Introduction to the Urban Homestay
What were we possibly to expect being told that we were about to live for three weeks with families none of us had ever met before? I certainly didn’t expect to be welcomed ‘home’ literally with arms wide open, but that is exactly what happened. And so, I added the warm hugs and smiles from my host sisters and parents to my ever-growing list of the ways in which Kenya has surprised me and shattered my sense of expectation.
The Urban Home Stay is by far the lengthiest of the three home stays in which we as students participate in throughout the duration of the Kenya Semester Program. It triples the length of the Rural Home Stay and on behalf of my peers, I can say with honesty, I felt nervous to embark on this particular leg of our adventurous and enlightening semester. Living with people you do not know is always a learning experience, and for young American college students who have, for the last several years, been so accustomed to living much of the year only around peers our own age, integrating back into a family lifestyle did admittedly take some adjustment. However, once assimilated, the idea of coming back to home and family each day after school became a comfort in so many ways.
Our time living in Nairobi, the heart of urbanization in Kenya, was by no means idle time. As I write these words now still cannot believe how twenty days have passed by so quickly. In addition to taking classes and spending evening and weekends with our home stay families, Fridays were occupied by exploring other aspects of the urban center of East Africa. On the first Friday, we as a class explored the flora and fauna and impressive history of the Karura Forest, capped off by a weekend where several students ran a half-marathon (see more below). The second Friday was marked by a visit into the informal settlement of Kibera. Both a challenge and a blessing, we were shown intimately streets, homes and the interworking’s of a Kibera school by two active NGO’s: The Red Rose School and Carolina for Kibera. Three weeks is a long time to spend in one place, but the duration of time allowed us to not only learn as students but to build connections and see the world a little differently as people.
Kibera: Kenya’s Largest Informal Settlement
On our second Friday with in our Urban Home Stays, we had the privilege of being hosted by the Red Rose School and Carolina for Kibera. Both are NGO’s that work in the informal settlement to better the quality of life for its residents. Divided in half, each NGO hosted eleven KSP students and showed us both the triumphs and the challenges of working in Kenya’s largest informal settlement.
Located just outside Nairobi’s central business district, the contrast between rich and poor and upsettingly stark. But, like every other incredible experience here, Kibera turned out to be a place that went beyond my imagination and in many ways shattered my westernized stereotypes. If I’m being honest, I anticipated dirt pathways narrowly winding through shanty houses constructed one on top of the other from metal and rubbish. I expected to walk through filth, garbage and human fecal matter. I braced myself for unwelcoming and judgmental stares and prepared for the risk of pickpockets and beggars.
If I continue to be honest, in some places, my stereotypes were not completely inaccurate. On my way to the Red Rose School I did notice a lot of garbage, and very few smells were ones that I would describe as pleasant. However, I was taken aback by how much had surprised me. I found the Red Rose School to be an absolutely pleasant and pristinely kept place. Painted a happy robin’s egg blue, and murals of Disney fairytale and Pixar characters decorated every wall. The children radiated happiness and I’d like to think that not all of it was solely in response to the visiting Wazungu.
While at Red Rose, each of us was placed in a classroom of students to help the teacher and interact with the students. I was placed with a seventh grade class and was intimidated by the onslaught of curiosity. I was asked about everything from my favorite singer to what I wanted to be when I grew up. I decided as one point to turn the tables ask I few questions of my own, but when I asked these twelve to fourteen year-old children what they wanted to be when they grew up, I realized that their intelligence and self-asserted pride far surpassed that of any child I had ever met before. Mary* wanted to be a banker, Angela* wanted to be a neurosurgeon, Thomas* wanted to be an aircraft engineer and we all laughed and agreed that Moses*, who wanted to be a pilot, would fly Thomas’ planes.
