How did you hear about Global Routes? I was a rising junior at Brown University, and wanted to take some time off and travel to Africa. We had something called The Resource Center at Brown that catalogued different opportunities for students who wanted to take a leave, which was quite common at Brown, and I found out about GR there.
What was one of your favorite aspects of the program? One of the things which I most enjoyed working on was a newsletter I created with some of the students. It was called “The Mob,” which is Sheng, I think meaning something like “a lot”. I got students to write and be creative, but we also delivered important content to people, such as maps of Kenya, which no one had in the village at that time. It was a 4-page newsletter, the first for the school.
How about one of your silliest moments? We went to Obengo Café over a weekend with other teachers to see if anyone could eat two of their enormous chapattis. After several hours, a 500 ml Black Currant Fanta, and a short jog, Dan Berwick and I bested the rest of the teachers and reached our hideous goal. We then hobbled home to Dan’s village, panting like dogs, where I spent the night. We were just in time for dinner: chapattis!
What was the biggest challenge for you on program? I am an extremely verbal person: I write and I speak. And I listen carefully to language. But I spoke no Kiluhya nor Kiswahili. GR was my first experience living in a place where most of the time, I did not understand what people were saying to me. And I felt handicapped, stupid, incompetent. My students spoke three languages well. I spoke only one, and even the one I spoke, English, was often not intelligible to them. So I also had to adjust the way I spoke English, to adopt a broken English that facilitated our communication.
I had decided I wanted to learn Kiswahili, but quickly found that I would either learn Kiluhya, or nothing. I ended up learning nothing. Well, no languages anyway. Of course, I was constantly, furiously learning. But then I could not really express myself to anyone around me. So I wrote letters and journal entries for hours every evening by the light of the kerosene lamp.
Another challenge for me, perhaps the biggest, was coming home. At home, I spoke the language, I could communicate. But it seemed impossible to explain anything. Photos were worthless; words seemed petty. There seemed no place for what I had learned or become back at home. Indeed, to move forward, I had to forget, slowly, inexorably. Not everything, but enough to move on.
What did you pursue for your independent project? After I completed my teaching, I went to Kikuyuland and interviewed ex-Mau Mau about their experiences. This was a phenomenal experience. I spent about a week in a small village near Kandara, which I have recently rediscovered. It is the village where our then-Kiswahili teacher’s parents were living, and I stayed with them. I interviewed about 10 Mau Mau, including husbands and wives.
I remember during one interview, the husband was narrating his story. At one point, I asked about the songs that the Mau Mau used to sing. And his wife, wizened, seemingly distracted, off to our side picking at maize while we spoke, suddenly came closer to us and started singing, her eyes sparkling, her gait almost a dance.
Unfortunately, all the notes I took during this time were subsequently lost when my backpack was stolen a few weeks later.
Has your Global Routes experience stayed with you? How? I think that Global Routes fundamentally changed my view of the world. When I returned from the village, I came back with a new understanding of myself as an American, and what that means for how I understand and experience the world. My ideas about development and the economy were challenged, and I began to focus on new areas of learning: economics, language, social science, the inter-disciplinary study of social and political institutions. These concerns, in one way or another, drove me to other parts of the world—Latin America, Asia—and to ultimately do my Ph.D. in political science.
What is one piece advice that you would pass on to students considering a Global Routes program? The two experiences that have most profoundly shaped me as a confident actor in the world were Global Routes, and my doctoral studies. The first, because of how I learned to manage and confront the world and how to survive in a context that is unimaginable until you are in it; the second, because I learned how to question everything and be questioned, and to survive the fundamental uncertainty of our knowledge of ourselves and the world.
In some way, I believe that my experience with GR has helped me to understand the possibilities of research and a life of the mind, but also to have a healthy appreciation of its limits. Humans are tactile creatures: we respond to touch and smell and taste, and we can only think so much. Lao Tzu said you can know the whole world by sitting in a room and reflecting upon it. I disagree. You should do that. But you can only know what to reflect upon if you actually leave the room and cover yourself in the muck of the world. GR is one great way to start to do that.