Four Months in East Africa | St. Lawrence University

Four Months in East Africa

Jimmy Barns

It is 6:30 a.m. I’m just waking up as a couple other students start to stir, and all I can see is the vast expanse of wilderness in front of me, and all the beauty associated with the sunrise over it. As I emerge from my sleeping bag perched atop the large rock formation we all slept on, I still must remind myself exactly where I am, a recurring theme every morning. “Tanzania,” I tell myself.

The sound of the hunter-gatherer Hadza people about 100 feet below us preparing for the day’s hunt suddenly springs all the students into action. Four days into this portion of the trip, I looked almost tan with the layer of dust and dirt covering me. Natural sunblock, I figured, a good thing for somebody of my complexion! I brushed my teeth and grabbed breakfast from our guides, and we were off with the Hadza to test our luck on the hunt.

These types of scenes are a prime example of what St. Lawrence can provide you with – and in this case, it was through the SLU-owned and -operated Kenya Semester Program, based in Karen and Nairobi, Kenya. Coming to SLU, I would have never envisioned myself spending four months learning and exploring, firsthand, in East Africa. However, through the encouragement of my first-year African Studies professor, Dr. Matt Carotenuto, I found myself on a plane with 16 other SLU students making the flight over the Sahara Desert to Nairobi. With his support as well as the support St. Lawrence provides, I felt ready to take on this new experience with an open mind! There certainly were plenty of nerves, but those were outweighed by the excitement to learn and grow as a person in my first ever trip overseas.

Immediately upon landing, we were greeted by two of the St. Lawrence administrators who live and work on the compound in the suburb of Karen, outside of Nairobi. That five-acre compound is where we lived and were based for classes for seven out of the 16 weeks of the semester. Those other nine weeks were spent learning, exploring, and gaining firsthand experience by interacting with the people of each region and culture, learning Swahili, and exploring the landscape with the guidance of our administrators Dr. Wairimu Ndirangu and Dr. Sinnary Abdelwahab. Looking back on what St. Lawrence provided me in terms of tools to prepare myself for this abroad semester, as well as the quality of the people they have running the program is something I’m still amazed by. On top of that too, the opportunity to build on your experiences once you get back to campus will present itself. For me, that meant adding a Public Health minor based on my experiences on both my independent study/internship with General Electric Healthcare as well as a sociology course I took while there!

Other program components included multiple homestays, with a rural family, an urban family, as well as a shorter homestay with a Maasai family. There are also additional learning components to those as part of the ‘Core Course’ that took us to Amboseli National Park, Mombasa, and of course to Tanzania for a week each. To end it all, there is a month-long Independent Study in which we all chose our own area of study to pursue, and again, through the connections of the SLU program, you can go just about anywhere across East Africa to spend a month in a setting of your choice.

We returned from our hunt before the sun signaled noon – and we didn’t come back empty handed. Despite tales of taking down animals as big as giraffes, we came back with a couple much smaller animals called hyrax. Despite the dismay of some of those students with us, we all understood the larger point of the week, which was alike that of every other experiential learning component – to learn about these Hadza people through firsthand cultural immersion. And, in the most incredible ways, we certainly did.