The Independent Study (IDS): A Unique and Life Changing Experience

Guest post by Matt Carotenuto

(Associate Professor of History and Visiting Administrative Director of the Kenya Program)

Independent Study Placements Spring 2016

Independent Study Placement Sites Spring 2016—Click for an interactive map

The culmination of a semester in Kenya for decades has been the independent study. On Sunday April 10th, our 22 students left SLU’s Nairobi campus for placements in four East African countries. From diverse experiences throughout Kenya, to coastal Tanzania, cosmopolitan Rwanda and the shores of the Nile River in Uganda, students will spend a month working with a host organization immersed in topics that relate to their broad academic, personal and professional interests.

For those who know the KSP well, the capstone experience of a semester in East Africa is transformative. Students put their academic and field experience into action and venture off on their own to negotiate life in new communities. As an alumnus of the Kenya Program, I can vividly remember the anxiety and excitement of a month long independent study on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. Tasked with an oral history project traversing the rocky shores of Nyanza province, as a history major I got to experience the joys and challenges of historical research.  Nearly two decades later, I still draw on this powerful independent experience the KSP afforded me. The month I spent conducting interviews and learning rudimentary Dholuo forever shaped my career path as a teacher/scholar of African history.

What is the IDS and what can you study?

Many people use the term independent study as a synonym for an internship. We on the KSP prefer independent study because it reflects more of what we want students to gain from this work place experience. Arranged individually to fit with student interests, we want students to see their volunteer contributions to host organizations primarily as a chance to observe and learn about the broader issues impacting the community where they are placed. During the final month of their semester in East Africa students bring a wealth of interesting new perspectives to their collaborations with host organizations, but see their roles first and foremost as students. By immersing themselves in the daily operations of organizations working on a host of pressing issues, students gain valuable experience and study issues from perspectives often far removed from their own.

On topics ranging from conservation and development to international law, education, electoral politics, professional cycling and chimpanzee habituation, students on the KSP this semester are beginning a month of life changing experiences. The diversity of these experiences are typical of the deep institutional connections and individualized approach the KSP takes to working with students over the past four decades. Regardless of one’s major, personal or professional interest the cosmopolitan and fast growing spaces of East Africa offer countless opportunities to learn about global issues from a distinctly local perspective.

Students often return from their IDS with a new found passion for research which has been transformed into future Senior Year Experience topics, Fulbright fellowships, and even Masters and Ph.D. level thesis.  Many alumni continue to draw on their East African experiences decades after graduation, and cite the Independent Study as a formative inspiration in their personal and professional lives.

A Profile in Diversity: East Africa at Work

Emery Younger with SLU Alumnus and Kenyan Member of Parliament Ken Okoth '01. Representing both his home community of Kibera and helping a student gain some valuable insight into electoral politics in Kenya. Thanks Ken!

Emery Younger ’17 with SLU Alumnus and Kenyan Member of Parliament Ken Okoth ’01. Representing both his home community of Kibera and helping a student gain some valuable insight into electoral politics in Kenya. Thanks Ken!

As students are just beginning their placements this week, it is hard to sum up the range of experiences they will have and the issues they will study. Explore the profiles of these host organizations below and try to imagine how students will approach studying these diverse topics.

  • The Impact of Dam Construction on Nile River Whitewater Rafting
  • International Law and Human Rights in Kenya
  • Chimpanzee Habituation in Nyungwe National Park-Rwanda
  • Archaeology and the Politics of Heritage in Kenya
  • Sea Turtle Conservation in the Indian Ocean (Zanzibar)
  • Sport, Nationalism and the 1987 All-Africa Games in Nairobi
  • Ugandan Education and Development
  • HIV/AIDS and Maternal Child Health
  • The Politics of Development and Urban Poverty in Kibera
  •  Professional Cycling in Rwanda
  • African Media and Journalistic Ethics in Uganda
  • Cycling and Fitness in Jinja, Uganda
  • Midwifery and Birth Practices in Urban Kenya
  • Women and Development in Tanzania
  • Land Use, Wildlife and Conservation in Kenya
  • Baking and Female Entrepreneurship in Rwanda

Laikipia Wildlife Forum (Kimanjo, Kenya)
International Commission of Jurists (Nairobi, Kenya)
Nile River Explorers (Jinja, Uganda)
Kayak the Nile (Jinja, Uganda)
Office of Ken Okoth—Member of Parliament-Kibra Constituency (Nairobi, Kenya)
Team Africa Rising (Musanze, Rwanda)
National Museums of Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya)
Soft Power Education (Jinja, Kenya)
The Women’s Bakery (Kigali, Rwanda)
Kenya National Archives (Nairobi, Kenya)
Academic Model for Improving Access to Health Care–AMPATH (Eldoret, Kenya)
Dare Women’s Foundation (Arusha, Tanzania)
First African Bicycle Organization (Jinja, Uganda)
Mpala Research Center and Wildlife Foundation (Nanyuki, Kenya)
New Life Home Trust (Nairobi Kenya)
Mnarani Turtle Conservation (Nyungwi, Zanzibar)
Fremo Medical Centre (Kawangware, Kenya)
Wildlife Conservation Society Rwanda (Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda)
African Centre for Media Excellence (Kampala, Uganda)

With a growing number of placements throughout East Africa, we hope you will consider supporting the Engaging Africa Initiative which will expand the impact of the Kenya program and provide future students with an even greater diversity of work, study and life experiences across the worlds second largest continent.

Amboseli Spring 2016

Jambo! Ellory, Julia H, Meg and Sophie here! Following our trip to Kisumu, the KSP squad ventured in safari vehicles south to Amboseli National Park.  Interacting with another Kenyan culture, the Maasai, we were again able to broaden our understanding of the diversity within Kenya.  Guided by our Fearless Leader, Sinnary, we embarked on a weeklong exploration of issues surrounding Tourism, Maasai culture, and the environment.

This trip included tourist activities such as the accommodations at Kibo Safari Camp, the game drive in Amboseli National Park and the cultural manyatta visit. Unlike most of our other trips the Amboseli component felt more like a vacation than a field trip.  While it was nice to feel like a tourist for a week our group did not fail to look critically at issues within the Amboseli region.  Through interviews with various local communities we were able to get a better understanding of tourism and its affects on the region. Our week at Amboseli allowed us all to feel some negative and positive aspects of the tourism industry.

