The Rural Home – Ishiara and Rubate

Hi guys! It has been forever and TEN ZILLION DAYS since I updated… and I’ve been back in the States for just over five months now. Oops!

Yesterday, I had the hugest nostalgia trip back to Kenya (and I’m in the middle of my SIP, so procrastination is the obvious outcome of that), and today I met a Nigerian at a local international supermarket when I was picking up chapati flour, and our exchange immediately brought up memories of haggling with Kenyan men, so I thought that it was high time for another post! I’m also setting myself the goal of getting everything all caught up before the Kalamazoo Kenya 2011/2010 program leaves, presumably at the end of August (Guys? I know some of you read my blog – can you confirm?) because my last post (save for a couple of posts about adjusting back to American life and how remembering Kenya is at the forefront of my mind, like 80% of the time) will be a huge advice post about where to go and what to do and favors they can do for me (like taking me with them) if they so desire.

ANYHOW. Okay. So way, way back in early February, Mama Ngatiari took me to the family’s rural home.

Here is what I absolutely love about traveling with Mama: she is a walking encyclopedia of information about plant life. Backstory: When I first arrived in Kenya, I had a bit of a freakout about how best to connect with my host family/how to initiate conversations/etc. Sure, I had to write a couple of paragraphs on how bonding with my host family could go down in my application, but when I got to Kenya, all of that flew out of my head and I had to figure it out as I went along. Nicole was easy – she just up and started talking about horror movies and how she loved them and we went on from there. With Mama, I just listened to her talking about the Kenyan way of doing things (e.g. preparing for a wedding, driving in Nairobi) for a couple of days before I started randomly asking her what the trees I saw on our drives between Runda and City Center were, and within a month, I could identify a lot of the local plant life.

Apparently, trees were a great conversation topic for Mama. Because she owns a mango shamba (Kiswahili, essentially meaning a farm, especially for food) and grows a lot of food-producing plants in the yard (mmmm, banana!), she also has an interest in plants. It became one of our default topics of conversation, and the trip to Ishiara, where the rural home is, was no exception.

On the way to the slopes of Mount Kenya, we stopped at a roadside stand just opposite Del Monte’s pineapple plantations. The stand sold Del Monte juice exclusively, and we each got a carton of juice and a bag of these delicious peanuts that had been roasted to the point where their natural oils were perfectly highlighted and yum. As we bought the juice, she pointed across the highway towards the plantation and explained how pineapples grow.

The Del Monte juice stand. I got pineapple, Mama got mango. My favorite in the city was peach, which I would freeze and eat like a granita.

As we continued on the trip, she explained other vegetation we passed. We pulled over at the rice shambas (I am kicking myself right now because I cannot for the life of me remember what kind of rice is grown in Kenya. I know it starts with a P. I’ll edit this entry if I ever remember :)) so I could see it growing close-up, which was super cool (also cool – watching farmers turn dried rice stalks into hay bales for their mules!). She then explained the drying process to me as we drove through the towns flanking these vast rice fields – essentially, it is spread out on huge sheets on the ground to dry. I also learned a lot about macadamia nut, papaya, and mango trees on our journey, and she explained about the altitudes at which coffee and tea flourish, and how arrowroot used to be the most popular starch in the Eastern Province, but maize is replacing it.

This is a lot of rice. I'm assuming it's already dried, because if it were drying, you wouldn't want to heap it up like this!

This is a lot of rice. I'm assuming it's already dried, because if it were drying, you wouldn't want to heap it up like this!

When we arrived at the rural home in Ishiara (a short drive outside of Embu), I got to meat Papa’s parents – his 100-year-old father, and his 95-year-old mother! Neither of them spoke a word of English. It was an honor just to be in their presence – growing that old, especially in rural Kenya, is definitely something to be venerated for.

Papa's father.

Papa's mother. 95 and still beautiful!

Mama explained the extensions she is having added to the house at the rural home, and then she, Papa (who arrived from work with delicious food soon after we got there) and I sat down to a feast of nyama choma ya mbuzi (goat meat), ugali that was cooked over a wood fire (you could taste the woodsmoke… probably the best ugali I had in Kenya. I also liked that it was cooked drier than I was used to having), and Stoney Tangawizi. After a nap, Mama showed me the mango and orange trees that were growing on the property, and then went on to explain more of her plans regarding the rural home property. You see, she wants to start a school there. She pointed out where she would build the classrooms and how one of the rooms of the house would become an office, and started laying out a plan for raising money and finding teachers. She also explained her plans for the water system.

I hope most of you readers (hi mom!) have heard about the drought in Africa (hitting Somalia hardest, but extending into Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea). It was definitely evident even as far south as Ishiara, even back in February. One thing Mama and Papa and I talked about at length during this trip was the desertification of Africa, the expansion of the Sahara, and the way that, luckily, even when the rest of the country is experiencing drought, areas around Mount Kenya usually are able to still produce food due to unique weather systems. Still, Papa was quick to point out the marked difference between irrigated areas and non-irrigated areas around Ishiara – it was especially easy to see at the mango shamba.

The rural home is about a ten minute drive from the mango shamba, but it is in a lower area with more water access, and as such, is extremely verdant and beautiful. As Mama and I walked around the mini-orchard at the rural home, she explained that this land would be perfect for a school also because the street that their home is on has a unique canal system (very narrow, but very important) that brings water reliably to all houses within reach. “People sometimes come from other areas to take water from the canal,” she told me. The proximity to the land would make it an ideal water source for the children she hopes will attend the school.

This is what the land around the rural home looks like when it isn't watered. Note that this is far, far south of the worst of the drought in the the Horn of Africa... and it still looks this arid.

This picture, taken on the mango shamba (so yes, those are mango trees), is what the land around the rural home looks like when it is regularly irrigated.

