Mombasa Spring 2017

Fort Jesus, Swahili Carved Wooden Door with Omani influence

KSP on the Coast

Our first official day in Mombasa began at Fort Jesus in Old Port, Mombasa. Fort Jesus was established in 1596 by the Portuguese. Throughout the next few decades, Fort Jesus would change hands about nine times between the Portuguese, the Omani, the British, and ultimately to Kenya as an independent nation. The struggle for power is reflected in the enchanting architecture of the doors, rooms, and paintings in the fort, richly influenced by each culture. UNESCO named Fort Mombasa a World Heritage Site and museum, and rightly so, for its well-preserved carvings and structures.

Fort Jesus, with its juxtaposition of the past decayed and conserved, is absolutely beautiful. Each intricate carving or functional watchtower gave off the echoes of decades of historical importance. The stories of the Fort is  alive in its’ half moon arches, ornate carved doors, and breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean.

Not only is Fort Jesus acclaimed for its strategic military position on the coast, but it also was the site of many treaties between nations. Political landmarks in the history of the Swahili peoples and Omani sultans took place in Fort Mombasa. The great political actors of the past are commemorated with their great achievements throughout the Fort.

After the tour inside of the Fort, we took a walking tour in two groups in Old Port. The Arabic architecture, stray cats, and beautiful ocean view makes Mombasa stand out from other places we have spent time in within Kenya. It is certain that ethnically, Mombasa is extremely diverse compared to Nyeri or Amboseli.

We saw lovely old buildings, visited a spice shop, did a walk-through of the fish market (Mhmm Samaki!), and met a wonderful seamstress at the market. The kikoys, kangas, and kitenges were colorful and much cheaper than they are in Nairobi. Mombasa is known for having the best selection of kangas and kikoys in Kenya. Some of us got bargain deals for such beautiful fabric. Two kangas, yards and yard of fabric, cost about four to five USD!

Mosaic and hanging linen Old Port, Mombasa

KSP with local members of CHEC

On our fourth day in Mombasa we had the opportunity to meet with a local NGO, Coastal Hostess Empowering Community (CHEC). CHEC was started by local sex workers to provide basic health education, mentoring, and counseling to female members of the local sex work industry. Along with a booming tourist industry, the coast is also home to a prominent sex-tourism industry, with Mombasa being no exception.

CHEC works closely with local sex workers to offer them support and a safe place where they can work to battle the stigma and discrimination that is associated with working within the sex profession. Local members work on a grassroots strategy to offer necessary services to a community that otherwise would not have access. Along with basic necessities such as food and shelter, CHEC offers its members support through a variety of programs entitled “Family Matters”, “Healthy Choices”, and “ETA”. “Family Matters” is a program started by CHEC members that emphasizes creating healthy role models for children within the community. “Healthy Choices” provides local children and teenagers with information about the dangers of  unhealthy habits, such as substance abuse and peer pressure. Through this program kids are taught that it’s okay to say “no” unhealthy choices. “ETA” is a new program that focuses on providing basic education for both members and their family members.

Through forming solidarity within the community and working alongside local organizations that promote the well being of male sex workers, CHEC aims to demonstrate to local workers that they have access to necessary resources and to help ensure that their rights are protected. Currently, CHEC has over one hundred members from the local community and works closely with larger Kenyan associations such as the HIV/AIDS Alliance of Kenya, and the Kenyan Sex Worker Alliance to organize new programs and events to spread awareness of issues, such as HIV, facing these industry workers.

We found this experience to be incredibly beneficial and rewarding, and allowing us to gain a greater understanding of the culture within Mombasa. We had the chance to meet some amazing people and had wonderful discussions about the local culture, and different challenges that local communities face.

On one of our last days in Mombasa we visited the Kenyatta Public Beach in the afternoon to check out the local scene. Upon our arrival, vendors who were attempting to sell us sunglasses, bracelets and even camel rides swarmed us immediately. A few adventurous souls of ours decided to take the men up on their offer of a camel ride and had a great time! While some of our group decided to walk along the beach and interact with the locals, the rest of us decided to rent a glass-bottom boat and take it out into the Indian Ocean. As Patrick (our guide) moved the wood paneling of the boat’s floor away to reveal the glass, we were all quickly amazed at the beautiful marine life. We saw an abundance of coral, fish, sea urchins and more on our tour. We stopped far off of the coastline to jump off the top of the boat and go swimming in the salty, warm and beautiful Indian Ocean. After many jumps and giggles we headed back to meet up with the rest of the gang and leave for our hotel. It was an incredibly fun day and allowed us to gain a better understanding of the culture that exists on the public beaches.

