As part of our summer collaborative research project(s) in 2021-2022, we conducted a rural host-siblings’ writing competition. Participants were drawn from both Nyeri and Kericho, the two communities where KSP has conducted rural homestays since 2013. The essay prompt sought siblings’ analytical interpretations of the impact of hosting our students to them as individuals, their families and the wider host community. Below are the three best essays that we got. We welcome you to read and enjoy.

Meeting Cultural ‘Others’, Rethinking Stereotypes: The Impacts of Hosting St. Lawrence University Students During the Rural Homestay in Nyeri, Kenya

(By Agnes W. Muita).

I grew up in a small beautiful village at the foot of the Aberdares, with green hills and valleys colored by coffee plantations and fruit trees. On a normal day, parents are working in plantations which are the main source of livelihood, while children play all kinds of games near the river. I am the eldest of 3 siblings brought up by my dad, a senior sergeant at the Kenya Defense Forces, and my mom, a community & local church leader and farmer. Our parents took us to the best private schools around, but I didn’t leave my town until I joined Kenyatta University in Nairobi. University opened up new horizons and realized the vastness and diversity that is in our country, Kenya. However, it wasn’t until we started hosting students from St. Lawrence University in 2015, that I got out of my comfort zone and began viewing the world through a wider lens. I was now curious. Curious, not only about the students’ cultures and lifestyles, but also American history and politics. This would be the beginning of what has now sprouted into a journey of lessons on cultural awareness and appreciating our culture.

The rural homestay program has allowed for deep and ‘authentic’ interactions between parents, siblings, and American students. Having the students in our homes and taking part in similar activities has laid bare our similarities, and how they intertwine in the most beautiful ways. Each hosting has been a rollercoaster of fun interactions with peers where we play games and make chapatis while chatting about the most random things like music, books, and TV characters. Hosting has also pushed me out of my comfort zone. For example, not a day would you find me in the farm, but rest assured I will milk a cow here and harvest some maize there whenever a student is around. These social interactions have formed a basis for short-term and long-term relationships. After the rural hosting in 2018, my sister Linzy and I met for some cold beers while cheering my favorite rugby team. We have since stayed in touch on Instagram. My family and I find extreme joy in these moments that are fun learning experiences. Fun learning experiences because my parents can now speak fluent English more confidently than before by the way. With such interactions, one appreciates the world as a beautiful space with a fine blend of the same people painted in different colors.

The program has further allowed us to reflect on our own culture and appreciate the small and big things in life. Despite living in a small village endowed with a very rich culture, sometimes we fail to appreciate it and instead view it as a “normal” experience. Whenever students visit for the rural homestay, they embrace many elements of our culture that we normally overlook. The majority of the students grow up with minimal cultural rules on issues like greeting elders or dressing around them. How they embrace these differences is evident through the long skirts they wear whenever they come for the rural homestay.  Such actions reveal the importance of open-mindedness and free-spiritedness when mingling with people from different cultures. Hosting students has also introduced some modern elements that were handled differently in the traditional setup. These elements that have been welcomed and blended into our household. For instance, as children, we were not allowed to ask questions about how our parents met until a student innocently asked. The shift in cultural perspectives has led to more liberal and independent thinking among family members. Previously ‘tough’ conversations are now characterized by humor and respectful satire.

Growing up in an African household, it’s good practice to maximize the quality of a visitor’s stay and create an impressive first impression. While trying to be accommodative of the cultural “others”, we have made some renovations and “upgrades” to various social amenities in our home. For example, we made a decent bathroom upgrade from the traditional outdoor pit latrine to an in-house one with modern facilities. Students also gift us when visiting our homes such as bringing their local maple syrup. In our culture, gifting is at the forefront of establishing and maintaining good social relations.  For instance, growing up, our parents always carried farm produce such as maize and arrowroots when visiting friends and relatives. Other acts by students that we host include surprise dinners that have contributed to the cultivation of new family traditions. Previously, our parents preferred home-cooked meals rather than eating out as they viewed the latter as an “unnecessary luxury”. This perception has since changed with some students treating us to surprise meals in nearby restaurants. The dinners have since become a uniting family tradition where we occasionally meet, laugh, and chat over a meal away from home.

Besides allowing me to interact with peers from different countries, the program has offered numerous opportunities to appreciate Kenya’s cultural diversity. In June 2022, we were treated to a life-changing weekend in Naivasha as part of a research project led by the program’s assistant director, Dr. Wairungu, and his counterpart Mr. Njau, funded by St. Lawrence University. Brilliant ideas and connections were born from the interactions among youths from two communities: Kikuyus of Nyeri and Kipsigis of Kericho. More importantly, a cultural merge cultivated unity among youths from communities who are currently experiencing political tension as we approach the August 2022 Kenyan elections. Additionally, I was lucky to hike and camp with mom (a program coordinator), who hadn’t camped before. It is worthwhile noting that in an African household, one cannot freely behave or express opinions that go against the African societal grain. Young unmarried women are not allowed to speak to men openly. The Naivasha experience enabled me to interact freely with my peers without worrying that mom was watching my every move. It also allowed her to cautiously let her guard down, and wear shorts & snapbacks. She could finally compartmentalize her personality: explore and embrace her goofy, open-minded self while preserving her uptight and conservative side.

As a young person, I now feel empowered to travel the world and mingle with various cultures. With 195 different countries & thousands of cultures, the opportunities for a young girl from the village to immerse herself in different cultures are life-changing and limitless. It is an empowerment tool for many young people who can now travel and confidently interact with people from all parts of the world. The St. Lawrence rural homestay program is a great breeding ground for fresh perspectives and deep interactions. Besides that, parents can now relate with their children easily and understand their points of view as well. It opens us up to self-realizations, appreciating who we are, and viewing the world as a fine fusion of similar people painted in different colors. And in John Dewey’s famous words, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience”.

Unexpected Influences: How Guests from Across the Ocean are Changing Our Life Outlook

(By Robert N. Gakumu, Nyeri).

It must have been in my first year of college that St Lawrence University granted us the gracious offer of hosting one of their students under the Kenya Semester – Rural Homestay Program. To be honest, it sounded daunting, given that personally, and even among my family, none of us had ever spent time abroad in a different culture or immersed in another culture. The only person that would have claimed that sort of privilege would be my dad, who while working with catholic missionaries had found himself working with people from all walks of life including Africans from all corners like the Congo and Ghana, but also luckily, American missionaries. It took his convincing for us to believe that it would be possible for an American to “endure” the kind of rural life we were used to. Unbeknownst to any of us in the family, this would usher in one quite interesting chapter. Quite frankly it wouldn’t have come at a better time for me.

Study Abroad Programs is something I have had an interest in but couldn’t really get the jinx of it, having never been involved in one. The SLU program has been such an eye-opener in that regard, and even though I have not traveled abroad just yet, seeing myself, and our family from the eyes of someone that is from such a different culture has had a couple of unintended consequences. I’d like to start with how this has helped me regain confidence that I didn’t even know I had lost. 

You see, growing up, and especially reading about the history of Westerners in Kenya, it’s almost impossible to perceive them as anything other than a “superior race”, an obnoxious term I should add. The British themselves, who have a lot of shared history with America, came to Kenya, and specifically among the Agikuyu where I’m from, around the turn of the 19th century. In their words, it was “a place of unexplored potential.” This potential, oddly, could only be realized if they forcibly took the land and developed it. They did this by effectively enslaving the local population, draining away the last of their strength as forced labor.  In a sense, despite all the good things they brought like education and modern medicine, they inadvertently also established an oppressive social hierarchy. It was firstly based on skin color, but also the general well-being of a family. Those that collaborated with the colonists, and accepted Christianity, and education earlier also wound up, much better financially. This is generally the legacy that colonialism left behind, and under the backdrop of which we were educated and raised.

To then clearly reverse this whole idea, and have American guests at our home, and have them live in it without preconditions of the perks of modern life, or requiring us to adjust our diet or language or even routine, was such a change in the way I thought of westerners and something that will likely stay with me for life. I have in general found our SLU guests to be nothing as I’d thought they would be, based on my experience learning from history books. They have been courteous and kind and I have never observed anything that I would construe as having been racial bias, which I must say was unexpected.

On the flip side, the fact that we were hosting Americans seemed to have put our family right in the spotlight in a surprising way. In the village, people wondered how we could have American guests. Was it that we were rich behind the scenes? Some of our friends even spun interesting, some downright comical theories on some of the reasons that we would be having “mzungus” at our home. You couldn’t really just throw in a “rural homestay Program for American students” in the way and expect that to pass. I personally had to grapple with questions, like if I was marrying one of the girls myself and was just keeping the news private for the moment, much to my bemusement! One of my savvier friends from the village even put to me an odd, but nonetheless, interesting question. He wondered if we were hosting agents of the well-known US intelligence organization, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in some covert (recolonization?) mission in Kenya. As much as it found me off-guard at that moment, it wasn’t so farfetched an idea.

