Eight Questions Kenyans Ask About America

Steve Stankovich "stalks" a giraffe on the shores of Lake Naivasha, courtesy of the proprietor and guides from the Fish Eagle Inn.

Steve Charles—Last Tuesday the Wabash students were reunited, as all three groups converged on Lake Naivasha, enjoyed extraordinary hospitality at the Fish Eagle Inn, and experienced our closest encounters yet with African wildlife. See photo albums from the mini-reunion and safari here and here.

Tuesday was also our first chance to swap stories from the three different weekend trips students took, some to Machakos, some to Eldoret, and others to Kisimu.

In the the following related entries, Professor Bill Cook and Michael Carper ’13 tell stories from their time meeting students and teaching in a rural school near Machakos.

Professor Cook’s entry keenly illustrates in the case of one student some of the ways this immersion trip is educating and transforming all of us (not to mention the personal investment of Wabash teachers in their students), and Michael’s follow-up reveals how the trip may shape students’ lives in the days to come. I encourage you to read both of these fascinating close-ups of one day in the life of these two men on an unforgettable journey:

The Day Michael Carper Became a Rock Star
Bill Cook ’66—For our time in Kenya, the events planned for Monday seemed almost normal.  Well, not quite.  We rose for a quick breakfast in the house wheret six students and I stayed in a rural area near Machakos south of Nairobi. Students were two to a bed, and there was no water or plumbing.  Still, even this situation did not appear  to be too far out of the ordinary.

Our main event for the day was to visit a rural boarding school for about 730 high schoolers. We had been invited the day before by the deputy principal.  We would meet administrators and teachers, be present for an assembly, and visit a few classes before the bone-jarring van ride to Nairobi.

As often happens, the plans we had made were significantly changed by the time we arrived about 9:30.  Now, each student plus myself would teach two classes of 70 students each.  The deputy principal asked our men their majors and then arranged for them to teach classes in those subjects.  For us, that meant English, history, religion, political science, and chemistry.  Several students also said they were ready to answer questions about popular culture in America.  Little did they imagine what they would be asked.

I was the principal speaker at the assembly, which consisted of 700+ students standing in a courtyard, dressed in sharp uniforms.  I had delivered about a dozen such speeches during our adventure in Kenya, so I assumed something would inspire me as I was being introduced.  But I did have a twist.  I asked the student standing nearest me, Michael Carper, a junior religion major from Indianapolis, to speak briefly too.

Professor Cook addresses students at Ndalani Secondary School in Matuu, Kenya.

Michael had done something similar to a much smaller audience.  He did not captivate that audience, but I have had Michael for three courses and know his ability and his potential.

I gave a pretty good and well received speech. Michael probably spoke for about three minutes.  He was dressed in plaid shorts (I have often made fun of them) and an orange FIJI tee shirt.  He spoke loudly and clearly and articulately.  It is what I ultimately expect of Wabash men.  He was composed despite the abruptness of my ‘invitation’ and the fact that ten days earlier he had never been outside the USA.  Students received his words well.

Next, the deputy principal announced which students would go to which classes.  As soon as he named Michael, students begged out loud for Michael to be sent to their class.  When the announcement was made, the lucky class of 70 began celebrating their good fortune as one would expect the response of the lucky girl chosen to give Conrad Birdie his last kiss.  For those of you who are too young to get the reference, Bye Bye Birdie was a Broadway play and movie about a contest to see which American girl would give Birdie (read Elvis) a goodbye kiss from his fans before he was drafted into the Army.

Michael was a genuine rock star in rural Kenya!  He marched off triumphantly to his class with adoring hordes of youth surrounding him.  We barely saw him for the next several hours, because he could not be separated from his fans. While we were having lunch with the deputy principal, Michael was mesmerizing Kenyan youth. He was almost breathless when he was able to join us quickly for a bite.

