Rural Homestay (Kericho)

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. 

Rural Homestay Fall 2018

Nyeri Rural Homestay Blog, Fall 2018 – Sylvia Gilbert & Nick Matys

We’ve just begun the fourth week (!) here in Kenya, and can’t believe how time is flying. Though the first few days are a blur of jet lag and getting yelled “Mzungu!” at, we are starting to feel acclimated at our comfortable compound in Karen. Though it felt sudden to depart for our rural homestay experience, we decided to embrace “being comfortable with being uncomfortable”. What started out as nerves transformed to excitement as we packed out bags and loaded the bus.

We departed Friday morning beginning our second week and had no idea what we were in for. Heading to Nyeri, we passed rolling green hills and farms that expanded for miles and contribute to much of the country’s produce. Nyeri is largely populated by the Kikuyu people. Before we were introduced to our families we had a lecture by world-renowned Professor Godfrey Muriuki, who gave us a brief understanding of these people who make up 30% of Kenya’s population. We then headed to spend the night at Sandai Farns, where we fell asleep to candlelight and took a morning nature walk to spot birds we’d never seen before. We spent part of the day at the Green Belt Movement, planting trees, touring the farm of our hosts, Julius and Lydia, and showing off some hidden hula-hoop skills. By the afternoon, we were ready to meet our host families in Tetu East and West.

Helping with the Maize harvest

Sylvia – The Harvest

I take pride in being from Vermont. My parents have beautiful, bountiful gardens and livestock graze the fields behind my house. I’ve grown up planting, weeding, picking, and canning, always well versed in what’s growing and what I can do with it. I thought that coming to Nyeri would be a piece of cake, a walk in the park,– just another week on the farm.

After getting dropped off in Tetu East and being greeted with giant hugs from my host mother, sisters, and brother, and shown to my room, the work began. I was immediately granted my own pair of black mud boots and was handed the lubricant to go soften up the udders of one of the four zero-graze cows awaiting me in the stable. Though I consider myself a “farm girl,” I’ll admit it had been a few years since milking anything, but I didn’t want to display a sense of unknowing, so I sat right down and got to work. Despite the smothered giggles that my siblings shared at my lack of technique, my tired hands, and the dung-soaked tail of the cow that was repeatedly swished in my face, I made it through all four of the udders in about 20 minutes. A bucket of milk sat before me that was intended to feed the new-born calf as well as supply the family for a constant supply of chai. All at once, a sudden shift by the cow knocked the bucket over. You can imagine it took all I had to tell myself not to cry over the spilled milk that covered me all the way up my legs while the family burst out laughing all together.

Besides the rocky start on the shamba (farm) that I endured that first Friday, I progressively got more comfortable with my family, joking, cooking, and story-telling with my host-siblings. The part of the homestay that I bonded over the most with my family was the maize harvest. Every day we did a little more, and I was intrigued by the lengthy process that gave me sore biceps, blisters on my thumbs, and a big smile on my face.

Though I have grown up harvesting plants all summer and fall with my mom, I never experienced anything like this maize. Maize is a staple food in Nyeri and it is eaten almost every day in many forms: roasted by the fire, ground into ugali, or boiled in githeri. Whatever it may be, the next meal will usually have maize. This is why it was so significant that most of the shamba that my family owned was covered in maize and why it took so long to finish harvesting! We started by reaching way up the 8 foot-tall stalk and stripping it of any ears we could find. We filled up burlap sacks, with each of us siblings making about 30 trips from the shamba back to where we off-loaded the haul.

Looking at the heaping pile, I could have said “aw shucks” and gone inside for lunch, but that would have just put off the job even longer. So we began to shuck. (I know that sentence was corny…) Shucking the ears, leaving just a few husks with which to tie them up took about a whole afternoon and a morning. Tying them to a string and hanging them up to dry took just as long. Contrary to the rest of the harvest, the drying process was impressively uneventful and takes several months, which means I won’t be there when all of the maize is taken down, thrown in a bag, and hit with a stick to remove the dry kernels. However, a member of our KSP staff was hoping to buy some of the maize from my host-mother, so it became my responsibility to dislodge each kernel from the cobs that were fresh. Though this seemed like an easy, mindless task at first. It took me several hours each night and yielded sore and blistered thumbs.

Rural Homestay Fall 2017

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

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

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

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!

Rural Homestay Spring 2017- Nyeri

Spring 2017: The Sweet Sixteen
Rural Homestay in Nyeri

Tetu West Landscape

Hamjambo for the 16 of us here in Kenya for the spring 2017 semester! Two weeks ago we all returned from our rural homestays in Nyeri county. Each one of us was welcomed into the home of incredible families and we are so excited to share it with you. We were either located in Tetu East or Tetu West in Nyeri. We learned to cook traditional Kikuyu foods, milked cows, plucked tea and picked coffee, and much more. Three of us (Iris, Amanda, and Ruben) have decided to share personal journal entries with you as a way to explain this incredible experience.

