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.
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.
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.