These children had big dreams and understood that school was going to take them to those dreams. There was a clear understanding that education was a way out of Kibera. However, despite dreaming of leaving Kibera, I was surprised to learn how much many of these children took pride in being from Kibera. One of my peers told me of walking through the settlement with three boys, all the age of fifteen. Speaking openly, my peer asked them, “So, what is it like to live in Kibera?” He did not receive the answer he expected. “We really like it here,” they told him. “Kibera has its problems, but we are proud to be from here.” I was surprised too when my friend and classmate told me of his conversation. I was also left extremely humbled. Had I met these children a year ago, or even two months ago, I would have seen only dirt, hungry and poverty and I would have only felt disconnected pity. But, perhaps the true beauty of the Kenya Semester Program is not that we come home with incredible stories and Instagram-worthy pictures. Perhaps we are truly lucky because we will return home changed; changed enough to not only see the fortune in our own lives, but hopefully we will return home changed enough to understand that fortune extends beyond our western definitions. It is only found in the structural excess of a penthouse room or $500 Frye Boots, it can be found in children who wear the same clothes every day and in families who have so little but share it all with anyone around them. The families and children that we met on our visit to Kibera had pride, determination and a love for others that went beyond the fortune currency and I feel lucky to learned so much from my short time there.
On our first Friday excursion we left the hustle and bustle of downtown Nairobi and visited Karura Forest, an arboreal oasis inside the city itself. Karura Forest is one of the largest forests within city limits in the world, encompassing about 2,500 acres including wooded areas, pathways, rivers, and plenty of smaller animals such as dik-dik, duiker, bush pigs and various species of monkey.
One controversy after another has plagued the Karura forest since its founding in 1932, from logging and land grabbing to criminals and gangs using the forest as a hideout. Today, however, the forest has been reclaimed and is open to the public after a long battle by tenacious activists such as the late Wangari Mathai, former leader of the Green Belt Movement and Nobel Peace Price Laureate.
Our visit began with all 22 of us filing off the bus and piling into an old colonial-era squash court that had been converted into a projector house, where we met with an employee and watched a short documentary on the Forest’s tumultuous history. I was surprised to learn the size of the movement that took on the land developers and ultimately succeeded in preserving the forest for future generations, and that the movement here became a national symbol of resistance against land grabbing in Kenya.
Following our introduction to the significance of Karura we set off on a nature hike to explore the forest and some of its special natural features. Our guide Bernard first took us to Lily Lake, an abandoned stone quarry that has since been reclaimed by nature, a fitting tribute to the people who took back the forest from development. Continuing our walk, we soon found ourselves among towering coniferous evergreens that uncannily reminded many of us of forests back home in America. Our guide explained that during the colonial era a demand for timber to feed industry and the railroad led to many of these non-indigenous trees to be planted in Karura. This invasive species suffocates growth of native species by blocking sunlight and taking a lot of water, however, and are currently being replaced with native species over time by park managers.
Leaving the grove behind, our next stop was a series of caves tucked into a cliff-side. After roaming around the spacious caverns, we rested for a bit in the coolness of the caves and listened to our guide tell us of their role in Kenyan history. Considered sacred in ancient times, the caves served as a hideout for Mau-Mau during the fight for independence. After snapping a quick group photo, we trekked on to our last stop. The sound of rushing water grew louder and louder as we neared the last stop, and soon we found ourselves admiring a striking 15-meter waterfall that tumbled down a rock escarpment. This time there was no history lesson, just us enjoying our surroundings like so many other Nairobians who come to Karura to get a break from the grind of the city.
All in all, our time spent in Karura Forest was a refreshing change of pace from the busy first week of our urban homestays. We entered looking forward to spending an afternoon in the tranquil forest, and left with an appreciation for the efforts it took to save the forest for the public to enjoy today and the importance of public advocacy to preserve places like Karura for future generations.
The Urban Family Dynamic and the Blooming Generation Gap
I feel as though I can speak for most of the KSP when I say that describing the family and community dynamics of my urban home stay has been exceptionally difficult. In comparison to the rural home stay, there is much less of an attachment to one’s community in Nairobi than we experienced in Nyeri, which is where we did our rural home stays. While in Nyeri, our families knew almost everybody in town and even those with whom they were not familiar were welcomed with open arms. However, in our urban experiences, almost every home was a gated compound. In my experience, my family drove private cars up to their gate, which was electric and could be opened with a remote but was still guarded by an askari (the Swahili word for “soldier”). They knew very few people in their surrounding community and paid for everything independently. Having the ability to go to the local Nakumatt rather than purchasing milk from the family down the street created a much more isolated feeling within the home. The gates and hedges acted as a physical barrier from the rest of Nairobi and when I was in the house, I rarely felt the effects of urbanization.
