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Michelle's Experience in Kenya - Pt I

by Michelle Allum
Posted: December 16, 2006

UWI Students Trip to Kenya

Michelle Allum 
Michelle Allum 

Upon invitation from the Kenya Volunteer Development Services, the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus through the Guild of Students, facilitated the travel of 18 students from different faculties of study, to rural Kenya to embark on Community outreach and Agroforestry projects and complete an academic internship as well. The duration of the trip was from 8th June to 8th July 2006. During this time much was learnt about the Kenyan way of life, their culture, their history and the nature of their current relationship with Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the world. The following is my experience as a young, middle-class female of African, Indian and French descent, living in a Caribbean island that is currently, heavily influenced by American ideals.

On the question about if Third World culture exists, I would say that from my observations, there are definite cultural similarity between Kenya and Trinidad & Tobago and other places at a similar level of "development", though I do not refer to these places by that derogatory term because I do not accept a "Third world" status. The similarities and points of difference present will be highlighted and expanded upon throughout the report.

School Visits and Self Help Groups

The activity we participated in most frequently throughout the trip was school visits. Because of how close-knit the communities were, it was important for us, as visitors to make our intentions known and explain our purpose for being there. After all, the people, and their children would be affected by our visit even after we returned home.

In all the schools visited, we expressed the message of African-Caribbean solidarity and the need for this sort of "exchange of ideas" amongst ourselves. We interacted with both staff and students, though the level of sharing differed with each school depending on the age of the students and the time we had. After general introductions, we usually got to break out of the formality of the visits and just talk to the people, which in my opinion was the most effective way for us to get to know the Kenyan people personally.

At every school there would be a presentation put on by the students, whether song or dance, and in most cases HIV/AIDS and African culture (e.g. the Ugandan Fertility Dance) were the themes highlighted. Indigenous instruments were used to play the music. On our end, we sang and danced to Caribbean songs, and played the steel pan, while explaining its history and importance to us. The self-help groups spoke with us about their history and goals and showed us some of the projects they were working on. In addition to the displays put on at the schools, some weekends were set apart specifically for this type of cultural exchange. In the spirit of the World Cup, we also engaged in a few friendly football matches as well (girls included). The day-to-day interaction with the Mr. Malaho, the KVDS organizers and the villagers also brought great understanding about Kenyan culture.

Students at Shiakhondo Primary School
Students at Shiakhondo Primary School

Agro-forestry & Tree Nursery Activity

Near to the airport and along the road on our way from Nairobi to Bungoma, we passed many tree nurseries. At two of the schools we visited, delegates planted eucalyptus trees on the school grounds whose lumber would be later used in construction. One farm we visited, demonstrated how Kenyans practice agroforestry by inter-cropping tomatoes with indigenous (maize) and exotic (eucalyptus) plants. Eucalyptus trees were planted because they mature quickly (10 years), help with drainage in swampy areas and the lumber useful is used in the paper factory present there, which is the biggest in Eastern Africa. At the KVDS Resource Centre in Shikunga Village, Kakamega, they have their own Tree Nursery. We prepared seed beds and planted indigenous trees, including the Elgon Teak and Mvule.

Kenyan Life and Customs

The People

In the cosmopolitan islands of Trinidad and Tobago, there are many different races including Indian, African, Chinese, Syrian and a variety of blend of the above, and more or less we all refer to ourselves as Trinbagonians. Some of the delegates were actually told that they looked like they belonged to certain Kenyan tribes. However a few times when visiting schools, some of the more mixed persons did have explain our difference in appearance.

In Kenya, they don't have diversity of races, they are rather divided into several tribes, each with characteristic customs, language etc. There are around 42 tribes in Kenya, 7 of which are large and these include Kikuyu (the largest tribe of around 18% of the population), Maasai, Luhya, Luo and Kisii. They show some sort of unification according to their place of residence/ nationality (Kenyan, Ugandan) however their tribal unity always comes before this. They however do not strongly see themselves as united as "Africans".


The main languages currently spoken throughout Kenya are English and Kiswahili which are taught from the primary school level. The young people speak a very versatile dialect called Sheng. The government is currently trying to make Kiswahili the official language of the Eastern Africa Province. There are also many other languages and dialects spoken by different tribes throughout Kenya.


There was no significant difference between the dress code in Kenya and Trinidad & Tobago, except that longer clothing was worn. Men wore shirts and trousers while the women usually wore long dresses or skirts, but very seldom pants. In the rural areas, a very modest mode of dress was adopted; probably influenced more by culture than by climate. While we were there, they requested that we too, dress conservatively as a sign of respect for the villagers. In the urban areas like at Western University, jeans and sweaters were commonplace.

