In To Africa: Two Students Adapt to Kenyan Life

February 25, 2013

Domenique Ciavattone's parents were "terrified" when she told them she wanted to study abroad in Kenya. "At the airport, as I was about to get on the plane, my mom said, ‘You don't have to go! You can turn around right now and come with me!'" recalls Ciavattone '13 (left).

Hailey Chalhoub '13 (above right) said her parents were "concerned" and "nervous" to learn their daughter wanted to study for four months in a country they saw as "dangerous" and "suffering from immense violence, corruption, disease and poverty."

"My dad is from Lebanon. He left during the civil war there so he knows what it's like to be in a developing country. He was concerned about my safety," says Chalhoub.

Cultural Immersion
But the two students-both of whom created their own majors that center on global justice in developing nations-were determined to study at the School for International Training (SIT) in Nairobi and live with families there: an immersion experience they saw as essential for going into the field they're studying. They were also eager to look beyond the headlines that often define countries in sensational or stereotypical ways.

They spent the fall 2012 semester in Nairobi, where they studied Health and Community Development and the local language Swahili. 

New Families
For the first two and a half months, they each lived with their own Kenyan family. Chalhoub lived with the Ramadans-a family of five-and Ciavattone lived with the Kados, a family of six.

Integrating into everyday Kenyan family life helped to break through cultural and linguistic barriers, allowing both students to obtain a deeper perspective on Kenyan society at a grass roots level.

For example, they experienced a completely different diet. For four months, they ate Kenyan staples- rice and beans with a flatbread called chapatti; ugali, an unsweetened porridge with a dough-like consistency, and matoke, which is bananas cooked in tomato sauce.

The first week in Nairobi, Ciavattone contracted a bacterial infection-she guesses from the water- and was hospitalized at Nairobi Hospital.

"It was so early, and I was not ready to go home. My host mother came to the hospital and sat with me the entire time. The rest of my family continued to call for updates. I felt completely safe and I knew I wanted to stick it out. My host sister ‘friended' my mom on Facebook, which put her at ease," explains Ciavattone.

This kind of embrace during a tough time foreshadowed the rest of an incredible Kenyan semester for Ciavattone who adds, "It was a defining moment (being in hospital) and the Kados truly became family."

Independent Research
For the second half of their stay, the students did independent research and lived together in an apartment in Nairobi with three other American students.

Ciavattone- an Interdisciplinary Studies major with a concentration in Global Social Justice- studied Kenya's music industry. With Kenya's 2007 election, whose results sparked ethnic violence, as a back drop, Ciavattone explored music's potential for promoting peace in the country as it gears up for the next presidential election, which will take place on March 4th this year.

To her surprise and appreciation, without too much red tape, she met with and worked with the leading musical artists at the top recording studios in Kenya.

Chalhoub-an Interdisciplinary Studies major with a concentration in International Development-studied the second-hand clothing industry and how it contributes to economic development in the country. She conducted her fieldwork in Gikomba, the largest secondhand clothing market in East Africa.

"In the US we donate millions of tons of clothes each year and only about 20% of those clothes are sold in stores like Goodwill or Salvation Army. The remaining 80% are packaged by textile recycling companies before being exported to developing countries, such as Kenya," explains Chalhoub.

She adds,  "This industry has a huge impact on development in Kenya, as it is a major source of employment and it makes a common item, clothing, affordable and accessible. Most people prefer to buy second-hand clothes because they are much cheaper and better quality than locally manufactured clothes."

Ciavattone and Chalhoub went out dancing on the weekends. "Kenyans can dance," says Ciavattone. "We went out with my Kenyan cousin, Brian, and his friends. Most of the time, we were the only two Americans but when you're with a group of six to 12 Kenyans, it's a much different comfort level."

"Nairobi has a great nightlife, with fancy bars and clubs," recalls Chalhoub. 

Language and Respect
Whether in local markets, on public transport or walking around, they found that being able to speak Kiswahili earned them respect from everyday Kenyans.

"They seemed much more open to us when we spoke to them in Kiswahili. It showed them that we were students, interested in learning their language and culture. It allowed us to break down some barriers and immerse ourselves deeper into the culture," says Ciavattone.

Feeling Free
"Karibu is a Swahili word that means ‘welcome' and often paired with ‘feel free.' And that's the whole mentality in Kenya. The culture is very laid back, very slow and easy," Ciavattone says.

"I loved everything about Kenya. My experiences there changed me. I'm a completely different person than I was a year ago, and I am unbelievably thankful for that," Ciavattone says.

My time abroad in Kenya opened my mind more than I thought was possible. It challenged my mind, body and spirit, and I would not do a single thing differently."

Chalhoub, 21, adds: "My whole perception of time has changed. In Kenya, life is slower. Everything was ‘feel free.' My schedule in Kenya was so easy-going. Here, I'm scheduled down to the minute. In Kenya, every day was an adventure. I learned to appreciate just taking the time to have a cup of tea with someone. I can't wait to go back."


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