April 26, 2011
WOOSTER, Ohio — It’s one thing to learn about another country in a classroom setting. It’s quite another to experience the culture of that country firsthand. Students in David McConnell’s People and Cultures of Kenya seminar had an opportunity to do both this semester, and they will share their experiences during public presentations each of the next two Thursday evenings (April 28 and May 5) at 7 p.m. in Room 009 of Severance Hall (943 College Mall).
“The seminar is designed to blend academic learning with hands-on experiences,” said McConnell. “This is a very powerful combination. It forces the students to go back and forth between their preconceptions of the country and what they are actually seeing when they get there.”
The structure of the seminar is unique is several ways, including the positioning of the trip, which occurs in the middle of the semester. “This gives us a chance to learn about Kenya beforehand, experience it during an action-packed 12 days over spring break, and then return home to discuss what we have seen,” said McConnell. Another novel aspect of the program is a partnership with the Wooster Rotary Club, which allows for the inclusion of area residents, who met with the students every Thursday evening and then accompanied them on the trip. “Many of the students commented on how meaningful it was to study and travel with community members,” said McConnell, whose relationship with the people of the Maragoli region of Western Kenya dates back more than 30 years when he taught at a village secondary school as an undergraduate at Earlham College.
Kenya is an East African country about twice the size of Nevada with approximately 40 million people spread across 42 different ethnic groups. It features a mix of urban centers and rural villages, high levels of income inequality, and many vibrant communities. “It was very interesting to watch our students’ reactions to Kenyan society,” said Doug Drushal, who served as assistant director for the program. “It tended to blow their stereotypes out of the water.”
The primary purpose of the trip was to understand the complex changes caused by colonialism and missionary efforts and to learn about social and cultural dynamics in contemporary Kenya. “We designed the trip to focus on contrasts,” said McConnell. “We wanted to disrupt the students’ comfortable assumptions about Africa.” The trip was further enhanced by the opportunity for each student to reside with a family in the village and to participate in educational sessions designed and led by community members.
The group’s ambitious agenda included a trip to an NGO (non-governmental organization) that worked with the residents of Kibera, a Nairobi slum, and a visit to a tea plantation owned by former British colonialists. They also toured an AIDS clinic in Kisumu and several organizations that were promoting eco-tourism and environmental preservation, including a group that was developing pollution control plans for Lake Victoria, the source of the mighty Nile River. “The students also provided ceremonial labor on several community-based development projects in Vigetse Village,” said McConnell.
Since returning from the trip, the 12 students in the seminar have been refining their research presentations. On April 28, six students will present on the topics of education, religion, dance, literature, tourism, and language, while the May 5 presentations will address childbirth, alternative medicine, economics, soccer, development, and the AIDS epidemic.
“Students have a responsibility to learn and educate themselves and report to others,” said McConnell. “Their presentations are another step in that process.”
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