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Kenya: Urbanization, Health, and Human Rights

Kenya: Urbanization, Health, and Human Rights

Study the intersections of health, human rights, and cities at multiple sites in Kenya, where rapid urbanization is transforming access, equity, and well-being.

This program examines health and human rights in Kenya through a complex constellation of urban issues including housing, urban infrastructures, land tenure, informal settlements, food (in)security in the city, and evictions. Students examine Kenya’s healthcare challenges, practices, and systems, in both rural and urban contexts, together with analyses of locally informed debates surrounding human rights.

Major topics of study include:

  • Housing policies and practices in Kenya and their implication for health and human rights
  • Kenyan healthcare systems and healthcare challenges, including demographics, public health education, differential access to healthcare,
  • Health issues in Kenya, including HIV/AIDS, health issues of orphaned and vulnerable children, women’s healthcare needs, and mental healthcare
  • Links between access to and reliance on Kenyan healthcare services and the conceptions of human rights of individuals and communities
  • Successful coalition-building efforts, civil society organizations, the private sector, and others pursuing community-based approaches to myriad contemporary issues
It isn’t possible to effectively give credit to SIT Kenya and the academic directors for all of the lessons learned both in and outside the classroom, the once in a lifetime opportunities given to me almost daily.… I will be eternally grateful for this semester for the rest of my life. It was amazing.

Hallie Gremlitz, University of Vermont

Study at program bases in Nairobi and Kisumu, with excursions to other key sites in western Kenya and a comparative visit to Rwanda.

NairobiRoughly four million people in Nairobi — more than half the population — live in informal settlements at great cost to human dignity, health, and well-being. “Slum” dwellers lack basic services including running water and sanitation as well as access to safe and reliable transportation, while suffering from insecurity, marginalization, and discrimination.

Evictions are an ever-present risk. In Kenya’s largest cities, including Kisumu, issues of access to safe, affordable, and viable shelter are similarly challenging, though unique to each site due to historical, linguistic, economic, ecological, and sociocultural distinctions.

While media images of urban Africa focus on slums, luxury housing and gated communities grow exponentially in Kenya’s cities, providing a stark contrast to the precariousness of the informal settlements. With more Kenyans moving to urban areas, the challenges associated with insufficient affordable housing — and the attendant health and human rights crises these foreshadow — are becoming more acute.


Nairobi is a relatively new city that began as a watering hole (“the place of cool waters”) for local Maasai pastoralists roughly 100 years ago. Today Nairobi is Kenya’s capital, a cosmopolitan metropolis of an estimated 4 million people, and the international or African headquarters for many research institutes, corporations, and global institutions.

Nairobi is an ideal program base because of its concentration of academic, political, economic, and cultural resources, including many relief, development, health, human rights, and political organizations. Several of Kenya's universities are in Nairobi, and students have access to scholars, researchers, practitioners, and experts in all relevant program fields. Students may also take advantage of libraries at the universities in Nairobi, the World Bank, the United Nations Environmental Programme, and UN-Habitat.


Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, is picturesquely located on the shores of Lake Victoria and is the primary urban settlement in western Kenya. As a major port and trading hub and the center of the Luo community in Kenya, Kisumu has played a significant role in modern Kenyan history, and its fisheries and agriculture are significant contributors to the national and regional economy.

Kisumu (and the broader area of Lake Victoria) was the epicenter for HIV/AIDS when it first emerged in the 1980s. Responding to these and other health needs, investments were made in medical research in the area. Today, Kisumu is home to a joint campus of the CDC (the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and KEMRI (Kenya Medical Research Institute). Founded as a collaborative venture in 1979, the partnership has grown to seven facilities around Kenya — the largest of which is in Kisumu. The Urbanization, Health, and Human Rights program includes collaborations with research scientists at the CDC/KEMRI campus in Kisumu, at the Centre for Research and Technology Development, and with urban and regional planning faculty from nearby Maseno University. Students, with the support of professors from Maseno University, also get opportunities to participate in ongoing slum development projects by helping these communities with manual labor and designing change-making initiatives.

Learning herbal medicine in KenyaConsider some of the most pressing societal challenges of contemporary relevance.

Urbanization, health, and human rights form the crux of the most pressing societal challenges not only in Kenya but throughout Africa and much of the world. The SIT Kenya program offers opportunities to learn of and from the Kenyan experience — via lectures, excursions, discussions, homestays, and everyday life — while interrogating the causes and consequences of urban inequalities and their health implications. An excursion to Rwanda provides a comparative view of health, human rights, and urban issues at sites in Kigali and the surrounding rural areas.

Issues of human rights have been in the forefront in Kenya following the post-election turmoil of 2007–2008 and the subsequent adoption of a new constitution in 2010. While Kenya has, on paper, adopted strong protections for economic and social rights in the new constitution and expressed a firm commitment to improving access to healthcare among its citizens, such goals remain largely elusive.

Kenya’s economic gains in the past decade have been unevenly distributed, and the country has faced a number of internal and external crises in recent years. The SIT Kenya program addresses these complex issues through in-depth engagement with scholars, practitioners, activists, artists, and Kenyans from all walks of life.

kiswahili classStudy Kiswahili.

Kiswahili serves as the lingua franca throughout East Africa, from the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and parts of Mozambique. Through the program’s intensive language course, students gain conversational ability as a building block for better communication throughout the region.

Kiswahili study allows students to connect more deeply and quickly with their homestay families and host communities, making the language component a highlight of the semester. During field assignments and the ISP, students apply their emerging skills and further develop their vocabulary.

Study on a program for multiple majors with opportunities to pursue individualized interests.

This program is appropriate for a number of majors including, but not limited to, pre-med, pre-nursing, anthropology, development studies, architecture, urban planning, sociology, public health, and international relations. A background in health is not required. While on the program, students focused on other fields, including creative writing, art, theater, and literature, may connect and apply their experiences in Kenya to these interests.

Program excursions offer each student the flexibility to focus on her or his particular academic focus and intellectual interest. Each student’s intellectual universe expands exponentially upon arrival in Kenya, and the program’s academic director, lecturers, and ISP advisors are on hand to assist in that process.

Independent Study Project

Students spend four weeks near the end of the semester working on an Independent Study Project (ISP) in which they conduct primary research on a selected topic. The ISP is conducted in Nairobi, