The East African Context

I have been in Kenya for two months. In which time I have:

  • climbed a mountain
  • swam in the Indian Ocean
  • spent a huge chunk of time searching for madafu (coconut water)
  • danced on the beach
  • worked with local literacy programs
  • sat in on African drumming lessons
  • drank enough chai to caffeinate a small nation
The view from an abandoned Mosque.
The view from an abandoned Mosque.

I have been extremely lucky that all of these adventure have been shared with people friends, colleagues, fellow expats, tuk tuk (a motorized rickshaw) drivers, and the security guard at my local grocery store. Much of my time in Kenya is surrounded by warm and friendly people who have helped guide me and insured that I felt safe. In the US and even throughout my travels in Europe I have always been good at directions, however in Mombasa I am hopeless. Without the help and patience of my lovely tour guides I am certain that I would not have ventured off campus yet.

It is an odd dichotomy feeling so cared for by those around me, and then been responsible for the care of so many children. On any given day I switch from feeling like a child/teenager to a mother, aunt, and authority figure about 20 times a day. My job over the summer gave me a good jump start on the authority figure role. I spent May, June, and July handing out gummie bears for good behavior and time outs for bad. Time outs don’t seem to work on my high schoolers, but my work on my teacher voice has proved valuable. For the most part the kids are hilarious, sweet, and clever in class. I work mostly with the 7th and 8th graders who are not too cool to raise their hand and blurt out a crazy answer, so the conversations take some interesting turns.

In year 8, I am teaching African short stories with a Kenyan co-teacher and the students have made thoughtful contributions about race relations, stereotypes surrounding HIV and AIDS, and the individual’s role in society. In a lot of ways my school could be any IB or private school that is trying too hard to be the best at everything. However, the discussions I have with the year 8 class keep me rooted in the Kenyan context. They have shared moving stories about how family members were ostracized because of their HIV status, and in the classroom played out the

Some of my students
Some of my students

religious tensions present in Kenya. These debates are why I am enjoying my teaching role, but as a middle class white American I am often out of my depth. Most days leave the classroom feeling like I learned from my students and co-teacher more than I actually taught.

I am not sure I will ever feel totally comfortable in Mombasa. The matatus (buses) will always be loud, cramped, and overwhelming. At least for a while, Friday after prayers will be tense*. Students will always force me to use my teacher voice. Discussions about issues in the East African community will continue to be enlightening, but difficult. I don’t know that Mombasa will ever feel like home, but I don’t think it has to. I came here to feel out of my element, and push my limits. Here’s hoping I stay uncomfortable.

*After the Westgate Attacks in Niarobi the tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities in Mombasa have increased. Last Thursday it resulted in the shooting of a cleric with ties to Al Shabab, and violent riots in Mombasa on Friday where a church was burned.

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