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.

Amboseli Component

Hey there! Aubrey and Tina reporting live from Nairobi. Following the urban homestay, our group had the privilege of traveling to the Amboseli region of Kenya. Once an area belonging to Maasai people living pastoral ways of life, Amboseli now consists of six different group ranches and inhabitants from non-Maasai communities. The idea of group ranches arose as an effort to preserve pastoral land from post-colonial leadership and elites attempting to grab land. However, accessible land and resources are continuously shrinking due to corruption and exploitation carried out by wealthier members of group ranches and the migration of non-Maasai people to the area. Who often partake in agricultural, small-scale businesses, and/or trading practices. So as a result of this shift from a pastoral-based economy to the constructed capitalistic ‘market’ (and other factors such as westernization, globalization and tourism) Maasai lifestyle is rapidly changing.
We contemplated these changes during our visit, particularly in terms of the pastoral, agricultural, land, tourism, and education sectors. Through various interviews and two home visits we began to better understand the individual experiences of farmers, people involved with the cultural manyatta, members of the KuKu group ranch, and those apart of the boma we visited. We were able to take what we have learned from scholarship and theory, and saw the implications for the actual, everyday person. So why yes, it is unjust for globalized and westernized systems to encroach upon Maasai cultural practices, people are typically trying to live the best they can in national and international institutions that favor the elite.
First stop: interviews with farmers. Ever struggle with socializing? Well walking up to complete strangers and asking if they’d be willing to chat, is a great way to overcome this. Jackson, who took on the role of culture broker, often translated and helped to break that strangeness of some mzungus and students bopping around with pens and notepads. We met with people who identified as groups such as Kamba and Kikuyu. Here we began to observe first-hand how non-Maasai people have taken up agricultural practices in areas originally used by pastoralists. As Maasai lost land to outsiders, their livestock began to decrease. However, in a group discussion Sinnary explained while a great deal of land used for agriculture is no longer owned by Maasai people, there are those who do own the land and choose to lease it out. Due to the expansion of the agriculture sector, swamps and rivers have dried up. Many rivers categorized as permeant are now seasonal, both farmers and pastoralists are experiencing water shortages. This decline in a resource needed to grow crops and ensure the survival of livestock has led to disputes between these two groups.
Following the interviews, we drove down the long and bumpy road to our hotel. We could see groups of people gathered in traditional Maasai dress near what appeared to be homesteads. What was surprising however was the few safari vehicles that frequented them. We later came to learn that these were Cultural Manyattas, a place where tourists may learn about and experience Maasai culture. When we visited the cultural manyatta later that day, men and women took us by hand and led us into a circle where we sang and danced together. The women placed beaded necklaces on us, and the men were encouraged to participate in the jumping contest. We were then able to learn about traditional Maasai medicine and visit inside the homes made of cow dung and mud.
Next, we had a chance to buy crafts, mostly jewelry, sold by the women. Lastly, we were able to conduct interviews with different groups of the manyatta: the elders, the young men, and the women. Our interviews seemed to spark more questions than they answered. The members stated to live on the manyatta, yet the insides were nearly empty with no cooking materials or personal possessions. Many of the answers we received painted an image of a group that was fully immersed in a traditional way of life and were challenged by our observations. It is more important however, to understand why such discrepancies exist. Many tourists travel to Kenya, and Africa in general, to observe the Maasai people, bringing along stereotypical notions of the group produced by the media and colonial pursuits. Out of demand and desire to please tourists, manyattas sometimes exaggerate the traditional nature of their current lifestyles.
The question of “who is exploiting who?” then arises. Are the Maasai people exploiting tourists and their lack of knowledge or are the tourists exploiting the Maasai to gain access to their culture? I’m not sure if I have a finite answer to this question. Throughout our experiences and discussions however, I have come to conclude that I don’t believe that the Maasai are exploiting tourists in any way. While they may not be producing entirely accurate notions of how they live in 2021, cultural manyattas are a way for this ethnic group to preserve their culture in an area which is developing and modernizing at rapid rates. Furthermore, stereotypes which are sometimes harmful of the Maasai that are produced in Hollywood and the media spread much more rapidly than by the relatively small number of tourists who may visit and make posts about them. Additionally, many of the people who participate in cultural manyatta depend on the income for their livelihood which has been challenged repeatedly throughout history by colonial efforts. If tourists wanted an authentic and modern day Maasai experience they most likely have the resources to put in the work ahead of time to be able to come to similar conclusions.
The inconsistencies between how the Maasai people told us they live and how most modern day Maasai people live was further exemplified upon our visit to a real Maasai homestead. Here, some of the houses were visibly modernized being made of sheet metal so they need not be repaired after every rain. The people we were able to meet with here wore modern clothing and had a borehole to retrieve their water. While this contrasting set of observations justified our suspicions about the cultural manyatta’s true nature, it more importantly gave us an accurate image of contemporary life for the Masai people living in the Amboseli region.
Rounding out the week we had the opportunity to talk with various members of the KuKu group ranch “traditional” and “educated” women,