My sister, Emma, would later come to find this out while out on an excursion with one SLU guest.  When they encountered an elderly man that was a veteran of Kenya’s Independence war of the late 50s, he was extremely jittery at the sight of a young white man deep in the village, perhaps evocative of those calm days before all hell broke loose many years back. This is proof that it could still be unsettling for some, to this day. I have personally taken it up, in my own small way to help my village people understand this kind of study abroad program and the importance of cultural exchange programs in general. Perhaps with more of this, and as my understanding of these programs grows through my own experience, these notions will die down. Eventually, my village people will also perhaps obtain a much more global outlook of life as well.

Remarkably, hosting our SLU guests within the family has also been an eye-opener as regards our specific Agikuyu culture. Because this is where I have been raised, and now as an adult, I still continue to thrive in the same community, I have tended to really think of it as dull, non-exciting, and unremarkable in most ways, as I have been subsumed in the mostly idealized life of the West primarily through the movies, and western news channels. Hardly did I realize that such beauty could be found in the culture, landscape, and atmosphere of the place where I grew up. I looked at the amazing pictures of the sun rising over Mt Kenya that our guest sister Ella took. I couldn’t believe it has been lying there in front of us the whole time! I couldn’t stop scrolling through pictures of what I had usually thought of as just mere weeds. Not to mention the amazing local fauna that I had grown so accustomed to, to even notice. Although I had been seeing this all my life, looking at these scenes from the fresh look of our guests has always been awe-inspiring.  It gets me to appreciate what we have around us, unlike idealizing what isn’t.

Our host siblings, interestingly, have also been very appreciative of our food, and the fact that it’s really grown and cooked organically, and that has led me to assume that probably is not a privilege many westerners enjoy, because of the massive industrial food processing. I wonder if we will lose our unique and healthy food habits with the rapid “modernization” of every sector currently sweeping through our country.

Beginning recently, we have also started to interact and engage with other SLU host siblings from Kericho County, Kenya. Admittedly it’s also having a profound effect on the way that I perceive other cultures even in Kenya, and it has also been an eye-opener for the amount of diversity, but also commonalities that we share with them. Politicians will usually want to stoke the differences to pit one against the other like in this year of elections. Just like SLU siblings, who come from across the oceans to stay with us, I hope we could also start to do more similar activities among ourselves even here in Kenya, as there is a lot of undiscovered beauty even amongst the multiplicity of cultures in Kenya. Sadly, this too is something I haven’t taken up to explore by myself, and thankfully St Lawrence University happened in our lives, that I can now even realize this gap.

Just like the incredible culture of tree planting that our guest siblings brought with them, as not just an act of nature conservation, but also as a symbol of a long and lasting friendship, we do really hope that our learning, interaction, and friendship with the St Lawrence community will last our lifetimes and beyond.


(By Abigail C. Korir, Kericho). 

There is a famous Swahili phrase, ‘mgeni njoo mwenyeji apone’ loosely translated as when a visitor comes, the host gets well. For the past 2 years, I am confident that I have come to understand its meaning. The interaction with the St. Lawrence University Students has done us well. As I speak in plural, I refer to my kinsmen and me. There is enlightenment we got as we have interacted with them that has almost seemed like health for us.

The year 2020 started rather usual but as time went by it proved to be more and more promising. In February of that year, we received our first foreign exchange student and the excitement was above and beyond. Speaking, we felt a bit nervous and anxious, there was a mixture of emotions. One moment we are excited to meet the new family members and the other we are worried about whether we had done enough to make them feel comfortable and safe. But as soon as the first student arrived, we hit it off as though we had been long-distance pen pals who just reunited. In a few hours, we found topics of interest we could talk about and even laugh about.

Has their visit had any impact? I know that’s the question we are all asking ourselves and the answer is YES. For a long time, I had taken my culture for granted but when they came, I realized how culturally wealthy we are. I have learned to appreciate the wealth and the vastness of my culture even in its simplest forms. For example, language may seem obvious because we have been speaking it for a long time, but as I watched my new siblings curious to learn Kiswahili and Kalenjin, my local language, it made me value it even more. Even getting to understand the origin of a few words gave me more reasons to take pride in my language. One of them would often joke that due to the majority of languages, she considered us luckier and brighter than them, because they had only one language, English. Me, I had never seen it in such a manner, but as I listened to her explain such nuggets to me enthusiastically, I couldn’t be prouder.

As I grew up, I was constantly told by my teachers that beneath our skin, we are all the same. I hardly believed them or rather I just saw it as their means of making us study harder but as soon as I had one of the St. Lawrence students living under the same roof with me, I fully understood it. How they had feelings just like us, how they had hobbies just like us, how they laughed and even thought like us. One of my foreign siblings would often tell me that she despised seeing all that those African women were going through, things like wife battery, which remains dominant in some African homes. Her knowledge that despite all, women still had rights, made me love and appreciate my womanhood. It brought out in me the desire to fight for women’s rights and to support those in need even more.

In addition, growing up as a young black teenage girl was not always easy. Having grown up with people who appreciated a lighter skin color than mine, longer and flowy hair than mine, and all things foreign to who I was. But as we were playing chess one evening, one of my new siblings lightly commented and said that I was beautiful and I had a good sense of fashion (which I earlier on found quite hilarious). Just a simple comment like that boosted my confidence and I started being more comfortable in my skin like one ready to conquer the world. At that time, I didn’t tell her how much she had impacted me but she sure left me a better person.

Furthermore, hosting the St. Lawrence students to me was also as though I had gone to the United States of America for a week. I was intrigued to see how much they knew about their country and how passionate they were about their cultures. They happily took their time and taught us various subjects; politics, careers, marriages, and holidays, just to mention a few. The topic that fascinated me more was that of marriage. Here in Africa, marriage is such an important stage that there are various activities attached to it. For instance, family introduction, dowry payment, traditional wedding (in a few communities), and the so-called English wedding before the groom and the bride can start living together. However, these activities are dependent on the communities and the parties involved. Therefore, I was amazed to learn that there was no dowry payment in the States, unlike in Africa where dowry payment is highly regarded and important before the onset of any marriage.

Cultural differences are what makes each part of the world valuable, unique, adventurous, and relevant. As a family, learning the various ways of cooking spaghetti that is, the different recipes, has been of help, that we can gather as a family and interact or chat over a meal whose recipe we got from our new siblings.

Waking up every morning to go to the farm has become something to look forward to every day since we learned that 80% of the food in the USA is either imported or processed. We saw how privileged we were to have a farm that had 90% of the food we consume at home. With this kind of sure food supply, we can ensure that we are leading healthy lives and thus reducing the risks of lifestyle diseases.

St. Lawrence University gave us the opportunity to also interact with siblings from other host families within the country but a different “ethnic” community. Specifically, 11 host siblings from the Kispigis community of Kericho spent a weekend camping at Lake Naivasha with 14 other host siblings from the Kikuyus of Nyeri. On day one, we had intriguing conversations and cultural performances around the bonfire, socialized as we played cards, and later hiked Mt. Longonot the following day. These activities taught us how to depend on each other, and how to love and care for one another. The social experience was unique and not so dissimilar to interacting with students from the USA. Despite our cultural differences, I learned from our interactions that we are all one big family and should always be united. This is a lesson that I will always hold dearly even with the upcoming general elections in Kenya.

In Conclusion, I can only say that what St, Lawrence University is doing is noble and great. The impacts the program has had on my family and me are unexplainable, the examples given above are just but a pinch. My desire in me to dominate the world in the engineering sector has spiked greatly after interacting with the students. Studying abroad has become something I can look forward to with no fear knowing that across the world there are people we share common values and thoughts. But even as I look forward to studying abroad, I will travel locally and have adventures just here. The world is my oyster. I am eternally grateful.

Thank you!

