The rural homestay has been integral to the Kenya Program since its construction. As the Covid-19 pandemic has altered student life in Canton, New York, it has also changed the rural homestay component, to adhere to safety precautions in a way that students can learn through field activities and guest lectures in addition to the home visit. Traditionally, the homestay component is a seven-day homestay in which students live with families and experience a way of life corresponding to the peoples and cultures of the family, independent from other St. Lawrence students. This year students were paired and visited their Kipsigis family in Kericho county for two days, immersed in activities within the home that embodied Kipsigis culture and life in Kericho. Outside of the two days spent in the family’s home, students also spent time learning about community activities and history from local professionals.
The home visits were located in Kericho, a tea town on the highlands west of the Kenyan Rift Valley. Kericho’s location along the Mau Forest, at an altitude and temperature ideal for tea farming has made Kericho a hub for commercial and international tea cultivation, local tea farming, and governmental tea farming. While Kericho is currently recognized as a tea hub, it is, more importantly, a center for diverse culture, specifically Kipsigis culture. Kipsigis culture has developed and changed between generations but has been carried on through oral history, maintenance of spoken language, and the inheritance of cultural practices and land. There were several opportunities to learn about Kipsigis culture throughout the week, from a pre-arrival lecture to a Kispsigis museum tour with a museum exhibition, an art gallery, and a general history and culture discussion with the museum director, Godfrey.
Through these experiences, we learned that Kipsigis culture dates back 2000-3000 years ago when a Kipsuroi man brought people from Egypt and Northern Africa to the Highlands East of Lake Victoria offering the people opportunity, milk, and honey. Kipsigis culture thrived for hundreds of years with rites of passage, ceremonial dance and drink, and graduations. Kipsigis people were said to have made everything by hand from clothing, musical instruments, and tools to long beer straws. As mentioned before, the Kipsigis people had several ceremonies, but most importantly the ‘rite of passage’, which marks a child’s graduation into adulthood. Outside of the four alarming calamities, Kipsigis culture thrived thanks to the resilient community and bountiful land until European Settlers arrived with diseases, destruction, and oppressive politics. Colonial rule led to the loss of tribal identity and customs due to social disruption from taxes, loss of land, pressure from commercial agriculture, and urban migration.
Before leaving for Kericho each student received a detailed schedule of what our plan was for our week in Kericho. The following are the field components that accompanied home visits during our week. One of the first activities we took part in was visiting the Kipsigis cultural museum which is one of the smallest museums in the country. During this visit, we were able to gain insight into the lives and culture of the Kipsigis people, as our host families are part of the Kipsigis community. This experience offered us the chance to learn about the practices and culture that we would be experiencing while visiting our rural families for two full days. When introduced to our families, we experienced a welcoming with dancing, singing, and even receiving our own Kipsigis names which demonstrated the welcoming nature of our host parents and siblings into their community.
On the following day, we went on a tour of a local tree nursery in Kericho, learning about the sustainable planting and growing of trees and sustainable agriculture practices in the area. Following our visit to the tree nursery, we were able to attend a church service with our host families which gave us a closer look into the religious beliefs that our host families practice, which holds a large amount of value within this community. Although many of us as students have differing religious beliefs, this experience allowed us to fully immerse in this aspect of the community’s lives.
The next activity which we did was tour a mixed farming project in which we were able to see some of the practices that our host families may also have been participating in such as the harvesting of crops, milking of cows, etc. In the following two days, we were able to spend time with our families and truly immerse ourselves in the way of life practiced by the Kipsigis people. Each student was able to engage in different activities such as tea plucking, planting of trees, harvesting crops, cooking, and milking of cows. Many experienced similar activities but each was representative of the rural lifestyle that our families practice.
During our time we were also able to meet with college students to discuss the comparisons between our college experiences as well as learn from two women leading a table banking organization.
