One of the most valuable aspects of the Kenya Semester Program is the opportunity to experience a range of cultures co-inhabiting the nation of Kenya. For our first full week here, we were able to join various communities in Nyeri County on what we called our Rural Homestay. Each student stayed in a different household, with different family dynamics, schedules, and economic situations. During the week we took part in whatever activities our family had planned. Some of us worked on the farms, some of us went to schools, and some of us caught up on the local nightly news during dinner time. No matter what our experiences were however, each of us were fully immersed into our families. The KSP plans it this way for a reason though; while we had many different experiences, all of us feel that we had the opportunity to grow during this week. Many of us developed our Swahili, tried new foods, earned some grizzly blisters, and gained confidence in our own abilities which we will carry with us for the rest of the semester.
Diving into the rural homestay, we were prepared to have limited access to toilets, electricity, and expected to be working rigorous days. Also, we knew that in such a different environment than most of us are used to, we would need to communicate our levels of comfort with daily activities or other experiences. Before leaving for Nyeri, we also expressed a common worry of committing a cultural faux pas, but realized that communicating with our families whenever we were unsure of how to do something was the key to not causing offense.
During our homestays, we experienced the strong value of hard work prevalent in Kikuyu culture. With agriculture being the main source of employment, the pride in hard physical labor, both for men and women, was very important to them. The families’ work in the farm fields consisted of either cutting napier grass for the cows or hauling corn stalks up the hill to the homestead. Asking to help out the host brothers and sisters was initially perceived as a breach of the host-guest relationship, but after repeated attempts to integrate ourselves–in order to fully learn from their daily life–they became more receptive to our participation.
Many if not all of the daily farm or other activities we experienced were unfamiliar and some people quickly noticed that our host parents, brothers, or sisters would do things for us and tell us that we needed to relax. This was aggravating for us all at some points because we were there to learn and confront unfamiliar work like milking a cow or washing our clothes by hand. In these instances, we found that by taking the reins and telling our family to teach us to milk the cow or grabbing a tea basket and joining Mama wetu in the field we were able to shape our rural experience.
With this hardworking ethic, the agrarian Kikuyu people that KSP students were surrounded by had an unbelievably strong connection to the land. Many families relied on their farms as a sole supplier of not only food, but income as well. One student’s family, for instance, would sell the extra milk from the two cows and sell the small harvest of raw coffee, which brought in marginal revenue from the processor, and that would cover the major expenses the family farm had. In regards to food, the host family only purchased cooking fat and rice regularly. Besides those two products, every meal was produced with food directly grown on the small family farms. The land was a direct resource for many Kikuyu families, and the traditional importance of land is still very much a part of the modern culture.
Another aspect of contemporary Kikuyu life was the prevalence of Christianity, often multiple sects, in every area we visited. Every host family went to church on Sunday and many families also prayed daily, around meal times. Each student who joined their family at church was expected to introduce themselves, generally with warm and friendly results. The services were all in Kikuyu, even the Catholic services, and all included dancing of some sort. There was a general separation of men and women in the church, though everyone mingled, chatted, and interacted in the church yard during the hours after the service. The church was not just a part of the community but rather, the church was the community. It was during church that announcements regarding funding of events and local projects, big exam scores, and births and deaths were made. It seemed like the extended definition of family in the Kikuyu tradition had been adapted and applied to the church, where every woman was “maitu” (mom) and every man was “baba” (dad) and every child present was cared for by the community at large.
To prepare us for immersive experiences like attending church in Nyeri, during orientation week we had a few Swahili classes in which we learned greetings, responses, and other key expressions including how to greet someone, tell them our name, and say where we are from. Phrases like “I am full” or “Thank you” helped to soften the language barrier and provided a link of communication with our families, who all spoke some Swahili in addition to Kikuyu. Swahili greetings were especially useful when addressing strangers walking on the road, who would typically smile or were willing to respond when they heard us say “Jambo!” (hello).
After each day, we were encouraged to record some of our daily activities. Many of us wrote about things like doing laundry by hand, navigating the marketplace, or spending days working in the field. For each entry, we were supposed to write about cultural lessons we learned and any existing ties between the environment and development. For example, one student wrote about the cultural development of support systems between women after experiencing the meeting of a cooperative that raises money when one of its members are in trouble. Culture, environment and development are important aspects of the Kenya Semester Program and we relate them to our experiences in our core course.
One of the most important aspects of any study abroad program is the cultural immersion that takes place. By being fully incorporated into the society, we are better able to understand and appreciate the way that things are done. Being “wazungu” (white people) in a primarily black society, it was impossible to feel fully integrated within the community. Despite the families’ efforts to treat us as their own children, the people in town were more than willing to create a distinction. At first, many of us thought it was really cool to see so many smiling faces with hands extended to greet us. Others, especially girls, felt slightly uncomfortable that random people in town were coming up and petting their hair without so much as a hello.
Whether a positive or negative impression was made on us as individuals however, there is an important component of this phenomenon that should be considered. In academia, we are constantly made aware of the “white savior” complex, and ways in which we can aid in debunking it. During this homestay, it became evident that many Africans possess this conception of westerners as well, but by living within a family for a week, we were able to engage in conversation with people of the community and not only boost our confidence, but also dissipate stigma.
In several instances, the host parents worked outside of the home and had hired help to work on the farm and care for the children. Having gone in with the expectation that the family would be sustained primarily through their own physical labor on the farm, it was interesting to see the different dynamic, and the fact that outside help could be afforded.
After our week of immersion into the families of Nyeri county, we all reconvened for a debriefing session. Everyone had the opportunity to share their experiences, and a discussion was opened up about various dynamics that differed within each family. Ultimately, we were all able to conclude that there was a distinct divide between men and women in the Kikuyu culture. What became evident through our conversation however, was the clear delineation between the way the female and male students were perceived and treated by the community. As one example, while the males were able to go out and explore the town in the evenings, women had to stay inside once it started getting dark out. Experiences with divided gender roles among the group varied greatly but were apparent for each student. It seems that male students were able to participate in mother-daughter and father-son daily activities on the farm. Female students typically experienced a greater disparity between gender roles in terms of participation and treatment in public places.
Having completed the rural homestay, it becomes evident why this component has been a staple of the Kenya Semester Program for so long; our stay in Nyeri debunked a lot of false preconceptions about rural life such as disconnect from city and nation-wide news, lack of technology like smart phones and infrastructure like running water. It also gave us a chance to witness first-hand what we’d learned in class about Kikuyu connection to land, fluid definitions of family, and the importance of Church and community. Although all of our experiences were unique and we each took a different message away from the homestay, in all of our cases, it is likely that we will remember our experiences in Nyeri for a long time to come thanks to the families that welcomed us in and the communities that we were able to become a part of.