Mombasa Fall 2021

Hey all. Following our trip to Amboseli we drove right to Mombasa. There is a lot to be said about this city, here’s what two SLU students thought about our wonderful few days there.
Mombasa has historically been a hub for interaction between Arabs, Persians, Indians, Europeans as well as native populations within Kenya. The Mjikenda are bantu and are the largest local ethnic group in the Coastal region of Kenya, they are accompanied by the Pokomo. Swahili people and inland groups that have migrated to the coast overtime also make up the diverse peoples of coastal Kenya.
The first Omani Arabs arrived on the coast of Kenya in the 12th century. Kiswahili (the Swahili language) eventually became the way of communication between local Bantu peoples and the Omani traders and settlers. Indian and Chinese peoples also made contact on the coast of Kenya early on. In the late 15th century the Portugese, lead by Vasco De Gama arrived with aims to take over trade from the Omanis. Since then kiswahili has adapted to include Portugese words and the Swahili culture draws from local Kenyan, Arab, Portuguese, Indian and Brithish culture. Turkish forces briefly took control of the coast from Omani peoples before the arrival of the British. However, the UK did not assume power over the coast until the creation of the East African protectorate in 1895 due to the power and integration of wealthy Omani Families in the region.
Throughout history Swahili people have seen themselves as distinct and different from the local native Africans of Kenya, often viewing themselves as more educated, powerful and civilized. This distinction comes from the involvement of Arabs in the slave trade and domestic enslavement of African peoples. As a result there is an economic structure on the coast that often benefits descendants of wealthy Arab families. During the colonial period, the coastal region was often excluded from development that was centered in the white highlands. Swahili people were further isolated by the tendency toward Muslim education and resistance to westernized, Christain education.
Today the coastal region is still isolated politically and socially from inland Kenya. A history of ethnicity based politics has lead to a lack of employment opportunities and educational institutions on the coast and stigmas around the Muslim religion has lead to danger and fear for Swahili people who leave the coast. Recently the central government moved the port of Mombasa from Mombasa to Lamu and the processing of items imported to an inland port, leaving the people of Mombasa without transport and processing jobs. With this move the tourism industry and specifically sex tourism has become a back bone in Mombasa’s economy.
Our time in Mombasa was one of experiential education. While it may have been the most beautiful place ever to many, there was a lot of education. During the five days we spent there we learned much about the city. That includes history, religion, and social aspects of everyday life. We went through tours, listened and discussed during guest panels, and had an amazing time.
Our first official day in Mombasa was quite the time. We took a drive over to Old Town, where we began the day with a visit to Fort Jesus. The Fort was built in the 1590s by the Portuguese, but was later taken over by the Omani Arabs. There was an interesting mix of cultural architecture inside the fort, which adds to its charm. The combination of our excellent tour guide, and the museum inside of the fort provided for a very educational and fun experience. After that our guides took us on a tour of the city. We learned more about the history of the city until we were led to the markets. Many students bought clothing, spices, and fresh coconut. Our guides taught us the ins and outs of the market, such as where to find “The greatest spice shop in Mombasa ”,Sunshine Spice co. This was the perfect introduction to our stay in Mombasa. We got to learn about the vast history of the city, as well as a taste of market life, and a taste of coconut!
Our second day in Mombasa started off with a documentary, followed by a visit to HAKI Africa. HAKI is an NGO based in Mombasa, but provides coverage to all of Africa. HAKI provides a safe space and resource to those abused or hurt by others or the law as well as provides information to citizens on their rights and ways to keep safe. HAKI wants to create trust with the citizens and the police, as there is love lost between the people and the police. They also participate and organize rallies and protests, to stand up against injustice in their community. After our visit to HAKI we went to lunch, and after lunch we visited a nearby Mosque, the Mandhry Mosque to be exact. The Mandhry Mosque is the oldest mosque in Mombasa, the elegant place of worship was a highlight to many. Inside we saw old artifacts built into the mosque that have been around since its founding in 1570. Many of us never set foot in a mosque so it provided a wonderful experience. We talked to members of the mosque about what Islam truely is, and why there is a stigma around it not only in their community, but a round the world. It was an amazing experience for many.
During our final day of activities we started the day with another educational documentary, followed by discussion in the morning. After that we went back into the city to talk to an organization called CHEC, which stands for coast hostess empowering community. The organization works with sex workers, providing them information and resourses on how to stay safe as well as access healhtcare and health resources, such as: family planning, STI treatment, mental health services, and many more. This was followed by a conversation and information session of Muslim mothers in the area. They taught us about the struggles that their families go through, due to islamophobia. These conversations were very informational and provided many students with new outlooks on serious issues. It was the perfect finale to our time in the city of Mombasa.
Henry’s Reflections
The first thing I noticed when arriving in Mombasa was how there was no desert sand and dust compared to Amboseli. The second thing I noticed was the absolute beauty of this amazing city, and the third thing I noticed was the heat. Never in my life have I been to a place as hot as Mombasa, but never in my life have I been to a place as beautiful as it. The inherent beauty wasn’t the only thing that captivated me in this city. The sheer difference in the speed of daily life compared to Nairobi, was surprising. Mombasa is the only city I’ve been to that is seemingly relaxed. It’s missing the hustle and bustle of bigger cities, which is an amazing thing. The city seems to work together which eliminates fast paced daily life many can struggle with. One of the coolest things I saw on the streets of Mombasa was a trade cart. The cart had different household appliances that one could trade for if they gave a piece of clothing. It was kind of like “leave a penny, take a penny”, but it had an actual purpose. Another thing I loved about the city was the history.
Fort Jesus was an amazing experience, being able to touch and stand in a place that’s been around since the 1590s is incredible. I think the tour of the fort was a great opening so that we could understand the sheer history of the city. When exploring Old Town the history of it all was clearer than the fort, everything kept its history from way back when. This is clear after looking at one of the first establishments we saw, a hotel. The Africa hotel is not only the oldest hotel in Mombasa, but the oldest in all of Kenya and it stands to this day. The history and culture that has been preserved in Mombasa is both breathtaking and insanely impressive.
I think the most influential thing learned in my time in Mombasa was learning about the stigma around Muslims. Mombasa and the coast are some of the only areas in Kenya with large populations of Muslims. In a Christain dominated country there is a large stigma against Muslims, this is perpetrated by portrayal in the media, as well as targeting by the government. We had a meeting with a trio of Muslim mothers who talked about the hardships they face, as well as the hardships their children face. When visiting the oldest mosque in Mombasa, we were able to further understand Islam. We were taught about the religion, were able to observe prayer, and have a discussion with the head of the mosque to further understand these issues. Our time in paradise was one of wonder and education, and something I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Piper’s Reflections
On our journey from Amboseli to Mombasa, it became very apparent to me that we were headed somewhere new and unlike anywhere we had explored before. The air coming through our bus windows became hotter and thicker, the earth outside became a deep burnt orange color and the style of bomas, or homesteads that we passed changed as well. We passed Baobab trees and pineapple farms and then big truck stops and towns with Mosques announcing prayer times to passersby. I knew we had arrived when I saw white sand out my window peeking out from low lying tropical plants. The beautiful resort that we stayed in faced the Indian ocean and the beach grew and shrank each day with the tides as we enjoyed swimming in the bath like water.
Throughout our time in Mombasa we learned a lot about how the coast varies from the rest of the country. The Swahili culture, Arab influence and large population of Muslim people sets the coastal region aside in special ways. Old Town, the oldest part of Mombasa is a reminder of all of the people who have come to the Kenyan coast to trade throughout history. The small streets and yellow buildings with intricate woodwork and balconies abound made me smile. Nairobi has no streets like this, I thought, Nairobi is new and fast paced and grey and here is a romantic city surrounded by water. On our first day after the tour of the ancient Portuguese Fort Jesus we went to a spice market and tasted and smelled the mingling of Kenyan, Indian and Arab flavors. At lunch we tasted spiced Swahili Coffee in tiny painted cups.
I learned quickly though that Mombasa and the Swahili people that are found there are not only different due to culture but due to the way they are treated, perceived and included politically. There are less resources allocated to the coast by the central government, such as schools, employment opportunities and investments. The proximity of the coastal county to Somalia has led to conflict between Police and the Muslim community and a stigmatization of Islam in Kenya as a whole. The mothers that we talked to about raising children in Mombasa expressed fear of discrimination and violence against their kids and potential abduction by the police. I was saddened and surprised when we entered the oldest Mosque in Mombasa and the Imam there felt the need to tell us, “See, there are no AKA 47s here”.
A lot of times this semester it feels like we are living two lives, the happy go lucky tourists who swim and stroll the streets and shop and go on booze cruises and the students who are passionate and thoughtful and concerned with the political and social issues facing the places we visit. I have said it many times, Mombasa feels like the most romantic place on earth, but is that only because I had the pleasure of being a visitor? Mombasa just like Nairobi is home to informal settlements and traffic jams and political unrest that is exacerbated by ethnic tensions and the war on terror. However, unlike Nairobi, Mombasa has the ocean and the influence of a history of world trade and that creates a truly magical tourism location. I am very glad to have the privilege of living both lives and seeing Mombasa through many different eyes.

Kenya Program Alumni Trip

“Engaging Africa: The SLU-Kenya Program Past and Present”
Travel Experience June 29 – July 9, 2019

This summer, you are invited to join Dr. Matt Carotenuto, KSP directors Abdelwahab Sinnary, Lina Karingi and Michael Wairungu for “Engaging Africa: The SLU Kenya Program Past and Present” Laurentian Travel Experience! Dr. Carotentuo will co-lead this trip with Kenya program directors and Njau Kibochi in an exploration of the transformational roots of the SLU-Kenya connection.

For more than four decades, St. Lawrence has built a unique connection with East Africa.  In January 1972 we embarked on a study abroad experiment.  Fifteen students and one faculty member spent three weeks in Kenya as part of the University’s effort to expand off-campus programs and explore opportunities in the developing world. By 2019, more than two-thousand students from over thirty different universities having spent a semester or summer term in East Africa via the Kenya Program or (KSP).  Our 2019 trip offers alumni an exclusive chance to experience some of this rich history.  Led by renowned Kenya program faculty and staff, participants will explore the program themes of culture, environment and development through an interactive and invigorating experience based on the traditions of the KSP’s past and present.

