My Kenyan Family


Around 11 this morning I sat in the back of a taxi, bouncing along the tree-lined street. The bouncing was partially due to the abundance of giant potholes in the red dirt road but I was also bouncing with emotion. I tend to bounce when I get excited or nervous. This morning I was both. I was excited to finally meet the family that was to host me for the next 2 months but at the same time I was really really nervous. What if they didn’t like me? Or what if I didn’t like them? Was I wearing the right clothes? My skirt was pretty long but was it long enough? What if they didn’t speak any English? Well…that last one could be fun, I like miming…

I really shouldn’t have worried. The first thing I see when we pull into the narrow dirt driveway are two smiling kids sitting on swings in a tree with a squirming bunch of puppies playing beneath them. Puppies and kids. Yep, everything was going to be okay.

Turns out, it is more than okay, it’s pretty freakin amazing. My host parrents, Lucy and Fred Kisayana, are both public administration officials who work on community development through adult education. This means that 1) they are really really smart and super interesting to talk to 2) they speak English 3) they love that I want to speak Kiswahili and are going out of their way to teach me it 4) they have a super nice house.

Their house is in the hills above Kakamega but is within walk able distance of downtown, where I will be working. Like most Kenyans living outside of the densely packed cities, they have a shamba or garden. Besides the six puppies they have 3 watchdogs, 4 sheep, tons of chickens, a small cornfield and a decent sized vegetable garden. When I told them that where I live not very many people have gardens and those that do don’t usually grow much to eat, they were shocked. Lucy asked me, “Does that mean that you rely entirely on the marketplace? But what if food prices go up or there is a shortage?”

Umm…We pay more or starve? I didn’t really know how to explain America’s food system. It’s really hard to justify a food system that relies mainly on really really big farms and factories that are placed far away from the consumers. But more about that later, back to puppies and kids.

The two kids were swinging from a bicycle tire hung from a tree branch (why I’ve never thought to do that I have no idea). The little girl was Jackie, my host sister and the little boy was the next door neighbor whose name I really should be able to remember…Neither of them spoke to me. But that is to be expected, remember, I’m a strange mzungu (white person). The puppies, however, were all too happy to play with me and they squirmed around my feet as Lucy showed me around the beautiful house.

At lunch Lucy announced that she was going to make me kubwa (big) as she filled my plate with a hearty second serving. I smiled, not wanting to say that to most American girls, getting kubwa is the last thing they would ever want. Half of my plate was taken up by ugali, white cooked cornmeal that is tasteless but is a staple of the Kenyan diet. Even though I’m not a huge fan, I have to admit, it’s pretty fun to eat. Like the majority of the food, it is eaten by hand. Traditionally the Mama will come around with soap and a pitcher of water and everyone washes their hands before the meal begins. The part that I’m still figuring out is what people do with their hands afterwards. There is no running water (although apparently they sometimes get it) and no one comes around with a pitcher or any napkins.

Anyway, I ended up eating most of it, especially since I caught her eyeing me a few times to see if I finished. I don’t quite know how I feel about kubwa though, I think I might try to fill my own plate in the future, especially since dinner was just as filling as lunch.

Around 4:00 it started raining heavily. Yes, contrary to popular belief, the “country” of Africa gets rain every once in a while. Actually more than once in a while; it rains at almost exactly 4:00 every day. It’s their winter and even though it doesn’t get all that cold, it rains pretty hard.

Fred and Lucy went to the store so it was me and Jackie, Jackie’s friend and then Chantelle and Alan who had just gotten home from school. Chantelle’s part in all this I can’t quite figure out. On the host family information sheet it says that they have three children, Jackie and then her two brothers who were in school. Chantelle sleeps here but she also does all of the housework. But that’s pretty much expected of women here in Kenya, the women do all of the work. So she might be a live-in maid/nanny or she might be a cousin or she might be a daughter that wasn’t mentioned…I’m not really sure.

While Fred and Lucy were gone, they all started to open up to me. They collectively began to teach me Kiswahili and Jackie even decided to write down words and then quiz me. In response, I taught her a few words in Spanish and then gave her a quiz. She definitely showed me up, that is one smart little girl.

We also went outside and raced around the house, puppies trailing behind. We were pretty muddy by the time Fred and Lucy got back. We all had chai with caki (muffins, oh god, more food…) and then Jackie asked if I had a camera. We ended up playing with that for a while and then they asked to see pictures of my family so I brought out my computer. I felt a little weird about pulling out so much expensive technology; I just don’t want to lord over them at all. But they really wanted to see it so I brought it all out. I ended up messing with the pictures on photoshop with them, turning them different colors and watching them get super excited.

Finally Lucy and Fred got home and we ate dinner while watching the East African version of American Idol. Basically I feel like I could live here forever!