Iris: Monday 23 January 2017 – Tetu West

There is something so sweet about being this tired. Today, I hiked through the hills of Nyeri to get to my family’s farm is located deep in the forest. There they grow cabbage, potatoes, and corn. Most of it is eaten by the family and any access is given to friends and family or sold for profit. The farm was approximately three and half miles away and we carried supplies for making tea and lunch for my father and the other farmers. Our load included pots, utensils, milk, and fruit. They were heavy loads that we carried in bags slung over our shoulder or heads.

(My family’s farm in the forest)

The walk there involved walking along the main road which gave me a lot of opportunities to practice Kikuyu greetings as I met a lot of my mother’s friends along the way. They always asked me to say hello to Trump for them or made it as clear as possible how much they loved America. Most people’s English was very limited, and since I only had about five days of Swahili and three hours of Kikuyu lessons under my belt, the conversations would end with that. However, they would ask my mother all about me in Kikuyu and once we moved on she would tell me what they said. Apparently everyone was very surprised to see me carrying tools. The stereotypes for Americans is that we have machines that do everything for us so therefore we must be lazy and unable to work they way the locals in Nyeri do. They were surprised to hear that I could cook, clean, and work and wanted to stop by the house to see it for themselves!

(Me cooking ugali for everyone while in the forest)

Tetu west is the land of tea and every hill we passed on our way to our farm was the same brilliant green color of rows and rows of tea leaves. As we returned from our long day in the forest we kept getting passed on the road by these women carrying enormous baskets filled to the brim with tea leaves. They moved quickly and with purpose as they rushed to the buying center down the road. Every evening a tea company comes to the communities buying center and pays the farmers for their tea. My family does not grow tea, but I was able to help pluck tea at the neighbors field and bring it to the center for them. My evening cup of chai has become so much more interesting now that I know where it comes from!

(plucking tea in my neighbors plot)

Amanda Mae: Tuesday 24 January 2017 – Tetu East

After visiting the site of Wangari Maathai’s personal efforts toward the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, I keenly noted the amount of firewood my family used throughout the day to cook meals and boil water. Unlike forest abundant New York, Kenya’s trees are a valuable resource not only for human consumptive purposes, but also for their environmental impact. Trees prevent erosion of the rustic red soil and retain the water (which hasn’t accumulated for five months in Nyeri). Still, using an open flame for cooking three meals a day requires a large amount of wood!

My mama currently paves the way in new technology in the community, as she just installed a biogas system to reduce the amount of trees cut from their property. Our home hosted nine chickens, six goats and three cows. The predictable dung from the cows posed a particular issue in terms of waste management. In previous years, my family has used the dung for manure. Now, however, the dung has a different purpose.

“Amanda, grab two buckets and bring them here!”

Mama called to me from the cow pens, her ankles deep in the sun-baked pile of cow dung. I obliged, unaware of what the next four hours would ensue. After packing each five-gallon bucket with dung so the top bowed out like a summer ice cream cone, Mama heaved the bucket over the fence to my waiting hands. With grit, I skirted and slid down the steep and (thankfully) short descent to her new biogas system.

(Left: The biogas setup: The dung and water is mixed in the circular pit with the PVC tube. The rectangle pit rests above the underground tank. A keen eye observes the pipe that eventually connects to the kitchen. The large round pit is for overflow when the tank becomes too full. Right: Mixing bioslurry, AKA dung and water, with Mama.)

I halted at a circular cement pit with a long PVC pipe blocking a drain down into an underground eight cubic meter tank (see photo for a visual) to dump the bucket. At first, Mama told me to go rest while she continued, alluding to the stereotypes Iris mentions above. I refused, and together we repeated the process two more times, for a total of three buckets of dung. Then Mama sent me uphill to collect three five-gallon buckets of water, which I  poured into the pit. With a stick designated for stirring, Mama began mashing and mixing the dung with the water in a similar fashion of stirring thick cookie batter. She paused to pick out clumps of undigested banana leaves, Napier grass, and twigs that might clog the drain. Taking my cue, I rolled up my sleeve to plunge my arm into the “bioslurry” to do the same.

Little did I know we would do this everyday. Bioslurry, or equal parts dung to water, ferments in the underground tank to release methane gas, which is piped to the kitchen house uphill. In roughly a month of hauling dung and water, Mama will no longer have to cut firewood. Instead, she can cook using the methane gas stored in the tank. In this way, Mama brings the use of the cow full circle. The milk money paid for the system and the cow fuels the biogas. The connection between the environment, development and the culture is apparent as Mama strives to cook delicious Kikuyu food like chapati, while thinking of the future trees. I can’t wait to learn how her system works!

