FOREGROUNDING LOCAL VOICES: IMPACTS OF THE KSP AS TOLD BY THE RURAL HOST SIBLINGS

As part of our summer collaborative research project(s) in 2021-2022, we conducted a rural host-siblings’ writing competition. Participants were drawn from both Nyeri and Kericho, the two communities where KSP has conducted rural homestays since 2013. The essay prompt sought siblings’ analytical interpretations of the impact of hosting our students to them as individuals, their families and the wider host community. Below are the three best essays that we got. We welcome you to read and enjoy.

Meeting Cultural ‘Others’, Rethinking Stereotypes: The Impacts of Hosting St. Lawrence University Students During the Rural Homestay in Nyeri, Kenya

(By Agnes W. Muita).

I grew up in a small beautiful village at the foot of the Aberdares, with green hills and valleys colored by coffee plantations and fruit trees. On a normal day, parents are working in plantations which are the main source of livelihood, while children play all kinds of games near the river. I am the eldest of 3 siblings brought up by my dad, a senior sergeant at the Kenya Defense Forces, and my mom, a community & local church leader and farmer. Our parents took us to the best private schools around, but I didn’t leave my town until I joined Kenyatta University in Nairobi. University opened up new horizons and realized the vastness and diversity that is in our country, Kenya. However, it wasn’t until we started hosting students from St. Lawrence University in 2015, that I got out of my comfort zone and began viewing the world through a wider lens. I was now curious. Curious, not only about the students’ cultures and lifestyles, but also American history and politics. This would be the beginning of what has now sprouted into a journey of lessons on cultural awareness and appreciating our culture.

The rural homestay program has allowed for deep and ‘authentic’ interactions between parents, siblings, and American students. Having the students in our homes and taking part in similar activities has laid bare our similarities, and how they intertwine in the most beautiful ways. Each hosting has been a rollercoaster of fun interactions with peers where we play games and make chapatis while chatting about the most random things like music, books, and TV characters. Hosting has also pushed me out of my comfort zone. For example, not a day would you find me in the farm, but rest assured I will milk a cow here and harvest some maize there whenever a student is around. These social interactions have formed a basis for short-term and long-term relationships. After the rural hosting in 2018, my sister Linzy and I met for some cold beers while cheering my favorite rugby team. We have since stayed in touch on Instagram. My family and I find extreme joy in these moments that are fun learning experiences. Fun learning experiences because my parents can now speak fluent English more confidently than before by the way. With such interactions, one appreciates the world as a beautiful space with a fine blend of the same people painted in different colors.

The program has further allowed us to reflect on our own culture and appreciate the small and big things in life. Despite living in a small village endowed with a very rich culture, sometimes we fail to appreciate it and instead view it as a “normal” experience. Whenever students visit for the rural homestay, they embrace many elements of our culture that we normally overlook. The majority of the students grow up with minimal cultural rules on issues like greeting elders or dressing around them. How they embrace these differences is evident through the long skirts they wear whenever they come for the rural homestay.  Such actions reveal the importance of open-mindedness and free-spiritedness when mingling with people from different cultures. Hosting students has also introduced some modern elements that were handled differently in the traditional setup. These elements that have been welcomed and blended into our household. For instance, as children, we were not allowed to ask questions about how our parents met until a student innocently asked. The shift in cultural perspectives has led to more liberal and independent thinking among family members. Previously ‘tough’ conversations are now characterized by humor and respectful satire.

Growing up in an African household, it’s good practice to maximize the quality of a visitor’s stay and create an impressive first impression. While trying to be accommodative of the cultural “others”, we have made some renovations and “upgrades” to various social amenities in our home. For example, we made a decent bathroom upgrade from the traditional outdoor pit latrine to an in-house one with modern facilities. Students also gift us when visiting our homes such as bringing their local maple syrup. In our culture, gifting is at the forefront of establishing and maintaining good social relations.  For instance, growing up, our parents always carried farm produce such as maize and arrowroots when visiting friends and relatives. Other acts by students that we host include surprise dinners that have contributed to the cultivation of new family traditions. Previously, our parents preferred home-cooked meals rather than eating out as they viewed the latter as an “unnecessary luxury”. This perception has since changed with some students treating us to surprise meals in nearby restaurants. The dinners have since become a uniting family tradition where we occasionally meet, laugh, and chat over a meal away from home.