We all attended classes downtown at the University of Nairobi and many of us lived with parents who work within the Nairobi business district. The commutes could be up to two hours long due to the fact that Nairobi is designed for about 250,000 people, but is home to as many as 4 million. Compared to our rural home stay experiences, my peers and I noticed that there is much more emphasis on education because the resources are more readily available and accessible in Nairobi than in Nyeri. Most of our mothers in the urban home stay had spent more time in school than those in our rural. As a result, the family sizes were slightly smaller. My urban home stay family was comprised of a mother, a father, and two sons, however my rural home stay family included a mother, father, three daughters, two aunts, two uncles, a son, and a grandmother. Because people, specifically women, in the rural areas tend to receive less formal education and ultimately make a living in agriculture, the family sizes are much larger because they need more helping hands on the farm. Furthermore, when women spend less time in school, they tend to have more children because they can being rearing babies at a younger age. In my experience, my urban home stay mother received both a B.A. and an M.A. in the United States and did not begin her family in Kenya until she was in her 30s. My rural home stay mom had her first child when she was in her early 20s because she did not go to university.
In terms of interfamily dynamics, we noticed a strong generational gap in the urban scene. The younger generation, those who are now high school and college aged, seemed to have a much stronger national identity while their parents and grandparents identified more with their traditional ethnic groups. In my household, my parents both spoke fluent Luo, which is their ancestral language. They also consider Kisumu, the hub of the Luo community, to be their homeland even though they live, work, and raise their children in Nairobi. My home stay brothers, however, were 14 and 20-years-old and considered themselves to be Nairobians first and Luos second. While they both said that they understand bits and pieces of the Luo language while their parents speak to one another, neither of the brothers can respond in Luo.
I thought it was fascinating that people my own age have started to move away from ethnic affiliation and form a national identity because as a result, Nairobi’s youth has created it’s own language to discuss subjects that have historically been cultural taboos. The language is called Sheng and is a mostly a fusion of Swahili and English but also includes words from other local dialects. Because the objective of Sheng is to speak without authority figures decoding the conversation, the language is constantly evolving with current events and words are reassigned new meanings very frequently. There have been several attempts to create Sheng dictionaries because the nature of the language renders the dictionaries obsolete in about a year. The government has caught on to Sheng and, consequently, a radio station called Ghetto Radio has emerged to educate young people on subjects such as sexual education, the importance of higher education, and how to drink responsibly. In 2005, the Kenyan government began using Sheng on billboards in a campaign about HIV/AIDS prevention to educate young people while avoiding offending the older generations who may have been taken aback by the public discussion of sexuality. The introduction of Sheng is enhancing the generational gap, however it has also had a unifying and education impact on people in the late teens and twenties.
The Jam: an inevitable aspect of life in Nairobi
One of the first things I talked about with my host parents was how I was going to get to the United Kenya Club in Nairobi from my home in the Nairobi suburb of Karen. We settled on a plan of me taking a taxi into the city at 6:15 every morning in order to arrive by 8:30 when classes started. So every school day of my urban home stay I would wake up at 5:15 have breakfast, get ready for class and then sit in traffic for two hours.
I had it worse than most of us, some only had a 30 minute drive into the city provided they left early enough. The difference at leaving for Nairobi at 6:20 and 6:30 could make the difference between arriving at 6:50 and 7:30 for some of us. So some students would leave earlier then necessary in order to spend 30 minutes commuting in rather than an hour.
While the commute was annoying it did provide time to do homework, read, or take a nap. It was a bit of a break from our hectic schedule, a time where there wasn’t anything I was supposed to be doing and no pressure to be productive. When you have as much going on as we do even sitting in traffic can prove relaxing.
Traffic in Nairobi is a mix of private cars, taxies, and Matatus. Matatus are the privet bus system that supplies most of the “public” transport for the Nairobi area. They cost between 50-100 Kenyan Shillings and run on roots in and out of Nairobi. They are known for their unique paint jobs and the loud music they play. The Matatu system is poorly regulated however with many drivers bribing Police Officers instead of keeping their vehicles up to code. They also partly fill the public transportation need in Nairobi as the city lacks government run transit systems.
To attempt to reduce traffic many roads are being expanded but the city is having a hard time keeping up with the cities rapidly expanding population. The city’s population has increased by over a million in the past decade and the growth shows no signs of slowing down in the immediate future. A train system is planned to be built within the next couple years, but, it has run into funding and corruption problems. In the absence of such public transit the Jam in Nairobi is readily apparent for the daily commuter.