Then he disappeared again while the rest of us got a 1-hour tour of the dorms, kitchen, dining hall, and farm.  Finally we spotted him.  He was surrounded by about 75 kids cheering him, mobbing him, and trying to touch his hair.  What, we wondered, had these kids created?

Of course, Michael became the brunt of many jokes and comments as we took him away from his fans and got him into our van.  For a while, he was a bit embarrassed and, I think, a bit miffed at some of our comments.

Later, he told us some of the questions he was asked.  “Do all hip hop artists worship the devil?” is my personal favorite.  We had all encountered some questions we could not have imagined ever being asked, but Michael’s were the winners both in quantity and quality!

What we mere mortals witnessed that day at Ndalani Secondary School in Matuu, Kenya was something wonderful.

I met Michael before he had his first class at Wabash because I was his Freshman Tutorial professor.  He was somewhat shy and somewhat awkward.  I saw from the beginning that he was a talented writer. Indeed he is one of the Wabash Web site bloggers for his class, and he is a writer for The Bachelor whose past articles include a wonderful piece about my theory and practice of fashion.

I recall that in the middle of his first semester, he wrote a paper for me in REL 171 that received a B+.  He was not a happy fellow.  I had written that I admired his decision to take on a complex issue but that ultimately he did not quite pull it off because he did not take seriously enough a position he was challenging.  He was soon in my office, paper in hand.  He thought I had missed something brilliant in his exegesis, and I disagreed.  He left my office unhappy with me.  Then for the rest of that semester and the next, he wrote A papers!

Michael Carper ’13 and Professor Cook listen to author Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator during an earlier stop on the trip.

Unlike almost of all the other students in Kenya, Michael had not been outside the USA until he stepped off the plane in Nairobi.  He is not a natural glad-hander or a back-slapper and appeared a bit overwhelmed by all of the hugs and handshakes we all received at the airport.

But now Michael is a rock star, and in some ways he will be a rock star forever.  I would like to drop him in Mongolia or Bolivia and watch how long it takes him to be a rock star there.  Michael is now more worldly in the good sense of that word.  He is more confident and more sociable even in situations as foreign as a rural school in Kenya.  My guess is the before his parents get him home from the Indianapolis airport later this week, they will notice something different, even before he tells them this story.

Michael no doubt had many goals for himself when he arrived at Wabash almost two years ago.  He is on his way to achieving those, including a high GPA.  But I don’t imagine being a rock star was on his list.  Still, at Wabash, having the opportunity to become a rock star in Kenya is included in the price of tuition.  Michael is Some Little Giant!

Eight Questions Kenyans Ask About America
Michael Carper ’13—I debated a little about what to write about here, but since Dr. Cook blogged about my stardom at Ndalani Secondary School from the 3rd person, I’ll talk about it from the first person, adding some insight about the kids.

Ndalani is a boarding school for 750 kids, mostly boys. It’s in a rural area of Machakos, where my group—which included Dr. Cook and Fr. Chris, the priest who arranged the short visit, as well as five other students— stayed for two nights. The day began in a very stereotypical Kenyan manner—as we began to leave at about 920, one of the Kenyans who accompanied us on the trip, Martin, surprised us with a breakfast. We were supposed to leave at 9:30, but upon climbing up the stairs to the breakfast, we discovered hardboiled eggs, toast, tea, coffee, biscuits…regular Kenyan breakfast fare. That breakfast can sum up Kenya mentality—unpunctual, and somewhat uncommunicative and unplanned, but incredibly considerate and generous.

At the school we met briefly with the Principal, who told us we would be addressing the school, assembled in the courtyard. I was tapped by Dr. Cook to give a little address to the students after his own address. I was reluctant to look too pleased, but I was, because I like public speaking. I have a little trouble taking the jump of accepting the challenge, but it’s the kind of challenge I always enjoy.