Trip Highlights:

  • Explore Kenya’s diverse cultures and environments, and visit world-class sites of wildlife conservation.
  • Stay on the St. Lawrence Nairobi Campus and meet Kenyan based alumni and program partners.
  • Engage with rural homestay families and view student internship sites.
  • Experience how unique the SLU-Kenya connection is!
  • Click here for a full Trip Itinerary

Housing Information:
Semi-private dorm style facilities in Nairobi, and 4-star safari accommodations during field components.  Some single occupancy travelers may be asked to share a room in Nairobi only.

Additional Information:

Trip Cost: $4,750 per person based on single or double occupancy. (Maximum-16 participants. Children ages 16 an up are welcome to accompany a parent or guardian). The trip is inclusive of the following.

  • Online introduction to Kenya and orientation for the trip run by Dr. Matt Carotenuto in Spring 2019
  • Full board accommodations (all meals), park fees and airport transfers from June 29th-July 9th
  • Semi private dorm style facilities in Nairobi, and 4 star safari accommodations during field components. Some single occupancy travelers may be asked to share a room in Nairobi only.
  • Transportation outside of Nairobi in extended cab Toyota Landcruiser Safari vehicles with professional drivers and field guides.
  • Local medical insurance and Flying Doctors medical evacuation coverage throughout the trip for each participant.
  • Five KSP staff and faculty will accompany the group outside of Nairobi and serve as guides.

Airfare and travel to Kenya is not included. We recommend exploring Kenya Airways new direct flight from JFK or many other popular options with layovers in Europe. Program staff would be happy to recommend additional ways to extend your trip and see other parts of East Africa. For questions please email or call Matt Carotenuto at (315-229-5456).

Full Trip Itinerary

Register Now to Secure Your Spot

Rural Homestay Spring 2018- Nyeri Finale

Tea fields of Nyeri bordering Aberdares National Park

Moriega! Welcome to our inaugural blog post from Kenya Semester Program, Spring 2018! We have just finished our third week and are settled in our lovely new home in Karen. While we love our beautiful compound and the bustling city of Nairobi right next door, we are reflecting and missing our new friends and family from rural Nyeri, North of the city. During our second week in Kenya we traveled North to live with families in East and West Tetu, on either side of the gorgeous Nyeri Hill. We spent the week learning about and experiencing agricultural life and now three of us (Molly Dower, Dana Tindall, and Lindsay McCarthy) are here to tell you all about it!

On our way to Nyeri we stayed a night at Sandai farm, just below Mount Kenya and took a morning walk on which many of the students saw their first giraffe! We then traveled to Tumutumu and visited a farm to learn about the Green Belt Movement and saw a tree planted by the movement’s founder, Wangari Maathai. Following a delicious, lunch at Julius and Lydia’s impressive, resourceful farm the students were welcomed by their families in Tetu West and East and began their homestay weeks.

Molly:  Coffee         

I love coffee. To me, coffee conjures images of early mornings before class and late nights in the library. I think of black coffee in a tin cup on a camping trip and sugary drinks in seasonal paper cups. To my rural homestay family, coffee is work done by hand. Coffee is sustenance, not via caffeine, but via income. Coffee is grown and picked. It is sorted and carried and weighed. Though coffee is the prominent cash crop in East Tetu, there is no culture of drinking it, as many families can not afford the final product of their hard work.

Every Wednesday my host family harvests coffee and carries the beans down the road to the factory near their farm in East Tetu. On this particular Wednesday, I got to help them and see first hand how coffee starts its long journey from the plant to the product that’s ubiquitous in my daily life back home.

After our breakfast of chai, yam, and toast my host mom and I walked down to the garden, or shamba, to start picking coffee. Peak coffee season ended in early December, so this would be the last harvest day until after the long rains of Spring. While we harvested, my host mom and I shared songs and she showed me how to choose the perfect beans to pick. We filled our buckets with beans and carried them up to the house, where the contents were poured onto a rug and sorted. As we sorted, we sipped uji, a traditional Kikuyu porridge of millet flour- my favorite new snack! The ripe beans, distinguishable by their deep red color, were put into a sack to be taken to the factory down the road. The green, unripened beans were set aside along with the overly dried, black beans called bone.

Because it was so late in the harvest season, the coffee we picked had already started fermenting on the plant. This coffee is termed grade B, and is still good for selling to the factory! My host mother, brother, and I walked to the factory through their beautiful village. Though they are used to the brilliant green landscape that surrounds East Tetu, it never fails to take my breath away.

When I envision factories, I think of smoke and metal, of dark places with many workers in closed up spaces. The coffee factory we arrived at defied every expectation. It was wide open, operated by just a few people and minimal machinery, overlooking a lush expanse of Nyeri hillside.

When we arrived, the beans were poured out onto another rug to be checked by the clerk. Once the quality and grade of the beans were confirmed it was time for them to be weighed. The clerk recorded the weight and gave us a receipt. Coffee farmer’s compensation is delayed until the end of processing, something I was surprised to learn. Our beans were poured down the designated Grade B chute, where they would be further processed. Pulped, fermented, dried, and dried again. Eventually, the beans would be picked up and roasted, then shipped off to be enjoyed far, far away.

Figure 1. Coffee picked from Molly’s host family’s shamba

After our time at the factory, we walked home to take afternoon chai and sat outside as the sun went down. My host sister milked the cows and I helped my host mother prepare a traditional supper of ugali and sukama wiki. As I reflect on the day, I think about the difference between farming the coffee and the coffee I buy at home- a way to conceptualize the difference between my life experience from my host family’s. A vast process of pulping, fermenting, drying, shipping, and roasting separates us, but I will forever be thankful for the opportunity to understandt hat the same process connects us, too.

Figure 2. A coffee factory in Tetu East

Wednesday, January 24th with Lindsay:

Every morning, when the sun rose, so would my new home in Tetu East, Nyeri. I opened my eyes to the sounds of my new family shuffling throughout the house, the doors creaking, and the animals outside my window chatting amongst themselves. I put on a long skirt and a t shirt and made my way outside to the kitchen, which was a separate room detached from the house. I helped my host mom hand-wash dishes from dinner the night before, and by the time I made it to the kitchen in the morning, my host mom had already milked the cow. On top of the open fire, a large pan sat, filled with water and fresh milk for Chai (tea) and when it began to over boil my host mom would grab the searing hot pot with her bare hands and place it away from the fire.

Figure 3: Lindsay’s host parents and host aunt walking through their farm.

As I began the day, three themes that seemed to emerge from my perspective were the importance of family, farming, and food which intertwined throughout the daily lives of my homestay family. This morning, I was assigned to make pancakes for breakfast which I thought wasn’t a foreign concept to me, but proved to be slightly different from what I was used to. The pancakes were like crepes (meaning they were flatter and thinner than the traditional American pancake) and we ate them without toppings, folded up, and with our hands while we sipped on a piping hot cup of Chai.

After breakfast, I followed my host brother down to the farm (which in Kikuyu is called ‘Shamba’), where we had to walk down a long steep hill to reach the fields where we gathered rabbit feed and planted spinach. When we finished, I asked to see where the water from the watering system came from so we walked along the connecting plots of land and followed a small stream to the main ‘waterhole’. Despite the fact that I tripped and almost fell into the stream, the walk along the farm was unbelievably beautiful. Each plot of land we passed was owned by one of his family members, and I always had to make sure to say hello in Kikuyu to my “Aunt” or  “Uncle” (most of the time I would get laughed at when I spoke in Kikuyu because of my poor pronunciation). As we walked along the stream, I saw corn, coffee, potatoes, beans, and spinach growing in each plot of land that stretched throughout the valley.

Figure 4: These are some sweet potatoes that Lindsay’s host mom dug out of the ground

After trudging up the steep hill back to the house, my host brother and I were assigned to make lunch. Most of the meals I cooked with my host mom, but since she was on the school board for her youngest daughters primary school, it became me and my host brothers job. We made Githeri which is a dish that consists of beans and corn (which my host mom and I gathered from the Shamba the day prior).

Figure 5: This is the githeri that Lindsay and her host brother made together

Post lunch, I prepared to accompany my host mom to her Wednesday church group. We drove into town where we were taking care of errands when my host mom introduced me to one of her friend’s children who was about two years old. This being my fifth day in Nyeri, I was used to children gawking, pointing, and trying to touch me. However, when this child saw me, she burst into tears and seemed terrified of me. This was the first time I had received a reaction like this in Nyeri and my host mom said she had never seen a child do that before. Everyone thought it was hilarious. To this day, I can’t help but chuckle a little when I think back to how that little girl reacted to me.

We then drove to the church group, held at someone’s house, and we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. The church group consisted of readings from the Bible and singing. When the sky started turning dark, and it looked as though it was going to rain outside, my host mom and I walked over to visit her mother (Shosho is Grandmother in Kikuyu) who welcomed me with open arms and made me feel apart of the family.

Figure 6: Here is some corn on Lindsay’s host family’s Shamba

The day ended with my mom and I cooking a delicious dinner that we ate with my host dad and brother. The themes that surfaced during my time in Nyeri, family, farming, and food, showed up in my daily life repeatedly throughout the week. Within the week, I had met most of the extended family and would see many of these family members on a regular basis. Additionally, farming was very important because it provided food for my family to sell as well as food that they would eat every night. Food proved to be such an essential aspect of my rural homestay. My host mom and I would farm for the food and then cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. Looking back at my experience at a rural homestay, I know I am lucky to have been placed with such an amazing family whom I will remember for the rest of my life.

