“Where were you the night of August 24, 2009?” It sounded like it could have been a police inquisition. And it looked like it, too, the way we were huddled around a table under the light of a single bulb hanging from the ceiling.

As exciting as a police station would have been, what was actually occurring that evening in my host family’s home was the same kind of survey that was taking place in thousands of Kenyan households across the country that night. This was Kenya’s National Census.

There was a buzz all over Nairobi surrounding the census – a mix of curiosity, tension, and even annoyance. To me a census sounded like a very mundane process. I couldn’t remember ever being physically counted in a census in the States, so I just figured that it was done by computers compiling government records and statistics.

But in Kenya, the census was a high profile event. The weekend before the count started, the President declared Tuesday, August 25, to be a national holiday. Everyone was expected to stay home from work and wait for one of the enumerators to visit.

My family and I slept in, read, ate lunch, all without a sign of the census coming our way. In the afternoon, we passed the time with a movie and listened expectantly for someone to come to the gate. Some Kenyans were on edge because they didn’t like the idea of admitting strangers into their homes. What if it was an imposter? What questions will they ask about my tribe, my possessions, my family?

My host home in Nairobi.

My host home in Nairobi.

It wasn’t until after dark that the enumerator came to the door. And this young woman was anything but intimidating. She spread out her oversize notebook filled with columns and numbers on the table and began taking down our information.

After all the initial questions about name, age, and family relationships, I noticed another amusing difference between an American census and a Kenyan one. Some questions in a census you will only find in a developing country.

What vehicles do you own? A car? A motorcycle? A tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw)? An animal-drawn cart? A bicycle?

Other questions pertained to the type of housing we had. From what material is your roof made? Wood, metal, thatch? From what material is your floor made? How many rooms are there in your home?

As I listened, I realized what a wide variety of homes, transportation, and lifestyles exist within Kenya. The place I am living has indoor plumbing, three vehicles, and I am one of three people with a university education. I could only imagine how different the responses were for those families living in a one-room shelter in a place like Kibera slum.

Census-takers left a number on the door every every household they visited.

Census-takers left a number on the door of every household they visited.

One question in particular reminded me I was in Kenya. What tribe are you? In some parts of the country where ethnic tension runs high, and distrust of the government is equally high, this question raised suspicions. Some Kenyans refused to participate unless trusted community leaders were present and insisted that only enumerators from their tribe conducted the counting.

From what I’ve heard, there are 42 tribes in Kenya to choose from, but when the enumerator came to my name, I am pretty sure she added one: “American.”

As the census dragged on throughout the week, one question everyone was asking kept the census buzz alive… “Have you been counted yet?”

I was proud to say that I had. On the night of August 24, I was a member of the Kenyan population, adding just one more drop of diversity to an already very colorful and diverse nation.

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About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!

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  1. Bill Shewan said... 


    October 4th, 2009 at 2:44 pm  

    “One more drop of diversity” – I like it. . . . and a drop of healing oil on a wounded people’s soul.

  2. Bill Shewan said... 


    October 4th, 2009 at 2:46 pm  

    How fun for me to see for the first time the home you are living in. As your Dad I feel even better about your stay there. And it IS home now in even more ways.

  3. Em Shake said... 


    October 6th, 2009 at 1:22 pm  

    Jess, I must be truthful. You’re articles are wonderfully interesting. You take great angles in your stories.

  4. Ned said... 


    October 8th, 2009 at 10:18 pm  

    Great story — looking forward to seeing you soon and hope you can join us for dinner on Saturday night at the Heart Lodge!

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