February 19, 2013

Notes from Kenya

I’m back on campus. The semester has started with a whirlwind of the severest jet lag I have ever experienced, an intense week of Writing Associate conferences as I met with about 20 students to discuss their papers, moving in and out of one residence hall and into another, and, of course, new classes and catching up with my friends.

Transitioning back onto campus has been exciting, relieving, and, oddly, much more difficult than I would have thought. Physically, I think I am just worn out. Mentally, too, I am exhausted, although excited for my new classes. Socially, I want to see more people and do more activities than my body and mind have energy for.

But although I’d like to take time to talk about the transition back to campus, first I’d like to write a little about my interim trip to Kenya with Professors Blunt and Belletto from the Religious Studies and English departments, respectively.

Lafayette College students Sam Nussbaum '13 and Madeline Gambino '14 in Kenya

Lafayette in Kenya (left to right: Sam Nussbaum ’13; me, Madeline Gambino ’14)

There were 17 of us students on the trip, which was entitled Religion, Society & Change in East Africa, and we spent the majority of our time on Lamu, an island off the Swahili coast, and in Maasailand, south of Nairobi.

To start off our trip, we spent a couple days in game parks. Although it would end up being no one’s favorite part of the trip, we all were excited to drive along the red-dust roads, standing in vans with the roofs popped up, and to see giraffes, elephants, zebras, lions, and other animals. On our second day, we saw a leopard no more than a few feet off the side of the road, and as we snapped pictures of her, she crossed between two of our vans and even sat in the shadow of our first van before carrying on down the road.

A leopard sits in the shade of the students' van while one takes a picture

The Leopard

We were told by our guides that one could come to Kenya and go on a safari 100 times and never see something this special. Clearly, we all knew it was because we were the Lafayette leopards–she had come out to show that she felt some connection.

But the heart of the program was when we moved towards the Swahili coast. The Swahili people are fascinating–their culture developed as a result of the trade from the Indian Ocean, with the Swahili acting as middlemen between the Arabs and Indians sailing across the Ocean and the Africans further inland.

The water, dock, and buildings of Lamu Island, off the mainland of Kenya

Lamu Island

The Swahili are Muslims, and approximately 1/3 of their language, Kiswahili, is derived from Arabic words, but the influences of their other trading partners remain obvious in the foods, dress, and features of the people.

We were able to get a better sense of this culture during the week we spent on Lamu, an island off the mainland of Kenya. At first, stepping onto Lamu felt like a strange version of returning to Morocco. The streets had the same small, winding feel, the dress was similar, and even the people looked almost Moroccan. But there were slight differences too–there were windows on the outsides of buildings, something rarely seen in the medina of Rabat where I lived, and the colors were slightly off, less warm colors and more blues and whites. The similarities continued to trip me up when we began our week of intensive Kiswahili, because words would pop out of my professor’s mouth and I would already know them. An example: oddly, the words for 6, 7, and 9 were about the same in Kiswahili and in Arabic, but none of the other numbers from 1-10.

Although the advantage was not much, even the few similar words helped, and I found myself grasping the language quickly, excited to learn more each day. I really enjoyed learning Kiswahili, of which the grammar is logical and fairly easy to learn, particularly in comparison to Arabic grammar, and it of course helped that we had two phenomenal teachers. Gitau, my teacher, was energetic, silly, and demanding–qualities that allowed him to push us without intimidating or threatening us, which I find to be by far the most effective teaching style when it comes to languages.

Students relax outside the building after class in Lamu, Kenya

After class in Lamu

In truth, I think I learned as much Kiswahili in that week as I had in the semester I tried to learn Arabic at Lafayette. I only wish we’d had more time to learn.

After spending time on the coast, where we could use our budding Kiswahili skills each day with the locals, we traveled inland again to Kajiado, a town about 2 hours south of Nairobi. The people around Kajiado are Maasai, a pastoralist people. Although I had enjoyed learning Kiswahili and being on the Swahili coast, I loved being in this part of Kenya. Once a huge power in the area, the Maasai are an age-grade society, with men, but also women, moving from one role in society to another based on their age. Although modern education and economic difficulties have added further complexity to the system, traditionally men moved from boyhood, to being a moran (or warrior), and then into eldership. Women traditionally moved from girlhood into womanhood when they were married and became mothers, where they exercised some authority over their livestock.

Over the course of this week, we were able to spend time with wazee (Maasai elders) who taught us a variety of lessons, from the best way to walk up a mountain and to drive back down to the meaning of balancing tradition and change.

Students standing before green hills and sunshine in Maasailand, Africa


Although we spoke in some combination of rough English/rough Kiswahili skills, I have never before felt the same sort of welcome by a man while studying abroad. My host mothers or sisters have felt like, well, mothers or sisters to me. But my host brothers and fathers have always remained distant, helpful when I ask something directly of them, but never going much further. I believe the wazee truly saw us as their children, and wanted to guide us and bless us as much as they could in the week we were together.

We were also welcomed by the local communities. I had the opportunity with four of my classmates and two wazee to attend a Sunday church service. We were welcomed into the ceremony by a young girl translating a woman’s teaching to the local children, and ushered to the front to learn the (very difficult) women’s dance, which imitates a cow’s movement. Two hours later, we were exhausted by all the dancing, and sat down again as the preacher arrived for his sermon.

And finally, I spent two nights with another Lafayette student in a local family’s household. After my rural villagestay in Morocco, I felt prepared for the differences we encountered, and I was excited about what I could learn by living with a family.

Outside view of a home in Maasailand, including a tree

Home in Maasailand

And we learned–I learned how to milk a cow (and I think, should graduate school plans fall through, I could find a job as a milkmaid now) and how to carry firewood on my head. I also learned how to make ugali, the staple of Kenyan cuisine, and to manage household chores and how to herd cattle.

But I should say I started to learn–because in reality, that is one of the biggest lessons I think we can learn. That every society and family is an experience or routine learned throughout a lifetime–that we cannot superimpose ourselves on someone else’s life and expect to understand it, and, along the line, know how to fix it. I think it is incredibly important to make the effort to learn as much as possible. But key to that learning process is understanding what you have learned in your experience as a child in your family, your town, your country, your tradition. And that is one of the major lessons I have been learning in all my study abroad programs. I can–and should–try to understand the heritages and histories that I do not share, because, somewhere along in that history and heritage, it will undoubtedly have intersected and influenced mine, aside from this moment in time. And if I attempt to learn about another, I can also learn more about myself.

So next time I’ll write more about returning to Lafayette. But it’s good to write another blog about traveling and study abroad, even if the post is too short to do it justice. Hopefully there will be more about this trip all over Lafayette soon.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article about your experience in Kenya! I am from Kenya and reading this article made be homesick. It reminded me lots of things going on there. I am very sure you enjoyed each and every day you were there. There are myriad things to learn in Kenya and it takes some time before you adjust to the environment and cultural differences that shape the ‘taste’ of Kenyan people. I applied to Lafayette (ED) and I was accepted and I can’t wait to be part of Lafayette Community. Karibu tena Kenya. Asante!

    says Kelvin Serem
    February 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm

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