Rural Homestay Blog – Nearing Nyeri!
Hamjambo from all of us at the Fall ‘17 Kenya Semester Program and karibuni to our blog post about our Rural Homestay component! We are just finishing our third week in Kenya and are excited to tell you about our experiences! As our first full week of classes in Nairobi comes to a close, we have been discussing and reflecting on our time up north in Nyeri during our rural homestays last week. Three of us (Lydia Morin, Taylor Goldman, and Liv Sears) are excited to share all that we have learned so far with you!
We left Nairobi on the Njau-Mobile (our bus, expertly driven through the congested streets by our friend, Njau) on Thursday, August 31st. During our 5 and a half hour drive north, we watched the landscape change from a buzzing city scene to dry, rolling hills of citrus fruit farms and then to sharp, green ridges and valleys, scattered with coffee and tea farms. We reached the Sandai Farm, in the foothills of the Aberdare mountains in the evening. Run by Petra Allmendinger, the beautiful farmhouse sits on about 100 acres of wide open Kenyan grassland and is accompanied by several guest cottages. We spent the evening in the lodge singing songs with other guests and then made our way back to our cottages for a good night’s sleep.
On our way into Nyeri the following day (Friday), we stopped in Tumutumu at a farm owned by two participants in the Green Belt movement, famously founded by Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai. The Green Belt movement aims to improve rural environments through efforts of planting trees. We were given a tour of the tree nursery and farm, ate traditional foods like ugali, sukuma wiki, and roasted corn.
Gears shifted as we got back in the bus. It was time to meet our homestay families. The bus pulled off the main road onto a steep and rutted gravel driveway. The bus groaned in resistance to the forces of gravity at play, and we slowly climbed in elevation. At the top stood our families in a rough circle. After brief introductions to our host parents and siblings, we were off! We drove up steep dirt roads foraged on edge of rifts, surrounded by hillsides of green tea leaves.
High in elevation and located almost directly on the equator, Nyeri County features supreme soil, abundant rainfall, and receives strong and direct sunlight. Historically, the Kikuyu tribe was granted land through political connections, and has been farming it ever since. The connection of our Kikuyu homestay families to their land spans generations and long outlives the old growth trees scattered on the edges of property lines.
Below we each wrote a bit on our week homestay in Tetu West and Tetu East.
Agricultural Landscape of Nyeri’s highlands
Church with Lydia
Today was Sunday (September 3rd), so my host sister Fedelis took me to church. Even from outside the large, blue and white cement building, music could be heard—upbeat and clean, bouncing off the walls and emptying out over the swaying tea fields and trees. It all began with song presentations from the women followed by men, and then children. Teenagers did a synchronized dance to music bouncing from the large speakers. Mothers with small children sang together in blessing of the young. Another SLU student, Jimmy, had come to the church with his family. We introduced ourselves before the church, and in poorly pronounced Kikuyu I said “Praise be to God”, and laughter erupted from the lines of benches before me. Church lasted for many hours and time was marked by group prayers, sermons, songs, and individual prayers.
In a historical context, the connection between Kikuyus and land was illustrated through religion. Kikuyu religious beliefs featured nearby Mt. Kenya as the home of the gods, and placed emphasis on keeping the family spirits close and burying the dead on the farm. Colonial influenced force an end to many traditional religious concepts, however churches reflect unique Kikuyu songs and dances, and prays are often led in Kikuyu language.
During the ceremony, I could feel the eyes of the community on me, filled with curiosity and friendliness. After church people lingered outside, chatting and meandering slowly down the red dirt pathway towards the road. I felt welcomed by the church, and friendly curiosity towards me was constant throughout my stay. I was often approached by people walking on the street, and with an outstretched hand and a few shared words and laughter, a bridge between two very different cultures was made.
Liv in the Shamba
While each home rests on the tops of the rolling hills, the valleys between are filled with various crops from maize to cabbage, potatoes, coffee, but predominantly tea in my area. The high altitude and temperate climate in Tetu West allows tea crops to flourish, producing the harvestable crop during the rainy season, followed by harvesting season when the skies clear. I worked with my host mother among three other women for a significant amount of time over the course of a few days. ‘Two leaves and a bud’ will forever be in my head as we combed through the rows of bushes, searching for the leaves (and a bud) that were ready to be harvested.