After that, Mama and Papa and Papa’s driver from his school (more on that later) took me to the mango shamba, where I got to see how mango cultivation in Kenya works. My host parents grow, I believe, two or three different types of mangoes (it’s either three, or they were considering planting a third type). I got to learn about how the trees are watered – they draw water both up the shamba from a river downhill and down the shamba from another source. Here is where my update-procrastination is biting me in the butt – I did not write down the other water source in my notes, and it has been so long that I’ve forgotten what exactly it is. Whatever the source was, though, it’s the cheaper source, as they did not have to draw the water uphill. Each tree is planted in the middle of a small hole, which is filled with water every time it dries out in order to keep the trees in prime condition.

Here is what I did write down in my notes about the mango shamba: “Walked around the mangoes. It smelled amazing in the heat. It’s interesting, to see the process of desertification in abandoned farmland. Such a cool experience, could only have been made better if there was a ripe mango for me to eat hot from the sun and the tree.” Here is a cool fact about mangoes: if you crush the fruit when when it is just a tiny nub – no longer a flower, but not yet larger than, say, a pinky fingernail – it smells like juniper berries.

Mama and Papa Ngatiari on their mango shamba

After the visit to the shamba, we departed for Papa’s place of work. Higher up the slopes (or perhaps foothills?) of Mount Kenya, where the altitude and unique weather patterns allow for crops to flourish even with the effects of drought visible not a forty minute drive away, is the town of Rubate (if I remember correctly, it is roughly equidistant between Embu and Meru), and Rubate Presbyterian Teacher’s College. Papa is the principal there. He has a house on campus, where he spends most of his time, generally coming back to Nairobi only on random weekends. We stayed in his house – there are several guest rooms – which is surrounded by: a mango tree, passionfruit vines, a grove of banana trees, and fields upon fields of maize. Oh, and also just a little something I like to call the peak of Mount Kenya looking incredibly close. The college grows much of its own food, you see. So before dinner, as the sun set over the peak of Mount Kenya and cast a lovely reddish glow across the tops of the maize plants, Mama and Papa took me around the campus and showed me the campus, including Papa’s office, the construction work they are doing (they’re adding an awesome library), their new hospital, which services all of the surrounding area, and a shamba across the road that Papa and Mama jokingly call “Mama’s” shamba.

'Nuff said 🙂

I am deliberately omitting a description of the absolutely delicious dinner I had that night,  because if I started on the phenomenal boneless chicken(!!! I think I had boneless chicken maybe… three times outside of soups, burritos/pizzas, and curries in Kenya, according to a quick search in my journal document) and the most amazing potatoes-and-red-onion dish I can remember, I definitely wouldn’t be able to stop talking about it. Suffice to say, dinner guests included many of the prominent staff members at the college. We had a discussion about my plans for my own education (grad school immediately after I graduate from K, hopefully!), which shifted into an intense reflection on the brain drain phenomenon in Africa overall, and Kenya in particular, along with the tendency for many young people to lack the drive to go immediately from undergraduate education into graduate education.

The next day, Mama and I departed back to Nairobi. We stopped to buy bananas, mangoes, and fresh roasted yams, as well as to take some awesome pictures of Mount Kenya, and tea farm slopes, and more rice field pictures.

A slope full of beautiful green (the color, not the type) tea plants

Mount Kenya! Unfortunately, this was the best picture my little old camera could take. It was even lovelier in person!

So… this entry is a lot longer than blog posts should be. What can I say? I’m in major nostalgia-mode about Kenya, and this was one of my absolute favorite trips within the country.

Next up: my trip out of the country to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar in Tanzania! And then, a post full of advice for this year’s awesome K Kenya group.

Posted in Eastern Province, Host Family, Kenya, Study Abroad, Travel, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

ni joto sana

What’s this? Two posts so close together? Clearly the apocalypse must be coming! (it isn’t, I’m pretty sure, but I AM going home in a week and a half, so…)

The last stretch of the walk through Runda from my house to the matatu stage

Summer in Nairobi… it’s hot.

You’d think that, as a born and bred Kentuckian, used to summers of 90+ degree weather, I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by Nairobi’s temperatures, which rarely go above the 85F mark.

But the fact of the matter is, Nairobi has an elevation of more than 5,000 feet. It’s interesting, living in a relatively high-altitude location: shade really makes a difference, due to the thinner atmosphere. I’ll be walking from my home to my matatu stop, sweating up a storm on the completely cover-lacking section where a flyover is slowly being constructed, then pass under the jacaranda trees immediately past the second Runda Mimosa gate, and feel almost cold. Well, comparatively. Those of you in the middle of your Arctic winters would probably find it gloriously hot ;).

At New Life Home Trust, my ICRP site, the babies (the ones over 9 months of age, that is) spend at least an hour playing outside every day while I’m there, between morning snacktime and lunchtime. It’s wonderful – the sun dapples through the leaves of the trees and bushes on the property, just enough that, though I’m generally sweating, it’s actually the kind of sweat that cools you off successfully.

One thing about the summer is the smells. Nairobi in general is full of them, ranging from gross B.O. (you get used to that) to the amazing smell of something doughy freshly deep-fried (or the questionable smell of dozens of Kenyan-fried whole chickens sitting in the windows of chips-and-chicken fry places)  to everything in between. But in the summer, it elevates. The walk from the matatu stop at YaYa Center to my ICRP goes through an area that serves as an informal dump and informal car repair place (with lots of informal food kiosks and lots of men who like to hail me right before they start to pee on the walls), and it’s just… I’ve come to learn that the smells of rotting fruit aren’t gross, they’re just differently rich. I know where to hold my breath for the urine stench (thankfully, there are only three places in the entire city where I’ve encountered this) and where to breathe deeply for the flowering trees. I’ve always had a very sensitive nose, so smells have always been intriguing to me. Being in Kenya… it’s like a party for my nose. I’ve learned to embrace less-than pleasant smells, because they all tell a story. The matatu I was in the other day smelled like rotting bananas (kind of gross). On my walk home today, I came across some frangipani, which is possibly my favorite scent in the entire world (note: if you think you know the smell from the Plumeria scents at Bath and Body Works (plumeria is another name for frangipani), you have another think coming). A little while ago, I was completely taken aback by another favorite smell, one I hadn’t experienced since summer in the states: fresh-cut grass.