The next morning, on sadly our last day in Mombasa, we had our group presentations in the morning after breakfast. The topics that we presented on mirrored those that we had been learning about over the course of our visit. These included: the ongoing war on terror in the Kenyan coast, the relationships between various ethnic groups, the socio-economic impacts of tourism in the coast and the future of the costal people and their Kenyan government. As our time in Mombasa was coming to a close, the group presentations allowed us to look back at all of the knowledge we had attained regarding many different aspects of the coastal culture.

For our last hoorah Sinnary treated us to a private Tamarind Dhow Cruise for dinner. The cruise gave us a new perspective on what the coast looks like at night from a distance. This was an incredible way to spend our last evening in such an incredible city. We ate as much seafood as we could stand and danced the night away under the stars to the live music. The next morning we watched the sunrise over the beach as we ate breakfast and sadly made our way to packing up the bus. Although we might not have enjoyed the 12 hour (!) bus ride back to Nairobi, we most definitely enjoyed our time on the coast!


Amboseli Spring 2017

“Have you gone on safari yet?” I can’t even count how many times this question has come up in conversations with my family and friends back home. In Swahili, ‘safari’ means journey, so indeed, this semester has been one big safari. KSP has taken us on journeys to rural Nyeri, beautiful Lake Naivasha, through the rift valley of Tanzania and across the busy city of Nairobi. However, our trip to Amboseli National Park in mid-March allowed us to experience a true tourist safari – in the Western sense of the word, complete with wildlife and traditional Maasai. Amboseli National Park is a relatively small piece of land, 151.4 square miles, located on the Kenya-Tanzania border, just north of Kilimanjaro. The park attracts tourists from around the world, to get the perfect shot of wildlife with a backdrop of the regal Mt. Kilimanjaro, as well as experience traditional Maasai culture in the surrounding area.

Zebras ignoring the view of Mt. Kilimanjaro in favor of the view of the our caravan of safari cars

Our game drive through the park began just after sunrise. The sixteen of us filed into three Land Cruisers and entered the park, alongside tourists carrying cameras larger than a small child. We drove around the park for several hours. To put in perspective just how touristy we were, I ended the day with almost 400 new photos on my camera. On our relatively short one day game drive, we saw cheetahs, buffalo, zebras, impala, ostrich, hippos, hyenas, wildebeests, and herds of elephants. The park is also home to over 600 species of birds. Though parks attract tourists from all over the world to see the wildlife, there is also prominent human-wildlife conflict surrounding these protected areas. In Amboseli, we had the chance to speak with local farmers, who described how elephants, eland, and other species cross park boundaries looking for food. An elephant can destroy an entire farm, and the livelihood of the farmer, overnight. People are not allowed to kill elephants if they are on their land, so to protect their crops, farmers use flashlights to scare away wildlife, sometimes sitting out all night to watch over their land. A few farmers who could afford it had also built electric fences. It was incredible to be able to experience Kenya’s wildlife firsthand, but we also got the opportunity to learn about the complex human-wildlife conflict that spurs from this demand for tourism.

Our group of 16 (minus one sleepyhead) overlooking the park

Elephants enjoy a late day drink

We continued to explore the tourism industry of Kenya by visiting a Maasai cultural Manyatta. The Maasai are a well-known pastoralist tribe, that are often posted as the face of East Africa for tourism purposes. Tourists that are drawn to the parks for wildlife often visit cultural Manyattas as well, hoping to experience different cultures. A traditional Maasai homestead is called a Manyatta. It consists of a series of Bomas – dung huts with grass roofs – situated in a circle. The animals are kept in the center of the circle, for their protection as livestock are a Maasai’s livelihood. A cultural Manyatta is designed specifically for tourism purposes. The Maasai welcomed us with a dance then showed us traditional medicinal practices, gave us a tour of their Bomas, and marketed their beadwork to us. We also had the opportunity to interview the Maasai about the cultural Manyatta. The men manage all income from tourism while the women have autonomy over the income from selling their beads. The cultural Manyatta was especially interesting knowing it was created for the purpose of tourism. We were very aware of the performance that the Maasai were showing us in contrast to contemporary Maasai culture. Later in the week, we were able to experience a more authentic Maasai lifestyle on our homestays.

