KENYA (week 3): I am Jepkoech

Ni naitwa Miriam Jepkoech. Nina toka California. Mimi ni muuguzi.
I am called Miriam Jepkoech. I am from California. I am a nurse.

The Kenyan wedding I crashed

Current tunes: Some African radio jams and the windshield wipers battling the rain
Current Location: En route to Kipkaren from Lake Nakuru National Park

Equator Quick Pic

My broken Swahili may not be much, but I enjoy watching the kiddos giggle at my Swahi-nglish (Swahili English) and noticed it does help establish rapport with the older clients at the clinic. Interestingly enough, Swahili is derived from Arabic and I’m finding there are many words that are the same or very similar to my father’s native tongue. Shout out to my Theta, aka my immigrant Syrian grandmother, that lived with my family during my childhood…your loving shouting matches at me to clean the tornado that I called my bedroom, to help with dinner, and to change out of my inappropriate outfits by Syrian standards, have all aided me in my Swahili efforts. I also found a deck of Swahili flashcards in the Kiprops’ home and have been trying to write all that I’ve learned phonetically in what I call my Swahili Bible. And who knew Disney’s The Lion King actually has real Swahili words embedded into the film? The leading cat Simba does mean “lion,” the baboon named Rafiki means “friend,” and the classic Hakuna Matata jingle really translates to “no worries” just as the lyrics state. Between Mickey Mouse and my Theta, I should be fluent in no time…yeah, right.

Oh and I should probably address this “I am Jepkoech” (jep-koh-etch) business. Kenyans are all born with a middle name determined by the time of day/the events surrounding their birth. Because I was born in the morning, William has given me my Kenyan name of Jepkoech. But there are names relating to all sorts of events, like Jerop would be for a baby girl born while it was raining and Jepchumba literally means a baby girl born “with white people around.” In addition, there is a masculine and feminine prefix change, so if I was a boy I would be Miriam Kipkoech…and to complicate things further these names are part of the Kalenjin tribe, which is just one of 43 tribes in Kenya. Don’t even get me started on how they determine your last name. Something about females getting the father’s surname (which will later change post marriage) and males inheriting the father’s middle name as their last name…I think??? While it gets confusing, Michelle says to just be aware that families do not all have a unified last name and it is common for people to give their first and middle name only, if asked.

But other than this crazy Kenyan name game, I do feel that because I am staying here twice as long as I did in 2015 and have come solo this time around, I have been able to immerse myself in Kenyan culture in a deeper way. Living with the Kiprops (yes, William Kiprop was a rain baby) has been such a blessing. If you ever have an opportunity to live with locals while traveling, do it! It always provides for a richer experience and better understanding of a country’s people.  And through working along side them at clinic and getting to know some of the patient’s families, I really am loving the hearts of these Kenyan people. William’s family is from this area, Kipkaren Village, and is part of the Kalenjin tribe that I mentioned before. Of the 43 tribes, it is the third largest. Kalenjins are known for their farming abilities and running talents. The Kenyan Olympic distance running team is often comprised of Kalenjin runners and the largest urban city in this area, Eldoret, is sometimes called the Home of Champions because of the athletic abilities of its natives. Sadly, I have only gone on one run in the last few weeks of living the village life and while the scenery is beautiful, the rocky unpaved dirt roads, the dogs and random livestock that roam the streets, and the fear of getting lost without cell service has deterred me from getting in my usual mileage.

William, my #1 local and Swahili tutor

When I asked William to describe the parts of Kenyan culture that he feels are the most valued, he first starts by emphasizing how each tribe is unique and has their own traditions and language separate from Swahili. But something they all value is respect. This is easily seen in the way they greet each other, usually ensuring they shake hands with the every person in the room and often using two hands to do so. Michelle also explained that it is a very formal culture with celebrations often having special ceremonious traditions and speeches galore. Which I found interesting since most locals have been pretty quiet around me. I asked William if this was because of the language barrier and while he says that might be a part of their silence, he adds that in general Kenyans tend to be more reserved. As an American turned ten year resident of Kenya, Michelle gave some insight on what she feels is one of the most notable aspects of Kenyan culture. For Kenyans, the individual mindset is put on the shelf to make room for the needs of the entire community. In general, the extended family is above the nuclear family and the collective experience is always considered when making important decisions.

It is also more of a paternal society with men holding more leadership positions than women and the education gap between the genders is very prominent. In the village, it is rare to see women wearing anything other than a skirt or dress and Michelle even estimates that of all the automobile and motor bike drivers, roughly 5% are women. And it’s true, other than Michelle I have not seen one female driver on the road. Which is probably why I was getting intense stares piercing the windshield when I had to drive their Toyota 4Runner home from the clinic last week. I could just feel their eyes…“Look out! Who is this Mzungu (foreigner) girl that has stolen the Kiprops’ car?”  Or maybe they heard my heart booming in my chest as I nervously learned what it feels like to be on the left side of the road while sitting in the right sided driver’s seat for the first time. Not going to lie, even though it was a quick ten minute drive on mostly village roads, my scrubs had a thin layer of sweat soaked in when I finally parked in their driveway. And while it is very unlikely to happen on a short village drive, I later learned that people are easily thrown in the clink if caught driving without a Kenyan license…yikes bikes.

Lived through my first Kenyan driving experience

One of the biggest things I noticed is the lack of urgency when keeping a schedule. Again, this is partly related to respect as putting your next meeting on hold shows that you are committed to being present with your current company. But I also think Kenyans are just a people that are comfortable with having a relaxed view towards punctuality. Just last week I third-wheeled it with the Kiprops and crashed a Kenyan wedding. The invitation indicated a start time of ten o’clock in the morning. So when I asked William what time we should leave knowing that we lived a good hour or so away from the venue, he nonchalantly replied that 10ish would be good time to leave the house…WHAT? In America they would shame you for that. And what do you know, we pull up to the wedding around 11:30am and the bridal party is not even all present yet. #HakunaMatataLife, am I right?

Well, I’m currently on the road back home (or what has been home for the last three weeks and it really does feel that way now) from Lake Nakuru National Park. I was lucky enough to have a quick one night weekend getaway with my Kenyan familia yangu (my family) to a self drive safari park. Not lion, I literally got wild this weekend…lame dad joke FTW.

And while I was so fortunate to safari in the famous Masai Mara during my last trip to Kenya, getting up close and personal with these amazing creatures does not get old (click here to check them pics and see why you need to add an African safari to your bucket list).  Only a few days left before I say kwa hari (goodbye) to my Africa life. And I honestly don’t think I’m ready…

Cheers and keep on wishin’!


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