Ruben Castren:

When I was first picked up by my family, we made a quick pass through town to check on my family’s dress shop and hotel. We were only there for a few minutes and three people approached my host family to say hello and to meet me. During ten minute drive to my family’s home we were stopped again by a man on the side of the road who, through my limited knowledge of the local language, just wanted to say hello and ask how everyone was doing. As the week went on, my host brother, Dominic, and I began to take regular evening walks along the edge of the Aberdares and into a local forest. During these walks, we would spend at least half of our time speaking with people that we saw walking along the road. Although dozens of people populated the dirt road that wound through the hills of the Rift Valley, it was rare for my host brother to not know someone’s name. On the last day of my homestay, my host father, brother, and myself drove a few miles to admire a waterfall on the Zina river. Although the drive only took about twenty minutes, we gave three people short rides,  and stopped twice to say hello to people walking on the road. I was enthralled by the powerful sense of community  that surrounded my host family.

I believe that the cause of this tight community has its roots in traditional cultural practices. According to my host father, almost every one who lived on the same side of the road as us for a kilometer in either direction was a member of our extended family. In 1952, when the colonial government instituted land ownership laws, my host father’s grandfather was given the entire hill side that our farm now resided upon. Tradition dictated that after this death, all of the land be split amongst his sons, the eldest son being given the best piece of property. The land was then subdivided amongst the the next generation of sons. Therefore, Dominic would see so many people that he knew, because lived in the middle of our extended  family.

Another reason for the culture of community has to due with the presence of the Church. Although a majority of the community spends much of their time working with cattle, or tending to their crops, church is a way that the entire community can come together and meet in the same place. Well over fifty people were at the service that I attended on Sunday, a large number considering the sparsely populated area. The service lasted about two hours, but we stayed another hour after the service, talking to various people. It was also clear that several youth groups and women’s groups existed that used the church service as a gathering time. The localization of families due to cultural inheritance practices, along with the gathering place provided by the church created a strong community that I felt blessed to be a part of, if only for a short time.

Rural Homestay Fall 2016

Fall 2016 Terrific Ten: Rural Homestay, Nyeri

After a wonderful first week of lounging around the compound, starting intensive Kiswahili, walking into Karen and getting to know each other along with our home for the next four months, it was time to head up north to Nyeri. This made some of us quite anxious, since we knew that this might be one of the tougher experiences of the semester, although we were also aware it would be among the most rewarding. Being encouraged to leave our ‘devices’ behind with Professor Wairimu, we pulled into the meeting location where our new found families were awaiting our (late) arrival. Most had their entire nuclear and even some extended family members in tow, basically insinuating whomever might fit in the car was there to welcome us. With smiles spreading from ear to ear, they collected us kids, and one by one we left for our adopted homes.

Over the course of the week, we would endure experiences none of us had ever done before in an American context, let alone on another continent. Activities included going to various church services, chores such as washing clothes by hand, various farming activities, mulching, milking, slaughtering, cooking, and most importantly, how to master the bucket shower along with the infamous pit latrine. Although we all had a wide range of experiences during our individual weeks, there were some recurring themes that became apparent when debriefing with one another such as the importance of community, religion, food sustainability and the development of education.

Community & Family:

One element of the Rural Homestay that we all had in common was the sense of community we experienced while in our families. Unlike the individualistic culture we are familiar with in the U.S., we found that the sense of community present in Kenyan, specifically Kikuyu, culture was very strong. Children do not belong only to their parents, but to the greater community too. On several occasions members of the community would stop in and end up staying for a meal, because one can never leave without tea and being fed, before going on their way; a practice which is uncommon in the U.S. Any success a member of the community had was viewed as a success for the entire community as well. Many of us found this emphasis on community and inclusiveness refreshing.

Going to the market in Nyeri Town was an extremely enjoyable experience for those of us who had the opportunity to go! The market brought people from all walks of life and socioeconomic statuses together, whether they were shopping for vegetables from local farmers, visiting merchants, having their hair done at the salon or buying clothing and jewelry. Trips to Nyeri Town were not only about nutritional and material goods, but also an opportunity for social interactions as well. We found that our host parents and siblings have often been loyal customers to certain vendors for several years. Although people found in Nyeri Town come from all over, there is a very clear sense of community among the individuals there as well. Everyone we encountered was very friendly and most were excited to see such new faces in town!

