Time Abroad: Fall 2007
Major: International Studies and English/Creative Writing
In Kenya, there is a cloth that women wear called a kanga, which usually has a bright, colorful pattern spread across it and a Swahili proverb written in the middle. While I was in Kenya, I found that the succinct and wise words of the kangas often reflected what I was experiencing there. The kanga that could well describe my first overall impression is Roho Mgeni: A New Heart. I needed a new heart for a place that was very different than I was used to. I learned how to deal with mosquitoes that have malaria, meeting a new group of students that I would be studying with from the U.S., new Kenyan foods like chapati (kind of like a thick tortilla) and mandazi (a delicious doughnut), living with new families, and adjusting to a different style of life. I traded my old heart for a new heart that could accommodate the changes I was experiencing.
Our student group motto in Kenya reflected this new pace of life - Haraka haraka sina baraka: Hurry hurry has no blessings. I learned that to most Kenyans, life is something to be appreciated and enjoyed. People were extremely generous, from the people who helped me when I was having trouble in the airport to my two host families, both of which treated me like their own daughter. My Kenyan host family in Nairobi knew that sitting down on the couch, watching TV with your family, and talking about the day for an hour was more important than rushing around completing tasks, and that if one had a good dance party once in a while with the family, life couldn't get any better. My coastal Kenyan host family knew that an evening was incomplete unless we had cooked together outside and then come into the house to sing songs for each other. They proved the kanga adage true: Yumba yenye upendo haikosi baraka: A home with love if full of many blessings. There were difficult times while I was in Kenya; there were times that I felt very out of place, lonely for my friends and family back home, angry about poverty I had seen, or just frustrated with the complications with living in a foreign country. One time I came home to my Nairobi host mom after a frustrating day of getting lost on the public transportation system of matatu vans. My host mom fixed me a calming thermos full of Kenyan Chai and told me: Kupotea njia ndiyo kujua njia: When you get lost, you will end up knowing the way. And she was right: I never lost my way on that matatu again, and I found that the bumps and unexpected glitches in the road were actually leading me down a path of understanding and beauty that an easy way could not. I learned how to rely on myself more, but also on those who could help me through what I was experiencing.
My studies in Kenya reflected the saying Subira hukuepusha na shari: Patience is the dough of life. Our homework for the program was challenging because we were learning so many things: first development, health, and Swahili classes, and then an independent study project of our own choice at the end of the program. My project involved studying arts at the up-and-coming GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, which was inspiring concerning its developmental work with potential young artists in "informal settlements" and providing artists with work space to create artistic pieces and make a living. This project took patience and persistence, but it was more than worth it. Additionally, I learned that there is innovation, beauty, and creativity being cultivated in Eastern Africa, not only the suffering and conflict that are often portrayed in the U.S. media.
By the end of my time in Kenya, I had gone through some of the most memorable experiences of my life. Some of them were as daily as doing my laundry by hand each night, heating my water for a bucket bath, learning to cook Kenyan-style with my host mom and aunt, and playing and dancing with my host brother and niece. Other experiences were extraordinary and rare: my trip to Tanzania to live with Maasai people, viewing the Ngorongoro Crater, and witnessing a lighting storm around Mt. Kilimanjaro, as well as my trip to western Kenya, where I saw Lake Victoria, and the birth of my new host brother in Nairobi. As I held him on the day he was born, I thought of a kanga expression of gratitude: Tumpe mungu shukurani: I thank God. Indeed, I was thankful for the experiences study abroad gave me. My time in Kenya made me appreciate this kanga saying: Utaweza uvuvi nawe sio muvuvi: How can you manage to fish and you're not a fisherman? Which in essence means, How can you say it if you don't do it? That is why one should study abroad: you not only have the chance to talk about a country, you also have the opportunity to have a living, dynamic interaction with a country and people. My life was altered in the best ways when I had the opportunity to study abroad, and rarely a day goes by when the lessons I learned in Kenya about gratitude, sharing, and resourcefulness don't affect my actions in the U.S. I hope I have the chance to return someday.