Nairobi Orientation (week 1)

February 1, 2015

Hamjambo! Tunaitwa MacKenzie, Darcy, Simon, na Meera. Our first five days upon arriving in the beautiful country of Kenya were devoted to getting acquainted with what will be our home for the next four months. After a long flight, long layover, and another long flight in, we were both tired and excited at the same time. Wairimu – the KSP director – gave us plenty of time to rest throughout the first day, but not before we all ran around the study center to scope out the rooms and have a housing lottery to determine rooms of our own. A few of us were too excited to sleep and went on a walk around the neighborhood with Wairimu as people who walked by welcomed us with a nice “hamjambo” or “karibu.” Upon arriving back from our walk, we were introduced to Kevin, a yoga instructor who had come to the compound to help us combat our jet lag. This experience was a bit strenuous for us, but it allowed for the group to share plenty of laughs during and after the session. When we finished our meditation, we came back in the house to some delicious Kenyan cuisine prepared by Seth, the program’s chef. We dined on chapati and rice, and then the group decided that we all needed sleep.

First Days on the Nairobi Campus

First Days on the Nairobi Campus

The next day, we all woke up to find monkeys playing around in our yard.  You can only imagine how ecstatic the group was; instead of looking around the SLU campus for the albino squirrel, we have been looking around the KSP compound for monkeys and we were able to see them from our balcony!  We all got ready in our best clothes that we had packed from home because we were going to spend the day in Nairobi, the capitol city of Kenya.  We were assigned into three groups of six and dropped off at different locations in the city with the goal of navigating our way to the United Kenya Center, where we would be having our classes for the next semester.  Wairimu and Njau – our driver – maintained their distance throughout the activity, but kept a close watch on the groups in case they got themselves into any sticky situations.  Because most of us had come from small towns back in the United States, we learned the invaluable lesson that we can’t always be friendly to those who try to greet us on the streets of the city as we may appear more vulnerable.  We celebrated our arrivals to the UKC by traveling to the West End of Nairobi for lunch, where we were introduced to Zucchini and The Java House, a store full of fresh foods and smoothies and a coffee house with a variety of sandwiches, respectively.  Once our appetites were satisfied, we were driven to the African Heritage House; a gorgeous structure situated on the edge of the Nairobi National Park.  The house is chock full of art, artifacts, and inspiration from all over the African continent.  We were all awe-struck at the amount of time and knowledge that was put into this beautiful house, as well as the fact that we were able to see our first ever wild gazelles and zebras grazing out in the national park, while relaxing on the house’s porch!! Coming back from Nairobi, we were treated to chai made by Seth as we debriefed on our experiences.  The rest of the evening was devoted to getting further acquainted with our classmates as well as updating our families on our adventures.

A view of the National park on the edge of Kenya's capital city

A view of the National park on the edge of Kenya’s capital city


On Monday, we started the morning with our first Swahili class of the semester.  The class takes place on the compound, so rather than leaving for class our professors came to us.  We were split into four groups based on our previous experience with Swahili classes: those who had taken two Swahili classes before were assigned to work with Ben, those who had taken one class were assigned to “Uncle Dan,” and those with no previous experience were split up into two groups with either Julius or Amisi.  The class was three hours long, but each group met back in the dining area halfway through class for chai and the opportunity to practice what we learned in class with our peers.  Each Swahili professor is engaging and makes sitting through class for three hours an easy task.  After class, Njau drove us into the town of Karen to explore the shops and grab some lunch at a restaurant of our choice.  We all were excited by the Massai market with a number of stands selling beautiful jewelry, clothing, and other items, as well as the supermarket that had everything we could possibly need.  We were also given the opportunity while in Karen to exchange currency and buy stamps at the post office.

We started our day on Tuesday with yet another Swahili class complete with a break for chai.  After class and lunch, we headed to the Nairobi Hospital for a briefing session with Professor Godfrey Lule, a program physician at the hospital.  Professor Lule provided us with more information on tropical diseases, health care challenges, and prevention measures while in Kenya, and Wairimu talked to us about the measures we should take if we needed medical attention throughout the semester.  We hope that no one will need any serious medical care while in Kenya, but we all know that the unexpected could happen and it was comforting to know that the KSP directors had taken every sort of hypothetical situation into account.  When we arrived back on the compound, we had our daily chai break and then gathered into the seminar room with Wairimu and Sinnary – the academic director of the program – to discuss the core course, titled “Culture, Environment, and Development in East Africa”.  Along with the Swahili course, the core course is the other mandatory course for every student on the program.  It is multidisciplinary, so almost everyone can find it applicable to their studies.  With this introduction, we became more familiar with the content of the course, including its requirements and schedule for the semester.

