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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


African women are tough! If I had to choose one word to describe the Kenyan women in general, it would definitely be "tough."

The status of women depends a lot on which tribe one comes from. I mentioned a lot about the Gabbra women in the desert, who do nearly all the work, yet whom some (generally uneducated) men still consider of a lower status than a camel, but living among the Kikuyu has been a completely different experience.

Gender roles are fairly clearly defined. Women are responsible for cooking, washing, and caring for the children (especially babies). Men then typically do the "hard labor." The entire family, works in the shamba (garden). The more rural a place is, the more traditional the roles. A lot of course depends on the family, but men often view themselves as the head of the family. I naturally disagree with this, and once had an animated discussion with the male teachers. When James was recently married, they were talking about how now he would never be late to work, would aways have clean matching clothes etc., so I asked them "How is it that he has been doing all of these things alone for years, and suddenly now that he is married someone else has to do this?" After light prodding, they conceded that yes indeed they all have two very good hands that are capable of doing laundry and dishes. We agreed that it is only fair to share the workload, and there are a lot more dishes than fences that need fixing! One of my favorite excuses as to why I can't marry a random stranger is that "in my culture men and women share the work so if you think I'm going to do all the work while you sit and watch TV you are wrong," although this has been met with the very incorrect answer of "we'll hire a househelp!"

While there are no specific laws limiting formal jobs women can have, it is much the same as in the U.S. where women tend to get paid less for equal positions, and hit 'glass ceilings' unfairly. I really have tried to emphasize to my students that girls are equally capable as boys, and that gender stereotypes should not limit the young women from pursuing math and sciences. I do not consider myself a feminist, and wholly believe that men an women are different, but those differences are definitely not in intelligence! Occasionally I will try to prove a point using an extreme "example" such as when asked by a student why men have mammory glands that

Occasionally small comments throw me off a bit, such as one older student saying that he "doesn't like to see women riding bicycles because it might spoil something." Not inherently sexist, but something also that I certainly see as a misperception! Also, in the case of an unplanned pregnancy girls and women are often left alone with the baby with absolutely no support, nor responsbility, from the father. There is not really a way of proving who the father is, and denial from the man is enough for him not to be involved.

I feel like I am beginning to ramble without making a point, but I think the point is that girls and women do have less opportunities in general, and while there are no specific rules that cause this, it is definitely present. Research proves that education, especially of women, is the number one way to reduce poverty levels, and I wholeheartedly agree. Education empowers women to believe in their own potential, as well as giving practical life skills.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

25 Little Things I Love About Kenya

1. Little children squeaking “fiti” after you greet them “sasa”
2. Swahilized English words: toast = tosti, switch = swichi, freezer = friza, computer = kompyuta, guitar = gitaa, picture = picha etc.
3. Random people calling all their friends to see that I can actually respond to greetings in Kikuyu
4. Having to hope that I never again see a man peeing on the side of the road
5. That fact that peeing on the side of the road (or anywhere for that matter) is called taking a “short call”
6. Children continuing to ask if my father is the Prime Minister of America, after seeing a picture of him with President Obama
7. Really dramatic Kenyan soap operas such as “Tahidi High”
8. How the strangest bits of American culture get here -- such as everyone knowing who Chuck Norris is, and discussions about whether or not WWE is real or fake
9, Everyone sings in church
10. Children standing near the road pointing , jumping up and down and screaming “Mzungu!” (white person) and their smiles when I greet them
11. When you have to go to bed early because the power goes out.
12.Non-sequiturs such as being on a quiet street in Nairobi when a man carrying an armful of bananas walked past me and asked “banana?” and after I said “no” he continued with the bunches of bananas towards wherever he was going
13. Matatu rides!!!
14. That regardless of how busy a street is there is almost guaranteed to be a goat taking itself on an outing
15. Shop names such as “Vatican” (General Store) and “Cougar’s Meating Point” (Butchery -- there are no cougars in Kenya and most don’t know what they are)
16. If my hair is greasy people think I applied oil and comment how “smart” it is
17. That when you say “good morning” to your class, the students all stand up
18. That signs saying “fierce dog” in Kiswahili can roughly literally translate to “hot dog”
19. Pre-school children who latch onto you and only let go when you can free a hand to wave goodbye because they love waving goodbye and saying “bye, bye” so much they let go to do so!
20. Black Currant Fanta
21. Tea cooked over an open fire
22. That everyone greets each other with a handshake, sometimes more than once a day. There is no ignoring someone as they pass by.
23. Being an hour late is usually acceptable
24.Visiting a home is very relaxed and usually lasts all day, with no worries about the guest leaving so they can get other work done
25. Fantastic hair styles.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


