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Week 11-16: Peaks and Valleys

It has been 41 days since I came to join the rest of the United States in the national stay at home order.

I have experienced every emotion known to man over this past month. During my travels from Kenya back to the US, I definitely had not processed fully what was happening. Half of me felt numb, very numb. The other half…was a bit in denial. For some reason, I felt that my return to the US was temporary, merely a short evacuation. Perhaps in the summer our program would be allowed to finish where we left off. Oh Yamai, how naive.

And then I arrived home. As the pandemic situation progressed rapidly around the world, the empath in me suppressed all the sadness I had felt from my own experience, and adopted the experiences of others. My heart ached for the people around the world who did not have the privilege to simply “stay at home” and “social distance.” Their livelihoods and positions in life simply would not allow for it.

The early days of self-quarantine were rather decent. I spent time recuperating from an academically rigorous semester (one that was on pause for the moment), catching up on TV shows and with friends (virtually), and consuming home-cooked meals. My days were spent lounging while I waited on word from my program about how the semester would continue. I still had assignments due for four classes, and was not looking forward to working from home.

As school picked back up again, I found myself entering a period of anger and frustration. I was resentful towards my university and professors for their assumption that we should continue with the semester “business as usual” while the outside world burnt to the ground. I was also just tired. This is coming from a college senior who was growing sick of academia and patiently waiting for a graduation that would soon be postponed. Forgive me if the last thing on my mind was writing a ten page paper on abstract theories about gender and development.

And then there was the cabin fever from being cooped up in a small apartment with my family.

I had planned so intentionally for this year. I would study abroad my last semester, come back to graduate, and then be off to the University of Florida for two months of intensive French learning. That would be followed up with me leaving for Senegal in late August to continue this language training. This was supposed to be a critical year for my transition out of undergrad and lay the foundations for what was to come in the future.

And I think that is what hurts the most and is the root of my anger about this entire situation. I had created this picture perfect view of what 2020 would look like, failing to consider the possibility that something could take this year from me. And although I still feel robbed because to a certain extent this pandemic did not need to be a pandemic, I am slowly coming to terms with the reality.

There’s an old adage that goes “man plans and God laughs.” I feel like God has been cackling at me for a while now. Just as life was looking up for so many people, things changed instantly. Not only must I stress about my postgraduate timeline being severely disrupted, now I’m stressing about my financial future and what all of this means for me securing employment in the long run. Who would’ve thought that the Class of 2020 would be in for this rude awakening into “adulting.”

And yet despite all of these anxieties, I’m trying to remain present. I find myself mentally planning how I can professionally bounce back after COVID-19, playing with new deadlines and potential endeavors. In a time of “great uncertainty” (I’m so over this word), I’m trying to find a balance between simply just being and trying to change what I have control over.

Am I still angry, upset, and gravely offended by an invisible enemy practically ruining my life? Oh, you bet. Can I also recognize that people have it a lot worse? As an empath, absolutely.

There is no one correct way to cope through this pandemic. We are complex beings that experience an array of emotions that may contradict and intersect with one another. I think if I have learned anything from this pandemic (besides the importance of good hygiene, investing in health systems, and breaking community transmission), it’s that life is a series of peaks and valleys. In times like these, we are reminded of how temporary and arbitrary everything in this world is. All we can do is simply live through them, and hopefully come out on the other side stronger and wiser.


Week 10: Impromptu Trips and Final Goodbyes

The week of March 8th was an array of emotions. I felt joy and excitement the first two days, comfort on the third, devastation on the fourth, and bliss the following three.

The week started with my new internship (check Week 9’s post). That Wednesday, the director of study abroad programs at AU was in Nairobi to speak with us. Amongst our cohort, many of us were a bit anxious at the thought of having to go home early. Over a tasty Italian buffet, the director assured us that we had nothing to worry about and we were likely safer in Kenya than in the US. This came as a relief to us all.

Within 12 hours, the situation drastically changed. The WHO had declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, President Trump was limiting travel between the US and Europe, and all AU Abroad programs would be cancelled effective immediately.

Well then.

After another in person meeting with the study abroad programs director and lots of pushback from my peers about staying in Kenya, my roommates and I began the hunt for return flights. It was at that moment when one of my friends, Kenna, suggested an impromptu trip to Mombasa.

Now, I was supposed to go to Mombasa with Kenna and my roommate Janelle to celebrate Janelle’s birthday at the end of March. We had booked a GORGEOUS Airbnb, and were very excited to be near a beach. We decided to push that trip up, changing our accommodations and booking flights to the Kenyan coast. We refused to leave Kenya without going to Mombasa.