Urban Homestay Fall 2021

Nairobi Skyline
Hi all! We completed our urban home stays in early October. Heres what two students, Grace and Tess had to say about it!
The Blog: St. Lawrence Kenya Program – The Urban Homestay Component (September 19 – October 😎
Following the Nakuru and Naivasha Field Component, our group spent three weeks in 10 separate homestays throughout urban Kenya within Nairobi County (nine singles and one double). The neighborhoods that students stayed in were in Karen, Kitisuru, Lavington, Runda, Kilimani, New Kitisuru, Runda Green, and Kileleshwa. Students’ urban host families were diverse in their environments, not only in regard to their location, but also in terms of whether both parents were present and whether their host families had siblings, pets or guard dogs, a garden, a domestic worker, an askari – a Kiswahili word meaning soldier or security guard – and various other factors. The variety of urban host families aimed to give students varied and diversified experiences, as each family had something unique to offer to the student(s) they were hosting. Throughout the three weeks, students were given various opportunities to engage with their family members through experiencing night life, family activities such as going to church and/or celebrations such as weddings and graduation parties, cooking with their families, exchanging stories about each other’s cultures, traveling to host parents’ rural homes, and exploring the city, among other activities. The program was fortunate enough and able to organize and continue forward with the urban homestays, despite the coronavirus pandemic still being extremely present in the lives of Kenyans, specifically with the enforcement of mask-wearing in public and the national curfew from 10 pm to 4 am during our homestay.
While we were in our urban homestays we were also taking classes at the United Kenya Club (UKC) in the capital city of Kenya (central Nairobi). The UKC is a private club that provides food, housing, and other accommodations, including a library and classroom spaces for students to work and take classes in. Two of the main classes, focused on gender studies and government, are being taught by professors from the University of Nairobi, which is the oldest and largest university in Kenya! The third course that is offered is based around conservation and biodiversity in Kenya and is taught by the Kenya Semester Program’s Academic Director.
Prior to students meeting their urban host families and moving into their houses, students had a conversation with each other and with one of the directors of student life and academics about the history of urbanization in central Nairobi, in regard to accessibility, social life, environmental degradation, and the urban divide related to wealth, as well as race. The city of Nairobi, upon its initial creation, was divided based upon one’s race and ethnicity; however, the city also became divided based upon economic status as a result of this initial divide. By living with urban families within the middle and upper middle-income classes, we were able to make comparisons with our rural home visits within Kipsigis culture in Kericho County, as well as with the “informal settlements” of Kibera and Mathare (the locations of our two field excursions on September 24 and October 1). As “informal settlements” will be referenced throughout, they can be briefly defined as areas where groups of shelters and housing have been built, in which the residents have no legal claim to their residency.
In viewing the density of living within Nairobi County and within “informal settlements” also in this county, our group was able to visually see and experience the massive urban sprawl that has overtaken the city of Nairobi. In 1963, the city only housed 350,000 people, but today the city houses a staggering 4.9 million people! In consequence to this rapid population increase, access to resources such as health care, security, water, high-quality housing, and food are in short supply, although a majority – if not all – of these resources are accessible by those within the middle and upper middle-income classes. Additionally, Nairobi National Park – the only national park that resides in a major capital city – may be at risk of being minimized or eliminated in the future to make accommodations for human resources. The increased population also has great effects on traffic, and by extension, air pollution within the city. The congestion of traffic was impossible to not notice on our way to the UKC every morning, with personal vehicles driving children to school, as well as people doing errands and driving to work, making the roads difficult to drive on for our taxi drivers. With Nairobi’s increased population, the lack of public transportation has also become highly noticeable, as the increase in public transportation such as matatus and boda-bodas would surely decrease congestion and allow for more drivers to utilize the roads. Ultimately, the large and still increasing population within Nairobi County and within the capital city will have devastating impacts on land use, in terms of environmental conservation of land and escalating agricultural land use to continually feed the growing population.
During our time doing the urban homestay we also participated in weekly experiential learning components as part of our core course “Culture, Environment, and Development in East Africa.” We each left our urban homestays on Friday mornings to meet as a whole group and from there departed for the experiential learning component planned. The first component we participated in was through the organization Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) based in the informal settlement of Kibera. SHOFCO is a grassroots organization which seeks to empower residents of Kibera through providing critical and essential services such as providing clean water, creating employment opportunities, and providing access to education specifically for girls. The presence of SHOFCO services within Kibera is extensive, and this became clear through the morning that we spent with them. For a few hours that Friday morning we were taken on a tour where we walked through Kibera and visited sites where SHOFCO services were available. We saw their headquarters, sites for accessing clean water, a school they had built for girls, their hospital, their center for gender issues and advocacy, and spaces where they offered employment to Kibera residents for services such as sewing. One of the aspects I admired about this organization is that they are not trying to change or eliminate the way Kibera has come to exist, instead they want to support the community as a way to empower the residents of Kibera.
The second organization we visited the following week was Mathare Girl Power Project, an organization working on a smaller scale than SHOFCO, which seeks to support young girls through vocational education in the informal settlement of Mathare. Mathare Girl Power Project educates young girls on sexual and reproductive health, menstruation, substance abuse, consent, sexuality, and other aspects of sexual and health education in an effort to make the girls aware and knowledgeable of life changes and circumstances to empower them to stay in school and finish their education. The organization believes that if the girls can finish their education they will be able to follow their aspirations, be successful, and give back to their community. The girls are taught by women older than them, many of whom have been through the organization’s education as well. During our time visiting the organization we got to interact with the organization’s founder, its teachers, and some students as well. We were put in separate groups with one teacher and two students to have an open dialogue about what the students are taught, what they have gotten out of the organization, and to ask any questions. When I asked one of the students what has been the most valuable thing she has learned from being part of the organization she told me that she has been able to build the confidence to demand consent and to say no when pressured to engage in activities she does not want to. I really appreciated her sentiment, and I think it shows that the goal of this organization is working and that education truly is power.
Reflection: Grace Brouillette
I was so, so fortunate to be welcomed with hospitality, kindness, and compassion by my urban host family for three weeks. The night of my arrival, I gifted them a container of maple syrup, a very sweet and significant food item that has been important to me since childhood because I grew up in Vermont – a state that is well-known for maple syrup and maple creemees (also known as soft-serve ice cream). Being able to connect with my family members and the domestic worker that lived on the same property through my love of cooking and baking was really special. I had the opportunity to learn how to make chapati and ugali from the domestic worker as well as make pancakes with my sister that we could drizzle the maple syrup on. Of all of the special activities that I was able to participate in, one in particular stood out to me as communicating the importance of family, love, and dedication to both of these the most. During my first weekend at their house, one of my cousins was getting married and so I had the opportunity to go to a Kenyan wedding, only the second wedding that I’ve ever been to. Besides the wedding being a beautiful moment to witness, I was also able to see a different aspect of Kenyan culture that I wasn’t expecting to see upon initially coming to Kenya. Religion was so interwoven into the wedding and made for a completely different experience than the wedding that I had gone to in America. Celebration through dancing, singing, and music brought such a warm light to the day’s events. I doubt that I will forget the all-encompassing feeling of love that I experienced that day dancing with my sister and seeing two people so happily in love, surrounded by their loved ones and family. I hope to continue to stay connected with my urban host family, especially my sister, as I continue through the Kenya Semester Program for the next two months, as well as following the program upon my return to America!
Reflection: Tess Maxam
In reflecting on the rest of my time doing the urban homestay I believe it is one of the most formative experiences the Kenya Semester Program offers. It is the longest period of time where we remain in one place, aside from our internships in the last month, compared to the rest of the program which entails a lot of travelling and moving around from place to place. The ability to “stay put” in a way really allows the homestay to feel like a return home at the end of each day. What especially made this new place feel like home was the amount of time I spent cooking with my host mom. As often as I possibly could I would offer to help with dinner and I was able to learn how to make multiple staple Kenyan dishes. As a person who is not the best at cooking I thought it was great practice, a lot of fun, and brought me closer with my host mom. Another aspect of the homestay which I really enjoyed was getting to know my taxi driver Peter. Each day we had the same driver which has been arranged through the program to bring us to and from classes. In the 45-60 minute commute each day I was able to get to know my driver Peter very well and he even invited us to visit his home next week where he will cook us nyama choma (grilled meats) and be able to meet his family that he has been telling us so much about. It is relationships such as these that seem least expected when entering a component such as the rural homestay but one that has meant so much to me and I will never forget. Last but not least, I got to have company with four of the sweetest dogs that lived at my urban home. Each day I would come home from classes and be greeted with face kisses and cuddles from each of the dogs. I even got to know the neighborhood better through taking them on walks a few times during my homestay and would be able to say hi as I passed by all of the other community members walking around as well. Overall, I really enjoyed the urban homestay and it was an experience I will look back on with much admiration through the rest of my life.

