Despite my reluctance to leave Kenya, commencement was worth the loss.
As we approach a fortnight left before our return to the United States, I have begun to contemplate what I will miss. Since arriving in Kenya, my nascent birding tendencies have burgeoned into real interest. While my knowledge has increased a bit, and I now know a passerine from a potato, there is still no way I would call myself a legitimate birder. Yet, I have enjoyed watching birds, on walks with Nature Kenya, on Kenyatta University campus, and in gardens all over Nairobi. Despite my relative ignorance, I also enjoy digging into my field guide to identify them. Thus the abundance of birds and bird watching opportunities will be one aspect of this place I will sorely miss. Yet, I have plans to join the local Audubon upon my return, and learn about the birds of my new home.
No longer hearing and almost understanding people around me speaking Kiswahili will be both a relief and a true loss. Some of the Kenyans with whom I interact readily try to coach me, and greet me in their native tongue. Yet, their proficiency with English means they kindly switch when I (quickly) hit my limit. It might have been smart to attend a course in addition to using our book and practicing on colleagues. If I could start again, I think language class would be part of my Fulbright plan.
I will miss my conversations with health care professionals. They have honored me with forthright and astute insights about cancer and cancer care in this country. Further, they have offered their own stories about patients and sometimes their own friends, who suffer from this disease. Because my data collecting behavior -assertive and tenacious- has been completely unlike my normal introverted demeanor, this project has stretched me personally and intellectually. I have even called strangers on the telephone! Trying to make sense of the data and writing about it will push me even further from my comfort zone.
Kenyan humor has been a constant source of succor even when it’s directed at my own behavior. When you first meet them, many Kenyan people can appear almost stern, certainly dignified. Yet they maintain a near steady stream of jokes and ridiculous observations, and will share them once they assess your ability to appreciate. When a matatu driver executes a crazy maneuver -as they often do -our driver Matthew exclaims that you cannot respect his decision, but you must respect what is in his head, playing with the nuance of “respect.” In other words, you keep your distance because this matatu driver is mad. When I asked my students about the local mores of staring, they explained that if you complain to a Kenyan about staring, they will tell you they have no curtains on their eyes.
But I am looking forward to driving my own car again, provided I remember how to drive. And to spicy Mexican food. Yet, there is so much we are leaving behind.
As the end of March nears, anxiety is the emotion I feel the most. No stranger to worry, this anxiety makes no more sense than most of my paranoia. As always, there are reasons to worry, but in many ways my life is easier here in Nairobi than at home. Of course, different and sometimes complicated challenges obstruct even normal tasks. Indeed, my host University Professors were striking for better wages, and the University has threatened to cancel the semester. Because I am neither a member of their union, nor paid by the Kenyan government, there was no appropriate way for me to participate in the strike. Thus, I have been clandestinely teaching, holding classes with my students, who have no way of knowing whether they will be issued a grade for their work. Yet we persevere, being careful on days when union members “check” classrooms for rogue professors like me.
Despite the uncertainty, teaching remains a pleasure. My Kenyan students provide different insights into the culture than my colleagues, the professional health care workers I interview, or service workers encountered in restaurants. They bring smart insights and laughter to the classroom, and they help me with my Kiswahili.
The nervousness manifests even more about my research. Collecting interview data is outside my graduate training, and though research agendas can certainly shift, I wonder if I haven’t tried to go too far afield. My partner tries to remind me that the project has been vetted by a peer review process and two governments (US and Kenya), but the weight of the Fulbright responsibility merely makes me more nervous. My potential participant pool is large, but my N thus far is not. Convincing Kenyan doctors, nurses, and lab technicians to spend fifteen precious minutes talking with me, is not too difficult; they are actually quite open. But getting access to these people in a country where email does not garner the same priority as westerners expect can be tricky. It often means walking into a health care facility full of busy people – and patients who need care – and just asking around. For an introvert, this process is a nightmare. And the doctors at public hospitals are also on strike, which means health care workers are both extremely busy and understandably reticent about talking with foreigners.
Despite the extra time freed by lack of department and service commitments, I am writing a bit, but not enough. One wonders what enough might look like.
I agonize about the state of politics back home, and the frenzy in the current administration to destroy public education – my livelihood – and the very earth that I and everyone else depend upon for air, food, water. More than a sane amount of my available time is spent reading news stories. Soon – too soon and not soon enough – we will travel back to the United States, and I worry also about scrutiny of my devices upon entry. Will they let us back in if we have spoken negatively about the current administration?
Another site of worry encompasses what comes next. I have spent only six weeks in what will become my home in the US. In contrast, I have lived almost seven months in Nairobi thus far. While I’m not exactly comfortable here because my Kiswahili progresses but slowly, this city feels navigable. New colleagues, a new commute, new students, new surroundings – all await me when I return. It’s overwhelming to start again so soon.
Finally, many dear friends from my previous place of residence are encountering varied and extremely difficult life struggles. While I gallivant around the globe and begin new adventures, they endure bravely and without my direct support. My nervousness reflects the helplessness I feel about them.
Lately I have been wishing that all the people in US who (think they) fear & hate people who practice Islam could meet my former graduate students. Five young women came to study over the course of my years at my previous institution – from Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria, Sudan. Three of these women covered their heads, and two did not. Four were in the US for a short time, on student visas, and one was an immigrant, transplanted and thriving in the upper midwest. They were the funniest, quirkiest, most thoughtful, intellectually stubborn young people – who also happen to be Muslim – you could want to meet.