To my initial surprise, only few people dressed in African garb. These are apparently used for special occasions and meetings, as they are probably too expensive for daily use. The cloth used to make the garments is cotton which was covered in wax produced by bees to give a stiff feel to the fabric. The design of these outfits showcases Ugandan talent and creativity.

Women of Shikunga Village
Women of Shikunga Village

Food and Dishes

Some of the dishes we ate included "Chapati" (a sort of soft, sweet sada roti), "Mandazi" (fried bakes), Pilau (a spicy version of Pelau) and of course our favourite "Ugali", which is made of maize or millet grains and is similar to what you would expect if you made "Coo-Coo" without the ochro. Roast corn was seen being sold on the roadside. Corn is an obvious staple because of the large cornfields we saw on the drive from Nairobi to Bungoma. Meat is a delicacy in Kenya because of its expense and so it is not a usual part of the average Kenyan's meals. However, being visitors we were served beef stew, chicken, fried fish. Overall, the meals were similar to those one would eat in T&T, except that they don't really season their food. On the last weekend we spend in Bungoma, the Malaho family sacrificed a young lamb for the UWI delegation, a ritual of great cultural significance which is only performed when special guests are invited into a home.


Rural Kenya was very different from what we saw of urban Kenya (the capital city of Nairobi). In Rural Kenya, the houses, or huts of most locals and many of the stores present were constructed using lumber, mud bricks and galvanize. There were a few concrete structures present in the commercial areas of the towns like the banks and groceries, etc.

In Nairobi, there were a lot of tall skyscrapers and apartment buildings, many cars, matatus (small maxis), and even more bicycles. There are considerably less luxuries than are enjoyed in Trinidad and Tobago. We visited the Kisumu National Museum where they displayed a replica of a traditional housing setup adopted by a Luo family. We even started the construction of the type of hut that a male would construct for his fiancÚ, to prove himself to be a worthy husband.

The Marriage System and Roles within the Family and Community

In the Museum display, there was a specific hut for the man of the family, along with individual huts for his first wife, second and so on, varying in size according to their rank. If they have children, when they are ready for marriage, the sons build their huts on the same property and bring their wives to live there. The daughters are married off when they reach a specific age and go to live with their husbands. When I asked what happened if the daughter was not married, I was responded to with "She will be married," and a look of great confusion. However in the extremely unlikely situation where a daughter would not be married, she could stay in the hut of her brother and his wife.

To obtain a wife, a man has to offer a dowry to the family of around 13 cows along with a couple thousand Kenya Shillings (KSh) depending on the female's societal status and educational background. Before marriage is decided upon, the families are heavily involved in the approval of this union. The male has to express his interest to the female's parents, and then both families meet to discuss if the union would be feasible. This decision is based on things like if there are similarities in the family's beliefs and values, and the financial implications of their union, because in this culture, the male is the foremost provider for the family. If however, the families disapprove of the marriage but the couple elopes, the family does not reject the daughter-in-law; she is still welcomed into the family.

One interesting difference between our cultures is that they have to go through a long process of ensuring that the couple is not related. In Kenya, tracing the family tree is not as simple as in Trinidad, because they don't pass their surnames onto their children. Take for example, the name Alwanga Malaho. Say Mr. Malaho's father's name is Malaho Toili (his first name, Malaho was passed on as his son's surname), and suppose Mrs. Alwanga's father's name is Chongoi Odaba. Alwanga Malaho's first son Emmanuel would be called be Emmanuel Alwanga. His second son, Brian will take for his surname, the first name of his grandfather on his mother's side. He will hence be called Brian Chongoi. I hope I got that right.

Within the families, both the men and the women have roles they play, and specific tasks to perform. The men have the responsibility of taking care of their families. They were blacksmiths, farmers, teachers, etc. The women prepared meals, fetched water, take care of the children (many times babies were seen strapped onto the mother's chest). Some headed self-help groups, and many were teachers.

Within the community, the men are the overseers. They usually gathered during the evening to discuss the problems of the village and try to come up with solutions, be it in cases where crops didn't produce well, wayward children misbehaving, or drunkard men that were not taking care of their families properly. Regrettably, I did not get the chance to talk to any of the women about their roles in the wider community.

With the role men play in this society, marriage seems to be more of an arrangement adopted to sustain of the entire community, compared to in more Western influenced societies where the union only greatly affects the couple and their children. This explains why it is so unheard of for a woman to remain unmarried. If the husband dies first, the wife is passed on to be married to another man in the village. Also, single-parent homes are apparently very rare.

Continue reading: 'Michelle's Experience in Kenya - Pt II'

UWI Students Trip to Kenya in pictures: