African play date.
University of Oregon student Seela Sankei drew rapt attention from her audience of local children as she carefully tied a long loop of thread taut around the ankles of two young volunteers. Once the string was secure, she quickly jumped in and out of the loop as she explained the game that she played as a child in Kenya.
During Sunday's Family Fun event at the Eugene Public Library downtown, Sankei spent her afternoon playing other string games and drumming for the children.
"(This is) how I grew up as a child," she said.
Sankei, 29, is a University of Oregon senior from Nairobi, studying general social science with a focus on globalization, policy and environment.
She grew up in Kenya, belonging to the Maasai tribe, in a family of six raised by a single mother. Her mother left when Sankei was a child, and she was adopted by her aunt and uncle.
Sankei attended boarding school until 12th grade and in 2011 she began her studies at the University of Oregon, where her uncle and adoptive father studied in the 1980s. Both he and Sankei were sponsored by the International Cultural Service Program, or ICSP, a scholarship that brings students from all over the world to the UO to be "ambassadors of their own country," Sankei said.
Back in Kenya, Sankei used to work with organizations like FAWE, Forum for African Women Educationalists.
"I used to help rescue girls from forced marriages because we have a lot of gender issues in my country," Sankei said. "Because we are a very tribal country, we have a lot of traditions and taboos that define us, and so women suffer the most."
She said she hopes to continue her work with FAWE upon returning home after she graduates at the end of this term.
At Sunday's event, Sankei showed children and their parents a map of Africa and photos of traditional dress that Maasai people wear, telling them about her life in Kenya. Sankei described the differences in activities and chores between boys and girls. Boys herd cattle while girls cook, gather firewood, collect water and tend to children, she said.
Sankei also shared the many culture shocks she experienced when she first came to Eugene. Sankei explained to the children that she speaks British English, not American English: She calls fries "chips" and adds a "u" when spelling the word "color."
Another aspect of life in the United States that surprised Sankei when she first arrived: Americans' love of cheese.
"We don't eat cheese like you guys," she said, laughing. "Man, do you eat cheese."
The children had many questions for Sankei about her home, from "Do you drive cars in Kenya?" to "Do you have apple trees?"
The purpose of the ICSP scholarship is for students like Sankei to be able to "straighten out stereotypes" about their countries, she said. Sankei has done presentations in Eugene, Salem and other surrounding areas about her home and her country, and she said there are quite a few common misconceptions about Africa and African people.
"It gives you the giggles," she said. "People think Africa is just this empty desert."
Sankei said the most common stereotype is that all of Africa is poor and that all Africans are dying of diseases.
"It's a little heartbreaking," she said. However, Sankei said she enjoys the exchange of knowledge she shares with every audience.
"At the end of the day, we all learn something," she said.
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