Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ramadhan & Eid in Lamu

October 20, 2008

Asalaam aleikum! Peace be with you!

This is my final update letter to you from Kenya, as I will be returning to the U.S. on October 31. I am excited to be heading home soon, although sad to be leaving my friends and extended family here in Kenya. I can’t believe how fast a year has gone!

Of course, everyone here is anxiously awaiting the U.S. elections, and they forgive me for leaving when I explain that I am going home to vote. Kenyans are very excited and hopeful about Barack Obama’s campaign!

The past month has been really busy. I returned to Lamu – a small island on the northern coast of Kenya, near Somalia - for another month of fieldwork, and had an incredible experience there. I have been dividing my time between Taita and Lamu to compare women’s and girls’ education and women’s groups in different communities of Kenya’s Coast Province. About 90% of Lamu’s population is Muslim and semi-urban, with an economy largely oriented around fishing, boating, tourism and trade. It is an interesting place to compare and contrast with Taita, which is about 90% Christian, and mostly rural and agricultural.

I arrived in Lamu during the middle of Ramadhan, the holiest month of the Islamic year, and learned a great deal about fasting, prayer, charity, and other aspects of Muslim life. I also stayed through Eid-ul-Fitr and witnessed three days of celebrations. During Ramadhan, all Muslims practice fasting, as this is one of the five pillars of Islam. People eat a small amount at about 4:00 a.m. and then do not eat or drink again until the sun sets around 6:20 p.m. Fasting is a good way to show one’s devotion to God, to feel the pangs of hunger, to practice moderation and discipline, and to cleanse the body. One man told me that, like our cars need an oil change, our body also needs time to rest and clean itself out, to purge excess fats, sugars, toxins, parasites, etc.

Also, fasting is a good way to remind oneself of the pain of hunger and thirst so that we can understand the need to give alms, or charity, to the poor. During Ramadhan and Eid, it is expected that Muslims will give charity, known as “sadaka” or “zakah,” to poor people in their community. This is a good way to distribute wealth to the needy and to remind privileged people of their obligation to assist the poor.

When I arrived in Lamu in mid-September, I decided “when in Lamu, do as the Lamuans do” and I fasted for about two weeks, with no food or water from dawn to dusk. The dehydration was really difficult due to the heat and humidity! It was a good experience, though, and I felt really healthy and energized most of the time. At night I celebrated Iftar (breaking of the fast) with friends, and tasted a number of special delicacies such as a variety of fruit juices, vegetable and bean stews, bhajias (fried lentil balls), samosas (stuffed meat pies), mkate wa nazi (coconut bread), mandazi (donuts), chapattis (fried flatbread), wali wa nazi (coconut rice), tambi (spaghetti with raisins, coconut milk and sweet spices), ndovi (green bananas with shrimp and coconut milk), viazi vya nazi (potatoes with coconut milk), fish and seafoods, etc. The food was absolutely delicious and I spent a lot of time cooking with friends and learning some new recipes. I was lucky to meet Khifa Soud, the author of the Swahili Cuisines cookbook, and I got several copies of her book so that I can continue cooking these dishes at home!

In the spirit of “participant observation,” I also decided to wear the “buibui” and “hijab,” a long black robe and headscarf that is worn by Muslim women at the coast. Although it was hot to wear this over my other clothes, I grew to really enjoy wearing it as I felt more anonymous and less exposed as a White woman. I found that I was greeted with a great deal of respect and friendliness when I wore this, and was treated less as a tourist and more as an esteemed visitor and fellow believer. It is imperative for Muslim women to cover all but their hands and face when walking around in public, and it was much easier for me to meet with men and religious leaders, and to speak to students in schools. The local women also praised me for wearing the buibui and said that they appreciated that I showed respect for them and their culture. I learned that there is a great variety of styles and decorations of the buibuis, ranging from traditional Swahili designs to more modern fashions from Dubai and Saudi Arabia. I also had my hands and feet painted with henna and piko, with beautiful designs of flowers and vines. Many people exclaimed that I looked like “bibi harusi,” a bride!

At the end of Ramadhan, we all anxiously awaited the sighting of the crescent of the new moon. When the moon was sighted, the muezzins called from the mosques “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great) and children marched through the streets chanting “Kesho ni Eid! Kesho ni Eid!” (Tomorrow is Eid!). That night, men stayed up late at the mosques reading the Qur’an, praying, singing, playing drums and flutes. Women prayed in their homes and got ready for Eid by cleaning their houses, baking cakes, and preparing gifts and new clothes for their children. It felt a lot like Christmas Eve.

On the first day of Eid, everyone had the day off and went around visiting each other in their homes and eating together. Children dressed up in their new clothes and went all around town for “mkono wa Eid” (the hand of Eid), which is kind of like trick-or-treating. They went from house to house and were given coins or sweets by their neighbors, relatives, shopkeepers, and others. They would usually spend the money on toys or candy or pretty jewelry, hair barrettes or handbags.

Then the children all went to the fete, which is like a county fair held at the Lamu Boys School for the three days of Eid. For ten shillings (15 cents) they could ride camels around the school grounds, or take a ride on a carousel or ferris wheel or the scrambler. These are like the fair rides we have in the states, only they are mechanical and pushed by hand, and seem awfully precarious! There was also an area where a DJ was playing “Bongo” music (Swahili hip hop), and boys and girls could dance in separate rooms (they are not allowed to dance with each other, but they were all checking each other out anyway!). The fete is the favorite Eid event among children in Lamu, but the community elders feel that it is an inappropriate venue for boys and girls to mix among each other. Luckily, it was held for the first time after many years, and the young people had a blast!

I also celebrated my birthday in Lamu with a day at the beach, where I enjoyed swimming and floating in the ocean at my favorite spot on a 12-km white sand beach. I felt such complete peace and surrender while floating in the salty water, and meditated on my gratitude for being carried through this life by the ocean and the earth and the kindness of strangers. That evening my friends cooked a delicious dinner of grilled lobster, crab and fish with coconut rice and vegetable curry. We ate and had a bonfire at Coconut Beach on the edge of town with a diverse group of friends from Kenya, the U.S., Norway (via Pakistan and Kashmir), France, and Germany (via Brazil). It was like a United Nations meeting on the beach! It started to rain lightly while we were eating and my Norwegian friends said that it was a curse, while the Kenyans insisted that the rain signified blessings and good luck!

Throughout the month, I met hundreds of people, and made a lot of new friends. I interviewed a number of women’s groups, youth groups, community leaders, educators, development workers, health experts, and religious leaders. I visited three schools and gave presentations to students about the importance of girl child education. I interviewed principals, teachers, and religious leaders at Mkomani Girls’ Primary School, Lamu Girls’ Secondary School, and Swafaa Academy (a Shia Muslim private school which integrates Islamic and secular curricula). I also attended the annual prize-giving ceremony at Lamu Girls Secondary School. I am working to establish a pen pals connection between these Lamu schools and the Indianapolis Public Schools via a friend who works there.

In my research, I learned a great deal about the Islamic educational system and the conflicts between Islamic and secular education. I learned that Islamic education is a very old system in East Africa, and that all children attend madarasa schools from a very early age to learn to read and write in Arabic, to read the Qur’an and Hadith, and to learn the stories of the prophets and the five pillars of Islam. I learned that the government schools are referred to as “skuli za Kizungu” (English schools) and that they were initially resisted by people in Lamu as they were associated with missionaries and the British colonial government. Some elders insisted that their children should not attend these schools since they feared they would be converted to Judaism or Christianity. Today, however, many parents are embracing both Islamic and secular education for the benefits associated with each system. Most people in Lamu use at least three or four languages – Kiswahili, Arabic, English and local languages – so it is important for them to have a well-rounded education in all of these languages.

I also interviewed Islamic educators who discussed the need to integrate Islamic and secular educational systems, and who revealed that education is compulsory for all devoted Muslims. In fact, the first commandment that Allah gave to Mohammed was “Iqra” – which means “Read!” It is said that all Muslims should study throughout their lives, and should seek as much knowledge as possible, even if they have to travel all the way to China. I also learned that the Qur’an does not discriminate between boys and girls in terms of educational opportunities, although it does insist that boys and girls should learn in separate classes or schools. All Muslims are obligated to study and learn, regardless of gender or race or class.

