North Country Public Radio is working with three (paid) apprentices this summer. We thought you’d like to meet them, so I’ve invited Conant, Josh, and Claire to introduce themselves to you through All In articles about who they are, what they’ve been doing off the beaten track or what unexpected interests they’d like to share with you. Our first piece comes from St. Lawrence University senior Conant Neville. –Ellen
Camera shy? That’s okay. So was Kiandi when I first met her some three weeks into my adventure. By the end of the week we were best friends and she would come running over to my family’s house after school to play with her favorite mzungu (that’s ‘white guy’ in Kiswahili, the national language of Kenya).
From the amazing land of The Lion King, this is the first of several articles about my experiences there this past spring, when I had an opportunity to live and learn in Kenya and Tanzania with 22 other students from St. Lawrence University and a few other colleges. I’m pursuing a combined major in Government and African Studies, so of course this was a transformative adventure. I made a point of recording stories and taking pictures, and I’d like to share some of these with you.
When I arrived in Kenya in January, I was most surprised by the landscape of Nairobi. I was expecting to land in a place that looked like the iconic African savannah of safari and Lion King fame. Wrong. Nairobi is set in a lush landscape of healthy green trees and colorful flowers. In short, it is beautiful. During our bus ride from the airport to the SLU compound the environment was not at all what I expected to find in Africa.
I didn’t have my camera out to snap pictures of this first view of Kenya, but I’ve gathered some from friends and the web to give you all an idea of what I saw in my first few days.
I thought I had a relatively solid grasp of cultural aspects of urban Kenya from books and courses I’d taken at St. Lawrence. It turns out I couldn’t have been less prepared. In fact, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the culture shock of life in urban Africa.
In my first couple weeks I did not encounter any of the abject poverty and or urgent social issues Westerners so often associate with Africa and the developing world. With that said, later in my stay, I did witness many examples of extreme poverty–often adjacent to absurdly abundant wealth. While I did not encounter villages of starving African orphans like those we see in fundraising materials from charities and aid agencies, I did see severe poverty and wealth juxtaposed in the streets and neighborhoods in and around Nairobi, where the St. Lawrence University compound is located.
Because the SLU program must ensure the safety and security of students, the Kenya campus where we lived and worked is a lovely five-acre compound in a wealthy suburb of Nairobi, and the families we stayed with for our urban homestay – - an important component of the program – - were affluent. Still, we were by no means shielded from the disparity between the poverty and wealth in Kenya. At times it was difficult to see children and handicapped people begging on the sidewalks on our way to class or lunch, but this is part of life in Kenya.
While we were eating out at five-star restaurants, we were not oblivious to the reality that just down the road someone was drinking gutter water and eating one piece of roasted maize and some mixed beans for dinner. Because I grew up in a small suburban town I am not used to the fast-pace of city life and some aspects of urban culture, like the street beggars that I was exposed to daily in Nairobi, were a shock. At first, it was very hard for me to ignore and turn down children and limbless people asking for money in the street, but I became somewhat desensitized to them, watching and emulating the behavior of my host family and Kenyan peers who are not phased by these approaches.
Dealing with this particular cultural difference was a challenge for me throughout my stay in Kenya. I coped with it by accepting it as part of the host culture, given my situation as a young visitor to a foreign country. After all, I was there to learn about the culture, not change it. It seems like everyone comes to Kenya with a notion that they’re going to change the place; I was simply trying to understand.
Maybe you’ve traveled to East Africa or the developing world recently or long ago. I trust you have some similar experiences dealing with incredible cultural differences. Please feel free to share some of your stories, insights, or questions with me. I look forward to hearing from you.