Within less than 18 hours of planning this abrupt vacation, we found ourselves at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. After a painfully long wait in the airport, we boarded a rinky dink small airplane and we were off to the coast.

Arriving relatively late to Mombasa, we decided to spend the remaining daylight at the beach, followed by dinner at a nearby resort. I had my last serving of nyama choma and ugali, and our night ended there.

On the second day of our weekend getaway, we had brunch at a nearby French restaurant before heading to Old Town Mombasa. I absolutely loved the vibe, the blue and white color scheme of the homes, the Arab influences, and the ubiquitous tuk tuks. We decided to see Fort Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by the Portuguese to protect the Old Port of Mombasa. The remainder of our trip was spent lounging on the beach like tourists.

Upon returning to Nairobi, I had three more days to enjoy the city before embarking on a 20 hour journey back to the US. Given that we would not be able to participate in the Safari excursion booked by our program, we headed over to Nairobi National Park for our own rendition that Monday.

The following day was spent souvenir shopping. I decided to take a solo trip to Kariokor Market where I liberally spent my last remaining Kenyan shillings on gifts for family and friends. The minute I stepped out of my Uber, I was greeted by a shop-owner who guided me through the market encouraging that I buy just about everything. After a few deliberations about what I really needed and some negotiations, I ended up spending all the money left in my wallet. Oops.

That Wednesday was my last day in Nairobi, as my flight was that evening. I decided to take one last visit to my internship and the spend the day with the staff (pictures are also in the Week 9 post). In a few hours I’d be on a plane back to what is now the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seems like the final sixteen actually ended up being the final ten.

Week 9: Starting My Internship…and Ending It.

Now rural week was an excellent “Spring Break,” transition period of sorts before moving to the internship portion of the program. After a quick change in placement, I was super excited to begin working at RHYCO: Real Hope Youth Community Organization.

I had gone to check RHYCO out and speak with one of the founders prior to committing to the organization. Let’s just say I fell in love with the place instantly. Now what does RHYCO do? Before I outline what they do, I need to talk about what community RHYCO is in.

My internship is based in Kawangware, one of the informal settlements in Nairobi (I’m sure you’ve heard of Kibera?). It’s estimated that about 80,000 people live within Kawangware, many in makeshift homes that lack proper access to safe drinking water, drainage/sanitation systems, and electricity. Before I had visited Kawangware for the first time, I had no idea how close it was to my school. I had a very privileged Nairobi experience, living and attending school in rather posh, high-income areas. Who would have thought that within a 10 minute car ride, I would reach an informal settlement. I don’t know, something in me just assumed that these areas were further away, perhaps secluded from the rest of Nairobi.


My history professor made a really interesting point one day in class about the proximity of slums to wealthier areas. Due to the economic/labor system in Kenya, a lot of people work within the informal sector as necessary entrepreneurs, domestic workers, etc. In regards to domestic work, it is a very common occurrence in Kenya (and most countries in Africa), unfortunately. Human resources are plentiful, and many are looking for any sort of work to put food on the table. A lot of the individuals (mostly women), who work these jobs live in low-income areas like Kawangware, Kibera, etc.

Lavington, the area where I attended school, is a high-income area which means that there is likely an abundance of job opportunities for individuals living in these slums. To oversimplify things, the poor folks live close to the rich folks because they likely work or can find work from rich folk.

Back to Kawangware.

Africa seems to be a very fertile continent, having the highest percentage of young people in the world. Kawangware is a microcosm of what is happening demographically on the continent. And what is most concerning to me are the public health implications of living in slums for youth. They are petri dishes for waterborne diseases, respiratory illnesses, HIV/AIDs, and others. To live in such conditions is honestly a crime against humanity.

These health related issues only scratch the surface of what it means to live in an informal settlement, however. In Kawangware, parents struggle to find and keep work, which can be detrimental for their children. A lack of work means uncertainty around your next meal and providing for your family, whether you can afford to see a doctor, or whether your children can even attend school.

The subject of education in Kenya is complex, warranting a whole other blog post. In short, low-income status and burdensome school fees makes primary education a privilege for youth in Kawangware. And for those children whose parents can’t afford food and school fees, this has the potential to send them to the streets, looking for food and trying to support themselves in any way possible. These children are at risk of abuse and exploitation, alcohol/substance abuse, neglect, financial hardship, and lack of learning opportunities.

This is where RHYCO steps in.