There is a VIDES+Kenya volunteer, Joseph who "schools" (as they say here) at a teacher's college about a mile away. I met him while we were animating an Oratory camp, and so the other day went to visit him. I very much enjoyed being around students and seeing a college campus. I'd been there for Mass, in which they have an EXCELLENT choir and a lot of life, but Saturday afternoons provide a different experience.
Most of the students are in their 20s, because very few people go straight through all of their studies. Most work in between to save money for school. Murang'a Teachers' Training College is specifically for those who want to teach primary school. That is a 2 year degree here, although there are different "levels" you can move up to with more school - I believe first you get a certificate, then a diploma, then a degree. Secondary school teachers must attend a four year university, and study the subject(s) they want to teach.
Many students were out and about as this is everyone's free day. The clothing lines were completely full so many had laid their clothes on the ground to dry. There are no washing machines or dryers, of course. Some students were outside studying, others playing basketball, really what you would expect at college. Even the cows of the college were out and about grazing. The dorms are rather, dorm-like I have to say. Each floor has a common bathroom, and each room, or cube, holds 4 students. The rooms are very simple -- one light hanging from the ceiling, two sets of bunk beds, two chairs, one long desk, one electrical socket, and 4 cabinets that lock. That's it! The students seem happy with their rooms, however, and have some study lounges and common rooms as well. One thing that surprised me is that high school students here often go on strikes. The strikes can become violent and destructive (such as burning buildings etc.) and if students don't participate and students leading the rioting find out, the innocent student gets retribution. When I learned, however, that the issues arising are often things like there has been no water for three weeks so students must walk 1/2 hour to a nearby river for bathing and washing, it begins to make a little more sense.
Joseph was having another round of teaching practice (the abbreviation used is TP) the following week, so we sat outside and made teaching aids, (much like dioramas!) of a homestead, including a cattle dip! No, it's not something you eat, but like a swimming pool where cows walk through to get chemicals to kill ticks and the likes. They couldn't believe I had never heard of one before! For their teachi g experiences, everyone has a partner to work with, so many of the students walking by kept asking Joseph "Is this your partner?"
Overall, it seems that the life of a college student in Kenya and the US is fairly similar. The standard of living is quite different -- no one here has a TV or mini-fridge in their room, and the cafeteria only serves one option for each meal (and the students don't complain about that either). Also, it seems that discipline is significantly less of a problem. There are people who serve as something like RAs, but few roommate conflicts, and it's easy to switch rooms if there is an issue, alcohol is not a problem it seems, and in general the students know that they are all mature adults and expected to behave as such, and see no reason to cause trouble!

My Students

Here are just a few stories of some of my older students. I really admire many of them, yet am unable to really put myself in their shoes.

The top picture is of the Form 2 Class I taught during their month long holiday -- very needy students who the Sisters follow. I also taught Form I, and they were a wonderful group of young people! Sister Dionesia keeps them busy during their holiday so they don't "go around" and some are very clever and motivated to study.

Joseph Njoroge:* Joseph is now in his freshmen year of high school. He's stayed in the mission since he was in class 5. I met him only recently during revision classes during their holiday. Joseph is very willing to help others and while he is a bit quiet, still has a presence that is felt. Definitely I would say he is a leader by example. He hasn't had a father in his life, and both he and his sister witnessed the shooting murder of their mother. He doesn't have any relatives that were able to care for him, so until this year when he went to boarding school, and now for holidays, he stays in a house in the mission for boys - they are mostly secondary students who take care of themselves. I am constantly amazed at how mature students here are: without supervision these boys cook, study, and generally get along well in their house. The house is only one room, with bunk beds and two picnic tables.

