Below is the journal I kept during the fifteen weeks that I was the faculty leader of the Lewis & Clark College overseas program of study in fall 2008. Every year a group of LC students and one faculty member spend the semester traveling and studying in Kenya and Tanzania. 23 students participated in the 2008 program. We arrived in Nairobi, Kenya on September 1st and departed from Arusha, Tanzania on December 5th. Since this is no longer an active blog, the entries have been rearranged in order from oldest to most recent.

Our group in the Yaida Valley, Northern Tanzania, 24 November 2008

Arrival in Nairobi

September 7, 2008; Nairobi, Kenya — Greetings from Nairobi! After many months of planning and eager anticipation, the 2008 Lewis & Clark College East Africa program has officially begun. We are now in our fifth day in Kenya and quickly becoming accustomed to this region of the world that will be our home for the next three months. Our group consists of 23 students, our assistant program leader Cara Eandi, and me.

On Monday, August 31st, I had the pleasure of meeting most of the students in London and introducing those who had never been there to that great city. After we checked in to our flight to Nairobi we left Heathrow Airport and took the tube (London Underground) to the center of the city. London is a city that requires a lifetime to truly know. We had only two hours, but we did our best. Our walking tour included Hyde Park Corner, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. We then crossed the River Thames and back again and cruised through Trafalgar Square finishing with lunch in Leicester Square. After that it was back to the airport and an overnight flight to Nairobi.

We arrived early Tuesday morning at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at dawn and were met there by David Sperling, our main contact in Kenya. Our first impressions of Nairobi came as we crawled through the morning rush hour traffic from the airport into the city center. Nairobi is a sprawling metropolis with many of the same problems faced by major American urban areas: expanding suburbs, garish shopping malls and housing developments, and congestion on every major road to and from the city. In many ways, Nairobi bears more of a resemblance to what we have left behind in the US than it does to what awaits us in the other parts of East Africa to which we will travel.

Our first few days were spent at a comfortable and well appointed guesthouse in western Nairobi. Swahili classes began on Wednesday as did Prof. Sperling’s East Africa area studies course. It has been a pleasure to see how well all the students are adapting to this new environment and the enthusiasm and diligence that they are bringing to their studies. On a more personal note, it is also a bit intimidating for me to become a student once again. I have decided to take the Swahili class with the students and try to learn the language along with them. We have four hours of intensive language training each day and it is a challenge merely to stay caught up. Fortunately we have four outstanding instructors and their patience, good humor, and high spirits have made the daunting task of learning this new language a lot of fun.

On Saturday the students were introduced to their home stay families and everyone relocated to Riruta Satellite, a western suburb of Nairobi where we will remain for the rest of the month. Riruta seems to have the feel of a village within a city. Most residents know each other and are constantly greeting each other in the street and stopping to chat. We are fortunate that all the home stay families live within walking distance of each other and of the house that we are using as a classroom (and in which I am living). Tomorrow we resume our studies in our new home in Riruta.

Local butcher shop in Riruta, Nairobi

Life in Riruta

September 14, 2008; Nairobi, Kenya — Our first week as temporary residents of Riruta has gone by quickly and I am pleased to see our group adapting well to their new surroundings and to their home stay families. The adjustment to life in Riruta is a substantial one. Many of the homes do not have the material comforts and conveniences we take for granted in the US. Some the families do not have running water. The change in lifestyle coming so abruptly after our first few days in a comfortable guest house is a lot to demand, but the students have responded eagerly and enthusiastically. They are spending time with their families and getting to know the neighborhood. Riruta is a welcoming place with many of the charms of an African village, albeit one that is absorbed within a sprawling metropolis. Most people seem to know each other and this lends a reassuring measure of security in what is otherwise known to be a dangerous city. Outsiders get noticed right away and we certainly fall into that category. When we walk down the street, we are often greeted by children. “Hello Mzungu (white person)! How are you?” Most of us are not used to this type of attention and it is alternately startling and charming.