Most of our family units consisted of a mom, dad, at least one sibling our age, as well as additional siblings of varying ages. Most of our younger siblings could speak English and Kiswahili very well, while our parents were more well versed in the traditional Gikuyu language and Kiswahili. We found that we were able to put much of what we learned in our Kiswahili classes on the compound into practice when conversing with our families and people within the community. Our parents had various occupations ranging from farmers and teachers, to small business owners and military personnel; parents often worked very long hours and some were even required to be away from their families for extended periods of time due to work obligations. We also observed traditional gender roles within our families with mothers and sisters doing most of the cooking and cleaning while fathers and brothers worked on the farms and with the animals. In spite of the presence of traditional gender roles in Kikuyu culture, we had the opportunity to experience multiple facets of rural life in Kenya. Female students were able to work on shambas (farms) and handle the animals, while male students were able to help with the cooking and cleaning duties.

Washing laundry by hand

Washing laundry by hand


Religion plays a critical role in the value system of the Kikuyu. While it is not important which church each family chooses to attend, wholehearted commitment to the chosen church is an expectation from all ages and genders in the community. As a result, families attend church services every Sunday, and family members often belong to a sub-group based on age and sex. For example, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church was broken into three committees that met after service on Sunday’s and throughout the week: Youth Group, Women’s Committee, and Men’s Committee. In addition, in each group there was an executive board in place consisting of the President, Vice-President, Treasurer, and Secretary. Other roles existed within the churches as well, such as a large choir, Choir Director and Choir Conductor. As is true with churches in the United States, these positions are granted to elder members of the community who show great commitment and have experience with the dynamics of the church.

When we were told we would probably be attending a church of some kind on Sunday, many of us had expectations of what we might experience due to our familiarity with religious practices. However, to our pleasant surprise, most of the services we attended opened with members of the various youth groups dancing and praising up the aisle to the beautiful voices and music being produced by the choir. While the structure of these services closely resembled experiences had by some in the United States, they were filled with a great deal of upbeat music and a lot more community involvement.


After church on Sunday!

Food Sustainability & Farming:

All of our rural homestays had farms varying in crops and size. During our experiences we quickly realized that the meals we were eating were made of food either grown directly by our family or by their neighbors. Examples of food items included potatoes, yams, arrow roots, maize, avocados, bananas, beans, peas, and cabbage. When one crop was not in season, the families relied more on the other crops to provide them with the nutrients they need. In addition, all scraps and extra crops were fed to the cows, goats, and chickens. There was practically no waste in terms of biodegradable materials used and produced by these families. The cows and goats provide them with milk, and their manure is used to fertilize crops. In addition, the chickens provide them with eggs and on some occasions meat. For instance, one student quotes his homestay father as saying, “I’m proud of the work you and Erick did today, tomorrow we will slaughter a chicken in celebration.” Thus, a cycle exists on every family’s farm, and when gaps exist in this cycle, other members of the community help to fill them.

While debriefing, we discussed how different this culture is from anything we see in contemporary America. Although one might perceive such food sustainability as part of the American dream, most farmers in America grow crops to sell in wholesale to food companies and grocery stores or raise thousands of hormone injected chickens to slaughter. As a result, American farmers still find themselves going to the supermarket to acquire produce. Overall, the level of sustainability Kikuyu families preserves alleviates the pressure to generate high incomes from the work force because they feel a sense of security knowing they will always be able to provide their children with nutritious meals.

Development of Education:

A major issue that we all felt deeply about discussing once the week had finished was that of education. It was clear to us that we all were staying with fortunate members of the Kikuyu community (being able to feed, house, and entertain another human for a week can be demanding afterall!). But that did not prevent us from seeing the effects of impoverished conditions in the community. As mentioned earlier when discussing the importance of community support to the Kikuyus, each and every family looks out for their relatives that undoubtedly live up the street as well as neighbors who are most likely also lifelong friends and colleagues. Therefore, some students expressed having experienced kind of a revolving door at their homes, with family and neighbors constantly coming around to help and ask for help. Because of the large amount of youth in the community, word that a visiting student had brought a soccer ball or any other ‘toy’ spread like wildfire. One student claims to have had a standing playdate with eight to ten neighbor kids to play with her and the soccer ball she had brought her family. But what does this all have to do with education?

“None of those children were in school today… All of the students were asked to bring the school fees of 650 shillings with them to school today and if they didn’t have it with them they would be sent home. Every single one of them was sent home.”

This is a direct quote from the homestay mother of the woman who regularly had afternoon playdates with the neighborhood kids. The mother knows this information because she is a teacher at the local elementary level school that all of the kids would have attended. Six-hundred and fifty shillings is equivalent to six dollars and fifty cents. The mother went on to discuss with this student that these families had decided that they could not spare the 650 because it was to be allocated to other things to keep the household running.