RHYCO focuses their efforts on street children aged 4-11 years old. To quote their information brochure “RHYCO was founded by four individuals who each spent their own childhoods on the streets. RHYCO was born out of their experiences, inspiration, and desire to reach out to others like themselves who could lead a better life if given the right help and encouragement.”

The organization aims to empower street children and their families in hopes of improving their livelihoods. There is an “intake” period that occurs where a social worker will walk the streets of Kawangware identifying any at risk children. These children can be found roaming during school hours, sorting through trash, etc. The social worker will then ask the child why they aren’t in school and try to invite them to the center to discuss further. After further discussion with a child and a home visit, the executive team will determine the child’s level of vulnerability and whether they should be absorbed into RHYCO’s programming.

For the children deemed most at risk of the threats mentioned above, RHYCO will sponsor them. The organization offers these services:

  • School sponsorship (paying school fees)
  • Counseling services
  • Play therapy, a library, and informal schooling education/homework assistance.
  • Feeding program and provision of clothing and wash/shower facilities
  • Education for parents via the home visits, empowerment sessions, etc.
  • Government advocacy

In short, there’s a lot going on at Real Hope Youth Community Organization.

During my short three days working at RHYCO (before I was politely told to evacuate Kenya ASAP), I had the privilege of accompanying the social worker to conduct in-home visits.

This was a somber experience.

I encourage you to perhaps watch a video on what it is like to live in an informal settlement because the housing conditions are unbelievable. Families of five or more are cramped into 10 x 10 shacks with poor ventilation, lighting, and sanitation access. I’ve read countless articles on slum living. However, to see it with your own eyes….indescribable.

And although I was an outsider coming into these people’s homes, I was welcomed. During my first home visit, the mother of the family thanked me for my visit and witnessing her reality. Although I’d say I kept my composure quite well, it was an emotional experience.

During my short time at RHYCO I befriended many of the children who are sponsored by the organization. Can I just say these children are adorable. I’ll never forget my first day there when I was helping the children with their homework. Cramped in a small classroom with 15+ students, I did my best to assist with the alphabet and writing. I’d say I did pretty well considering the long line that eventually formed of kids waiting to be helped by me.

I met two little boys who would walk me to catch my matatu, serving as my little guardians. We discussed living in America, foods and subjects we liked and disliked, and what we wanted to be when we were older. One of the boys discussed how he loved science and wanted to be an astronaut. This truly warmed my heart. I mean, these are very young children, who were unfairly disadvantaged and born into a heartbreaking reality. Regardless, they smiled and laughed, played with no inhibitions, and still dreamed for something better. And I think that’s what blew me away the most. As you age, I feel a lot of us lose that ambition and optimism. At least, that’s been the case for me. As I learn more and more about the vast inequities that plague this world, I have grown quite cynical. And despite my short time at my internship, being around innocent children reminded me of the benevolence in this world and the power of simply having a good attitude.

When I found out that I’d have to cut my study abroad experience six weeks short, the pain of not being able to work with this wonderful organization really hit me. As someone who has had very unfulfilling internships in the past, I was so excited to work somewhere where the effects of one’s actions were instant. Simply watching these children go home to their congested homes after having a shower and with food in their belly was all the validation I needed to know that I chose the right career field. International development often times feels so bureaucratic and distant from changing people’s livelihoods. Real Hope Youth Community Organization challenged this perception for me.

In only three days, I gained another family. I created connections that will last way beyond the current state of the world, and will hopefully allow me to return to Kenya quite soon.

Here are a few pictures from my last day!

Week 8: Kicking it in Kirinyaga.

Again, I fell off the wagon. This time, COVID-19 is the culprit. I’ll talk a little more about that pesky pathogen in one or two blog posts. For now, I wanted to document my “rural week” experience in Kirinyaga County.

Considering that 90% of my study abroad experience occurs in an urban, metropolitan city, my program made it a point to emphasize the experience of living in rural Kenya. Based on my rural week experience, I have definitely come out of it with a few questions about what it even means to be “rural.” We’ll come back to this though.

About two hours north of Nairobi in Kenya’s Central Province, Kirinyaga County is in the Mt.Kenya Region. It is also the Kikuyu people’s ancestral homelands. Now the Kikuyu are the largest ethnic group in Kenya. I’d say they play an important role in Kenya’s history as the Mau Mau was dominated by the Kikuyu, Jomo Kenyatta himself was Kikuyu, and now baby Jomo aka Uhuru (but not really) is also Kikuyu.

