have his bedtime moved up 30 minutes!
Saron is the exclamation point to our family story. We thought we were done after the twins and Saron came as a delightful surprise. As a toddler, she would wave and blow kisses to complete strangers and she laughs loud, is strong-willed and very crafty. She is our board game queen. When we learned that she has rather severe dyslexia about three years ago, some of her personality made more sense to us and now I am thankful I have a kid whose determination will help her navigate her world. She’s a serious dancer and loves ballet and I can always count on her to walk into the room the very moment I swear!
We live in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, very near to the United Nations (there are four global headquarters for the UN and Nairobi is one). Our neighborhood and surrounding areas are very elite parts of town, and home to politicians, global leaders and the wealthy. Most wealthy neighborhoods have informal settlements nearby which create personal and economic ties between neighborhoods that are complex and yet, a part of how the city (and any big city worldwide) functions.
Nairobi has a population of over six million in the metro area and we are fortunate to live in a very green, peaceful area of town. I wake up to ibis birds in our garden and year-round sunshine. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai helped preserve many forests that are easily accessible and certainly Kenya is a country of incredible high and low lands, river and coastal areas, savannahs and mountains.
It is an extraordinary country. I love that we have many green spaces to enjoy but I don’t like that someone’s access to those spaces are almost always determined by class.
In Nairobi, like most cities, space is a commodity and green space, a luxury. There are all the usual trappings of big cities: traffic, high cost of living and over-crowding, but as an immigrant into this country, living a privileged life — we escape much of it. That never leaves our minds.
For our kids, who have now lived in three countries: this is home. We love that we can be on a safari or on the beach in an hour and that we are a short flight away from Ethiopia and able to go to our other “home” every year.
When we left Ethiopia eight years ago to move to Nairobi, we looked for a house for about four months. The city is very transient and there are many interesting neighborhoods to live in. We are renting this house and chose it because it was close to our kids’ school and it was available. That’s about it. To be honest, we had no idea what to look for. If we are fortunate enough to own our own home one day, we will know better what works for our family.
I looked at over 30 places before we found one that was close, in our rental price range (houses in this neighborhood can average between $2500-6000/month) and met the security requirements.
We have added a few things, like an awning to cover the back porch, and have planted many flowers and trees but generally hesitated to do more as its not our forever home. The weather here is so good that the garden is an extension of the living space and has been home to many large gatherings over the years.
The days in our house start early and end late. Most mornings the kids have to be at school by 6:45 AM for morning sports practice. and 10 to 12 hours later, we all tumble back in after work, rehearsal, practice and various commitments. So when I first get home, I feel deep gratitude. The kids usually feel hungry. I am truly shocked by how much a 14 year-old boy can eat.
There are bowls for keys, baskets for sorting shoes and hooks for all the stuff we drag in and out. Having four kids has made me crave order and predictability — basically, my need for control. I have worked on letting go over the years. Not there yet. However, I also hope that our kids and friends find our home a comfortable and warm place to be. There are pictures and books everywhere: we value stories and family. We have collected many items from our travels: art, shells, fabric, baskets. They are reminders of our culture and memories together.
To be very honest, if we did not have help with the cleaning and upkeep of our home — it would feel stressful to come home because this is more space than we need. That is always with me.
We intentionally bought a table that seats 12 so that we could have enough space for friends and family. Our life can be chaotic so we try and create a space that is welcoming to both us and guests with small touches and (quality) air diffusers around the house, ha!
When we moved here eight years ago, someone generously gave us their piano. We painted it my favorite color, bright yellow — on Thanksgiving morning! What was I thinking? It was the first real design choice and it drives the energy in our home, I think. Over the years I’ve been tempted to maybe change the color — I love the idea of a purple piano — but Selah, our resident pianist always insisted it remain yellow. I’m grateful it has because it’s a reminder that (many) of the best things in life are free! I feel joy when I see that yellow piano and hope our home invites opportunity to take joy in the food, conversations and memories created here.
There are many things to love about living in Kenya, specifically and living globally. In Kenya, we eat a fairly organic diet with very little processed foods. You can find anything you want here but we rely heavily on fresh produce, and really only eat what’s in season, as that is what the markets offer. When we come to the U.S. in the summer to visit, it’s amusing what homemade food our kids will find that comes in a jar or box, (Mommy, pesto comes in a jar?).
We love the communal nature of our lives; most weekends there are casual gatherings, often outside and it really is part of the Kenya/Ethiopian (and many other cultures!) to gather around food, with kids and a visiting guest (or two) in tow. We have more time here. Though our lives are busy, I love that we are positioned in the global south and easily able to visit amazing places that would be less accessible from the U.S.
More importantly, our kids live between extremes of wealth and poverty, in a developing democracy and attend school with children from 69 different countries. I love that they are trying hard to make sense of that and are teaching us as they do.
