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Realizing what I do not know: reflections on Kenya and life

On my first days in Kenya, our program staff told us to lower our expectations.” Initially, we, students studying abroad, did really know what this meant. We were too caught up the euphoria of a new place; the stimulation provided by even the most mundane things such a boarding a matatu or buying ndizi in the local market..

But, as I spent more time in Kenya, I began to ponder this question. I remember sitting the first two to three weeks at my field placement, in a village called Orongo, wishing I had something concrete to do. Something that would prove me useful to the organization. The CBO I was placed with, a widows and orphans group, always had work to do, but time is fluid, more circular in Kenya. Almost every task takes longer than expected, yet people find time just to exist, without hurry. I knew this, even enjoyed the break from the timebound culture of the US, and still I found myself impatient. When it took awhile for me to find a routine in the organization, I began to think that “lower your expectations” meant that I had to lower expectations of those around me.

Yet, when I tried to assist in the nursery school, I did not get far because I didn’t speak the area language, dholuo. When I worked with my supervisor in a HIV/AIDS training in a local school, where the language of instruction was English, my accent was too thick, my anecdotes irrelevant in the local context. I attended a community health seminar, thinking I would be at least somewhat knowledgeable on the material. Again, I was wrong. I didn’t know which local foods had which vitamins. Compared to most of the women in attendance, who had children, I knew nothing about childbirth or breast feeding. My host mother’s knowledge of traditional medicines went right over my head. Thus, I began to realize that “lower your expectations” meant lowering expectations of myself, not of those around me. I also reevaluated my time that I thought had been wasted, and found that I had learned so much through observation, conversation and new relationships.

I recently graduated from college, but my experience in Kenya is living proof that my degree, a symbol of the knowledge that Western society values, is only one type of knowledge. It is not universal, is not relevant in very situation. There is so much to learn beyond books and academia, knowledge that can only be attained through experience, or many of them. This is stating the obvious, but according to a quote from a book I read on crossing cultures, “there is all the difference in the world between believing academically, with the intellect, and believing personally, with the whole living self” (Aldeous Huxley, Jesting Pilate). I am now back in Kenya, working on a research grant, and I am again reminded that I have much to learn beyond the academic work that brought me here.


Joannes's picture



You have inspired me through what you have just shared with the community. It is good to appreciate that different groups in the world live in Worlds apart, but all recognize that we are a people, despite race, gender or culture. Being a kenyan, i understand you perfectly, how you felt at first on things to do with time, activities, and all the cultural boundaries. I will feel the same if i visit a strange country for the first time too. But i am glad that you learnt so fast, adjusted and adapted. It is the only way we can appreciate each other's existence, you know.

Thanks for sharing.


We Can Do It!

Loran's picture

Hi Kerly!

This is Loran,

How are you over there in Kisumu - Kenya? I am fine and working on well here in Uganda.

This is not a comment but wanted to respond to your request made automatically when needed to know about Widow and Child in Need - (WCN). It has been quite difficult when wanted to respond to your request and didn't see the space where I can write some lengthy information for you about WCN and here only came up with this space of comment and I am asking if there is another way can send you info on this very site or you send me now a message through this site and will click a reply message and that will work out for me well.

I get it interupting if maybe talked alot more about WCN in this space coz here is to react about your posting of how the heading states.

I am waiting to hear from you again.


KTAmondi's picture

Hi! Thanks for responding

Loran, how are you?

I am doing well in Kisumu and am glad to hear from you. You could send information to my email. Please do, I would love to hear about your work. Otherwise, you can post info as a comment, I don't mind. What part of Uganda is WCN based in? I might make a trip to Uganda in the next few months.

I look forward to hearing again from you.



Nalubega's picture

coming to Uganda

Hi arlyn,
Janice told about your coming to Uganda. I would like to request you to meet the Uganda SPACE women, am working with. We are currently developing economic empowerment programs for them, Educational , Healthy and energy programs for them to participate in. May i now about your schedule, so that i can arrange a meeting with you and the impoverished women? Hope to hear from you.

I am touched by your sharing, appreciating that learning is a lifetime experience. Apart from the cultural aspects that are definitely quite different for you even for me in Kenya I still go through similar experiences when I am interacting with different people, where many of the times we think we have the book knowledge and that is all that counts, we get others without books knowledge yet the kind of knowledge they have is awesome. I hope you enjoy your time in Kenya and look forward to meet you before you get back. I can see you have a few Swahili words so karibu Kenya, hakuna matata!!!

Sophie Ngugi
Child of the Universe

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