As a group debriefing, we discussed this and how unfortunate it is that families are having to choose between the education of their children and other means. It put into perspective how important education is from such an early age; a small investment in an education at an early age can snowball into much greater returns in the long run. But it is hard to be patient for such a return, and especially when you have to make the investment for anywhere from one to ten children. Being placed in more well off families, all of our homestay siblings are in school ranging from kindergarten, boarding school for forms I-IV and even colleges or university levels. Although we have discussed some of the hardships when it comes to education, the Kikuyu community is distinguished for their high achievement in academics and desire to learn.


Afternoon playdates with neighbors


Rural Homestay Spring 2016- Nyeri

One of the most valuable aspects of the Kenya Semester Program is the opportunity to experience a range of cultures co-inhabiting the nation of Kenya. For our first full week here, we were able to join various communities in Nyeri County on what we called our Rural Homestay. Each student stayed in a different household, with different family dynamics, schedules, and economic situations. During the week we took part in whatever activities our family had planned. Some of us worked on the farms, some of us went to schools, and some of us caught up on the local nightly news during dinner time. No matter what our experiences were however, each of us were fully immersed into our families. The KSP plans it this way for a reason though; while we had many different experiences, all of us feel that we had the opportunity to grow during this week. Many of us developed our Swahili, tried new foods, earned some grizzly blisters, and gained confidence in our own abilities which we will carry with us for the rest of the semester.

Diving into the rural homestay, we were prepared to have limited access to toilets, electricity, and expected to be working rigorous days. Also, we knew that in such a different environment than most of us are used to, we would need to communicate our levels of comfort with daily activities or other experiences. Before leaving for Nyeri, we also expressed a common worry of committing a cultural faux pas, but realized that communicating with our families whenever we were unsure of how to do something was the key to not causing offense.

During our homestays, we experienced the strong value of hard work prevalent in Kikuyu culture. With agriculture being the main source of employment, the pride in hard physical labor, both for men and women, was very important to them. The families’ work in the farm fields consisted of either cutting napier grass for the cows or hauling corn stalks up the hill to the homestead.  Asking to help out the host brothers and sisters was initially perceived as a breach of the host-guest relationship, but after repeated attempts to integrate ourselves–in order to fully learn from their daily life–they became more receptive to our participation.

Many if not all of the daily farm or other activities we experienced were unfamiliar and some people quickly noticed that our host parents, brothers, or sisters would do things for us and tell us that we needed to relax. This was aggravating for us all at some points because we were there to learn and confront unfamiliar work like milking a cow or washing our clothes by hand. In these instances, we found that by taking the reins and telling our family to teach us to milk the cow or grabbing a tea basket and joining Mama wetu in the field we were able to shape our rural experience.

Washing clothes by the tea farm with sister Jane.

Washing clothes by the tea farm with sister Jane.

With this hardworking ethic, the agrarian Kikuyu people that KSP students were surrounded by had an unbelievably strong connection to the land. Many families relied on their farms as a sole supplier of not only food, but income as well. One student’s family, for instance, would sell the extra milk from the two cows and sell the small harvest of raw coffee, which brought in marginal revenue from the processor, and that would cover the major expenses the family farm had. In regards to food, the host family only purchased cooking fat and rice regularly. Besides those two products, every meal was produced with food directly grown on the small family farms. The land was a direct resource for many Kikuyu families, and the traditional importance of land is still very much a part of the modern culture.

Making chapati with Mama Purity in her Nyeri home

Making chapati with Mama Purity in her Nyeri home

Another aspect of contemporary Kikuyu life was the prevalence of Christianity, often multiple sects, in every area we visited.  Every host family went to church on Sunday and many families also prayed daily, around meal times.  Each student who joined their family at church was expected to introduce themselves, generally with warm and friendly results.  The services were all in Kikuyu, even the Catholic services, and all included dancing of some sort.  There was a general separation of men and women in the church, though everyone mingled, chatted, and interacted in the church yard during the hours after the service.  The church was not just a part of the community but rather, the church was the community.  It was during church that announcements regarding funding of events and local projects, big exam scores, and births and deaths were made. It seemed like the extended definition of family in the Kikuyu tradition had been adapted and applied to the church, where every woman was “maitu” (mom) and every man was “baba” (dad) and every child present was cared for by the community at large.

P.C.E.A. primary school in Ihururu town. Spring 2016

P.C.E.A. primary school in Ihururu town. Spring 2016

To prepare us for immersive experiences like attending church in Nyeri, during orientation week we had a few Swahili classes in which we learned greetings, responses, and other key expressions including how to greet someone, tell them our name, and say where we are from.  Phrases like “I am full” or “Thank you” helped to soften the language barrier and provided a link of communication with our families, who all spoke some Swahili in addition to Kikuyu. Swahili greetings were especially useful when addressing strangers walking on the road, who would typically smile or were willing to respond when they heard us say “Jambo!” (hello).