Lastly, we were able to get an educational tour of a tea factory which is a major aspect of life within the community. During this tour, we saw the process of tea making which gave each of us a better appreciation and understanding of the industry.
Student A’s Reflection
The most powerful part of my experience was the welcome we received from our host families. Before this moment, we had not met our families and had no preconceptions of what meeting them would look like. As we entered a host parent’s driveway, I began to hear the sound of singing. Not knowing what to expect we got out of the car and walked toward them. At first, I remember feelings of discomfort; I did not know what to do or how to act. Slowly I started to feel more at home and by the end of the day, I had built a powerful connection to my family. After their Kipsigis singing and dancing had concluded, we had a buffet-style lunch full of Kenyan food like rice, ugali, chapati, nyama (meat), vegetables, and mursik (a traditional Kipsigis fermented milk). Through eating food prepared by our families, I tasted not only flavor but a great amount of care, thought, and love. Something I noted about the welcoming setup was the separate seating areas for ourselves and our homestay parents. Looking back, I realize that it was most likely due to Covid precautions; however, the separation also added to the anticipation of meeting our families.
Following the rural homestay traditions, after our meal, one at a time our parents came over and chose who they thought was their son or daughter. For myself, this moment was reversed as I was asked to chose who I thought could be my parents. After picking correctly, we walked as a family to a place to sit together and get to know our family. I remember so clearly how eager they were to meet us and how much excitement they had on their faces to finally meet their daughters after more than a year without hosting. The moments with my family that day were unforgettable, the feeling of comfort came so instantly. We concluded the welcoming ceremony with one last dance, this time alongside our family. We formed a circle in which we danced around following our host mother’s lead as our host father stood behind. As the dancing concluded, the rain became heavy. I will never forget my father removing his shakka (a traditional fabric tied across the body) and holding it over my head, protecting me from the rain. The act was that of fatherly care and protection, an important value to the Kipsigis. This day has become ingrained in my memory and I hope I never forget the feeling of open arms into my Kipsigis family.
Student B’s Reflection
During the two days living with my host family, I was able to both learn as well as teach my family about American culture. Amongst the many activities I was able to take part in, I believe that there was one which was the most impactful. My host mother was a teacher at a local school and on my second day decided to bring me to meet her students. Unfortunately, my other American sibling was unwell therefore I spent the second day independently. During my visit to the school, I felt the stares of all 200 students with some attempting to reach out and grab my hands, one even came up behind me and grabbed at my hair. However uncomfortable I felt in the moment, I allowed myself to absorb and take it all in. Out of all of the students, one young girl felt courageous enough to come up to me and ask me if she could introduce herself and tell me her name which was a highlight of my experience. Despite my mixed emotions surrounding this experience, as I reflect on it I can reconsider both how I am perceived as well as reconsider my prior assumptions. As uncomfortable and vulnerable as it made me feel at times, I strongly believe it gave me a perspective that I have never experienced, and for that, I am beyond grateful.
Student C’s Reflection
I had the fortunate opportunity to live two days with my Kipsigis host family in rural Kericho and learn how Kipsigis culture has prevailed and adapted over time. As a clarification, Kipsigis culture has been greatly impacted by globalization, modernization, colonialism, the spread of religion, and more, so breaking down the change in Kipsigis culture is incredibly complex and deserves more than a blog post discussion. Living with my host family I had the opportunity to walk through the community, visiting the local secondary and primary school, tea pluckers, tea pruners, and neighbors, spend time with my host brother harvesting and tending to crops, and working with my host mother to learn how to make ugali, chapati, do laundry by hand, and prepare other traditional dishes. Above all, I owe the success and meaningfulness of the experience to my host family because they were incredibly welcoming, supportive, communicative, and loving during my time there. We discussed traditional farming and cooking practices, my parent’s occupations, my brother and sister’s experiences at university, and more. It is challenging to try and put such a moving experience into words because the activities and conversations can barely begin to capture the closeness and the connections I felt with my family.