Nakuru Field Component

This past week our group traveled to Nakuru and Naivasha to learn about various aspects of conservation and problems the parks in the area are currently facing. We took many trips driving around Lake Nakuru National Park, as well as visiting a raptor rehabilitation center, Lake Naivasha, Interplant Flower Farm, and Hell’s Gate National Park. The game drives were certainly a highlight of the trip, and it was quite interesting to learn about all of the issues wildlife and locals are facing today.

The first day of our week in Nakuru brought us to the Naivasha Raptor Center. We were welcomed by owner and avian enthusiast, Shiv, outside of the bird’s enclosures. We first observed and learned about the vultures, the African White Back vulture and the Hooded vulture. These species, along with others in Kenya are at high risk of becoming functionally extinct, meaning a species still exists but is unable to play any role in the ecosystem due to population decline or disruption in their gene flow.

There are many human factors influencing the survival of vultures in Kenya, including wind turbines, geothermal power plants, and poisonings. According to Shiv, a wind turbine farm was constructed in one of the three worst locations in Kenya, just ten kilometers away from the rehabilitation center. The vultures are unable to sense the danger of the turbines as they fly through the area to scavenge. The blades of the turbines turn at 230 miles per hour and can slice a vulture in half. Turbines in Hell’s Gate National Park, we visited the park on Tuesday, were placed roughly 300 meters away from a vulture colony and killed five of the twenty-five ledge colonies which have been around for thousands of years.