I guess that’s something I’ll really miss about Kenya – not only are the colors so much more vibrant, as I’ve noted before, and the fruits (generally) so much more delicious, not only is the sun so much more potent, but the smells are so much more, too. I hate to say it, guys, but America is pretty bland in comparison.

Here are some of my favorite things about right now:

+ At my ICRP, there is Buddy, who is the most adorable baby in the world. Honestly, if I were emotionally and financially mature enough for a baby, I would probably want to adopt him, even though I’ve never considered adoption before (I still don’t; I fully support it for other people, but some of my experiences with orphanages in Kenya have just reaffirmed my personal reasons not to want to). He just… he reminds me of a duck, actually, which weirdly explains it all to me. He also is learning to hold his own milk cup, and gets really mad when it spills all over him (it’s a sippy cup, but those do still leak). He also pukes a lot. Here, have a picture!

buddy + ducky

+ Also about my ICRP: I AM DONE WITH IT. HUZZAH. 45 hours playing with babies and talking to white people about why they choose to be volunteer tourists, and 15+ pages of analysis, DONE.

+ My walk home. Because the flyover construction in the middle of the walk is exposed to the city, I now have three Runda Estate automobile gates to go through before I get to the gate at my compound (quick lesson: estate = neighborhood. At Runda, there are gates with guards at every entrance to determine whether the people driving in are people who should be driving in. Compound = the housing plot contained within a fence, generally with gates of it own and privately-hired ‘security’ who make sure the people going into a house are the people who should be). Since the first of the second two gates sprang up, when I asked the guard there if I was crazy and it had always been there, or if it was a recent addition, I’ve gotten into the habit of greeting the guards with a habari yako (how are you (singular)), habari zenu (how are you (plural)), or habari za [asubuhi/mchana/jioni] (how is your [morning/afternoon/evening-before-sunset]), and they’ll inevitably respond with a nzuri sana (very good) or salama (peaceful). As time has worn on, however, we’ve started having longer exchanges – they’ll ask if I am going in to university or if I’m just taking a walk, I’ll ask about the music they’re listening to, etc. etc. And the most recent development – one of my favorite developments ever – is yesterday, they started initiating fist bumps. Yeah. I don’t know, I just love being tight with the security. I feel like they get very bored, and they’re very interesting – I once had a decently long conversation with a guard at the gate closest to my house about how he is trying to raise money to finish his degree at night school. So the fist-bumping is completely legit.

+ (this point is dedicated to my human friends Justine and Joie) my lizard friends! There are between two and five lizards (I have difficulty telling them apart, but I know there’s at least one big one and one or two small ones) that chill in my house and like hanging out on the walls of my room. They also like eating mosquitoes, therefore, I like them. Here, have another picture:

the biggest of my lizard friends

+ Flowers, flowers everywhere. Also, I’m a heat mama, so even though the temperatures here are a little bit overwhelming, I’m also enjoying the feeling of baking in the sun 🙂

+ My trip to the rural home last weekend. But that’s going to be the subject for the next post!

Here, have some flowers 😀

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

christmas vacation & my triumphant return therefrom

This is not a post about what I did on my Christmas vacation (I’m refraining from calling it ‘winter vacation’ because, although I was in a very wintry area for it, it’s currently summer in Nairobi). This is a post about what being in the UK was like after living in Nairobi for over three months, about what the transition both to a first-world country and then back to Kenya was like.

To preface this post, I just want to say: despite the impression you may get, I had a wonderful time during my vacation. It was my first time in the UK, and I had a great time in my three-week visit. (To summarize: I spent all three weeks with fantastic boyfriend, Ben. The first few days in Aberdeen, which were mostly an exercise in HAVING FULL ACCESS TO A KITCHEN AGAIN AND COOKING YAY, we were joined by brother-by-choice Jacob. After he left, Ben’s parents came up for Christmas, and the four of us went on to Edinburgh for New Years. Following his parents’ departure, Ben and I spent a couple of days in London before heading back to Aberdeen for a day, at which point I headed back to the good old KE). I am super glad that I went.

And now I’m going to summarize my visit with the fact that I made the mistake of getting mango in London.

It was everything I would have loved before I went to Nairobi: firm yellow flesh, sharp peppery taste… and yet, now that I know what mangoes are supposed to be like – juicy and golden and soft and spicy, but hardly peppery at all – well. Let’s just say I was super disappointed by the reminder that, a couple weeks from now, I will be back to eating lackluster non-tropical fruits. No more wide variety of bananas, no more passion fruit or tree tomatoes… no more apple mangoes 😦 THOUGH I will say that I’m excited for melon in the states – it’s just not as flavorful here.

The adjustment to being back in the first world was… interesting. For example, in Kenya, most of the public restrooms are either holes in the ground or toilets without seats. As such, it took me several days in Ben’s male-populated flat to notice that their toilets actually had toilet seats – admittedly, toilet seats in the ‘up’ position almost permanently, but toilet seats just the same. Adjusting to the richness and differentness of the food didn’t take as much as I expected it would, and adjusting back to the water and food in Kenya was also largely a nonissue. I did feel rather ill after a feast at McDonalds (what can I say, I’d really missed chicken McNuggets in Kenya!), but, then again… that’s McDonalds.

