Hi in the streets.

I hear Kylie Kylie echoing in the roads. The kids in my class recognize me! Probably because I told lots of stories in class this morning. All eyes 18 pairs of eyes rested on me as I stood in front of the long rectangular classroom with sunlight streaming in the three windows on the right-hand side. My bui bui matched that of 6 of the girls seated at rickety old wooden desks in front of me. Quick. Think on my feet I thought as they asked me to tell stories. I felt frozen. Then, snow came to my mind. I told a tale of skiing. I explained teaching a friend how to ski. I acted it out: bending at my hips to show my friend falling over when attempting to ski down the mountain. Using chalk and the blackboard to show the elevation of the mountain. I was getting more confident as they laughed. Laughter unites. After the story, however, the teacher did not come back. I was left alone. To teach. So I picked up one of their English books and did a reading comprehension lesson with them. I chose students to read the story outloud. Incorporated some acting into it. Made up questions about th story that I had them answer. It went pretty well. They were patient with me.

PE time came quickly. This meant they go outside to play in the ‘field’ covered in trash, contained by a cement wall, smelling of donkey poop with the donkey sanctuary right next door. On the whole, an unpleasant place from my perspective. But, my perspective really doesn’t matter: the bubbly nature of Fuad’s cheeks, Muhammad’s squeeling voice, Joy’s elevated eyebrows showed their genuine contentment. After doing a few exercises with the teacher – banana jumps, frog leaps, and dancing fingers – I was, once again, left with the students. So, we played wonderball. And telephone. The heat, intense as ever, didn’t cease. Under my bui bui and hijab sweat covered my body. Starting to trip at the corners of my eyes. I suppose you’ve gotta accept the sweat in return for the fulfillment I get out of wearing the outfit. The kids love it, the women love it. Finally, PE came to and end. I sat with the teachers, a sack of red flavored ice and talked about the Swahili language and their teaching profession. The teachers were all women. This is interesting for my study of Muslim women. These women are dedicated to teaching and, they are young. Women have not always been the majority amongst the teacher population in Lamu, they explain. But as these women become teachers they are gaining a new confidence which is allowing them to be more comfortable in the public sphere of Lamu: the waterfront streets. It is these streets where these women walk to get to work because the school is located on the waterfront. And, while the women are not all Muslim they are mostly Muslim and these women proudly wear their bui buis.

I am sad that my work in the school was  short lived. The children are now on their month-long break. But it was a week well worth my time. And I am new here so the hustle bustle of Lamu Town’s donkeys, grilled corn street vendors, and aggressive store owners can be overwhelming. Thus, the joy that comes from a child stopping me in these streets just to say hello is invaluable. A precious moment.

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Turtles: no one will ever know.

It helps to be in the right place at the right time. That happened yesterday and what did I get out of it? I saw turtles hatch. I saw them beak out of their slimey hard-boiled-egg like shells, wake to the world, touch sand for the first time, wiggle their soft bodies, follow their instincts to the crashing waterfront, waddle into the foaming water and disappear into the dark blue water.

I was invited to see this amazing burst of life by Theo. He is a film-maker from Italy. He is here for about a month making a film about Lamu. Recently, the Smithsonian bought one of his films. So I am imagine this one will be quite good as well. He wants to take some videos of me in my bui bui…. Hmm I don’t know about that.

We went to Manda Island, where the hatching took place, with a group of tourists. Mostly they were from Peponi. Peponi is the nicest hotel in Shela. And I came straight there from my day out and about. So, I was in my thick black bui bui and black hijab. They were in skimpy bikinis, pink shorts, think tank tops. Stark contrast. I felt out of place. And I didn’t know anyone other than Theo. The two of us stuck together. But sometimes he would get lost in his filming. And I was left alone. I thought to myself, this is what it would be like to travel alone. I’ve always wanted to do that. But I didn’t like the feeling so much. I felt a sense of home-less-ness.  Because even though I am away from home I can pretty much feel at home if I am with people I am close with. As I watched the turtles, however, I was alone. I wanted so badly to share this moment with someone. I thought about how much Teagan would love this sight.

But, in the end, this three hour, out of the blew excursion is what being abroad is all about. Jumping in and seeing things that I would never see back at home. With people I don’t know. And, as the sun set a majestic light filled the beach; it was as if a spectacular baker was the icing a cake.

On the boat ride home one man from Switzerland kept talking about genetic programming or some other fancy term. He refered to complicated systems built into the genetic make-up of these turtles which tells them to go to the water once they hatch. He got into science talk. I don’t care much for that conversation so I zoned him out. But, then, I smiled as he said: “but the truth is that no one will ever know how it works.”

(My internet is spotty here so I cannot put up the videos of the turtles making their way to the water. I will put them up when I get back to Nairobi – that is only a week and a half from now which is crazy!)

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My toes fall deep into the sand; they sink in just as I have sunken into Lamu’s Muslim, enchanting, labyrinth. I’m deep in the sand, I’m deep in this island.

It’s my first long walk on the beach of Shela. Shela is the end of Lamu Island, about a 40 minute walk from Lamu Town where I am staying, which is a little more ritzy – there is a big hotel and lots of Europeans and tourists in general. The sand goes on for miles. And my mind goes where it wants.

