Moriega! Welcome to our inaugural blog post from Kenya Semester Program, Spring 2018! We have just finished our third week and are settled in our lovely new home in Karen. While we love our beautiful compound and the bustling city of Nairobi right next door, we are reflecting and missing our new friends and family from rural Nyeri, North of the city. During our second week in Kenya we traveled North to live with families in East and West Tetu, on either side of the gorgeous Nyeri Hill. We spent the week learning about and experiencing agricultural life and now three of us (Molly Dower, Dana Tindall, and Lindsay McCarthy) are here to tell you all about it!
On our way to Nyeri we stayed a night at Sandai farm, just below Mount Kenya and took a morning walk on which many of the students saw their first giraffe! We then traveled to Tumutumu and visited a farm to learn about the Green Belt Movement and saw a tree planted by the movement’s founder, Wangari Maathai. Following a delicious, lunch at Julius and Lydia’s impressive, resourceful farm the students were welcomed by their families in Tetu West and East and began their homestay weeks.
I love coffee. To me, coffee conjures images of early mornings before class and late nights in the library. I think of black coffee in a tin cup on a camping trip and sugary drinks in seasonal paper cups. To my rural homestay family, coffee is work done by hand. Coffee is sustenance, not via caffeine, but via income. Coffee is grown and picked. It is sorted and carried and weighed. Though coffee is the prominent cash crop in East Tetu, there is no culture of drinking it, as many families can not afford the final product of their hard work.
Every Wednesday my host family harvests coffee and carries the beans down the road to the factory near their farm in East Tetu. On this particular Wednesday, I got to help them and see first hand how coffee starts its long journey from the plant to the product that’s ubiquitous in my daily life back home.
After our breakfast of chai, yam, and toast my host mom and I walked down to the garden, or shamba, to start picking coffee. Peak coffee season ended in early December, so this would be the last harvest day until after the long rains of Spring. While we harvested, my host mom and I shared songs and she showed me how to choose the perfect beans to pick. We filled our buckets with beans and carried them up to the house, where the contents were poured onto a rug and sorted. As we sorted, we sipped uji, a traditional Kikuyu porridge of millet flour- my favorite new snack! The ripe beans, distinguishable by their deep red color, were put into a sack to be taken to the factory down the road. The green, unripened beans were set aside along with the overly dried, black beans called bone.
Because it was so late in the harvest season, the coffee we picked had already started fermenting on the plant. This coffee is termed grade B, and is still good for selling to the factory! My host mother, brother, and I walked to the factory through their beautiful village. Though they are used to the brilliant green landscape that surrounds East Tetu, it never fails to take my breath away.
When I envision factories, I think of smoke and metal, of dark places with many workers in closed up spaces. The coffee factory we arrived at defied every expectation. It was wide open, operated by just a few people and minimal machinery, overlooking a lush expanse of Nyeri hillside.
When we arrived, the beans were poured out onto another rug to be checked by the clerk. Once the quality and grade of the beans were confirmed it was time for them to be weighed. The clerk recorded the weight and gave us a receipt. Coffee farmer’s compensation is delayed until the end of processing, something I was surprised to learn. Our beans were poured down the designated Grade B chute, where they would be further processed. Pulped, fermented, dried, and dried again. Eventually, the beans would be picked up and roasted, then shipped off to be enjoyed far, far away.
After our time at the factory, we walked home to take afternoon chai and sat outside as the sun went down. My host sister milked the cows and I helped my host mother prepare a traditional supper of ugali and sukama wiki. As I reflect on the day, I think about the difference between farming the coffee and the coffee I buy at home- a way to conceptualize the difference between my life experience from my host family’s. A vast process of pulping, fermenting, drying, shipping, and roasting separates us, but I will forever be thankful for the opportunity to understandt hat the same process connects us, too.
Wednesday, January 24th with Lindsay:
Every morning, when the sun rose, so would my new home in Tetu East, Nyeri. I opened my eyes to the sounds of my new family shuffling throughout the house, the doors creaking, and the animals outside my window chatting amongst themselves. I put on a long skirt and a t shirt and made my way outside to the kitchen, which was a separate room detached from the house. I helped my host mom hand-wash dishes from dinner the night before, and by the time I made it to the kitchen in the morning, my host mom had already milked the cow. On top of the open fire, a large pan sat, filled with water and fresh milk for Chai (tea) and when it began to over boil my host mom would grab the searing hot pot with her bare hands and place it away from the fire.
As I began the day, three themes that seemed to emerge from my perspective were the importance of family, farming, and food which intertwined throughout the daily lives of my homestay family. This morning, I was assigned to make pancakes for breakfast which I thought wasn’t a foreign concept to me, but proved to be slightly different from what I was used to. The pancakes were like crepes (meaning they were flatter and thinner than the traditional American pancake) and we ate them without toppings, folded up, and with our hands while we sipped on a piping hot cup of Chai.
