Saturday, February 20, 2016

A wazungo there, a wazungo here

Hello all, and I am sorry about the long wait between this post and the last. When I first decided to write this blog, I had no idea how difficult it would be to find the time to write--between the classes from 7:30 am until 6:00 pm on weekdays and the field components on weekends, it can feel impossible to find any time to rest, let alone to reflect. But here I am on this lovely Saturday afternoon writing in the library, Kenyan coffee in hand, and am excited to try to put all that has happened in these last four weeks finally into words.

After my last blog post, we soon set off to our rural home-stay in Nyeri, a county located in Kenya's central highlands. As we drove away from the hectic energy of Nairobi and its suburbs, paved roads slowly transitioned to dusty dirt ones, and the landscape flowed easily from concrete building into the rolling and vibrant green hills of the highlands.

This is for you, Dad. 

Along the way to Nyeri, we spent the night at an estate together, overlooking a valley where giraffes, elephants, and antelope are known to graze in the early hours of the morning. The estate was own by a German family, who were extremely warm and welcoming, and yet the entire experience felt oddly colonial: us in beautifully furnished houses, perfectly stationed to observe wildlife, only a few miles from the children in raggedy clothes who waved to us with huge smiles as our bus barreled down the dirty road.

Still, the evening was wonderful, and we were all excited to savor our last night together before we embarked for our week alone.

Seven friends and I got to stay here -- SLU really does plush accommodations

Attempting to see wildlife out our window in the morning

Mt. Kenya peaking behind the clouds

After a night of sitting around the campfire with Kenyan beers, listening to Ella Fitzgerald albums on an old record player, and sleeping in sleeping bags around the fire place on our hardwood floors, we set off in our beloved St. Lawrence bus to meet our rural home stay families in the town of Tetu. Of course, it wouldn't be a KSP excursion without a little bit of bumps along the way -- it took us a good 30 minutes, but we eventually boarded our bus, feet covered in mud, and resumed our journey.

Along the way, we stopped to visit a family who were working with the Green Belt movement, an ecological political movement in Kenya to stop deforestation and conserve the natural wildlife. Our lovely host was missing a tooth in the front of his mouth from after loggers came into the area to remove an old growth tree a few years ago, and he stood in front of it and refused to move, earning him a mallet to the face. They were inspirational and awe inspiring, and with their help, we added a few new trees to their movement as well.

Finally, after a long day of travelling, we met our host families in Tetu at a local college. I lived with a family in the Eastern section of Tetu, who worked as farmers, and the father as a teacher at the local school. My family did not have running water or electricity, cooked their food over a fire on a mud floor, and used a hole in a separate building for a toilet. 

In my days there, I would wake up early in the morning, and help my mother wash dishes from the night before. Then we would hand-wash and hang the clothes, sweep the kitchen with a broom made of juniper grass, and finally wash the entire house with a rag and bucket of water. I really did not mind the work, and loved the opportunity to talk more with my mother. She commented frequently that I was very hardworking (to which I assumed she meant for an american), to which I responded "it comes easy. I worked in a restaurant before". I don't think she understood the joke. 

The first cultural difference I found with my family was the first night I arrived there, and my host father offered to show me around the shamba, or the household farm. While highlighting the banana trees, mangos, and macadamia nuts they grew, he asked what food my family grew at our house. 

I tried to explain jokingly how we used to grow raspberries and apples, before we lost interest in maintaining them, but do not grow any food anymore. My father asked, confused, how we got food to eat. I told him about supermarkets, and how we could eat mangoes even thought they were not local to Seattle. This concept was completely new to him, and he did not entirely understand it. He kept laughing, and told my host mother when we returned home that Emma Hennessey eats food not grown on the land she is from.


After working each morning, my host mother and I would usually walk to get milk from a friend a few houses down, saying hello to virtually every person who passed by, who somehow all seemed to know my host mother. "Mzungo!", or "white person!", they often would say to her, along with other Kikuyu words I could not understand. Mzungo was almost always said whenever someone saw me. It became my new name during that week. Small children who saw me walking by would scream, hide behind a tree or bush, and try to surreptitiously take glances at me when they thought I was not looking. If one was extremely brave, sometimes they would trie to reach to touch my skin.

When this first happened on the night I arrived, I asked my host mother why the children were so frightened of me. She told me that they were not frightened, but in awe. "Out here, " she told me, "we treat white people like they are gods".

I had spent the vast majority of my education trying to unlearn the myths of race: to see it as a social construct, nothing more, and while a crucial and important hegemonic force, ultimately, one that is only reflective of the melatonin in our skin, and nothing greater. I had the faint urge to regurgitate some Bell Hooks quote I read in class, like any pretentious college student would, but instead, settled with saying, "Why? Our skin is different colors, but that's it". My host mother responded, "It's because you are different. It's the same reason Americans must treat Black people like gods too, right?" I could not even think of a response, so instead I remained silent for the remained of our walk home.

