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KENYA: International intrigue, chance encounters, and the beginnings of a 50-year partnership



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“The Kenya Program has been a kind of strategic inroad into a broader engagement with the African continent. And it’s really the driving force behind why we have a very robust and successful African studies program here at St. Lawrence.”
– Matt Carotenuto, associate dean for the Center for International and Intercultural Studies

The history of study abroad at St. Lawrence University often intersects with global historical events. From weathering the tense relations of the Cold War in Europe to the challenges of the colonial legacy in Africa, St. Lawrence’s global roots run deep. With 2,300 alumni and counting, the Kenya Program began less than a decade removed from the country’s hard-fought battle for independence, and our pioneering students occasionally had to navigate a new landscape of international relations outside the comfort of a Canton classroom.

Can you imagine the phone call back to your family after you completed your first college internship during your study abroad in Africa in which you were briefly detained by a group of changaa brewers in the Mathare Valley in Nairobi?

That was the story Charlie Daugherty ’75 and Nancy Bender ’75 had to relay to their families when, during their study abroad internship in spring 1974, with the National Christian Council of Kenya, they were taken prisoner and held in a small shack spending several hours trying to explain why wazungu wawili, Swahili for “two whites,” were wandering around the brewers’ neighborhood. At a time when Kenya’s informal settlements rarely saw international visitors, it is not surprising that local brewers questioned their agenda. After many hours, Bender, Daugherty, and their hosts were able to come to an understanding. Their adventure concluded with everyone sharing a celebratory round of the locally brewed alcoholic beverage, changaa, courtesy of their new acquaintances. Daugherty and Bender returned with a lesson on international relations that they would never forget and a story they have told many times over their lifetime.

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Imagine another series of international phone calls a few years later in January 1977, when the fledgling Kenya Program spring student group transferred to their connecting flight in London and boarded an Ethiopian Airways flight to Nairobi with a scheduled stop in Addis Ababa. As Peter L. French, associate professor of government from 1970 to 1983 and founder of the Kenya Program at St. Lawrence, tells the story, Micato Safaris owner Felix Pinto, with a fleet of Volkswagen buses, was waiting at Embakasi Airport (now the Jomo Kenyadda International Airport) to welcome the new arrivals, however, only half of the students were aboard the in-coming flight to Nairobi.

Remember, this is a time when there are no cell phones, no email, no social media for direct messaging, no GPS software, and information was completely dependent on reaching the correct person who had relevant information and functioning communications technologies. It took a few hours for Kenya Program Field Assistant Lee Demerse ’76 who was traveling with the students to discover that the flight from Addis Ababa had been overbooked, and the group would be delayed three days.

The next international phone call French, then field director in Nairobi, received was from a very unhappy, distraught St. Lawrence dean of students who asked, “Peter, is it true that Addis is in the midst of a revolution and all the students are stranded there?” Ethiopia was indeed in the early years of a civil war being fought between the Ethiopian military junta known as the Derg and Ethiopian-Eritrean anti-government rebels, a conflict that had begun three years earlier in September 1974.

For the students, according to French, it was a political science lesson like no other. The Ethiopian leader, Mengistu Haile Meriam, chairman of the governing dirgu, or council, had done away with a good portion of the country’s top leadership and seized power. Students had seen tanks in the streets from the safety of their hotel rooms and were buzzing with observations on the conflict by the time they arrived safely in Nairobi at the end of the week.

“From their standpoint, the semester was off to a glorious start,” says French. From the standpoint of long-term stability of the two-year-old Kenya Program, there was administrative anxiety in Canton. “But the rest of the semester was without incident,” French says, “except for a roundabout route to Kilimanjaro that included a brief stop in Zanzibar.”

These stories, and others equally dramatic, are thanks to the early pioneers of a Kenya partnership that began more than 50 years ago. The first Kenya study course landed in Nairobi in January 1972, when 15 St. Lawrence students embraced an adventure that has not only evolved into a signature program of the University but has fostered a Laurentian community within a community.

The St. Lawrence-Kenya connection was forged through these vivid memories and important lessons students learned from African communities. Unpacking global historical events through an empathetic local perspective is a hallmark of St. Lawrence’s study abroad tradition, and these experiences leave a lasting impact for a lifetime.

Developing the Africa focus

Back in the early 1970s, there was very limited off-campus opportunities to the African continent from any U.S. institution,” says Matthew Carotenuto, Hanson Associate Dean of International and Intercultural Studies and professor of history at St. Lawrence.

Carotenuto, a SUNY Cortland graduate, is also a Kenya Program alumnus from the spring 1998 cohort, one of more than 650 non-Laurentian students who have enrolled in the program over the past 50 years.