However, the pre-Islamic “mila na desturi” (customs and traditions) of the coastal cultures of Kenya have prevailed and prevented girls and women from having equal opportunities for formal education. Throughout the Coast Province and Northeastern Province, which have the largest populations of Muslims in Kenya, there are high rates of illiteracy among adult women. Girl children were disadvantaged in the past due to negative attitudes about educating girls, fears of sending girls to mixed schools where they would mingle with boys, and beliefs that girls should just get married and become mothers. Many girls were expected to marry when they started puberty, and few girls would continue their education past the 6th or 7th grade. Education was also very expensive and necessary only for formal workers, so mostly it was reserved for boys. The divisions of social class, religion, race and ethnicity have further separated the communities and led to conflict and inequality in access to education.

Today in Lamu, most parents struggle hard to send all of their children to school to ensure their ability to support themselves and their families. Economic changes have necessitated that both men and women should work outside the home, as it is difficult for families to survive on one income. Also, the high rates of divorce and widowhood have showed women that they need to become independent in order to support their children. One 6th grade student told me that women must become independent in case their husbands leave them, and that they must work hard to educate and feed their children. Other girls told me that “elimu ni mwangaza” (education is light) and that they wanted to excel in school so that they can work in a number of professions and to lead their country.

Many people in Lamu told me that girls are actually performing very well in schools these days, and are even outperforming the boys in terms of their good discipline and behavior and their scores on achievement tests. They insist that girls have many advantages over boys in academics, as the community has been very focused on protecting girls and providing scholarships and support for girls’ schools. Girls are socialized to be obedient and modest, to go to school and to go home. They are not permitted to roam around the town, so they are more focused about their schoolwork. On the other hand, boys are given a lot of freedom, and they spend a lot of time playing football (soccer), fishing, swimming, riding donkeys and boats, using drugs and skipping school. Therefore, many people in Lamu are now discussing the need to support “boy child education” and want to assist boys who are now seen as being at-risk and disadvantaged.

Nevertheless, because of the lack of access to education in the past, many adult women in Lamu are illiterate and lack the skills necessary for formal employment. As I have witnessed throughout Taita and other Kenyan communities, women in Lamu have also organized themselves into small women’s groups for informal and peer education. The groups help women to pool their resources, start small businesses, and to educate themselves in a variety of life skills. Kikozi is an impressive organization that has organized a savings and credit cooperative of over 500 members on the islands and mainland villages throughout Lamu district. They have assisted hundreds of women to start small businesses and to buy household items. They have also raised money to renovate a number of schools and to send 12 local girls to university. Another women’s group is called Anaswiha, a group of Muslim women in Lamu who gather to advise each other, to teach each other skills such as cooking and sewing, and to discuss personal issues, relationships and safe sex. They also raise funds together to buy household items and to assist members in times of need. The Khairat Women’s Group has organized an orphanage in one of the slums on the edge of Lamu town, where they educate and care for children whose parents have died of HIV/AIDS. Finally, the Sauti ya Wanawake (Voice of Women) group is organizing activities to raise awareness during “pink month” about cancer prevention, and is creating space for women to speak out about HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, land grabbing, environmental problems, and other issues facing the Lamu community.

One of the most impressive examples of popular and informal education that I witnessed in Lamu is the APHIA II project, which is supported with funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This project is a community education program for HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness that is cooperatively organized by 15 women’s groups, 6 men’s groups, and 11 youth groups. Peer educators have been trained from all of these groups to conduct workshops and to perform community-based theater in villages, towns, and mosques throughout Lamu district. I attended one of the workshops that was organized by women, for women. The presenters included a local poet and singer, a group of young girls singing and performing a play about HIV/AIDS, a local imam (religious leader), a number of women activists and educators, a hospital nurse, the head of the community AIDS control council, and others. The workshop was held on the edge of town on a holiday, and attracted over 100 girls and women to come and listen to the presentations. At the end of the workshop, there was an opportunity for people to get tested at a VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) center. I was very impressed with the level of organization and the quality of facilitation of the discussions at this event. This is a powerful example of popular peer education to teach about an important and life-saving issue that is too often shrouded in secrecy, silence and shame.

So, that is a snapshot of my research and experiences in Lamu over the past month. If you want to know more, you can read my dissertation!

I am looking forward to seeing some of you when I return home to Ohio at the end of this month, and hope to continue communicating with the rest of you by email. Take care of yourselves and keep in touch.

In Peace and Justice,

Cat Cutcher

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

International Literacy Week

September 9, 2008

Dear friends and family,

It’s International Literacy Week! Because you can read this letter, and I can write it, let’s give thanks!! Over 8 million adults in Kenya do not know how to read or write …. and over 60% of them are women.

And Happy Ramadhan! It is now the holy month of Ramadhan, which started with the new moon in early September. For the entire month, Muslims are fasting from sunrise to sunset – they do not drink or eat during daylight hours, and only break the fast in the evenings. This is a month of atonement and solidarity with people in need – a time to feel the pangs of hunger so that one understands the importance of giving alms to the poor. It is one of the most important holidays of the Islamic faith. I am looking forward to returning to Lamu soon to join in the fasting and prayers and cooking with Muslim women.

I have had another busy and exciting month here in Kenya. An overview: I had an article published; learned about school violence; returned to the Taita International School; witnessed a rite of passage among the Mwakitutu women’s group; attended a peace and justice conference in Nakuru of the National Council of Churches of Kenya; went on safari and witnessed the wildebeest migration at the Maasai Mara wildlife reserve; listened to lectures on national gender issues; interviewed more activists and educators in women’s organizations; and attended the International Literacy Day Festival in Nairobi.

I will start with a highlight for all you animal lovers: in late August, Mama Mjomba and I traveled to Maasai Mara, a huge game reserve in the Southern Rift Valley, on the border with Tanzania. We went on a safari for three days, and had a wonderful vacation together. We saw lions, cheetahs, serval cats, elephants, zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, hippos, crocodiles, ostriches, and dozens of species of antelopes, gazelles and birds. One of the most incredible sights was the wildebeest migration, an annual event that is considered one of the “seven wonders of the world.” Thousands of wildebeests migrate from the plains of northern Tanzania into Kenya in search of grazing land from July to September. They are a sight to behold, especially when they start running – it is like a huge wave of animals moving in formation. We also saw a family of six adolescent lions – 3 males and 3 females – the largest number I have ever seen in one place. One lioness climbed a tree like a leopard, to the great delight of our guide, Kaka, who said he had never witnessed such behavior. We also were lucky on the last morning to see a mama lioness with two babies – they acted and sounded just like kittens! We also saw a whole herd of elephant mamas and babies – including an elephant breastfeeding her baby! Amazing. Mama Mjomba said that she had always wanted to visit Maasai Mara, and that this was the highlight of her retirement. We stayed in a very nice tented camp with beds and hot showers, and delicious meals prepared by a cook who was very attentive to Mama’s diabetic diet. After three days in the Mara, it was difficult to leave, but we were grateful to have some time in the wilderness to witness God’s creation and to restore our spirits.

The rest of the month I have spent very much immersed in the world of humans. My last posting to you included an article that I wrote about the tenth anniversary of the bomb blast at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. I was in Nairobi when the embassy was bombed in 1998, and I have been trying to write and speak about it ever since. After I attended the memorial service in Nairobi on August 7, I wrote an article. My article was published in the “Reader’s Forum” column of The Athens News, my hometown newspaper. It was also published in Pambazuka News in the column “Pan-African Postcard.” Pambazuka News is a website publishing news on social justice issues in Africa, and has been elected as one of the top ten websites changing the internet and politics.

In July and August, many schools around Kenya were still reeling from the outbreak of violence and riots in over 300 schools. The violence was mostly located in schools in Nairobi, Central Province, the Rift Valley, and Western Kenya. Students burned dormitories, labs and classroom buildings, and attacked their teachers and fellow students. They caused millions of shillings’ worth of damage, and created a climate of fear in schools throughout the country. There was a national debate about how to control the youth, with some members of Parliament suggesting that the “cane,” or corporal punishment, should be reintroduced. Adults admonished the youth for being corrupted by drugs, alcohol, sex, TV, and rap music. Some also pointed out that perhaps there was “too much democracy” in Kenya, and that young people had learned bad habits of violent protest, mass action, and civil disobedience from the recent post-election violence.

