Growing up in Africa

Law student’s experiences in Kenya combine childlike wonder with mature assessment of country’s challenges

By Sarah Brancatella

I celebrated my 25th birthday during my three-month stay in Nairobi, Kenya, where I worked for the Kenya Human Rights Commission. My 24 preceding birthdays were generally marked by depression over my advancing age (including my 10th birthday when I cried because I could no longer claim a single-digit age). During the school year, it’s hard for me not to feel old with law school, work, trying to maintain friendships and family relationships, making sure the bills are paid on time, keeping up on my reading and all the other little tasks we’re told are part of growing up. But this summer, even though I officially turned halfway to 50, I left Nairobi feeling younger than I have in years.

Perhaps drinking Smirnoff Ice, which is curiously popular in Nairobi, made me think of college and consequently aided in my feelings of regained youth. But I think it was mostly that being an American in Kenya for the first time had so many parallels to being a child: I had to relearn how to cross the street, as Kenyans drive on the left side of the road and matatus—vans that generally have no shocks or breaks and serve as public transportation—have no qualms about running you over. And although English is the official language, Kiswahili dominates street conversation. So I found myself parroting phrases I heard walking to work or in songs and asking my coworkers what they meant. Also, for a city whose nickname is “Nairobbery,” I was initially very strict about not talking to strangers.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission, cofounded and chaired by UB professor of law Makau Mutua, felt more like a place to learn than to work. There I learned some Kenyan history and was able to delve into the politics and policies of Kenya. For example, I worked on a project addressing the problem of Internally Displaced Persons—the hundreds of thousands of Kenyans who were forced off their land because of intertribal violence perpetrated by former President Daniel arap Moi. Nineteen ninety-one marked the end of a one-party rule and a legalized one-party system in Kenya. Threatened by the opposition posed in the 1992 general elections, Moi devised a divide-and-conquer tactic in which his administration encouraged interethnic clashes to intimidate and prevent supporters of the opposition from voting.

According to a Kenya Human Rights Commission report, from 1991 to 1996, more than 15,000 people died and almost 300,000 were displaced. Most people who were forced to leave still cannot return home due to threats of violence. National and international aid has been extremely slow in coming because of the government’s suspected role in undermining the extent of brutality committed.

Because of my work at the commission, my experiences and trips around the country combined the wide-eyed wonder of a child and the critical eye of an academic. As expected, there were instances where I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the blatant tourist traps that made every attempt to simultaneously cater to Western audiences, provide something authentically “African” and keep out anything of the actual conditions of Kenya. Most notably while spending a weekend on the coast, my roommates and I ended up at a resort that had nightly tribal dances. This involved, in part, men in leopard print performing a “traditional Kikuyu dance” that looked suspiciously like the Electric Slide.

Of course, other times it was just too hard not to be taken in by the natural beauty of Kenya even if it was slightly tainted by commercialism. When faced with the opportunity to feed and kiss giraffes or ride camels on the beach, I was the first in line with an expression like that of a five-year-old on Christmas morning. My entire trip to the Maasai Mara National Reserve involved sticking my head out the window, referring to lions as “snuggle bunnies” and pointing out every zebra that, I was informed, are so common in Kenya it’s like getting excited over a chicken.

Through work, however, I was also able to visit parts of Kenya that weren’t listed in my travel guide. For two weeks, I traveled in the Eastern and Central provinces of the country talking to members of other nongovernmental organizations and listening to the particular challenges faced in those areas. Living on less than a dollar a day, land grabbing, rape, lack of access to natural resources and exploitation at the hands of corporations are everyday realities.

It has to be impossible to not be affected in some way when you talk to a young woman who expects to be raped because it’s so prevalent, or a farmer who can’t get water because a multinational corporation spills its chemicals in the river. But I didn’t cry, or feel thankful or guilty for the things I have, and I didn’t find a renewed zeal to save the world or feel overwhelmed and helpless. I just felt grown up, like I was ready emotionally, psychologically and academically to be a part of this world so foreign from the one I had known for 24 years.

In my younger age, Kenya may have been a crippling experience for me. It wasn’t always easy being a racial minority or seeing men with machine guns stroll down the street, but my summer in Kenya had the best effect possible on me: I grew up without feeling old.