“I think that I went on this program and never left in some way, shape, or form, either professionally or personally,” Carotenuto says. He spent the next two decades doing academic research in East Africa including securing a Ph.D. in African history from Indiana University. Carotenuto served as coordinator of St. Lawrence’s African studies program for nearly a decade, and this summer, he took the helm of the Center for International and Intercultural Studies. “In a lot of ways, I felt as much allegiance to St. Lawrence as a result of that experience as I did to Cortland because it was so transformative,” he says. “I think a lot of the 600-plus non-Laurentian students like me who went on the program also feel the same way.”

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“St. Lawrence is fortunate to have started a tradition of off-campus study in other areas of the world—Austria, Spain, and France—all predating Kenya, but not by much,” explains Carotenuto. “I think the University was looking for a place outside of a European location, and we, fortunately, had Peter French in the Government Department, who had some expertise in east Africa and was able to convince the administration to support a J-term experiment.”

The origins of the Kenya partnership go back even further, a decade before the 1972 trip. In 1962, French, a young graduate, made his first trip to Kenya to work in partnership with African peers on a program called Operation Crossroads Africa, a program President John F. Kennedy used as a model when designing the Peace Corps. Upon arrival in Nairobi, French and his colleagues were transported up to the Kiambu highlands for orientation at St. Paul’s Seminary.

“Some Kenya Program alumni may remember St. Paul’s as the place where they had a brief rest before a dinner with local Kikuyu families at the beginning of the rural homestay,” says French “which is how St. Paul’s came to be a place to spend the first day in Kenya and part of a planning process for the Kenya Program a decade before the first St. Lawrence students arrived in Nairobi.”

French’s second trip to Kenya occurred 16 months later in January 1964, when he embarked on dissertation field work for his Ph.D. in international relations at Yale University and when Kenya’s independence from the British was just seven weeks old.

“The openness of the society in those early days offered opportunity to meet all the key politicians for interviews,” says French, who used that time to get to know the elected officials and meet with ministers and assistant ministers and their friends. These connections formed the base of contacts that would one day be used to set up urban homestays for Kenya Program students as well as inspired Luhya families from Western Province and other regions to send their children to Canton, New York, to study at St. Lawrence, a legacy that Carotenuto hopes to expand through the Engaging Africa Initiative, complementing decades of scholarship support for Kenyan families.

By 1965, French was working as a political science faculty member at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where he assisted in the training of several hundred Peace Corps volunteers, but more importantly, where he befriended Syracuse University Chancellor Dr. Frank Piskor, who was later appointed president of St. Lawrence University in 1969.

By 1970, French had relocated to the University of the Pacific. And, a month after a chance encounter with Piskor while staying at the Commodore Hotel in New York City, reconnecting and learning of Piskor’s vision for St. Lawrence, French got a call from St. Lawrence Dean Kenneth Baker, inviting him to fill a vacancy in St. Lawrence’s History and Government Department.

“The trip to Canton presented few illusions,” says French who was familiar with how remote the North Country was from his brother who had graduated from Clarkson. “My plane from Syracuse to Ogdensburg carried cages of live chickens,” says French. The rustic traveling companions, however, did not deter French from taking the post. Once in Canton, French says he found the St. Lawrence students engaged with domestic and international current affairs. Vietnam War protests, civil rights, and women’s rights advocacy were part of an active and vibrant campus culture.

Piskor encouraged French and his faculty colleagues to develop curriculum with an international focus through a 4-1-4 program in which a January semester (J-term or Interterm) would allow for experimental courses to enrich undergraduate learning. This new dimension of programming was the basis for a January course on African society, culture, and politics, and signaled a turning point in the University’s commitment to nurturing non-Western studies at St. Lawrence.

During the summer of 1971, French returned to Kenya through a University-funded grant for follow-up data gathering on Kenyan politics. During those three months in Nairobi, old friendships were renewed, and the pieces were put in place for a January Interterm in Africa designed with many of the components that remain today: rural homestays, academic courses, internships, and travel opportunities.

The pioneers

A minimum of 15 participants was needed to make the first student venture viable, recalls French. Dean Baker had also added another requirement: the course had to include representation from among the four dozen African American students on campus. Four students were selected by the nascent Black Student Union and the inaugural roster of Karla Jackson-Brewer ’73, Odessa Seymore ’73, Paul Gilbert ’72, Susie Hawkes (Wight) ’73, John Ellis ’74, Ben Giles ’73, Liz Hunt (White) ’73, Meg Keeley (Forster) ’73, Ed Beckles ’72, Diane Fagan (Affleck) ’72, Mike Griffiths ’72, Ann Cheney ’74, Fred McCullough ’74, and Jane Hansmann (McKean) ’73 boarded a British Overseas Airways Corporation flight in Montreal to Nairobi via London.