Many teachers are now requesting a 200% raise and are complaining that the costs of providing education and food for schools is rising, yet the government is not providing enough support. Many of the youth interviewed by the media stated that the school system needed to be reorganized and made relevant to the realities of 21st century Kenya, preparing the youth for the world that they are going to inherit. They said that the riots were the result of students protesting bad food, authoritarian teachers, corrupt principals, and anger over examinations. They were angry about the increasing focus on “high stakes testing” – or examinations at the end of primary and secondary school that would solely determine their future success. There is little time for children and youth to explore, or to relax, or to do the things that we normally associate with childhood. Sound familiar? The Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) have become the focus of the curriculum, and many students feel very stressed and pressured to achieve high scores. Nevertheless, last year over 40,000 students’ scores on the KCSE had to be changed due to computer glitches and the leakage of test results.

Although some schools in Taita were also affected by violence, the Taita International School has remained peaceful. When I returned, the school was closed for the August holiday, so there were few students around except for the “tuition” program. This program provides additional tutoring and educational activities for community children – it is similar to the “Kids on Campus” program at Ohio University, where both Maria and Mjomba worked as teachers when they were in Athens. This tuition program has been very successful in Taita, and has attracted new students from the community.

When I arrived in Taita, I brought all the gifts and donations that I could carry from my recent trip to Ohio. Mjomba and Maria were grateful for the cash donation, and they matched it for a down payment on a piece of land in Mwatate, where they will start to build permanent school buildings. They are currently renting, and they are looking forward to building on a site that they will own – this will save a lot of money in the long run. They were also thrilled to receive all of the books, maps, games, toys, CD-Roms, Video games, digital camera, and other educational supplies that were donated. We discussed the pen pals program, and we will recruit students when they return from school holidays. I have already received feedback from many of you who are interested in recruiting pen pals in your own communities.

I also continued with my research with women’s groups in Taita. The Mwakitutu Women’s Group is a group that I have been working with since January. One of their members, Jerusha Nyange, suddenly died on June 30 at the age of 75. She had been a member of Mwakitutu for 25 years, and the members of the group were very saddened by her death. The funeral took place while I was in Ohio, but the group decided to pay a visit to her family in mid-August to express their condolences and to help with the funeral expenses. I was grateful to be included in this ceremony. We gathered at her home and said prayers around her grave. Then we met, offered our gifts, and drank chai with her children, grandchildren, and her co-wife (her husband had two wives). They told us that Jerusha had attended school up to Standard Four (4th grade) but dropped out when her parents could no longer afford the school fees. She married her husband, Amon, when she was still a teenager. She gave birth to seven children, but only one survived to adulthood, a daughter named Daisy. Her co-wife gave birth to five children, but only two survived. Jerusha loved and cherished all of these three surviving children and her six grandchildren. She was an active member of her church and the Mwakitutu Women’s Group. She seemed to be in great health, and was still farming, carrying firewood, and working as she always had done. But on June 30, she did not return from her shamba. When they went to search for her after dark, they found that she had died in the garden. They thought that maybe she had been bitten by a snake or had a heart attack, but an autopsy revealed that she had a large cyst on her liver. Her children said that she had never complained of any pain, and that she had probably not wanted to spend the money on her own medical care.

Her family talked a lot about how much her women’s group meant to her. She joined the group in 1983 when she was attending adult education classes at the Mwakitutu Primary School, next to her home. She learned skills in literacy and numeracy from the classes, and the group continued to stay strong over the past 25 years. Her children said that the group helped their whole family with the installation of water tanks, assistance with farming, construction of buildings, and payment of school fees that sent all three children through college. The group had also helped her to build a small shop where she sold candies and sugar cane to students at the local primary school, providing her with an income after her husband died.

After her death, her daughter Daisy found a letter that Jerusha wrote in May, which stated “Mimi nikifa mtoto wangu Dezi achukue nafasi yangu ya gurupu. Mimi Jerusha.” (When I die, my child Daisy takes my place in the group. Me Jerusha.) This note was like her last will and testament – not describing how to deal with her property, but identifying her wishes for her daughter to be “inherited” by her women’s group. This group practices this system of “inheritance” of daughters or daughters-in-law after a woman dies, which ensures that the group keeps living, and that the collective wealth created stays within the families of the original members. The group invited Daisy to join them, and they were excited since she is a nursery school teacher and has literacy skills that will help them with record-keeping, taking minutes of their meetings, and writing letters to government officials and banks. Daisy was nervous to join since she has a busy schedule as a teacher, and is unmarried. They told her that she can send her sister-in-law to work with them in her place. And if she gets married and has to move away to her husband’s land, then her sister-in-law can become a member. Daisy was ecstatic after the meeting – although she was still bereaved and shocked over the death of her mother, it was like she had inherited a whole group of mothers!

After this event, I felt like I had just witnessed a very important rite of passage among women’s groups in Taita. Not only do women’s groups provide important support for women, but their influence extends throughout their entire families and communities. And not only do they work together and assist each other with making an income, but they provide an important source of counseling and social support in times of grief and bereavement.

In the meantime, I have continued to work on writing my field notes and transcribing interviews – a long process. I am amazed at how much information I have collected in just ten months, and I still have two more months to go! Luckily, I got assistance translating the Kiswahili and Kidawida (the Taita language) interviews from three research assistants – two Master’s level students from Kenyatta University and a relative of a colleague from Taita. It has been good to start getting these transcripts in print, and to start re-reading and analyzing the things that have been discussed in interviews – very rich data and powerful stories.

Lately, I have been primarily focused on the life history of Mrs. Joan Mjomba, who is the mother of my friend Mjomba and an amazing community leader in Taita. I was first introduced to Mama Mjomba through my professor, Dr. Lisa Aubrey, who met her back in 1992 while she was doing dissertation research on the national women’s organization Maendeleo ya Wanawake (Women’s Development). Dr. Aubrey has sent numerous interns to work with Mama Mjomba since then, and Mama was one of my key contacts for my Fulbright application. She was a leader of Maendeleo ya Wanawake for Taita District and Coast Province, and also served as the treasurer for many years. She is an educator and one of the first women in Taita to be trained as a teacher and an education officer. She also served in the Town Council and as the first mayor of Voi for many years – the third woman in Kenya to serve as a mayor. She represented Kenya at the United Nations in New York and at the U.N. Conference for Women in Beijing, China in 1995. She is also a farmer, a wife, a widow, a mother, a grandmother, and is considered a strong leader of her extended clan. In her retirement, she is really focused on growing food on her shamba, especially to support the Taita International School. She says that it is the role of the grandmothers to grow surplus food and to ensure that all of the children in the community have enough to eat in times of famine. She is also serving on the Board of Trustees of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), a national ecumenical organization representing 50 Protestant churches throughout the nation. Although she is almost 75 years young, she continues to travel and to stay engaged in national committees about church matters, women’s issues, the post-election violence, and the educational system. We have recorded over a dozen long interviews, and I am now adding this data to a book that was started by her son, Leonard Majalia Mjomba. We are hoping to finish a rough draft of the book in time for her 75th Birthday in November. Her stories will also feature prominently in my own dissertation about popular education among women’s organizations in Coast Province.

Mama Mjomba invited me to attend the National Pastors’ Conference of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, which was held in Nakuru in Rift Valley Province from August 20-23 at Kabarak University. I was thrilled to be included in the team representing the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) of Coast Province. I joined the conference with over 1,300 church ministers and lay leaders from every province of Kenya, and was overwhelmed by the messages of the speakers and everyone I met. The theme of the conference was “…and the Truth will set you free” (John 8:32) and the focus was on national healing and reconciliation after the post-election violence. Church leaders spoke about the need for the churches to take a more pro-active role to stopping violence and teaching peace and justice in their communities. There was a lot of discussion and Bible study about the need for repentance, forgiveness, and conflict management. The church leaders also admitted that they had made mistakes, had gotten involved in partisan and ethnic politics, and had been too slow to act when violence rocked the country. We also listened to former President Daniel arap Moi, who visited the conference for a brief speech on Friday. He discussed the need for political leaders to bring the country together in unity and to reject negative ethnicity and patronage. He defended his 24-year rule, saying he was “misunderstood to be a dictator” because of his “strict policy of instilling discipline” throughout the country. He claimed, “many people would say that Mzee Jomo Kenyatta or Moi did not do this or that but I wish they were in our shoes.” It was interesting to listen to Moi discuss his presidency and to reflect on the recent post-election violence. Overall, the NCCK conference was an incredible week filled with tears, laughter, and a lot of learning. I met dozens of new friends and interviewed women from various churches about the role of women’s groups in their churches and communities. It was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the role of faith in women’s lives, and the growing potential for women’s leadership in Christian churches in Kenya. As African philosopher John Mbiti claims, “Africans are notoriously religious,” and it is believed that over 95% of Kenyans are active participants in their churches, mosques or temples, as well as indigenous religions.