Besides allowing me to interact with peers from different countries, the program has offered numerous opportunities to appreciate Kenya’s cultural diversity. In June 2022, we were treated to a life-changing weekend in Naivasha as part of a research project led by the program’s assistant director, Dr. Wairungu, and his counterpart Mr. Njau, funded by St. Lawrence University. Brilliant ideas and connections were born from the interactions among youths from two communities: Kikuyus of Nyeri and Kipsigis of Kericho. More importantly, a cultural merge cultivated unity among youths from communities who are currently experiencing political tension as we approach the August 2022 Kenyan elections. Additionally, I was lucky to hike and camp with mom (a program coordinator), who hadn’t camped before. It is worthwhile noting that in an African household, one cannot freely behave or express opinions that go against the African societal grain. Young unmarried women are not allowed to speak to men openly. The Naivasha experience enabled me to interact freely with my peers without worrying that mom was watching my every move. It also allowed her to cautiously let her guard down, and wear shorts & snapbacks. She could finally compartmentalize her personality: explore and embrace her goofy, open-minded self while preserving her uptight and conservative side.

As a young person, I now feel empowered to travel the world and mingle with various cultures. With 195 different countries & thousands of cultures, the opportunities for a young girl from the village to immerse herself in different cultures are life-changing and limitless. It is an empowerment tool for many young people who can now travel and confidently interact with people from all parts of the world. The St. Lawrence rural homestay program is a great breeding ground for fresh perspectives and deep interactions. Besides that, parents can now relate with their children easily and understand their points of view as well. It opens us up to self-realizations, appreciating who we are, and viewing the world as a fine fusion of similar people painted in different colors. And in John Dewey’s famous words, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience”.

Unexpected Influences: How Guests from Across the Ocean are Changing Our Life Outlook

(By Robert N. Gakumu, Nyeri).

It must have been in my first year of college that St Lawrence University granted us the gracious offer of hosting one of their students under the Kenya Semester – Rural Homestay Program. To be honest, it sounded daunting, given that personally, and even among my family, none of us had ever spent time abroad in a different culture or immersed in another culture. The only person that would have claimed that sort of privilege would be my dad, who while working with catholic missionaries had found himself working with people from all walks of life including Africans from all corners like the Congo and Ghana, but also luckily, American missionaries. It took his convincing for us to believe that it would be possible for an American to “endure” the kind of rural life we were used to. Unbeknownst to any of us in the family, this would usher in one quite interesting chapter. Quite frankly it wouldn’t have come at a better time for me.

Study Abroad Programs is something I have had an interest in but couldn’t really get the jinx of it, having never been involved in one. The SLU program has been such an eye-opener in that regard, and even though I have not traveled abroad just yet, seeing myself, and our family from the eyes of someone that is from such a different culture has had a couple of unintended consequences. I’d like to start with how this has helped me regain confidence that I didn’t even know I had lost. 

You see, growing up, and especially reading about the history of Westerners in Kenya, it’s almost impossible to perceive them as anything other than a “superior race”, an obnoxious term I should add. The British themselves, who have a lot of shared history with America, came to Kenya, and specifically among the Agikuyu where I’m from, around the turn of the 19th century. In their words, it was “a place of unexplored potential.” This potential, oddly, could only be realized if they forcibly took the land and developed it. They did this by effectively enslaving the local population, draining away the last of their strength as forced labor.  In a sense, despite all the good things they brought like education and modern medicine, they inadvertently also established an oppressive social hierarchy. It was firstly based on skin color, but also the general well-being of a family. Those that collaborated with the colonists, and accepted Christianity, and education earlier also wound up, much better financially. This is generally the legacy that colonialism left behind, and under the backdrop of which we were educated and raised.

To then clearly reverse this whole idea, and have American guests at our home, and have them live in it without preconditions of the perks of modern life, or requiring us to adjust our diet or language or even routine, was such a change in the way I thought of westerners and something that will likely stay with me for life. I have in general found our SLU guests to be nothing as I’d thought they would be, based on my experience learning from history books. They have been courteous and kind and I have never observed anything that I would construe as having been racial bias, which I must say was unexpected.

