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