Community Beyond Campus: Studying Abroad in Kenya | St. Lawrence University

Community Beyond Campus: Studying Abroad in Kenya

Monday, February 10, 2020

When writing about studying abroad, it's easy to fall back into the classic response you share with people who inquire about it: "Oh yeah, it was awesome!" But, given time to dig into it, there are many layers to studying abroad, especially in such a diverse program as our Kenya Semester Program. I studied abroad in Kenya in the Spring of 2019 and the four months were a whirlwind of travel, intense immersion, forging connections and a massive expansion of my world view. The program is designed to expose students to as many East African experiences as possible. We spent a week with a rural homestay and three weeks with an urban homestay, we lived with the Hadzabe, a nomadic tribe in Tanzania for a week, and spent a week each in Amboseli National Park with the Maasai and in Mombasa on the coast. The final month was entirely spent on an independent study (IDS) somewhere in East Africa. We also found time for classes somehow!

As it took me two journals to detail all of our adventures, I'd rather pull out what felt to me like the overarching theme of Kenyan culture: community. Kenyans are very welcoming people, and I was completely pulled into my two homestay families. My mothers still Whatsapp me to ask me how I'm doing and I know either would take me in should I ever wish to return. On my rural homestay, neighbors would come by calling "Hodi!" to see if we were home. I was taught the proper Kikuyu greetings which were wakia maitu (a woman) wake awa (a man) and wakia sho sho (a grandmother). Thankfully, my family had great English since there was a lot of mirth around my attempts at Kikuyu! There was so much laughter, stories, and sitting and talking usually over chai. I think while Americans generally have more amenities we are more isolated. It was sad explaining I don't really talk to my neighbors and my closest extended family live a 30-minute drive away. Without romanticizing the hardships many of these people face, it was an overwhelmingly supportive, loving and joyful community. I found that same sense of family on my urban homestay. My mum was very chatty and kind so my friends and I loved spending time with her. She was very receptive to questions and wanted to know about our lives. We talked a lot about gender in Kenya and her personal experiences. My 13-year-old sister Wanjiku and I particularly bonded, going to the movies and mall together, playing the piano, and at the end of the three weeks I made chicken parmesan with her for our parents. Before I left Kenya, I revisited them to say goodbye and thanked them for bringing me so completely into their lives. Having homestays allowed us to develop deeper relationships with Kenyans and learn about the culture by living it. 

This sense of community was also evident when we lived with the Hadzabe in Tanzania. On our first full day in the bush, we hiked to a small village of 20-30 people. While we waited to take our turn entering the single structure in the clearing, a woman sitting with the older women and children looked at me and guestured as if to hand me the baby in her lap. I pointed at myself, questioning, and she guestured again so I went over and held up the little boy. We spent the next 20 minutes passing him around and watching kids come and go before following the women deeper into the bush and learning how to dig for tubers whilst eating honey still on the comb that men would appear with. In the evenings, we had the joy of joining them for singing and dancing around the fire. One of the head men, Moshi, would lead the singing and somone had a two stringed instrument he was plucking. One of my favorite songs involved a dance game I began to refer to as the frog dance. The song started slowly with two people in the center of the circle crouched facing each other and leaning from side to side with the beat, sticking the opposite leg out. When the tempo picked up, they would fluidly bounce, sliding their feet in and out in a way that looked easy, but upon trying it, we discovered required more leg strength then most of us had. Being a part of this communal activity at the end of the long day made us feel welcome, as if we were sharing in the rejoicing after a day of work. Research shows that hunter-gatherer lifestyles involve about 3-6 hours of work a day which really made us wonder if our fast-paced, work until you drop lifestyle makes any sense. It's hard not to become close to the people you live with when you have so much time to spend with them. 

While saying "it was awesome!" can cover a lot of a semester abroad, some experiences were quite difficult. Kenya's history of colonialism, political and environmental strife were evident in our travels around Nairobi and on my IDS. I spent the last month of my semester on the Kenyan coast in a town called Watamu. I was working with a group called Watamu Turtle Watch, created about 20 years ago in response to the decline in turtle population for a number of reasons including poaching, habitat loss, pollution and disease. I went on by-catch release trips to pick up turtles accidentally caught by fishermen. If they were healthy, we let them go, but often we'd find green turtles suffering from a disease shortened to "fibro." This caused tumors to grow, some as large as a fist, impeading the turtle's ability to swim and even see. Any that we could rehab came back with us and underwent surgery. Some we had to put down. But when we were able to release turtles, it was clear how eager they were to get back to the ocean. Another difficult part of the semester was driving by and visiting Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa. It's right outside of Nairobi and the juxtopostion of wealth and poverty is humbling. We got to visit a primary school in Kibera and some of the students took us to their homes which often were a single room for a family. There's no municipal waste removal services so there's lots of trash dumped in communal spots and along the roads. It's incredibly easy to take our priviledged lifestyles for granted when such poverty feels like it's a world away. I knew I didn't want to go to Europe to study abroad because I felt it would be too similar to my current lifestyle. Seeing the diveristy of experiences in Kenya was powerful. 

One question I kept getting again and again at the end of the semester was "Are you going to come back?" For most of the semester I'd said I don't know. I'd need a reason such as work or an internship, I wouldn't want to be a tourist. The last few days of the semester though I thought about it from a different perspective: can I imagine never going back? The clear answer to that question was no. I can't imagine never returning to Kenya or East Africa. Where I stand now, I can't say why or when I will return but I'm confident I will at some point. Looking back on the semester, I'd almost forgotten how little I knew, how stereotypical my assumptions were, as much as I didn't want them to be. It's easy to generalize in America about "Africa," but having had the experiences I've had in Kenya, I can confidently say that it has taught me very little about life in Ghana, Morocco, Algeria or the Congo. I know about Kenya, and less specifically about East Africa. In Kenya, people do the same thing with America. They generalize just as much as we do, it's hard not to. That's why this kind of experience was so powerful. It broke down the inherent generalizations we all make. I'm so grateful SLU has enabled me to pursue such a diversity of educational opportunites, on and off campus, in just four short years.