After Swahili class and lunch on the compound on Wednesday, we had another meeting in the seminar room.  This time, we were discussing our rural homestays that were coming up in a matter of days.  For the rural homestays, we would be traveling to Nyeri and each staying with a different family for a week’s time.  We learned about the Kikuyu people with Professor Godfrey Muriuki, a renowned historian in Kenya and the professor of “The Making of Modern Kenya,” one of our elective courses.  This lecture was very important as the families with whom we would be staying were of the Kikuyu tribe.  After the lecture, discussion, and our daily chai break, we got all gussied up for our dinner at Carnivore to wrap up our orientation week.  This dinner was quite the experience as we got a taste of many meats that we had never tried before (and the vegetarians of the group got other delicious entrees).  Waiters kept circling our table with foods such as ostrich meatballs, crocodile meat, and chicken liver.  It was definitely a great finale to a busy but amazing week, and we’re excited for what’s to come throughout the rest of the semester!

On the Verge of the Big Trip (Safari Njema)

The Spring 2015 Kenya Semester Group leaves tonight for their semester in East Africa. After a 12hr+ layover in Amsterdam, they head south, over the Alps, and across the Mediterranean. Passing through North Africa, they will cross the Sahara, and head over the world’s newest nation South Sudan, before entering Kenya. In the final days before leaving we posed the following two questions to the group and these were their thoughts.

What are you most excited to learn about and experience this semester?

I am excited to learn how my Americanized perceptions of Africa will evolve and change as I experience a modernized Africa. I am most excited to experience the different cultures we will interact with, what with the food, entertainment, ideas, and traditions.

As I packed my duffle this morning, it hit me that most of what I am going to be bringing/wearing/giving away is in this bag; its contents are meant to support me and last me the entire trip (hopefully!). Our departure has come on fast, and I can only imagine that the next four months will pass by even quicker. I am most excited to learn about and experience the culture through the Core Course, as well as the home stays and other opportunities that will arise.

In regards to my coming semester abroad in East Africa, I am most excited to learn from the personal relationships created through homestay, and field component interactions. I feel that I learn best when creating relationships with others where we can learn from each other.

We’re so close to being in Kenya!! What I’m most excited about this semester is being on the other side of the globe, in another country learning about the lives of the people and about the country. I’m excited for the sun and to be in a place that I’ve been reading about for a while.  I’m excited to see and experience the speculation Kenya Kenyans and people around the world love.

I am most excited to learn about the Hadza hunter-gathers in Tanzania because they are the last of a dying culture in the continent and in the world. Humans as a race have forgotten what it is like to hunt and forage for their daily meal, and experiencing this lifestyle with the Hadza is an opportunity that might not be available in the near future with all the land-policy changes in Tanzania.

What are you most anxious about as you pack your bags and set off for 4+ months in East Africa?

I am most anxious about all the little details we have to make sure we have in order. Do I have my malaria pills, do I have my visa, passport, health card, readings, a headlamp, boarding passes?

I’m nervous about learning and speaking Kiswahili because it is an entirely new language for me and it takes me a while to grasp language concepts. But my goal is to be able to hold a basic conversation with people by the end of the semester…so we’ll see how that goes!

As I prepare to pack for the longest time I have lived outside the U.S., I am most anxious about having all the “little things” that will deem most important if a time comes when they are needed, such as medicines. Yet, even with such anxieties I am comforted by my dog (Sadie) who has not left my side throughout the whole packing extravaganza!

Packing makes me anxious! Am I going to have enough soap, skirts, or bras?  Well probably not!  But that’s the beauty of leaving for 4+ months.  What I’m anxious about the most is being lonely. Loneliness can take over anyone even with a room filled with people and I worry about it all the time. I wanna make friends and have fun with the group because they’ll always be there, just like the staff.

I am most anxious about speaking with Kenyans and not appearing as an “ignorant American”. I have never been to any African countries before so I know the culture shock will be very real. Will Kenyans look at our American student group with happiness or disgust? I usually have negative attitudes towards tourists in New York City since I know the area so well. It makes me wonder if Kenyans look on their tourists the same way.