After our trip to the NCCK conference, Mama Mjomba and I then went on our safari at Maasai Mara for some much-needed R&R. Mama then returned to the Coast, and I stayed behind in Nairobi to visit some doctors and to continue with research here. I am living with an excellent family in Nairobi – Dan and Edwinah Ogola and their two adorable sons, Leanew (6) and Kyle (8 months). They run a socially-conscious tour company, a primary school in the Kibera slums, and have started a medical foundation called the Matibabu (Treatment) Foundation. Matibabu provides medical care in rural medical clinics and hospitals in the Nyanza Province of Western Kenya. I have met some interesting doctors and health experts from the U.S. who are teaching me a lot about women’s health and the challenges of educating and caring for patients with malaria and HIV/AIDS.

At Kenyatta University, I have met with my advisor and my research assistants, and attended the Gender Roundtable Discussion about “African Feminisms” where I met some interesting professors working on gender issues. I also attended a Gender Forum of Kenya’s Chapter of the International Committee of Jurists analyzing the gender dimensions of the “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission” bill. I have interviewed several leaders of women’s organizations and civic educators working in Nairobi and throughout the country. And I attended the International Literacy Day Festival at Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi, where I met educators, activists, and government officials working to promote literacy throughout the country. I met one woman who started in a basic adult literacy class, then went on to finish the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education, and is now enrolled in a university and is the Director of the Kenya Adult Learners Association. I also met an 85 year old man who went back to school when the government instituted free primary education – he just received an award for finishing the 8th grade! The Literacy Festival included songs, dances, poetry, and drama performed by children and adults from throughout Nairobi. I also listened to the Minister of Education, Sam Ongeri, give a moving speech about how education is a basic human right for all people. He discussed the need for more resources and teachers directed to Adult and Continuing Education in Kenya – and for more cooperation with NGOs and community-based organizations - which is one of the major findings of my dissertation research!

So, life is good and I am happy. I will spend the next month in Lamu, where I will continue with my research with women’s groups and adult education programs. I hope to learn more about how Muslim women’s faith influences the work of their organizations, and about the teachings of Islam regarding education. After that, I will have just a few more weeks left in Kenya - I am planning to return home to Ohio on Halloween. While I am getting sad about my imminent departure, I am also excited to be home again soon! It is good to have family and friends all over the world….. after all, wherever you go, there you are.

Well, take care of yourselves, and keep in touch.


Cat Cutcher

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Memorial to Terror: Ten Years after Nairobi Bomb Blast

NAIROBI. It was August 7, 1998. Suicide bombers exploded 700 kilos of TNT in a truck outside of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The bomb blast ended the lives of 257 people, injured 6,000, and destroyed a fragile peace in a bustling city. At the same time, another explosion rocked the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A little-known terrorist network named al Qaeda organized the attacks, led by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

Ten years later, the survivors and the victims’ families continue to mourn and to seek justice. Last Thursday, Kenyans from all walks of life gathered at the site of the blast in Nairobi, to remember the dead and to call for greater vigilance. The site has been transformed into the “August 7 Memorial Park” with monuments and gardens and trees. Once called “Ground Zero,” a site of terror and pain, it is now a place of respite, a green corner in a busy city. A granite memorial wall bears the names of the 257 dead, including 12 Americans.

I joined the memorial service last Thursday. In 1998, I was also one of the survivors, an American student learning Kiswahili and international affairs. I rode into Nairobi that day in a matatu minivan, and was just 8 blocks from the embassy when the explosion rocked the city. I recall feeling the blast deep in my body, a vibration so shocking that words cannot express. I watched in horror as a mushroom cloud of dust and smoke and debris rose over the city that I had come to love.

It has taken nearly ten years for me to get over the trauma of that day and the days that followed. The repeated scenes of blood and death and anarchy. The paranoia at any loud noises. The nightmare of uncertainty. The knowledge of so much pain and suffering all around me. The fear of being an American targeted by al Qaeda. The guilt of survival. The anger, then desperation, at my own government’s response – retaliatory attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan.

On September 11, 2001, I was back in the USA, and it was déjà vu. Twin bombings in New York and Washington, DC. Glass, steel, and concrete crumbling into dust. Lives extinguished in a gulf of flames and smoke. The fear and anguish amplified by repeated scenes in the media. The fear of airplanes, of future attacks. The utter sense of insecurity and helplessness. The mantra “Why Us?” resounding in my heart. Anger and desperation at the “War on Terror,” a war without end, without rules, without known enemies.

After 9/11, the U.S. Congress ruled to grant compensation to the survivors and the families of the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Former U.S. ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell says that “in an emotional reaction” the U.S. Congress established “a very difficult precedent.”

In the U.S. today, the Kenyan victims of the 1998 American embassy bombings have been nearly forgotten. The victims’ families and survivors in Nairobi have sought compensation for their losses in the U.S. courts. Phillip Musolino, a Washington attorney, represents hundreds of Kenyans injured, blinded or bereaved by the attacks ten years ago. He is now engaged in a legal battle over some $7 million in frozen assets from al Qaeda sources, and claims that this money should be used to compensate the Kenyans.

However, there has been a double standard for Kenyan victims of al Qaeda. American judges have not been sympathetic to arguments that the U.S. should be held liable for the damages. U.S. government attorneys insist that al Qaeda should be held responsible for the suffering and the losses, and that the U.S. was itself victimized by the attack. To add insult to injury, the surviving perpetrators were extradited to the United States, and were first charged with just 12 counts of murder, for the 12 Americans who were killed. They are now serving life sentences in U.S. prisons.

Current U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael Rannenberger insists that the U.S. has already provided more that $42 million to Kenyan victims “to assist children with school fees, to provide medical assistance, to facilitate the resumption of livelihoods, for reconstruction, and for the creation of the Memorial Park.” Kenyans, however, will point out that most of these funds have been used to build a new fortified embassy and to buttress security and anti-terrorism surveillance. They insist that little has been invested in the people who were most affected by the violence.

Ten years later, the fragile peace in Kenya was once again unsettled by a very divisive election. The post-election violence claimed over 1,200 lives and displaced an estimated 350,000 Kenyans from their homes. Eight months later, many are still living in fear of the unknown, or fear of their neighbors and fellow Kenyans. Suspicions and assumptions and accusations abound across ethnic, gender, and class lines. Many still do not know where to call “home.” Terror has returned to Kenya.

And the Kenyan police are still engaged in a manhunt for al Qaeda mastermind Fazul Abdullah. Fazul organized the 1998 attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, as well as the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned coastal resort, the Paradise Hotel in Kikambala. Fazul was nearly apprehended last week in Malindi, another coastal city, where he was detected communicating with al Qaeda associates by cell phone and email. He is believed to be planning yet another terrorist attack in Kenya.

May we all remember how the events in 1998 brought together a divided Kenya in acts of heroism, mercy and solidarity. May we remember those who gave their blood, sweat and tears to save lives, to honor the dead, and to heal the survivors. Perhaps these collective memories may be the inspiration needed to bring Kenyans together across their differences, and to remind Americans of our commitment to justice and equality.

Catherine Cutcher is a U.S. Fulbright Student in Kenya. She is a Ph.D. Candidate from the Ohio University College of Education.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Homecoming Report

Dear friends and family,

I have returned to Nairobi, Kenya after a wonderful, although brief, vacation in Ohio. Thanks to all of you who met me or attended the parties and presentations that were organized during my visit. It was great to be home and to delight in the green farms and forests of Ohio, to swim in the pond, to eat fresh fruits and veggies from the garden, and to bask in the glow of my loving family and community. Thanks to all of you who made my visit memorable, and who helped me to remember all the things I love about home. Please forgive me if I did not get a chance to see you while I was in the States – I will be back in November.