Thursday, January 25th with Dana.

This morning I woke up to vibrant blue skies and a cup of hot chai, just as I did every other morning on my family’s welcoming, colorful shamba in Tetu West.  I ate farm fresh eggs and the milk in my chai was fresh from my family’s sweet, brown-eyed cows.  My mom and I washed the dishes from the dinner the night before of chapati and chicken stew and then worked at their roadside general store for the morning while my father was cutting napier grass to feed the cows.  When he returned home, he took our place at the store and my mom and I departed on a 20 minute walk across a valley of tea and corn fields and up a beautiful gravel road to visit my 11 year-old sister at her school.  She is in standard 6 and I got to sit in on her science class.  The classes are taught in English since the students have been learning English since their first year of education. This day they were having a health education class where they learned about the vaccines infants receive and the diseases which the vaccines prevent. I was impressed with both the content of the class and their extensive knowledge of English.  Most of the residents of Nyeri speak Kikuyu at home, but have been taught English and Swahili in school.

After science class was over, my mom and I said goodbye and thank you to my sister’s class and teacher for welcoming me. As we exited the classroom,  a group of primary school kids were running and giggling as they left class for recess. The weather was still beautiful and sunny with low humidity.  My mom and I continued our walk up the road from the school, still heading away from our home and towards the top of the hill on which they live. At the top we had an incredible view of expansive fields of tea plants, the region and my family’s main cash crop, along with coffee. We visited a building where the local farmers bring their tea for the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) to weigh and pick-up their harvests for processing at a factory.

We continued on our way to visit my grandmother who lives in the same house in which my mom grew up. I helped her feed her three cows and in return she made me a lunch of ugali and soured milk, which tastes far better than it sounds, I promise.

Figure 8. Dana with her host Mom and one of the family’s cows.

After I thanked my grandmother for the meal, we meandered down the hill, towards home as some storm clouds loomed in the distance. Just as we walked through the front gate to the house, some rain started to fall.  We went inside and watched the news while we waited for the afternoon thunderstorm to pass so we could milk the cows before dinner. My last dinner with my Nyeri family was a heaping portion of rice, githeri (a mixture of beans, corn, and spices), and a stew with potatoes and cabbage.  My mom, sister, and I ate and watched soap operas and then the evening news until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I went to bed thinking about the past week at my homestay in Nyeri. It was a wonderful experience and I was so thankful to be invited into the home of my warm-hearted and hardworking family.


Amboseli Fall 2017

Amboseli Fall 2017

Hamjambo marafiki na familia!  Liz, Britni and Phoebe here to tell you all about our week in Amboseli. This week was focused on learning about the impact of tourism and modernization on the Maasai culture. Traditionally, the Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd their cattle in search of water for their animals. In addition, we investigated land issues that have caused the decline of their traditional pastoral lifestyle. By conducting interviews with local farmers and Maasai, participating in a Maasai homestay experience, and going on game drives we learned so much about the Amboseli region that we are excited to share with you!

Farmer Interviews (Liz):

On our first day in Kimana town we conducted interviews with local farmers to get a sense of land issues in the Amboseli region, as well as the struggles that agriculturalists face. We approached a settlement of several metal sheet buildings surrounded by cultivated fields, not far from the center of town. Satellites stuck out from the roofs, new accessories installed almost strictly for watching soccer. KSP students were split into five groups and began interviewing Kenyan and Tanzanian farmers of varying ethnicities about limiting factors to agriculture like fertile land, water, and wildlife impact.

In the Amboseli region, water loss and changing rain patterns have degraded the land such that wildlife and people alike are suffering. Once dominated by pastoralists, this region is now becoming increasingly agricultural as people become desperate to find a profitable and sustainable livelihood. Farmers create a weekly schedule dictating who can use the irrigation system and when. Many of the farmers suggested that the best way to combat the water issue is to build wells, requiring lots of time, labor, and resources which might not be worth the benefit if farmers move frequently because of infertile land. The other significant infringement on profit is wildlife. Because Amboseli Park is so close, and not fenced, wildlife roams freely out of their protected land and onto farms in search of water and food. Each night, farmers sleep in their fields, using torches and firecrackers to scare off animals. They fear losing their entire livelihood in one night, especially if a hungry elephant comes trampling through. Conservation, while an important initiative in the face of changing climates, also unfairly impacts locals. Many farmers are frustrated that they bear the negative impacts of conservation without being provided electric fences or other compensation for their losses by the government. We departed the fields, some green, some bare and dusty, thinking how these hard working and genuine people can be so smiley and spirited in the face of such dismal challenges.

 Game Drives (Phoebe):

The sixteen of us piled into our three, forest green Land Cruisers and set out on a sunny Tuesday morning in hopes of both seeing and learning about the wildlife found within the bounds of Amboseli National Park. Upon entering the park, we watched as other Cruisers zipped by ours, filled with eager khaki-laden tourists with their cameras at the ready. We snickered as they passed, keeping in mind what we had learned so far about the negative impact of tourism on the region. At first, we believed that our drive was for more holistic purposes, while the rest of the mzungus (white people) were there to gawk at the wildlife. As we continued driving slowly down the uneven dirt roads within the park, wildlife began to appear before our eyes. We would look left and see grazing gazelles or wildebeest and then look right and see zebras casually strolling across the plains in the distance. In awe of the vast landscape that was home to so many different species, we grabbed for our own cameras and began to point and shoot. It was at that moment that we began to feed into the tourist stereotype which we had previously been making fun of. After overcoming the initial excitement of seeing so many different animals, we began to feel the inner conflict of our role as both students and tourists alike, considering what impacts we were having during our studies.

We settled into our seats and began asking our tour guides questions about the different wildlife in the park and their certain behavioral patterns. The winding, bumpy roads throughout the park led us to an overlook.We climbed to the top, making out Mt. Kilimanjaro to the right as we stared out onto to the vast landscape. We were able to read informational panels about the geologic history of Mt. Kilimanjaro and its impact on the well-being of the surrounding land and wildlife. Back at the lodge, exciting conversations were shared over lunch about all of the sights we saw and the snapshots we took that morning.

Practicing our Big Five poses at the Amboseli Outlook Point

In the heat of the mid-afternoon we all hopped back in the Cruisers and went out on a second game drive. It was during this drive that we learned to keep our cameras away, making this experience feel like less of a tourist excursion than the first drive. We were able to see many animals feeding in the late afternoon sun. As the sun began to set, we followed the dusty roads out of the park. It was during the drive back to the lodge for the evening that, in our silence, we could process and reflect on all that we had seen throughout the day. Upon exiting the gate of Amboseli we left behind all of the gazelles, wildebeest, zebras, buffaloes, hippos, elephants, lions and hyenas we saw to continue their day-to-day lives, unaware of just how much they had impacted ours that day. We felt we were more than just tourists on that sunny Tuesday. We were academics, young minds eager to learn about the park’s wildlife species and their relationships with the landscape.

Manyatta Experiences (Britni):

Next on the list, was a visit to a “cultural manyatta.” What is a cultural manyatta you ask? Great question. A cultural manyatta is a group of Maasai families who form a traditional village to draw in tourists for the purpose of income. The people who live there perform a traditional Maasai lifestyle. Notice how I said “perform”… please remember that for later. Almost immediately after we stepped foot off the vehicles, the entire community came out to greet us. Men and women lined up and sang different melodies simultaneously. No one had time to pull out their camera as each Maasai took hold of a student and dragged us into the clamour. After, it was time for a tour of the manyatta. We turned around and were greeted by a wall of thorns surrounding the Maasai homes. In groups we were given tours of the eight or so huts made of a mix of ash and cow manure inside. Then, the Maasai split into women, leaders, and warriors and we were all given a chance to ask one another questions about our respective ways of living.

Phoebe and I (Britni) jumping with Maasai Women

Later in the week, pairs of us were taken to a Maasai homestead to stay overnight. We were surprised at how different, and yet similar, our host families’ homesteads were to the cultural manyatta. The wall of thorns was still there, but only a nuclear family lived in a dung hut and tin house on the homestead, rather than an entire community. What the cultural manyatta failed to demonstrate was the effect of modernization on the Maasai people. We were also surprised to find that agriculture seems to be playing a larger role in the Maasai lifestyle than traditional pastoralism. Regardless, the Maasai culture has not been eroded completely by these factors. Many of us participated in things like milking cows, or rather trying to milk, cooking, and fetching firewood and water. The piece de resistance was learning how to mix ash with cow manure to patch the dung hut we had slept in the night previous, most of us sharing rooms with several family members, goats, skittish cats, and flies included. We ended our stay by learning how to bead the decorative bracelets the Maasai are famous for.

