Future Kenyan Ambassador to the US
Noni Murithi, 17, is no stranger to international travel. Stamped on her passport are visas from the Netherlands, Belgium, England, France, Kenya, Panama, Slovakia and Jamaica among others. She lives with her mom and younger brother in South Abington Township, Pennsylvania. As a native of Kenya and world traveler herself, Murithi’s mother, Tata Mbugua felt it was important for her children to travel and learn about culture by living with the locals. Traveling with her family instilled a great appreciation for life abroad, and the Rotary Club of the Abingtons’ exchange student program seemed like another way to experience a place new to her: the Philippines. The Philippines were unlike any place she had visited, Murithi said, and most striking for her was the general reaction to her skin color. The Philippines are a homogeneous society; any foreigner stands out. Unsettling to Murithi was their view of beauty: white is beautiful. She could not find a skin product without lightening agents. After a fruitless search for moisturizer that would not change her skin tone, her mother had to send some from the United States. “I’ve never had any problem with my skin or the way I look; when my host parents told me I should try skin lighteners to look more beautiful, I simply said no.” In a place with so much common ancestry, people would openly stare at her in public. “It was definitely intimidating.” The local Rotary Club had difficulty at first finding a family willing to host her, she said. Soon after her arrival, many were volunteering. She ended up living with seven different families over a nine-month period. Murithi emphasized that she could not help but fall in love with the Filipino people. “They were very welcoming and just so hospitable,” she said. Murithi was placed in Lucena. She said the Rotarians there felt she would have a better experience of their culture if she visited those cities that were not Americanized. The slight problem for Murithi was that she had not learned the language, Tagalog. The Philippines isthe third largest English-speaking country in the world. However, in Lucena everyone spoke Tagalog. “It was about four months before I got a handle on the language. We traveled a lot to different parts of the Philippines and were exposed to different dialects too. It made it very confusing,” said Murithi. The cuisine, different from anything else Murithi had experienced, held several surprises.. One morning for breakfast, she received what she thought was a hard-boiled egg. She cracked into it and discovered a half-developed bird fetus, with feathers and a beak, or a balut, a delicacy enjoyed by Filipinos. “Here a family might bring home pizza as a treat on a Friday night. There, a tray of balut would be brought home, and everyone was excited about it,” said Murithi. It was common to see vendors selling skewered bats on the streets and wild dog meat included with stir fry dishes. On a normal day, she was served rice four to five times. “I became so sick of rice. Even at McDonald’s, instead of serving French fries, you got rice. If you said no to rice, people would tease you and assume you must be on a diet.” In Lucena, Murithi studied as a high school senior. There the school day is 10 hours and students attend until age 16. Teens who were dating often attended church together, said Murithi. And the only time Murithi was allowed to meet up with friends socially was at church-related gatherings. The Philippines are approximately 83 percent Catholic, and Murithi observed, very devout. During the Holy Week, she recalled spending an entire day attending 14 different churches of the 14 different saints considered there to be the most important. One of her host mothers organized weekly prayer meetings. Murithi said she thinks more students should take advantage of the opportunity presented by the Rotary Club of the Abingtons. “Culture is omnipresent in a society. It’s not just what you wear and traditional dances and food. It includes the smaller things that you really start to notice when you go somewhere completely different,” said Murithi. “I felt very much like an ambassador of the United States when I was there.” Murithi said she would like to focus on international studies when she attends college and someday be an official ambassador of the United States in a foreign country.