Sophomore Milan Odhiambo used to wake up at six in the morning to the sounds of birds chirping, dogs barking and cars passing. Some mornings she watched zebras and antelopes roam under the sunrise. Now when she wakes up, the gorgeous sunrise and familiar noises are gone, and she gets ready for school in a strange silence.
Odhiambo moved from the small town of Kitengela, Kenya to Michigan and finally to Athens, Georgia in under a year. Odhiambo and her mother moved over the summer of 2021 because of a new job opportunity in Athens.
“I’m used to the noise (in Kenya). Here it’s like it’s so quiet. The neighborhood I live in, I feel like it’s too quiet for me. In Kenya mornings usually start at 3 am and here people are still asleep,” Odhiambo said.
Odhiambo comes from a large family, as her mom is one of eleven siblings. Along with her extended family in Kenya, Odhiambo’s father and older sister Shirlene did not move to the United States.
“My sister stayed back because she’s almost done with school in Kenya, and she said she would like to complete it there. She also has a kid, so she can’t just leave her kid there,” Odhiambo said.
She also says that her dad does not like change. He built their house from the ground up and cannot just sell it to someone new. It took time and hard work, something that isn’t easily forgotten.
“He said he’d love to stay old in the house. I don’t think he’d fit well here,” Odhiambo said.
Odhiambo and Shirlene have kept in touch throughout her time in the United States even though there is an eight hour time difference. They text daily and call each other on the weekends to catch up.
As a family, Odhiambo and her parents enjoy hiking and Odhiambo also enjoys acting in drama club for her schools. She has hiked difficult terrains such as Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Longonot and the Ngong hills, but she says she has yet to find a new area as challenging as her previous adventures.
“I love hiking. I started hiking when I was small. It started with marathons at first, but my dad and mom like hiking so they took me to Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Longonot. There’s another one called Ngone Hills, we did a lot of hiking,” Odhiambo said.
Back in Kenya, participation in drama was a serious commitment. You had to watch your diet for sweets, and practices were long and lasted into the night only to begin early the next morning. Odhiambo has found relief in Chicken Wing Theater and the drama games that they play in the club as opposed to the grueling schedule in Kenya.
Along with differences in school clubs, the actual courses between Kenya and the United States differ as well. In Kenya, a course called Christian Religious Education (CRE) is required to graduate, no matter what your personal religious beliefs are.
Being raised Catholic and taking this class, Odhiambo believed that homosexuality was wrong. However, around 8th grade she began to realize that she was bisexual and this all changed.
“When I realized I like girls, I was mad. I used to pray every night because I was raised into believing it was wrong. In theory, you are taught such things. Sometimes you learn about Jesus (in CRE) and what he used to do, but it was forced onto you,” Odhiambo said.
She started to question her faith when she learned more about her sexuality. She realized that her beliefs no longer aligned with Christianity.
“Back in Kenya, they haven’t fully accepted westernized culture. Like things they don’t really believe in LGBTQ rights, non religious stuff,” Odhiambo said.
In addition to CRE, Kenyan students at Odhiambo’s school were required to learn both English and Swahili and had days dedicated to speaking each language. Odhiambo also speaks her parents’ tribal languages Luo and Kamba.
Odhiambo also expresses contrasts between teaching in Kenya and the United States. Teachers gave severe punishments for failing tests and cursing. Once when the majority of the class failed a test, they all stood in the rain until they were allowed to go back to school by their teacher.
“I remember one time I got a 58. He sent me out to stand in the rain for two hours. And he did not care and we were with half of the class because it was a hard test,” Odhiambo said. “And then after that, you’re expected to go back to class and write him an apology letter.”
She also noticed differences between respect for teachers in America versus those in Kenya. At her old school, students treated teachers with immense respect. When teachers walked into the classroom, students stood up until the teacher told them otherwise.
“You will never show any disrespect because we were taught that your teacher is like your second parent. So you have to respect them like you respect your parents,” Odhiambo said.
When Odhaimbo arrived in America, the cultural shift was intense. She adapted to not only some students being disrespectful towards teachers, but also students being disrespectful towards her.
Odhiambo first moved to Michigan, attending a school with little diversity. Not only did she receive racist comments from white students at her school, but some African-American students as well.
“They (students) don’t know what countries they come from. I feel like there’s a big gap that I’ve not gotten to understand yet between Africans and African-Americans. So I also had to get so used to my own people being racist towards me,” Odhiambo said.
Odhiambo started seeing a therapist in Michigan. However, even the therapist she was going to be seeing refused to treat Odhiambo because of what she looked like and where she came from.
When her mother heard about this, she was furious. Odhiambo had come to the United States seeking better mental healthcare.
“In 2020, when schools closed in Kenya, my mental health was really down,” Odhiambo said. “You don’t get as much help in Kenya. They still don’t believe mental health is a thing.”
“You can get help here (in the United States) and you don’t have to feel ashamed of it. And you can take medication for mental harm. You can really get help here. More than help I’d have in my country,” Odhiambo said.
Even after growing more comfortable, Odhiambo has learned to be vulnerable and accept help. In Kenya, she was supposed to be tough and strong and told to respect her elders.
“When you greet someone with your left hand, it’s disrespectful. So I got used to that. So when anybody greets me with their left hand, I feel really disrespected, because that’s what I’ve been taught,” Odhiambo said. She learned to always bring a gift to a host’s house and only leave after eating something as a sign of respect.
Out of all the encounters she’s had in the United States, she has yet to have bad experiences in Athens. Unlike in Michigan, Odhiambo has made many friends and can’t recall any upsetting encounters. She says she still has to explore Athens more, however.
“I feel like trying to explain the type of person Milan will never do her justice. There’s never a day where Milan isn’t cracking jokes and trying to make her friends happy. She’s very confident in her beliefs and confident overall. she knows what she does and doesn’t want and will not put up with injustice or bullying,“ sophomore Sarah Christeain said. “My favorite thing about Milan is her presence and I don’t just mean her just being physically there, I mean everything she gives to a conversation. it’s noticeably empty when she is not there.”