Time Abroad: Fall 2007
Major:International Studies and Gender and Womens Studies
This past semester, I had the opportunity to live in Kenya as a study abroad program. Kenya is an absolutely amazing country. The people are wonderfully kind and open, and there is so much life in everything that Kenyans do. The country is so vastly different: from the rolling hills in the Rift Valley in the West, to the barren, red-sanded expanses of the East, to the beaches of white sand on the coast. The country is rife with tradition and culture but marked with modernity as well. Nairobi is known for its booming nightlife and club scene, while only a short bus ride away lays the rural, slow communities of the Maasai people.
SIT Kenya: Development, Health, and Society was an absolutely incredible program. This program is focused on experiential learning, a very non-traditional approach to study abroad. As a component of this program, I had the opportunity to live with an amazing family in Nairobi for several months, as well as with a family in a rural village for several weeks. Both of these experiences greatly enhanced my understandings of Kenyan society and culture. In addition, this program included intensive Kiswahili language study. Although most Kenyans speak English, knowing Kiswahili made a huge difference in my daily interactions and friendships.
I also had the opportunity to conduct an independent study project about the role of beadwork in women's development and empowerment in Nairobi. This study turned out to be incredibly empowering for myself as well, as it gave me the opportunity to design, orchestrate, and work-through my own project of interest.
This program is based in Nairobi, a city that has the unfortunate reputation of being un-safe. However, in Nairobi, I found safety, comfort, happiness, incredible friends, and exciting adventures every single day. While Nairobi does indeed require a little extra caution and "street-smarts," those who take the time to get to know her discover a city that anyone can adore.
I hopelessly fell in love with Kenya and am already planning my return. Dearest Kenya, nakumiss sana.
Siku Njema: A Day in the Life of Nairobi, Kenya
By: Ashley Ruiz
Originally published in Disclaimer Magazine
The booming voice of the preacher from Kibera wafts through my open window with the fresh morning air. I check the time and wrestle my way out of my mosquito net. I still feel silly sleeping under a net. After all, Kenyans say there is no malaria in Nairobi. However, the cluster of bites on my forearm still itches from last week and my tolerance for bugs is running low.
Stumbling into the bathroom, I turn the tap. No water, but no big surprise. I head downstairs and out into the back yard. The huge blue plastic jugs are brimming with water from the rains during the night. I heave one of them up and pour some water into a smaller bucket.
Back inside, I notice the usual steaming canister of tea sitting on the table. Mama has also laid out some butter and jam, and I appreciate her kindness. I sit down and help myself to a cup of tea. I laugh at myself when I think of using the word "tea." In actuality, it's more sugar milk with a sprinkling of tea leaves, but I love it just the same.
A light whistling sounds from the stove and I go to retrieve my warmed bath water. Lugging it upstairs, I curse as I splash some out of the bucket onto Mama's shoes. I head into the bathroom and spend a few minutes of solitude in the tub, pouring small pitchers of water over my hair.
After dressing, I head outside. I decide to put on my tennis shoes today, as the rains mean that the streets will be muddy. I grab the key and navigate my way out of two heavy iron gates, an unfortunate necessity in a city of muggings and robberies. Walking out of the estate, I pass several other guards sitting at another gate, the last resurrected border between our little haven and the rest of the city.
I decide to head to the clinic and see if any women have given birth during the night. I hate walking this way, as it means navigating through the always-packed bus stop. Vegetable stands line the sidewalk and my mouth waters at piles of colorful mangos and pineapples. I stop and buy a mango, handing a coin to the small wrinkly woman smiling at me. As she turns away, I notice the baby strapped to her back in a kanga, a colorful piece of cloth that women use for practically anything. The baby seems to be fast asleep as the woman goes back to her business straightening up the stand.
I turn the corner into Kibera. Regardless of how many times I've turned this corner, the stunning difference always catches me off guard. Here in the slum, life is so drastically different from my neighborhood just a few blocks away. The muddy, rutted street slopes downward, and I walk slowly, attempting not to slip. Kenyans hurriedly pass me on both sides, and I envy their abilities to walk so graciously in the ankle-deep mud.
A little boy spots me and yells, "Mzungu!" I smile at being addressed as "white person" and can't help but wonder what would happen if I ever yelled "black person" at someone. "How-are-you?" he chants, echoing the English phrase of choice among kids in Kibera. "I'm-fine, how-are-you?" I chant back. The boy smiles sheepishly and I know that's all the English he knows. I keep walking amid his continuing chants, "How-are-you? Mzungu! How-are-you?"