Joyce Njoki: Joyce only recently came to the mission. She is young -- maybe 15 or 16. She had to drop out of middle school because her mother forced her into prostitution then she became pregnant. After the baby was born, the mother secretly made plans to sell the child. Joyce found out and ran away with the baby. She's now studying knitting (about a 3 month course) in the Girl's Technical. On Saturdays she works for the Sisters in exchange for food, soap etc. The baby, Millicent, is 9 months old or so. She hasn't started crawling yet, so she can sit in the class on the floor while mom learns. I take the baby with me to assistance at lunch time so Joyce can play -- she's still very young! She takes wonderful care of the baby however, and I admire her determination.
John and I at his home
John Karanja: John is a very special student to me. My family is supporting his secondary school, and I very much enjoyed to visit his home while he was on midterm break. (Most high schools are boarding). John is a FANTASTIC writer, and even hopes to publish a book someday. I first learned of him through reading the compositions of class 8, and noting his talent. But, what really impressed my was that on their "outing" (field trip) during the bus ride he, by his own free will, was explaining to me about the areas we were passing through -- not often done by teenage boys! John placed 1st in his class for the National Exam, and was 10th in the district. He was called to go to Njiiri's School, a very good government school, in the tea-region of Kenya. At the school, the boys work very hard: they go to bed at 10:30 and get up at 4:30AM, have very little free time and are always doing some kind of work -- the students really do learn a lot, but seem to suffer in the process. They get little food, little sleep, and aren't allowed visitors! I went to the school with Sr. Dionisia, and we were allowed to see John for about 15 minutes, and I think only because she is a Sister and I'm a foreigner! The deputy (vice-principal) is fierce!!! I guess the students have nicknamed him "cockroach" (using the Kikuyu word) because he is always scurrying around everywhere after people, and it is like he is always in the shadows looking for people wasting time. The principal is very strict against bullying, however, which is so important in a school of 1000+ students.
Within the first month of school, John broke his leg playing soccer . He is now walking without crutches, but the recovery seems to be quite long. Despite this (and missing a week of school) he still was 7th out of 52 students in his stream. He says he is happy at school, despite the hardships, and is really learning a lot and dreams of being a doctor. John's family is needy, in fact he was really worried that he wouldn't be able to attend a trade school, much less high school, because of money. His mother is a prostitute, and I believe has been since she left school in class 4, but it seems she really loves her 3 children. John is the 2nd child and oldest boy. He doesn't know who his father is, but has a close relationship with his mother. The mother only speaks Kikuyu so I couldn't communicate with her much during my visit. She is HIV+ and I have heard (it is not good of course to spread rumors, but if the following is not true for this family it is for another) that after she had a falling out with a man who was somehow supporting her, a judge, as revenge he took the daughter for a week, and the daughter is now also HIV+. Regardless of the home situation, John is working really hard in his studies, and is also very mature for his age, and I have no doubt he will continue to become someone great.
The family of John: From Left to Right: A cousin, his mother, the child of his cousin, and him

Julius Kamau: I've only gotten to know Julius over the past few weeks, but have become very fond of him. A student of the Boy's Technical in printing, he works on weekends as the watchman for the gate that is just outside of my house and helps with general work. The watchmen sit on my porch, and so I pass by often. When Julius was 5, his mother became suddenly ill and passed away. He and his older brother were sent to live with their grandmother, who abused them horribly. When asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, the older brother once replied that he wanted to be rich so he could buy and car and run over the shosho (grandmother). An aunt took them in, but shortly after was married and the husband refused the children. That is how they came to be with the Sisters. The Sisters used to have a mixed children's home, but later switched to only girls. The other boys were sent to a home for street children, but Kamau and his brother did not quite fit there, so they stayed in a room attached to the chicken coop in Makuyu. Julius went to both boarding primary and secondary, as the Sisters are not equipped to care for boys. He passed his exams very well. However, after that he became somehow lost, and turned to drinking as he couldn't find a job. Sr. Dionisia "rescued him" as he says, and he came to work in the shamba (garden) for a couple years, and now has joined the printing trade. Julius is one of the people Sr. Dionisia really trusts, which certainly means something. He is very good in school, and is really trying hard to make a life for himself -- he has even started a club for "good boys" in the town, those who want to stay out of trouble. I very much enjoy just chatting with Julius as he is very open to answering questions about life in Kenya, and straight-forward.

Julius Kariuki: This Julius is also a student of the printing press. I have come to know him because he is a photographer and takes very nice pictures for many events. I lend him my camera for some occasions. He learned photography from his father, and for a while worked for Kodak (I think?) taking photos around the country. He still uses an old film camera as well.
We are "age mates," which means like it sounds, the same age. He has recently become traditionally married, and has a beautiful 3 month old baby. He uses photography to generate some income to care for his family. Julius is also very active in the church, especially the choir.