Farming is a popular profession that most families in the rural areas do as an occupation, bringing in income, as well as providing food for themselves and their families. Not only did my family harvest tea for income, but they also had rows of maize, cabbage, spinach, and onions to name a few. I was able to experience, first hand, the community that was built around farming. The women that my host mom and I worked with often sang songs and engaged in conversation to pass the time. For me, it was beautiful to listen to them and observe their skill as they swiftly picked every leaf that was ready to harvest, like a dance. The strap across our foreheads, attached to a basket behind our backs were filled before we knew it, at least theirs were… but I did my best!
We carried these full baskets through the streets and between valleys in order to meet with the truck that transported the tea leaves from the farms to the manufacturers to be prepared for drinking. This part was a whirlwind. Women and men were rushing to this location, flooding the space with bags and bags of tea, they were efficiently weighed and packed tight on a bus, we were given a receipt for our harvests, and then when it was all over, took the scenic route home.
Students Working in Commercial Tea Production
The Food Feat with Taylor
Food was a hugely central component in all of our homestay experiences in Kikuyuland. From the first moment I arrived to the day I packed up, meals were always a very important part of the day.
A memorable starting point of my week was the first morning I spent in Nyeri. After waking up at a leisurely hour, my family and I settled down in the living room in front of the TV for breakfast. My sister, Josphine, set down several items on the coffee table: a tower of sliced, white bread on a large platter, a thermos full of chai along with mugs and a sugar bowl, and a plate of boiled potatoes and huge ndomo pieces. The meal seemed relatively straightforward, but, according to my host mother, Charity, I did a couple of things wrong during this breakfast experience.
I started off by pouring myself some chai, a tea consisting of equal parts water and milk heated with ground tea leaves. I took a sip and smiled contentedly at my parents. Here is where I made my first mistake.
“You don’t want sugar??” Charity was appalled. “You must put sugar. I will show you.” She reached over for my mug and proceeded to deposit five heaping spoonfuls into my tea. “Chai with no sugar is no good.” I nodded diligently and started to sip my chai, which was now more sugar than tea.
Once I had been educated on the proper way to drink chai, I moved on to the rest of the meal. I picked up a slice of bread and placed it on my plate. After watching my host father, I determined that I should dip my bread slices into the chai after spreading Blue Band margarine on each one. Even though I was confident in what I was doing after watching my host father, I had to be corrected again.
“Just one?? Your must take more. Here, have more bread,” Charity said, as she loaded four or five more slices onto my plate. As I slowly worked on this pile of bread, she added two hunks of ndomo, a boiled root, customary to Kikuyuland.
One thing I think we all took away from the food factor of this experience was learning how to expand our stomachs to take in the enormous plates of food placed in front of us at every meal. Since it was considered slightly rude to leave uneaten food on the plate at the end of the meal, it was important to finish everything offered. Something we were all able to relate to was having to waddle out of the room after a heaping pile of ugali (a bread-like substance made from boiled cornmeal) and sukumawiki (boiled, shredded spinach).
Meals were a time to be shared with friends and family, whether it be an impromptu visit from a neighbor for chai or a family dinner while watching KTN news. Food brought people together and was a time for us to pause during the day and take a moment to have conversations.
Rural Homestead in Nyeri
Never have we experienced being a part of a community where each factor works together so seamlessly. The importance of food, religion, and farming stood out to each of us as these themes all contribute to the bigger picture of these rural areas. Each family had a compound on the ridge, towering over farms that sustained the family as well as or the family and support those in a villages. generating income. Life was meaningful, and tangible connections illustrated how important each aspect of life was in Nyeri.
We were welcomed immediately and became part of the family in just seven short days. We feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to be a part of such a welcoming and tight-knit community in Nyeri and hope to have the chance to visit our wonderful families sometime in the future!