Hi all! We completed our urban home stays in early October. Heres what two students, Grace and Tess had to say about it!
The Blog: St. Lawrence Kenya Program – The Urban Homestay Component (September 19 – October
Following the Nakuru and Naivasha Field Component, our group spent three weeks in 10 separate homestays throughout urban Kenya within Nairobi County (nine singles and one double). The neighborhoods that students stayed in were in Karen, Kitisuru, Lavington, Runda, Kilimani, New Kitisuru, Runda Green, and Kileleshwa. Students’ urban host families were diverse in their environments, not only in regard to their location, but also in terms of whether both parents were present and whether their host families had siblings, pets or guard dogs, a garden, a domestic worker, an askari – a Kiswahili word meaning soldier or security guard – and various other factors. The variety of urban host families aimed to give students varied and diversified experiences, as each family had something unique to offer to the student(s) they were hosting. Throughout the three weeks, students were given various opportunities to engage with their family members through experiencing night life, family activities such as going to church and/or celebrations such as weddings and graduation parties, cooking with their families, exchanging stories about each other’s cultures, traveling to host parents’ rural homes, and exploring the city, among other activities. The program was fortunate enough and able to organize and continue forward with the urban homestays, despite the coronavirus pandemic still being extremely present in the lives of Kenyans, specifically with the enforcement of mask-wearing in public and the national curfew from 10 pm to 4 am during our homestay.
While we were in our urban homestays we were also taking classes at the United Kenya Club (UKC) in the capital city of Kenya (central Nairobi). The UKC is a private club that provides food, housing, and other accommodations, including a library and classroom spaces for students to work and take classes in. Two of the main classes, focused on gender studies and government, are being taught by professors from the University of Nairobi, which is the oldest and largest university in Kenya! The third course that is offered is based around conservation and biodiversity in Kenya and is taught by the Kenya Semester Program’s Academic Director.
Prior to students meeting their urban host families and moving into their houses, students had a conversation with each other and with one of the directors of student life and academics about the history of urbanization in central Nairobi, in regard to accessibility, social life, environmental degradation, and the urban divide related to wealth, as well as race. The city of Nairobi, upon its initial creation, was divided based upon one’s race and ethnicity; however, the city also became divided based upon economic status as a result of this initial divide. By living with urban families within the middle and upper middle-income classes, we were able to make comparisons with our rural home visits within Kipsigis culture in Kericho County, as well as with the “informal settlements” of Kibera and Mathare (the locations of our two field excursions on September 24 and October 1). As “informal settlements” will be referenced throughout, they can be briefly defined as areas where groups of shelters and housing have been built, in which the residents have no legal claim to their residency.
In viewing the density of living within Nairobi County and within “informal settlements” also in this county, our group was able to visually see and experience the massive urban sprawl that has overtaken the city of Nairobi. In 1963, the city only housed 350,000 people, but today the city houses a staggering 4.9 million people! In consequence to this rapid population increase, access to resources such as health care, security, water, high-quality housing, and food are in short supply, although a majority – if not all – of these resources are accessible by those within the middle and upper middle-income classes. Additionally, Nairobi National Park – the only national park that resides in a major capital city – may be at risk of being minimized or eliminated in the future to make accommodations for human resources. The increased population also has great effects on traffic, and by extension, air pollution within the city. The congestion of traffic was impossible to not notice on our way to the UKC every morning, with personal vehicles driving children to school, as well as people doing errands and driving to work, making the roads difficult to drive on for our taxi drivers. With Nairobi’s increased population, the lack of public transportation has also become highly noticeable, as the increase in public transportation such as matatus and boda-bodas would surely decrease congestion and allow for more drivers to utilize the roads. Ultimately, the large and still increasing population within Nairobi County and within the capital city will have devastating impacts on land use, in terms of environmental conservation of land and escalating agricultural land use to continually feed the growing population.
During our time doing the urban homestay we also participated in weekly experiential learning components as part of our core course “Culture, Environment, and Development in East Africa.” We each left our urban homestays on Friday mornings to meet as a whole group and from there departed for the experiential learning component planned. The first component we participated in was through the organization Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) based in the informal settlement of Kibera. SHOFCO is a grassroots organization which seeks to empower residents of Kibera through providing critical and essential services such as providing clean water, creating employment opportunities, and providing access to education specifically for girls. The presence of SHOFCO services within Kibera is extensive, and this became clear through the morning that we spent with them. For a few hours that Friday morning we were taken on a tour where we walked through Kibera and visited sites where SHOFCO services were available. We saw their headquarters, sites for accessing clean water, a school they had built for girls, their hospital, their center for gender issues and advocacy, and spaces where they offered employment to Kibera residents for services such as sewing. One of the aspects I admired about this organization is that they are not trying to change or eliminate the way Kibera has come to exist, instead they want to support the community as a way to empower the residents of Kibera.