For my own part, I try to spend a part of each day walking around the area and getting to know people. I have become a regular at St. Jude’s Catholic parish, though my ability to follow the liturgy in Swahili comes mostly from observing when people sit, kneel, and stand. Masses at St. Jude’s are usually about two hours (the homilies are especially long) but this hardly compares to Sunday services at nearby Pentecostal churches which last all day. I know this because there is one near my house and I can hear music and preaching on their sound system for hours on end. It is remarkable how religious people in Kenya are. There are dozens of churches of every denomination in our neighborhood. Most schools are associated with a church and much of the programming on Kenyan TV is religious in some way or another. In my own church, the weekend masses are packed with people. The priests and deacons are very young and there are several nuns assigned to the parish—all of whom appear to be under thirty. It would be unusual to see so many young members of the clergy in a Catholic parish in the US. It is often remarked that Africa and Asia are the future of the Catholic Church and it is easy to believe this after attending mass in Nairobi. I’ve enjoyed being part of this congregation and the parishioners have been very welcoming.

Our classes are continuing, with Swahili instruction in the morning and David Sperling’s history course in the afternoon. The pace of our Swahili class has not let up and we are learning large amounts of new material each day. The language itself is not terribly difficult; it has logical grammar, uses the Roman script, and is phonetically the same as English. The difficulty is retaining whatever grammar we have learned while memorizing all the new vocabulary and still continuing to keep up with the new material. Learning a language intensively is like drinking water from a fire hose. I am pleased to see most of my classmates (I am also taking the course and doing all the homework) rising to the challenge and am amazed at how much we have all learned in such a short amount of time.

On Thursday and Friday we had our first class trips. We visited the National Museum of Kenya, the Railway Museum, and the home of Karen Blixen, the Danish baroness who came to Kenya to manage a coffee plantation and later wrote of the experience under the pen name Isak Dineson in Out of Africa and “Shadows in the Grass.” The popularity of the book and the movie it inspired have made the Blixen house one of the most visited tourist attractions in Kenya. Scenes from the movie were filmed outside the house so it is immediately familiar to many visitors. We had a group tour of the interior and then had coffee nearby. The house is in the posh and leafy suburb of Karen (named for Baroness Blixen) west of Nairobi at the foot of the Ngong Hills, and is a far cry from the bustle and squalor of Riruta and some of the poorer areas closer to the city center. Standing in stark contrast to the Karen Blixen house, which is beautifully landscaped and well maintained, is the Railway museum, which is rather decrepit and clearly underfunded. Nevertheless, it contains probably the best collection of colonial artifacts in Kenya. The railway was central to Kenya’s development, first as a colony and later as a nation-state, so it was good that the students were able to spend time in this museum. They even got to climb on the trains in the overgrown rail yard next to the museum.

Now that our days in Kenya are beginning to fall into a routine, I expect that they will go by very quickly. We will be in Nairobi for all of next week. The week after, we begin our excursion into the Eastern Highlands and will have the chance to see a bit more of the country.

That’s all for now. Kwaheri.

Karen Blixen House and Coffee Farm, Ngong Road, west of Nairobi
12 September 2008

History, Matatus, and a visit to the Hospital

September 21, 2008; Nairobi, Kenya — This week I began teaching my course, HIST 298: The History of Modern East Africa. The students, for their sins, are being instructed by two historians. David Sperling is an expert in Islamic societies on the East African coast and is covering precolonial East African religion and culture in his course. Since I am a historian of the British Empire, I am teaching a course on the colonial and postcolonial history of the region. David had been teaching his course since the second day after our arrival and I have just started my lectures this week. In the first class, I discussed different examples of colonialism throughout history to help put the East African example in comparative perspective. In the second class I talked a bit about the changes in European society and about the first European exploration into the interior of Africa in the nineteenth century. I am glad for the opportunity to teach the students while they are on the program and to learn a bit more myself about this region of the world in the process. (Whether the students are glad to have me as an instructor may be a different story altogether.) We have only been in Riruta for two weeks but it feels much longer. Our group is now reasonably well oriented to the neighborhood and many have found their favorite hangouts. A local pub called “The Office” serves room-temperature beer (“Tusker,” the Kenyan lager, which is quite good) and the proprietor, Freddy, and the regular customers have been very welcoming. I joked that it reminded me of the TV show Cheers. I must say, I never expected that Kenya would be the place where I would finally find the watering hole “where everybody knows your name.”

The students have been with their host families for two weeks and seem to have settled into their routine. Many of the students have remarked on the amount of television that their families watch. Some families that do not have running water in their homes have 50-inch plasma TVs that are switched on continuously for most of the day. The TV programming ranges from American and Kenyan televangelists to an addictive Mexican tele-novela (soap-opera) called “Los Dos Caras de Maria” (The Two Faces of Mary). Since I do not have TV I am definitely missing out. I keep up with the plot vicariously through conversations with students. I sure hope Ignacio and Maria get back together.