Highlights from my trip included a presentation at Ohio University on July 15. Over 75 people attended the slide show and discussion about “Reflections from Kenya,” and I addressed questions about the post-election violence, conflict resolution, media, technology, education, child development, gender issues, women’s organizations, environmental issues, geography, history, cultural diversity, and other concerns. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect and articulate on a number of issues that I have been grappling with here in Kenya. Thanks to all of you who attended and helped to publicize the talk.

I also was invited to give a presentation on July 18 at the Greenfire community near New Marshfield, OH at a Permaculture Workshop led by Peter Bane, editor of the “Permaculture Activist” magazine. Again, I showed my slides and responded to questions about agriculture, land access and tenure, herbal medicines, nutrition, water, human-wildlife conflicts, and low-tech solutions for sustainability and prosperity among Kenyan rural communities. It was interesting to discuss these issues with others who are learning about and committed to principles of sustainability, self-sufficiency, and creating systems for prolonged agriculture and human culture. I concluded that Kenya is filled with excellent examples of permaculture, as people have lived here for thousands of years and have created excellent systems for agriculture, natural building, water collection, land use, and informal education for life skills.

I also want to thank those of you who donated items and funds for the Taita International School. I raised $600 in cash donations, and was given dozens of books, videos, computer games, soccer balls and shoes, art supplies, pencils, board games, puzzles, a digital camera, a walkman, sewing patterns, cake decorating supplies, and other items. I have carried many of these donations with me to Kenya, and will ship the rest. Thanks to all who generously gave resources for the school. For those who would still like to donate, you can send items to the school at:

Taita International School
P.O. Box 181-80305
Mwatate, Kenya

Please note that the U.S. Postal Service only sends packages via air mail to Kenya these days, which costs $4 per pound. If anyone has information on how to inexpensively ship packages by boat, please let me know.

I also found some young Ohioans who were interested in becoming pen pals with students at the Taita International School, and who wrote letters of introduction that I have carried to Kenya. I am still seeking pen pals – if you know any young people from the ages of 4 to 18 years old who might like to write to a Kenyan student, please send their letters of introduction and photograph to the Taita International School (Attn: Pen Pals) at the above address.

While I was home, both The Athens Messenger and The Athens News published articles about my research and experiences in Kenya. My friend Ernest Waititu, a Kenyan journalist who I studied with at Ohio University, wrote a great piece based on an interview we did in Nairobi – you can read it online at:


Matt Gallagher also wrote an excellent article in the Athens Messenger, but I cannot find a link online –the article was on the front page on Wednesday, July 9, 2008.

There also was an article published in the “Athenaeum,” the Ohio University College of Education magazine. I have attached a copy of the article to this message.

I read a great book during my trip home, and I encourage others to read it as well – “Dreams From My Father” by Barack Obama. This is Obama’s autobiography and a wonderful account of his childhood, education, family, travels, faith, and growth as a community organizer, legal advocate, and politician. I especially loved the final section about his first voyage to Kenya to meet his father’s family, and his impressions of urban life in Nairobi and in the rural village of Alego, near Kisumu. Obama is Kenya’s favorite prodigal son, and Kenyans often ask me about his campaign for the upcoming U.S. elections. I am grateful to know more about the man behind the iconic image presented in the media.

I will be here for another 3 months, and will return to Ohio in early November. I will continue my research with women’s grassroots organizations in Taita and Lamu districts in Kenya’s Coast Province. Stay tuned for future updates on my studies and travels.

Take care and keep in touch.

In peace and love,

Cat Cutcher

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Dear friends and family,

Greetings from Nairobi!  I hope that you are happy and healthy.  I am writing to
let you know that I will be traveling home to Ohio on July 1 and will stay until
July 21. I will then return to Kenya until November. I hope to see some of you
while I am visiting the U.S.

I will present a slide show and discussion, “Reflections from Kenya,” on
Tuesday, July 15 from 7-9 p.m. at Ohio University, Bentley Hall, Room 306. I
will be discussing the elections in Kenya, the post-election crisis, conflict
resolution, and other issues related to my research with women’s organizations.
Please join us.

I am also writing to request your assistance. I have been asked to gather some
supplies for the Taita International School and I am looking for donations of
the following:

  • Sports equipment i.e. soccer balls and outdoor games
  • Video games for kids (compatible with PC Windows systems)
  • DVD videos – comedy, action, musicals, documentaries appropriate for ages 4 - 18
  • Educational CD-roms for PC windows systems
  • Digital camera
  • Digital camcorder (mini DV) & video tapes
  • Digital voice recorder
  • Walkmans
  • Rechargeable batteries and charger
  • Science lab supplies
  • Cake decorating supplies (for kitchen staff and fundraiser for school)
  • Songbooks or CDs of children’s songs
  • Foreign language textbooks or dictionaries (Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic,
  • Chinese)
  • Maps
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Pens or pencils (especially from OU, Ohio State or Hocking College)
  • Colored pencils, crayons, watercolors & other art supplies
  • Clothing patterns for sewing class

If you can donate or help me to gather any of these items, please let me know by
email at cutcher@ohio.edu or phone at 740-742-3012. I will be gathering these
supplies during my visit in Ohio and would appreciate any assistance you can
offer since my time and budget are limited.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to seeing you soon,


Cat Cutcher

Monday, May 26, 2008

Greetings from Taita

Dear friends and family,

It has been nearly a month since I last wrote to you, and much has happened here in Kenya.
The good news is that I have completely recovered from malaria, and received a clean bill of health from my doctor a couple of weeks ago. Although it was no fun being sick, I must say that I enjoyed having the opportunity to take it easy for awhile, and to let my “mamas” here take care of me and teach me all about medicinal herbs and traditional remedies for curing malaria. I drank a bitter tea made from the bark and roots of the "Muarobaini" tree, which is known to cure 40 diseases (arobaini means 40 in Arabic and Kiswahili). The tea is nasty and strong but not bad with a large helping of local honey stirred in (like Mary Poppins says, "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way....").

I also have been eating a lot of "mchunga" - these wild herbs that are harvested during the rainy season, and considered a local delicacy offered to guests. They are known to prevent and treat malaria, and are loaded with iron, which is important to renew the red blood cells lost by malaria. They are also very bitter but are boiled in water, then stir fried in oil, onions, garlic and tomatoes (like “sukumawiki”). With plenty of salt and “ugali” (corn meal porridge), they really aren't bad. I have been eating these almost every day.

Aside from this very intimate exploration into local knowledge about medicinal herbs, I have also been enjoying being back in Taita and learning more about women’s groups and agricultural production. As is common throughout Africa, women comprise an estimated 80% of Kenya’s agricultural labor force. Since this is the rainy season, much of the focus in women’s groups here has turned to farming, and I have been meeting with groups who have taken me to their “shambas” (farms) where they are cultivating maize, beans, millet, sorghum, amaranth, arrowroots (nduma), cassava (mihogo), sweet potatoes, greengrams or mung beans (pojo), pigeon peas (kunde), pumpkins, sunflowers ….. the list goes on and on. The hills and valleys are so green and filled with vegetation these days after two months of heavy rains. I have met with members of the Mwakitutu Women’s Group, a group that I have been working with since January, and have also met two groups of “Farmers’ Field Schools,” which are groups that focus on agricultural production, and teaching new sustainable farming techniques to others in the community. It is inspiring to witness women working together collectively, sharing their harvest, and supporting each other in the many tasks and difficult labor of food production. Most of the cultivation is done here by hand, so often you will see a group of women with “jembes”, or heavy iron hoes, digging and tilling the earth in a line – like a collective human tractor. It is really difficult work and they are really strong.

I have not yet mastered the art of swinging the jembe, but I have enjoyed helping with the harvesting, drying, seed saving, and processing of food. (This is also my usual job at my own “shamba” at Willow Farm in Ohio!). I have especially enjoyed learning more about growing grains and beans, which is also a new area of food production that Joe is exploring with other farmers back home in Ohio. It has been an interesting conversation whenever I tell the women about our “shamba,” and they are delighted to hear about the foods that we grow, and the goats, chickens and donkey that we raise on our farm. They are really eager to know more about small farms, the local food system, organic foods, agricultural marketing, and other food issues in the U.S. We have been talking a lot about the increase in food prices – many basic food staples have almost doubled in price this year. They are surprised to know that this is also an issue in the U.S. and that there is a worldwide food shortage, as they thought that it was primarily due to the post-election violence here in Kenya. They are interested to hear about the revival in interest in “local foods” in the U.S. and are amazed when I tell them that there are people in the States who do not know how to grow their own food, or who do not know that milk comes from a cow, or who would rather buy their food in a grocery store than from a local farmer.

