Sunday, February 2, 2014

The St. Lawrence University Kenya Semester Program, Spring 2014! 
(This was during orientation week at a restaurant called "Carnivore," where I ate ox balls, crocodile, and many other interesting meats.) 

        Wow.  I have been here for two weeks exactly, and I never want to go home.  The compound in Karen, a wealthy suburb of Nairobi, is larger than I imagined it to be, and beautiful.  The entire plot of SLU (KSP) land is covered by a range of varying species of trees, some monkeys, a few ‘kite’ birds who will steal the fruit or chapatti bread right out of your hand, and of course, lots of Kenyan sunshine.  I, along with five other SLU friends, spent our 14-hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey, where our Turkish friend, Zeynep, showed us around the famous city….she had small informational cards for every site we visited along with her own knowledge of Istanbul, and a very gracious father who accompanied us.  We visited the Blue Mosque, Topkapi palace, and Hagia Sofia.  Regardless of the fog that Friday, the sites were nothing short of jaw dropping.
         Finally, we arrived in Kenya, at 5:45am on Saturday, the 18th, in the Nairobi Airport!  On the drive to Karen, we saw a group of five giraffes in the first five minutes of driving.  From that moment on, I knew this semester would present many surprises.  The SLU Kenya Semester Program (KSP) is four months long and my return date to the U.S. is May 15th, but I hope to be staying longer into the summer (an extension of my Independent Study month from April to May), and possibly continue to intern for an NGO that is focused on a women’s empowerment project, such as microfinance in rural Kenya or Tanzania.  

          This past week, all eighteen students were placed with separate host families in rural Kenya, in the county of Nyeri, in the central highlands of Kenya, below Mount Kenya, the second largest mountain in Africa.  I lived with the Gakumu family in Tetu west.  They were extremely gracious, loving, trusting, and knowledgeable.  My father and brother, Simon (Baba) and Robert, spoke flawless English, while my mother and sister, Anne (Mama) spoke a decent amount of English.  I had numerous conversations about Kenya, and the US and the topics included: the Kikuyu culture, economy, job availability, government, corruption, religion, education, medicine and hospitals, agriculture, gender roles, spouse abuse, child beating, familial obligations, tradition, and the meaning of ‘happiness.’ They opened up their home to me, and made me feel like a family member.  I was not just a guest, however.  I was put to work, which I was happy about, but it was tough, to say the least.

A typical day in Nyarugumu with my family:

7:00am – wake up
7:30 – walk 1.5 miles to bring Morgan, the 5 yr old nephew, to school with Emma, my 17 yr old sister
8:30 – drink Chai (“It’s Chai time any time!”), eat two pieces of white bread with margarine for breakfast…
9:00 – wash the dishes from last night’s dinner
10:00 – mop the inside and outside of the house, with a rag on hands & knees
11:00 – laundry, hand wash everyone’s clothes
12:00 – begin to cook lunch
12:30 – work in the shamba (garden), digging with a ho, or picking coffee, or cutting grass for the cows, occastionally cut and eat some sugarcane for a quick break
1:30 – eat lunch (chapatti, or beans and rice, or fruit, or potatoes with cabbage)
2:00 – 4:00 – rest time (I would write a lot in my journal, and read, sometimes my brother and I would go on a walk to the Aberdare National Park (50 meters from their property), play card games, talk about young college (he attends the University of Nairobi), or, my favorite thing to do, turn on some East African, West African, reggae, or traditional Kikuyu music and DANCE!  Robert taught me some popular dance moves, which I loved, and I showed him my Dad and sister’s favorite dance moves…the one Adrianne brought back from Argentina!
5:00 – walk to pick up Morgan from school
6:30 – begin to prepare food for dinner
8:30 – 9:30 – prepare dinner, cook in fire pits in the external kitchen which was a wooden structure
9:45pm – serve dinner to the whole family
10:15pm – clean up the table, and have wonderful conversation with my father and the family
10:30pm – sleep…I was exhausted every day.  They work very hard, especially my 17-year-old sister who guided me through these chores during the first two days.  I assumed the role as another daughter quite quickly, and performed her chores that I mentioned earlier. 

Out of the ordinary occurrences: 
I taught Emma how to drive three days in a row out of a request from the father.  I was proposed to by a Kenyan 26 year old man (though he acted more like a teenager when meeting me).  My Mama called the chief of security to escort another man off her property, because he wandered into the house looking for the “mzungu” (white person), in a “rude and inappropriate manner” (words from my Mama).  She has authority in her household, without a doubt.

            Overall, I had an amazing week filled with life-changing experiences. I will never forget this family and some other friends that I met. Everyone was so gracious towards me, and proud to be Kenyan, especially a Kikuyu.  I will be back one day!  

Here are some pictures from the first two weeks:

 The Compound 'Study Centre'

 Fooling around with our bus driver's son.  Njau has been transporting SLU students around Kenya, and Tanzania for several years now...he's great.

 'The Barn', where Charlotte and Sam are living...they have made friends with some bats and large bugs.

 Petra's Sandai Resort, where we stayed the night before we were delivered to our rural homesteads in Nyeri.

 Momma, I thought you would appreciate the decor.

 A 5:30am sunrise north of Nyeri.  Mount Kenya was not ready to wake up yet.

 Petra's humble abode...

 "Kaikai" and "Carcar" with a pup!

 Zebras in the distance!

 Planting seeds with Wairimu's (our program director) family members.

 Tree tomatoes

 There are over 20 different species of bananas in East Africa.

 Morgan and one of his three kittens.

 Mama na Robert

 They wanted me to pose with the rabbit, then they proceeded to laugh and tell me "it will be food soon"...ah!

 Emma na Robert, planting squash.

 Part of the Gakumu's 2 acre plot.

 The new outhouse/washroom.

Morgan na (and) Emma. My swahili improved a bit, thanks to Emma (even though she and her family spoke Kikuyu to each other all the time).

 My room.

 The interior of the house.

 Family! And some friends. There are always visitors, and Chai is readily served.

 After church chai time.

 The guy on the left proposed to me....and the other guy asked if I could get him into the U.S. Marine Corps.

 Caroline na Morgan on a walk to find baboons!

 The 'hike,' during which an old Kenyan man, who was a Mau Mau member, chased us while yelling in Kikuyu "I hate the British, get out of Kenya!" Emma clarified that I was American and well-meaning...she had my back more than a few times.

 "Digging" in the shamba.

 I taught our little cousin, Joan, to "cheers!"

 Muhoya Academy kiddos on the walk home from school

 Aberdare National Park, where elephants, baboons, and buffalo frequent

 Planting a tree on the Gakumu family plot on the last day.

I am convinced that I learned more from these wonderful people than any book or professor could ever teach me.

 The best brother and sister from another mother and mister! I love them.

 Mama and Baba dropping me off.  It was a sad goodbye.

        Now, I am back in Karen, at the compound, and I will be taking classes for two weeks in both Karen and Nairobi, before my three-week urban home stay in Nairobi.  I am enrolled in four courses: Swahili 101, Culture, Environment, and Development, Gender Issues in Modern and Traditional Kenya, and Biodiversity Conservation and Management in East Africa.  Let the in-class learning begin!

"But who am I to blow against the wind..." - P. Simon


  1. Kat, I'm so glad you updated your blog! This is INCREDIBLE and you're obviously having the time of your life. So happy. Your host family seemed amazing. Keep the photos and stories coming, and represent in that gender course!!!

    all my love always,

  2. So great to see your update from Kenya! Enjoy every single moment. XOXO. Jen & Zion