As for the impact of geothermal energy, power plants are located in protected areas where vultures nest. KenGen, Kenya Electricity Generating Company, does geothermal drilling which has resulted in tapped ground leaks and superheated water that floods over, destroying habitat, specifically of vulture nests. These nests, tucked in cliff ledges, are many generations old and have high significance to vulture survival and reproduction. A final human impact on vultures is the poisoning of vultures as a result of the birds feeding on carcasses that have been poisoned by humans. One of the African White Back vultures at the rehabilitation center had been poisoned with a sublethal dose due to feeding on a carcass.

These issues are problematic for the reproduction of the species as a whole, as the birds pair monogamously for life and produce only one to two eggs per year. Of those couple eggs, the egg is often not fertile and if it is fertile it does not always hatch, and if it does hatch the hatchling is not always able to leave the nest because of predation. Those factors, combined with a 70% mortality rate in the bird’s first year, results in the parents needing to breed for forty to fifty years in order to replace themselves. If the vultures suffer from injures or death, it is unlikely that they will have been able to successfully reproduce. Therefore, the conservation and protection of vultures’ lifespans is important to the species’ continuation. If the vultures are able to reproduce at the rehabilitation center, it will be the first time they are ever successfully bred in Africa.

Many negative factors result from the loss of vultures, including a loss of biodiversity in the Kenyan and East African ecosystems and an increase in feral dog numbers and therefore rabies. Vultures also contribute the equivalent of $11,000 a year, per vulture, in cleaning up the environment. Shiv talked about the lack of awareness of and sympathy for vultures, and all birds, and how awareness needs to increase significantly in order for human interaction and development to positively impact birds.

In addition to the vultures, the rehabilitation center also has hawks, owls, and eagles of various types. We had a special experience going into the vulture enclosure and having a hands-on experience with the large birds. Afterwards, Shiv brought Phil, a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, out for each of us to hold. The Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl is the largest owl in Africa. As we interacted with Phil, Shiv talked about owls being a bad omen in traditional African culture. Many Africans think that if an owl is found calling outside of their house, someone in the house will die. This belief is a miss translation of an ancient story in which an owl was a messenger from God when one had sinned. An owl would come to the house and warm you of your sin, giving you a second chance before harm would come to you. This myth, along with every other piece of information from Shiv, was very beneficial to our understanding of and perspective on Nakuru National Park and the ways of conservation in Kenya. 

On Monday, we had a short lecture from Mr. Edebe, a researcher with Kenya Wildlife Services, about some of the environmental issues Lake Nakuru National Park is currently facing. Around 30% of the park is covered by the lake, which is very well known for its flamingo population. Unfortunately, this population has been declining due to the impact of climate change.

Increased rainfall has impacted both water level as well as the salinity of Lake Nakuru. From 2010 to 2020, the area of the lake has increased from 43.3km2 to 61.3km2, and the perimeter has increased from 29.6km2 to 34.9km2. While the lake is expanding, the saline concentration has started to dilute which greatly impacts the biodiversity surrounding the lake. There has recently been a new species of tilapia, that typically only survive in saltwater, that are now able to survive in the lake. They have also seen an increase in the number of freshwater birds that now live around the perimeter of the lake. The increase in water level, however, has been destroying habitats of animals that use to live right outside of the lake. We unfortunately did not see any leopards, for example, because they have now moved strictly to the forest since there has been a decrease in land area.

On Wednesday we visited the Interplant Flower Farm, a farm for research and development in Naivasha. Flowers have become an important economic export, and Kenya is now the fourth largest flower producer in the world. Interplant is famous for its spray roses, or roses with multiple blooms per stem. The Naivasha farm is focused on developing and testing new species of roses to potentially grow and sell in Europe and other world markets.

This week in Nakuru was filled with animal sightings, interesting lectures, and lots of personal reflection. From the first day at the raptor rehabilitation center, our entire group couldn’t stop thinking about how much we had never thought about these issues. After the raptors, we went on many game drives and learned so much about the park from Mr. Edebe and Sinnary. Interplant gave us a glimpse into the flower farming industry in Naivasha, while Hell’s Gate and Lake Naivasha taught us more about the different issues affecting parks in the area. We each learned so much this week, and couldn’t have asked for a better program of activities.


Hope Olson: In reflecting on our week in Nakuru, I am especially grateful for the time we had in Nakuru National Park. We had previously talked about and learned about the Park in our biodiversity course taught by Sinnary and I really enjoyed visiting the place, seeing so much of what we had discussed, and imagining what the land might have looked like prior to negative human impact. It was incredible to be within such close proximity to animals that I had not yet seen in the wild, especially the giraffes, hyenas, rhinos, and lions. I am grateful for the tours we had in and around Nakuru, giving me a multi-perspective view of the city. 