In many ways, Kenyans have a distinct advantage over Americans in terms of their knowledge about food production and their well-developed system of agriculture. Many of the small farmers here can sell pretty much everything they grow locally, as long as they are close enough to a town or a major road to get it to market by public transport. However, the local food system is being challenged by a dependency on foreign oil for transport, and the insistence upon using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds that were brought here in the guise of the “green revolution” of agricultural development. Moreover, climate change has resulted in increasing aridity of the land, and rainy seasons are less predictable than ever. As water becomes an even more precious resource, farmers’ harvests are also affected, and women’s labor becomes more intense as they must carry water from even greater distances – often in large containers on their heads or backs.

Aside from agricultural production, I have also been learning more about some of the basic challenges to women’s organizing in rural areas, especially here in Taita. One of the major themes I keep hearing about is the resistance of men to women’s groups. Many of the women have said that they would have a lot more freedom and ability to participate in development projects if they were “allowed” by their husbands, but that many husbands feel suspicious of women’s groups. Part of this is that they fear that once women become economically independent and self-sufficient, they will begin to demand a greater share in the decision-making in the home, or they will challenge their husband’s authority if they make more of an income than their husbands. Some husbands also say that they fear that their wives will get new ideas from other women, and they will bring these ideas home to challenge their husbands. The resistance to girls’ and women’s education and empowerment among men is emerging as a major theme in my research – it seems like a much more controversial issue than I anticipated. Women’s education, empowerment, and organizing seems to contradict some deep-seated cultural attitudes about women’s proper “place” and behavior – and it also represents an aspect of social and economic change that seems to threaten the very structure of families and rural communities here in Taita, and also in Lamu (although for different cultural and religious reasons).

Another challenge is related to illiteracy among adult women, which is becoming a major theme of my research. As many women were denied access to education in the past –whether for economic or cultural reasons – there are large numbers of adult women in rural areas who do not have basic skills in literacy or numeracy. This makes it extremely difficult for women to organize themselves into groups or small businesses, as they are required to register the group with the government, write a constitution, keep minutes of the organization, or do financial accounting to keep track of expenses and income. Some groups are also involved in scientific “research,” such as testing new seeds or tracking crop production in the Farmers’ Field Schools, and they also need to develop skills in record-keeping. Some women’s groups, however, are engaged in adult literacy classes where they are learning these basic skills while they are also involved in income-generating activities. I have been meeting with a number of adult educators in the community and learning more about the provision of adult education in Kenya. However, the government seems more focused on supporting basic primary education for children in Kenya, and is working toward provision of free secondary education as well. Adult basic education remains a neglected program of the government, and many teachers complain that the need is much greater than the government is able to handle. Nevertheless, adult education services are a valuable link for women’s groups to connect to resources and assistance within the local government.

For example, the Mwakitutu women’s group was started in 1983 as an adult literacy class, taught by my friend Julius Mwakio Katuu. The group officially registered as a women’s group and they have been active for 25 years now. They have been involved in many projects – building water tanks, farming, selling charcoal, weaving beautiful sisal baskets, and building houses and rental buildings. They continue to struggle with basic literacy, however, and they often call on Julius and his wife, Mama Agneta, for assistance with organizational issues. Recently I assisted them by helping them to plan and write a proposal to the Women’s Enterprise Fund, which was initiated this year by the Government of Kenya to provide micro-enterprise loans for women’s groups. The program is well-intentioned, but it seems inaccessible to many rural women’s groups as the forms are written in English and require a lot of organizational skills such as preparing a budget, business planning, etc. However, the Social Services officer in Mwatate Division taught the women about the process and translated the forms, and Julius and Agneta and I interviewed them about their plans and assisted with the writing of the proposal. The proposal was accepted by the local government and has been forwarded to Nairobi. If they get the funding, the Mwakitutu group will have support to build a six-room structure on their land in Mwatate town, where they currently have several other structures that they have rented out to carpenters’ shops, kiosks, and small restaurants. They are excited about this opportunity to expand their investments in real estate, which will help them to generate even more income for their other projects. I have also been involved with them in examining their property lines and thinking creatively about how to approach other businesses that have encroached upon their land. It has been a fascinating process of watching them examine and solve problems based on their own experiences and practical wisdom, and of seeing their difficulty in accessing government services without the benefit of literacy. It has also been encouraging to see how they manage to work around the bureaucratic system through skillful negotiations, and by getting help from their local adult literacy teacher. I also have to give great kudos to Julius, who I think is a powerful example of a man who is gender sensitive, deeply dedicated to women’s empowerment, and is so humble and respectful in his interactions with women. This whole process has been a fascinating journey into “popular education” and the “pedagogy of the oppressed” (a la Myles Horton and Paulo Freire).

Aside from my work with women’s groups in Taita, I have also continued to support the Taita International School. In early May, I was approached by Aruna Amirthanayagam, the Cultural Attache of the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy, who is my supervisor for the Fulbright Program. Aruna was interested in visiting the school since he is responsible for organizing educational and cultural exchange programs between the U.S. and Kenya. He and a Kenyan staff member, Rukiya Mwinyi, visited the school on May 12, and it was a sight to behold. The students were fabulous, and they organized performances of poetry, skits, singing and dancing of traditional songs, and speeches. The Mwakitutu Women’s Group also attended the event, where they sang traditional Taita songs and demonstrated basket weaving. Then all the teachers and staff gave short speeches, telling about the history and significance of the school. The Embassy officials donated several boxes of books for the secondary school students, including a brand new set of World Book Encyclopedias, another set of MacMillan textbooks for the new Kenyan curriculum, a set of wall charts for Chemistry and Biology, and a huge map of Africa. These books are a valuable addition to our library, and the teachers were raving about how they had wanted to purchase the MacMillian books but the school just couldn’t afford them. The Embassy staff also promised to send more boxes of books for the nursery and primary school children. They also promised that we would begin an ongoing relationship between the Taita International School and the U.S. Embassy, with assistance in the form of scholarships for girls, summer camp enrichment programs, and other educational support. At the end of our visit, Rukiya and Aruna told me that they have visited dozens of schools throughout Kenya, but they have never been welcomed so warmly by any school or had such an impressive presentation. They said that they were so impressed with the school and were amazed at how much it has been developed in just a year and a half. I think that organizing this visit was perhaps my greatest accomplishment and legacy so far in Kenya, and I hope that this will lead to more scholarships and opportunities for Taita’s students in the future.

The next day, I traveled to Mombasa with Aruna and Rukiya to visit the Sheikh Khalifa bin Ziyad Secondary School. This is a private Muslim high school, and is one of the top 10 private schools in Kenya and among the top 20 of all high schools for students’ achievement in the national Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams. Although the school is mixed, it is still segregated by gender in keeping with Islamic tradition, as the boys and girls are separated in different classrooms and by a big partition between them in the auditorium. Last year, the U.S. embassy had organized a national essay competition for high school students to write about the importance of democratic elections, and the top three winners of the essay contest were girls from this school. We presented the girls with certificates and cash prizes (the First Place winner won 10,000 shillings, which is about $150). We also presented the school with a big check for 130,000 Kenyan shillings, which will support a tuition scholarship for one student for two years. Aruna asked me to present a short speech to the students, and I spoke in Kiswahili to the crowd of about 1,000 students to their delight and surprise – the whole auditorium was howling with laughter and cheers when I greeted them “Asalaam aleikum” (Peace be with you) and explained my research to them. I congratulated them on their academic achievements and encouraged them to study hard and they too could study abroad in the United States someday. It was really delightful to speak to them and to live my dream of making a whole roomful of people crack up with laughter! (I just hope I didn’t make any big mistakes and say something stupid or offensive – it is easy to mistake a vowel and completely change the meaning of a word…..)