They were also really smart, taking classes and reading theory in a language that was not their first one, sometimes not their second. Three of them produced topnotch disquisitions for me, the most outspoken atheist on faculty, and two wrote them with other colleagues, some of them Christian.
They shared teaching ideas with their peers, came to department potlucks, stopped by my office to crack jokes, argued about ideas in class. Except for the quicker senses of humor they somehow all brought from their diverse cultures, they were much like our graduate students from the United States. They did not hate our freedom or anything about us except maybe the cold weather some days; there was no hate in them. In many ways, they expressed love more openly than us cynical Americans ever do. They exuded love for people, for learning, for the planet.
Getting to know them, learning about the literature they read, watching them teach, reading their scholarship – was a gift. After spending only one academic year in a foreign place, teaching and doing research in my native language even though I am trying to learn Kiswahili, I know a tiny bit about how difficult it can be to leave family behind, enter a new educational system, and try to thrive there. It’s humbling to think they took that chance leaving for 3 to 5 years, even knowing that some people in the US would fear them. During the parts of this year abroad when my partner was not with me because he has work too, their bravery kept me committed to my work here. I wish everyone afraid of Muslims could share a few hours with my former students. They would no longer be afraid but curious. Maybe they would even be honored, as I am.
This morning we attended a department symposium given by Dr. Esther Mbithi, Chair of the Literature Department at Kenyatta University. This is Miriam’s home department while on Fulbright, and Dr. Mbithi is our gracious host. Dr. Mbithi’s presentation on Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed was significant for a number of reasons. To begin, our interest in Kenya began with Dr. Maathai’s Nobel Peace Award in 2004. That Dr. Mbithi analyzed her memoir for us in 2016, on our second trip to Kenya, seems somehow conclusive. Her talk suggested that Maathai’s memoir provides an alternative post-colonial narrative of quiet, behind-the-scenes leadership and action that challenges the protest stories told by Kenyan authors like Ngugi Wa Thiong’O. The presentation evoked a lively conversation about Ngugi, post-colonial attitudes, student reading habits, and oral literature.
Miriam: Luckily for me, students from my graduate level Theory of Literature course attended as well as faculty members. I enjoy watching them engage with faculty even when they are actively listening to the discourse, rather than adding commentary. At one point, an unfortunate incident recurred similar to an event during the symposium one month ago when I presented my work on Colum McCann. A senior male faculty member requested that the female graduate students serve the tea and snacks to the faculty and others present, including the male graduate students. The first time this happened, during my own presentation, I felt helpless to protest -as a guest in this country and this department, I did not want to question their practices. So we used it as an example on feminist theory day. The students responded with thoughtful connections to our texts for the day, especially Monique Wittig’s feminist critique of unpaid household labor. Additionally, they saw the request and expectation that they serve tea as a way to remind them of their inferior status. However, this week when a similar request was made, something new happened. To start, my students all looked my way to signal their recognition of the problem, and I sighed with them. Additionally, my one male graduate student, from Eritrea, jumped up to assist the women in their tasks. When he brought me my cup of tea, he whispered, “I’m trying to be a good feminist.” This theory into practice moment made my work here more meaningful, and added to the already wonderful day.
Andrew: For me, I got to emerge from my fictional status as husband abroad into their reality in what might have been the best possible way. I could ask an intelligent question of Dr. Mbithi’s thesis about Dr. Maathai’s response to post-colonial structures and narratives. Most of the professors in the room had not read Unbowed, but contributed to the conversation through recollection of their encounters with Ngugi Wa Thiong’O. Mostly men talking about another man, with intimate details about which language he used, and when. This feedback, all given in good faith illustrated how even a woman who had risen to political power and international stardom because of her Nobel had a hard time remaining the focus. My chance to acknowledge Dr. Mbithi’s theory gave me a chance to contextualize a concept—the micronation—in my head. What Dr. Maathai calls the micronation approximates what many call an ethnicity. Unlike the American concept of ethnicity, however, micronations are quite numerous here in Kenya. There are at least 43 here, a dizzying array compared to the vague gradations that we assign in the United States. Micronational identity determines much of the politics here in Kenya in both good and bad ways. Though most in the West who cannot perceive the differences would assign the moniker “tribalism” to these groupings, a closer examination shows how these kind of affiliations help create new possibilities for alliances and innovation. Dr. Mbithi’s presentation helped me understand some of the identity binaries that drove the narrative of the election, and some of the smaller gradations that undergirded and drove the election. Our identity categories, much smaller and fiercer than we acknowledge, can confound our politics if we don’t understand them. While my ephiphany was internal, quiet, and more of a clicking of many earlier thoughts into a more understandable whole, it made me feel more at home here in Kenya than I have been thusfar.
It’s early yet, and students from Graduate Scholarship last Fall (#gradschol15) are already learning about their book reviews getting placed.
First, I share that Erika Dyk from #gradschol14 finally learned that her review of “Creating Effective Community Partnerships for School Improvement: A Guide for School Leaders” was published in Community Literacy Journal. 10:1. Autumn 2015.
From #gradschol15 Alicia Kubas placed her review of Jaeger et al’s 2014 Public libraries, public policies, and political processes in the Journal of American Librarianship forthcoming in the Spring 2016 issue.
Soon, I hope to update this post with more success stories! Congratulations.