When we first arrived at Kibo Safari Camp we were blown away by the luxurious accommodations at the “camp”.  We had been told we would be camping in tents for a week and expected a trip similar to Tanzania.  What we found was a beautiful resort situated at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro complete with a pool, bar, dining room, and luxury canvas-walled villas.  If there ever was a time the word “glamping” was appropriate, this was it.

The design and decorations of the resort screamed “tourist”.  The walls were covered with Maasai artifacts and African paintings of tribal women and animals.  There were hides and skins as carpets and gravel paths disguised as trails to connect the rooms.  The “tents” had bathrooms, showers, electricity, beds with mosquito net canopies and a built in vanities.  The resort was beautiful but also clearly trying to portray a “rustic” experience while sparing no modern amenity.IMG_5909 (1)

During our stay in Amboseli, we were lucky enough to go on a game drive in the National Park. As we all packed into the safari vehicles at 7am the KSP crew was excited and overwhelmed with pure joy to finally see wildlife. You could say there is a fair amount of “elephant enthusiasts” in the group and each one almost passed out when we saw the first heard of the majestic creatures. Rolling through the roads of the park, passing other tourists in safari vehicles with giant zoom cameras, we had become the epitome of the African tourist. As it was amazing to see: hippos, elephants, lions (very rare sight, but we saw three), a cheetah, wildebeest, zebras, hyenas, impalas, water buffalo, water bucks, baboons, and many exotic birds, it was a little disheartening to be invasive in the daily life of the wildlife. To us these animals are in their natural state, however it’s critical to acknowledge the fact that these animals are dangerous and destructive to the surrounding communities. Being students it was very easy to analyze this concept, but unfortunately to the common tourist this part of the safari is left out and the appeal of seeing wildlife is the main focus. After completing the two game drives, everyone was on such a high from the beautiful landscapes and views of wildlife, but at the end of the day it was difficult to accept that the tourism in the Amboseli region can negatively affect the wildlife and local communities.

Looking at tourism on a community based level, attractions such as the cultural manyatta appealed to just the tourist groups coming to learn about the traditional Maasai culture. These manyattas are made up of individuals who have left their family compounds in search of additional income through providing tourists with an “authentic” experience. When we first arrived we were greeted with a traditional dance and song, which included a jumping contest for the men. As we continued on into the manyatta we were surrounded with men and women dressed in traditional Maasai attire and enclosed in a ring of houses made of cow dung. Following our arrival, we were briefed on the traditional medicine used for sickness and ailments. Later we were brought into a house that included two rooms and a small kitchen area. Wrapping up the experience we were given the opportunity to interview young women and men, as well as elder women and men, about their life in the manyatta. Due to the language barrier and their perception of us as tourists, the answers given seemed to present an idolized representation of their life in the cultural manyatta. The cultural manyatta presented Maasai culture in its “traditional” form, while ignoring any steps towards development or modernity. From our view as informed students, it was hard to see the Maasai culture being exploited like this for tourist entertainment and money. Despite the obvious misrepresentation, the cultural manyatta provided an opportunity to see a tourist attraction in action.

Back at Kibo in our interviews with community members, we were able to gauge their opinions in the Amboseli region. Surprisingly, their responses were overwhelmingly positive. Every group cited that the income generated from tourist attractions such as the cultural manyatta, contributed to the communities well being.  All groups that we spoke to saw cultural attractions as a way of preserving traditional dances and lifestyles and did not view them as a corruption of culture as we had expected. Additionally, it was surprising to hear that establishments such as Kibo Safari Camp provided the Maasai community with jobs and land compensation. Talking with these community members gave us a fresh perspective on tourism and a new way of conceptualizing the possible benefits to the community.

Meg’s perspective:

To further our understanding of the Maasai people in a changing world, we had the opportunity to spend twenty-four hours in the home of a Maasai family. The traditional manyatta was a drastic contrast to the cultural manyatta and the “tourist” activities that we had been doing. We had been briefed two weeks prior to our stay, causing a lot of anxiety among the group members due to hearing about the potential hardships we would face. We were imagining being covered in bed bugs, fleas, and lice, sleeping in a small, enclosed space with livestock on a cowhide with our Maasai siblings. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the experience and from the sounds of everyone’s individual homestays, this feeling seemed to be universal.

Lilly, Annie, and I were together with the second wife of our family’s manyatta. She was 28 and her five kids were running around all afternoon with the other kids of the manyatta. When we first arrived, we walked through the cow pen, made with acacia tree branches to keep the animals in and predators out. We entered the house and walked through a small front room into the back room where we found a single, cowhide bed. After settling in, we walked around the neighbor’s farms and watched one farmer irrigate his fields. The sun was hot and the cow dung house was a sauna on the inside so we helped our mom fetch water from a well near by. It was about a seven-minute walk to a very nice and established water pump. We filled our containers and carried them home on our backs with a kanga wrapped around our heads for support. Our mom made it look very easy!

When we got home, we played with the kids for what seemed to be hours. At first they were very interested in us, but were extremely shy. Little by little we pushed through those boundaries by chasing them around and playing games with them. We showed them how to play hopscotch and hand games we had learned in elementary school. They loved high five’s and I spun them around making sure to add the appropriate “whooshing” sound affects. Everyone was laughing and smiling from ear to ear. They sang us an English alphabet song with a dance to accompany it. It is amazing how communication can manifest itself in so many ways.

That evening, we met our father and watched our mom milk the cows. I tried but it was a lot harder than it looks. I completely missed the container! After milking the cows, we started to make dinner. We took turns cutting the cabbage and watched her make ugali. Kids were in and out all night long but at dinner we finally met all five of our siblings. After dinner, everyone headed to bed. The three of us played cards on our bed before trying to sleep. We did not quite fit in the bed, but we tried. Though we did not sleep a wink, the night was an experience in itself. The next morning we walked away with no bugs, no sleep, and some great selfies!

We woke up and did some of the same activities as the day before such as fetching water and milking the cows. We ate some porridge, drank tea, and spent the morning sitting under a tree beading with our mom. It was nice to know we had a shower to go back to and a meal without ugali. However, it was an invaluable experience that allowed us a realistic view of how the Maasai live today.