We have really wrestled for years about whether or not to stay long term (work permits and visas, permitting) in Kenya. As a Black family raising Black children, we certainly feel our kids are safer here than they would be in the United States, both psychologically and physically. We are grateful that our kids have grown up on the continent where their identities and beauty are not under attack as Ben and I felt ours often were growing up in America.
Yet, while school shootings are now a part of the fabric of American childhoods, terrorism and security concerns are a part of ours in Nairobi. The trade-offs are real. As our kids begin college, likely in the U.S., it would be nice to be close to them. But they see East Africa more as home than the U.S.
Given the opportunity, I do think that we will live in other countries in the future but what our family needs will drive those decisions.
As an Ethiopian-American immigrant, many Kenyan cultural norms have re-affirmed how I was raised and my parenting style. Respect for elders, spending time with family and friends and a more relaxed pace of life are central to both cultures and values we hold as a family. While we have very full lives with four kids, we don’t feel the constant rush that I am almost certain we would feel if we lived in the U.S.; in large part because we have help at home and that makes our busy lives, often complicated by constant international travel, possible.
Ben and I were raised quite differently but with similar priorities based on our shared faith and we are doing some things our parents did — and intentionally not doing other things. He grew up in a three-person family in Cleveland and I grew up in the South with extended family often living with us for long stretches of time. My childhood home was usually buzzing with people and food and activity. Not to mention holidays! Our home was usually bursting at the seams with cousins and friends. One of my mother’s many gifts is hospitality and she taught me there is always room for one more person at the table (see above!).
When Ben and I got married we had 600 guests (Ethiopian weddings are usually bigger than the American weddings I have been to) and a committee of about fifteen aunts and uncles (and Ben’s mom!) took two weeks to prepare the entire twelve-dish, traditional Ethiopian wedding dinner from scratch. I will never forget the pure joy those two weeks were: cooking, laughing and sharing memories all while chopping 500 pounds of onions!
I wish people knew more about the very diverse continent of Africa that has 54 countries, hundreds of language groups and is the birthplace of civilization. I asked my kids what they wished people knew and they said:
- It’s not hot here year round; its actually perfect
- We don’t own any wild animals or live in huts or trees (yes, we have been asked that more than once)
- We don’t speak “African;” the national languages are Kiswahili and English but Kenya is home to over 60 languages and most Kenyans speak at least two languages, if not three or four
- We wish people knew anything and everything about Kenya, its awesome!
- It’s a privilege to live here
Kenya is a hub of technology and entrepreneurship in the region, has a very dynamic art and music scene and is home to dozens of multi-lateral private and non-governmental organizations. Kenya has forty-four people groups and the culture, food and history is broad, complex and marked by heroic strides towards independence.
There are so many things to do here! You could start your day with a yoga class or a visit to the spa, shop for antiques and colorful fabric in town then end the day at a trampoline park and have tacos and margaritas for dinner. Not to mention day trips to any number of lakes, the coastal region, national park and on and on. All in one country. It’s incredible.
There are real economic divides in Nairobi — again, like most urban centers around the world — and we live with an acute awareness of how resourced we are and tremendous responsibility we have to our host country.
My podcast is called Up/Root and I feel like for the first time professionally, I have come alive! Up/Root is a podcast about culture, identity and global living; I want my show to redefine what it means to be “uprooted” by featuring stories of joy, resilience and justice from immigrant, multi-cultural and global communities.
As somebody who has lived between cultures, languages and continents my entire life, these are the stories that were missing or portrayed as less than positive in the mainstream media.
I studied communications in college and planned to go into TV and eventually work for Oprah Winfrey one day! That was my plan. Four kids, three countries, two continents and twenty years later, I am finally coming home to what I believe I am meant to do with my life.
I have been exploring the idea of “home” in the last few episodes and forthcoming episodes will focus more on justice. I love everything about the creative process — even the stressful mistakes, delays and audio disasters I have had. I love telling stories and every conversation leaves me with more questions and wonder. I hope Up/Root makes space for complex conversations on identity, but I am also intentional that we laugh on every show!
I love podcasting because it is accessible, and I have realized that I love live podcast recordings because there is an energy you can’t match in a studio. I guess the only advice I would have for an aspiring podcaster is to take enough risks that you have some regrets, too. I was too hung up on it being perfect that for many years, I was a library of ideas and nothing more. There are so many things that I want to improve about Up/Root but in the meantime, I am “doing it afraid” and having so much fun as I do!
I am very good at celebrations. I have at least six types of confetti and a pack of multi-colored window markers in my pantry right now. I own disco lights, sequenced tablecloths, a portable chalkboard and multiple beverage dispensers (which get a ton of use). We celebrate small and big events and our family has many traditions. May the 4th Star Wars cookies are baked and shared with our fellow fans every year, birthday breakfasts in bed and a fancy Valentine’s Day dinner at home are traditions we look forward to.
