Visiting the Kenyan Rift Valley

Last week, members of the SPEA in Kenya study abroad program visited the Centre for Social Transformation and Empowerment in the Rift Valley. In spring, my classmates and I submitted a grant proposal to the IU Student Foundation and were awarded $5,000 for a project at the Centre, so we spent two days visiting the newly-constructed kitchen, sleeping in the new guest facilities and starting a compost pile for a humanure latrine. We worked with Kenyan undergrads on the design, construction and use of the composting toilet and discussed ways to promote using this alternative technology in nearby villages. We also got input from the community about the training they’d like to receive when we return to the center again next week. We talked about the benefits of composting, ideas for improving their small vegetable plots and potential rainwater harvesting, so we intend to focus on those topics during our upcoming visit. It seems that user education is where we can be most helpful.

I think it’s fair to say that the other students and I learned as much during our time there as we contributed. Our interactions with local women, community leaders, the undergraduate students and even the children that hung around us all weekend provided a comfortable, friendly opportunity to gain some insight into the issues the community faces. The Centre primarily supports alternative initiation ceremonies for young Kalenjin women as a way of eliminating female circumcision while keeping the positive social benefits of coming-of-age traditions. So we learned about things like how the center is promoting girls’ education and income-generating activities for former circumcisers.

My favorite part of the experience, however, was the singing and dancing that highlighted the visit. Upon our arrival, twenty to thirty women from the community greeted us with a Kalenjin welcome song. We passed through a receiving line of welcomers, kissing and hugging each woman in time with the music. The songs and dances continued throughout our two days in the valley, including when they presented each of us with a kanga cloth to thank us for our partnership and when they sang as we loaded up the van for departure. Our group of students happens to really like dancing, so we joined in at every opportunity. Being welcomed to participate in those moments is a joyous, almost freeing feeling. We’re neither laughed at nor applauded for trying to sing along in Kalenjin or Kiswahili. We just do it; it’s our contribution to the moment. And it happens to be one of the memories I’ll treasure most about my time in Kenya with my fellow SPEA students.

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