After our trip to Sheikh Khalifa, I stayed in Mombasa for another two weeks, where I continued with my research and writing and visiting with women’s groups and friends throughout Mombasa. It was a wonderful visit and I am once again amazed at the polycentric, multicultural space of that city. It is so exciting to live in a place that is influenced by so many peoples from throughout the world, and especially around the Indian Ocean region. It is a testament to the polycentric nature of globalization – that “globalism” does not just mean the cultural dominance or neo-colonialism of the West over the Rest, but that there is a complex interweaving of cultural influences from Africa, Arabia, India, China, Indonesia, Europe, and beyond. Although British hegemony and the English language are still an issue in post-colonial Kenya, issues of identity are far more complicated by the reality of the post-modern world and influences of media from around the Indian Ocean region. It is interesting to note how young people on the Kenyan coast today look to the Arab world, India, China, Nigeria and other African countries even more than Europe or Hollywood. I hope to write about this issue more in my research someday.

Otherwise, life is good and I am happy. I hope that you too are enjoying life, wherever you are, and remembering to be grateful. I look forward to seeing some of you when I am home in Ohio – I will be home from July 2-20. Then I will head back to Kenya to continue my research until November. Please take care and be in touch.

Peace and Love,

Cat Cutcher

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Happy Maulidi from Mombasa

Dear Friends and Family,

Greetings from beautiful Mombasa, Kenya. I am writing with some great news today – I have received an extension of my Fulbright Fellowship, which will allow me to stay in Kenya for a full year until November 2008. I will still come home for a visit in July, but then will head back to Kenya to continue my research until the late fall. I also was awarded a dissertation fellowship from the American Association of University Women, which will support me for another full year so that I can finish writing my dissertation when I return to Ohio. I am very excited about this opportunity and grateful to have the support of such an incredible organization. The AAUW supports research to increase equity and access to education for women and girls around the world.

The Taita International School has been closed for three weeks for the April holidays, so I took the opportunity to travel and continue my research elsewhere in Coast Province. I have spent the past two weeks in Lamu, a small island off the northern coast of Kenya on the Indian Ocean. Lamu is a special place – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest and most-intact Swahili settlement in East Africa. It is hard to describe Lamu without resorting to clichés – the place has a mystical appeal and is known by many as the “Kathmandu of Africa” or a “travellers’ paradise.” I was first introduced to Lamu as a student and a tourist in 1994, and initially thought of the place as a “timeless” and “unchanging” society that has preserved traditional Swahili culture and Muslim traditions. However, after my third visit to Lamu, and experiencing more of the local culture through the eyes of women leaders, I have discovered a complex and dynamic society that is facing many of the same issues that are present throughout Kenya today.

The geography of Lamu is striking. The Lamu district includes an archipelago and mainland region that lies on the northeastern coast of Kenya, just south of Somalia. Lamu town is the administrative center of the district, and the oldest town in Kenya with over 1,000 years of continuous settlement and trade. All transport on the island is by boat, donkey or foot, as there are only four motorized vehicles on the entire island. Travel away from the island is entirely dependent on boats, and must be timed during the high tides. The “streets” of the town are narrow alleyways and labyrinthine corridors winding around ancient stone, sand and coral homes, with open sewers filtering underneath (sanitation and waste management is a major problem). Beyond the old town, new settlements are growing, and their names reflect the globalized sensibilities of modern Lamu – Kandahar, Kashmir, Bombay. Beyond these settlements, the island flattens out into an immense expanse of “shambas” (farms) of coconut, mango and cashew trees. There are also large areas for grazing cattle, goats, and sheep. On the far side of the island facing the open ocean, the landscape rises into large sand dunes, which dips down to a 6-km long, crescent-shaped beach.

The Lamu population is 95% Muslim and is characterized as a Swahili trading town where ethnicity and race tend to be fairly fluid categories, and intermarriage is common. The population of 20,000 or more people is a creolized mixture of Swahili, Bajuni, Omani Arab, Persian/Shirazi, Kore, Kikuyu, Luo, Indian, and European people. For the majority of the Muslim Swahili residents, modesty and chastity are the hallmarks of this conservative culture, but there is also a hidden element of romance and allure. Women in Lamu are often clad entirely in black “buibuis” or “shugas”, a full-length black robe, with a black “hijab” or headscarf and sometimes even a “ninja” which covers all but their eyes. However, once you go inside their homes, you realize that underneath the buibui, they are elaborately adorned with beautiful clothing, henna designs on their hands and feet, and ornate golden jewelry. Men are also covered with a full-length white “kanzu” robe and an embroidered cap or “kofia” worn on their heads, which is also worn over other clothing.

A sign at the Lamu jetty greets visitors with this message: “Lamu County Council welcomes you to Lamu. Beach wear and scanty dresses not desirable in the town. Thank you for respecting our cultures.” This conservative attitude puts off many visitors to Lamu. But a little modesty goes a long way, and I found that when I covered myself with long skirts and a scarf draped around my shoulders, I was greeted warmly by both men and women. The “Rough Guide to Kenya” explains an interesting aspect of Swahili modesty: “Outsiders have tended to get the wrong end of the stick about Swahili seclusion. While women are undoubtedly heavily restricted in their public lives, in private they have considerable freedom. The notion of romantic love runs deep in Swahili culture. Love affairs, divorces and remarriage are the norm, and the buibui is perhaps as useful to women in disguising their liaisons as it is to their husbands in preventing them” (Trillo, 2006, p. 537). The veiling of Muslim women was a topic of conversation throughout my interviews and observations in Lamu, and I hope to write about it more in my research at some point.

I traveled to Lamu for a “spring break” with two other U.S. Student Fulbrighters to celebrate Maulidi, an Islamic festival celebrating the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. This is a revered event throughout East Africa, and Lamu hosts what is considered to be the best Maulidi Festival in the Indian Ocean region. The tradition started when Habib Swaleh traveled here from the Comoros Islands in the mid-1800s and founded the Riyadha Mosque. It is said that he is a direct descendent from the Prophet Mohammed, and that he brought the Maulidi tradition to Lamu which has survived to this day through his hundreds of descendents. An estimated 50,000 Muslim pilgrims travel to Lamu every year from throughout the world to celebrate the revered holiday, which is a month of activities culminating in a three-day festival. Some people even say that “two trips to Lamu are equal to one trip to the Hajj” at Mecca in Saudi Arabia. I met many new friends from Kenya, Tanzania & Zanzibar, Somalia, Ethiopia, Libya, Egypt, Iran, the UK and elsewhere. I even met a Somali-Ohioan, a man who moved to Columbus, OH almost a decade ago as a refugee from the Somali civil war. We met in a café one day and talked for almost 3 hours - he was also excited to meet me since I am from Columbus and we know a lot of the same people and neighborhoods.

The events of Maulidi kept me really busy for the first week I was in Lamu. We spent a lot of time watching the singing, drumming and dancing at the Riyadha Mosque, which was the center of the religious festivities. There were also nightly performances of Taarab music in the town square, with men singing religious songs with a band playing flutes, drums, synthesizers and stringed instruments. The National Museums of Kenya also organized a number of secular events as well, which made it feel like a county fair with donkey races, dhow (sailboat) races, a football (soccer) tournament, a children’s Arabic calligraphy competition, henna painting, and daily gaming competitions in the town square with old men playing strategic games such as dominoes, bao (like mancala), and dumna (like chess). My favorite competition, however, was a “greased pole contest” at the jetty, where young men tried to balance on a greased pole to grab a flag at the end before slipping off into the cool waters of the Lamu harbor. It was really hilarious to watch.

After the Maulidi events, I spent a couple of days relaxing with my friend and fellow Fulbrighter Valerie at the beach. On Sunday, we went on a dhow trip with some local guys and spent the day sailing, fishing, snorkeling, swimming and sunbathing at the beach on Manda Island, just across the harbor from Lamu Island. One of the guys, Bakari, caught a black snapper fish with a spear, and our other friend Baji roasted it on a charcoal grill with lime juice and chili. It was truly delicious and melted in our mouths. We also ate rice cooked with coconut milk, vegetarian curry, and a dessert of mangoes and bananas. I also spent two other days at the beach with friends over the next week, and am sure that Lamu’s beaches are the most beautiful in the world – white sands, a long stretch of sand dunes, large waves, and the great Indian Ocean on the horizon.