At the Maasai homestay, we had the opportunity to learn from the Maasai by participating in multiple activities including cutting and collecting firewood, carrying water, milking goats, cooking meals, patching bomas, and beading bracelets. Since we had visited a cultural Manyatta before the homestay, we were able to compare the two experiences directly. The homestay was a much more authentic experience and allowed us to fully understand the ways in which Maasai culture is evolving.

After making observations and having casual conversations with everyone we interacted with during these experiences, we had the opportunity to conduct interviews with various groups of Maasai. We interviewed traditional pastoralist men, community leaders (whom were all men), traditional women, and educated women. From each group, we got an idea of their thoughts on tourism and development, and how it is impacting their lifestyles.

When discussing tourism, we focused mainly on the cultural Manyattas. After talking with the pastoralist men, we learned that the cultural Manyatta is not necessarily an accurate representation of their culture. There are multiple differences between a Manyatta and a traditional Maasai homestead. For one, there are no permanent houses in a cultural Manyatta. Male members of the community move back and forth between the Manyatta and permanent homes in other parts of the region. In the Manyatta, the Bomas are very squeezed together, with no space in between so there is very limited room to put livestock. Men also have to play specific roles at the Manyatta purely for tourism purposes. A committee determines the roles each man must play each day during tours. The men have to be dressed in all traditional wear (even though western clothing is becoming much more popular among the Maasai) and abide by what the committee assigns them to. All the men in the group expressed their disdain about this. However, each individual also agreed that the Manyattas were beneficial because of the income generated from tourism.  The educated women also supported the cultural Manyatta because it provides revenue for the women that sell crafts. The money these women make from their crafts is their property. This allows the women to be more independent, especially because they do not receive any money from tourist fees and have no say in how it is used. Unlike the pastoralist men, the pastoralist women emphasized that the Manyatta was beneficial because it allowed them to preserve aspects of their culture.

We also had the opportunity to discuss development and the role that education plays in changing culture. The consensus among the groups was that the culture may be changing but education is valuable because of the benefits it brings to the community. The role of educated people is to enlighten the community on what is changing and to advise the community on how to better maintain their land. The traditional pastoralists were particularly adamant that no matter how much their culture changes, they would still retain important aspects such as the Shuka, the importance of cattle, and some of their inherent values.

We also spoke about group ranches as well as irrigation methods. Community ranches provide benefits for pastoralists because they are effective at curbing land loss in Maasai communities. There is also a community fund provided by the ranch that goes towards school fees. However, some members of the Maasai community wish to subdivide the land because group ranches restrict autonomy over the land. Lastly, on the topic of irrigation, there was controversy over the pros and cons of irrigation. Benefits of irrigation include increased crop yields, the ability to alter the environment depending on wet and dry seasons. The traditional women only saw the benefits in irrigation. However, there were also many downsides including water shortage, soil depletion, and negative impacts downstream due to pesticide contamination.

These interviews allowed us to culminate all our experiences throughout the week and gave us a holistic understanding of the issues as well as potential solutions in the Amboseli region. It was a great week!

-Maeghan, Maya, and Molly

Urban Homestay Spring 2017

Jambo! After returning from Tanzania, we all set out for the urban homestay component of the semester. All sixteen of us each lived with a family for three weeks, placed in different homes throughout Nairobi. The families took us in as their own while we also attended classes at the United Kenya Club during the week. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the day to day experiences of students in Nairobi.

One of the great things about each of us staying with different families within the city and surrounding suburbs of Nairobi was that we were able to have our own individual experiences with the city and with a household that was open to showing us their favorite parts.

One student’s family took her to the International Jazz Festival that is held in Nairobi annually. The festival featured a headliner and about eight supporting acts that performed throughout the course of a day. The majority of the acts originated from countries such as Israel and England, but there were a few performers that were local Kenyans or nearby Tanzanian neighbors. This wide variety of acts called for an equally diverse audience. It was interesting to witness that in a place with so many different cultures, the music was able to play such a unifying role. As long as the bands were playing, people were happy and dancing together. We were able to fully immerse ourselves in the lives of our families. We tagged along for the grocery shopping, church, visits to grandma and even afternoon workouts.