Honestly, the biggest thing for me was adjusting to transportation. Luckily, in both Kenya and Britain, people drive on the left side of the road, so I didn’t have to readjust for that, though I imagine that when I return to the states, it’s going to be a pretty significant change. There, however, the similarities end. In Kenya, what few traffic lights there are, are frequently ignored if there’s no oncoming traffic – in fact, my host mother and I have had multiple conversations about how it’s just dumb to sit at an intersection if no one is blocking your way. In the UK… well, let’s just say, red lights are strongly followed (as one would probably expect). I quickly grew impatient with this, as well as with the expectations that pedestrians use cross-walks – what do you mean, most people don’t just run across the street the second there’s a big enough gap to get across without being pummeled by a speeding matatu?

And don’t get me started on public transportation. I hated hated hated the busses in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and although the London Underground was a lot easier to deal with – quick getting on and getting off and pretty reliable transfer times, etc – I still got pretty impatient with the wait. The longest I’ve ever had to wait for a matatu – during the day, at least – is seven minutes. There was a day in Aberdeen, on our way back from dropping Jacob at the airport, that Ben and I had to wait half an hour for a bus – and my feet were soaking wet and freezing. The other benefits of matatus is that they have a really quick onload/offload – most just seat 14 passengers (including the tout, who takes money and keeps the driver in the know about when stops need to happen), and you don’t pay until you’re back in traffic. Busses, with set schedules and without the ability to weave in and out of traffic super easily, just made me extremely impatient in general. I hope that my impatience with traffic laws doesn’t stick when I get back to the states.

I also manifested reactions to being in a country where I was not obviously a foreigner in interesting ways. Being in Kenya, I’ve grown accustomed – however reluctantly – to being singled out as white and female, to getting a lot of unwanted attention for that. I’m not going to say that I hate the situation, but I am going to say – it’s been an education, being in the minority bracket, and there are some days when I am sick and tired of hearing people shout “MZUNGU” when I walk down the street.

When I was in the UK, the greatest signifier that would have marked me as an other was my accent. As such, for the first week or two that I was there, I was reluctant to speak to most people, in order to achieve optimal blending-in.

What’s interesting is that, upon my return to Kenya, I realized that I feel more able to blend in, to be someone who doesn’t stand out as an Other, than I did in the UK. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I have residency in Kenya; maybe it’s due to the fact that I get a certain amount of respect because I speak Kiswahili (whereas, in Britain, I had no such way of accumulating, what shall we say, street cred?), maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve spent so much longer in Kenya.

The transition back to Kenya was both easy and difficult. Difficult, because my time in Britain broke my stride in Nairobi, and it took me some time to get my swagga back, to get used to being back in a hot, dusty country after three weeks of coats and snow; to get used to not spending every waking moment with my boyfriend; to get used to not traveling all the time, to returning to a routine and an internship and an established life.


And that’s the thing about going home, I think. Two weeks from today I’ll be back at home, and I think that the weirdness and readjusting back to being in the states will be less readjusting to the first world – after all, I did have a practice period in December – and more of changing the routine I’ve established. When it comes down to it, I’ve made a life in Kenya, and though I’m excited to go back home… well, it will be a little bit weird, exactly how different the change will be.




Upcoming posts: summer in Kenya/working on my ICRP, my visit to my family’s rural home, and my upcoming trip to Tanzania! I’m also considering a post about what it’s like to celebrate holidays and birthdays in a foreign country with people who aren’t family, and I’m definitely planning on posting some follow-up readjustment to life in the US and reflections on study abroad overall blogs over the next few months.

Posted in Britain, Kalamazoo, Kentucky, Kenya, Nairobi, Study Abroad, Travel, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Question and Answer post #2

More Q&As!

From my girl Evie:

+ Of the places you have visited while in Kenya, what has been your favorite and why?

Gosh, that’s a tough one. I really enjoyed Mombasa because, hello, a week on the Indian Ocean (plus bonus points for the Fort Jesus ruins and Mombasa Old Town and the fabric ~district). I really enjoyed Naivasha and Masai Mara because seeing wildlife in the actual wild, as opposed to in zoos etc, is an amazing beautiful experience. I enjoy Nairobi… but I’m here all the time and it’s getting to the point where smog is visible every day.

I guess my favorite place has been Kisumu! That trip definitely had its ups and downs, but overall… the landscape around the city was phenomenal, with the rocky hills on one side and Lake Victoria on the other. In some ways, what I saw was heartbreaking – just the quality of life that I observed, both in Kisumu itself and in the rural towns surrounding it – but there was also a level of beauty unsurpassed by anywhere else I’ve been. If I come back to Kenya after this, Kisumu is a place I’d definitely want to return to, even though there’s almost no tourist attraction whatsoever, from what I saw/experienced (which, let’s be honest here, is attractive in its own right).

+ Would you visit Kenya again on your own/with friends and family, in the future? Or do you think this will be the only time you are there. And if so, would you re-visit some of the places you’ve already seen? Or choose entirely new ones to visit?

I DEFINITELY want to come back to Kenya, with friends and family preferably but on my own if that doesn’t work out. I don’t think I would want to come back immediately – I have the option of returning in the summer to do research, potentially, and I feel like that’s a bit too soon after spending six months away from family/friends/boyfriend/etc – but definitely in five years, yes. And upon my return – I would want to see places I’ve seen before and loved (places in Nairobi, probably Kisumu and Kakamega), though when it comes to places like Masai Mara and Mombasa, I feel like I’d rather experience other game parks or other coastal towns first. For example, I’d love to go to Lamu, or Amboseli, or Aberdare. But yeah. Kenya has completely enveloped me (much like the dust on the streets envelops me every day so much that when I wash it off, the water turns brown), and I can’t honestly picture spending the rest of my life without returning, if even for just a little while.

From my aunt Julia:

+ When do you depart this amazing place to return to the United States?

My flight home leaves late Sunday evening – around 10:30PM GMT+3 – February 20, and I arrive in Detroit at ~10:00 AM EST Monday the 21st!

