Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I have been neglecting my blog, and I wish now I hadn’t because I have so much to write about and probably not enough patience to do it any justice.

Kenya has so far blown my mind. Nearly every image that once existed in my head has been proved wrong. The group is staying on a compound in Karen, just outside of Nairobi. We have about five acres, including a house where the group lives, houses for the staff, a basketball court and a volleyball court. I spend most of my time sitting on the porch in an old chair swing talking, reading, or just looking out at every tree or bird or cloud.

Every morning begins with two hours of Kiswahili. We take classes at a language center based out of Karen, which deals typically with adults and not students. The use a ‘direct method’ approach, which essentially means they avoid English whenever possible and instead communicate through gestures and context. I know a lot of colleges say they use this approach, but it’s a bit different here. After nine classes I’ve learned past, present, future and imperfect tenses. My vocab is limited, but I can speak in whole paragraphs, and we’ve learned enough to even communicate in the market. Following that we take classes in Nairobi. Our professors are based out of the University, but for them I’m sure it’s just a sort of side stint for some spending money. They’re perfectly knowledgeable and engaging, but they also view class with in a far more lax manner. The result is that we don’t’ have a lot of reading or homework, and instead focus everything on discussion. Essentially, with our time divided between Nairobi and the center, we are living the dream in Kenya.

The streets provide more than ample eye candy. It amazes me how foreign they can seem, yet how quickly I can adjust for it. First, roads are about one half the width of the roads back home. This means that you often find people driving on the shoulder, making ridiculous passes, and in all driving in a manner that makes Massachusetts motorists look like the Amish in their buggies. Now add to this the fact that farmers and Maasai graze their cattle along the road. Right of way follows as such: Cattle, Cars, People. I was told this on the first day but never really believed it. Even if motorists have the right of way, they’d still slow down for people, I figured. You learn very quickly this is not true. Cars will slam on their horns if you’re in front of them, they’ll probably slam their hands on the sides of the cars or shake their hands in your face, but their feet will never once touch the brake. You move out of the way or you die. Kenyans also have this rather endearing trait of sleeping wherever the fuck they want. Meaning, drive along the side of the road, and people will just be chilling under trees everywhere. Or maybe in a car, or on a car, or on some rocks, or on a bench. Mostly under trees though. But I’ve never met any people who know how to chill as well as these guys.

Being a minority in Nairobi has so far been an easy transition. Outside of the city, however, is another story.

We recently returned from a week long home stay about five hours west of Nairobi with a tribe called the Kipsigis. The Kipsigis still practice subsistence agriculture, growing predominantly maize, tea, and pineapples. The tea they sell off to large companies like Unilever (the area is known as the White Highlands for the British colonists who originally marked it for growing tea) to make a small profit. Most families own multiple cows for milk. Otherwise, most of what they eat comes from their own gardens, with sorghum, millet, and vegetables filling out the rest of their diet.

I lived with a family of six, who also hired a herd boy for work on the farm and for milking the cows. They live in a stone house without electricity or running water. And they’re probably the most content and harmonious family I’ve ever met.

An experience like this is really something ineffable. As much as I could detail using an outhouse or sponge bathing or cooking everything over a fire, I can’t actually get to the heart of what it’s like to live out there. And really, those things can’t define their lives. I think in a Western mindset we look too much to what people don’t have, rather than what they do. I’ll try and begin to summarize the things I learned. My first time milking cows I think I drew maybe several ounces of milk. By the end of the week I was filling a bucket by myself. I fed napier grass through a hand cranked machine to cut for the cows. I watched as my host mother cooked epic meals over a simple wood fire. I drank fermented milk and ate ugali (which is essentially sorghum and maize flour mixed with water the consistency of play-dough used to scoop up vegetables and meat and really is one of the more delicious things in the world). The fermented milk, not so much. But they really like it.

The village being far away from Nairobi, they don’t get many white people. And when I say they don’t get many white people, I’m sure that some of the kids I met had never even seen a mzungu before. One of the more memorable experience was visiting the local school and having kids grab my hands just to hold them to their face as they turned over my arms to look at the on my forearm. The second I took a picture of any of them they would cheer. And I’ve never been so conspicuously gazed at in my entire laugh.

Church service was an entire thing altogether. I tried as much as possible to experience it without bringing in my own religious views, but their absolute devotion to God made that a bit difficult. The church plays such a huge role within the community that to go against it at all is to be a complete outside in your own village. I wish I could elaborate more on it, because I had fairly intense discussions with my home stay parents about it. Suffice it to say however that the service is an absolutely loud, raucous, song-filled devotional to a God brought to them by whites and since then never too much questioned.

I came away with many things, most of which I can’t explain because the come in the form of changes of outlook and person. I will say however that I never realized how incredible electricity is. Which isn’t to say that I missed living with it. Really, I absolutely loved being without it. The smell and glow of a kerosene lamp is really wonderful. What I mean to say is that it absolutely floors me that a little outlet provides enough to do the energy that in ten minutes can do what took me hours upon hours.

I really loved every second of it. And I’m really loving every second of being here. It’s difficult to say exactly how I’ve changed, only that I feel changed, and know I’m changing every second still.

This Saturday we leave for a week to stay in Tanzania with one of the last tribes in the world practicing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. If possible I’ll update before then. I have a post on Kilimanjaro that I wrote after getting down, but I don’t know where it is. Expect more on that soon, and if possible in a few weeks I hope I can get up some pictures.


  1. Sounds like you are having a great time! I hope everything is going well, I miss you and I can't wait to see pictures and see you!

  2. Jake! Ah I just went through and read your whole blog. I cried. I'm not kidding. I LOVE reading all this; it should be published. I have a few comments.
    1. Please remember how important electricity is to you. Or else I'm afraid I'll never see you again.
    2. When you were conversing with your homestay family, were you speaking English or your cool African language?
    3. Have you lost weight? How's the African diet (bring home tips for me and Chants!)
    4. I miss you
    5. I am jealous that you are experiencing all of this. Please please remember (and I know you know..) it is going to go by painfully fast. So soak it up.
    6. Post pictures? Can you do that.
    7. Learn some cool African songs and teach them to me when you get home.
    8. Did I mention what a talented writer you are? I'm sending along the address to my parents because I know my mom and Amah would love to read of your travels :)
    9. This list is getting long. Be safe and keep in touch
    love lots of love

  3. ps. above post from Sarah Argeropoulos (this site is absurd to figure out!)

  4. Bonnie ArgeropoulosFebruary 15, 2009 at 6:48 AM

    OH MAN this is incredible. Yes, I love every word. The fruit salad was my favorite part. Well, maybe the words about the driving was even better. Or Africans chillin under the trees. LOVE IT- keep the words comin. -Bon and Amah

  5. Bonnie ArgeropoulosFebruary 15, 2009 at 6:56 AM

    We haven't heard about the K. climb- give us a bit...