I was torn going into this rural experience. On the one hand, I had my own perspective on “rural” and on the other, I didn’t really know what to expect. I suppose my biggest concerns regarding a rural experience would be the issue of sanitation, access to piped water in particular. My time in Africa thus far has shown me that things such as clean water and consistent electricity can be hard to come by. I knew that I obviously wouldn’t expect a very “urban” infrastructure like I had seen in Nairobi. Apart from these anxieties, I’d say I had a pretty open mind.

On March 2nd, around midday, we arrived at the Roswam Hotel, where our program had a nice lunch and met our host families. A classmate and I were paired with a wonderful family that I would soon come to love. Our host mother, Ann, was a teacher at a boys school in town. Our host brother Geoff, was in his late twenties, had two kids, and would also be our translator for our health survey that we were to conduct. Lucy was Geoff’s wife, and who I would refer to as our caretaker for the next four days.

After lunch at the hotel, Geoff took us to our home for the next few days. Now Kirinyaga County is very green. Given that agriculture is a critical sector in this area of Kenya, producing bananas, rice, maize, and other staples, this came as no surprise. Throughout the week I found myself marveling at the banana trees alongside the road, and how rich the soil everywhere was. Talk about fertile land.

Our family had just harvested maize!

Now when Geoff made a sudden turn off of the main road into what looked like miles of grassland, I will say I was a bit confused. Our family, much like many families in this part of the country, all lived like this. One minute you’d find yourself on a road that goes on for miles, the next minute you’re traveling down a dirt road into a grassy oblivion. After a few turns and honks down some dirt roads, we arrived at a large black gate. Oh, the motifs of Africa, where large elaborate gates separate the outside world from people’s properties. Their house was a beautiful, one floored home with a few rooms, and all the other things you’d find in a house. They had a shamba (farm) in their backyard, and about 30 or 40 chickens. Let’s just say playing with the chickens was a highlight of my week.

The first day was relatively lax. I ended up napping a majority of the day and just hanging around. I mentioned that my host brother had two adorable sons named Liam and Nick. Although they weren’t huge fans of us at first, they eventually warmed up to us as the week went on.

My time in Kirinyaga was one of relaxation and nutritional abundance. I found myself going to bed by 10:30 pm after eating pounds of rice, different assortments of bean stews, and chapati. Lucy really threw down and kept my stomach full. I wish I would’ve taken photos of the meals I ate. It was just what I needed after having to self-nourish on eggs, beans, and Chicken-Inn in Nairobi. Our days were spent working on our community health project and surveying people. Although I strongly detested that class, the survey was a great way to see more of Kerugoya town and interact with locals. We got to visit the County Headquarters where administrative matters are dealt with, a bank in town, and a girls boarding school, to name a few. Geoff was also nice enough to take us to the next county over where we visited a waterfall.

Like I said, it really was a relaxing few days. As I didn’t want to waste the data on my phone, I took the week off a social media, turning to reading, journaling, and blogging instead. Although Nairobi now has a special place in my heart, I can’t deny that the city is overwhelming. It was nice to get away from the traffic, the construction, and people always on the move.

One of my favorite parts about being in Kirinyaga was having little brothers! The boys eventually warmed up to me and became my little buddies. Nick, who is six years old became my Swahili teacher and chapati smuggler. The baby, Liam, would eventually become attached to my hip, bothering me as I tried to read, and beating me up as I tried to nap, lol. Given that the urban homestay option was no longer a component of the study abroad experience, it was nice to be in Kenya and actually live with Kenyans. It’s also nice to be with kids….for a short while.

I will say the only adjustment of Kirinyaga was the sanitation situation, as I predicted. But honestly, it could have been a lot worse. My host family was actually one of the privileged families to have access to piped water. They had a perfectly functioning shower that spat out very hot water, and a squat toilet that flushed! I was very amazed by the latter because those squat toilets will really have you counting your sanitation blessings. On the topic of hand washing, I did find this to be a bit difficult as the sink dedicated to this behavior was unfortunately malfunctioning. I found myself having to go into the shower to wash my hands, as I didn’t want to disrupt Lucy in the kitchen.

Prior to moving in with our host families, our program had given us trash bags for our personal waste. This really came in handy considering that mother nature was coincidentally in town. But I also noticed some interesting things about the amount of waste my host family produced. Most of the waste produced was generally food scraps from cooking. This made sense, however, as packaged foods such as little snacks, etc. were not really present. All of the food we ate was extremely fresh and required very little packaging.

Kirinyaga reminded me a lot of Gambia which had me thinking a lot. The overall landscape of the town and my little snake shaped country were shockingly similar. I never really considered Gambia a rural country (even though I guess it actually is) before this experience. Having the privilege to travel to African countries with very urban populations, however is steadily changing my conceptualization of the urban-rural divide.