From my grandmother, Else:

I have been enjoying All of your blogs and so have several members here at the cedars. [ed. note for unfamiliar readers: ‘cedars’ refers to my grandmother’s retirement community] I make copies and pass them around. Everyone loved your love letter to Kenya- as well as the others.
I liked the one where you interacted with the children and the safari. What I want to know is how you manage all these impressions with your school work?

Well, the majority of our trips are part of our curriculum. After both the Kisumu and Masai Mara trips, we wrote essays about how what we observed fits in with previous research and also our Geographies of Development classes. For example, after Kisumu, we wrote about incentives in rural communities to increase development, and after Masai Mara, we wrote about how tourism affects development of communities such as the Maasai. Visiting these places has given me a better understanding of how things work outside of the city of Nairobi, which is generally more affluent and Westernized than the rest of the country, and therefore given me a better understanding of the things we covered in my Gender and Development and Geographies of Development classes.

And what are you studying?

I think I answered this pretty well in my last post, so I’m going to take the opportunity to amend what I said about my ICRP. My ICRP is at an orphanage (the specific branch I’m at is for children aged 24 months or younger, though there are satellite homes throughout Kenya) that takes on predominantly HIV positive babies. At the time of my last post, I was thinking of my research itself being about child development in group situations versus single-family situations; I have since amended my topic to be about voluntourism  – a relatively new term for the spreading phenomenon of volunteer tourism – since the majority of volunteers at the Home are volunteer tourists (a volunteer tourist is someone who travels to another place with the specific objective of both operating as a tourist and a volunteer. In Kenya, this means going on a safari that culminates in, for example, building a school for a group of people living just outside of the game park, or perhaps working at an orphanage in between safari-like excursions). There’s been very little research done on the topic, compared to any other topic I may have chosen (I’ve found less than ten scholarly articles on the situation so far), so my ICRP advisor is pretty excited about it, too 🙂

How is it to be living with an African family and how do you interact?

It’s a great experience. I’ve gotten to experience Kenyan weddings and birthday parties through them, as well as getting a first-hand look at a Kikuyu family dynamic and having probably the best exposure to both Kenyan and Kikuyu culture I could get. When visiting my boyfriend at his residence hall in Aberdeen over Christmas break, I realized exactly how much I prefer living with a family to living in a dorm situation – not only do I get home-cooked meals every night ;), but I also get to be immersed in a culture that is not limited to university students my own age. I’m a very family-oriented person, and it’s great to have that here, especially since I’m almost 8,000 miles away from my family back in the States.

My sisters and I hang out a lot – last Saturday, for example, we made pizza together. Since I’m not much of a TV watcher, I generally don’t join my family when they watch TV, and the only other option on evenings is generally spending time in your room by yourself, but I’m fine with that – I read lots of books :). More often than not, we all have dinner together, unless, for some reason, someone is still out, or someone has fallen asleep. Dinner together is a really great experience – I learn so much about the extended family and Kenyan traditions that way! Although I spend most of my time per day in the city instead of at home, I feel like I still get a lot of time with my host family. I feel quite comfortable in my African home.
What are the experiences of your friends with their families?

Well, every family is different, so they all have different experinces! My family is unique in that I have both a host mother and a host father, though my host father is usually away for most of the week (he’s the principal of a school relatively far away from Nairobi, so he can’t commute daily). Some of my friends are in single-parent homes, some of them are in really small homes, and some of them live in gigantic mansions with very Westernized host families. I’d recommend looking at the other Kenya blogs to get an idea of their interactions – some good specific posts are here (Megan’s family) and here (Katie’s family). Zach also mentions his family and interactions with them, though he doesn’t have any posts that discuss them specifically.
Are you getting close with your buddies in the group and who is your favorite?

I am! The great thing about being dropped in a foreign country unlike any country you’ve been to before with just six other people you barely know, who you end up spending at least a couple hours a day, five days a week, with, is that you really get to know those people ;). I like to think that I’ve gotten pretty close with all of them – I would definitely consider all of them my friends at this point, as having an experience like this really creates a special kind of bond.

I wouldn’t say I have a specific favorite in the group, though. What I would say is that everyone here fills a different, yet important, role in my life. For example, I have notoriously wacky conversations with Zach. I never go to Ngara (a district where I got my hair braided, and where I get the freshest fruit, plus awesome secondhand clothes) without Amelia. Emily is great for hanging out in general. Mimansa comes over to my house a lot and we usually end up studying together (if my ‘studying’ you mean ‘watching lots of How I Met Your Mother’). Megan and I have epic academic discussions, while Katie and I spaz out about our shared interests (we like a lot of the same books/movies/tv shows/music/musicals) a lot.

From my boyfriend’s dad, Keith, who may not have realized that I am serious about answering all questions posed:

+ When did you get a cute boyfriend? I thought you were going to be visiting Ben for the holidays!

I visited my Kenyan runner boyfriend first 😉

Feel free to keep asking questions!  Ask in comments here, or email me here. I’ll keep answering them if they keep coming in 🙂

Posted in Kenya, Kisumu, Masai Mara, Mombasa, Nairobi, Naivasha, National Parks, Q&A, Study Abroad, University | 1 Comment

Questions and Answers post #1

This Q&A post consists entirely of questions asked by K students. Other questions will be addressed in the next post 🙂

From Sophomore Nikki:

Does your major align with the major that the program is geared toward? And if so, does this help, and if not, is that a disadvantage?

I’m a Psychology major with a minor in English and a concentration in African Studies (Yeah, I know, no overlap there to speak of), and, really, the only way that the Kenya program overlaps with my field of studies is with regards to my concentration. Honestly, the Kenya program classes are 90% geared towards sociology, but I don’t personally think it matters what your major at K is, as long as you have an interest in the sociological composition of Kenya. In my group, we have multiple science majors, two polisci majors, and very few people who study sociology specifically, but I think we’re all doing pretty well. I’m not sure whether the lack of class overlap will prove to be a disadvantage once I return to K, honestly, but honestly, Kenya is so worth it that I’m really not too concerned about any disadvantages.
Do most people speak English? If not, how well can you communicate with Nairobians with your level of Kiswahili (did you take Kiswahili before going to Nairobi)? Is it difficult to communicate, feel comfortable, and integrate into the culture with your language skills?