On the flip side, the fact that we were hosting Americans seemed to have put our family right in the spotlight in a surprising way. In the village, people wondered how we could have American guests. Was it that we were rich behind the scenes? Some of our friends even spun interesting, some downright comical theories on some of the reasons that we would be having “mzungus” at our home. You couldn’t really just throw in a “rural homestay Program for American students” in the way and expect that to pass. I personally had to grapple with questions, like if I was marrying one of the girls myself and was just keeping the news private for the moment, much to my bemusement! One of my savvier friends from the village even put to me an odd, but nonetheless, interesting question. He wondered if we were hosting agents of the well-known US intelligence organization, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in some covert (recolonization?) mission in Kenya. As much as it found me off-guard at that moment, it wasn’t so farfetched an idea.

My sister, Emma, would later come to find this out while out on an excursion with one SLU guest.  When they encountered an elderly man that was a veteran of Kenya’s Independence war of the late 50s, he was extremely jittery at the sight of a young white man deep in the village, perhaps evocative of those calm days before all hell broke loose many years back. This is proof that it could still be unsettling for some, to this day. I have personally taken it up, in my own small way to help my village people understand this kind of study abroad program and the importance of cultural exchange programs in general. Perhaps with more of this, and as my understanding of these programs grows through my own experience, these notions will die down. Eventually, my village people will also perhaps obtain a much more global outlook of life as well.

Remarkably, hosting our SLU guests within the family has also been an eye-opener as regards our specific Agikuyu culture. Because this is where I have been raised, and now as an adult, I still continue to thrive in the same community, I have tended to really think of it as dull, non-exciting, and unremarkable in most ways, as I have been subsumed in the mostly idealized life of the West primarily through the movies, and western news channels. Hardly did I realize that such beauty could be found in the culture, landscape, and atmosphere of the place where I grew up. I looked at the amazing pictures of the sun rising over Mt Kenya that our guest sister Ella took. I couldn’t believe it has been lying there in front of us the whole time! I couldn’t stop scrolling through pictures of what I had usually thought of as just mere weeds. Not to mention the amazing local fauna that I had grown so accustomed to, to even notice. Although I had been seeing this all my life, looking at these scenes from the fresh look of our guests has always been awe-inspiring.  It gets me to appreciate what we have around us, unlike idealizing what isn’t.

Our host siblings, interestingly, have also been very appreciative of our food, and the fact that it’s really grown and cooked organically, and that has led me to assume that probably is not a privilege many westerners enjoy, because of the massive industrial food processing. I wonder if we will lose our unique and healthy food habits with the rapid “modernization” of every sector currently sweeping through our country.

Beginning recently, we have also started to interact and engage with other SLU host siblings from Kericho County, Kenya. Admittedly it’s also having a profound effect on the way that I perceive other cultures even in Kenya, and it has also been an eye-opener for the amount of diversity, but also commonalities that we share with them. Politicians will usually want to stoke the differences to pit one against the other like in this year of elections. Just like SLU siblings, who come from across the oceans to stay with us, I hope we could also start to do more similar activities among ourselves even here in Kenya, as there is a lot of undiscovered beauty even amongst the multiplicity of cultures in Kenya. Sadly, this too is something I haven’t taken up to explore by myself, and thankfully St Lawrence University happened in our lives, that I can now even realize this gap.

Just like the incredible culture of tree planting that our guest siblings brought with them, as not just an act of nature conservation, but also as a symbol of a long and lasting friendship, we do really hope that our learning, interaction, and friendship with the St Lawrence community will last our lifetimes and beyond.

DOES CULTURAL EXCHANGE HAVE ANY BENEFIT?

(By Abigail C. Korir, Kericho). 

There is a famous Swahili phrase, ‘mgeni njoo mwenyeji apone’ loosely translated as when a visitor comes, the host gets well. For the past 2 years, I am confident that I have come to understand its meaning. The interaction with the St. Lawrence University Students has done us well. As I speak in plural, I refer to my kinsmen and me. There is enlightenment we got as we have interacted with them that has almost seemed like health for us.

The year 2020 started rather usual but as time went by it proved to be more and more promising. In February of that year, we received our first foreign exchange student and the excitement was above and beyond. Speaking, we felt a bit nervous and anxious, there was a mixture of emotions. One moment we are excited to meet the new family members and the other we are worried about whether we had done enough to make them feel comfortable and safe. But as soon as the first student arrived, we hit it off as though we had been long-distance pen pals who just reunited. In a few hours, we found topics of interest we could talk about and even laugh about.