Welp, that’s all for this blog post. I really enjoyed my “rural week” experience and wanted to make sure it was documented. Enjoy a few more photos below!

Week 7: Matatus

If I have learned anything from the few bits of travel I have been able to do in the past 3 years, it’s that travel is overrated. We love to post our blue passports at the airport, the amazing food we’re indulging in, our unforgettable nights out, etc. In short, only the highlights of our travels are shared. This, however, is misleading, failing to paint the realities of just how crappy travel can be.

There’s adjusting to foreign foods, certain cultural customs, a painful language barrier, and just good old homesickness. To be completely honest, I’m not very homesick. If you remember from post 1, coming to Nairobi was an escape for me. Of course I miss my family and friends, but that goes without saying.

But if there’s anyway to cope with being in a new place, it’s about creating routines and developing new favorites. I thought I’d share one of my new favorites: riding matatus.


On the topic of creating new routines, matatus have been integral. What is a matatu, you might ask?

A larger Matatu that you may encounter on these Nairobi streets.

Matatus are privately owned minibuses that are known for their vibrant exteriors, loud music, and questionable driving. Matatus are the common form of transportation for many Kenyans as they are relatively inexpensive and get you from point A to B in a nick of time. I often say that I prefer matatus to Ubers as they are the only transportation I’ve seen successfully finesse Kenyan traffic. And they’re cheaper.

A bit of history on these lil buses. They’ve been around since the 1960s, being imported secondhand from Japan but apparently coming to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. Matatus are owned and controlled by SACCOs, government-registered companies in Kenya. There are over 600 SACCOs registered in Kenya.

The matatu labor system is quite fascinating, as the SACCOs will rent the cars to the drivers and conductors to work a given route. The driver is responsible for the gas and fees paid to the conductor. Any extra profits are given to the driver at the end of the day.

So, given the parameters to actually make ends meet, this informs the quite hectic behavior of the matatus.

Paying homage to my boy Tupac.

The vans themselves are legally only supposed to fit 14 passengers. But conductors will bend the rules in order to up the profits. Often times you’ll find matatus filled to the brim before they head off to their destination, again to maximize profits. This, however, can be quite inconvenient for passengers in a rush, especially at low-peak times. If you get to a matatu, and it isn’t full, best believe you’ll be sitting in it until it fills up before any movement occurs. As a result, I’ve concluded that there is no estimating the matatu schedule. The precariousness will drive you insane. If you are traveling during peak times, however, you can expect to do a lot of pushing and shoving to claim a seat on one of these bad boys. There are no such thing as manners when it comes to getting into a matatu during rush hour.

A regular matatu that I take daily.

But yes, for the economic breakdown, matatu drivers and conductors want to end the day with money in their pockets. This means developing certain tactics like playing music to attract passengers, or even heckling you and practically pulling you into their cars to fill space. Yes, the latter has happened to me.

Now a matatu can cost you anywhere from 10 to 200 shillings depending on location, destination, and hour of day. My fare rounds out to be 50 to 60 shillings a day which equates to 50 or 60 cents. So for me, Penny Pincher Polly, matatus are a cheap way to get around the city.

As I’ve mentioned, this low cost does come with some strings attached. For one, matatus don’t work on your time, but theirs so be prepared to exercise the utmost patience. Second, it’s not a very comfortable ride. They are extremely tight spaces, especially if you’re crammed in the back or sitting right on top of the engine (in that case it is a very hot ride). Personal space does not exist on these things. There’s also been complaints about women being sexually assaulted due to the close quarters, so yay!

Air conditioning does not exist so your best bet is to try and pry one of the windows open without it falling out. Oh right, I forgot to mention that these cars are not in the best shape. At all. The interior is not your brand new Tesla by any means. And the exterior…..well I guess that’s why so many of them have been spray painted with eye catching designs.

Another string to be wary of is the driving. Every time I get in a matatu I am practically risking my life. Matatus take reckless driving to a new level. I’ve seen drivers turn two way lanes into three, drive against oncoming traffic, cut people off, and move through spaces not even a bike could fit through. If you are a backseat driver, a matatu is no place for you. You will waste your breath trying to get these men to change their ways. And they won’t.

But like I say, this is all apart of the cultural immersion. I continue to put my life in the hands of matatu drivers and I’ve left every ride unscathed. Let’s hope this good fortune continues!

Thank you for tuning in!

Week 6: A Day in Kiambu County

So, I seem to have fallen off the posting groove that I had created for myself. The culprit: finals, of course. The past two weeks I was doing my very best to study and succeed on my finals (that’s TBD), but ya know, senioritis. I thought I’d dedicate this blog post to sharing some photos of a day two friends and I had in Kiambu County a few weeks prior.