After each day, we were encouraged to record some of our daily activities. Many of us wrote about things like doing laundry by hand, navigating the marketplace, or spending days working in the field. For each entry, we were supposed to write about cultural lessons we learned and any existing ties between the environment and development. For example, one student wrote about the cultural development of support systems between women after experiencing the meeting of a cooperative that raises money when one of its members are in trouble. Culture, environment and development are important aspects of the Kenya Semester Program and we relate them to our experiences in our core course.

One of the most important aspects of any study abroad program is the cultural immersion that takes place. By being fully incorporated into the society, we are better able to understand and appreciate the way that things are done. Being “wazungu” (white people) in a primarily black society, it was impossible to feel fully integrated within the community. Despite the families’ efforts to treat us as their own children, the people in town were more than willing to create a distinction. At first, many of us thought it was really cool to see so many smiling faces with hands extended to greet us. Others, especially girls, felt slightly uncomfortable that random people in town were coming up and petting their hair without so much as a hello.

Whether a positive or negative impression was made on us as individuals however, there is an important component of this phenomenon that should be considered. In academia, we are constantly made aware of the “white savior” complex, and ways in which we can aid in debunking it. During this homestay, it became evident that many Africans possess this conception of westerners as well, but by living within a family for a week, we were able to engage in conversation with people of the community and not only boost our confidence, but also dissipate stigma.

In several instances, the host parents worked outside of the home and had hired help to work on the farm and care for the children. Having gone in with the expectation that the family would be sustained primarily through their own physical labor on the farm, it was interesting to see the different dynamic, and the fact that outside help could be afforded.

After our week of immersion into the families of Nyeri county, we all reconvened for a debriefing session. Everyone had the opportunity to share their experiences, and a discussion was opened up about various dynamics that differed within each family. Ultimately, we were all able to conclude that there was a distinct divide between men and women in the Kikuyu culture. What became evident through our conversation however, was the clear delineation between the way the female and male students were perceived and treated by the community. As one example, while the males were able to go out and explore the town in the evenings, women had to stay inside once it started getting dark out. Experiences with divided gender roles among the group varied greatly but were apparent for each student. It seems that male students were able to participate in mother-daughter and father-son daily activities on the farm.  Female students typically experienced a greater disparity between gender roles in terms of participation and treatment in public places.

Having completed the rural homestay, it becomes evident why this component has been a staple of the Kenya Semester Program for so long; our stay in Nyeri debunked a lot of false preconceptions about rural life such as disconnect from city and nation-wide news, lack of technology like smart phones and infrastructure like running water.  It also gave us a chance to witness first-hand what we’d learned in class about Kikuyu connection to land, fluid definitions of family, and the importance of Church and community.  Although all of our experiences were unique and we each took a different message away from the homestay, in all of our cases, it is likely that we will remember our experiences in Nyeri for a long time to come thanks to the families that welcomed us in and the communities that we were able to become a part of.

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.

Rural Homestay (week 2)

Rural Home Stay Component: KSP Spring 2015

Habari za! My name is Klare Nevins and I’ll give a little background on what the Spring 2015 KSP group was most recently up too. This past week each student was able to experience the first of KSP’s two homestay components – the rural home stay. These experiences are a vital aspect of what makes the Kenya Semester Program so successful as it gives the students the opportunity to truly integrate themselves in the local culture and start to gain the confidence to live as a Kenyan, not a tourist. The rural homestay was based in the Central Highlands of Kenya in Nyeri County this semester and each student was individually placed with a family who subsists off of their agricultural efforts.

Rich ecological resources characterize the Central Highlands of Kenya; the land is lush with green vegetation and has two seasons of consistent rain making it an optimal place to practice agriculture. Additionally, the land has a long, deeply rooted cultural history. The region is home to the Kikuyu people, the largest ethnic group in Kenya.

By living with our rural home stay families; we are put in a position of becoming complete learners who by participating in the family’s everyday life gain an understanding of what is means to be a Kenyan living in that area, in those communities. Over the course of the week students not only visited various locations around the community such as church, schools, and local natural attractions, but also learned traditional skills used everyday by their families. These activities included the cooking of traditional meals of chipati, ugali, mukimo, and others.  Harvesting subsistence foods that included indigenous arrowroot, maize, and various fruits and vegetables also took up large parts of each day and students learned how to harvest cash crops such as tea and coffee. If that wasn’t enough, students also learned how to milk cows, process dried beans for seed, hand washing laundry and practicing our various skill levels of Kiswahili. Overall we were so excited to learn about Kenya from people who embody the region not only through their traditional practiced culture but also through their everyday activities in a modern day Kenya.

