Fall 2016 Terrific Ten: Rural Homestay, Nyeri
After a wonderful first week of lounging around the compound, starting intensive Kiswahili, walking into Karen and getting to know each other along with our home for the next four months, it was time to head up north to Nyeri. This made some of us quite anxious, since we knew that this might be one of the tougher experiences of the semester, although we were also aware it would be among the most rewarding. Being encouraged to leave our ‘devices’ behind with Professor Wairimu, we pulled into the meeting location where our new found families were awaiting our (late) arrival. Most had their entire nuclear and even some extended family members in tow, basically insinuating whomever might fit in the car was there to welcome us. With smiles spreading from ear to ear, they collected us kids, and one by one we left for our adopted homes.
Over the course of the week, we would endure experiences none of us had ever done before in an American context, let alone on another continent. Activities included going to various church services, chores such as washing clothes by hand, various farming activities, mulching, milking, slaughtering, cooking, and most importantly, how to master the bucket shower along with the infamous pit latrine. Although we all had a wide range of experiences during our individual weeks, there were some recurring themes that became apparent when debriefing with one another such as the importance of community, religion, food sustainability and the development of education.
Community & Family:
One element of the Rural Homestay that we all had in common was the sense of community we experienced while in our families. Unlike the individualistic culture we are familiar with in the U.S., we found that the sense of community present in Kenyan, specifically Kikuyu, culture was very strong. Children do not belong only to their parents, but to the greater community too. On several occasions members of the community would stop in and end up staying for a meal, because one can never leave without tea and being fed, before going on their way; a practice which is uncommon in the U.S. Any success a member of the community had was viewed as a success for the entire community as well. Many of us found this emphasis on community and inclusiveness refreshing.
Going to the market in Nyeri Town was an extremely enjoyable experience for those of us who had the opportunity to go! The market brought people from all walks of life and socioeconomic statuses together, whether they were shopping for vegetables from local farmers, visiting merchants, having their hair done at the salon or buying clothing and jewelry. Trips to Nyeri Town were not only about nutritional and material goods, but also an opportunity for social interactions as well. We found that our host parents and siblings have often been loyal customers to certain vendors for several years. Although people found in Nyeri Town come from all over, there is a very clear sense of community among the individuals there as well. Everyone we encountered was very friendly and most were excited to see such new faces in town!
Most of our family units consisted of a mom, dad, at least one sibling our age, as well as additional siblings of varying ages. Most of our younger siblings could speak English and Kiswahili very well, while our parents were more well versed in the traditional Gikuyu language and Kiswahili. We found that we were able to put much of what we learned in our Kiswahili classes on the compound into practice when conversing with our families and people within the community. Our parents had various occupations ranging from farmers and teachers, to small business owners and military personnel; parents often worked very long hours and some were even required to be away from their families for extended periods of time due to work obligations. We also observed traditional gender roles within our families with mothers and sisters doing most of the cooking and cleaning while fathers and brothers worked on the farms and with the animals. In spite of the presence of traditional gender roles in Kikuyu culture, we had the opportunity to experience multiple facets of rural life in Kenya. Female students were able to work on shambas (farms) and handle the animals, while male students were able to help with the cooking and cleaning duties.
Religion plays a critical role in the value system of the Kikuyu. While it is not important which church each family chooses to attend, wholehearted commitment to the chosen church is an expectation from all ages and genders in the community. As a result, families attend church services every Sunday, and family members often belong to a sub-group based on age and sex. For example, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church was broken into three committees that met after service on Sunday’s and throughout the week: Youth Group, Women’s Committee, and Men’s Committee. In addition, in each group there was an executive board in place consisting of the President, Vice-President, Treasurer, and Secretary. Other roles existed within the churches as well, such as a large choir, Choir Director and Choir Conductor. As is true with churches in the United States, these positions are granted to elder members of the community who show great commitment and have experience with the dynamics of the church.
When we were told we would probably be attending a church of some kind on Sunday, many of us had expectations of what we might experience due to our familiarity with religious practices. However, to our pleasant surprise, most of the services we attended opened with members of the various youth groups dancing and praising up the aisle to the beautiful voices and music being produced by the choir. While the structure of these services closely resembled experiences had by some in the United States, they were filled with a great deal of upbeat music and a lot more community involvement.
Food Sustainability & Farming:
All of our rural homestays had farms varying in crops and size. During our experiences we quickly realized that the meals we were eating were made of food either grown directly by our family or by their neighbors. Examples of food items included potatoes, yams, arrow roots, maize, avocados, bananas, beans, peas, and cabbage. When one crop was not in season, the families relied more on the other crops to provide them with the nutrients they need. In addition, all scraps and extra crops were fed to the cows, goats, and chickens. There was practically no waste in terms of biodegradable materials used and produced by these families. The cows and goats provide them with milk, and their manure is used to fertilize crops. In addition, the chickens provide them with eggs and on some occasions meat. For instance, one student quotes his homestay father as saying, “I’m proud of the work you and Erick did today, tomorrow we will slaughter a chicken in celebration.” Thus, a cycle exists on every family’s farm, and when gaps exist in this cycle, other members of the community help to fill them.
While debriefing, we discussed how different this culture is from anything we see in contemporary America. Although one might perceive such food sustainability as part of the American dream, most farmers in America grow crops to sell in wholesale to food companies and grocery stores or raise thousands of hormone injected chickens to slaughter. As a result, American farmers still find themselves going to the supermarket to acquire produce. Overall, the level of sustainability Kikuyu families preserves alleviates the pressure to generate high incomes from the work force because they feel a sense of security knowing they will always be able to provide their children with nutritious meals.
Development of Education:
A major issue that we all felt deeply about discussing once the week had finished was that of education. It was clear to us that we all were staying with fortunate members of the Kikuyu community (being able to feed, house, and entertain another human for a week can be demanding afterall!). But that did not prevent us from seeing the effects of impoverished conditions in the community. As mentioned earlier when discussing the importance of community support to the Kikuyus, each and every family looks out for their relatives that undoubtedly live up the street as well as neighbors who are most likely also lifelong friends and colleagues. Therefore, some students expressed having experienced kind of a revolving door at their homes, with family and neighbors constantly coming around to help and ask for help. Because of the large amount of youth in the community, word that a visiting student had brought a soccer ball or any other ‘toy’ spread like wildfire. One student claims to have had a standing playdate with eight to ten neighbor kids to play with her and the soccer ball she had brought her family. But what does this all have to do with education?
“None of those children were in school today… All of the students were asked to bring the school fees of 650 shillings with them to school today and if they didn’t have it with them they would be sent home. Every single one of them was sent home.”
This is a direct quote from the homestay mother of the woman who regularly had afternoon playdates with the neighborhood kids. The mother knows this information because she is a teacher at the local elementary level school that all of the kids would have attended. Six-hundred and fifty shillings is equivalent to six dollars and fifty cents. The mother went on to discuss with this student that these families had decided that they could not spare the 650 because it was to be allocated to other things to keep the household running.
As a group debriefing, we discussed this and how unfortunate it is that families are having to choose between the education of their children and other means. It put into perspective how important education is from such an early age; a small investment in an education at an early age can snowball into much greater returns in the long run. But it is hard to be patient for such a return, and especially when you have to make the investment for anywhere from one to ten children. Being placed in more well off families, all of our homestay siblings are in school ranging from kindergarten, boarding school for forms I-IV and even colleges or university levels. Although we have discussed some of the hardships when it comes to education, the Kikuyu community is distinguished for their high achievement in academics and desire to learn.