After breakfast, I followed my host brother down to the farm (which in Kikuyu is called ‘Shamba’), where we had to walk down a long steep hill to reach the fields where we gathered rabbit feed and planted spinach. When we finished, I asked to see where the water from the watering system came from so we walked along the connecting plots of land and followed a small stream to the main ‘waterhole’. Despite the fact that I tripped and almost fell into the stream, the walk along the farm was unbelievably beautiful. Each plot of land we passed was owned by one of his family members, and I always had to make sure to say hello in Kikuyu to my “Aunt” or “Uncle” (most of the time I would get laughed at when I spoke in Kikuyu because of my poor pronunciation). As we walked along the stream, I saw corn, coffee, potatoes, beans, and spinach growing in each plot of land that stretched throughout the valley.
After trudging up the steep hill back to the house, my host brother and I were assigned to make lunch. Most of the meals I cooked with my host mom, but since she was on the school board for her youngest daughters primary school, it became me and my host brothers job. We made Githeri which is a dish that consists of beans and corn (which my host mom and I gathered from the Shamba the day prior).
Post lunch, I prepared to accompany my host mom to her Wednesday church group. We drove into town where we were taking care of errands when my host mom introduced me to one of her friend’s children who was about two years old. This being my fifth day in Nyeri, I was used to children gawking, pointing, and trying to touch me. However, when this child saw me, she burst into tears and seemed terrified of me. This was the first time I had received a reaction like this in Nyeri and my host mom said she had never seen a child do that before. Everyone thought it was hilarious. To this day, I can’t help but chuckle a little when I think back to how that little girl reacted to me.
We then drove to the church group, held at someone’s house, and we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. The church group consisted of readings from the Bible and singing. When the sky started turning dark, and it looked as though it was going to rain outside, my host mom and I walked over to visit her mother (Shosho is Grandmother in Kikuyu) who welcomed me with open arms and made me feel apart of the family.
The day ended with my mom and I cooking a delicious dinner that we ate with my host dad and brother. The themes that surfaced during my time in Nyeri, family, farming, and food, showed up in my daily life repeatedly throughout the week. Within the week, I had met most of the extended family and would see many of these family members on a regular basis. Additionally, farming was very important because it provided food for my family to sell as well as food that they would eat every night. Food proved to be such an essential aspect of my rural homestay. My host mom and I would farm for the food and then cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. Looking back at my experience at a rural homestay, I know I am lucky to have been placed with such an amazing family whom I will remember for the rest of my life.
Thursday, January 25th with Dana.
This morning I woke up to vibrant blue skies and a cup of hot chai, just as I did every other morning on my family’s welcoming, colorful shamba in Tetu West. I ate farm fresh eggs and the milk in my chai was fresh from my family’s sweet, brown-eyed cows. My mom and I washed the dishes from the dinner the night before of chapati and chicken stew and then worked at their roadside general store for the morning while my father was cutting napier grass to feed the cows. When he returned home, he took our place at the store and my mom and I departed on a 20 minute walk across a valley of tea and corn fields and up a beautiful gravel road to visit my 11 year-old sister at her school. She is in standard 6 and I got to sit in on her science class. The classes are taught in English since the students have been learning English since their first year of education. This day they were having a health education class where they learned about the vaccines infants receive and the diseases which the vaccines prevent. I was impressed with both the content of the class and their extensive knowledge of English. Most of the residents of Nyeri speak Kikuyu at home, but have been taught English and Swahili in school.
After science class was over, my mom and I said goodbye and thank you to my sister’s class and teacher for welcoming me. As we exited the classroom, a group of primary school kids were running and giggling as they left class for recess. The weather was still beautiful and sunny with low humidity. My mom and I continued our walk up the road from the school, still heading away from our home and towards the top of the hill on which they live. At the top we had an incredible view of expansive fields of tea plants, the region and my family’s main cash crop, along with coffee. We visited a building where the local farmers bring their tea for the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) to weigh and pick-up their harvests for processing at a factory.
We continued on our way to visit my grandmother who lives in the same house in which my mom grew up. I helped her feed her three cows and in return she made me a lunch of ugali and soured milk, which tastes far better than it sounds, I promise.
After I thanked my grandmother for the meal, we meandered down the hill, towards home as some storm clouds loomed in the distance. Just as we walked through the front gate to the house, some rain started to fall. We went inside and watched the news while we waited for the afternoon thunderstorm to pass so we could milk the cows before dinner. My last dinner with my Nyeri family was a heaping portion of rice, githeri (a mixture of beans, corn, and spices), and a stew with potatoes and cabbage. My mom, sister, and I ate and watched soap operas and then the evening news until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I went to bed thinking about the past week at my homestay in Nyeri. It was a wonderful experience and I was so thankful to be invited into the home of my warm-hearted and hardworking family.