For a little background on the Maasai, they are an ethnic group of roughly 1.6 million people, split between Tanzania and Kenya. Historically, they are solely pastoralist. However, due to loss of land and a globalizing world, many Maasai have recently begun to engage in agriculture. Under colonial rule, they were pushed south giving way for the white settlers who took the best land. Since then, large plots of their land have been conserved for national parks and reserves or sold to other ethnic groups. With little land, the pastoralist lifestyle is extremely difficult. Thus, the shift resulted in a change in their way of life. Historically, they practice polygamy and both male and female circumcision. With the shift of their lifestyles, their cultural practices have also begun to change exemplified by their shift away from female circumcision. Additionally, due to the missionary’s stereotype of the Maasai as intimidating warriors coupled with their nomadic lifestyle, development struggle to reach Maasailand until recent years.


In addition to focusing on and discussing themes such as tourism and culture, we examined the role of our surrounding environment in the context of conservation efforts, local land usage, and relationship between the land and surrounding communities that interact with it on a daily basis. There is no denying that the most exciting component of this focus for many of us was the game drive within Amboseli National Park on the second day, where we encountered the Big 5 and other characters from the Lion King. The 22 of us were divided into four safari vehicles, all of which encountered lion, hippo, elephant, wildebeest, zebra, baboons, impala, gazelle, and various birds. Some of us were even lucky enough to have ‘spotted’ the elusive cheetah (lol get it?) and other rare animals such as an albino wildebeest that even our safari guides had never seen in their extensive careers working within the park.

After our exciting day living the stereotypical life of most tourists that visit East Africa, we hunkered down and talked specifics about the park regarding its role in conservation efforts and within the larger community. Amboseli National Park was initially established as a game reserve under British Colonialism in 1948, later becoming an official national park in 1974 under Kenya’s independent government. The park now stretches across a vast area of about 150 square miles and is one of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions, due in part by its close proximity to the impressive Mt. Kilimanjaro and the near-guarantee of seeing elephants in almost every corner of the park.

While exciting to tourists, such as ourselves, the overwhelming population of elephants (around 1200 in total) within the park exceeds almost three times its carrying capacity, becoming an increasing cause for environmental concern. Considering the sheer immensity of elephants and their strictly herbivorous diets, they become a threat to other animals within the already semi-arid ecosystem by depleting vegetation and therefore resources essential to the survival of many neighboring animals with the same eating habits.

Throughout the rest of the trip we continued our discussion regarding the role of environment by interviewing local community members that have an extensive history of living in the area. We had conversations with local farmers and members of group ranches, asking questions regarding their experiences living so close to the park and the environmental changes they have observed throughout their time in the area. Most farmers did not share the same enthusiasm we had for the inhabitation of many neighboring animals in the area due to the threat they pose to land cultivation. Although the perimeter of Amboseli National Park is lined with electrical fencing to protect humans and animals from each other, elephants are still more than capable of plowing through this protective measure, and crossing the fences with the help of both opposable thumbs and big toes by way of climbing and jumping through trees is child’s play to the agile baboons of the national park. Many of the farmers we spoke to consistently expressed concern and frustration regarding the destruction of cultivation because of the lack of viable solutions to combat the park-dwelling animals storming through their property or eating their crops. When asked what existing solutions they had to the issue they faced on a regular basis, some said they are able to receive help from local game wardens in and around the national park, while others rely on innovative scare tactics such as slingshotting or throwing rocks and torches at the encroaching animals.

Accessibility to water is another environmental concern that many local farmers and pastoralists regularly struggle with, especially during the dry season. Most farmers live upstream along the local river and use unsustainable methods of flood irrigation to water their crops while most pastoralists live downstream and experience insufficient access to water because of the wasteful farming practices upstream. In addition, many in the area are beginning to notice the river becoming increasingly dry because of implemented irrigation systems and the competition for water between the neighboring groups, subsequently causing conflicts between the two.

As much as we enjoyed our time within the scenic and surreal landscape of the Amboseli, it is important to recognize the interactions between the local communities and their surrounding environments, and the ways in which these issues can disrupt the social fabric and livelihoods of the people within the area.

Kisumu Spring 2016

Jambo marafiki na familia, once again! After two weeks of traversing the Kenyan countryside, we are all finally back to Nairobi, a place which, so suddenly and seemingly without our conscious noticing, has begun to feel less like a transitory living location and more like returning to our actual home.

For the first week of our field components, we travelled to Kisumu to study the socioeconomic and cultural issues of Western Kenya. Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya on its own, and as the largest city in Western Kenya it acts as the metropolitan, economic, and cultural hub for the entire region. As a country with, as we quickly have learned, dramatic and powerful ethnic divides, Kisumu is also Kenya’s de facto center for the Luo ethnic community  or “tribe”–something which has great social and political ramifications for the entire region and country. During our stay in Kisumu, we had the opportunity to gain irreplicable hands on experience seeing how ethnicity works to shape identity in Western Kenya. Identity is a powerful force. Likely more than anything else we took from our wonderful stay in Kisumu, we gained a true understanding of the role identity plays in influencing all the hegemonic forces which affect society and our world. It was, in many ways, the week of “identity”.

Our adventure in Kisumu began the first day when we made our way to the Kisumu Museum. The Kisumu Museum is run by the National Museums of Kenya and focuses on cultural and scientific issues in Western Kenya, particularly the Luo community. The Luo traditionally live on Lake Victoria as fishermen, but as globalization and modernization have swept through Kenya, their livelihoods have gradually been changing. The Kisumu Museum offers a look into a world before it was met with the powerful forces of colonialism, and westernization. Walking through the Kisumu Museum was an intriguing and interesting experience. The main museum hall was a single room with multiple small exhibits that displayed items from traditional Luo living, such as a fishing net or an example of basket weaving. There were also examples of the natural environment, such as several mounted heads of local animals like wildebeest and gazelles. In the aquarium, we encountered many fish species which, while once prominent, face increasing danger outside the safety of the museum walls due to overfishing and the presence of Nile Perch, an introduced species which preys on the native fish in the lake. The traditional homestead placed on the museum grounds displayed to us the importance of family in traditional Luo identity, but also, how Luo culture is dynamic and constantly changing–polygamy, for instance, while once common and illustrated by the many houses in the homestead, is now being phased out due to moral and economic changes.

