Gracie in Kenya

Gracie studied in Kenya on the BIG 10: Kenya Program.

If you could give only one reason, why would you suggest other students study abroad?

Given only one reason, I would suggest other students go abroad because it opens up one’s eyes and mind to a whole world outside of the bubble of their daily life and routine. I believe it is extremely beneficial to embrace learning about and diving into the experiences and lifestyles of fellow people around the world.

What concerns/fears did you have about studying abroad, and how did you overcome them?

My main concern studying abroad was the fact that I would be missing out on experiences that my friends and family would be having together back home. However, while I was studying abroad I was so grateful to be learning, experiencing, and tackling things I would never have the opportunity to back home that I was able to forget my fear of missing out and dive whole-heartedly into my present situation. I knew my friends and family would be waiting for me back home and it would only deepen our relationships to be able to come together again and share all the new ways each of us had grown over the past months.

What experiences did you have while studying abroad that you feel you could not have had if you had stayed at Penn State?

While in Kenya, I was able to intern with the Upper Tana Natural Resource Management Project (UTaNRMP). UTaNRMP is an 8 year project (2012-2020) currently in place with the goal of reducing rural poverty in the Upper Tana river catchment. They achieve this goal through addressing the nexus of poverty and the environment with the specific objectives of increasing sustainable food production and incomes for poor rural households living in the project area and sustainable management of natural resources for provision of environmental services. As a Community, Environment, and Development major within the International Development option, this internship thrust me right into the career path I wish to pursue and gave me hands-on experience I would not have been able to gain to the same degree at Penn State. I was able to observe and participate first-hand in effective methods of pursuing community empowerment and bottom-up development to address poverty-related societal ills.

Share an experience where you interacted with someone in your host culture in a way that taught you something.

One Wednesday, I was given the opportunity to skip class and visit a high security women’s prison in Lang’ata with my host mom. My host mom and several other ladies visit every Wednesday to meet with a group of prisoners there for bible study fellowship. I am so thankful I was able to be included because it sparked a lot of intrigue and questions in my mind, specifically regarding the differences between Kenyan and American prisons. A majority the women in this prison were serving life sentences, many for murder. My host mom relayed to me that women in Kenya murder for mainly two reasons: abusive husbands or acquisition of land.  One is out of desperation, the other out of greed. In Kenya, divorce is looked down upon and some women make the choice to end the life of their abusive husband to escape a marriage rather than separating. Additionally, some women simply are in extreme danger and see no other way out. As for acquisition of land, land is a highly valued scare commodity in Kenya and therefore some will make the choice to end other’s life to gain it. I was not aware of the charges facing any of the prisoners until we departed and was surprised to realize how normal someone who has murdered can act. I greeted, sat with, and prayed with women who had committed such atrocities, yet they were such welcoming and gracious personalities. While I in no way condone their crimes and I stand by their prison sentences, I believe all people should be given the opportunity to find new life and was proud to see my host mom and her friends treating these women with love and respect. Additionally, I found it interesting that majority of the prisoners spoke little to no English and most of the message was in Swahili.

From my other experiences in Nairobi, I was under the impression that most everyone in Kenya learned English. However, from this experience I began to understand it is more so a class-related language and spoken mainly by middle and upper classes due to the fact it the language is learned in school. Thus, many of these women likely came from lower class families and it’s thought-provoking and saddening to see the demographics of people that end up in prison for these heinous crimes. Also, I was shocked by the difference in set-up of the prison compared to American prisons. From what I understand, high security prisons in the U.S. tend to be large buildings that house inmates in small cells with many strict restrictions on their movements, outdoor time, visitation, etc. Quite the contrast, the Lang’ata prison was extremely spread out, with buildings lining a road on either side and prisoners moving freely between buildings or with 1-2 guards. Most everything was open-air and freedom to go outside was a given. Even women in the condemed block, those who committed the most serious crimes, were able to freely sit outside in their area. Additionally, the “cells” were buildings that looked similar to rural households and filled with beds. Something that really shocked me was that children were running freely around the prison as well. As it turns out, the women are able to have their children live and go to school at the prison for up to a year after being incarcerated. I believe these children go to school alongside the guard’s children, as the guards and their families also live within the prison compound. This was a disheartening fact as my host mom explained that the guards are not well-paid and as a result live in cheap apartments on the prison compound. This results in anger from the guards that is then taken out on the prisoners. Overall, this was an extremely thought-provoking experience and I was surprised to see how much freedom and trust high-security prisoners were given, even though the conditions of the prison weren’t the best.

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