Got Milk? Because Liz didn’t

So, perhaps the most important lesson for those who may visit the Maasai, is that culture is always changing. This is true whether you are a Maasai living a decreasingly pastoralist lifestyle or a U.S. citizen living in a modern society. Ultimately, a cultural manyatta is not representative of how the Maasai people live their lives today. Did you remember that word, “performance”? Well, that’s exactly what a cultural manyatta is. Many people don’t realize that that is not how all Maasai live today; culture is simply not static. Another aspect that we learned about the Maasai culture is the importance of tourism. In the case of cultural manyattas, environmental degradation has led to a decrease in pastoralism causing them to find other sources of income. To do this, these people replicate their traditional lifestyle much to the delight of tourists, as this is akin to the “Single Story” of the Maasai. For those of you who don’t know, a “single story” creates stereotypes which leaves our understandings incomplete and fails to recognize complexities, like modernization, that are at play.

Interview with Maasai Community Members (Liz):

At the end of the week, we had the opportunity to interview Maasai community members, including leaders, female elders, warriors, and educated young women. Each group welcomed us to their circle, greeting us by exchanging hello’s in in Maa, “sopa” and “ipa.” Splitting into more focused groups, we asked questions about the social effects of modernization, impacts of group ranching, issues surrounding irrigated agriculture, and tourism’s effect on development. Our discussions were incredibly fruitful, as community members answered our questions passionately, speaking furiously in Maa and often interrupting each other and the translator. With only 20 minutes to interview each group, we never seemed to have enough time to ask all the questions we had. Luckily, we were able to join the Maasai community members for lunch where we were able to ask more specific questions about their lives, occupations, and hopes. In turn, they were able to ask us questions about our culture. One woman asked what issues we have in the United States which we have not seen in Kenya. Our responses included things like an inefficient and irresponsible national food system, rejection of climate science, and preventable gun violence. The exchanges that we shared both during the interviews and over lunch proved to be one of the most valuable learning experiences of the week. The result of our interviews were four fascinating group presentations later that day, sharing our new knowledge about the above topics. This week we were able to get a more holistic understanding of how modernization is affecting the Amboseli region, including land, wildlife, people and culture.

Signing off for now, stay tuned to read about KSP’s adventures in Mombasa!


Liz, Britni and Phoebe


Amboseli Fall 2016

For our last grand adventure/field component as a group, the ten of us hopped into safari vehicles to go to Amboseli, a national park about four hours south of Nairobi. The park was established in 1974 and covers 151.4 mi2 of traditionally Maasai land. As students going to an area largely economically supported by tourism, we experienced a variety of situations in which we adapted to, questioned, and debated our understanding of our experiences. Throughout the week, we had discussions and interviews with farmers and community members, we went on two game drives through the national park (lions and tigers and… ostriches[?] oh my!), visited a “cultural manyatta”, and did a 24 hour homestay with a Maasai family. Our experience was interspersed with hotel pool swims, tire shoe shopping, and DOOM!-ing all of our belongings. No adventure is complete without a little DOOM! Insecticide©, right?

Group photo at Observation Hill in Amboseli National Park

Group photo at Observation Hill in Amboseli National Park

As land availability has decreased, due to the breakup of group ranches and larger populations, Maasai have less land to graze their livestock on and many have turned to a mix of pastoralism and agriculture. We had an opportunity to learn about the challenges of agriculturists living in the area first hand. Most of the farmers we interviewed did not actually own the land, but were crop sharers. This means that the landowner leased out his land, many times to a middleman who paid for the lease, seeds, and pesticides and allowed the farmers to work the land in exchange for a certain percentage of the profit. The area we were in used generators to pump water from the small river to their crops, and never ran out of water because of their positioning so far upstream. The main challenge that farmers faced was ELEPHANTS. Being so close to Amboseli, the adorable elephants regularly go out of the National Park at night and feast on the delicious vegetables that the farmers had been so meticulously taking care of. If elephants do come, the farmers must resort to making loud noises, shining flashlights, and lighting firecrackers to scare away the elephants. Since there is no compensation program, these farmers can lose their entire income for the growing season (3-4 months). The most effective way of keeping the elephants out is by electric fence. The farmers discussed that the government should provide fencing for either the park or the farms because of the problems the government park has caused for them.

After a morning of interviewing farmers, we made our way down the road to visit a “Cultural Manyatta”. Cultural Manyattas are a site that the Maasai in the area have created to earn an income off of the tourist industry that is rampant in the region. These manyattas are a traditional homestead, consistent of approximately 15 cow-dung homes, and a boma to house cattle. The manyattas are set up in a circle with the homes around the outside, with the boma in the center. There are multiple reasons for this, two of them being protection from lions, and for health reasons because of how wet the center of the manyatta gets during the wet season. Who knew a barrier of acacia branches and dung homes would hold off the “king of the jungle”?

The Maasai in the manyattas create an experience for the tourist to learn about their culture and way of life, greeting you with a welcome dance and jumping competition, and then seeing you off with a market of their beaded goods. When we pulled in, the group of Maasai men and women welcomed us to dance with them, and challenged the boys to take part in their jumping competition. Our new Maasai friends joked about the boys’ lack of jumping ability- guess we’ve got something to work on, eh boys?!

Students are greeted and welcomed to dance with the Maasai at the Cultural Manyatta

Students are greeted and welcomed to dance with the Maasai at the Cultural Manyatta

After welcoming us to their manyatta and praying, we were brought into the homestead and taught about some of the natural medical remedies they have for everything from Malaria, to digestive issues, to low libido. After our medical lesson, we toured the homes, and had group interviews with the manyatta site members. On our way out, many of us bought beadwork from the women that we danced with in the beginning of the visit. Beading is something that only women do, and allows them to have a means of income to help support their households, and give them more economic autonomy.

While in Amboseli we had the chance to experience how most tourist’s live in Kenya. We stayed at the Kibo Safari Lodge and slept in “luxury tents” that were mostly filled with tourists from Europe and North America. When the safari’ers weren’t out enjoying Amboseli National Park, they were taking refuge from the hot sun and swapping stories about their quests to see The Big Five (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard, and Rhino) which were the most sought after animals by recreational hunters, but has now transitioned into a fun sightseeing challenge.

On our second day in Amboseli we excitedly woke up with the sunrise, grabbed a quick breakfast and eagerly loaded into our two Safari style Toyota Land Cruisers and were on our way. Before we entered the park we were greeted by several grant’s gazelle and twigas, also known as giraffe, and many local Maasai selling souvenirs such as necklaces and animal carvings at the entrance. We spent the morning and afternoon in awe looking at countless numbers of elephants buffalo, wildebeest, waterbuck, reedbuck, baboons, ostriches, warthogs, giraffes, zebra, thomson’s gazelle, grant’s gazelle, hippos, flamingos, and birds that were completely foreign to us. We even saw several hyenas and a lion! It was picturesque seeing all of these animals in their expansive landscape with the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.

A group of female ostriches and a lone wildebeest hang out in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro

A group of female ostriches and a lone wildebeest hang out in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Our travels to Amboseli happened to be in the dry season, so there was not much vegetation in relation to the herds of animals, with a few exceptions of swampier areas where the Kilimanjaro snow melt collects. Much of the landscape was bare soil, and in some areas there was hardly more than a few trees or shrubs in eye sight. We learned that this is due to the large number of animals that the environment cannot sustain. The National Park can sustainably hold a population of 400 elephants, but the population has skyrocketed in recent decades to over 1600 (they are forced to raid the farmers’ fields so that they have enough food). An adult elephant can knock down five trees a day, which has converted the environment into a grassland. As a result, the grazers populations have increased and they have overgrazed the environment.  All of this has led to a strain on the environment and topsoil erosion that causes the dust devils that vortex around the park.

A herd of elephants on their way to find some juicy, fresh, well-kept tomatoes.

A herd of elephants on their way to find some juicy, fresh, well-kept tomatoes.

Then the day came, and we went off roading to bush, eagerly seeking out our new families. We went to this homestay in groups of two and each group was given a translator since families mainly speak their ethnic language of Maa. We were dropped off at the entrance of the manyatta and were immediately welcomed by our Maasai homestay mother with a cup of chai and later to our homestay father.

Many rural Maasai practice polygamy as they have historically done and my homestay father had two wives. The wives each had their own house for themselves and their children in the manyatta and the father takes turns sleeping in between the two houses. Each of our homestay mothers cooked separately for themselves and their children and both worked together to complete tasks to keep the manyatta running.

At our homestay we were able to experience a day in the life of a traditional Maasai and help them with daily tasks. The Maasai have rigidly gender segregated duties, so the girls helped collecting water from a natural spring in the ground, gather firewood, cook, and clean. The boys spent most of their time herding cattle and finding new pastures. In the end we all were instructed on how to make the distinctive Maasai bracelets and necklaces and a couple lucky people even got to help reinforce a house by spreading the cow dung and ash mixture onto the house walls.

Erin showing off her stellar manyatta repairing skills

Erin showing off her stellar manyatta repairing skills

We finished out the week with interviews of community members. Groups of community leaders, educated women, traditional women, agriculturalists, and pastoralists answered our various questions about everything from irrigation techniques to thoughts about FGM.