After the Kisumu Museum, we piled onto the bus and drove to Kit Mikayi, a Luo cultural and religious site. Kit Mikayi means “rock of the first wife” in Luo, and the 40-meter stone formation has traditionally served as a pilgrimage monument where couples would have their marriage blessed or elders would pray for rain. Now, Kit Mikayi serves as a tourist attraction (it costs a small fee to get into the now-fenced area) and, as Christianity’s influence reached the region, it became a prayer site for Christians instead of for members of the traditional religion.

Interestingly, at both the Kisumu Museum and Kit Mikayi, we could not help but notice how we were largely presented with an image of traditional Luo life from our guides, without more modern history being acknowledged. Partaking in cultural tourism was fascinating. While it was a great educational experience to learn about the history of the area, we also became aware that many times tourists are shown what is thought to sell: often in the context of developing countries, an image of an idyllic, exotic, and not modern time.

After settling in Kogelo, we set out for the Senator Obama Secondary School. We were all surprised to see the entire school assembled for our visit, and each member of the KSP introduced themselves to the 400 students. We then broke into small groups, and were given tours of the school by the students themselves, learning about their lives and exchanging stories about topics we soon learned crossed cultural boundaries; college, homework, sports, and boys; before saying goodbye and parting Senator Obama Secondary School.

Barack Obama’s father is buried in Kogelo and his step-grandmother, “Mama Sarah”, resides next door to the school, however, this is the only correlation between the president and the secondary school. As we came to know from staying in Kogelo, this area of the country has been caught up in the wave of “Obama fever”. The hotel where we stayed the night was decidedly Obama themed, complete with a lifesize statue of the president and a main building called the White House. After President Obama visited Kogelo in 2006, the school changed its name in his honor. Once this town became associated with the Obama name and the tourism associated with it, government money poured in to improve infrastructure. The freshly paved roads felt out of place among the modest shops and markets of Kogelo. After a very full day, we slept soundly the Obama themed hotel and prepared to make the trip back to Kisumu.

Our second morning in Kisumu began with a leisurely boat ride along the ever famous, second largest freshwater lake in the world: Lake Victoria. We were guided through the history of the lake as we encroached upon vintage steamboats that were used as a mode of transport between Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. The ride provided us with an overview of the environmental concerns of both pollution and overfishing which are greatly affecting the lake so inherent to the identity of the Luo. Afterwards, we had the opportunity to interview the local fisherman and traders who interact with the lake and grapple with these issues daily.

It was apparent from our conversations with them that the fishing industry is a taxing career, with often very minimal economic rewards. The majority of traders, all who are women, were the primary breadwinners of their families and often had to “partner up” with the fishermen, offering their bodies for fish in order to make enough money to provide for those depending on them. The industry is extremely hierarchical, allowing men with the necessary resources to receive most of the profit, while those less advantaged are heavily reliant on the resources of others.

Following our adventures and interviews around Lake Victoria, we remained at our hotel to interview several representatives of the Luo community. Among those who came to share discussions with us were elder Luo men, elder women, young women, and young men. It was an amazing educational opportunity to be able to speak with each of these different age groups and to hear their contrasting views on the issues we had been studying. We found that the elders, especially the men, were rather conservative in their views regarding Luo culture and were much more determined to preserve traditional values. The young men and women were much more progressive in their views of the future. One of the young women, when asked if she identified as a Luo or Kenyan, responded with “I consider myself first a global citizen, second a Kenyan”. As the younger generation comes of age, it is clear that traditional concepts of Luo identity are evolving to become more dynamic.

After our powerful experiences in Kisumu, we climbed back upon Njau’s well-loved bus and set out for Nakuru. Unfortunately, we had to leave some of our KSP comrades behind as they were floored with food poisoning (they’re back at it and healthier than ever now!). When we got to the gate of Lake Nakuru National Park we had to sort out some logistics with passports and while we waited we were treated to quite an amusing show put on by several baboons. We arrived at our hotel within the park in the early evening and were wide-eyed to a stunning sunset over Lake Nakuru. The following morning we got up early for our first game drive of the semester! We piled into the bus once more and were treated to Njau ready to stop for each and every monkey and Sinnary answering every wildlife question. We were lucky enough to see four huge white rhinos, which we quickly learned were actually named “wide rhinos” for their large jaw structure, but the name was lost in translation. We also saw several twigas (giraffes), monkeys, countless water buffalo, and even a rare aard wolf. It was an amazing experience and wonderful conclusion to an incredible week.

Urban Homestay Spring 2016

Introduction to the Urban Homestay

What were we possibly to expect being told that we were about to live for three weeks with families none of us had ever met before?  I certainly didn’t expect to be welcomed ‘home’ literally with arms wide open, but that is exactly what happened.  And so, I added the warm hugs and smiles from my host sisters and parents to my ever-growing list of the ways in which Kenya has surprised me and shattered my sense of expectation.

The Urban Home Stay is by far the lengthiest of the three home stays in which we as students participate in throughout the duration of the Kenya Semester Program. It triples the length of the Rural Home Stay and on behalf of my peers, I can say with honesty, I felt nervous to embark on this particular leg of our adventurous and enlightening semester.  Living with people you do not know is always a learning experience, and for young American college students who have, for the last several years, been so accustomed to living much of the year only around peers our own age, integrating back into a family lifestyle did admittedly take some adjustment.  However, once assimilated, the idea of coming back to home and family each day after school became a comfort in so many ways.

Our time living in Nairobi, the heart of urbanization in Kenya, was by no means idle time.  As I write these words now still cannot believe how twenty days have passed by so quickly.  In addition to taking classes and spending evening and weekends with our home stay families, Fridays were occupied by exploring other aspects of the urban center of East Africa.  On the first Friday, we as a class explored the flora and fauna and impressive history of the Karura Forest, capped off by a weekend where several students ran a half-marathon (see more below).  The second Friday was marked by a visit into the informal settlement of Kibera.  Both a challenge and a blessing, we were shown intimately streets, homes and the interworking’s of a Kibera school by two active NGO’s:  The Red Rose School and Carolina for Kibera.  Three weeks is a long time to spend in one place, but the duration of time allowed us to not only learn as students but to build connections and see the world a little differently as people.

Kibera: Kenya’s Largest Informal Settlement

On our second Friday with in our Urban Home Stays, we had the privilege of being hosted by the Red Rose School and Carolina for Kibera.  Both are NGO’s that work in the informal settlement to better the quality of life for its residents. Divided in half, each NGO hosted eleven KSP students and showed us both the triumphs and the challenges of working in Kenya’s largest informal settlement.

