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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.