On-Campus Orientation Spring 2015

The Spring 2015 group completed a four-part orientation 

1. Overview of the KSP:  Part one the KSP orientation took place on a Sunday afternoon on campus as part of the orientation schedule for all Spring 2015 program. Students began the day thinking about  two major themes and discussing the below questions in groups

Dealing With Misconceptions About Kenya

  • What are the top five stereotypical representations of Kenya you have encountered? Where do these come from, and how do they reflect the historical connection of the “West” with the African continent?
  • Have friends and family shared examples of these stereotypical representations or other concerns with you during your application process? How have you dealt with this?
  • How do you think these stereotypical narratives of Kenya will impact your experience as a student on the program? How will it impact your relationship with Kenyans you meet in various contexts?

Why the KSP

  • Why did you apply?
  • What are you most nervous about? What part of the semester do you think will be your biggest challenge?
  • What are you most excited about? What are you looking forward to learning more about?
  • How might you integrate the KSP into your academic/career goals upon return?
  • How do you think it will benefit you personally?

Students agreed that Kenya is often painted through the same stereotypical portrayal of the larger African continent. With an emphasis on the wild nature of the flora and fauna, and through a historic focus on negative issues such as disease, violence and poverty, we discussed how this is part of what some have called the peril of the “single story of Africa.” Represented through popular films like Out of Africa and the Lion King and through calls for donations portraying Kenyan children through the single story of poverty and famine, students argued that these representations were rarely challenged by news media and that their friends and family have been concerned with the the Kenyan links to African issues across the continent even if they are far removed from Kenya itself. For instance in discussing Ebola, we noted how even though Kenya is more than 3,000 miles away from the regions in West Africa impacted by the outbreak, the media coverage of the disease often painted it as an “African problem” and not one with a specific geographical impact within the world’s second largest continent.

Capture 2

(Map From “It’s Columbus Day. Let’s talk about geography (and Ebola)” Washington Post 10/13/14)

In thinking back on why students applied, many recalled personal, academic and even professional goals. For some, the chance to push themselves outside their comfort zone and adapt to a new cultural environment was a central personal factor in applying. For others, the KSP offers a chance to engage with their academic interests outside the classroom and gain field experience which they might use in a future research project on campus. And for others the independent study portion of the program, provides an opportunity to gain valuable pre-professional experience in fields such as public health, environmental conservation and economic development. Overall the Spring 2015 group represented a range of interests and motivations, certainly setting up great interdisciplinary discussions and debate in Kenya next semester.

Finally the discussion about “nerves” and “excitement” often overlapped with the motivations to apply. For some, the individualized, immersive nature of rural home-stay provoked both anxiety and excitement in the challenge of adapting to rural Kenyan life. For others, navigating the cosmopolitan capital of Nairobi, with its 3 million+ diverse residents proved to be the most vivid thought of nervous excitement.

After these initial conversations we then went through the outline for the spring semester, paying close attention to the rules and safety regulations for the program and the KSP’s emphasis on orienting students how to navigate Kenya’s diverse landscape in a safe and engaging way. Here we payed close attention to the geography of Kenya noting that the program for the spring will adhere to the specific geography of international travel advisories which caution travel to a few select areas of the country

(Map of SLU program activities and restricted areas outlined by the U.K. Travel Advisory)

The final section of the first orientation program emphasized strategies for keeping in touch with friends and family from home. Here we discussed the dangers of living your off-campus experience through facebook, skype and constant texting with friends back home. While Kenyans are becoming increasingly connected through mobile devices and social media, the group agreed that limiting the communications with home might be the best way to immerse yourself in life in East Africa. Thus we hope regular posts to this blog might be away for the group to share their collective experiences with friends and families back home without having to constantly send out emails, texts and have lengthy discussions with the many people who one might want to stay connected with.

2. Cultural Discussions over a Kenyan Themed Dinner

Keeping with a longstanding orientation tradition, students enjoyed a Kenyan themed dinner at the home of on-campus KSP coordinator, Matt Carotenuto. Alumni helped prepare the meal which featured a common Kenyan stew served over rice. Side dishes included the ubiquitous sukuma wiki, a dish of fried/steamed greens which in Swahili means literally to “push the week”—a nod to the affordable meal served across the region as one waits to be paid on Friday….The other signature dish was chapati, a Kenyan adaptation of the Indian fried bread served for special occasions—due to the labor intensive nature of the cooking. Of course students also enjoyed some Chai and were warned to prepare to drink 4+ cups a day when visiting Kenyan homes during the rural homestay—tea-time is a legacy of British colonial rule which Kenyan have very much embraced.

Making the traditional Kenyan orientation dinner for the fall 2013 group. KSP alumni and some of SLU’s Kenyan students help with the cooking and discussion.