Hi guys! I’m Ashley McDuffee, and my homestay parents are coffee, or “kahawa”, tea and maize farmers. Although my father is retired now, he contributed to society as a teacher and then served as an administrator at a primary school for many years. My mother was a nurse in a government hospital for many years, before opening up a clinic with a few other nurses. She specialized in the maternity sector and was instrumental in delivering home births of countless Kikuyu children. I found it extremely impressive that my parents held very demanding careers, yet still came home to work on their large farm every night, all while raising large families. Kenya’s rural areas, like Tetu West, are extremely agricultural-based. The majority of women in this area work labor-intense days plucking tea, harvesting coffee berries, and caring for children. Meanwhile men cultivate the land, plant trees, spread manure, and care for cattle. I think this agricultural lifestyle has shaped a unique family structure in rural Kenyan families. From what I observed, the mother is the caretaker; she raises children by teaching her daughters life skills, such as cooking and cleaning, and she cares for boys until they are taught life skills from their father. The mother is responsible for preparing every meal from scratch, and a large majority of her day is harvesting and preparing food for her large family. Additionally, I encountered the father as a figure responsible for providing for his family financially, thus he often assumes the role of the family authoritarian. He often works long hours away from his children in the fields or at his job in the city.

Thus, the family structure has had both positive and negative implications. In one aspect, every member of the family is expected to contribute to the family, and children are taught the values of hard work and familial responsibility. However, this has created a division in the family commonly accompanied by inequality. Men and boys are given “gender appropriate” responsibilities; for example, they are expected to care for livestock. Yet, women are responsible for kitchen duties, for example. This separation has the potential to weaken relationships between family members of a different gender. In addition, giving the men control over crops and livestock gives them power as “breadwinners”. Whereas, the kitchen duties and childcare done by women offer no monetary gain, and this can be seen as less of a contribution to the family. Despite the great potential for these issues, my family was quite close and each member had great respect everyone in the family regardless of gender. However, the responsibilities of my mother, father, and sisters demonstrated an undoubtedly patriarchal family structure. Overall, my time with them was unforgettable and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I was able to experience a family structure a little different from my own and learn so much about the rural Kenyan way of life.

Hamjambo. Kate Tuttle, here! During my rural homestay, I was hosted by a very traditional Kikuyu family made up of family members that held completely different gender roles than I am familiar to. My homestay consisted of two sisters, my mother and father, and while my family at home is structured in the same way, the experience I had with them was extremely distinctive and unique. When I was picked up by the family, I was greeted only by my sister Purity Wanjiru and my father Granville, as my host mother, Susan, was at home preparing for my arrival. Almost as soon as I arrived to the home, I understood that Susan assumed the role of the provider and cook of the household. I, too, took this role of the house with my two sisters during the week. I observed that my father very rarely ever entered the kitchen, nor did he work very much on the farm. My mom, my sister, and I did the majority of the fieldwork; we plucked tea the entire morning and gathered vegetables from the farm to add to our lunches and dinners everyday. Therefore, while I continuously felt that I was contributing to the family, I often wondered exactly what the responsibilities of my father consisted of. While reading and researching the traditional Kikuyu people, I learned that males in their traditional families were expected to protect the family and that they were not held as accountable for the farm work as the women. I firmly believe that my family is still practicing these Kikuyu traditions and that they have not been greatly affected yet by Western globalization standards for gender roles in the home.

Here is my homestay sister, Purity, shredding cabbage in preparation for lunch in our kitchen

Here is my homestay sister, Purity, shredding cabbage in preparation for lunch in our kitchen

Jambo, jina langu ni Claire Pacione! My host mami, baba, brother Dominic, and sister Jackline eagerly anticipated my visit to their church upon my arrival to Nyeri on Friday afternoon. After completing the family’s Sunday morning duties that included milking cows, feeding chickens, collecting eggs, making breakfast, and hand-washing clothes, we prepared ourselves for the 10:30am– 1:00pm mass…

As we take our seats, the Women’s Guild (a church organization helping the needy and the less privileged in the area) leads the church service accompanied by the choirs. As the sermon continues in Kikuyu, Jackline opens her English Bible to the corresponding scripture, and I read along. With time, I notice –with the few Kikuyu phrases Jackline and I have been practicing– that the church’s head speaker is referencing me in his speech. With this, Jackline gives me a gentle push and we somehow we find ourselves walking to the front of the church as a microphone is handed my way.