I did not take Kiswahili before going to Kenya. I knew scant amounts from a free online course I sort-of worked on every once in a while, but by the time I got to Kenya, essentially all I could say was ‘hujambo’. After taking the Kiswahili 1 and 2 courses offered with the K program, I guess I’m at middle-school reading and listening comprehension level, and I feel very comfortable speaking it, too. Apart from your general blanking on words, I find it easy to comfortable communicate with Kenyans in Kiswahili. I also find that they’re super awesome about filling in the gaps in your information – I’ve talked to multiple unfamiliar Kenyans in Kiswahili who have been quick to offer a word when I forget one, or explain what they just said if I didn’t completely understand it. Mostly they’re really pleased when people make the effort to learn even some Kiswahili – which only just became an official national language with the new constitution. English is widely spoken and 90% of the people I encounter are fluent. Those who aren’t generally still know it, they just use it less frequently in daily life and so can be a bit rusty. I think the most difficult part of communicating is just getting to the point where you can understand Kenyan English accents without trouble; since I’ve got to that point,  I’ve had no problems.

Do you feel that your cultural experience was inhibited by taking classes with only K students rather than at the Nairobi University?

Honestly, not really. To an extent, I wonder how my experience would be different if I took classes with Kenyans, but the American education system is so different from that of Kenya that I think classes with just K students is the best way to ensure that K students are able to function as students at the University. You always have the option of auditing a class – my friend Megan is taking a high-level German course with Kenyan students, for example – and you have ample opportunity to experience the culture of the university and the country without being in classes with other Kenyans.

Do you think this makes it more challenging to make friends with the locals?

In my experience, it has been difficult to make friends with a large amount of locals. I’m not really one for clubbing or going out at night in general – I live pretty far out of the city, so it’s difficult to get in and out of town, especially cheaply, and it’s also, just really not my scene –which limits my sphere of potential friends, but there’s also the fact that most Kenyan women my age aren’t very open to forming friendships, and most Kenyan men are more open to forming sexual relationships than platonic relationships. However, I have made a lot of friend with older Kenyans – one of the directors of the K program in Kenya (Mama Roseanne), for example, as well as my host sisters (one 12, one 25), along with other people through them. Perhaps having classes with more Kenyans my age would have changed that, perhaps not. I don’t regret my level of involvement with Kenyans, however – host families really are an amazing experience

Is it difficult to acclimate to the culture? What is the hardest thing to get used to? How do you feel living in a completely different culture for an extended period of time?

I was pretty nervous about acclimating to the culture before going to Kenya, but, overall, I think that I have acclimated well and quickly. Flexibility is essential to adjusting well. Some things will come across as entirely shocking to you – widespread views on FGM, for example, or perhaps traditions regarding the treatment of wives and widows. It’s important to remember that Western culture is not necessarily correct about everything and that, even if you don’t agree with traditional views on the treatment of women, addressing this with Kenyans is both difficult and discouraged.

I personally really appreciate the chance to completely immerse myself in Kenyan culture. A lot of their views and practices are entirely familiar, but then again, a lot of them are also alien. I think it’s helped me, personally, become both more flexible and more pragmatic about things.

An example: in my first four days in Kenya, I attended a Kikuyu wedding and preparations therefore. It was completely overwhelming, because I was inundated with an entirely new schema of societal niceties to adjust to less than twenty-four hours after my arrival in the country. I was sent off with a bunch of the cousins – people I’d never met before, people not even technically in my host family – to drive around the city and explore while the mamas worked on last-minute organization, which immediately forced me to reexamine and adjust my preconceptions about safety (such as, don’t get into a car with strangers). The wedding itself was another experience altogether – I abstained from attending the ‘young peoples’ party, which occurs after the reception and is an opportunity for the bride and groom and people their age to drink and dance without elder members of the family around – and still, I was out of the house for twelve hours just attending the singing down of the bride (the bride’s family goes to her house before the ceremony to sing her outside), the service, and the reception, surrounded by three hundred people I barely knew. And a lot of the study abroad experience is like that: I’ve been forced out of my comfort zone, but as a result of that, my comfort zone has expanded tremendously. Later on in the autumn, when I went to a birthday party for some of the cousins, again with tens of strangers, I wasn’t fazed at all.

Being in a completely different culture for an extended period of time is challenging. I would be lying if I said that I haven’t, on any occasion, wished fervently that I was back in a society that doesn’t indulge in so much touching – personal space standards have been pretty difficult for me to adjust to. However, I’ve spent the past two and a half weeks in Britain for Christmas at this point and, among other things, I find myself missing the shopkeepers who touch your arm as they engage you in haggling for a final sale price.

And I guess that’s the thing of it: all change is ultimately just change, and as long as you’re flexible about it, you will ultimately adjust. I’ve adjusted so well to Kenyan culture that being in Britain has been pretty difficult for me, just from a socio-cultural standpoint – especially at the beginning. Immersing myself in Nairobi culture for months on end, however, has become an experience that I definitely value.

Do you feel comfortable in Nairobi?

This is a difficult question to answer. I’ve had some moments where I felt incredibly uncomfortable  – my first time taking a matatu into the city by myself, for example, because they dropped everyone off outside the city due to graduation traffic, in an area of town where my host mother always locks the car windows. Since then, however, that part of town – Ngara – has become one of my favorite places to go shopping for fruit or secondhand clothes or getting my hair done.