Has their visit had any impact? I know that’s the question we are all asking ourselves and the answer is YES. For a long time, I had taken my culture for granted but when they came, I realized how culturally wealthy we are. I have learned to appreciate the wealth and the vastness of my culture even in its simplest forms. For example, language may seem obvious because we have been speaking it for a long time, but as I watched my new siblings curious to learn Kiswahili and Kalenjin, my local language, it made me value it even more. Even getting to understand the origin of a few words gave me more reasons to take pride in my language. One of them would often joke that due to the majority of languages, she considered us luckier and brighter than them, because they had only one language, English. Me, I had never seen it in such a manner, but as I listened to her explain such nuggets to me enthusiastically, I couldn’t be prouder.

As I grew up, I was constantly told by my teachers that beneath our skin, we are all the same. I hardly believed them or rather I just saw it as their means of making us study harder but as soon as I had one of the St. Lawrence students living under the same roof with me, I fully understood it. How they had feelings just like us, how they had hobbies just like us, how they laughed and even thought like us. One of my foreign siblings would often tell me that she despised seeing all that those African women were going through, things like wife battery, which remains dominant in some African homes. Her knowledge that despite all, women still had rights, made me love and appreciate my womanhood. It brought out in me the desire to fight for women’s rights and to support those in need even more.

In addition, growing up as a young black teenage girl was not always easy. Having grown up with people who appreciated a lighter skin color than mine, longer and flowy hair than mine, and all things foreign to who I was. But as we were playing chess one evening, one of my new siblings lightly commented and said that I was beautiful and I had a good sense of fashion (which I earlier on found quite hilarious). Just a simple comment like that boosted my confidence and I started being more comfortable in my skin like one ready to conquer the world. At that time, I didn’t tell her how much she had impacted me but she sure left me a better person.

Furthermore, hosting the St. Lawrence students to me was also as though I had gone to the United States of America for a week. I was intrigued to see how much they knew about their country and how passionate they were about their cultures. They happily took their time and taught us various subjects; politics, careers, marriages, and holidays, just to mention a few. The topic that fascinated me more was that of marriage. Here in Africa, marriage is such an important stage that there are various activities attached to it. For instance, family introduction, dowry payment, traditional wedding (in a few communities), and the so-called English wedding before the groom and the bride can start living together. However, these activities are dependent on the communities and the parties involved. Therefore, I was amazed to learn that there was no dowry payment in the States, unlike in Africa where dowry payment is highly regarded and important before the onset of any marriage.

Cultural differences are what makes each part of the world valuable, unique, adventurous, and relevant. As a family, learning the various ways of cooking spaghetti that is, the different recipes, has been of help, that we can gather as a family and interact or chat over a meal whose recipe we got from our new siblings.

Waking up every morning to go to the farm has become something to look forward to every day since we learned that 80% of the food in the USA is either imported or processed. We saw how privileged we were to have a farm that had 90% of the food we consume at home. With this kind of sure food supply, we can ensure that we are leading healthy lives and thus reducing the risks of lifestyle diseases.

St. Lawrence University gave us the opportunity to also interact with siblings from other host families within the country but a different “ethnic” community. Specifically, 11 host siblings from the Kispigis community of Kericho spent a weekend camping at Lake Naivasha with 14 other host siblings from the Kikuyus of Nyeri. On day one, we had intriguing conversations and cultural performances around the bonfire, socialized as we played cards, and later hiked Mt. Longonot the following day. These activities taught us how to depend on each other, and how to love and care for one another. The social experience was unique and not so dissimilar to interacting with students from the USA. Despite our cultural differences, I learned from our interactions that we are all one big family and should always be united. This is a lesson that I will always hold dearly even with the upcoming general elections in Kenya.

In Conclusion, I can only say that what St, Lawrence University is doing is noble and great. The impacts the program has had on my family and me are unexplainable, the examples given above are just but a pinch. My desire in me to dominate the world in the engineering sector has spiked greatly after interacting with the students. Studying abroad has become something I can look forward to with no fear knowing that across the world there are people we share common values and thoughts. But even as I look forward to studying abroad, I will travel locally and have adventures just here. The world is my oyster. I am eternally grateful.

Thank you!

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