Today I woke up very early to go to Bondo University to meet with Professor Agong. We had some time in the morning to discuss collaboration between the Fab Lab, Brown, and Bondo University, which was definitely exciting. I think there is potential to create a very interesting program and a platform for knowledge-sharing and cultural exchange. I always forget how much I learn just from hanging out and talking to people here. So many questions come up about customs and I find out new things every day.
One interesting point that I learned recently about the education system is that in Kenya, everyone takes a national exam in high school. Then, the government determines how many spots are open in the universities all over the country. They rank all of the high school students based on their exam scores, and they fill the university spots based on how students performed on the test. The test is basically a collection of questions about a variety of topics, and it seems that whoever has the best memory has the advantage because some of the questions are quite specific. Once the government has determined who will be admitted to university, they divide the students up into the various programs. Students have no choice as to which program they are accepted into, and their choices are to enter that program or not go to university at all. The only way out is to find another person who is willing to switch spots with you. Otherwise, too bad.
Coming from a school like Brown, it's pretty hard to imagine being told what subject you will study, and it seems to me that maybe Kenya is limiting its progress by preventing passionate people from pursuing their goals. For example, I learned today about a student who has been accepted to Moi University to study business administration (bachelor's degree). However, he only wants to study aviation and refuses to accept his spot at Moi University. His only other option is to attend school outside of the country. How sad that this situation probably comes up time and time again.
Professor Agong also let me borrow his USB modem, which gave me a much-needed internet fix as the internet at ARO has not been working since I arrived. I think I must be bad luck or something! While I was checking email, updating my blog, and finally getting to my IBM mail, he had a meeting with some people from Plan International, and they were able to develop some ideas for collaboration. Bondo University's engineering school will be focused on sanitation, renewable energy, and in general, doing community work, so they are looking for local NGOs to partner with to give the students practical experience.
Professor Agong was kind enough to invite me to lunch at his house. His wife, who lives in Nairobi most of the time, was in town for the month, so she cooked us an African feast (plus organic pasta!). Their youngest daughter, Esther, is still in primary school, so once she finishes, she and her mom will move to Bondo to live with Professor Agong. The other three children are already attending university, and the oldest will soon graduate. She's about the same age as me. Mrs. Agong was an absolute riot. I also met Horace, who is another relative of Professor Agong's. He might accompany me to Bungoma if I'm able to find time to go next week. I don't really feel comfortable taking public transportation by myself as a young white girl, so it will be good to have some company. I think once I learn better Swahili, it would be a lot easier to go on my own since I would be able to negotiate my way around much better. Still, a white girl in a matatu is always quite the spectacle.
Lunch was a lot of fun, and I discovered Horace was wearing a Brown Engineering t-shirt, which caught me by surprise in a good way. For any Brown engineers reading, it was the green one with the pulley and the bear on it from about 2 years ago. I'm guessing Chris and Marijoan brought them when they came in January, but it was still funny that Horace happened to be wearing the shirt today and that I actually have that shirt at home! The food was really good, but I've been stuffed all afternoon.
When I came back to ARO, I discovered that it was very quiet here. Many people were traveling home because tomorrow is the referendum, so they need to be home to vote. Tomorrow is a national holiday and the government requested that everyone be let out from work early today in order to travel home in time. It's a very exciting time and most people are really optimistic about the changes that will come with the new constitution. Most of the people I have asked have said that they really think things will change. The only problem happening now is that churches in the U.S. are really interfering and paying people to campaign for the “No” camp. There is a clause in the new constitution that says that abortion is not permitted unless the life of the mother is in danger – basically, save the mother over the unborn child. Apparently several U.S. churches have a problem with this clause and are trying to convince people to vote “No”. It's really disheartening because they are meddling in something that really isn't their business and this is the type of thing that could really cause conflict here. Why are we intervening and causing trouble? This constitution is for Kenya, so Kenyans should be making their own decisions without all of this interference from outside. I think it's really hypocritical to talk about how maybe it's dangerous to be in Kenya – the U.S. embassy has sent out a travel warning – when we are the ones who are making things worse than they would have been.
Anyway, tomorrow is a big day, and the results come out on Thursday, so people are hopeful that we will have a new Kenya, one where the wananchi (ordinary citizens) are well represented. Some people are around now, just playing computer games and hanging out. Rogers was trying to teach me how to play some first-person shooter game (like Halo) and I was terrible! But it was funny. I also helped him install a gmail application onto his phone so that he can access his mail more easily. I'm really excited to be around during the referendum, and I hope that everything will go smoothly. Everyone is very aware of what could happen, whereas last time it took everyone by surprise, so I think the country will be calm.