Brenden Bready: This week in Nakuru was without a doubt one of the best weeks of the program so far. I learned so much throughout the week about so many issues I never would have thought of, such as the importance of vultures for removing animal waste, as well as how changing the salinity of a lake can affect not only the fish but also the species around it. While it was amazing to learn so much, seeing all of the animals in the wild was certainly a highlight of the trip. I didn’t think I would actually ever see a lion, but being able to watch them hunt was certainly a treat. This trip went perfectly with everything we’ve been learning about in our biodiversity class with Sinnary, and I’m very excited to continue learning about more and more issues I wouldn’t have even thought about without these amazing visits.

Rural Homestay (Kericho)

The rural homestay has been integral to the Kenya Program since its construction. As the Covid-19 pandemic has altered student life in Canton, New York, it has also changed the rural homestay component, to adhere to safety precautions in a way that students can learn through field activities and guest lectures in addition to the home visit. Traditionally, the homestay component is a seven-day homestay in which students live with families and experience a way of life corresponding to the peoples and cultures of the family, independent from other St. Lawrence students. This year students were paired and visited their Kipsigis family in Kericho county for two days, immersed in activities within the home that embodied Kipsigis culture and life in Kericho. Outside of the two days spent in the family’s home, students also spent time learning about community activities and history from local professionals.

            The home visits were located in Kericho, a tea town on the highlands west of the Kenyan Rift Valley. Kericho’s location along the Mau Forest, at an altitude and temperature ideal for tea farming has made Kericho a hub for commercial and international tea cultivation, local tea farming, and governmental tea farming. While Kericho is currently recognized as a tea hub, it is, more importantly, a center for diverse culture, specifically Kipsigis culture. Kipsigis culture has developed and changed between generations but has been carried on through oral history, maintenance of spoken language, and the inheritance of cultural practices and land. There were several opportunities to learn about Kipsigis culture throughout the week, from a pre-arrival lecture to a Kispsigis museum tour with a museum exhibition, an art gallery, and a general history and culture discussion with the museum director, Godfrey. 

Through these experiences, we learned that Kipsigis culture dates back 2000-3000 years ago when a Kipsuroi man brought people from Egypt and Northern Africa to the Highlands East of Lake Victoria offering the people opportunity, milk, and honey. Kipsigis culture thrived for hundreds of years with rites of passage, ceremonial dance and drink, and graduations. Kipsigis people were said to have made everything by hand from clothing, musical instruments, and tools to long beer straws. As mentioned before, the Kipsigis people had several ceremonies, but most importantly the ‘rite of passage’, which marks a child’s graduation into adulthood. Outside of the four alarming calamities, Kipsigis culture thrived thanks to the resilient community and bountiful land until European Settlers arrived with diseases, destruction, and oppressive politics. Colonial rule led to the loss of tribal identity and customs due to social disruption from taxes, loss of land, pressure from commercial agriculture, and urban migration. 

            Before leaving for Kericho each student received a detailed schedule of what our plan was for our week in Kericho. The following are the field components that accompanied home visits during our week. One of the first activities we took part in was visiting the Kipsigis cultural museum which is one of the smallest museums in the country. During this visit, we were able to gain insight into the lives and culture of the Kipsigis people, as our host families are part of the Kipsigis community. This experience offered us the chance to learn about the practices and culture that we would be experiencing while visiting our rural families for two full days. When introduced to our families, we experienced a welcoming with dancing, singing, and even receiving our own Kipsigis names which demonstrated the welcoming nature of our host parents and siblings into their community.

On the following day, we went on a tour of a local tree nursery in Kericho, learning about the sustainable planting and growing of trees and sustainable agriculture practices in the area. Following our visit to the tree nursery, we were able to attend a church service with our host families which gave us a closer look into the religious beliefs that our host families practice, which holds a large amount of value within this community. Although many of us as students have differing religious beliefs, this experience allowed us to fully immerse in this aspect of the community’s lives. 

            The next activity which we did was tour a mixed farming project in which we were able to see some of the practices that our host families may also have been participating in such as the harvesting of crops, milking of cows, etc. In the following two days, we were able to spend time with our families and truly immerse ourselves in the way of life practiced by the Kipsigis people. Each student was able to engage in different activities such as tea plucking, planting of trees, harvesting crops, cooking, and milking of cows. Many experienced similar activities but each was representative of the rural lifestyle that our families practice.

During our time we were also able to meet with college students to discuss the comparisons between our college experiences as well as learn from two women leading a table banking organization. 

            Lastly, we were able to get an educational tour of a tea factory which is a major aspect of life within the community. During this tour, we saw the process of tea making which gave each of us a better appreciation and understanding of the industry. 


Student A’s Reflection

            The most powerful part of my experience was the welcome we received from our host families. Before this moment, we had not met our families and had no preconceptions of what meeting them would look like. As we entered a host parent’s driveway, I began to hear the sound of singing. Not knowing what to expect we got out of the car and walked toward them. At first, I remember feelings of discomfort; I did not know what to do or how to act. Slowly I started to feel more at home and by the end of the day, I had built a powerful connection to my family. After their Kipsigis singing and dancing had concluded, we had a buffet-style lunch full of Kenyan food like rice, ugali, chapati, nyama (meat), vegetables, and mursik (a traditional Kipsigis fermented milk). Through eating food prepared by our families, I tasted not only flavor but a great amount of care, thought, and love. Something I noted about the welcoming setup was the separate seating areas for ourselves and our homestay parents. Looking back, I realize that it was most likely due to Covid precautions; however, the separation also added to the anticipation of meeting our families. 

