Nyeri Rural Homestay Blog, Fall 2018 – Sylvia Gilbert & Nick Matys
We’ve just begun the fourth week (!) here in Kenya, and can’t believe how time is flying. Though the first few days are a blur of jet lag and getting yelled “Mzungu!” at, we are starting to feel acclimated at our comfortable compound in Karen. Though it felt sudden to depart for our rural homestay experience, we decided to embrace “being comfortable with being uncomfortable”. What started out as nerves transformed to excitement as we packed out bags and loaded the bus.
We departed Friday morning beginning our second week and had no idea what we were in for. Heading to Nyeri, we passed rolling green hills and farms that expanded for miles and contribute to much of the country’s produce. Nyeri is largely populated by the Kikuyu people. Before we were introduced to our families we had a lecture by world-renowned Professor Godfrey Muriuki, who gave us a brief understanding of these people who make up 30% of Kenya’s population. We then headed to spend the night at Sandai Farns, where we fell asleep to candlelight and took a morning nature walk to spot birds we’d never seen before. We spent part of the day at the Green Belt Movement, planting trees, touring the farm of our hosts, Julius and Lydia, and showing off some hidden hula-hoop skills. By the afternoon, we were ready to meet our host families in Tetu East and West.
Sylvia – The Harvest
I take pride in being from Vermont. My parents have beautiful, bountiful gardens and livestock graze the fields behind my house. I’ve grown up planting, weeding, picking, and canning, always well versed in what’s growing and what I can do with it. I thought that coming to Nyeri would be a piece of cake, a walk in the park,– just another week on the farm.
After getting dropped off in Tetu East and being greeted with giant hugs from my host mother, sisters, and brother, and shown to my room, the work began. I was immediately granted my own pair of black mud boots and was handed the lubricant to go soften up the udders of one of the four zero-graze cows awaiting me in the stable. Though I consider myself a “farm girl,” I’ll admit it had been a few years since milking anything, but I didn’t want to display a sense of unknowing, so I sat right down and got to work. Despite the smothered giggles that my siblings shared at my lack of technique, my tired hands, and the dung-soaked tail of the cow that was repeatedly swished in my face, I made it through all four of the udders in about 20 minutes. A bucket of milk sat before me that was intended to feed the new-born calf as well as supply the family for a constant supply of chai. All at once, a sudden shift by the cow knocked the bucket over. You can imagine it took all I had to tell myself not to cry over the spilled milk that covered me all the way up my legs while the family burst out laughing all together.
Besides the rocky start on the shamba (farm) that I endured that first Friday, I progressively got more comfortable with my family, joking, cooking, and story-telling with my host-siblings. The part of the homestay that I bonded over the most with my family was the maize harvest. Every day we did a little more, and I was intrigued by the lengthy process that gave me sore biceps, blisters on my thumbs, and a big smile on my face.
Though I have grown up harvesting plants all summer and fall with my mom, I never experienced anything like this maize. Maize is a staple food in Nyeri and it is eaten almost every day in many forms: roasted by the fire, ground into ugali, or boiled in githeri. Whatever it may be, the next meal will usually have maize. This is why it was so significant that most of the shamba that my family owned was covered in maize and why it took so long to finish harvesting! We started by reaching way up the 8 foot-tall stalk and stripping it of any ears we could find. We filled up burlap sacks, with each of us siblings making about 30 trips from the shamba back to where we off-loaded the haul.
Looking at the heaping pile, I could have said “aw shucks” and gone inside for lunch, but that would have just put off the job even longer. So we began to shuck. (I know that sentence was corny…) Shucking the ears, leaving just a few husks with which to tie them up took about a whole afternoon and a morning. Tying them to a string and hanging them up to dry took just as long. Contrary to the rest of the harvest, the drying process was impressively uneventful and takes several months, which means I won’t be there when all of the maize is taken down, thrown in a bag, and hit with a stick to remove the dry kernels. However, a member of our KSP staff was hoping to buy some of the maize from my host-mother, so it became my responsibility to dislodge each kernel from the cobs that were fresh. Though this seemed like an easy, mindless task at first. It took me several hours each night and yielded sore and blistered thumbs.