Here are some of the most interesting things we learned from the groups:

  • When asked about modernization, the group of pastoral men said that they would ideally be 50% pastoralist and 50% agriculturalist. They are not bitter or put out by the change in their traditional ways of livelihood, but rather are adjusting and finding new ways to live and be happy.
  • The strong relationship between the Maasai and their cattle was/is amazing. No matter how “modern” the group becomes, everyone will always still have at least one cow. “We are not Maasai without our cows”
  • Pastoralists who are also agriculturalist frequently hire out people to graze their cattle. Children now go to school at minimum through primary level, keeping them in the classroom rather than out with the livestock, leaving a gap in the labor force that must be compensated by changing work for the adults, or hiring out to graze livestock.
  • When one sees images of the Maasai people, they frequently see an image of a bare breasted woman covered in beads. In reality, historically and modernly, women are always covered, and do not bare their breasts. This image was created by the western world, and is not actually representative of the Maasai people.
  • The maasai shukas (blankets) were actually brought by the Scottish missionaries in the late 1800s.
  • Another identifier of the Maasai is the circular or lined scars on their cheeks. This is a burn scar that was used as a technique to keep flies out of their eyes which could otherwise spread a disease that could blind them. The circular scars we have seen here in Kenya identify a Maasai as a Kenyan Maasai. If a Maasai has three vertical lines instead, he/she can be identified as Tanzanian.

-Laura and Aidan


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.

A Kenyan Half-Marathon Adventure

Dearest KSP blog readers and fans (hi mom!),

Britt Eastman ’18 and Gabriella Gurney ’18 reporting to you LIVE from the KSP’s compound outside Nairobi with an exciting mini-blog update. On March 7 we had the distinct pleasure of running in the First Lady Half Marathon in Nairobi. This means we completed 13.1 miles IN A ROW on the equator… we’re not sure how that happened, either.

The race was a fundraiser for Beyond Zero, an initiative founded by Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Kenyatta, to reduce maternal and childhood mortality through prenatal health initiatives, newborn and child healthcare, and HIV treatment and prevention. It’s a super awesome organization and you can find out more about it here:

We got up bright and early at 5 a.m. Sunday morning, managed to find an Uber driver (readily available since Saturday night was just ending for some people), and made our way to Nyayo Stadium, where the race was supposed to start at 6:30. We spent about 45 minutes trying to hunt down registration, where we could pick up our numbers and shirts (“t-shirt ni wapi?” — “t-shirts are where?”), and were completely unsuccessful. It turns out that packet pickup was the day before at Kenyatta International Conference Center, a vital detail not given on either the race website or in the confirmation email and which we ourselves failed to look into at all. Oops. Better luck next time, right?


Us without our race numbers.

After accepting our fates of having paid registration and running without race numbers or getting our race t-shirts, we found ourselves at the starting line. Right before the wheelchair race went off at 6:30, we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of the First Lady of Kenya, herself, before she was surrounded by people. Here’s a picture of other people taking her picture:


People photographing the First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta.

            After the wheelchair racers took off, we stepped up to the start line (well, as close as we could get to the start line because there were hundreds of people running the half marathon) and at exactly 7 a.m., WE WERE OFF!

Turns out running 13.1 miles is incredibly grueling and energy consuming.

But we made it! After crossing the finish line, we tried to look again for our race t-shirts (still no luck) and had an awesome breakfast at a restaurant across the street. We found another Uber driver and were on our way back to our urban homestays.image003

Running a race in Kenya was definitely an amazing experience. We were able to run through the streets of Nairobi and among Mombasa Road, which had been closed off to traffic early that morning. We ran past informal settlements, government buildings, and churches filled with people and bursting with music. The racers themselves were also very interesting. There were racers from all over the world (though they were primarily Kenyan) and of all kinds. There were professional athletes in racing jerseys, but there were also girls in ankle-length jean skirts and ballet flats running or walking the half marathon.

Running a half marathon in Kenya was an experience neither of us will forget!

-Ella & Britt

The finish line!

Summer 2015: Healthcare Delivery in a Developing Country

Summer 2015 one

Monica Manning, Mara Talek – Narok West

Summer Course: Healthcare Delivery in a Developing Country
My name is Monica Manning and I am a rising sophomore at St. Lawrence. I hope to major in Global Studies and am undecided minor. Going into this trip I was not expecting to feel so comfortable during my time here. I was expecting to be a “Mzungu” and see everything from a distance and simply be a guest. I knew I was learning about health care in Kenya but didn’t realize how involved I would be and how interactive it would be. I never felt uncomfortable, however I believe there were situations that I could have. Meeting with strangers who I have little to no association with was what I was most nervous about. Even at home talking about a serious subject to a stranger can be uncomfortable. The communities we went into were welcoming and the people were very kind. Most thanked us for visiting with them even though I always felt we should be more thankful for letting us visit them!

The program was very structured and I felt within three weeks we did far more then I was expecting.  We covered the public and private health sectors of Kenya along with the village and the city. All four areas have a huge difference within the country. It was essential that we covered all four of those areas in order to really understand the public health care in Kenya. Even though I only have a base to my knowledge about Kenya and public health care I now have an understanding about where I can explore further in the subject, and what areas I take the most interest in. Even though I am not planning on being a medical student, this experience has opened my mind to other occupations I can do to make a difference that still are associated with public health.One of the coolest places we visited was Kibera. While we were there we talked with two mothers about the challenges they face raising their children as they struggle financially everyday. They were both smiling women and pleasant to talk to. We had a translator with us too although they both spoke English well. One mother talked to us outside her home because the baby was not yet old enough to be exposed to other people yet (that is a cultural practice), and the other mother welcomed us into hers and we were able to hold her twins! The second woman had another child, but it died at 10 months very quickly within a week of sickness. Her current twins were so cute though. Her living space was smaller than my room, and she pays 600 shillings a month to stay in her home. (That is about 6 dollars.) We gave each woman a bag of food in which she was very thankful for! Without the clinic on the edge of the neighborhood that takes care of part of the population in Kibera, her babies would not be the healthy babies they are! The need for aid and adequate and affordable health systems in and near the slums is huge! I learned this was similar to the very rural areas where transportation was difficult.I now understand the opportunity in this world that is not always in your face in the United States. I know where the United States struggles and what needs to be improved upon, but in Kenya you can see it every day where the change needs to happen. Just within Malaria and HIV alone, so many people’s lives are changed in a negative way. If there were more people who could see this part of the world, then more people could be inspired to help make a change no matter where it is. This trip has really forced me to focus on what I want to do with my life, and where I want to take my academics. In addition it made me so grateful for the opportunities I have. When you are constantly surrounded with people who are on the same playing field as you, you forget the big picture of life and what goes beyond your little bubble. I finally have the capability to take a step back and think about how I want to impact this world that needs so much attention.My name is Halley Choy and I am a going to be a junior at St. Lawrence in the Fall. I am majoring in Environmental Studies and Psychology with a minor in Sociology. Before coming to Kenya, I knew very little about their culture, people, and healthcare system.  I had expectations to visit some of the hospitals and clinics around Kenya and learn about the struggles and the kinds of diseases people face in the healthcare system here in Kenya.  I hoped to learn about the culture, and some Swahili along the way.  I had hoped to travel to the Mara to see some of the amazing wildlife.  I had read about the Adamson family’s life in Elsamere and some of the towns and cities that we were going to be visiting like Eldoret, Kisumu, and Kibera so that I would be more prepared.Despite my readings and expectations of this course and Kenya, this study abroad experience has been much more then I have ever thought it would be.  It has been a valuable experience to learn about diseases and then meet and talk to people that are dealing with these illnesses every day.  I was able to learn in depth about fistulas and then actually meet women with fistulas at WADADIA.  Before coming to Kenya, I had known nothing about female circumcision and fistulas. Learning about the challenges in the healthcare system in Kenya such as obtaining drugs and equipment due to limited expenses and providing free health care to patients has opened my eyes to the many struggles in Kenya and other developing countries.

My classmates and I also met with Sara Ellen and Joe Mamlin about the organization they started called AMPATH in Eldoret, Kenya. AMPATH is a partnership working with the Kenyan government and Indiana University. AMPATH is a great example of how all different branches of health care can come together.  One of the Mamlin’s goals has been to work alongside Kenyans in teaching about health care and giving quality health care to the people of Kenya. Working together as a community, AMPATH has been going into difficult to reach rural villages with community clinical workers to treat patients, test for HIV, and educate about the basics of health care and maternity care.  With three hundred clinics and such programs as OSCAR, Orphan Street Children At Risk, they are helping people to reach health care from all backgrounds in Western Kenya.