Following the rural homestay traditions, after our meal, one at a time our parents came over and chose who they thought was their son or daughter. For myself, this moment was reversed as I was asked to chose who I thought could be my parents. After picking correctly, we walked as a family to a place to sit together and get to know our family. I remember so clearly how eager they were to meet us and how much excitement they had on their faces to finally meet their daughters after more than a year without hosting. The moments with my family that day were unforgettable, the feeling of comfort came so instantly. We concluded the welcoming ceremony with one last dance, this time alongside our family. We formed a circle in which we danced around following our host mother’s lead as our host father stood behind. As the dancing concluded, the rain became heavy. I will never forget my father removing his shakka (a traditional fabric tied across the body) and holding it over my head, protecting me from the rain. The act was that of fatherly care and protection, an important value to the Kipsigis. This day has become ingrained in my memory and I hope I never forget the feeling of open arms into my Kipsigis family.



Student B’s Reflection

During the two days living with my host family, I was able to both learn as well as teach my family about American culture. Amongst the many activities I was able to take part in, I believe that there was one which was the most impactful. My host mother was a teacher at a local school and on my second day decided to bring me to meet her students. Unfortunately, my other American sibling was unwell therefore I spent the second day independently. During my visit to the school, I felt the stares of all 200 students with some attempting to reach out and grab my hands, one even came up behind me and grabbed at my hair. However uncomfortable I felt in the moment, I allowed myself to absorb and take it all in. Out of all of the students, one young girl felt courageous enough to come up to me and ask me if she could introduce herself and tell me her name which was a highlight of my experience. Despite my mixed emotions surrounding this experience, as I reflect on it I can reconsider both how I am perceived as well as reconsider my prior assumptions. As uncomfortable and vulnerable as it made me feel at times, I strongly believe it gave me a perspective that I have never experienced, and for that, I am beyond grateful. 

Student C’s Reflection

I had the fortunate opportunity to live two days with my Kipsigis host family in rural Kericho and learn how Kipsigis culture has prevailed and adapted over time. As a clarification, Kipsigis culture has been greatly impacted by globalization, modernization, colonialism, the spread of religion, and more, so breaking down the change in Kipsigis culture is incredibly complex and deserves more than a blog post discussion. Living with my host family I had the opportunity to walk through the community, visiting the local secondary and primary school, tea pluckers, tea pruners, and neighbors, spend time with my host brother harvesting and tending to crops, and working with my host mother to learn how to make ugali, chapati, do laundry by hand, and prepare other traditional dishes. Above all, I owe the success and meaningfulness of the experience to my host family because they were incredibly welcoming, supportive, communicative, and loving during my time there. We discussed traditional farming and cooking practices, my parent’s occupations, my brother and sister’s experiences at university, and more. It is challenging to try and put such a moving experience into words because the activities and conversations can barely begin to capture the closeness and the connections I felt with my family. 

Tanzania Fall 2019

Hamjambo everyone, my name is Annie Vatcher. I am a junior at St. Lawrence University. I am an environmental studies major and public health minor. I am a member of the women’s lacrosse team back in Canton, New York but taking a semester to experience something completely different studying abroad in Kenya. I have thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in some of the cultures that make up Eastern Africa throughout the past six weeks. 

Last week we hopped the border over to Tanzania. After six hours on the bus, our first stop was in Arusha where we got dropped off and met our three amazing Dorobo tour guides. Hope, Kisana, and Simon greeted us and we all introduced ourselves. After a quick lunch and cleanup we split into three of their land cruisers and drove another four hours to our first campground. Honestly, after leaving Arusha I never knew exactly where we were within Tanzania. The change in landscape was breathtaking. We all had our heads and cameras hanging out the window as we cruised through Tanzanian villages nestled at the base of huge lush mountains. Kids lined the streets waving at the mzungus flying by. I immediately felt a special connection to this place and the joy that was so present among all of the people.

On the second day we arrived at the first Hadzabe village. The Hadza are one of the remaining hunter gatherer ethnic groups in East Africa. Within the first two days we met many of the Hadza. Through Simon, Kisana, and Hope we were able to ask them questions regarding their way of life spanning from education to childbirth to their smoking habits. We visited their houses that were beautifully made by the Hadza women with sticks and grass. We quickly found that gathering food with the women is very hard work. They took off with us trailing behind to observe and assist them foraging and digging for tubers which are a key part of their diet. We learned how to find them, extract them from the ground, build a fire without matches or a lighter, and how to cook them. We also got honey from the trees and ate berries from the bushes. Altogether we learned that it’s not easy depending entirely on the land for food, but it’s possible.