Riruta is west of the Nairobi city center and taxis rarely, if ever, venture into this area. Actually, the same is true of westerners in general. We are the only ones here as far as I can tell. Consequently we rely on the buses and matatus (privately-owned mini-vans) to get around town. The buses are amazingly efficient and after learning the routes one would be hard pressed ever again to resort to the over-priced taxis in this city. The matatus are even more interesting. Most of them (as well as many of the private minibuses) are elaborately decorated—“pimped out” as they say—with ornate pin-striping, window decals, and pictures of famous people. Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama have made more than one appearance on the matatus that I have seen. The matatus are usually packed with people and the music selected for our listening pleasure (and played at top volume, I should add) ranges from reggae to American and Swahili hip-hop. In the past I never listened much to Dr. Dre, Eminem, and P. Diddy, but living in East Africa seems to have changed all that.

Alas, on Friday we had our first casualty of the trip. Nothing serious, really. I escorted a student suffering from severe gastro-intestinal problems to Nairobi Hospital and the ER doc decided he was so dehydrated that he should be admitted and put on fluids until the lab results came back. He spent the night in a private room, was seen by the attending physician, and was discharged the next day. He’s fine now. What was most surprising was that the total bill for the initial doctor’s exam, the ER treatment, the private room, meals, IVs, drugs, and the attending physician’s fee was US $592. Amazing. And that was before the insurance claim was filed and in one of Kenya’s best hospitals (equal in quality to just about any US hospital). It did make me wonder about the prohibitively expensive level of the equivalent treatment in the US. I guess my advice to any uninsured Americans in immediate need of hospitalization is to try to be in Nairobi when it happens. They should be so lucky.

That’s it for now. Next week we leave Nairobi and head north into the Eastern Highlands. We will spend two days in Embu, circle around Mt. Kenya, and then spend one night in Nanyuki before returning to Nairobi. It will be nice to get out of the city for a bit. We haven’t left since we arrived.

As a final note I should add that many students have set up blogs while they are in East Africa. You can access them by going to the program website at and signing in as a guest. Once you have done that, scroll down to Section 3 titled “Blogs and Photo Albums.”

That’s all for this week. Nitaandika tema juma kesho. Kwaheri.

Clinic and Pharmacy in Riruta, Nairobi

Journey around Mt. Kenya

September 29, 2008; Nairobi, Kenya — Last week we ventured outside of Nairobi as a group for the first time since our arrival in Kenya nearly a month ago. Our excursion, which lasted three days, took us around Mt. Kenya and to four different towns in the Eastern Highlands. The trip proved to be an excellent introduction to the beauty and ecological diversity of central Kenya as well as providing an informative—albeit at times disturbing—view of the realities of life in the country’s rural areas and small towns.

Our first stop on the road leading out of Nairobi was in the town of Thika. In the days of the first colonial settlements, Thika was the furthest one could reach by oxcart in a day’s travel from Nairobi. Settlers heading into the Eastern Highlands stopped for the night at the Blue Post Inn before continuing onward. The inn is still there and we were able to enjoy some refreshments there as well as a view of the nearby waterfall. Thika is also famous for being the childhood home of the writer Elspeth Huxley, who chronicled her early years in her memoir The Flame Trees of Thika. After Thika we continued until we reached the town of Embu, the headquarters of the Eastern Province and located southeast of Mt. Kenya. Embu strikes one as a rather unremarkable town, but typical of a reasonably prosperous regional hub in the agricultural center of Kenya. Like many of the towns in the Eastern Highlands, it began as a supply center and market for the European settlers.

The next morning we left for the town of Meru and traveled along a winding road into the heart of Kikuyuland. The landscape is extraordinarily beautiful: lush green hills and valleys dotted with terraced banana farms and tea plantations. Since it is now the beginning of spring in the Southern hemisphere all the flowers are in bloom. Lavender Jacaranda trees line the roads and the bright red “flame trees” can occasionally be seen as well. It is like a paradise. En route to Meru we stopped in Chogoria, the village of a former student of David Sperling who now works for the Clinton Foundation in Nairobi. We visited the primary and secondary schools there and were able to meet the students. After a series of awkward introductions our group spent nearly two hours playing sports with them—mostly volleyball and Frisbee.

