Nairobi and the First Weeks of Classes

Jambo sana! Emily, Emily, Katie and Ceci here, reporting on our first two weeks of classes! Ninaitwa Ceci (the least morning-people of all) here to talk about our morning routines on the compound! We trudge into the kitchen before 7 grumbling to ourselves about the ungodly hour, but find some solitude in the delicious aromas of whatever Seth has prepared for breakfast. As we haphazardly dish ourselves some oatmeal, sausage, bacon, eggs and fruit, and reach for the pots of coffee and chai, we can hear the pitter-patters of our classmate’s feet who have also been beckoned by the smells of breakfast.

As you take your place around our huge family style table, the tired “goodmornings,” and grumpy attitudes fall victim to good food and company and dissolve into conversations and laughter (beckoning out our late-sleepers as well). By 7:10, we are joined by the “Hamjambo’s,” and “Habari wanafunzi!” of our Swahili Professors and are off to our classroom’s by 7:30.

Although each class is unique, we find a common ground with the energetic, positive and fun environments fostered by our teachers. At 8:30 we get to break for “chai,” (including goodies such as mandazi and chocolate chips prepared by Seth) and pick up our breakfast conversations or attempt the new Swahili vocabulary we had just learned.

With the end of classes at 9:30, those who have the 10:45 class at the UKC scramble to gather their last minute things and get to the bus by 9:40 so they aren’t left behind (or most likely forced to run down the driveway) by Njau. Those who are fortunate enough to wait for the afternoon bus take the time to relax, scarf some leftover snacks, or get a head start on homework.

Emily Adams and Katie (Kiki) Murray here, ready to tell y’all about the two classes (out of the four options) that we are taking at the United Kenyan Club and about our many adventures in Nairobi. Each student must choose two classes to take in order to supplement the mandatory Kiswahili course and core course (Culture, Environment, and Development in East Africa) that we all take. Both of us chose to take the same two classes: “Critical Issues in Socio-Economic Development in Kenya” and “Introduction to the History of Modern Kenya.” Each of the classes meet three times a week for 1.5 hours in our classroom/apartment/hotel room at the United Kenya Club in Nairobi.

Our socioeconomics class is taught by a professor at the nearby University of Nairobi, who works in the department of development studies. He is new to the KSP, and this is actually his first semester teaching this course! Erik is doing a great job so far; on the first day, he came in with a tentative syllabus and asked us to give input on the things that we were hoping to learn about. Many of us were interested in corruption (which runs rampant in Kenya), education, and healthcare, so he arrived the next day with a fully revised syllabus that touched upon our diverse interests. So far, we’ve been learning about a lot of cool things, most of which are directly applicable to our lives here. Especially because the Kenyans are such a news conscious people, it’s wonderful to understand what’s going on in the country and to actually be able to follow the media’s extensive political coverage.

The other class we are taking focuses on the history of Kenya. Our professor is, again, a Kenyan who teaches at the University of Nairobi. Mary seems to know everything about Kenyan history, and is quick to insert playful jokes into her lectures! We began by learning about the migration of the Bantu peoples to Kenya from Western Africa and their intermingling with Arab traders and other migrants from around Africa. Much of East Africa’s early exposure to the outside world was through trading, first with the Arabs and then later with the Europeans. Eventually, a “scramble for Africa” took place, with each European powerhouse striving to obtain as much land in Africa as possible. Great Britain had an extensive presence in the land that would become Kenya and Uganda because they discovered that Lake Victoria, resting between the two countries, was the source of the Nile. Because Egypt was such a strategic area for them, they made sure that they controlled not only the source of the Nile, but also the small rivers that all fed into the lake, so that no enemies could harm them by cutting off an essential water resource. Kenya and Uganda became important pieces of land for England, and so they had good rationale for claiming them as colonies during the scramble. We haven’t gotten any farther than the colonial period so far, so who knows what will happen next! (Actually, we both know, because we both took a Conflict in Africa class on campus that covered Kenya’s 1950s Mau Mau conflict. It’s not pretty). Anyway, class has been very interesting so far, and, like we said, very applicable to modern society and politics!

students learn to navigate Kenya's cosmopolitan capital

students learn to navigate Kenya’s cosmopolitan capital

Other than taking our classes, we have also had ample time to explore the city of Nairobi in the Central Business District. During our free periods and lunch we often venture into the city, either to the market or to find new restaurants. The Maasai Market is a particularly popular place for students. At the market, you can find anything from handmade jewelry, to shoes, to paintings, and flowers. Everything is beautifully made and each product is unique in its own way. Another great thing about the market is that there are no set prices, which means everything is negotiable! However, bargaining is something we Americans are not accustomed to, and therefore it takes some practice to lower the price down to a reasonable price. Unfortunately, we’re wazungus (Swahili for “white people”), so we will always pay more than actual Kenyans because of our skin color and accents. Fortunately, with the help of our Swahili teachers we are learning to bargain in Swahili, which usually helps lower the price at least a little!

In terms of restaurants, there are many traditional restaurants that have foods such as chapati, ugali, sukuma wiki, and stews. There are also other restaurants such as pizzerias, fast food restaurants, Italian restaurants, organic food restaurants, and one of our favorites–a Turkish restaurant called Bobo’s.

There are also many big stores and shops that we like to go to. One store, Nakumatt, is a crowd favorite. It is basically the Kenyan equivalent to Walmart. Somehow, we end up going there almost every day to pick up all of our little necessities. We go there so often that some of us have even become friends with the security guards at the front door… (Simon).