* I didn't use their real names because I know I personally might not want mine used, even if the people reading didn't know me

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Wedding

The day before the wedding, or in our case very early the morning of, the bridesmaids go to stay with the bride and help her prepare herself. We had a very interesting matatu ride there! The one we were in got stopped by the police, who were very friendly to us and the little flower girl we were taking as well, but not so to the driver. They wanted a 5,000 Shilling bribe (like $70 -- a lot. The alternative is the vehicle being impounded and a 10,000 Shilling fine) so the driver had to call the owner which was taking a long time etc. I asked the policeman what the problem was, and he listed off so many violations: the driver had no documents/insurance, the conductor wasn't wearing a uniform, no speed governer etc. I tell you, every matatu trip is an exciting one!
Anyway, so when we (finally) arrived, everyone enjoyed making last minute preparations -- putting on bright lipstick etc.
Then, the bride is locked in her room and the women from the man's village come. There is a traditional Kikuyu song that the women from the bride's village and the groom's village sing to each other -- the groom's side about coming to take the bride, and the bride's side saying they won't let her go! Then, the mother of the groom and some other key women go to break the bride out of her room; in some cases she literally has to be broken out because they might hide the key. If the dowry hasn't been really settled I guess this can be a long process. Once the bride is "free" lesos are laid on the floor and ground and she is led to the decorated car. On the way, the best man comes and checks under the veil to make sure she is really the right one.
Matatus are specially hired for the journey to the church. The church ceremony is somehow similar to ones in the U.S., although it was in Swahili so I'm not entirely certain. A couple differences are that the bride has a long train on her dress that after the exchange of rings is wrapped around the groom as well, showing that they are now connected.
Also, there is no smooching! I turned to the bridesmaid next to me and asked her if they were "officially married" when people started clapping and ululating, and she said yes. I asked if they were going to kiss, and she looked at me like I had asked if they were going to run around the church screaming. It was later explained to me that while it is an option, almost no one chooses to include that in their ceremony.
One tradition that I would like to adopt is that of having a best couple, instead of maid of honor and best man. The bride and groom choose an already married couple to be their "best couple" who guide them not only through the wedding, but also through the beginning of their marriage. You are to choose people you are very free talking to, so that if you have any conflicts in your marriage, you are able to go to them for advice.
After the wedding there is a photoshoot (I've posted pictures on facebook again) then the reception. After the pictures, the bridal party marched behind the school band to the reception which was held in the amphitheater of the primary school.
Everyone is given food, and various people provide entertainment. The children of the school danced, others sang, etc. In between acts, people bring up their gifts. The bride's parents traditionally give a bed, and make it in front of everyone.
The groom's parents gave a pair of goats. Towards the end the cake is cut, the newlyweds feed it to eachother, and the bridesmaids help to hand out tiny pieces to some of the attendees (usually there is not enough for everyone).
In the evening, there is an "evening party" for the bridal party and some of the younger guests. We went to a place called "Traveller's Inn" in the nearby town. There is dinner...we had goat intestine sausage wrapped in the skin of the goat which still had some hair on it, cabbage and ugali. The Kenyans thought this was fantastic, and I tried a couple bites, but couldn't quite stomach it. I was trying to be polite of course as so not to be that obnoxious foreigner who won't even try anything, but perhaps shouldn't have been as I ended up being quite sick the next day probably from that... and my tongue was black. Gross! People then dance, and "take something" (this is the only time I've seen people consuming alcohol) and just enjoy themselves. I had been asking one of the teachers where people meet their spouses as men and women tend to naturally separate themselves at many events, especially in church. The teacher replied, "Oh Lauren, you don't meet your husband at church!" So, I think it is at these evening parties where many people meet their future significant other. I really enjoyed a lot, and we didn't come back until 2 AM. The Sisters were kind enough to give me the gate key so it was no problem. This is the first time I've been out after dark here, as it's not always especially safe.
Really, it was such an enjoyable experience. I was so blessed to be really included and have others to translate and explain what was going on.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Wedding Planning