Located just outside Nairobi’s central business district, the contrast between rich and poor and upsettingly stark. But, like every other incredible experience here, Kibera turned out to be a place that went beyond my imagination and in many ways shattered my westernized stereotypes.  If I’m being honest, I anticipated dirt pathways narrowly winding through shanty houses constructed one on top of the other from metal and rubbish.  I expected to walk through filth, garbage and human fecal matter.  I braced myself for unwelcoming and judgmental stares and prepared for the risk of pickpockets and beggars.

If I continue to be honest, in some places, my stereotypes were not completely inaccurate. On my way to the Red Rose School I did notice a lot of garbage, and very few smells were ones that I would describe as pleasant.  However, I was taken aback by how much had surprised me.  I found the Red Rose School to be an absolutely pleasant and pristinely kept place.  Painted a happy robin’s egg blue, and murals of Disney fairytale and Pixar characters decorated every wall.  The children radiated happiness and I’d like to think that not all of it was solely in response to the visiting Wazungu.

While at Red Rose, each of us was placed in a classroom of students to help the teacher and interact with the students.  I was placed with a seventh grade class and was intimidated by the onslaught of curiosity.  I was asked about everything from my favorite singer to what I wanted to be when I grew up. I decided as one point to turn the tables ask I few questions of my own, but when I asked these twelve to fourteen year-old children what they wanted to be when they grew up, I realized that their intelligence and self-asserted pride far surpassed that of any child I had ever met before.  Mary* wanted to be a banker, Angela* wanted to be a neurosurgeon, Thomas* wanted to be an aircraft engineer and we all laughed and agreed that Moses*, who wanted to be a pilot, would fly Thomas’ planes.

These children had big dreams and understood that school was going to take them to those dreams.  There was a clear understanding that education was a way out of Kibera.  However, despite dreaming of leaving Kibera, I was surprised to learn how much many of these children took pride in being from Kibera.  One of my peers told me of walking through the settlement with three boys, all the age of fifteen.  Speaking openly, my peer asked them, “So, what is it like to live in Kibera?” He did not receive the answer he expected.  “We really like it here,” they told him.  “Kibera has its problems, but we are proud to be from here.”  I was surprised too when my friend and classmate told me of his conversation.  I was also left extremely humbled.  Had I met these children a year ago, or even two months ago, I would have seen only dirt, hungry and poverty and I would have only felt disconnected pity.  But, perhaps the true beauty of the Kenya Semester Program is not that we come home with incredible stories and Instagram-worthy pictures.  Perhaps we are truly lucky because we will return home changed; changed enough to not only see the fortune in our own lives, but hopefully we will return home changed enough to understand that fortune extends beyond our western definitions.  It is only found in the structural excess of a penthouse room or $500 Frye Boots, it can be found in children who wear the same clothes every day and in families who have so little but share it all with anyone around them.  The families and children that we met on our visit to Kibera had pride, determination and a love for others that went beyond the fortune currency and I feel lucky to learned so much from my short time there.

Karura Forest

On our first Friday excursion we left the hustle and bustle of downtown Nairobi and visited Karura Forest, an arboreal oasis inside the city itself. Karura Forest is one of the largest forests within city limits in the world, encompassing about 2,500 acres including wooded areas, pathways, rivers, and plenty of smaller animals such as dik-dik, duiker, bush pigs and various species of monkey.

One controversy after another has plagued the Karura forest since its founding in 1932, from logging and land grabbing to criminals and gangs using the forest as a hideout. Today, however, the forest has been reclaimed and is open to the public after a long battle by tenacious activists such as the late Wangari Mathai, former leader of the Green Belt Movement and Nobel Peace Price Laureate.

Our visit began with all 22 of us filing off the bus and piling into an old colonial-era squash court that had been converted into a projector house, where we met with an employee and watched a short documentary on the Forest’s tumultuous history. I was surprised to learn the size of the movement that took on the land developers and ultimately succeeded in preserving the forest for future generations, and that the movement here became a national symbol of resistance against land grabbing in Kenya.

Following our introduction to the significance of Karura we set off on a nature hike to explore the forest and some of its special natural features. Our guide Bernard first took us to Lily Lake, an abandoned stone quarry that has since been reclaimed by nature, a fitting tribute to the people who took back the forest from development. Continuing our walk, we soon found ourselves among towering coniferous evergreens that uncannily reminded many of us of forests back home in America. Our guide explained that during the colonial era a demand for timber to feed industry and the railroad led to many of these non-indigenous trees to be planted in Karura. This invasive species suffocates growth of native species by blocking sunlight and taking a lot of water, however, and are currently being replaced with native species over time by park managers.

Leaving the grove behind, our next stop was a series of caves tucked into a cliff-side. After roaming around the spacious caverns, we rested for a bit in the coolness of the caves and listened to our guide tell us of their role in Kenyan history. Considered sacred in ancient times, the caves served as a hideout for Mau-Mau during the fight for independence. After snapping a quick group photo, we trekked on to our last stop. The sound of rushing water grew louder and louder as we neared the last stop, and soon we found ourselves admiring a striking 15-meter waterfall that tumbled down a rock escarpment. This time there was no history lesson, just us enjoying our surroundings like so many other Nairobians who come to Karura to get a break from the grind of the city.

All in all, our time spent in Karura Forest was a refreshing change of pace from the busy first week of our urban homestays. We entered looking forward to spending an afternoon in the tranquil forest, and left with an appreciation for the efforts it took to save the forest for the public to enjoy today and the importance of public advocacy to preserve places like Karura for future generations.

The Urban Family Dynamic and the Blooming Generation Gap

I feel as though I can speak for most of the KSP when I say that describing the family and community dynamics of my urban home stay has been exceptionally difficult. In comparison to the rural home stay, there is much less of an attachment to one’s community in Nairobi than we experienced in Nyeri, which is where we did our rural home stays. While in Nyeri, our families knew almost everybody in town and even those with whom they were not familiar were welcomed with open arms. However, in our urban experiences, almost every home was a gated compound. In my experience, my family drove private cars up to their gate, which was electric and could be opened with a remote but was still guarded by an askari (the Swahili word for “soldier”). They knew very few people in their surrounding community and paid for everything independently. Having the ability to go to the local Nakumatt rather than purchasing milk from the family down the street created a much more isolated feeling within the home. The gates and hedges acted as a physical barrier from the rest of Nairobi and when I was in the house, I rarely felt the effects of urbanization.