After a twelve mile walk through the Yaeda Valley we arrived at the second Hadzabe village where we focused more on the hunting side of their lifestyle. This was personally my favorite part of the component. We got to make our own arrows (with lots of assistance), and use the Hadza’s bows to practice shooting (also with lots of assistance). It was much harder than the Hadza make it look. Considering they have been using bows and arrows to hunt since they were seven years old, they make it look so effortless. Meanwhile we could barely pull the bow back and when we could the arrow would more often than not, shoot straight into the ground three feet in front of us. Either way, shooting with the Hadza was certainly a highlight of our trip. We even got to go out  hunting with them at the crack of dawn. I was fortunate enough to experience a successful killing of a dik-dik. Again, I was simply in awe of how skilled they were. With complete ease they skinned  I thoroughly enjoyed shadowing them and getting a small glimpse of what their day to day life looks like.

Every moment spent in Hadza land was a learning opportunity. Whether it was following them on their hunting adventures or asking them questions one on one. We were all struck and inspired by the Hadza lifestyle. They take their life one day at a time and don’t put much thought or worry into the future. They live so simply and happily, it certainly led me to reflect on the complexities that exist in our lives. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we now have a special appreciation and yearning to preserve their culture through the modernizing world around them. 

Hey Gang! My name’s Aidan Cunningham and I am a current Junior at SLU studying History, Government, and Philosophy. Our experience over the previous six weeks has been not only enjoyable, but providing of cultural experiences necessary to gain a more complete world view. Our trip to last week was no different.

Our 7 hour journey began early Saturday morning, and despite the undeniably hectic nature of our rush to pack the bus the mood soon calmed as the majority of us slept until our stop at the border. We were in East Africa for about a month, Tanzania added another layer to our understanding of the region. Our first drive with the Safari guides clearly illuminated the differences between Kenya and this nation; our highway cut through arid land pastoralists led their livestock through and we got more than a few waves from children strolling alongside.

Upon our arrival at Camp 1 the Haadza who greeted us began answering our barrage of questions regarding their way of life. While the Haadza are an incredibly individualistic culture they are for the most part semi nomadic hunter-gatherers who rely on natural bounty of the area for sustenance. Furthermore, they were incredibly proud to tell us how their way of life was sustainable, consistently pointing to the fact that the last Famine in Tanzania wiped out many of their non-Hadzaa neighbors but they were left unscathed. 

The following morning we embarked on a hike to their village just a few kilometers away. The climate of this area was incredibly arid -almost Grand Canyon like- but the early timing of this journey helped us beat the heavy afternoon heat. Several dozen haadza greeted us in the village with the men quietly observing from a nearby slope and the others leading us to separate dwellings for more Q and A’s. The woman in my house explained how the house was constructed primarily of dry grass and sticks, but was only utilized for sleep if it was raining. Primarily the Haadza sleep outside. She found it laughable when our conversation turned to the topic of dating and relationships, and told us the  nature of these intercations were equitable in power and normally moved to matrimony quite quickly. Before the sun’s heat was at its most oppressive we hiked back to our camp.

Day two’s primary task was arrow making, and while many of us attempted to follow the directions of the hunters, the sturdiest of our arrows came from those who were assisted most heavily by our hosts. The day finished with music and an energetic dance with our hosts. The following morning we packed up camp and hiked about twenty kilometers across the valley. The walk in the desert heat was somewhat taxing, however we arrived on the other side of the valley in one piece before night fell. The following activity was undoubtedly my favorite segment of the trip as the Haadza were brave enough to let twenty dehydrated mzungus practiced archery with their own bows. The bows varied in resistance; some had only fifty pounds of draw weight while others surpassed eighty. Most of our shots ended up in the dirt in front of our target, and some barely even made it out of the bow, however nothing on this trip was more satisfying than putting a handcrafted arrow through the target twenty meters away. We were unfortunately unable to utilize our newly developed skills in the field as the Haadza probably understood none of us would eat if they left the hunting up to us.

Our time with the Haadza was perhaps the most enjoyable week of our already amazing trip, and the perceived  simplicity of the Haadza lifestyle most definitely struck a  chord with many of us. On the final night they explained to us how they don’t worry about the future, and simply do what they believe is right to make the most out of every moment. It’s quite easy for one to create an emotional response that glorifies or idealizes their way of life, but in the words of the owner of Dorobo “it’s important not to idealize their way of life but instead simply appreciate it.” While some may have disagreed with his words, I found his assertion to be incredibly accurate when applied to our trip as a whole. We can’t go through every cultural interaction on this  making immediate decisions on the validity of a specific way of life. Instead we must find the inherent value in each and make sure we do our best to undertand why it is worth preserving. 

See you all in December!

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 Fall 2018

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

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

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

Helping with the Maize harvest

Sylvia – The Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

Amboseli Spring 2018

AMBOSELI (Austin Schessl & Jenna Sencabaugh)

Karibuni! In order to complete our core course we have a variety of field components throughout the semester here in Kenya. Most recently, we travelled to the Amboseli region!

