HAPPY NEW YEAR GREETING FROM JENIFER HARTMAN - KENYA
I hope you had a holiday season of rest and renewal. December was a whirlwind here. KeMU was undergoing a 5-yr. certification review and everyone on campus was preparing for the Kenyan government's extensive examination. Unlike university accreditation reviews I have experienced in the US which focus primarily on the teaching and learning process, EVERYTHING at the university was examined here. Thankfully, KeMU received an outstanding review and certification was renewed. That was going on while final exams were in progress the first couple of weeks of December and then all of a sudden everyone was gone by Dec. 15! Kenyans take their holidays seriously and people travel to their home villages in rural areas.
It has been a very quiet and peaceful two weeks on campus. I took several days to retreat to Meru National Park again. This time I saw lions and ostriches in addition to all the other exquisite wildlife. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to see such grandeur and natural beauty. When you go to the park, one never knows what you will see that day as the wildlife is always moving around. It is a very expansive park and, for whatever reason, not many people visit it. Safari literally means 'travel' and that is what you do - travel through the park looking for the animals in their natural setting. It is an adventure in the truest sense! While there, I also taught the local chef to make sourdough bread. Baking alongside the staff in their kitchen was a cultural experience in itself!
Back on campus I continue to have adventures living on the edge of 'forest' as they call it. In late October the short rainy season began and with the intermittent torrential rain the whole place turned the most lovely spring green (this is the warmest season for them). Even though Meru is essentially on the equator, it is still considered in the southern hemisphere. The field grasses jumped up and the trees and shrubs filled out with leaves. I can still hear the monkeys in the back but cannot see them as they are so well camouflaged. The baboon troop visits almost daily - one morning they managed to open the back door and come into the house. I was in the other part of the house and heard the racket immediately. I have been told they do not fear women but also do not like noise. I went clapping loudly on my way to the back door, grabbed a broom and started hitting the floor. They exited and then just sat outside on the steps watching me frantically lock the door. I have learned to keep my kitchen windows closed except when I am in the kitchen. I have caught them peeping over the kitchen window ledge. There are metal gratings on all the windows and doors so they cannot gain entry (except if they open the door itself), but it is a bit unnerving to be doing the dishes and all of a sudden a baboon is staring at me. I have seen as many as 30 at one time traveling through the yard as they go from one side of the forest to the other. The babies clinging to their moms' backs are charming and the younger ones are always up to no good. They are very cute from my side of the glass windows, but I do not lose sight of how strong and dangerous they can be. And I do not want to share my home with them!! As I write this, sitting on the central quad on campus, there are four baboons meandering on the grass - they have no sense of the forest boundary within which they are supposed to stay!!
About a month ago as I was sitting on the house back steps, I thought I saw a mongoose going around the foot of the steps about 5 feet away, but it was so fleeting I wasn't 100% certain that's what it was. Then last week I saw it again in the same spot. This time moving more slowly with a large lizard in its mouth. My impression is that they are not terribly common, but I also think not frequently seen, except in the forest. Then just a few days ago as I was retrieving some laundry from the clothesline, I stepped not two feet away from a very large black snake coiled in the tall grass. We startled each other and I quickly retreated as it slithered away but not before I could see its largest 'coil' was at least 3" in diameter. The security guards' consensus is that it was a black cobra and very dangerous. So then I had my lesson on all the poisonous snakes that live 'in the forest', otherwise known as my backyard. The one guard informed me they always shake out their bed linens and say a prayer before going to bed , and tap to empty their shoes before putting them on. I'm now wearing my tall rubber boots when walking in the yard. I was reminded though that the mongoose are the natural enemies/predators of snakes and particularly poisonous ones. So the mongoose can stay - its burrow entry is perfectly placed at the foot of my back steps. The gardeners have returned to campus and their first task was to severely mow the grass and vegetation in the back. I feel safer and very thankful I learned this 'lesson' without personal harm.
I continue to be in awe of the natural beauty and the diversity of the plants and animals here. I am surprised to note how there are differences from home, for sure, but the similarities of flora and fauna are much greater than I anticipated. I have taken many photographs and plan to expand on that idea when I return to Florida.
Sadly, COVID has had a real impact on my human interaction here in the community. The vaccination rate is low outside of Nairobi and information about infection rates sketchy. Several months ago I stopped attending Sunday church services because the indoor services are so crowded. I have attended Christmas eve services all over the world, from New Zealand to Italy and in between. I had planned to attend the Kaaga Methodist Church, which is walking distance from campus, for their carol service. But as the time drew near, and Omicron was identified in Kenya, I made the painful decision to stay home. On Sunday mornings I can sit outside on my back steps and hear the singing and worship of several services across the valley so that's the closest I get to Sunday worship right now. Thankfully, KeMU conducts chapel services on Mondays and Thursdays so I can attend and social distance in the balcony. I look forward to those resuming this week. The congregation on campus is mostly the students, faculty, and staff - a young community. The student choir is very spirited! I have talked to the choir director about joining their regular rehearsals and look forward to singing with them in the new year.
For the last almost three weeks the only people on campus are the security guards, less than 10 students who live too far to travel home, and me I've gotten to know the security folks more individually and personally which has helped me gain insight into the local community. Most live close enough to campus to walk to work, and really everywhere. Many are students earning their fees for school. I had multiple offers to go to colleague's homes for Christmas day, but COVID again inhibited my social interactions. I wanted to be able to talk to various family and friends in different parts of the world and timing is a challenge for that anyway so I decided to stay home. But you know how I love to bake, and that's really what our family does together on Christmas anyway, so I baked Christmas breakfast and sourdough bread for the security staff working the holiday. They were so surprised and appreciative - it really made it a memorable Christmas of giving for me.
Every morning I walk and observe the amazing natural world here, listen to the many bird songs, and see the hills and mountains in the distance. I can scarcely take in how fortunate I am to be here, to learn so many new things, and gain insights to the ways in which God works. Overall, I have found Kenyans to be such tremendously generous and kind people. In so many ways we are more similar than we are different, share the same joys of family, and the challenges of life in an imperfect world. Every chapel service begins (as we often say at St. Pete First, too), "God is good, all the time. And all the time, God is good." I am thankful.
Peace and blessings to you and all at St. Pete FUMC - I look forward to what good things 2022 will bring!
Jenifer Hartman, PhD, a St Pete First member, received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award to Kenya for the 2021-22 school year. She is a visiting professor in the School of Education Social Sciences at Kenya Methodist University (KeMU).