We all attended classes downtown at the University of Nairobi and many of us lived with parents who work within the Nairobi business district. The commutes could be up to two hours long due to the fact that Nairobi is designed for about 250,000 people, but is home to as many as 4 million. Compared to our rural home stay experiences, my peers and I noticed that there is much more emphasis on education because the resources are more readily available and accessible in Nairobi than in Nyeri. Most of our mothers in the urban home stay had spent more time in school than those in our rural. As a result, the family sizes were slightly smaller. My urban home stay family was comprised of a mother, a father, and two sons, however my rural home stay family included a mother, father, three daughters, two aunts, two uncles, a son, and a grandmother. Because people, specifically women, in the rural areas tend to receive less formal education and ultimately make a living in agriculture, the family sizes are much larger because they need more helping hands on the farm. Furthermore, when women spend less time in school, they tend to have more children because they can being rearing babies at a younger age. In my experience, my urban home stay mother received both a B.A. and an M.A. in the United States and did not begin her family in Kenya until she was in her 30s. My rural home stay mom had her first child when she was in her early 20s because she did not go to university.

In terms of interfamily dynamics, we noticed a strong generational gap in the urban scene. The younger generation, those who are now high school and college aged, seemed to have a much stronger national identity while their parents and grandparents identified more with their traditional ethnic groups. In my household, my parents both spoke fluent Luo, which is their ancestral language. They also consider Kisumu, the hub of the Luo community, to be their homeland even though they live, work, and raise their children in Nairobi. My home stay brothers, however, were 14 and 20-years-old and considered themselves to be Nairobians first and Luos second. While they both said that they understand bits and pieces of the Luo language while their parents speak to one another, neither of the brothers can respond in Luo.

I thought it was fascinating that people my own age have started to move away from ethnic affiliation and form a national identity because as a result, Nairobi’s youth has created it’s own language to discuss subjects that have historically been cultural taboos. The language is called Sheng and is a mostly a fusion of Swahili and English but also includes words from other local dialects. Because the objective of Sheng is to speak without authority figures decoding the conversation, the language is constantly evolving with current events and words are reassigned new meanings very frequently. There have been several attempts to create Sheng dictionaries because the nature of the language renders the dictionaries obsolete in about a year. The government has caught on to Sheng and, consequently, a radio station called Ghetto Radio has emerged to educate young people on subjects such as sexual education, the importance of higher education, and how to drink responsibly. In 2005, the Kenyan government began using Sheng on billboards in a campaign about HIV/AIDS prevention to educate young people while avoiding offending the older generations who may have been taken aback by the public discussion of sexuality. The introduction of Sheng is enhancing the generational gap, however it has also had a unifying and education impact on people in the late teens and twenties.

The Jam: an inevitable aspect of life in NairobiKenya Root

One of the first things I talked about with my host parents was how I was going to get to the United Kenya Club in Nairobi from my home in the Nairobi suburb of Karen.  We settled on a plan of me taking a taxi into the city at 6:15 every morning in order to arrive by 8:30 when classes started.  So every school day of my urban home stay I would wake up at 5:15 have breakfast, get ready for class and then sit in traffic for two hours.

I had it worse than most of us, some only had a 30 minute drive into the city provided they left early enough.  The difference at leaving for Nairobi at 6:20 and 6:30 could make the difference between arriving at 6:50 and 7:30 for some of us.  So some students would leave earlier then necessary in order to spend 30 minutes commuting in rather than an hour.

While the commute was annoying it did provide time to do homework, read, or take a nap.  It was a bit of a break from our hectic schedule, a time where there wasn’t anything I was supposed to be doing and no pressure to be productive.  When you have as much going on as we do even sitting in traffic can prove relaxing.

Traffic in Nairobi is a mix of private cars, taxies, and Matatus.  Matatus are the privet bus system that supplies most of the “public” transport for the Nairobi area.  They cost between 50-100 Kenyan Shillings and run on roots in and out of Nairobi.  They are known for their unique paint jobs and the loud music they play.  The Matatu system is poorly regulated however with many drivers bribing Police Officers instead of keeping their vehicles up to code.  They also partly fill the public transportation need in Nairobi as the city lacks government run transit systems.

To attempt to reduce traffic many roads are being expanded but the city is having a hard time keeping up with the cities rapidly expanding population.  The city’s population has increased by over a million in the past decade and the growth shows no signs of slowing down in the immediate future.  A train system is planned to be built within the next couple years, but, it has run into funding and corruption problems.  In the absence of such public transit the Jam in Nairobi is readily apparent for the daily commuter.


Tanzania Spring 2016

By Cat Bennett, Julia Simoes, Emery Younger and Annie Wilcox
Photo credit to Julia Simoes and Annie Wilcox

Jambo marafiki na familia! Last week, KSP Spring 2016 spent the week in Tanzania living with the Hadzabe. It was an enriching week, and we returned relatively unscathed. St. Lawrence uses a safari company called Dorobo Safaris, which is an ecotourism organization that works side by side with the Hadzabe to provide an authentic and educational experience. Throughout the week, we went hunting and gathering, climbed baobab trees, and did a number of other activities that the Hadza practice on a daily basis. We were able to not only learn about their culture, but engage in it.

The Hadza are a small ethnic community of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. Currently, there are about 1200 left and 800 practicing their traditional culture. The best theoretical evidence for evolution suggests that the Hadza are the oldest people on Earth, having evolved into bipedal humans as long as 100,000 years ago. Most interestingly, their story of divinity aligns most closely with the theory of evolution. The Hadza believe that they evolved from baboons, where half decided to stay baboons and the other half evolved into bipedal humans with opposable thumbs. The Hadza believe that they evolved from baboons, where they were told by Haine (God) that they would be Hadzabe, and decided the others (the baboons) would remain as they were.The connection that they have with their ancestors is a powerful one that has allowed them to thrive in a harsh climate with no history of famine. Compared to other world cultures, this is a feat.