On February 22nd, my two friends/classmates Caroline and Elisabeth and I went to this park called Paradise Lost right outside of Nairobi in Kiambu County. I’d describe Paradise Lost as a natural park where people can gather for parties and BBQs, ride horses and camels, go on a boat ride, and see some of the natural attractions. Not realizing that we’d have to pay between 100 to 300 shillings for activities in addition to the park entry fee of 400 shillings, we limited ourselves to one activity. Paradise Lost is home to a waterfall and Stone Age Cave that was used by the Mau Mau during Kenya’s independence era, so we were able to see both. Inside the cave it was really warm and a part of me was questioning how people could even live in that space. I was only able to get one photo inside the cave due to the poor lighting.

Admiring God’s work!
The Waterfall! I couldn’t stop thinking about how waterfalls actually come to exist.

We found this picnic area by the nearby river that became our photoshoot central. See below!

Elisabeth serving as my muse.
Caroline, me, and Elisabeth. Elisabeth somehow got us to climb a tree.
Me taking advantage of being on the tree. The hand holding the trunk is not meant to be a pose. It was meant to prevent me from cracking my head open.
Shoutout to this tree man.
So, one of my favorite things about being along the tropics is seeing all the palm trees! I’m a big fan as you can see.
Who remembers my jumping phase? Had to throw it back.

This concludes Week 6 in Kenya. As I’m obviously here for school, so it’s not every day going to live shows and sipping on some cider. We try to have fun when we can though.

Week 5: Kenyan? Gambian? American? Mzungu?

This blog post comes a day or two late as I was struggling with what to tackle in this week’s post. I’ve created a list of topics that I would like to touch on, but none of them stood out to me this week.

I’m not sure whether to be grateful for or frightened by the instagram algorithm. I say this because while scrolling through the app the other day, I was recommended Up/Root the Podcast. It’s hosted by an Ethiopian woman who now lives in Nairobi. I was instantly hooked on the episode “Where are you from?” as it brought together a group of well travelled Diasporans who carry many identities due to their experiences living around the world. The podcast episode also came at a great time as I had recently watched a Ted Talk by Taiye Selasie in my immersion class titled, “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, Ask Me Where I’m Local.”

Both the podcast and Ted Talk have been helping me work through some identity challenges I have experienced whilst being in Nairobi. During our orientation week, our program director made it known that many, if not all, of the black students on the program would most likely be considered Kenyan. Of course, I was not surprised with his statement, so I didn’t ponder on it too long.

Well, I’ve been pondering.

Although I am flattered to be considered Kenyan (shoot, I wish I was), I have found myself getting rather exhausted with having to explain that I’m not. Every time I am spoken to in Kiswahili (or what I assume is Kiswahili but is instead just a “Kenyan accent” masking English words), I must quickly respond with sielewi kiswahili: I don’t understand Kiswahili. Of course, it is usually a shock to Kenyans. This past weekend whilst attending a musical festival in Hell’s Gate National Park, one woman even said “you look sooo Swahili!”

And it’s not even that this frequent situation is so incredibly frustrating that I’m ready to pack up and head back to the States, it just has me thinking a lot about identity (what else is new).

For starters, I feel as if I’m disappointing Kenyans when they realize I am not their kin. There is something in me that instantly wishes I was fluent in Kiswahili so that I’d be able to engage with them in their amazing lingua franca. I always wonder into what rigid identity category I am placed into. Do they consider me a mzungu, as I am non-Kenyan? But mzungu in what sense? A Westerner, African-American, etc? These are the questions that I ask when I don’t receive any follow up questions about where I’m actually from.

In the event that I am asked that very cringy, loaded question, I am burdened with another task, explaining my life story in less than 10 words.

Them: So where are you from?

Me: Ooh my life story! So it goes a bit like this. I was born in America to Gambian parents who immigrated in the early 90s you know, the whole “pursuit of a better opportunity, American Dream narrative.” I consider myself Gambian-American as I am of Gambian heritage but very much American, you know, cultural imperialism, assimilation, all those exciting buzz words. I’m not African-American though because I’m not a descendent of enslaved Africans and cannot identify with that experience. I’ve lived in the states practically my whole life minus small trips to Gambia here and there. I have yet to spend a formative amount of time in Gambia and plan to do that in the coming years to re-engage with my culture because man oh man does being a second-generation African lead to a severe identity crisis!

