Hamjambo from Alison and Henry, and all of us in the Kenya Semester Program! Fresh off our rural homestay in beautiful Nyeri County, Kenya, we’re eager to write about our experience away from the bustle of Nairobi and its suburb, Karen, where we live.
We left Karen on Thursday, August 20, and made the four hour drive to Nyeri with the KSP supervisor, Wairumu Ndirangu and our driver Njau (who gets us through the busy streets of Nairobi in a flash).Our drive to Nyeri was something to behold – the highway out of Nairobi was littered with speed humps and crosswalks, certainly a change from the controlled-access interstates of the US. Once we left the northern outskirts of Nairobi, the landscape changed significantly, with pineapple and coffee plantations replacing urban cityscapes, sports stadiums, and university campuses. Our destination that evening was Sandai Farm, a small and simple estate and hotel owned by a German aid worker named Petra. Our evening there was an unexpected introduction to a whole new foreign culture, as everyone else staying there (just two families and Petra’s family) was German. The atmosphere was oddly colonial, though unequivocally charming and arguably inspiring – Petra’s background was in aid work, and she still has a strong relationship with women’s groups in the area.
The next morning, our group went on a guided hike of the hilly area around Sandai. The land was very dry, with the occasional watering hole or half-dried stream. We saw our first giraffe, though, and definitely enjoyed exploring the hillsides. Soon after, we left departed for a farm in Tumutumu, a small community in Tetu Constituency. Tetu is famous for being the locality represented by Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement and 2004 Nobel Laureate (and author of Unbowed, the memoir by which each of us was impressed). The farm, which participated in the Green Belt Movement, was predicated on subsistence: its habitants grew an impressive variety of crops, from mahindi to viazi vitamu to mandizi, as they are called in the Kikuyu Highlands, as well as the countless tress which have become Dr. Maathai’s legacy.
After leaving Tumutumu, we traveled to the cusp of Nyeri Hill to meet our host families. As our hosts arrived – by cars, smaller cars, taxis, motorcycles, and foot – we got more and more excited. After all, these were the families we’d be sharing our lives with for the next week. After a small meal and some chai (tea, especially the sugary Kenyan tea we came to love or hate during our homestays), we finally met our new families. Some of us met our families immediately, while other families were on Kenyan time, a few (dozen) minutes late for the rendezvous. Meeting our new hosts was exciting, anyway.
Everyone’s homestay was, in a word, different. Each of us was moved by our family, whether it was by the patriarchy that governed the house or by the relative progressiveness that dominated our households. Although our weeks ranged from overwhelmingly challenging to downright lovely, each of us lived through a weeklong transformative experience, away from the crutch of technology and the outside world entirely. The epitome of technology for any of us was the occasional text message to a professor to express any joy or concern we may have had that day. Texting was a rare occurrence, but sometimes you just need advice from Professor Ndirangu.
Being separated from technology on its own was unlike anything any of us could possibly experience in Canton (or in St. Louis, for Henry). To our families, the crops brought not only the joy of the harvest but also the pride of knowing that the land was lifeline that sustained them, uncommon in the US. Their harvests were grown and picked by hand and were bountiful and delicious beyond compare. They were elated to share their harvest with us and show us a bit of their hard work.
Of course, working in the field was very labor intensive. Each of our families was made up of subsistence farmers – families who survived largely off the produce they grew themselves. But most of our families also grew cash crops like tea or coffee, which we worked on the most. These crops funded our families’ children’s primary, secondary, and college education, and were the crops that also allowed them to prosper financially.
We also had myriad experiences that we’d never have in the US. One of us met a courageous rebel who fought in the Mau Mau Uprising; several of us slaughtered chickens; many of us visited the Dedan Kimathi Memorial and Zaina Waterfall; and all of us lived a life we’d never foreseen just a few weeks before. The experience was, to say it again, a transformative one.
All of our rural homestay families were undividedly Kikuyu. The Kikuyu are a dominant plurality in Kenya, some 20% of the people here. Three of four of Kenya’s presidents have been Kikuyu, and many of the majority of Kenya’s non-Kikuyu either resent the “tribe” (a word which we’ve learned to put in quotation marks due to its problematic nature) or are reluctant to support it, at least politically. The language barrier was a problem for each of us. Although many of our host families tried to teach us their native language, another language in the course of a few weeks was just too much!
In reflection, our week in rural Nyeri was trying and unequivocally altered the course of our lives. While it was a challenge to confront for the first time the reality of rural life in a developing country – copious littering at the waterfall and along the road, poor treatment of “pets” like cats and dogs, strictly-obeyed direction toward women and girls with regards to domestic work, and the nominal yet abysmally-paid employment of the rural poor for farm work – we could not pass judgement. It was our nation that legislated Jim Crow, allowed for the urban repression of immigrant minorities, and interned the Japanese – can we not accept the developmental quirks of Kenya? To eat our 120 or more year crow (the distance between the birth of our country and the legalization of women’s suffrage) is to accept that other nations might not have had the time we’ve had to democratically deliberate, to consider the issues, to reevaluate our lives, and moreover to reconcile democracy and our society. We’ve realized that it might well be that it is hypocritical to judge such a young nation as Kenya for its youth, and understood our rural homestays accordingly.
Ultimately many of us enjoyed our rural homestays, in spite of some cultural and physical bumps and bruises acquired along the way. Our time apart from the urban center of Nairobi was revelatory, showing to us naked the life lived by those in the Central Highlands. Now that we’re back in the city, the only thing we know for sure is this: we’ve got to explore Kenya’s periphery even more!
Look, here’s the thing. We want – we long – to understand Kenya, at least to the extent that we can while studying and living here for only four short months. This is our foreign home for a long time after today, and we hope to feel at home here. That’s a tall order, but nevertheless we want to feel like we belong. We want to belong to this country, in spite of any cultural, emotional, or physical pain that may result, and we’d be loath to live in the bubble that so many tourists do. In short, let’s do Kenya. Let’s be a part of this extraordinary nation, and let’s immerse ourselves in something that we may never get to experience again.