I stop at a little kiosk just outside the clinic and buy a handful of chocolates. The man is shocked at my ability to speak Kiswahili and insists that I must have lived here a long time. Although I've only been here a few months, I laugh and tell him that it has certainly seemed like it.
I head into the clinic, a tiny grey building set off the street. The electricity is off today and a welcoming employee reminds me not to trip as I step into the darkened room. "Many women today," she tells me. "You came on a good day!"
Down the hall, I find two women with bellies stretched like balloons groaning in labor. I greet them kindly and offer them a chocolate. I cannot even imagine giving birth without drugs, and I find myself overwhelmed with their endurance. Grabbing a stool, I sit down next to a pretty woman with short hair. She is convinced that her second child is about to be a boy and has decided to name him Tony. She is seventeen years old.
A doctor appears in the doorway holding the arm of another girl in labor. There are only two beds in the room, and I wonder where the new arrival is going to lay. The doctor catches my eye. "This woman was just dropped off. Just dropped and left here," she tuts. "No payment. She has no money. But what am I to do? To turn her away..." She sighs and takes the girl's arm again and guides her to a make-shift bed in the closet. The girl doesn't seem to mind, and seems grateful to have been taken in at all.
I wander into the next room. Three women with newborns lie quietly gazing at their babies. I pass out some milk and bread that I brought, and offer them each a chocolate. It seems strange, offering these poverty-stricken women chocolate, and yet they seem to understand and appreciate my small gesture of compassion and friendship.
Realizing that the day is drawing on, I offer my wishes to the women and head back into the bustling streets. I walk up to the bus stage and search for the first of two matatus that I need to take to get to the market. I wind between rows of matatus, each van with a chattering conductor hanging out the door trying to convince passengers to climb inside.
I select a bright orange one at the front of the line blaring Kenyan reggae music with a spray-painted picture of P-Diddy on one side and Snoop Dogg on the other. I climb into the 14-seat vehicle and snag a seat towards the front. I smile as I notice the TV screen and am pleased with my luck at snagging this pimped-out ride. I lounge back and watch Shakira dancing on the screen as we speed through the streets. The conductor taps me on the shoulder and I pass him 10 shillings for my ride. The guy next to me stares out the window and I admire his beautiful dreadlocks. I remember my homestay sister telling me about a friend of hers that had to cut of his locks for fear of being associated with the violent, illegal gang known as Mungiki. I'm glad that he seems to be maintaining his identity, despite the stereotypes.
The matatu speeds to a halt at my stop, and I squeeze out over the elderly lady sitting on the other side of me. I quickly grab another matatu, although this one is much less exciting than the last. The music playing is another popular Kenyan reggae song, and I find myself cringing as I listen to the chorus repeating, "Abortion is a crime, oh abortion is a crime..."
My stop draws near and I hop out while the van is still rolling. A woman crouches nearby over the bright red sand, re-tying a group of chickens as she waits for a matatu. Finding myself tempted by thoughts of coffee, I head into a small shopping mall. It is gated, of course, and I nod at the guard as I pass. I wind through the outdoor patio, full of families enjoying an afternoon meal. By the door I notice a table of white youth, one of them shifting nervously as he looks at a nearby police officer's automatic rifle. Their absence of Chakos and sticker-covered water bottles means that they are probably not Peace Corps volunteers. Missionaries, I think to myself. I order a house coffee and ponder how much I hate this place. And yet, here I am. I, like the many other foreigners drinking cappuccino, cannot seem to kick my cravings for good coffee and I hate how much I secretly love this place.
Back outside, I head through the pot-holed streets to my favorite market. Crowded and dark, I find myself infatuated by the windy streets. I stroll about, glancing at clothes, shoes, vegetables, stereos, and so many other trinkets and treasures. I buy some sugar cane, spitting the tough strands out onto the trash covered streets.
Dusk is approaching and the vendors are packing up. I pop into a tiny cafe and buy a chapati. I walk back towards the matatu stage, snacking on bits of the flaky flat bread. A little beggar girl sees me and rushes over. Her name is Esther and she is 9 years old. She has deep scarring from burns all over her face and body, and I have taken a liking to her. I hand her the rest of my chapati and some spare change in my pocket. She smiles and I tell her that I will see her tomorrow.
I flag another matatu, this one covered with florescent pot leafs and a giant picture of Bob Marley. The front of the van reads, "Peace and Love." I climb towards the very back and soak in the lyrics of "Redemption Song." Leaning out of the window, I watch as the sun creeps lower. I wonder what clothes I have that are clean enough to wear to the bar tonight and smile at the thought of another night of dancing until the sun comes up. And as the sun dips below the horizon, I realize how free and at peace I feel here and how much I love this incredible city.