There are definitely some uncomfortable moments, and there are definitely some skeevy people, but when it comes down to it, my answer to this question is Yes. It took me time to adjust to the pace of Nairobi (fast, yet slow) and to build up a Nairobi-appropriate set of, shall we say, street smarts. At this point, though, I can say that I’ve napped on a matatu, I’ve listened to my ipod while walking around (just in estates, but still), I’ve taken street taxis in addition to hired taxis, I’ve engaged in lengthy conversations with perfect strangers on street corners in European Nairobi, and I haven’t felt unsafe while doing these things. I feel like I am in tune with the city, like I know it pretty well. Knowing Kiswahili helps tremendously, as does knowing the matatu routes and the fact that I can trust Mama and Roseanne to help out, pick me up, etc if I am ever truly in a pinch. I still, on occasion, get into uncomfortable situations. There are definitely some questionable characters – for example, I ran into some man on the street a few weeks ago who, after complimenting me on my Kiswahili skills and admittedly fantastic hair, tried to convince me that I didn’t know the proper way to get to my ICRP bus stop. A woman passing by took me aside at that point and confirmed that he was definitely a pickpocket of some sort – but there are situations and people like this the world over. I pay attention to possible areas of danger – Lillian is good about texting us about potential riot-causing situations in the city so we can avoid those areas – and keep up with the news. That, accompanied with plain common sense, has worked wonders towards my attitude about living in Nairobi. I would ultimately say that I am cautious in Nairobi, but that I definitely feel comfortable in the city overall, 98% of the time.

From sophomore Brittany:

I’m applying to Kenya right now. I’m working on reading you blog. I was wondering what classes you’re taking and what your ICRP is about.

In Kenya, there are three required courses: Kiswahili I, Geographies of Development, and the ICRP. Kiswahili I gets you to about a second-grade level with the language; GoDev is a series of lectures (each with a different lecturers) and essays based on the trips we take to various places in Kenya, such as Masai Mara and Kisumu. The ICRP is based on 45 hours of volunteer-type work on your placement (more on mine later), followed by a 10-15 page sociology paper about your experiences in an academic context. For the other three classes, we were offered a choice of four classes, of which we could pick three. The options were Kiswahili II, African Oral Literature, Gender and Development, and Kenyan Political Science course. I signed on for the first three of those – Kiswahili II has brought my proficiency level up a great deal, Oral Literature consists of lots of readings and presentations on the readings, and in Gender  we cover a lot of  developmental issues faced by women in Kenya.

As for my ICRP, I have been placed at New Life Home Trust, which is a children’s home/orphanage. There, I help care for infants who have been abandoned or orphaned, many of whom are HIV positive. I’ve yet to settle on a paper topic for my ICRP, but it will probably have to do with comparing the development of children living in this type of situation (in a group home, without an overall parental presence but with multiple other people their age) with children who grew up in a situation more like mine (two parents and a low number of siblings). Possibly.

Keep the questions coming!  Ask in comments here, or email me here. I’ll answer the next batch soon 🙂

Posted in Kalamazoo, Kenya, Q&A, Study Abroad, Uncategorized, University | 1 Comment

Very Important Post (Audience Participation Required)

First off, the WordPress main page has SNOW FALLING on it, which is weird, yet awesome. I enjoy watching the fake snow as I sit in my 75*F city.

And now, to the point:

Greetings, my dear and faithful reader (hi Mom!),


I am entering, this week, into the throes of finals; this weekend, I’ll be flying to Scotland to see my cute boyfriend for the December Month of Giving. This is the perfect time, then, for a little idea I’ve been cooking up: Q&A sessions! Comment on this entry, or send me an email at, with any questions you might have about life in Nairobi, my time in Kenya, my classes, my ICRP, exactly how sick I may or may not be of ugali – anything! And over the course of the next few weeks (or longer, if they keep coming in), I’ll be posting answers, along with a few additional anecdotes from my time here: encounters with super-religious taxi drivers, for example, or the drive to and from school every day, or perhaps the way Mama Ngatiari always has her eyes out for new and beautiful flowers for her garden. The K group’s perfect Christmas celebration, certainly.


Kalamazoo sophomores with your eyes on the prize of studying abroad this glorious country: this is especially great for you, as you just have one short Christmas vacation to finish up those applications! If you have any questions about the university or of homestay life, or perhaps the typical challenges a Kalamazoo student might face in Nairobi, now’s your time to ask. Because you’re on such a tight schedule, if you specify that you are a Kalamazoo sophomore applying to study in Nairobi, your questions will be answered first. I hope there are a lot of you who fall into this category!


I also hope that other people are as into this idea as I am! I eagerly await your questions,



who should be writing a term paper or perhaps sleeping right now.


Posted in Kalamazoo, Kenya, Nairobi, Study Abroad, University | 4 Comments

the mara, the manyatta, and the safari

Over Thanksgiving – from Wednesday to Friday – we went to Masai Mara, the most popular safari destination in Kenya due to a high population of carnivorous animals (lions, spotted hyena, cheetahs, et cetera) as well as the annual wildebeest migration (in from the Serengeti in Tanzania in July, and back again by October).

I thought Mombasa was a pretty touristy field trip, and it was, but it was nothing compared to Masai Mara. Going on safari is the quintessential tourist destination in Kenya, and Masai Mara is seen as the crème-de-la-crème of the game parks.

Here was my first impression: I hate how bouncy these unpaved roads are.

Here was my second impression: Ostriches are seriously funny-looking.

Here was my third impression: Holy crap, this place is beautiful.

Masai Mara is, hands down, one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. As a child, in my Little House heyday, I was always so curious about what exactly Laura Ingalls Wilder meant about the happy, vast silences of the prairie. As a borderline adult, standing up in our safari van with the wind whipping around my face and zebras running alongside the road, I finally understood. There is magic in the hush of the African savanna, in the sun setting behind the isolated acacia trees, in the vast herds of elephants and giraffes and zebras and antelope roaming the undulating plains, in the surprise concentrations of bushes (I also finally understand why the African wilderness has been called ‘the bush’). I wonder what it would have sounded like without the safari vans crawling over the landscape. I imagine: punctuated with the shrill call of guinea fowl, the rough calls of the lions, the beat of hooves against ground, but mostly just wind whipping through grasses and the branches of the trees clustered around the streams.