International Jazz Festival which is held in Nairobi annually

We also had the opportunity to attend multiple Kenyan weddings with our host families and as a group. One student went to a family friend’s wedding in Thika, and was able to learn more about Kenyan weddings, join in on the dancing, and enjoy a traditional Kenyan wedding feast.We were also invited to a wedding by our program director Wairimu, who called her relative (the father of the bride) to have an extra table set for sixteen people last minute. Almost all of us were able to attend the Kikuyu wedding, which was set outdoors and attended by hundreds of people. We enjoyed lots of dancing, examining gender roles in Kenya, and creating lasting memories.

Some of the girls at the traditional Kikuyu wedding with Dr. Wairimu

We were able to spend every Friday of our urban homestay exploring Nairobi and taking advantage of living in a cosmopolitan African city. On the first Friday, we chose from three different local organizations to spend the morning with: Kazuri Beads, Ocean Sole, and Lea Toto Outreach Program.

Some of us went to Kazuri Beads which was founded in 1975 and located close to the St. Lawrence compound in Karen. Kazuri is a swahili word which means “small and beautiful.” The organization employs single mothers in its factory, in line with its mission to provide and sustain employment opportunities for disadvantaged Kenyans. Those of us who went to the factory were able to engage with the workers and get to know more about them. The experience was made even better as we participated in each step of the bead-making process. We sat with the women, rolled the clay into different shapes, then painted and glazed them. Most of us enjoyed the stringing of beads into necklaces that would end up in different parts of the world. We were touched to be in such an empowered space where the women enjoyed their work. Chai time was an hour into our visit so we joined the queue of workers and got our containers filled with tea. The women also brought their own snacks such as mandazi (fried doughnut) and did not hesitate to share with us and each other. It is safe to say that we all left with a greater appreciation for Kazuri’s handcrafted jewels and the hardworking women who do it all.

Another group had the opportunity to visit Lea Toto, a medical center focused on providing care for people with HIV and AIDS in Kangemi, an informal settlement in Nairobi. We toured their facility and learned more about ARVs and the challenges associated with providing care, as well about the organization’s strong focus on education and community involvement. We also had the unique chance to sit down and talk with some of our peers who have benefited from the services provided by Lea Toto. We talked about stigma associated with being HIV positive in both Kenya and America. After our group discussion, our new friends gave us a tour of their neighborhood and welcomed us into their homes.

The last group went to visit Ocean Sole, an organization based in Karen that takes old washed up flip-flops collected along the Kenyan coast and transforms them into anything from small iguana keychains to life size giraffe sculptures. The organization was started by Julie Church, a marine conservationist and local Kenyan who wanted to find an effective and productive way to reduce the amount of waste found in the Indian Ocean and on the surrounding beaches. By constructing these creations, Ocean Sole is able to provide over 100 individuals with jobs and take away 400,000 flip-flops from the Indian Ocean every year. While we were at the organization’s base in Karen, we were able to not only see what the process of completing the final product consisted of after the flip-flops had been collected and delivered, but we were also able to try it for ourselves. This process included cleaning the flip-flops that had recently arrived, gluing the flip-flops together, carving the flip-flops into the shape of the desired animal, and giving the final creations a final rinse.

The second Friday, we travelled to Karura Forest to learn more about Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement, and green spaces and conservation in Nairobi. Karura Forest is an urban forest located in Nairobi. It was established in 1932 and managed by the Kenya Forest Service, but because of demand for development and high crime rates within the forest, it was largely ignored and fell into disrepair. In the late 1990s, Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement protested development of the forest, leading to her rise in fame and her eventual Nobel Peace Prize. The reestablishment of Karura Forest continued in 2009, with the formation of “Friends of Karura Community Forest Association,” led by the British High Commissioner’s wife and members of the Nairobi community. In the past few years, the forest has been transformed into a popular space for hiking, walking, biking, and horseback riding. Over 70% of the forest’s visitors are Kenyan, and Karura’s revitalization has provided many of its disadvantaged neighbors with jobs.

Karua Forest