After my speech, I became somewhat of a celebrity. I think much of it had to do with the fact that I stood out from the other students. They were interested in all of us, but they got the most experience with me first, and they all learned my name better, earlier, I think. As I remarked to Dr. Cook, all my public speaking ability is, sadly, not attributed to Wabash. I have given very few speeches, and the number would be even less if it wasn’t for a credit and a half in the Rhetoric department. A liberally educated man should be able to give an effective speech.

We then moved to the classrooms. Fr. Chris told us the night before that we would be holding class. We had been assigned to different classrooms by the Principal based on our area of study/interest, but it soon became apparent that they wanted to American to talk to, not a guest lecturer on American politics. Each class started off awkwardly, as they couldn’t hear me for a good three minutes in the first one. All of the classroom kids were shy. However, it soon became a free-for-all question session.

My lack of classroom experience was quite obvious, as I didn’t collect any information about them—names, hopeful careers, or anything.  I definitely could have token a leaf out of Dr. Cook’s book, or even Kyle Bender’s, an Education minor. I basically just took questions from three classes of 40-50 people.

However, I was able to gain some insight about the kids from the honesty of their questions, such as:

1. Are secular musicians like Rihanna and Jay Z devil worshippers?
2. How do I study/work in the US?
3. What is AIDS like in America?
4. How did the US catch Bin Laden?
5. Was Obama born in Kenya?
6. When do Americans start dating?
7. What are the US government and education systems like?
8. Is corruption in the US as bad as it is in Kenya?

I learned Kenyan kids pay a lot of attention to the U.S., but they’re apprehensive about it. They digest American pop culture but are aware of the questionable morals it presents. (Hence the question about devil-worshipping). They especially care about issues in America that hit them in Kenya—AIDS, Obama (of course!), Education, and corruption. Sadly, these last two came to an unfortunate convergence recently, as Kenyan newspapers covered the embezzlement of funds from the Education department.

I was honestly embarrassed by some of my answers. We have free education up through secondary school, but some kids don’t finish it. We can pay for AIDS medicine, but we die from diseases we incur by our bad habits. There isn’t much red tape required to go to an American college or get a job in America, if you’re an American.

I dreamed of switching some of these kids with kids in Crawfordsville, or Indianapolis, or anywhere. Imagine how far these kids would go, kids who already contribute to a general fund that provides tuition money for the most challenged of their classmates.

What followed the three classroom experiences, all fairly similar, is accounted in Dr. Cook’s blog. I got some very nice pictures of it. The trip as a whole, after comparing it to accounts by the other two groups of their trips to Kisumu and Eldoret, takes the cake, I think, as the most immersive and educational. We went to three churches, two schools, and one tiny, tiny breakfast shop in the Middle of Nowhere, Kenya, that served us fried bread and soda. We didn’t do, and we might or might not be able to, a lot for the schools. They gave us their time, for that was all they had to give.

Michael walks with Leah and Gillian of the St. Francis Church in Ruiri during the Wabash students' second day in Kenya.

As I think more and more about being on the receiving end of Kenyan hospitality, I think more and more about coming back. I could fly to Kenya straight from Rome, after my spring study abroad there ends next year, with the help of some Wabash funding source. I could spend a month trying to pay back Kenya for what its people have done for me. Starehe is a well-off school, but I talked to one students who happened to be interested in internet commerce, my industry of specialty, and I don’t think he knew where to go to achieve that goal. Ndalanai needs teachers—they have about a dozen for 750 students. Youth groups and churches that need volunteers or tutors are surely available by the dozen.

The trip would have personal ends in mind as well, of course. There are so many conversations I’ve had, yet so many more I want to have. I haven’t stayed at a single place for more than half a day. People here are so generous, and it’s been so hard to pay them back.

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One Response to Eight Questions Kenyans Ask About America

  1. I am a student at Ndalani High in Kenya(Matuu). I also happen to be the school’s Debate club Chairman.You guys really rocked us. I am in the 4red classroom where John and Professor Bill Cook were. Hope you guys come again. When you guys went everyone was like “I want to be like Bill Cook” (me been no exception). I really appreciate your visit. You were really an inspiration.