The second organization we visited the following week was Mathare Girl Power Project, an organization working on a smaller scale than SHOFCO, which seeks to support young girls through vocational education in the informal settlement of Mathare. Mathare Girl Power Project educates young girls on sexual and reproductive health, menstruation, substance abuse, consent, sexuality, and other aspects of sexual and health education in an effort to make the girls aware and knowledgeable of life changes and circumstances to empower them to stay in school and finish their education. The organization believes that if the girls can finish their education they will be able to follow their aspirations, be successful, and give back to their community. The girls are taught by women older than them, many of whom have been through the organization’s education as well. During our time visiting the organization we got to interact with the organization’s founder, its teachers, and some students as well. We were put in separate groups with one teacher and two students to have an open dialogue about what the students are taught, what they have gotten out of the organization, and to ask any questions. When I asked one of the students what has been the most valuable thing she has learned from being part of the organization she told me that she has been able to build the confidence to demand consent and to say no when pressured to engage in activities she does not want to. I really appreciated her sentiment, and I think it shows that the goal of this organization is working and that education truly is power.
Reflection: Grace Brouillette
I was so, so fortunate to be welcomed with hospitality, kindness, and compassion by my urban host family for three weeks. The night of my arrival, I gifted them a container of maple syrup, a very sweet and significant food item that has been important to me since childhood because I grew up in Vermont – a state that is well-known for maple syrup and maple creemees (also known as soft-serve ice cream). Being able to connect with my family members and the domestic worker that lived on the same property through my love of cooking and baking was really special. I had the opportunity to learn how to make chapati and ugali from the domestic worker as well as make pancakes with my sister that we could drizzle the maple syrup on. Of all of the special activities that I was able to participate in, one in particular stood out to me as communicating the importance of family, love, and dedication to both of these the most. During my first weekend at their house, one of my cousins was getting married and so I had the opportunity to go to a Kenyan wedding, only the second wedding that I’ve ever been to. Besides the wedding being a beautiful moment to witness, I was also able to see a different aspect of Kenyan culture that I wasn’t expecting to see upon initially coming to Kenya. Religion was so interwoven into the wedding and made for a completely different experience than the wedding that I had gone to in America. Celebration through dancing, singing, and music brought such a warm light to the day’s events. I doubt that I will forget the all-encompassing feeling of love that I experienced that day dancing with my sister and seeing two people so happily in love, surrounded by their loved ones and family. I hope to continue to stay connected with my urban host family, especially my sister, as I continue through the Kenya Semester Program for the next two months, as well as following the program upon my return to America!
Reflection: Tess Maxam
In reflecting on the rest of my time doing the urban homestay I believe it is one of the most formative experiences the Kenya Semester Program offers. It is the longest period of time where we remain in one place, aside from our internships in the last month, compared to the rest of the program which entails a lot of travelling and moving around from place to place. The ability to “stay put” in a way really allows the homestay to feel like a return home at the end of each day. What especially made this new place feel like home was the amount of time I spent cooking with my host mom. As often as I possibly could I would offer to help with dinner and I was able to learn how to make multiple staple Kenyan dishes. As a person who is not the best at cooking I thought it was great practice, a lot of fun, and brought me closer with my host mom. Another aspect of the homestay which I really enjoyed was getting to know my taxi driver Peter. Each day we had the same driver which has been arranged through the program to bring us to and from classes. In the 45-60 minute commute each day I was able to get to know my driver Peter very well and he even invited us to visit his home next week where he will cook us nyama choma (grilled meats) and be able to meet his family that he has been telling us so much about. It is relationships such as these that seem least expected when entering a component such as the rural homestay but one that has meant so much to me and I will never forget. Last but not least, I got to have company with four of the sweetest dogs that lived at my urban home. Each day I would come home from classes and be greeted with face kisses and cuddles from each of the dogs. I even got to know the neighborhood better through taking them on walks a few times during my homestay and would be able to say hi as I passed by all of the other community members walking around as well. Overall, I really enjoyed the urban homestay and it was an experience I will look back on with much admiration through the rest of my life.