“Go on…talk!,” Jackline encourages me. Although the expectation to give a speech was so sudden and unexpected, I knew what I would share with the community that staring up at me.  I wrack my brain for the Kikuyu words I have practiced with my host mami the past few nights I start…

“Moriega. Jitagwa Claire. For welcoming me to Nyeri, Kenya and your Church, I am so grateful. I stand here with my host sister and host mami, as I gesture to her behind me, as they have taken me in as one of their own during my stay in Nyeri as an American student. Your vibrant community has made me feel at home in your town and Church and this you should be proud of. I will never forget the welcoming atmosphere you have created in my presence; your Kikuyu culture is beautiful. As you have made me feel part of your community, my family and I in America would be flattered at the opportunity to welcome you into our home if you ever find yourself on those shores. Asante sana”.

Quickly, the nervous faces that gaze up at me turn into softened smiles and nods. Jackline takes the microphone and translates my words for those who do not understand English well. But, what happens next is the most surprising of all. At the end of her translation, Jackline breaks into a beautiful gospel song. We both sway together, side by side as sisters.

Reminiscing on this moment I am able to reflect on the rich culture of the Kikuyu people as a community. As I listened to my sister and observed the church, I understood the important qualities of tradition, support, trust, morals, and commitment engrained by the Kikuyu culture. Although I have already studied such Kikuyu ideals through the pages of writers like Wangari Maathai, to feel the raw emotions of the community first hand was a lesson I will not forget. In that moment, instead of feeling like an outsider of the Kikuyu community, I felt unified, empowered and happy with them.

Mimi ni Wei Song, na ninatoka China! During my rural homestay, I was most impressed by the development and economy of Nyeri town. Unlike farmers in some other countries who strictly depend on the farm, the family-economy in Nyeri reasonably combines rural and urban resources. Both of my homestay parents have jobs in Nyeri, while simultaneously operating their farm with the help of an assistant farmer. Thus, the family has a great supply of fresh food for eating and selling that provides a solid income that improves their quality of life. Thus, the land and city construction work together to promote the local economy.

It additionally is clear that my homestay brother and sisters have better resources of education as compared to people of other developing countries like China, where education in most rural areas is a tough problem. My eldest sister currently studies at university in another town, and my other two siblings go to school in Nyeri with the help of their school bus service. After the children graduate, they have chance to get good jobs and also continue to manage their farmland.

Moreover, my homestay family has access to technologies such as television and computers. My homestay “baba”, or father, even told me that more people have started to buy imported goods like Japanese cars and cameras. In general, my homestay family is a positive example of the development and economy in Nyeri town, and they showed me their progression to a better life in rural Kenya.

Wei and her family in Nyeri

Wei and her family in Nyeri

Hey, Maggie Cummins dropping in!

During my experience in the rural homestay, I really focused on the education aspects of my family’s lives, as they had a teenage daughter and son and then two children under the age of ten in the education system. As soon as my siblings returned home from school, I would ask them all about their day, quiz them in kiswahili and in English, and look over their homework for them. School seemed to be something my family highly valued, and while they complained of exams and intimidating instructors, they seemed thankful for the opportunities they had been given.

Education was a fundamental component of the lives of the Kikuyu youth. Beginning at age 3, children began attending a pre-primary school, similar to a “pre-school” in the American education system. As there are no buses in East Tetu, children of this age are expected to make the commute along busy highways with limited sidewalk space by themselves. From this age until secondary students are required to adorn a school uniform, the colors of which vary between schools. Primary school, paid for by the government, lasts 8 years, a time in which students are required to take core courses in Kiswahili, Kikuyu, and English. By the time the children reach secondary school, they are allowed to choose their courses (a minimum of seven and a maximum of twelve) and begin planning for a career in the workforce or to continue onto University. Secondary school is subsidized, and students undergo a series of exams that will place them into a secondary institution, similar to the SATs acting as an agent in college acceptance. While primary schools are divided into “standards”, secondary schools are divided into four forms, one for each year. Education is required by law, and while supplies are limited and worn, students seem to value the academic tools that they have been given. On days that children weren’t in school, they were aiding their parents in work in the fields and around the house.

My host sister, a seventeen year old in Form 3, often spoke of the variety of classes she was enrolled in, some of which include; history, physics, biology, and agriculture. The agriculture course seemed to be isolated to local crops, rather than addressing the cultivation of crops in differing geographic locations. My sister aspired to attend a University within Nyeri, where she planned to study to be a tour guide.

Education made multiple appearances in the media when teachers in Northern Kenya went on mass strikes, protesting employment terms and refusing to return to schools until the government met their demands of raising salaries. Institutions threatened to fire instructors if they did not return soon, and students were unable to return to their studies until their teachers return. Another educational newsbreak revolved around land grabbing, and the tear gassing of children attempting to protest the confiscation of their land.

It is clear that the rural homestay component with the Kikuyu people has grounded us in regards to living in Kenya. Not only was the opportunity moving, it also taught us much about the culture, environment, and development of Kenya through meaningful moments and relationships.

– Kenya Semester Program Spring 2015