Amboseli Fall 2015

Amboseli – Eliza and Thressa

Sopa! (Maasai for “Hello”)

A few weeks ago our small group had the pleasure of traveling to the Amboseli region, located in South-western Kenya. This area is comprised of Amboseli National Park as well as home to the Maasai people. This trip follows the ideals of the Kenya Semester Program, allowing us to learn through experience and interactions. We were lucky enough to be able to experience Amboseli from both a tourist as well as a local view.

On the first day, we woke up in our beautiful “tents” at Kibo Safari Camp and emerged to see an incredible view of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Kibo Safari Camp is located next to Amboseli Park so we were lucky enough to be awoken by monkeys and other exotic creatures most mornings.

Amboseli National park with Mount Kilimanjaro on the background

Amboseli National park with Mount Kilimanjaro on the background

 With the famous elephants of Amboseli

With the famous elephants of Amboseli

After an amazing breakfast, we proceeded to go into the field, accompanied by our wonderful guides, Big Jackson and Little Jackson, to interview the local farming community. This community deals with issues regarding land, water, and wildlife conflict. While it took a few minutes to break the barrier, we were able to discuss these issues in depth throughout our conversations with land owners, lease farmers, and farm help. They expressed concern with a growing lack of water and lack of government aid to combat the issues concerning the impeding wildlife. They expressed the need for a fence to be used to keep wildlife inside the boundaries of Amboseli park, of which their farms are located next to. The government fears though that this will stop the necessary migration patterns of wildlife, and as a result, would hurt the tourism industry of Kenya.

In the afternoon we were able to visit a Cultural Manyatta, a popular tourist destination. These Manyattas have formed to capitalize on the continuous western interest and stereotypes of Maasai Warrior Culture and the image of “Wild Africa.” During this visit, we were introduced to the “medicine man”, taught to make fire using sticks, and were shown traditional Maasai homes. We were able to interview three different groups: Elders, women, and Warriors, to discuss some of the issues facing Maasai culture in terms of tourism.

Surprised by a warm welcome at the Cultural Manyatta

Surprised by a warm welcome at the Cultural Manyatta

Haley with her Maasai homestay mother

Later in the week we were able to contrast this experience to a homestay with a Maasai family. Away from the bustle of tourism, Maasai families continue to preserve the important traditions of their culture while also being able to adjust to the changing world around. Here, we did not witness the traditional “drinking blood” but instead feasted on ugali and cabbage, a meal that reappears throughout Kenya despite ethnic and cultural differences. We slept on the customary cowhides and learned valued Maasai skills such as: collecting water and wood, feeding animals, and repairing Maasai homes with the use of cow dung. We also had the chance to interview our families on issues that they face. Many of the issues that appeared related to the international push to eradicate Female Genital Mutilation, an accepted practice among the Maasai.

Another highlight of the trip was the opportunity to experience Amboseli National Park through two different game drives. Here, we saw incredible animals including: Zebras, Ostriches, Hyenas, Lions, Wildebeest, Elephants, Cheetahs, Buffalo, Hippos, and other exotic animals. This proved to be our most “touristy” experience as we saw lines of Land Rovers filled with other visitors.

Overlooking Amboseli National Park? Or maybe an image of an animal

Overlooking Amboseli National Park? Or maybe an image of an animal?

Overall it was an exciting and fast-paced week. Being the last trip of the semester before our Independent Study component (IDS), it was perhaps the most touristy and enjoyable. We made great friends at Kibo Safari Camp and during out overnights with Maasai families. As always, we are learning so much from our experiences with others – a type of learning that we may never find in a classroom. These experiences gave us joy and prepared us well for our Independent Study component where we will be fully immersed in another geographic and cultural area on our own.

Urban Homestay Fall 2015

Over the past three weeks the KSP students were all experiencing Nairobi through the lense of Urban Homestay families in and around the city. Be it in New Kitisuru, Kilamani, or Riverside we all had differing experiences culminating in three amazing and memorable weeks.

These past three weeks have been in stark contrast to our experiences in Tanzania and our rural homestay. Many of us were surprised at how progressive our families were, and took comfort in the similarities that existed between Nairobi and our respective hometowns.