We arrived in the evening just before sunset. The evening passed quickly with dinner and small group discussions with the Hadza. After the brief introduction, we were ready for bed having driven all day. The following morning, we left our campsite to walk to a Hadzabe  village about thirty minutes away. There were about twenty-five people living there. The Hadza usually break off into smaller groups about that size, but the communities aren’t steadfast, and a person can move to a new community if s/he feels like it. Because the Hadza have autonomy over themselves by the age of eight, and the skills to hunt and gather, they can easily leave one community for another.This    personal freedom has both led to and been a result of their egalitarian, leaderless society. Everyone has an equal voice, the entire community makes decisions together and every person’s contribution matters. While there are gendered divisions of labor – the men hunt and the women gather – no task is seen as better than the other. They contribute equally and share equallyimage001

After greeting everyone in the village, we broke up into small groups again and visited the elders in their homes. The structures of the homes are made with thick branches and are covered with dry grass to keep the rain out. The houses are small, but are generally only used for sleeping. Because they are hunter-gatherers and live a nomadic lifestyle, the Hadza typically move every few months. This specific community had been in the same place for three years, however, because of the abundant wildlife in the area allowing them to easily find food. We met with an elder who answered questions about their lifestyle. We asked him about changes he has seen since he has been alive. He explained how his people stopped wearing skins years back and began wearing Western clothing. He also has seen the introduction of phones in recent years. A lot of these changes came after independence in Tanzania in ­­­­1961. After independence, the Hadza lost about 90% of their land causing insecurity and changes in their lifestyle. Other ethnic groups began to put pressure on the Hadza land boundaries. The Hadza rely on untouched land. The pastoral and agricultural communities were threatening this until, with the help of Dorobo, they secured a large portion for themselves. Regardless, their lifestyle is being threatened.image002

After meeting with the elder members of the community, we headed out to gather //ekwa tubers, a major source of water for the Hadzabe. The Hadza harvest four types of tubers, each found in specific environments and each highly rich in nutrients and minerals. Said “vegetables” are actually part of the root systems of native trees – to find them, one stamps a digging stick on the ground around an appropriate tree. A dull, short sound means that tubers are there, and on our excursion, we were able to find a number of large, moisture-filled //ekwa. To eat them, we simply peeled off the bark and cut the flesh into pieces – our mouths quickly filled with the surprising flavour of snow peas. It was fascinating to learn later on that the trees from which //ekwa originate (Grewia bicolor) are also the ones used to make digging sticks, arrows and ropes, as well as provide berries seasonally. A true all-purpose tree!!

Later, we watched the Hadza light a fire by moving a long, thin stick quickly downward on another piece of wood. This creates a spark, and in a short time, there were tubers roasting over a large fire. Per Hadza culture, the tubers were shared equally between everyone. We also gathered honey, a staple for the Hadzabe. The Hadza cut open a tree which had a small hive of stingless bees inside. The larger hives with stinging bees produce a much larger amount of honey, but were not ready to harvest at the time. A few tiring (for us) hours of gathering later, we headed back to our campsite for a highly anticipated lunch.image003

After a relaxing afternoon, mostly spent keeping out of the blazing Tanzanian sun, we met in the early evening meeting with the Hadza men. We split into small groups and had an opportunity to make traditional Hadza arrows. As a hunting-oriented culture, these arrows are necessary for the Hadza to collect their food, and they have perfected the making of such weapons. Before being carved into an arrow, the sticks are placed over the fire so that they can be stripped of their bark. Next, the ends of the arrows are carved to create room for both an aerodynamic feather at one end, and an arrowhead at the other. These arrows vary in intensity depending on their intended target. For example smaller, rounder arrows are meant for birds, whereas larger, poison-filled arrows are kept for bigger animals such as giraffes.image004

Early the next morning, we had an opportunity to see these tools in action.  Our hunting groups set out into the bush around 6:30 am. Each group was comprised of roughly 3 students and a Hadza guide. Walking into the wilderness, however, it is easy to see how the Hadza’s lifestyle is being threatened by external factors. As we travelled with our Hadza guide we not only saw giraffe and cheetah tracks, but also domesticated cow tracks. These tracks are left behind by pastoralists who once lived elsewhere in the Great Rift Valley, but have recently been pushed closer and closer to Hadza land. Since gaining independence, Tanzania’s population has grown from 10 million inhabitants to over 40 million. This rapid increase has reduced the amount of available land and caused pastoralist and agriculturalist groups to previously untouched areas.

Dorobo Safaris has worked hard to combat the rapid land loss that the Hadza face. Through the Dorobo Fund, which is supported both by individual donors and a portion of Dorobo’s profits, land certificates are being purchased on behalf of the Hadza. This provides the Hadzabe with a proof of ownership, and allows them to evict pastoralists or poachers who enter their property. Today the work of Dorobo has preserved an entire valley for the sole use of the Hadza.

During our hunting,we explored much of the Hadza’s pristine land. However, of the seven groups of hunters that trekked out on Wednesday, only one returned to camp with a kill. The successful group was led by a Hadza hunter named Moshi, which means smoke in Swahili. Roughly halfway into their journey, Moshi shot down a female Guinea Fowl. When he went to pick up the bird he realized that she had left behind 7 chicks. Each of the St. Lawrence students who accompanied Moshi was asked to place a few chicks in their pocket to bring them back to camp. At camp one of our Dorobo guides decided that he would take the chicks home with him and raise them to become adults. Throughout the day we played with the adorable chicks, until a few of the Hadza women saw the small birds and decided that they would be a great afternoon snack. Before we knew it, and despite some of our protests, the chicks were slaughtered and placed into the fire for the Hadza to enjoy. While at first this act seemed cruel to many of us, we soon recognized the viewpoint of the Hadza. As a nomadic group that is focused on an immediate return economy, the Hadza saw no reason to expend their energy in raising the chicks. When your society is constantly on the move with few personal possessions, it is difficult to justify the raising of a domesticated animal. For our group this experience of hunting was one of the most memorable, and a few students even decided to awake at 6:00 am the following morning to have another chance to hunt with Hadza.