OSCAR is a program for children living on the streets where they can access free health care and testing for HIV.  Over tea, we met with some of the street children of Eldoret and discussed the health problems and challenges growing up in the streets poses to them.  The street children often have health problems such as skin diseases, jiggers, and injuries due to violence and fighting that goes on in the streets.  Many of the boys had been pushed to the streets due to alcoholism or abuse in their families, the death of their parents or the corporate punishment in the many of the schools in the area.  Despite these struggles and living on the streets where drugs and violence is common many of the teens that we spoke to want to and plan to get off the streets.  They want to go back to school and have a successful job.  To learn more about the great work that AMPATH program is doing here is the link to their website

At the Mamlin’s House in Eldoret  with Haley Choy, Monica Manning, Emma Phippen

At the Mamlin’s House in Eldoret with Emma Phippen, Wairimu Ndirangu, Haley Choy and Monica Manning

In Eldoret we also visited, TUMAINI an organization that is providing a safe, fun and learning environment for street boys. The boys put on a play for us about how a typical boy could become a street boy.  Eventually they will be performing the play to the public to spread awareness about the numerous children living on the streets of Eldoret.  Programs like OSCAR and TUMAINI are giving some of these street children hope and education for a better future off the streets.

Summer 2015 three
I had not expected to feel so welcomed by so many people in Kenya.  I have met some of the most inspiring people like Sarah Ellen and Joe Mamlin.  I liked going to the Masai village and getting the chance to go into the homes like in the Kibera slums to learn about the people’s culture and health issues.  I appreciated the hospitality of the people in Kenya very much like the Nightingale family and the AMPATH family.  I felt very comfortable in all the places that we stayed and with most of the food that I ate.  The welcoming hospitality has made me feel safe about coming here in the future and learning here a lot easier. One of my suggestions for the future would have been visiting a mental health facility or program in Kenya.  If possible, this program should be a little longer for the students digested the material.  Because of the program’s packed schedule the class should be counted as two units instead of just one and half.I am excited to be going home to tell my family and friends about all the great organizations and people that I have met in Kenya and how they are doing great things to help improve their healthcare system.  This experience has helped me to grow, make great friends, to learn about the healthcare system in my own country, in Kenya, and other developing countries.  I am happy that I have learned about the culture of Kenya from the different foods like Ugali and Kenyan chai – tea to the Masai people that we visited.  It has been a great opportunity to see many different parts of Kenya and the different their health care providers from the teaching hospitals in Nairobi, the clinic in the Mara, and lastly the sustainable AMPATH program in Eldoret.I would recommend this course to students interested in the medical field.  The course has also been designed for non- medical students. Actually for the health course summer program this summer we had a global studies, psychology, environmental studies, and sociology majors. I think we all felt very comfortable and interested with the class material throughout the entire course.My name is Emma Phippen and I just graduated from SLU this last semester with a degree in sociology. I am so thankful to have been able to be a part of this amazing program because of the experiences I had. I could not have asked for a better way to end my St. Lawrence academic career. During this program we knew the trip would be very fast pace considering the itinerary was full of visiting many different health clinics, hospitals, and life improvement homes. The three of us had never been to Kenya, but we were willing to have open minds and learn about the different cultures that make up the country.The relationships that we established with our trip leaders and many people we met throughout the three weeks helped us acclimate to the new surroundings and established a comfortable environment for learning.

This program opened our eyes to the medical world and the aspect of social health care, a topic in which none of us ever took a particular interest in. Since being here and visiting the many different hospitals, clinics, and organizations our eyes were opened to the many different components that make up the Kenyan health care system and how it works. We were also very surprised by all of the other activities we did while on this trip like a sunrise safari in the Mara, visiting a Masai boma, going on a boat safari, and all of the shopping we did during our free time! The balance between work and play was perfect and kept us all on our toes the entire time. We were never disappointed by any of the days, and were excited every morning to learn and meet new people!

Summer 2015 four

Emma Phippen with the Mara Talek community

Since this program was so hands on we believe that we were able to learn to our highest potential. This program helped us explore a way of learning that every student should experience because being thrown into a new setting filled with amazing opportunities, and people helps a student explore outside of their comfort zones. That can really test students’ abilities to learn and grow as an individual!

Students who want to experience learning in a way that is structured very differently than a classroom setting would love this program because of the field work and hands on experiences. Also students who are interested in entering into any sector of health would love this program and really connect to the topic! We met an alumni of the program, she did not go to St. Lawrence, but was a part of the Kenya semester program. She explained to us how the semester introduced her to Ampath, the program she works for. Students can be exposed to opportunity to connect with doctors and health professionals and may find inspiration for their future endeavors, or careers.

Spring 2015 Kenya Program Students Respond to Attack in Far Northeastern Kenya.

The following is a response from the St. Lawrence students currently on the Kenya Semester Program. They wanted to reach out to the SLU community and let everyone know what they were thinking in relation to the April 2, 2015 terrorist attack in far Northeastern Kenya.  If any students or family members have questions related to this topic I encourage  you to contact me and or the Associate Dean of International and Intercultural Studies Dr. Karl Schonberg

Our thoughts are with our Kenyan friends and colleagues who are mourning this tragedy

Matt Carotenuto
Associate Professor of History &
Coordinator of African Studies
St. Lawrence University


Jambo marafiki wangu! First off, we would like to collectively apologize for our slow posting; we’ve been super busy having amazing experiences and have not had as much time to write as we thought we would!

We’re just going to jump right in: we know there’s been a lot of concern about the events in Garissa yesterday. And understandably so! When the western media writes headlines such as “University Students Targeted in Kenya,” it’s difficult not to immediately jump to the worst conclusions. That being said, these events are quite complicated, and, more importantly, they don’t affect us here in Nairobi in any way (other than our obvious sadness at the tragedies taking place in this country).

Here is a map of Garissa in relation to us in Nairobi:

Garissa in relation to Nairobi

Garissa in relation to Nairobi

It doesn’t look that far (though it is only a little closer to Nairobi than Canton is to Boston), but in reality, Nairobi and Garissa are literally worlds apart. Garissa is on the border of the former North Eastern province (now Garissa County), one of the most underdeveloped and insecure parts of the country, which even most Kenyans avoid. There’s a popular joke here that, in North Eastern province, they ask visitors, “how is Kenya?” because it is so far removed from the rest of the country. Not only is it far, it’s quite remote in terms of access. Many of the roads here in Kenya are not well maintained as it is, but getting to Garissa is more difficult than traveling most places due to lack of infrastructure. Basically, North Eastern province, including Garissa, is a lawless area that has continually been subject to the wrath of militant Somalis. It is for this reason that, while the attack is tragic, it’s not a surprise—unfortunately, events like this are not uncommon. The only reason that the Western media is taking notice is because of the scale of the attack and because of the Christian targets.

Unfortunately, these attacks have become more common in recent years due to Western drone strikes and due to the Kenyan military’s interference in Somalia. North Eastern province is an easy target in Kenya due to its proximity to Al Shabaab’s Somali base and due to its lack of law enforcement.

Now to the good news! Our program has not operated anywhere near North Eastern province in at least a decade.

This is the United Kingdom’s travel warning map for Kenya:

Map from British Travel Advisory outlining restricted areas

Map from British Travel Advisory outlining restricted areas

As you can see, Garissa is firmly ensconced in the orange area. Our program follows these same guidelines, with additional restricted areas. In addition, it’s important to note that a  travel advisory has been in place in some form since the 1998 bombings of the US Embassy in Nairobi. With the addition of Mombasa to the restricted areas in 2014 we now have a component in far western Kenya (Kisumu) as a replacement.

Since the attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi in September 2013, security here in the capital has increased exponentially—these attacks are truly devastating the Kenyan tourism industry, and so president Uhuru Kenyatta is determined to prove that his country remains safe for foreigners. I know that every single one of us, all 18, feels 100% safe in regards to security in Nairobi, where we are metal detected and scanned before entering any mall or grocery store or restaurant or hospital, etc. Cars are searched before entering parking lots and bags are thoroughly inspected by private security firms all around the city. Honestly, we are more concerned in our day-to-day life by the crazy drivers or threat of petty theft—as we would be in any other big city in the world. As we are writing this, everyone in our beautiful house in the ultra safe suburb of Karen is happy and healthy. We’re making a potluck dinner tonight, actually, so music is blaring and people are singing as they prepare food for our Kenyan friends and professors. In short, none of us are worried. That’s not to say that we aren’t having discussions about the events in our current home country, and we are definitely taking our personal safety seriously (carefully deciding where we go on weekends, etc.), but we are living our lives as normal. In addition, our KSP administration remains alert, as always, because our safety is their top concern—as we learned last semester, when the program was canceled due to security concerns, we would not be here if it was deemed unsafe for us in any way.

All of us feel it’s important that, amidst the plethora of dramatic media articles, you hear directly from us. Within our fenced-in compound (equipped with an electric fence, barbed wire, and 24 hour security guards, as most houses here in Nairobi are), we are safe and anxiously awaiting our independent studies to commence next week. For us, it’s life as usual. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this tragedy and we are heartbroken that our adoptive country continues to suffer this plague in some areas. However, that does not change how we feel about our time here, and we urge anyone who is interested in the program to not be discouraged by this awful incident. As SLU African Studies chair Matt Carotenuto said in a post about this incident, “tuko pamoja.” All 18 of us truly feel that we are “all together” with our greater Kenyan family, especially those impacted by the events in Garissa.

Hakuna matata!

Love, SLU KSP Spring 2015