A tree standing solo in the variated Mara landscape

Our residence in the Mara, Sarova Mara Game Camp, was gorgeous and high-end. A tented camp, I had initially expected, you know, regular tents, but they were basically cabins with hot running water, solid roofs, and canvas walls, each with a handy porch overlooking a trickle-stream ravine. Their buffets were delicious. My only (grievous) complaint was that they forgot their promise to make us Thanksgiving dinner, so, instead of turkey and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, I had turkey stir fry and buttered naan and a plate full of the most succulent pineapple I’ve ever experienced. From my past posts, you may have gathered that I am seriously dedicated to food. Thanksgiving is my favorite day of the year, usually, because it means being with family and eating all of my favorite things. This year, I was thousands of miles away from my family, eating stir fry and naan (which I usually love, but, Thanksgiving!), and I was horribly upset. Luckily, though, Zach initiated a spoon robot photoshoot, which mostly involves holding utensils up to your face and taking pictures of it, and then we all had a series of very heartwarming toasts and a round of giving-thanks, and by the end of it all, I was no longer angry with the world for denying me my corn pudding, having adopted the thought: “this is a different country and an entirely different situation, so it makes sense that there is different food. At least I am surrounded by people I sincerely care about, and at least I am giving thanks. That’s what counts.” It also helps that I have been promised Thanksgiving with my family when I get home in February.

Thanksgiving dinner (pre-toasts)

I’ve heard that holidays and birthdays can be the hardest while on study abroad, and I can definitely attest to that, now, but I think I can also say that with flexibility, it doesn’t have to be that bad.

Back to the world outside of the Sarova: We spent a little over an hour visiting a Maasai manyatta just outside of the park, to learn about how tourism has affected the Maasai way of life. Manyattas, the traditional Maasai family compound, are composed of houses structured with wood found on the savannahs and caked with mud and cow dung, built in a circle with doors facing inside “so everyone can look out and see everything else to make sure all is well.” A thick fence of piled branches and brambles surrounds the houses to keep most animals out; the Maasai livestock (they are a semi-nomadic pastoralists, moving every five years or so, or however long it takes for their houses to start collapsing) are brought into the center of the circle every night. Women build the houses, cook the food, tend the children, and make the beaded necklaces that are both worn and sold; Men are said to be the protectors of the animals, the children, and the families.

Some things I learned at the manyatta we visited, in bulleted form:

  • The lodges and camps inside the park itself rarely hire locals to work; rather, they bring people in from Nairobi and other cities, especially if they are part of a chain. The only lodge to ever reliably hire Maasai people had a Maasai owner
  • Maasai traditionally wear a lot of read because it is believed to scare off predators
  • Women get married in their teens; men don’t get married until they have graduated from warrior to elder, usually around the age of thirty.
  • Polygamy is common, and you can tell whether a house in a manyatta belongs to a woman who is the only wife to a man, or whether it belongs to a woman who has co-wives by the locations of the doors. If they face straight out into the compound, she is a single wife; if they face to the side, she is a co-wife.
  • Circumcision is the coming-of-age hallmark. It differentiates boys from warriors, generally occurring in their late teenage years. Female genital cutting is also rampant. Technically, I knew the statistics before I went: 73% of all Maasai women have experienced FGM/FGC, the third highest tribal rate in Kenya (after the Somali immigrants, at 98%, and the Kisii tribe, at 96%). Technically, I know that one-fifth of the women I see in Nairobi have experienced one of the four types of female genital mutilation, but there is a very big difference between knowing that one in five women I see on the streets have been cut and knowing, because our guide told us, that every woman I saw in the manyatta had been cut.
  • The emergence of schools in the area has affected the nomadicism of the group, as they are now required to remain close enough for their children to attend. They send as many as they can afford; boys first (but one from each household must always stay out, in order to watch the flocks), then girls.
  • The traditional male dance involves a lot of jumping; it is said that he who jumps the highest, gets the most girlfriends

Maasai warrior dance, just outside of the manyatta (background, to the right)

I could talk for pages and pages about all the animals we saw – zebras, antelope, meerkats, warthogs (did you know they actually have warts? I feel like I should have known that. I didn’t, though, until this trip.), cheetahs, lions (napping and stalking pray and having sex), Maasai giraffes, African buffalo, elephants, ostriches, gazelle, hyenas, and rhinos, plus a bunch of others that I don’t know the names of – and how simultaneously peaceful and exhilarating the rolling hills and the dramatic clouds and the miles and miles of shrubs and trees and streams and grasses and animals were, how amazing it is to be in an area of the park and not be able to see any signs of human habitation apart from your own safari van and the people inside of it, the thrill of hearing sudden jabbering in Kiswahili over the safari radio that all drivers keep on, talking about the sighting of a rare animal followed by the race to get to it before it runs away (we were successful in seeing the rhino and the cheetahs, but unsuccessful in seeing the reported leopard), the glory of watching a giraffe or a herd of zebra or a baby elephant run across the road right in front of your meandering vehicle, about how I could probably go on game drives every day for the rest of my life and still never tire of it, or lose my sense of wonder at seeing the landscape and the animals roaming. I could probably write an entire book about the feelings that the Mara gave me, in fact. Instead, though, because a picture is worth a thousand words and this post is already quite long, I will, instead, share a series of photos:

Quintessential safari photo: acacia tree with zebra and a blue, blue sky!

Elephant! Baby elephants are quite possibly the cutest animals I have ever seen, but this adult female was pretty gorgeous, too.

Sleepy lion!

My facebook album for the trip is here, with over a hundred more pictures. Enjoy!

Posted in Kenya, Masai Mara, Nairobi, National Parks, Study Abroad, Travel, Uncategorized | 1 Comment