Cows in Tetu-East

Nothing like a Kenyan sunrise

The world around me was so pristine, that it was hard to see it juxtaposed with such intense poverty. Children ran down the streets with bellies pertuding from their shirts from malnutrition, and I met young girls my age carrying multiple children in their arms who were already five or six. Older people hobbled using a stick as a cane, and my host mother shared three plastic cups for the entire family, saving food scraps from every meal in a cupboard in the kitchen. 

The gender politics were also extremely interesting for me while staying in Tetu: while my host parents clearly loved one another, it was assumed every night that my host mother would make dinner while my host father sat in the living room, and then together, she and I would bring him his food. While he was extremely kind and warm with me, he never said thank you. This ritual was assumed. My mother would call me every few minutes back to the kitchen, so I could help her with whatever she was doing. My host father, when he was home, was alway sitting.

When I told my host mother that in my household, my father and mother share household duties equally, she dumbfounded. My host father laughed, and said that was ridiculous. My host mother, in one of the saddest moments of my stay, looked down at her lap and said quietly, "Equality. That sounds beautiful". 

While there, I also went to church with my family, which was a strange experience in itself: I saw my good friend Meg from St. Lawrence who lived near the area, and made eye contact with her during the service when a West Virginian missionary, dressed in stereotypical African garb, made a speech to the congregation and handed them a $1,200 check. It was so awkwardly reminiscent of the area's colonial history, it was painful. He even filmed the entire service with his camera. 

I also went to Nyeri with my host mother and explored the street markets, visited my host father's school and met hundreds of local children, who made me sing and dance for them, and tell them what riding an airplane was like, and rode a motorcycle countless times down the mountainous roads as a form of transportation. 

I loved my experience in Tetu, and am so thankful I had the family I did. They were both incredibly kind, and it was difficult to leave them the next Saturday when I finally was reunited with the other 21 students from my program. 


Although it was only seven days, we screamed, cried, and hugged when our newly forming informal family was reunited. It was so wonderful to be with these friends who not only had the same experience from being from St. Lawrence University back home, but also the new ones in Tetu that no one else would be able to understand: the taste of arrow root cooked over a fire, of picking tea in your family's garden, and of every person you saw staring at you as if you were a mystical creature, or in other words, a white person; a mzungo.

The night we spent in the hotel that night was glorious: not only for the wifi, but also the adrenaline rush of feeling that after completing that week, we truly could do anything. We danced for hours in the bar outside, drinking Kenyan beer once again and blasting music from back home. We showered for the first time in days, ate Western food, and drank gin and tonics from the bar. Under the velvety blue sky, the same one I had looked up at thousands of times, with these news students who felt like family, it seemed like the entire world was at our finger tips and we had nowhere to go but everywhere. The night was warm, the hotel dance floor deserted except for us, and everything seemed possible. 

Until next time: Mzungo out.

KSP does safari


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Heinekens and Mutatus

As I sit here writing this late Sunday afternoon, it is surreal and humbling that just three days ago I was with my mother at SeaTac airport on a cold Seattle morning, sleepy, nervous and excited, arms overflowing with baggage and backpacks and completely unaware of what awaited me in the days ahead.

Unlike the rest of my New England friends, I flew directly to our connecting flight in Amsterdam from Seattle, while they took a group flight from JFK. The 20 of them arrived three hours earlier than me and set off to explore the city for our twelve hour layover. I was expecting I would be unable to find them due to our inability to text one another, so instead I happily grabbed my camera and a journal, and took a train from the airport with the intention of exploring the city alone. Luckily, I was able to get a wifi connection at the airport while one of my friends was in an internet cafe, and met up with four of my St. Lawrence classmates at the Royal Plaza.

There we spent the day wandering the rainy streets while dodging the many bicyclists, drinking espressos in small cafes, and like any college students would do, touring the Heineken brewing factory. If you ever find yourself in Amsterdam, I highly suggest visiting the Heineken headquarters: between the disco rooms, brewing tours, and free beers, it is definitely worth the admission price. The city was rainy but I was happy. Like a true Pacific Northwestern-er, I find a strange sense of calm from damp sidewalks and gloomy skies, as if the looming clouds are a protective blanket. And a belly full of Heinekens made that even better.

Eventually, we made our way back to the airport for our 8 pm flight. There we found the rest of the SLU students at the terminal, all exhausted from the red-eye the night before and excited for our final destination after our next flight. We all passed out immediately once we got in our seats, and I can say I don't think I have ever slept so soundly on a flight with so much turbulence. My eyelids felt weighted, and I could not help falling asleep even while the passenger next to me began to introduce herself. One minute she was talking, the next we were soon to be landing.

Once we arrived in Nairobi, we all went through customs together. Our professor and program leader Matt Carentuto was waiting for us outside the gate, causing us to collectively yell his name in joy as we exited the sliding doors, elated with the comfort of seeing a familiar face in a strange place. We then all loaded our belongings on our large and dusty program bus, and started the journey to the compound where we would be living the next semester.