An early morning arrival at Embakasi airport went without a hitch. Felix Pinto and Micato Safaris were on deck with three minibuses to drive the travelers to the Limuru highlands and St. Paul’s. At St. Paul’s, there were six hours to rest before an early evening meal with local families and lots of irio, a dish of mashed sweet potatoes with peas and corn. As names were called out, Kikuyu families welcomed individual students and took them into their homes for a three-night stay.

“Each personal life was challenged immediately upon arrival in Kenya,” says Hansmann, describing the homestay experience. “For three days, each student, separated from the safety and familiarity of the group, experienced a changed life­style in a new and different home and family. Some homes were mud, some were wood, and some were brick. There were families with only a small plot for a garden while others had acres for farming. Some members of the families spoke English, but those who didn’t managed to communicate in other ways. There was ugali and irio to eat and sweet tea or perhaps Tusker moto (warm beer) to drink. There were walks on the land and talks to understand. There was evidence of family love and the acceptance of a foreigner into that bond.”

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After three days, students returned to St. Paul’s and traveled to Nairobi for residence at the United Kenya Club, the country’s first multiracial club founded under British colonial rule in 1957. They each participated in brief internships with hospitals, newspapers, publishers, and social service agencies. Kenyan politicians, including two members of parliament, John Kamotho and James Nyamweya, provided talks. During the safari to Kisii, students asked to taste the infamous changaa, which French remembers was so fresh that it was still warm.

The trip was a huge success.

By fall 1972, everyone wanted in on the action. Conversation on campus during Family Weekend instigated the planning of a three-week safari in June 1973 to include students, parents, alumni, trustees, and friends of the University. Even Canton’s local veterinarian, Dr. Brown and his wife joined the tour. Known then as Jane Hansmann, a rising senior, returned to Kenya with her parents. Her father, Ralph Hansmann, had been critical to the success of the first trip by generously donating proceeds from the sale of some stock to provide travel scholarships for many of the first travelers. Only the rural homestay was omitted from the second trip’s itinerary, but creative internships, a safari to Kisii and Maasai Mara, and travel to Mombasa’s beaches remained.

“The bombardment upon one’s sense of all Kenya has to offer leaves no one unaffected,” says Hansmann in an essay she wrote after being enlisted three years later to lead the first semester-long program as field director. She says that everyone who made that second journey had an expanded understanding of why the Kenya program was transformational. Momentum was building to establish even deeper partnerships abroad.

A Nixon veto, multi-disciplinary innovations, and adding another field component

Just six months later, January 1973, a grant proposal for a non-Western studies program at St. Lawrence submitted to the U.S. Office of Education (USOE) the previous October was funded. Despite a Nixon veto on USOE funding that spring, by July, the $19,000 grant was dispersed to support a large, multi-disciplinary, non-western studies course to be team-taught on campus by Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies and Classical Languages Dan O’Connor, Munsil Professor of Government J. Ansil Ramsay, Professor of Geology William “Bill” Romey, and Professor of Modern Languages Peter C. Van Lent.

The courses included seminar travel components to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa in June 1974. With positive reviews of the 1972 and 1973 trips, as well as the 1974 USOE grant-funded travel courses, the proposal for a full semester of study in Kenya was approved. The first group would go to Nairobi in January of 1975, but a field director needed to be found. Identifying someone who understood the rationale of the program and had knowledge of how a semester program would work in the field led to a natural conclusion that Jane Hansmann, a two-time veteran of the journey who had just completed a master’s degree in African studies from the University of London in 1974, would take the lead.

“This was a demanding commitment,” says French, “but Jane was talented, tough, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable.” Recruiting 24 students commenced in fall 1974. The only problem, according to French, was that, at the time, the overseas programs tended to attract a disproportionate number of women.

“To encourage men to apply,” says French, “the program added another component: a required climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. It worked.” The first group was nearly evenly divided between men and women, and with passports, vaccinations, and orientation sessions complete, they boarded the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) flight from Montreal to Nairobi via London. It also included a young man named John McKean ’75 who she deputized to be her spokesperson and liaison to help translate her leadership in Kenya’s male-dominated culture. Jane and John wed in 1976 after she returned from Nairobi, having planted the seeds for the next wave of Kenya Program programming.

Laying the foundation: first semester, spring 1975

Under Hansmann’s leadership as field director, every hiccup was managed with grit and grace and the fundamental strengths of the semester program were established. Rural and urban homestays were secured for each student. Students began taking courses with Kenyan academics.

