UNE students travel to Kenya to study environmental, health and community issues

UNE students and faculty with their Kenyan homestay hosts
UNE students and faculty with their Kenyan homestay hosts

July 09, 2014

Drew Fortin '15, environmental studies, at SORALO
Drew Fortin '15, environmental studies, at SORALO
Katie Hill '14, environmental science, at a Kenyan school
Katie Hill '14, environmental science, at a Kenyan school
New tree-planting tools for NYADEC
New tree-planting tools for NYADEC

"Hirrrrrrr Ya! Ya! Mah we! We! Makatakata ndi! Ndi!" 

With that parting class cheer (part of a song Associate Professor Richard Peterson learned growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo) ringing through the lobby of Logan airport, 12 UNE students, two professors, and their two teenage sons said goodbye to parents and loved ones, and left the U.S. for Kenya.

In Kenya, the days were long—taking breakfast at 7 and often, after a full day of activities, not sitting down for dinner with homestay host families, or getting back to the hotel or tent, until well after dark. Some days started even earlier: 4:45 a.m., heading out with the South Rift Association of Land Owners “Rebuilding the Pride” researchers to track lions, and, just as the sun rises, finding a pride of eight dining together on the zebra they had killed the night before. Or at Kakamega, rising to the reverberating call of the black and white colobus monkeys to climb Lirhanda Hill in time to see the sun rise over the forest’s mist-laden deep green canopy.

The students, from majors as diverse as psychology to aquaculture to environmental science, were experiencing directly much of what they had spent the past 15 weeks studying in ENV 348—Environment, Health, and Community Development in East Africa.

Led by Peterson and Pamela Morgan, associate professor of environmental studies, the students over the 17 days, May 18-June 4, worked with people from four different Kenyan partner organizations:

  • With SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners ), they learned through doing how community-based conservation works in Kenya’s South Rift
  • With NYADEC (Nyando District Centre for Environmental Conservation ) they planted trees, sisal, and aloe to help stem the severe soil erosion threatening livelihoods on the southern slopes of the Lake Victoria Basin
  • With SWAP’s (Safe Water and Aids Project ) community health workers, they visited Manyatta, one of Kisumu’s slums, learning by seeing how SWAP’s entrepreneurial approach spreads both knowledge and health products to improve lives
  • With KEEP (Kakamega Environmental Education Programme), they taught and learned with local primary school children in the Kakamega rainforest, taking part in KEEP’s efforts to cultivate respect for the forest beginning with youth.

As much as Kenya’s natural wonder, it was the relationships, the people they met, and the homestays that stood out as highlights for many students. "It is impossible to pick the best part but if I had to pick something it would be all of the amazing people I met along the way," writes education major Jess Groleau. "I was able to take away one new thing from each experience, but what made everything better were the people who welcomed us and shared their piece of Kenya with us."

Mini-Symposium at Maseno University

The students also made relationships with Kenyan peers, presenting papers at a “mini-symposium” conducted jointly with students from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Maseno University. The two-way exchange of knowledge allowed UNE students to teach their Kenyan counterparts about key water, biodiversity, and urban environmental issues affecting their home region of New England, while they also learned from Kenyan students presenting on various environmental challenges facing Kenya.

Action Projects

Prior to their departure for Kenya, students worked on various "action projects," one of which was fundraising. In addition to purchasing tree-planting tools for NYADEC, with the $1,470 dollars they raised, the students were able to buy four refurbished laptop computers, which they donated to each of the 4 partner organizations, more than 100 pounds of medical equipment, and several suitcases of school supplies, all of which they donated to local schools and clinics.

They also collected over 70 pairs of cleats, nearly 40 soccer balls, and, with the help of the UNE soccer program, several sets of team uniforms. The soccer equipment helped launch NYADEC’s new program called “Football for the Environment,” using soccer (beloved by Kenyan school children) as a medium through which to educate children and instill care for the land that is being eroded away.

Football for the Environment

Playing in NYADEC’s inaugural "Football for the Environment" tournament, UNE students made a valiant effort but went down to St. Cornell's Primary School team, 2-0. But everyone had a good time.

Reflection Circles

Reflection circles were a key part of the trip, a time set aside every 3 or 4 days, for students to process with each other and with their professors all their new—at times delightful, at times discomfiting—experiences. At one of the last reflection circles in Heathrow airport, students were discussing their anxieties about re-entry into American culture, anticipating questions like, "What animals did you see?" One student quipped that his response would be, "I saw a lot of amazing humans!" Indeed.

Peterson explains that "one theme that surfaced in our reflections was that common tendency among those of us who come from privileged (relative to global standards) circumstances to want to help, to serve, to do something for those who have less than us."

Talking this through, sharing how uncomfortable it felt at times to be seen as the conduit of access to resources, students were able to come to a new realization that Marine Biology major Meghan Giles eloquently expresses in her writing:  "No matter how much you think that you’ll be able to help, the only ones who can really help Africa are Africans. So even though it may be frustrating to feel as if you yourself haven’t expended the energy you thought you would to help, sometimes just the act of being there makes a definitive impact. While you may want to go in and get your hands dirty to feel like you’ve had an impact, your presence alone means so much, and with this in mind, I feel forever changed."

These are only a few of the many types of value that can come from UNE’s study abroad experiences. Perhaps that value is best expressed through Environmental Science graduating senior Katie Hill’s words: "I know that I’ll never forget what I learned here, and that I want to continue having similar experiences throughout my life. I don’t want to go somewhere to be a tourist, taking pictures to show that I’ve been to an exotic place. I want to travel to experience other cultures, make new connections, and expand my perspective on the world. I want to be aware of the ways in which I can impact people, and I want to learn to make a positive influence in as many areas of my life that I can."