Kenya: Life Beyond Learning

Shawn Lillie
Class of: 

The Kenya study abroad semester is one of the oldest St. Lawrence abroad programs, as it just celebrated its 40th reunion this past summer. The compound where students stay was the first of any United States University in sub-Saharan Africa. This semester is unique compared to many other traditional abroad experiences in the fact that this program relies on experiential learning through field components to teach students lessons that just cannot be taught in the classroom.

            Beyond having a full course load, with courses ranging from government, to history and environmental studies, the students who go abroad (including myself: Fall 2013 Kenya Alum!), participate in a vast range of field components to drive home the main ideas being taught in the core courses. From the beginning, students are immersed in the Kenyan culture as the first field component comes just a week into the semester. Students are placed with a phenomenal family in rural Kenya where they partake in the weekly chores ranging from feeding the cattle to learning how to cook traditional and AMAZING Kenyan dishes. The families are so accepting and treat the students as one of their own, making them feel at home from the moment they step through the door. When the week comes to a close, it is very difficult to say goodbye.

            Following a short two weeks of classes, the students then cross international borders, traveling to Tanzania to spend a week with one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in the world, the Hadzabe. Living in tents and sleeping under the African stars, students go back to the time where the human race began in the Great Rift Valley. With a group that has no history of famine, students learn how to live off of the land, gathering tubers, hunting with homemade bows and arrows, climbing Baobab trees and making fire from rubbing sticks together. Beyond learning the survival essentials, students learn of the hardships of a modernizing world for the Hadzabe with the increased need of education and land rights encroaching on the Hadzabe’s way of life.

            Right when students cross the boards back to Kenya, students are placed into their second of three homestays. In order to see the contrast to Kenyan lifestyles, students are placed with Urban middle to high-class families around the capital city, Nairobi. During these three week homestays, students are meeting in the city for their regular class times, though instead of heading to the compound at the end of the day, students get picked up by their moms and dads and go home for the night. These two homestays more than anything stress the modernization of Kenyan life and how many lifestyles in the city are moving away from traditional customs that are still present in the rural life.

            At this point in the semester, life is just moving so fast, students cannot believe the semester is more than half way over, however it is yet again time for students to travel as they are off to Amobseli and Mombasa! These are two very unique components as we get to act as both tourists and as students. In Amboseli, we stay at a tourist camp, go on a wildlife drive yet we also interview Maasai and find how their culture as a whole is moving from pastoralist to agriculturist. Our third and final homestay is on this trip where students spend 24 hours in a Maasai home, sleeping with the animals in mud huts, with nothing more than a hole in the mud for light. There, we farm, bring the cattle to water and grazing grounds and even patch the houses. From there, we venture to the coast for a little R&R on the beaches of the Indian Ocean. However, we do have class during the mornings where we travel to old town Mombasa and new town and interview locals on how tourism impacts the Swahili community and cultural trends as tourism is a large economic booster.

            To complete the semester, students complete a month long internship of their choice ranging from working with non profits to hospitals to even taking care of baby monkeys. This happened to be my favorite and most fulfilling part of the semester. I spent my month working in a children’s center of a rural hospital. My job beyond going on rounds in the various wards of the hospital was to interact with inpatient children. These children range from terminal cancer patients, burn patients and even children who are discharged but must stay, as their families cannot pay their medical bill. There was an area in the hospital attached to the children’s ward that was off limits to any physician wearing a white coat, as this was an area for the kids to escape the hospital and just be kids, where they not have to worry about being poked with needles, have tests run or take their medicine. I found myself attached to a 5 month old abandoned boy where I was with him for most of the day singing to him, feeding him and rocking him to sleep for hours. I was able to see him go from an introvert to an extrovert, which was one of the hardest things to say goodbye to as I had grown so close with him! This semester and any other study abroad semester we offer is so essential to growing as people and students as we are able to see the real life applications of what we are lea