“The opportunity to learn from non-Americans helped us recognize our own ethnocentricity and better accept differing viewpoints,” wrote Hansmann in a summary essay of her experience running the program. “Further­more, it provides a chance for an open and uninhibited exchange of inter­national ideas and cultural under­standing.” She added two courses on east African history and a survey of African literature along with a guest lecture program with such well-known Kenyans as the famous writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for the second semester.

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Hansmann also secured internship placements with Kenyan or international organizations. A biology major was placed with the Nairobi National Park Animal Orphanage. Geology majors were working with the Kenyan Geological Survey. One government major did a nutrition survey for UNICEF; two sociology majors gained exposure to community and world population considerations at Family Planning of Kenya and International Planned Parenthood Federation. One student interested in business interned with IBM; another student with an interest in communications worked through the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting at the Voice of Kenya. A psychology major did psychological testing at Mathare Mental Hospital to name just a few.

The safari to climb Kilimanjaro was also a success.

“A day’s journey into Tanzania took us through Amboseli National Park where we shot (with cameras) elephant, giraffe, gazelle, and other wild animals,” says Hansmann. “Then, for five days, we climbed, three days to the peak and two days down. I can’t begin to draw the image (not even Hemingway could!) of the sun rising through drifts of clouds below us, as we stood in new fallen snow on top of a continent.”

Hansmann goes on to describe their second excursion, a safari to Mombasa and Malindi, where they lived in thatch-roofed homes on the beach, cooked fresh fish and lobsters for dinner, and watched exotic marine life through snorkels. The group visited the 16th-century Portuguese Fort Jesus, ruins of the old Swahili town of Gedi. The strong Indian Ocean influence of the Kenyan coast was felt as dhows tugged anchor offshore.

By the spring of 1976, Hansmann had gotten more confident in her ability to manage the cultural cues of working in the Kenyan environment. But it was never easy to get all details to come out right. There was always the last homestay to be found and the last internship to organize. Fortunately, there were no medical crises or serious accidents involving Kenya Program students, a constant source of worry for French who dreaded a program-ending event.

There were a few close calls in the first five years, and circumstances out of the program’s control, illnesses, neighboring countries in conflict and crisis, field administrative challenges, and continuity and consistency which were resolved as the program matured and more Kenyan employees were added to the St. Lawrence roster to provide important local leadership and expertise.

During the first few years, contacts in Nairobi were expanded and more families were found to host students. Everyone became comfortable and confident with their residence in Nairobi and used weekends to travel widely in-country. Students were transformed by their encounter with East Africa and came home with stories that encouraged others to apply for future semesters.

“Nairobi was a vast laboratory for examining the human condition and being immersed in all dimensions of cultural and social dimensions of a country rapidly changing and gaining confidence in its presence as an independent nation,” says French.

Hansmann tried to describe the experience but says one really must talk to the students who have the memories. “It is they who will tell you about the East African Safari, the Uplands Bacon Factory, an honored goat slaughter, a local wedding, Tumbos, a real hunting safari, dinner with the U.S. ambassador, meeting Maasai community members, hitchhiking around Western Province, climbing Mt. Kenya, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Mt. Elgon, a political murder, the Habari Club, curry dinners, a crippled child, a shower with a chicken, ‘fire ugali,’ and a love for a family.”

“The core of the program is not just about encountering a different place,” says Carotenuto, “but engaging with local communities as partners, as teachers, as friends, as lifelong contacts. That has remained true to the program for decades.” Today, St. Lawrence has 17 part and full-time East African employees based in Kenya and owns and maintains a 5-acre campus outside of Nairobi properties, providing a stable satellite operation to ensuring the quality and longevity of the program. More than 2,200 students from 30 universities have enrolled in St. Lawrence’s program and it has inspired numerous careers in international development work as well as a partnership with the Brookings Institute launching the “African Security Initiative” that began in 2015 and continues today.

“Students often don’t think that you could go to Kenya and have an internship with a Fortune 500 company, or know that a lot of economists are thinking about the Sub-Saharan African region being like China in the 1970s as a place of real economic growth and promise for the future,” says Carotenuto. “This is not just a place to go and think about Africa’s past, but, also its bright future. That’s something that is increasingly important moving forward.”

“The contributions of so many people—Dr. Piskor, campus colleagues and committees, Jane Hansmann McKean and her parents, Lee Demerse, and so many others are now fixed history,” French concludes. “New chapters remain to be written by all the Kenya Program students and alumni who have thousands of insights about how their lives changed on the equator half a world away.”

This article relied on the written accounts from Peter L. French, Jane Hansmann McKean, as well as interviews with Matt Carotenuto and alumni of the 1972 and 1974 Kenya study courses.

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