After our visit to Chogoria we continued toward Meru. Shortly before entering the town we passed a small, partially obscured, and barely noticeable sign on the side of the road informing motorists that they are crossing the Equator. Very anticlimactic, really. I had expected a bit more fanfare (back home the sign inside the Holland Tunnel marking the crossing from NJ to NY is a bigger deal). We arrived at our hotel in Meru and the next morning I taught my class after nearly a week’s hiatus. Meru is a curious place, but rather unpleasant compared to Embu and, especially, to our adoptive home in Riruta back in Nairobi. The poverty is evident and our busload of western students immediately attracted unwanted attention. As soon as we stopped, several touts and street kids approached us to beg or try to hustle us. The most disturbing were street children addicted to glue and other industrial solvents. They sniff these highly toxic fumes almost continuously and as a consequence have suffered irreversible damage to their brains and nervous systems. They wander around in rags like zombies, with glassy eyes and hands outstretched, incapable even of forming speech. A few of the ones who confronted us actually had the bottles of glue clenched in their mouths as they staggered around. It was a horrible sight and I am certain it left a strong impression on the students. I have lived and traveled for years in the developing world and never encountered anything quite like it.

After Meru we left the lushness of the Eastern Highlands to head off to the frontier town of Isiolo. The terrain changed very quickly and the verdant farms and hills of Kikuyuland gave way to the flat, dry, and barren scrub of northern Kenya. Isiolo is a frontier post and is the last town for over 200 miles as the road continues northward. Unlike in the Eastern Highlands, most of the residents here are Muslims. Many are Somali migrants and most are extremely poor. There is a beautiful mosque at the entrance to the town, but not much else to recommend the place. To say it is a frontier town is no exaggeration. It looked like the set of a Spaghetti Western: dry, dusty, and with a slightly menacing air to it (ala “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”). Sergio Leone and a young Clint Eastwood would have loved the place. We spent 45 long and uncomfortable minutes there, had a surprisingly good lunch at a local restaurant, and quickly boarded our bus amid a throng of aggressive souvenir vendors and glue-addicted street kids.

Our final evening was spent in the pleasant settler town of Nanyuki. Along the road there the scrub and dust of Isiolo ended and we found ourselves cruising through rolling grain fields that could have been right out of Eastern Oregon or Northern California. Once we arrived in Nanyuki we stayed at the Equator Chalet which offered a comfortable and relaxing end to a long and stressful day. We ate dinner together and the next morning a few of us woke up at dawn to see the sun rise over Mt. Kenya. Later in the morning we visited a veterans’ cemetery maintained by Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemetery contains nearly 200 graves of servicemen killed in the Second World War. These include British, South African, and Rhodesian officers attached to RAF squadrons in East Africa and well as East and West Africans who served in the King’s African Rifles and various labor and auxiliary corps. The headstones were engraved in English, Afrikaans, Arabic, and Hebrew. The cemetery was a fascinating and out-of-the-way remnant of the British Empire and one that we happened on quite by accident. Afterwards we headed to the Mt. Kenya Safari Club—East Africa’s most posh and exclusive resort. After some artful persuasion by David Sperling, the management allowed us onto the grounds. The club was founded in the 1950s by the American movie star William Holden and continues to cater to very high-end clientele. The cheapest rooms start at US $900 per night while the priciest drinks on the menu include a martini for around $2100 (it has gems in it instead of olives). There is a helipad and landing strip for guests who can’t be bothered to drive the potholed and congested road from Nairobi. It was certainly interesting to see how the other side lives, and offered a stark contrast to the poverty and desperation we had seen in Meru and Isiolo a mere 24 hours earlier.

On Friday we returned to Nairobi and caught the brunt of the evening rush hour traffic at we entered the city. It was a relief to return to Riruta and our familiar environs. I am now much more appreciative of how much a community Riruta really is. Despite the urban squalor, it is clear that the schools, churches, and shops here do give the neighborhood an unusual degree of security and cohesiveness. Vagrancy and panhandling are not tolerated (in fact, I am much more likely to be approached for a handout on the streets of Portland than in Nairobi) and children are well looked after. That is not to say that what we encountered in the towns of the Eastern Highlands does not exist in Nairobi. It does in slums like Kibera and to a much greater degree. Yet life in Riruta and with our home stay families has insulated us from this reality. It was good for our group to get of a view of the beauty and ugliness of Kenya outside of our little oasis in Nairobi.

On the road between Embu and Meru in the Eastern Highlands of Kenya
24 September 2008