During our UHS we attended daily Swahili classes as well as our elective courses. This large period of academic time allowed us delve deeper into the areas of government organization, historical issues, biodiversity topics, and gender inequality in Kenya. Many of these issues we were able to experience first hand within the city. Our core course professors also took us on weekly field components which played a great role in our experiential learning.

The first experiential component included in our core course was a visit to Kibera. Being the second largest slum in Africa, we were exposed to aspects of life many of us had never experienced. We visited an organization called Carolina for Kibera that introduced us to the area, and guided us around the slum. This organization aims to “develop local leaders, catalyze positive change, and alleviate poverty in Kibera” (Carolina for Kibera). We walked around for a few hours in small groups because the non-profit organization aims to discourage slum tourism.image001 We visited the homes of three high school aged students. These students have all received grants from Carolina for Kibera to further their education and help provide them with opportunities they might not otherwise receive. We met the students and their families and were able to talk openly about everyday life. We were also able to visit one of Kibera’s nutritional aid centers. Centers like these provide nutritional aid for children below six months of age to age four. In addition, we visited the largest health center in Kibera. We were able to see first hand some of the new technological resources available to communities. This includes new X-ray machines, laboratories, and various pharmaceutical resources. Overall, this trip was very enriching, and as always, we found great similarities between our lives and those of the people who live in Kibera.

near the "Mau Mau" caves, Karura forest, Nairobi

near the “Mau Mau” caves, Karura forest, Nairobi

The second excursion was to Karura Forest. Karura is a protected national forest in the heart of Nairobi. It is open to the public for various leisure activities such as biking, walking, hiking, etc., on well-maintained, beautiful trails. It is the home of the infamous Mau Mau caves where the Mau Mau freedom fighters hid during their fight for independence. We were able to take a guided tour through the forest to see the caves in addition to waterfalls, wildlife, and countless scenic views. Karura is a great example of how conservation is taking a front seat in Kenya politics, and spaces like Karura are exemplars for sustainable living.

Later that same afternoon we were also able to visit one of the many curio shops throughout Nairobi. This one was the Maasai market, located at Village Market. We were encouraged to use as much Swahili as possible to both better our skills and avoid being overcharged for our foreigner status. We came away from the afternoon of bartering exhausted but satisfied with souvenirs to show for our work. Every time we go to markets to barter we are determined to further our Swahili, gain a greater cultural understanding of the market economy, and hopefully make some friends in the process.

Maasai Market goods on display

Maasai Market goods on display

The final activity we were able to take part in during our Urban Homestays was a Relay for Life event raising money for cancer prevention, a major issue in Kenya due to lacking resources and funding. Haley’s homestay mom, Katheke, is a breast cancer survivor turned activist. She organized the event featuring 24 hours of food, dance, and honorary lantern lightings in the Nyayo National Stadium. Haley’s host family’s participation in the event was a great example of how cancer awareness is growing in Kenya, and we were thrilled to be a part of that progress for a night. This is yet another example of how we were able to find similarities between the lives of Kenyan people and our own lives.

Alison, Haley, and Alita at the Relay for Life event

Alison, Haley, and Alita at the Relay for Life event

Overall, our urban experience in Nairobi has flown by. We are so grateful to the families that so generously took us in, and the people that welcomed us throughout our time in the city. Although our main time in Nairobi is over, we made lasting connections with our families and plan to maintain our ties for years to come. Although we are now switching directions and entering another rural component of our semester, we will take with us both everything that we have learned and the new connections we have made. Stay tuned to hear about our upcoming adventures in Kisumu and Amboseli.

Kwa Heri!



Tanzania Fall 2015

Editors note—check back soon for pictures 

You never realize how strange your own customs are until you see your life from the eyes of a stranger from another world.

This last week we traveled out of Kenya and into Tanzania. Heckled by street vendors, we followed the cardboard/crayon signs through customs and out the other side into Tanzania. We then traveled many hours to the Dorobo tourism company.

(A quick shout-out to Dorobo, they are AWESOME. We would recommend them to anyone looking for true eco-tourism.  )

We stayed overnight at a waterfall and hiked to the next camp in the morning. One of our members unfortunately got violently sick so we had to postpone traveling to the Hadzabe as planned and went to the hospital instead. This gave us time to gather our expectations and talk with our guide about more non-biased information about this hunter-gatherer society.