Hadzabe culture, however, involves much more than finding food. In living with and learning from the Hadzabe, we were lucky enough to have two wazungu birthdays occur! Traditionally the Hadzabe do not (as best we could infer) celebrate birthdays on a yearly basis, simply because they do not have such a sense of time. When Maloba, for instance – a respected hunter and older member of the community – was asked his age, he responded, “Si jui” (I don’t know.”) Westerners, however, as I am sure readers can vouch for, hold birthdays in high esteem, and our guide extraordinaire, Mama Maggie, set up quite the celebration. Two cakes, a crate of bia (beer) and enough singing and dancing to overflow ones heart. Hadzabe dances, it seems, are communal in nature – none of the pairing-off that occurs at college parties. These ab-workout extravaganzas involve circles, conga-like lines, competitions and songs from all. As students and visitors, most of us stuck to the outside circle at first.  With a little cajoling, however, soon we were making our way around the fire, chanting with every other step. A couple of us even had the opportunity to compete in what was undoubtedly the most hilarious and difficult dance in Tanzania – a type of frog-like, squatting movement around the fire.

The thing is, many stereotypes about hunter gatherers imply that such a culture just doesn’t have the time or energy for celebrations, dancing or fun in general. As someone interested in the efficacy and continuity of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, I have often been told that the reason Homo sapiens began utilizing agriculture was that the natural food supply was unreliable and ensuring a meal is hard work.  The Hadzabe existence, however, disproves such ideas. During the week we were in Tanzania, singing, games, laughter and an all-around feeling of happiness was abound.  For people like Moshi, Maria, Esther and Chaqua, songs can be heard while harvesting //ekwa, ‘Last Cardi’ is played while the moon rises, and celebrations take place with every large kill. Hunting and gathering takes, at most, half a day. The rest of the time, people are free to do whatever they like, whether that be beading jewelry (another important aspect of Hadza identity), putting together arrows, or sharpening their unique skills (we met a musical genius who constructs two-string violins out of gourds).

In all, we are not trying to romanticize the Hadzabe culture, and perhaps the idea of regular celebrations does that. The reality is, however, that the Hadzabe are well able to both provide for themselves all their basic needs and more. They have no history of starvation, they work less than any agriculturalists I’ve ever met, and their fun encompasses everyone.  When you live in a society where food is readily available, sharing is obligatory and egalitarianism is inherent, why not have a little fun?image005

Our last full day with the Hadza began at a leisurely pace, setting the tone for the day. With breakfast not being served until 9:00 a.m., we had time to sleep in a bit and get a cup of coffee (or three) in us before the day’s activities began. First on the agenda was climbing the Baobab tree that stood tall and wide in the center of our campsite. Its presence had been taunting us all week, just asking to be climbed, and finally the time had come. We watched from the ground as two Hadza men quickly worked their way up the trunk, pegging it as they went with wooden holds they had handmade earlier that morning. After testing the strength of each peg by climbing up and down the tree in what seemed like a matter of seconds, the Hadza deemed it safe for our clumsy attempts at ascent. Having been warned that using old pegs is considered bad luck, we were eager to discover just what baobab-climbing entailed.

One at a time we ventured up, making sure to keep the instructed three points of contact with the pegs at all times. Once making it to the top, we were able to release our sweaty palms from the holds, rest on a branch, and take it all in – the process, the climb, the view. It was nice knowing we were able to experience one more part of the Hadza lifestyle, gaining a stronger sense for what their day-to-day lives entail.image006

After a relaxing afternoon of reading and catching up on some much needed journaling, we split up into four discussion groups, each with about six of us students, five Hadza, and one Dorobo guide to serve as a translator. Each group focused on a different topic, ranging from education to tourism. It was during this time that we were able to have a dialogue in which we could hear directly from the Hadza about the issues they are facing that we had learned about prior to and during our trip. This was an invaluable experience because it informed our understanding of these issues in a way that never would have been attainable by simply reading or talking about them in a classroom. They explained the balance that needs to be found between educating their youth in a formal system and maintaining their culture and population in a traditional sense. This will allow them to strengthen their voice when it comes to tackling issues such as their land rights, which will ultimately allow them to strengthen their cultural community.

As the discussion groups came to a close, a few of us made our way over to the outdoor kitchen area where many of the Hadza had assembled. When we got closer, we saw that six of the Hadza men were playing some sort of card game in which they would throw (and I mean throw) down their cards and sporadically yell in excitement. Being lovers of a good card game ourselves, we asked to join, and sat down as they made room for us in their circle. We learned the game was called “Last Cardi” and thanks to their encouragement and patience, we were quickly able to pick up on the rules, realizing it resembled our game of Uno or Crazy Eights. Leading by example, they taught us the proper technique for playing each card, and some of the words for the suits (Diamonds = Kisu – the Kiswahili word for knife). As each turn passed, our smiles grew. The whole group laughed when someone had to “draw 4,” one of the Hadza men Shakwa kept sneaking a peak at our poorly hidden hands and would respond with a sly giggle when we caught him, and we celebrated like crazy when one of us finally won the game.

We had already begun reliving our many rounds of “Last Cardi” as we returned to our tents to wash for dinner. Something that we typically approached as a simple pastime had been made infinitely more fun because we were able to share that time with new people. We were able to connect, and joke, and enjoy each other’s company regardless of any cultural differences between us. The Hadza reminded us that despite coming from entirely distinct places, and practicing varying lifestyles, all it takes is a game of cards to find some common ground.

Our day ended on the rock that stood like a hill near our campsite. This was our place to retire to in the evenings after the fire by which we ate dinner had died down. Our nights here were some of my favorite times, not just because of the clear, star-filled sky that lay above us, but because it became our common ground. The rock was a place where we as students and the Hadza could physically come together. Despite our language and cultural barriers, we could find a way to communicate. Although we were only able to share our names, our likes and dislikes, there was such a vivid feeling of excitement when we had been working towards explaining something in our broken Swahili, and they finally understood us and were able to respond.

It was on this last night, after the Hadza returned to their fire, that we started to reflect on all that we had learned from our week. Going into this experience, the differences were expected. It can be anticipated that a hunter-gatherer community in Northern Tanzania goes about their everyday life differently than 22 college students from the North Country. During our days with the Hadza, they shared with us their value for self-sufficiency and independence, while also emphasizing the importance of remaining a close community dedicated to sharing and equality. We also experienced the purest embodiment of the phrase “live in the moment.” That saying has never made more sense then when going for a morning walk to find tubers to eat for that day’s lunch, or cooking eight Guinea Foul chicks because people are hungry for an afternoon snack, or playing an hour of cards because it’s still too hot to go hunting for dinner and some entertainment is desired. However, amongst these practical differences, we were able to connect with the Hadza on a human level. From that connection we gained an immense respect for how they live.image007

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.