We also celebrate Ethiopian holidays, like New Year’s which falls in September, with fireworks and sparklers. We deck the house, the halls and anything that doesn’t move at Christmas. I love having friends and family in our home, especially at the holidays.
Several years ago, someone told me that people should come before projects and I’ve tried my best to live that out. I don’t always get it right, I’m often impatient, my expectations of others are way too high and I don’t have enough margins in my days for the impromptu cocktail or nap. However, we do take time to celebrate Saron’s reading successes or professional milestones for Ben or I. I think I’m pretty good at gathering people and am learning that not everything has to be homemade.
I hope my kids will remember that everyone was welcome in our home that they were/are loved and treasured. I hope they remember how much fun we had and how their dad taught them how to play baseball in Ethiopia and basketball in Kenya. I hope they will remember the one-on-one moments we have tried to spend with them. I hope they will remember feeling heard and seen. I hope they will remember us apologizing when we were wrong. And I hope they will remember times around the fire, piano or table in our home as places their story began.
I hope they completely forget how much Ben and I worked at night, how very many times I yelled when I lost my temper and reacted as childish as them. I hope they will forget how upset I would/still get when I am frustrated and stressed. How I would overreact to something that turned out not to be their fault. I hope they forget my anxious over-parenting and remember we tried the best we could to love them fully and wholly for just being our kids.
The best thing about living with my kids has been the sheer volume of it. We live a big life with lots going on in the lives of all four kids and a steady stream of family or colleagues visiting. Rock concerts, bake sales, political activism, dance recitals, first dates, basketball tournaments, volunteering, podcasts, work travel, church, sleepovers, music festivals, tutoring, books clubs. It’s a lot and I love being the ringmaster of this family.
The fullness of it reminds me that I am blessed with healthy and curious kids and blessed with time, thanks to the help we have at home.
I love that our sixteen year-old keeps me up-to-date on the latest trends and is someone whose company I truly cherish. I love that our sons feel protective of me and their sisters and have turned out to be hilarious impersonators of extremes in their parent’s personalities. I love that even if we are all on a device, we are often still in the same room or nearby. I love that having four kids has broken my heart wide open to so many new experiences and people.
Perhaps my most favorite thing is the bonds I see the kids developing with each other. It is a deep and fierce bond, deepened in part by the global life we live and summers spent together without playmates — although having four kids was for many years like a non-stop playdate. I can only pray they will be the best of friends as they grow into adults.
When our youngest was born, we had four kids under the age of four and I struggled with the my third, and most severe, round of post-partum depression. I still live with and manage my depression and feel as though it stole many memories of their early years from me.
I miss the simplicity of the early years and how easily I could fix stuff for them. I feel like we’re in the stage of parenting where we can encourage, advise and coach them, but in the end they will rise or fall by their own choices.
I stumbled across some old letters from my kids the other day and I miss how we were the primary loves of their lives. Of course, I am glad that is no longer the case and that they have more than just Ben and I, but I do miss Friday nights that were the predictable movie, pizza and maybe a sleepover in the living room. Their weekends are full of so much activity, interests and friends and we are on the cusp of college in a year for our oldest and the twins will follow soon thereafter. It feels like everything is changing.
Ben definitely enjoys these years more but honestly, I think I enjoyed the ages of 4-9 more as it felt like the height of a childhood that would never end.
They are all well aware of the hard things in life by now and that the world has many rough edges and injustice. We can tell that their desperate reliance on us as parents is shifting, and that’s as it should be, but I miss already that we created something really special and now it’s time to start letting it go.
I wish someone had told me to slow down, to not worry so much, to stop freaking out about my own career disappointments and just calm the heck down! I wish I had listened to those that told me to make exercise a priority earlier in my life and not wait till my mid-30s to focus on getting in shape. It’s so much harder now. I wish they had told me that having four kids was always God’s best plan for us.
Thank you, Lilly! What a gorgeous, colorful home. Don’t you get the sense immediately from this home that it is full of energy and the best kind of chaos? Kids playing the piano and running around and yelling across the room at each other. Lilly has really created a space that feels warm and welcoming and interesting. I want to spend time pouring over the bookshelves, studying the art on the wall, and peeking into every corner.
I was also really touched by the idea of buying a dining table that seats 12, even though they are a family of 6. Sometimes it is taking action on our desires that creates reality in our lives. Lilly and her husband wanted their home to be a gathering place, so they built a space inside it that is conducive to gathering. I love the idea of a dining table surrounded by family, friends and strangers. Everyone has a seat.
Is your home a gathering place? What do you do to foster that energy? Do you have a physical space for people to gather? Or do you just have to sort of fit people in where you can?
Art in Selah’s room
Chairs in living room
Swahili saying art in kitchen
Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at [email protected]