The Hadzabe are a group of about 1,000 people who are retaining much of their original culture throughout the modernization of the rest of the world. They hunt with bows and arrows, gather tubers and berries every day, and live without the modern amenities most of us take for granted. However they are not ignorant to the rest of the world. Most of them went through school, they wear t-shirts and shorts, and some even have phones to contact the town in case of emergencies. They were fluent in Swahili and Hadzani, some even knew English. They live a life without worrying what the next day will hold. No food is stored, but they are confident in being able to find it. They never take more than they need and leave opportunities to for the food to replenish itself. Sounds perfect.

However, the Hadzabe have long been ignored or even shunned by the Tanzanian government. They are viewed as having no monetary contribution to society and so almost 90% of their land has been taken by other tribes in the area for cattle grazing and agriculture. What the government doesn’t understand is that the Hadzabe know how to survive in drought and the harsh landscape. While tribes like the Iraqui seem to be more constant in their income, they are hit hard when water is scarce. It wasn’t until recently that the government granted them land for Hadzabe alone. While that is a great step, the Hadzabe face many more challenges like retaining their culture, generating income sustainably, and climate change.

Enough of that though, because that can get depressing. During our trip we made our own arrows, shot bows, collected and crushed baobob seeds, dug for tubers, tried to make fire with sticks, hunted for hyrax (overgrown guinea pigs), danced the night away with the Hadzabe and many other things. There were also two six-hour hikes through the desert. At 50 km from the Serengeti, it is hard to see the savanna as welcoming in the sweltering heat while every plant is trying to harm you in some way or another!

Even though it was unpleasant at times, this week has been eye-opening and life-changing. It is amazing to see how hardcore these people are. They have truly adapted with their environment. We saw a man reach his BARE ARM into a bees nest to get honey and then scrape off the stingers with a knife. These people were as tough as the land was. It was humbling to realize that while many people think they are the backwards ones, we had much more to learn from them than they did from us. We are the ones using resources dry, while they allow animals and plants to keep growing. We rely on others to support us well into adulthood, while they are fully self-sufficient by age 8. We take pride in physical things, while they thrive in new experiences. We can all learn from these people.

Hopefully they will continue to thrive in what continues to be a shrinking world.

Rural Homestay Fall 2015

Hamjambo from Alison and Henry, and all of us in the Kenya Semester Program! Fresh off our rural homestay in beautiful Nyeri County, Kenya, we’re eager to write about our experience away from the bustle of Nairobi and its suburb, Karen, where we live.

We left Karen on Thursday, August 20, and made the four hour drive to Nyeri with the KSP supervisor, Wairumu Ndirangu and our driver Njau (who gets us through the busy streets of Nairobi in a flash).Our drive to Nyeri was something to behold – the highway out of Nairobi was littered with speed humps and crosswalks, certainly a change from the controlled-access interstates of the US. Once we left the northern outskirts of Nairobi, the landscape changed significantly, with pineapple and coffee plantations replacing urban cityscapes, sports stadiums, and university campuses. Our destination that evening was Sandai Farm, a small and simple estate and hotel owned by a German aid worker named Petra. Our evening there was an unexpected introduction to a whole new foreign culture, as everyone else staying there (just two families and Petra’s family) was German. The atmosphere was oddly colonial, though unequivocally charming and arguably inspiring – Petra’s background was in aid work, and she still has a strong relationship with women’s groups in the area. Rural homestay 2015 1

The next morning, our group went on a guided hike of the hilly area around Sandai. The land was very dry, with the occasional watering hole or half-dried stream. We saw our first giraffe, though, and definitely enjoyed exploring the hillsides. Soon after, we left departed for a farm in Tumutumu, a small community in Tetu Constituency. Tetu is famous for being the locality represented by Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement and 2004 Nobel Laureate (and author of Unbowed, the memoir by which each of us was impressed). The farm, which participated in the Green Belt Movement, was predicated on subsistence: its habitants grew an impressive variety of crops, from mahindi to viazi vitamu to mandizi, as they are called in the Kikuyu Highlands, as well as the countless tress which have become Dr. Maathai’s legacy.