During and after dinner, we also discussed the culture around food and how Kenyan families will lightly pressure students to eat and eat and eat! Its a game the guest can never win and we chatted about strategies to respectfully decline when one is stuffed. Key Swahili phrases such as chakula kiko kitamu lakini nimeshiba sana (the food is delicious but I am stuffed), should be committed to memory early on…..

Other conversations revolved around gender roles. We noted that in rural Kenya, gender lines are more fixed than students might be used to. Crossing these might be difficult and one needs to both adapt and respect the local context. However we encouraged students to try and experience activities reserved for the other “gender” by communicating to their host families that they are their to learn and thus men for instance should be allowed/encouraged to cook too.

Connected to the discussion of gender roles, we also talked about appropriate dress for men and women in a Kenyan context. Our Kenyan students helped us understand that in general East Africans tend to dress in a more formal and perhaps conservative way than the average American. For instance, adult men almost never where shorts in public, regardless of the temperature, as “short pants” are associated with the school uniforms of primary school boys and thus men wear trousers. Women were encouraged to dress in long skirts and dresses as adult Kenyan women tend not to wear slacks often and usually prefer skirts that below knee and tops that are not too “low cut.” We noted that these cultural norms are most pronounced in rural areas and that styles in Nairobi were often more diverse and less confined to gendered “tradition.”

3. Medical Orientation

The following week, students went to a medical orientation run by the nursing staff of the St. Lawrence University Health Center. This portion of the orientation program, was designed to introduce students to the immunizations they would need to get to travel to East Africa. Based on the CDC travel guidelines for Kenya, the orientation re-emphasized that Kenya is 1000s of miles removed from the Ebola regions of West Africa, and the focus was mainly on the types of immunizations and medication needed to prevent malaria. Although Nairobi is technically outside the malaria zone in Kenya due to its high elevation, all students are encouraged to take anti-malaria medication since the program travels in and out of malaria zones often. We also noted how for instance Malaria is quite common in East Africa and physicians associated with the KSP in Nairobi treat the illness with a familiarity a U.S. doctor might treat the common cold. The main message was that as long as you follow the medical advice from the health center and the KSP staff in Nairobi, there is nothing to worry about.

4. Wrap-up Discussion Over Chai

Our final orientation session for the semester consisted of an informal chat over Chai (tea) on campus. We started off by first discussing Kenyan current events. Throughout the week before students browsed the main Kenyan daily newspapers (The Daily Nation and The Standard). We talked about how Kenyans are very “news conscious” with the average citizen reading the main national newspapers on a much more regular basis that their American counterparts. Thus to prepare for a semester in Kenya and to get the most out of the experience, it is important to start learning about contemporary Kenyan issues from a local perspective. We noted that the Kenyan press often tells a more nuanced and less stereotypical story of African issues and comparing the local perspective  vs the ways for instance international media portrays a particular story often reveals quite a different perspective.

Our final discussion involved the packing list for students traveling to Kenya. Alumni and staff shared our three themes of advice gathered from countless students who returned from Kenya in previous semesters.

  1. “Business Casual” is the norm: We reminded students that Kenyans tend to dress in a more formal way on a daily basis. This might mean a dress shirt and suit pants for men, and a long skirt for women. The notion of going to class in your pajamas in Kenya is certainly not the norm and most students regret not bringing enough nice clothes. We also reminded students that you will certainly be asked to attend church with your host families and thus 1-2 more formal outfits is very useful. Others shared that independent study placements could be in a formal office setting where the dress code could even include a tie for men and a business suit for women.
  2. Less is More: Many alumni also remember bringing way too many clothes. With laundry available on campus and in your homestays, it is quite easy to wash and reuse. This is common practice in Kenya where society does not look down upon someone who might often wear the same outfit as long as it is clean. A final piece of advice was that the less you bring, the more room their will be in your bag for souvenirs/gifts to bring home.
  3.  You can get anything you need: Based in a cosmopolitan capital city, it is important to remember that you can pick up virtually anything you need in Kenya. Thus there is no need to bring a semester long supply of toothpaste and shampoo when you can simply walk down the street to Kenya’s version of Walmart—Nakumatt. While many of Kenya’s urban resident shop in shopping malls, we also discussed how practicing one’s Swahili while bartering in an open-air market is a great way to hone your language skills and perhaps get a great deal on a gift for a friend.

For more on the orientation program check out the Spring 2015 Orientation Handbook.

Stay tuned for updates throughout the Spring semester.