I mean, that’s a lot to put on a stranger who simply wants to know whether you’re Kenyan or not, right?

Usually I’ll just say I’m American and West African, hoping that the latter will wipe away some of the mzungu I may outwardly present. But then again, being from the Gambia, a country I’m still surprised many even know exists, doesn’t necessarily help. To the Kenyans I have expressed this little tidbit to, they don’t respond with too much excitement.

And then somewhere along this long exchange about where I’m from I start to envy Kenyans who just assume every black person is their kin. Explaining the immigrant experience to people who still live in their mother country has been interesting. I always think to myself, they’re sort of blessed that they can live in a nation where everyone looks like them and there’s no need to assume that any black person is an other. Although things are not perfect in Kenya and many likely haven’t had the privilege to immigrate to the West, they’re privileged in the sense that they don’t have to experience the baggage of assimilation, culture shock, choosing which language to prioritize in the home, etc. But then again, I’m sure certain groups do?

Very complicated indeed.

But then I start to think about this whole idea of Pan-Africanism and the African personality. Although Africa is various at all levels, I doubt I’d be 100% able to differentiate African nationalities based on appearance. Sometimes you really cannot tell whether people are Kenyan or Gambian, Ghanaian, Senegalese, etc. I wonder how individuals coming from Uganda, DRC, Zimbabwe, etc. navigate being mistaken for Kenyan, if at all. Do they get called mzungus?

So as stated, I think both the podcast episode and the Ted Talk really help me to find clarity with such a complicated background. Being multicultural with a hyphenated identity is more a strength than a weakness as I have access to two special but very different cultures. It’s also allowed me to connect with places based on my experiences. Yes, I am American. But do I know anything about being American in the Dakotas? Not at all. My DMV experience has further shaped my identity than being from the whole United States. Despite not being Senegalese, a lot of growth occurred for me in Senegal and thus Dakar is now apart of me as well. I could say the same about Michigan (shocking, I know), and now Nairobi. Although my classmates and I snickered at Selasie’s “don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m local” quote (we thought it was corny), there’s a lot of truth to it.

A lot of us pride ourselves on these national identities but how much do they really say about us? Especially for the countries that were defined by outsiders looking in? It’s tough though. As much as these national identity markers don’t matter, they do at the same time.

On the “Up/Root the Podcast” episode, in response to the question “where are you from,” one of the guests always responds “where do you need me to be from?”

I may have to follow suit.

Week 4: It’s About Time.

So after four weeks of 25 hours of class weekly, I’m finally getting a chance to rest. The whole “your classes are front loaded the first half a semester” really is an appealing concept until you actually experience the 9-5 pm life. Last week, three of my classes ended: Environmental Health, Kenyan History, and Immersion into Another Culture. While my friends at state schools were just beginning their Spring semester of classes, I was taking finals. I will say, the combination of studying, applying for post-grad opportunities, and senioritis has really made academics here quite painful. But hey, moving forward my workload will be a lot lighter which is great for a senior who is impatiently waiting to graduate (89 days!)

After submitting an application that I had been working on for practically a year and a half, it was time to actually enjoy living in Nairobi. Enjoy below a photo journal of some of the things I was able to do this past week.

This was a nice interior of the Nairobi National Museum. Like your typical museum, there was so much information about Kenya, its history, and the people. My favorite part of the museum had to be the exhibit on Kenyan currency and how it has changed throughout history. Fun fact, once a Kenyan shilling has been completely worn out from usage, it is shredded, made into a circular disc, and used for energy. See below.

There was a really interesting exhibit showcasing all the different birds in the East African region. All I could think about was my friend Tsion and her fear of birds.

Very creepy

On Saturday I went to the National Railway Museum. The East African Railway was really important for the British for obvious sphere of influence reasons. I was more fascinated with seeing how former trains were repurposed as art studios for Kenyan artists. Again, photos below.

Unfortunately, WordPress won’t allow me to post videos which is unfortunate. On Saturday I saw the MOST INCREDIBLE Kenyan Jazz band. I think they deserve a whole blog post of their own so stay tuned for perhaps a midweek blog post.

One step closer to becoming a Nairobian, however.


Week 3: Gridlock


A traffic jam in which a grid of intersecting streets is so completely congested that no vehicular movement is possible.


To be in a state or situation in which movement or progress is stopped completely.

The term gridlock describes what a morning or evening looks like in Nairobi. Think DC, New York, or LA traffic. Traffic in Nairobi is 100x worse. Usually caught in said gridlock on my commute home, I find this is the perfect time to observe and reflect. I watch pedestrians speed off hastily to their destinations and drivers stare into oblivion. It’s the time in my day when I have no choice but to face my thoughts.