After leaving Tumutumu, we traveled to the cusp of Nyeri Hill to meet our host families. As our hosts arrived – by cars, smaller cars, taxis, motorcycles, and foot – we got more and more excited. After all, these were the families we’d be sharing our lives with for the next week. After a small meal and some chai (tea, especially the sugary Kenyan tea we came to love or hate during our homestays), we finally met our new families. Some of us met our families immediately, while other families were on Kenyan time, a few (dozen) minutes late for the rendezvous. Meeting our new hosts was exciting, anyway.

Everyone’s homestay was, in a word, different. Each of us was moved by our family, whether it was by the patriarchy that governed the house or by the relative progressiveness that dominated our households. Although our weeks ranged from overwhelmingly challenging to downright lovely, each of us lived through a weeklong transformative experience, away from the crutch of technology and the outside world entirely. The epitome of technology for any of us was the occasional text message to a professor to express any joy or concern we may have had that day. Texting was a rare occurrence, but sometimes you just need advice from Professor Ndirangu.

Being separated from technology on its own was unlike anything any of us could possibly experience in Canton (or in St. Louis, for Henry). To our families, the crops brought not only the joy of the harvest but also the pride of knowing that the land was lifeline that sustained them, uncommon in the US. Their harvests were grown and picked by hand and were bountiful and delicious beyond compare. They were elated to share their harvest with us and show us a bit of their hard work.

Alison plucking tea

Alison plucking tea

Of course, working in the field was very labor intensive. Each of our families was made up of subsistence farmers – families who survived largely off the produce they grew themselves. But most of our families also grew cash crops like tea or coffee, which we worked on the most. These crops funded our families’ children’s primary, secondary, and college education, and were the crops that also allowed them to prosper financially.

We also had myriad experiences that we’d never have in the US. One of us met a courageous rebel who fought in the Mau Mau Uprising; several of us slaughtered chickens; many of us visited the Dedan Kimathi Memorial and Zaina Waterfall; and all of us lived a life we’d never foreseen just a few weeks before. The experience was, to say it again, a transformative one.

All of our rural homestay families were undividedly Kikuyu. The Kikuyu are a dominant plurality in Kenya, some 20% of the people here. Three of four of Kenya’s presidents have been Kikuyu, and many of the majority of Kenya’s non-Kikuyu either resent the “tribe” (a word which we’ve learned to put in quotation marks due to its problematic nature) or are reluctant to support it, at least politically. The language barrier was a problem for each of us. Although many of our host families tried to teach us their native language, another language in the course of a few weeks was just too much!

In reflection, our week in rural Nyeri was trying and unequivocally altered the course of our lives. While it was a challenge to confront for the first time the reality of rural life in a developing country – copious littering at the waterfall and along the road, poor treatment of “pets” like cats and dogs, strictly-obeyed direction toward women and girls with regards to domestic work, and the nominal yet abysmally-paid employment of the rural poor for farm work – we could not pass judgement. It was our nation that legislated Jim Crow, allowed for the urban repression of immigrant minorities, and interned the Japanese – can we not accept the developmental quirks of Kenya? To eat our 120 or more year crow (the distance between the birth of our country and the legalization of women’s suffrage) is to accept that other nations might not have had the time we’ve had to democratically deliberate, to consider the issues, to reevaluate our lives, and moreover to reconcile democracy and our society. We’ve realized that it might well be that it is hypocritical to judge such a young nation as Kenya for its youth, and understood our rural homestays accordingly.

Ultimately many of us enjoyed our rural homestays, in spite of some cultural and physical bumps and bruises acquired along the way. Our time apart from the urban center of Nairobi was revelatory, showing to us naked the life lived by those in the Central Highlands. Now that we’re back in the city, the only thing we know for sure is this: we’ve got to explore Kenya’s periphery even more!

We are all so excited to keep getting to know both one another  this incredible country

We are all so excited to keep getting to know both one another this incredible country

Look, here’s the thing. We want – we long – to understand Kenya, at least to the extent that we can while studying and living here for only four short months. This is our foreign home for a long time after today, and we hope to feel at home here. That’s a tall order, but nevertheless we want to feel like we belong. We want to belong to this country, in spite of any cultural, emotional, or physical pain that may result, and we’d be loath to live in the bubble that so many tourists do. In short, let’s do Kenya. Let’s be a part of this extraordinary nation, and let’s immerse ourselves in something that we may never get to experience again.