Interviews with Farmers (Austin)

On our first full day in the area we left our camp to interview farmers in the area. We had split up into five groups each with the assistance of a translator. Each group was tasked with interviewing three-four different farmers asking questions as to what they grew, their time in the area, struggles with land and water availability as well as conflicts with wildlife (many of these farms are extremely close to the national park). After completing our interviews we all gathered to discuss our findings. To our surprise nearly every farmer was growing tomatoes and several were growing bell peppers as well. The farmers also agreed that the three animal species that cause the greatest nuisance are elephants, elands, and monkeys. If a single elephant comes into a farmer’s field it is likely that they will lose the entire crop for that season. Many of the farms are not fenced because the farmers are leasing or crop sharing and are unwilling to invest such a large sum of money to protect land that they may not be farming the following year. However, with Amboseli National Park being unfenced and the elephant population increasing uncontrollably it is becoming even more of a nuisance for farmers in the region.

Cultural Maasai Manyatta (Austin)

Later that afternoon, we were able to visit a Cultural Maasai Manyatta in order to see the way that the Maasai once lived. These manyattas consisted of several small cow dung houses arranged in a circle around their pen for cattle. In order to ensure the safety of the manyatta the entire compound was surrounded by a fence made from acacia branches. The acacia tree is one of the most abundant in Eastern Africa with multiple species, but all having severely sharp thorns covering every branch. Here we were able to learn more about the Maasai culture and daily activities. It is the men’s job to protect the homestead and herd the cattle while women are in charge of the cooking, gathering of firewood and water, as well as repairing the houses as it is the woman in the Maasai culture who actually owns the house. We also met with the manyatta’s medicine man and learned of the various barks, roots, and branches used by the Maasai to do everything from brush teeth to treat a heart attack. According to the individuals at the Cultural Manyatta much of the Maasai community still lives the traditional lifestyle such as this.


Nature Safari in Amboseli National Park (Austin)

The following day the 14 of us piled into two safari land rovers and drove to Amboseli National Park, which was just down the road from our camp. We spent several hours in the park that morning and were given the opportunity to go on another nature safari that afternoon if we chose to. While on the safaris we saw small herds of cape buffalo, hyenas, wildebeests, hippos, warthogs, herds of Grant’s gazelle and Thomson’s gazelle, a small pride of lions which had four cubs, ostriches, crested cranes as well as various other bird species, and multiple herds of elephants many of which had young calves and some herds that may have numbered near 100.

Prior to entering the park we had also spotted several small herds of giraffes and zebra, but we quickly came to realize that these species struggle to survive within the park due to the elephant populations. Amboseli National Park having around 151 square miles can sustain 400 elephants, but currently due to Kenya’s no culling policy, is now home to over 1,600 elephants. This causes a very clear destruction within the park to the trees and shrubs that these two species as well as others depend on. It also gave us a better understanding of the struggles with wildlife that the farmers had been expressing the day before. Regardless of this fact the nature safaris were the highlights for many of us during our Amboseli field component.

Homestay with Maasai families (Jenna)

At the end of the week and our time in Amboseli, we all spent a night with Maasai families in different manyattas. We traveled in pairs with a translator ready to learn more about the Maasai culture. After our experience at the cultural manyatta we were eager to experience life in with a Maasai family outside of a tourist setting. We were surprised to find many differences between the cultural manyatta and our homestays. We felt that the cultural manyatta did not fully show the development and current lifestyle of the Maasai. I was grateful along with the other members of the group to experience a day with a typical Maasai family. Along with the other females in the group, I participated in the women’s activities with my host mother. We fetched firewood and water, milked cows and goats, and prepared meals. We slept in cowhide beds in dung houses along with the family and some animals. We were also given beads to make bracelets with our host mothers. We all felt very welcome into their homes and had positive experiences.

With the help of the translator, we were able to learn from our host family and they were grateful to be able to learn from us as well. The homestay allowed us to experience their culture through conversations, participating in activities, and observations. Overall, we learned that they still follow some traditions of the Maasai but are developing in other ways. They are still pastoralists but are also using some agricultural practices due to the lack of ability to sustain a strictly pastoralist way of life. The traditional gender roles are still in place where women collect firewood, fetch water, and prepare meals while the men herd the cattle. Overall, the homestay was a positive learning experience that gave us a better idea of what life is like for the Maasai in Amboseli.

Interviews with Maasai Community Groups (Jenna)

Lastly, we got the opportunity to speak with different types of Maasai community members in groups. We met with groups of traditional women, educated women, pastoralist men, and elder male leaders. We asked them questions regarding tourism, farming, irrigation, group ranches, and modernization but also questions on their specific lives and experiences. The community members discussed ways that the culture has changed over time and their opinions on these changes. For example, they discussed women having more educational opportunities, the effect of climate change on farming practices, and how the presence of tourists is influencing their culture.  These interviews were a great way to tie up everything we had done throughout the week and we were able to ask all of our remaining questions. After the interviews, we used the information we collected from the week to give presentations and discuss as a group some of the issues facing the Maasai. These discussions allowed us to reflect on the week and everything we experienced before moving on to the next component.

After a great week in Amboseli we went straight to our next destination. Check out our next post on our week in Mombasa!