Nairobi’s Central Business District is very walkable, and after only spending a few weeks in the city, some of us feel that we have mastered it already. However, driving through the city is another story. Nairobi is a city that was built for approximately 800,000 people and there are currently 4-5 million people living here. One of the biggest issues we see is the road system and traffic situation. Sometimes traveling from our compound in Karen to UKC in downtown Nairobi, a distance of about 15 kilometers, can take up to two hours. Public transportation is popular and widely utilized, but some types (matatus!) are unsafe, while other buses are severely overcrowded with poor conditions. Luckily we have our wonderful driver, Njau, to take us from place to place. Njau is a master at driving in traffic and gets us where we need to go safely and quickly! Njau has basically become a second father to us. He is always teaching us during our bus rides by pointing out specific landmarks, types of plantations, flowers, and even the different types of license plates! He is also an avid bird watcher, so if you ever have any questions, odds are he will know the answer. We learn a lot each day from Njau and love asking him questions. Unfortunately, he usually does not answer the personal ones… (like how many kids he has, his birthday, his age, etc.) He likes to joke around with us a lot and his smile can always brighten our day! Even when we are stuck in traffic for two hours..

By the end of classes at 4:30, our tired bodies stumble onto the bus where we anticipate the next hour and a half of traffic that is sure to follow. With tensions high, we get back to the compound around 6 where dinner is perfectly timed and waiting for us, which is sure to cure any leftover traffic angst. A few ambitious bodies will put off dinner in order to use up the remaining hours of sunshine for some soccer or volleyball, while others venture up to the balcony or kitchen table to begin their work… or singing parties.

After an exhausting but exciting first week of classes, we were excited to spend a relaxing weekend away from the city in the lakeside town of Naivasha where we planned to hike, boat, bike (and eat, of course).

Our group hike began at 9:30 on Saturday morning. The ascents were steep and the sun was beating down. At first it seemed as though the city life had already taken its toll on us! When we reached what we thought was the top, we had forgotten one vital thing. Longonot isn’t just any mountain, it is an extinct volcano with a ridge to hike, as well. The mild hike quickly turned into a challenging workout as we pushed each other to run along the ridge. It was a beautiful hike with lots of wildlife; but certainly not mild!

Mount Longonot Climb (Dorminant Rift Valley Volcano--9,108 ft summit)

Mount Longonot Climb (Dormant Rift Valley Volcano–9,108 ft summit. Photo by Katie Murray)

We spent the night at Elsamere Conservation Centre. They focus on conservation of Kenyan land and animals in the name of a captive lioness who was successfully released into the wild. (There was a movie made based on the story. It is called “Born Free” if you are interested; several of us watched it after dinner).

Sunday the group split into two. The first group set off for Hell’s Gate National park on bikes. We explored the park with our guide, capturing photos of a variety of animals and hiking into the “geothermic spa” and “Hell’s Mouth”. The second group set off in a boat from the Conservation Center in hopes of catching a glimpse of hippos and other animals.

We had a great time in exploring a new part of Kenya and getting in some exercise and fresh air. I don’t think anyone would disagree that so far we have had an amazing time- but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been overwhelmingly challenging at times. This trip gave us a chance to take a break and digest some of the more difficult experiences we had already had. One suggestion we would make as a group: take a minimum of two liters of water with you if you plan to hike the ridge of Longonot. You’ll thank us later.

The St. Lawrence Kenya Connection

Karibuni (Welcome) to the Official Blog of the St. Lawrence Kenya Program,

This blog gives prospective students, parents, friends and alumni a chance to learn more about the Kenya program and follow the experiences of the current students throughout the year. After each component of the program, students will generate a collective post reflecting on their diverse experiences throughout East Africa. Photo galleries and blog posts will chronicle the lived experiences of students as they move throughout the components of the semester.

A Short History of the KSP

(A  video capturing some of the essence of the KSP by Beau Gaughran KSP Spring 2014)

In January 1972, Dr. Peter French led St. Lawrence’s pioneering trip to Kenya. Begun as a January-Term experiment, the SLU connection to East Africa evolved into the Kenya Semester Program (KSP) by 1974. From early origins as the Nairobi Semester, the program has grown into a truly East Africa semester, offering both semester and summer programs. Students today experience both the vibrant life of Kenya’s capital city as well as the regions diverse social and cultural landscape. From rural and urban homestays to field components across Kenya and northern Tanzania, the KSP introduces students to the culture and livelihood of African communities spanning the rural urban divide. The culmination of the semester is the independent study, where students spend one month studying a diverse array of issues in not only Kenya but also Uganda, Tanzania and even Rwanda.

With over 2000 alumni from over 30 different universities the program has had a wide impact on both U.S. students and our Kenyan partners. Fostering mutually beneficial relationships has been an essential part of the program’s mission. Alumni have been at the heart of nurturing SLU’s deep engagement in Kenya, with many offering generous support for local development and educational projects across the country. And since the early 1980s many of SLU’s distinguished Kenyan scholarship winners have returned “home,” with St. Lawrence degrees providing a pathway to leadership positions across the country.

Selected Alumni Insights and Memories

“If I close my eyes I can still see the bright lavender of the jacaranda trees; the rich red color of the dirt roads in the western province, the pink bougainvillea draped along whitewashed walls. I can still hear African music jangling from kiosk radios and the blast of horns from overflowing matatus.”

“On a personal level, I recall the hospitality of the Kenyan people, from my village family to a family I lived with in Nairobi, to the generosity of total strangers.”

“My time in Kenya with the KSP has paved my entire way in life; bringing me to where I am right now in my career, and molding me into the person I have come to be.”

“Quite honestly, every day of my KSP experience reaffirmed my desire to work and live in Africa. Kenyans are warm and hospitable and their land is beautiful.  I have been able to draw upon the KSP as the backbone of my career in international development.”