As I walk I realize that my first judgments about Muslim women have fallen short of the reality – I thought that the Muslim religion here would show signs of slowly fading away, as Lamu becomes a product of the forces of globalization. I was wrong. Actually, the Muslim religion is doing nothing other than strengthening its roots on this island. And, there are so many stories to dive into and learn from. Many of them show that religion isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

As I walk on the beach I realize that studying a different religion is leading me to consider my own religion. The Mosque by our house wakes me up every day with the morning prayer: Fajr. And I am interviewing women about their religious beliefs. So, I am beginning to think about religion. What does it mean that I am a Christian? It is important that my grandfather was a minister, but why do I feel disconnected from a church congregation? And, why am I a Christian instead of a different religion if I cannot explain the reason myself? Why are the Lamu Muslims staying faithful to their religion when Americans are become less and less religious each day?

A view of the mosque from my window. It wakes me up at 5 am everyday.

I think about my interview with Zahara Shee the other day. She is a middle aged Muslim woman from Lamu who is now a councilor for the town. She had a lot to say about her religion. Her headscarf rested loosely on her head as she spoke to me about what it means to be a Muslim woman in Lamu. And her body moved all around as the words come from deep inside her: her passion for the Muslim religion was evident. She ardently asserted that “Muslim women are lucky because they are given many chances to do what they want, they are really given everything.” She believes this because she explains how Muslim men must share their earning with their wife and with the family but Muslim women are allowed to keep their earnings for themselves. She also believes that all women and men should be educated and is assertive in stating that the Koran is supportive of education. She also described how Muslim women are allowed to divorce if they so wish and work if they so wish as well.

Then, she asked me about my religion. I explained that I was a Christian but I do not go to church as much as I would like. She asked me if I pray. I said yes. I do pray at night in my bed and I do it even more so when I am away from home. And she said that is good. She said that praying is all that you must do in order to “keep your religion.” Just take the time to pray. There were many Christians in Nairobi. But not here.

Church in Nairobi.

So as I walked down the beach and I heard the echo of the mosque for the afternoon prayer, Maghrib, I decided to join in. It felt kind of good.

Mosque on the beach.

But I am also starting to think about the god within myself. I am reminded of the journey that Julia Roberts went through in the movie Eat, Pray, Love. I just saw it. The breeze of the beach brings my favorite quote from that movie into my mind: “God dwells within you, as you.” (the book eay, pray love says it like this: “God dwells within you as yourself, exactly the way you are” p 192). For some reason, even though I just prayed and liked how it made me feel, the idea that god is within me really makes sense too. Its liberating. The supreme spirit is in me? Maybe the Hindus have got it right…. I remember being a child and having Kippy (my aunt and godmother) explain the god within to me. And, as a child, I internalized what she said

So, right now, I am a lost soul now in the realm of religion. But I think it’s a journey worth taking.

Lost on the beach.

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Today, I sat.

I sat on a cement bench by the waterfront and took videos of the women on the streets and make observations. This was one of the best things that I have done thus far as I learned an immense amount about the comfort that women feel as they walk around. Traditionally, I thought that Muslim women did not like to come out, were wrapped up in home life, did not go to mosque, prayed at home instead. But, as I watched, the cheeks of these women rose up and down engaged in conversation with friends. They were not covered and shut, their bui buis draped on them and swayed and their fruitful conversations did the same. Blue headscarves with purple flowers. Simple balckheadscarves. Kanga material headscarves with bright yellow designs. Unlike the majority of the women I had seen in the back streets of the Pate communities, these women all wear their headscarves. And do so proudly.

I finally felt that I was becoming a part of this town. I walked through the streets and was welcomed by familiar faces. And I felt that I was slowly being accepted. Everyone I’ve talked to has been open with me.

But the open conversations didn’t continue when I went to the Lamu Secondary School. I wanted to go there to interview a few girls because most of the 486 students at the school are Muslim. I was not sure what to expect but I was very content that someone had offered to take me. He was the brother of a girl who attended the school.

We walked away from the seafront. Into streets that were no longer paved, around corners where homes were made of tin instead of cement, saw women sitting on their footsteps not all dressed in Bui buis. Rich sunlight filled a sand field that had soccer ents on either end. And when we arrived to the school we signed in. I knew that we had to find the headmistress because the people at the museum had told me to go straight to her in order to inform her that I was there and ask if it was okay. The girls, a the majority of whom were taking their exams, were all dressed in pale green dresses and white buibuis. The only ones not in this uniform were, presumably, Christian. The girls watched me walk through their small campus consisting of three one story buildings. Unlike the children in town, they did not shriek and yell hello. Their eyes slightly glittered. But they did not break the veil of quietness that I felt on the campus.

I arrived to the office of the headmistress and noticed that there was a big plaque at the office’s entrance which had the American flag on it. Written in bold black letters, the plaque explained that the US Embassy had donated a large sum of money to this school. It rested on the bright blue wall. It got me to thinking. As I waited for the headmistress these thoughts about the connection between the US and Kenya truly grew in my mind.