I was so honored to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of one of the teachers in the primary school, James Kariuki. While it was a church wedding, the Kenyans have some beautful unique traditions.
Courtship is a relatively private thing: while your "allies" (friends) likely know you have a "friend," the parents generally don't know until things are very serious. There is also such thing as a "Come we stay" marriage, where basically it is exactly as it sounds. You come and you stay with your spouse -- some eventually have an official wedding but it's not required. I guess this kind of marriage happens very quickly; you maybe meet someone in the market and soon after decide to come and stay.
There is no big proposal or engagement ring. Instead, when the couple decides they would like to be married, the man goes with some of his close friends and relatives to negotiate the dowry with the bride's parents. A couple weeks after this, the man along with close friends brings the dowry -- goats, chickens, and/or money -- along with soda or beer to the bride's parents, and if they accept, then the wedding is announced. I guess some parents are greedy and so won't agree to the wedding if the bride-price isn't high enough, but nowadays the dowry is becoming less critical and more dependent on individual situations. In my opinion, it doesn't at all seem like the husband is buying a bride. Rather, it is as if the man is proving that he is capable of caring for another person using financial responsibility, as it takes time, and work, to save for a dowry. People are very surprised that a fiancee in the U.S. has to maybe take the Dad of the bride to lunch to ask permission and give a ring.
All of this exchange usually happens only about 2 months before the wedding! A wedding committee of about 20 people is then formed, with positions like secretary and chairperson. They meet weekly to plan the wedding. This is mostly the groom's responsibility as well, but the bride is certainly involved (naturally especially in picking colors and outfits for the bridal party! Kenyan men are not afraid to admit they don't know how to match things nicely). People pledge an amount to help to pay for the wedding. A wedding overall costs about 80,000 Kenyan Shillings, or about $1000 US. The very rich spend ridiculous amounts on weddings, but that is generally seen as ridiculous!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Easter Season

The Stations of the Cross walk -- returning back to the church

Dancing around the Pascal Fire
Easter Season was really beautiful in Kenya. The season here is kind of the end of summer, soalthougthe time does not match up with new growth of plants, it didn't seem to matter.
For the "general population" (those who are not Sisters???) the school term finished on Holy Wednesday or Thursday - Easter was early this year otherwise they would have had the whole week. On Good Friday, the Makuyu Parish does a Stations of the Cross walk, or Jia ya Msalaba in Swahili. It was certainly an experience! Around 10 o'clock (African time, so it was a bit later) the people gather at the main parish. Then, following a tractor with a trailer the congregation begins to walk. For each of the stations, there is a certain stop where the Senior Youth act out the event. I was really impressed by their costumes and seriousness. The path goes through several of the outstations/prayer houses, and the whole walk ends around 3 when everyone comes back for the Passion Service. I was very grateful that the weather was not so hot -- although it rained and so at some points the mud almost got your shoes (roads in the bush are definitely not paved). I guess when the weather is really warm by the end some people struggle a lot, especially volunteers who are not used to the event as it is a 5 hours walk! The people sing and pray the Rosary while they walk. It was all in Kikuyu so I couldn't understand much, but really beautiful to see so many parishioners, even the elderly, completing the long journey.
The Passion Service was fairly similar to those at home (I think, again it was not in English so I'm not entirely certain). For the Veneration of the Cross, however, all of the people come forward and kiss the cross -- something I hadn't seen before.
On Saturday evening, the Vigil is held. It begins outside with the lighting of a bonfire. Some years they even send a ball of flame from the belltower to light the fire! The Pascal candle is then lit, and the children dance around the fire. Then everyone proceeds into the church for the service. It is a "bring your own candle" procession. The Baptism of older children takes place at this time, while babies are baptized on Sunday morning.
Sunday morning was certainly a joyful experience! Many people come to the Mass, but it's not a time of wearing fancy clothes and hats -- more a celebration. The Priest saying the Mass was very lively, and turned on a CD player with music so everyone could have a little dance party in their pews. He had a whistle and was right up there blowing it and dancing along with everyone. So lively.
In the "Motherhouse" we made decorations and had a beautiful feast after the Mass. The afternoon was relatively quiet as everyone had been up late the night before because of the vigil and being with the young people at their "Easter Experience."
The Easter Experience is like a retreat for the senior youth -- they come and stay in the school and have various talks and activities. It's wonderful to walk down to the school at night when they are there and be able to hear singing and clapping and laughing from a distance. Really, if I could sum up Easter here in a phrase it would be "joy in the Risen Christ."