That’s sort of how this past week felt. A rather pensive week…one filled with both joys and sorrows.

My grandmother passed away a few weeks back. I remember receiving a text from my father who said that she had been really sick and I instantly knew. She was getting old, and it was only a matter of time. Although a biological process, death is something that is still so gripping. There is a certain immortality to your grandparents, who seem to have been around your whole life. You get older, and yet, they seem to stay the same.

Regardless, I found comfort in her passing knowing that she lived such an incredible, long life. She had an amazing marriage, raised too many children, and travelled the world with my boss a** grandfather.

Now, I wish I could sit here and say the same for the passing of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others who lost their lives on Sunday. The news was absolutely shattering, and I was an emotional wreck the whole week. Despite not knowing the man and never even seeing him play….like I said, there is a certain immortality to people who have been in your life, your whole life. There was a tweet I saw on the day of his passing that commented on how he was just starting his second career as a dedicated father and retired player. It breaks my heart to know that a life was cut drastically short due to something so avoidable. There’s something to be said for humans, no matter how complex, whose passing can make the world stop and reflect. It’s still so surreal.

I just turned 22. For anyone who knows me, I don’t care much for birthdays, celebrations, etc. Although I was hurting from these passings, I was also reflecting on how short this life is and the fact that it isn’t promised to anyone. Just being in this world (no matter how chaotic and unjust it is) is a blessing that I don’t think we reflect on enough.

So, that sums up week 3 in Nairobi. As much as I tried to write about my time here thus far, I couldn’t bring myself to do so. There’s an overwhelming wave of stimuli that comes with moving to a new country and settling into a new life. Such stimuli might prevent you from taking a moment to sit in your discomfort, progressing as if nothing is bothering you.

This week, I decided to sit in the gridlock instead.

Week 2: Yearning To Pop This Bubble

Nairobi is incredible. Kenya is incredible. For goodness sake, Africa is incredible. After having the opportunity to visit Senegal in 2018, I was determined to travel to as many African countries as possible. A year and a half later, I am back on the continent.

I chose to come to Kenya for many reasons. As someone who would like to work in the international development field in Sub-Saharan Africa, studying abroad in Nairobi made a lot of sense. I truly believe that development work is meaningless when done from an office cubicle in a Western city. The on the ground experience is the only way to truly grasp what working abroad entails. I mean, it’s no coincidence that all the jobs I have looked at within development emphasize overseas experience as a critical qualification. I’m in my final sixteen weeks of college (gotta keep the trend going), which means I’ve been thinking a lot about my future. As the planner I am, studying abroad in Africa was strategic. It is a way to set me apart from others in this competitive development job market.

Now I’d be lying to you if I only decided to study abroad for my professional career. I saw it as an escape. An escape from Tenleytown, an escape from my RA job, an escape from a rather mediocre college experience. These past three years have summed up to my increasing consciousness about socioeconomic status, navigating social relationships, and spending way too many hours in the library. Kenya was my redemption.

In my cultural immersion class, we were asked to reflect on our initial impressions about Kenya, and creating a new local narrative. As I didn’t have much to say about any changed impressions, I did have a lot to say about local narratives. Part of my excitement in coming to Nairobi was the idea of being able to create a new narrative for myself. I was truly excited to immerse myself into Nairobi, engaging in “Nairobian youth” activities and creating my Kenyan network.

This, however, has been very difficult to do.

Now although I appreciate the existence of the AU Nairobi program, I can’t help but find myself frustrated with it. The “AU Bubble” that I tried so hard to burst back home has followed me to Africa. I find myself spending a lot of time with AU students, in AU spaces, in rather wealthy parts of Nairobi. It’s as if I’m still at AU, except its warm, the Wonk bus has been replaced by matatus, and Tenleytown is now the affluent neighborhoods of Nairobi.

How have I been coping?

Not well, to be quite honest. I’ve put a lot of my frustration into writing, yoga, and ranting to friends over WhatsApp. I suppose, what keeps me sane is knowing that this isn’t forever. I recognize that it’s only been a few weeks, and this will take time. This is all a part of the settling and adjustment process, and it is going to require some patience.

The bubble will be popped soon. Stay strong, young grasshopper.

While I eagerly wait to live out my cosmopolitan Nairobian reality, enjoy a photo of me at Kiambethu Tea Farm in Limuru Kenya! Honorable mention to Julius, our amazing tour guide who exposed us to the wonders of medicinal plants.

Here’s the tea, the man standing behind me was the greatest tour guide!