Finally, I was let into the office. The headmistress was not thrilled. She attacked me with a firm voice. And, within a matter of minutes I was back on my way out of the fenced in school. The man who took me, Saudi, was surprised. He explained that many people do not like her approach to leading the school. She has only been there for about a year. But, Mbarak at the museum also explained that many people do not like this woman. It was frustrating, walking out of that school. She explained that because the girls were taking their exams I would ruin their focus. I said that I understood. I did.

But I felt my feet walking faster on the way back to the museum. I scurried along. I was having trouble living into the ‘pole pole’ Lamu world when I was hot, shut down by this headmistress, and feeling as if Saudi had only taken me on this adventure to see if he could get business from me. As we walked back to town he offered donkey rides, tours around the town, boating trips. Everything. After three days of incessant harassment from the local men my blood simmered. I shouldn’t have picked up my pace, but I could not help it.

Then, he took me down a road that I did not recognize, saying we were going a different way. I thought it was a good idea. The more I can see, the better. Until my sense of direction kicked in. We were not going towards the town. I spoke up. “I have to get back to the museum.” He looked at me “oh yes I know I was taking you to my shamba (Swahili for field) where my mother is so that you can meet her and buy some things you may want.” I wanted to scream – I don’t want anything! But. I calmly said I was sorry but I had to get back to ‘work.’

I got more from just sitting than I did the afternoon’s adventure. I think I’m going to try and sit more.

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research in paradise

The Lamu Fort Museum, the place where I am lucky enough to spend a good chunk of my time in Lamu, is not only a source for history it is truly an economic and social hub of Lamu. It was built in the 1829s by the Sultan of Pate, which is an island nearby.

While I am in Lamu I will be working for the museum and I will also be doing my own research about Muslim women. This wasn’t an easy decision to make. Because I am also very interested in the influence international aid has had in Lamu. The US embassy gives the museum a ton of money (especially after 9-11 in order to make sure that the Muslim people of Lamu did not turn extremist and begin hating the US). And China increases its connections with the coast of Kenya everyday. But I think that it is very important for me to take advantage of the resources that are available to me. And, that is the people of Lamu. I can find out about the international aid coming into Lamu from google. I cannot find the stories of the Muslim women in Lamu from google. So, I will focus on the effects that globalization has had on Muslim women and their religious beliefs.

I believe that as modernization and westernization sweep Lamu, religion may start to decline. Afterall, women will be given more autonomy in the community and they will be less likely to stay so closely tied to their religion. We will see.

During my first few days in Lamu I was struck by the number of development projects that are going on. I soon realized that they are planned for and facilitated by the Museum (which gets a lot of money from the US embassy as I mentioned earlier). There is a project, which is going to bring water to one of the girls’ schools in Nanza, a project that is laying cement pathways throughout a small village on Pate Island, a project to restore an ancient Mosque, and there is an idea for the project to build an information center on the island right accross the bay from Lamu Town. This is definitely a place that is building itself up for more tourists… for more Western influences to come in. And I also believe that this increase in development is also linked to the fact that a huge port may be built on Lamu Island in the next few years. This port would bring 300,000-500,000 more people (mostly from ‘upcountry’ which locals call the other parts of Kenya inland from the coast) to the Lamu Archipelago, Mbarak, the Musuem curator, explained to me. This port would also totally change the island (there are studies of how it would ruin the island’s water system and it is obvious that it would change the island’s Swahili dominated culture).

map of Lamu island and other islands close by

On my second day of work last week, Mbarak asked me to join a few of the museum workers on a trip to Pate Island. I jumped at the opportunity. As I hopped on the boat I could not believe that I was in such a beautiful place, learning so much, and deeply engaging with history and the future at the same time. The breeze was freshly salted and my mind ran with ideas about the Kenyan coast. I imagined the ancient Arab and Chinese dwellers who once dominated these seas.

As we explored the small villages on Pate Island I learned that the Museum of Lamu is funding projects in these small communities. An interesting thing I noticed, however, was that the women were almost all Muslim yet they were not all wearing their headscarves. This was interesting because all of the women that I see in Lamu Town wear their bui buis and headscarves everyday – they do not even take them off in their offices in town. I will work to explore why there is this discrepancy, some women wearing their full Muslim attire and some not, in the days and weeks to come.

Muslim women in a home is Faza, on Pate Island. Some wear headscarves, some do not.

So much more to explore.

When I thought about coming to Kenya and doing my independent study, I did not imagine that I would end up in Lamu. It is like paradise for gosh’s sake. But, a perfect paradise for research. The people are open, the history is visually apparent, my days are structured how I want them.

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Safari images


Some of the safari photos!

Maasai in the Mara.



majestic nighty sky.


These are only of the many photos from the safari with mom and dad. I’m really excited to gather all of them and make a book filled with the images when I get home. Here in Lamu there are not such vast landscapes. But there is an ocean to look out onto.

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Kibera Kids






happy hands.

Kibera kids.

A few photos from a day that is pent in Kibera. Memories of Nairobi while I am here in Lamu

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