There is no better welcome to Kenya than a drive in a mutatu, or the Swahili word for bus. Our driver pointed to giraffes grazing in the park to the left of us as we sped down the road exiting the airport, not avoiding other cars but bumping them in the other direction when he wanted to move lanes. Everyone was walking. The sides of the roads were filled with pedestrians journeying somewhere, like they were marbles dropped from a box onto the floor. Even on the highway, from the side of the road to as far as I could see in either direction people were walking. As I peered out the window, I could see hundreds of Kenyans traveling to work, the cakey dirt under their shoes bright red as if stained with blood, and the trees overhanging the road a bright and polished green. This entire world was green.

After a 25 minute of so drive, we made it to our home in Karen, a lush, leafy, and wealthy suburb to the West of the city. Our campus was gated, as we were told was the norm in this area due to theft and other petty crimes. Once inside our compound, I was struck again by the extreme inequality I had seen in Kenya. While only a few moments ago we drove by Kenyans who were walking miles to factory jobs, our 5 acre compound was as beautiful as a tropical resort. There was so much vegetation and bright green grass, a beautiful student center and library, and even a volleyball net and basketball court.

The view from my window

We spent the day learning about the compound we would be living in, meeting the staff who worked there, and exploring the other facilities. We played volleyball and cards, and went to eat the food already prepared for us when the lunch bell was rung. The whole day felt oddly reminiscent of summer camp, and it was strange to think that in a few days we would start classes and actual school together as well.

After a wonderful night of sleep, we woke up early the next morning to explore Nairobi. To get to Nairobi, we took mutatus so as to learn the local public transportation system. Nairobi is a vastly growing city without the necessary infrastructure to support the population growth, making driving nearly impossible and busses the optimal transportation option. We split into groups of six and ventured down the road to the nearest bus stop.

To ride a mutatu, you hail a bus speeding down the road, and the driver will tell you if there is enough room and what the going rate is (usually 75 cents to a dollar). If there is room, you can find a seat, but for us, as I hear is common, the driver sped off before we had done so, causing us to grasp the seats so as not to fall down on nearby passengers. Music blared on the speakers, and pictures of Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Lopez covered the walls. We bounded off of bumps in the road, and I had to grab the rail in front of me so I did not completely fly off the seat. Passengers exited and entered the bus so quickly, I am amazed the driver was able to keep track of everyone's fares. Needless to say, by the end of the ride, I felt like I was getting off of a roller coaster.

Once we made it to Nairobi, my small group of six and our leader, our professor Matt, got of in the financial district and explored the city. We were told prior to our trip that one of the most dangerous aspects of being in Nairboi is getting hit by a car, and being in the city today I completely understood why. Cars sped wildly down the road without any apparent concern for hitting wandering pedestrians. They do not have the right of way in Nairobi. Instead, you have to be aggressive and cross the street when you have time, aware that even when the sign is flashing you are not safe from a oncoming vehicle.

Getting curry at a local restaurant

The view from our eating spot
I was glad for my experience living in a city while being in Nairobi, something many of my classmates who are largely from small towns in New Hampshire and Vermont have not had as much of. Especially after living in San Francisco, I feel comfortable being in cities by myself and navigating my way. Still, I was not fully prepared for what it would feel like to be in Nairobi. While I was aware that the city was cosmopolitan while also being in a developing country, I was not fully prepared for the children who would ask you for money with a bottle of glue held to their nose, the drug the only way the could deal with their hunger. My heart ached for them as they followed us, tapping my shoulder and completely stoned, asking for money as you had to look at your feet and continue on. I was not fully prepared for the intense inequality I saw. For the businesses all protected by armed guards, as starving beggars sat on the sidewalk in front of them. Wealth seemed so gated in Kenya. While this is the case in the United States as well, it was made even more intense in this country by the fact that it seemed almost all spaces for those with money were separated by electric fences like our compound was, and almost always by men with machine guns. The message was clear: this is a space you only are welcome to if you belong.

After exploring the city for a few hours, we met up with the rest of our program and saw where we would be taking classes at the University of Nairobi in a few short days. Then we had the chance to visit a lookout on our way back to the compound, and snap a few pictures of the Nairobi skyline.

Now I am back at our compound once again writing this, still very jet lagged but so exited to be here. In a couple days we leave for our rural home-stay, a weeklong trip to a farming community in Northern Kenya where we will all be living with separate families who largely do not speak any English. I am excited to see the world of the Kikuyu people which is so vastly different to life in Nairobi, but also nervous as well. Being without technology or anyone I know for seven days is something I have never done before. But I am sure it will be rewarding.

Here is a poem I wrote last night on my first night in Nairobi, completely sleep deprived but with the burning need to put thoughts to paper. Heres to the first days in Kenya, and the journey that awaits in the weeks ahead!

So I saw my first slum today.
Almost as important as
your profile picture with nameless children
at that hospital
is the moment you see poverty
so violently different from the
kind you know that

Life experiences are different
than reading about things in books
they say
and I wonder as we listen to Adele
in our bus, pointing out the windows
at the tragedy:
blood stained dust, tin roof worlds,
Aquafina bottles floating in murky puddles,
children in Seahawks sweatshirts
(the same one I own)
sitting behind real and metaphorical walls
watching us drive by
if we or they
will say
this place
changed them more.

SLU Kenya Semester program Spring 2016!