We also spent a day at a “shamba” (farm) of our friend Omari Hassan and his family. We walked and rode donkeys for an hour or two across Lamu Island to the remote shamba in the interior, near the sand dunes. The shamba was like an oasis with palm, coconut, mango, cashew, pomegranate and guava trees. We spent the day playing with Omari Hassan’s four nephews (aged 6-10 years old) who were really silly and ornery and fun. We played cards, sang songs, chased each other up and down the sand dunes, and followed as they led us on a tour of the shamba and encouraged us to taste every piece of fruit they could find. It started raining a little bit and we ran back to the house to cook with Omari’s sister, who said that we had brought the rain as a blessing to their shamba. She taught us how to grate coconuts with a tool called a “mbuzi” and to strain it with a woven raffia sieve called a “kifumbo.” She added rice to the coconut milk and cooked it over an open fire, along with a delicious vegetable curry and beef stew. We ate from a common bowl with our hands while sitting on a woven raffia mat called a “mkeka.” After lunch, we relaxed on the mkeka for a siesta under a large acacia tree. Then we roasted cashew nuts over an open fire. The cashew shells are so oily that they catch on fire, and we had to douse them in the sand to let them cool down before shelling them. The boys had a competition shelling the nuts and then we ate the warm roasted cashews with sweet ginger tea. Tantalizing!

Throughout the next week, I stayed in Lamu and was busy with research interviews and meetings. I met with members of local government and leaders of women’s groups, and tried to learn as much as I could about education and organizing among women in Lamu. I interviewed the Lamu District Gender and Social Development Officer, who told me that there are over 400 active women’s groups in Lamu District alone. She is from Taita and shared some interesting insights into the similarities and differences between cultures, religions and women’s organizations in Taita and Lamu districts. She discussed the “geography of women’s organizing” and talked about how women’s groups operate differently and take on different roles, projects, and income-generating activities based on their environment and local economy. This is a theme that is really emerging from my research and conversations with people throughout Kenya.

I also met with Ombuya Amele, the Lamu District Adult Education Officer, who informed me about the challenges of providing adult education services in rural Kenya, and especially in a district as diverse and widespread as Lamu. He said that there are just 100 teachers for the whole of Lamu district, but the need is far greater since there are such high rates of illiteracy, especially among women. He believes that women’s groups are uniquely placed to deliver these services and are a valuable partner for raising awareness and education among adult women in Lamu.

Another day I met with Hadija, an American art historian who has lived in Kenya for the past 30 years, and who has married a local man and settled in Lamu with her family. She is the editor of Lamu Chonjo, a magazine promoting the Lamu Archipelago and reporting about community development issues facing the area. She said that she has confronted many gender issues as the mother of two girls in Lamu – wanting them to both appreciate their local Swahili culture but also strive to understand the world and their opportunities beyond Lamu. It was fascinating to listen to her ideas about female space, Swahili women’s culture, and the major obstacles to women’s and girls’ education in Lamu. She was an excellent person with whom to discuss and interpret these issues since she represents a bridge between the U.S. culture and Lamu, and could explain things in a language that I could really understand.

Another Westerner who has made Lamu her home is Julie, a former VSO volunteer from the UK who has started an NGO called “Lamu Safi” (Clean Lamu). Julie specializes in sanitation and waste management, and has worked to sensitize the local population about proper waste disposal, composting toilets, and recycling. She works with women’s groups on garbage collection and ecological restoration. She also works with youth groups to use drama and role playing to raise awareness about environmental issues in schools.

I also met with Amina Hussein Soud, a Lamu native and former Fulbright Scholar who studied at Yale University and has a Master’s in Environmental Studies. She is currently the director of Red Cross and the Spanish-sponsored organization ANIDAN, an orphanage and school in Lamu. Amina is a superwoman – the mother of 4 children, a wife, a community leader, a scientist, a humanitarian…. We had a fascinating interview about the role of women’s groups in Lamu in promoting microfinance, in developing small businesses, in encouraging girl child education, and in contributing to community development. Amina said one thing that I will never forget: that as a woman in Lamu, she works behind the scenes, while men want to take all the credit - but that she can get a lot more done as long as she understands that. Good advice.

I also met with Maryam, who also studied in Cleveland and returned home to Lamu. She taught me about the ways that women’s groups are educating the public about domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, girl child education, microfinance, and small business development. Maryam revealed that divorce and domestic violence are very common in Lamu, leaving women and children particularly vulnerable. However, she also said that it is a controversial issue to discuss domestic violence, or provide services for women survivors, as it is a small town and one could be accused of trying to break up families. (This reminds me of the secrecy surrounding “My Sister’s Place” in Athens.) She said that the role of mothers is essential in promoting girls’ education in Lamu, as women are now sensitized to the importance of educating their girls and ensuring that they can become self-sufficient.

Then I met Rukiya, a mother, grandmother, and community leader who has been a central figure in promoting girls’ education, poverty eradication, and women’s empowerment in Lamu. She was born and raised here and has lived her whole life in the working-class neighborhood of Langoni. She is a respected elder and has been particularly active in promoting “merry-go-rounds,” or small microfinance groups that have helped women to save and invest their money for income-generating activities. She discussed many of the biggest problems facing women in Lamu – divorce, drug abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, lack of child support, HIV/AIDS. She also discussed how Islam promotes women’s rights and how women can refer to the Qur’an and Sheria laws to demand equality and protection.

Another day I visited the Lamu Education Development Foundation Trust, a community-based organization that supports girl child education and family empowerment in Lamu District. Their director is Amina Kale, a teacher and community-based educator who is also a dynamic leader in the community. Their mission statement reads: “To mobilize people to work together in promoting educational standards and other sectors of development for the present and future well being of Lamu and Kenya.” They also support Kikozi, a “merry-go-round” or savings and credit association with over 600 members in Lamu District. They are particularly involved in educating women about microfinance, small business development and cooperative marketing to assist in raising money for school fees for children. Many of their board members are prominent teachers and educated professionals in the district who are invested in promoting opportunities for girls to excel in education.

Last but not least, I met with a Kikuyu woman from Mpeketoni on the mainland of Lamu district, who started a small community-based group called the Lamu East Poverty Eradication and Education Women’s Group. She told me more about the relationship between the mainland and Lamu town, and the differences between different ethnic and religious communities in the district regarding women’s education and organizing. Her group is primarily involved in agriculture, tree planting, waste management, and small business development.

After two weeks in Lamu, I left last Tuesday. I am now in Mombasa, the largest city on the coast, where I am sweating in the humidity and enjoying the island breezes and full moon. I have been making use of having some down time, and have been catching up on writing my field notes from my intense interviewing and observations in Lamu. I found an amazing place to stay in the Old Town, near Fort Jesus, with a family who rents out the top floor of their home to American students for Swahili studies and international exchange programs. I have the whole top floor to myself and have set up my writing table and laptop on the balcony overlooking the ocean. It is one of the most inspiring settings I have ever had to write, to think, and to be. Mombasa is an endlessly fascinating city and a truly multicultural space influenced by the fusion of African, Arab, Indian and European peoples. From the ancient Fort Jesus through the meandering streets of the Old Town, to the colorful market filled with carts and stands piled high with tropical fruits, vegetables and spices, to the textile shops filled with sumptuous fabrics, this is a city that appeals to all of my senses of romance and drama. Mombasa is a truly cosmopolitan and diverse space, where the whole world seems to meet and reside together. One local professor recently told me that Mombasa is a city that has historically welcomed people of every race and nationality and religion and language, and that the rest of Kenya and the world could learn a lot from this society about conflict resolution and embracing diversity. He is organizing a conference this summer on Swahili culture and conflict resolution, and I hope to have the opportunity to participate and learn more about this topic.

This weekend I visited John Nyambu Njore and his family in Nyali, on the north shore of Mombasa. I stayed with John’s family back in 1994 in Wundanyi, when he was just 12 years old, but today he is 26 and just became a father when his daughter Martha Kimbaya was born two weeks ago. I am excited to see him again, to meet his wife and daughter, and to reconnect with him as an adult. It is really wonderful to have long-term friendships with people here, and I am grateful to have the chance to cross paths with this family again.

I will return to Taita for a while to continue with my fieldwork there with women’s groups and adult education classes in Mwatate and Wundanyi. I am also planning another trip to Nairobi in the near future. I have been invited to participate in some interviews with women’s groups and displaced women in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in the Rift Valley, in cooperation with an intern from the Kenya National Human Rights Commission. I am looking forward to learning more about the issues confronting women in the IDP camps and meeting with women leading the peace and reconciliation process.

So, that is my life of the past month. I hope that you are also happy and healthy wherever you are. Please do write to me sometime and let me know what is up in your world – I am really missing home and am craving hearing some news from my friends out there…..

In peace and freedom,