Spring 2017: The Sweet Sixteen
Rural Homestay in Nyeri
Hamjambo for the 16 of us here in Kenya for the spring 2017 semester! Two weeks ago we all returned from our rural homestays in Nyeri county. Each one of us was welcomed into the home of incredible families and we are so excited to share it with you. We were either located in Tetu East or Tetu West in Nyeri. We learned to cook traditional Kikuyu foods, milked cows, plucked tea and picked coffee, and much more. Three of us (Iris, Amanda, and Ruben) have decided to share personal journal entries with you as a way to explain this incredible experience.
Iris: Monday 23 January 2017 – Tetu West
There is something so sweet about being this tired. Today, I hiked through the hills of Nyeri to get to my family’s farm is located deep in the forest. There they grow cabbage, potatoes, and corn. Most of it is eaten by the family and any access is given to friends and family or sold for profit. The farm was approximately three and half miles away and we carried supplies for making tea and lunch for my father and the other farmers. Our load included pots, utensils, milk, and fruit. They were heavy loads that we carried in bags slung over our shoulder or heads.
The walk there involved walking along the main road which gave me a lot of opportunities to practice Kikuyu greetings as I met a lot of my mother’s friends along the way. They always asked me to say hello to Trump for them or made it as clear as possible how much they loved America. Most people’s English was very limited, and since I only had about five days of Swahili and three hours of Kikuyu lessons under my belt, the conversations would end with that. However, they would ask my mother all about me in Kikuyu and once we moved on she would tell me what they said. Apparently everyone was very surprised to see me carrying tools. The stereotypes for Americans is that we have machines that do everything for us so therefore we must be lazy and unable to work they way the locals in Nyeri do. They were surprised to hear that I could cook, clean, and work and wanted to stop by the house to see it for themselves!
Tetu west is the land of tea and every hill we passed on our way to our farm was the same brilliant green color of rows and rows of tea leaves. As we returned from our long day in the forest we kept getting passed on the road by these women carrying enormous baskets filled to the brim with tea leaves. They moved quickly and with purpose as they rushed to the buying center down the road. Every evening a tea company comes to the communities buying center and pays the farmers for their tea. My family does not grow tea, but I was able to help pluck tea at the neighbors field and bring it to the center for them. My evening cup of chai has become so much more interesting now that I know where it comes from!
Amanda Mae: Tuesday 24 January 2017 – Tetu East
After visiting the site of Wangari Maathai’s personal efforts toward the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, I keenly noted the amount of firewood my family used throughout the day to cook meals and boil water. Unlike forest abundant New York, Kenya’s trees are a valuable resource not only for human consumptive purposes, but also for their environmental impact. Trees prevent erosion of the rustic red soil and retain the water (which hasn’t accumulated for five months in Nyeri). Still, using an open flame for cooking three meals a day requires a large amount of wood!
My mama currently paves the way in new technology in the community, as she just installed a biogas system to reduce the amount of trees cut from their property. Our home hosted nine chickens, six goats and three cows. The predictable dung from the cows posed a particular issue in terms of waste management. In previous years, my family has used the dung for manure. Now, however, the dung has a different purpose.
“Amanda, grab two buckets and bring them here!”
Mama called to me from the cow pens, her ankles deep in the sun-baked pile of cow dung. I obliged, unaware of what the next four hours would ensue. After packing each five-gallon bucket with dung so the top bowed out like a summer ice cream cone, Mama heaved the bucket over the fence to my waiting hands. With grit, I skirted and slid down the steep and (thankfully) short descent to her new biogas system.
(Left: The biogas setup: The dung and water is mixed in the circular pit with the PVC tube. The rectangle pit rests above the underground tank. A keen eye observes the pipe that eventually connects to the kitchen. The large round pit is for overflow when the tank becomes too full. Right: Mixing bioslurry, AKA dung and water, with Mama.)
I halted at a circular cement pit with a long PVC pipe blocking a drain down into an underground eight cubic meter tank (see photo for a visual) to dump the bucket. At first, Mama told me to go rest while she continued, alluding to the stereotypes Iris mentions above. I refused, and together we repeated the process two more times, for a total of three buckets of dung. Then Mama sent me uphill to collect three five-gallon buckets of water, which I poured into the pit. With a stick designated for stirring, Mama began mashing and mixing the dung with the water in a similar fashion of stirring thick cookie batter. She paused to pick out clumps of undigested banana leaves, Napier grass, and twigs that might clog the drain. Taking my cue, I rolled up my sleeve to plunge my arm into the “bioslurry” to do the same.
Little did I know we would do this everyday. Bioslurry, or equal parts dung to water, ferments in the underground tank to release methane gas, which is piped to the kitchen house uphill. In roughly a month of hauling dung and water, Mama will no longer have to cut firewood. Instead, she can cook using the methane gas stored in the tank. In this way, Mama brings the use of the cow full circle. The milk money paid for the system and the cow fuels the biogas. The connection between the environment, development and the culture is apparent as Mama strives to cook delicious Kikuyu food like chapati, while thinking of the future trees. I can’t wait to learn how her system works!
When I was first picked up by my family, we made a quick pass through town to check on my family’s dress shop and hotel. We were only there for a few minutes and three people approached my host family to say hello and to meet me. During ten minute drive to my family’s home we were stopped again by a man on the side of the road who, through my limited knowledge of the local language, just wanted to say hello and ask how everyone was doing. As the week went on, my host brother, Dominic, and I began to take regular evening walks along the edge of the Aberdares and into a local forest. During these walks, we would spend at least half of our time speaking with people that we saw walking along the road. Although dozens of people populated the dirt road that wound through the hills of the Rift Valley, it was rare for my host brother to not know someone’s name. On the last day of my homestay, my host father, brother, and myself drove a few miles to admire a waterfall on the Zina river. Although the drive only took about twenty minutes, we gave three people short rides, and stopped twice to say hello to people walking on the road. I was enthralled by the powerful sense of community that surrounded my host family.
I believe that the cause of this tight community has its roots in traditional cultural practices. According to my host father, almost every one who lived on the same side of the road as us for a kilometer in either direction was a member of our extended family. In 1952, when the colonial government instituted land ownership laws, my host father’s grandfather was given the entire hill side that our farm now resided upon. Tradition dictated that after this death, all of the land be split amongst his sons, the eldest son being given the best piece of property. The land was then subdivided amongst the the next generation of sons. Therefore, Dominic would see so many people that he knew, because lived in the middle of our extended family.
Another reason for the culture of community has to due with the presence of the Church. Although a majority of the community spends much of their time working with cattle, or tending to their crops, church is a way that the entire community can come together and meet in the same place. Well over fifty people were at the service that I attended on Sunday, a large number considering the sparsely populated area. The service lasted about two hours, but we stayed another hour after the service, talking to various people. It was also clear that several youth groups and women’s groups existed that used the church service as a gathering time. The localization of families due to cultural inheritance practices, along with the gathering place provided by the church created a strong community that I felt blessed to be a part of, if only for a short time.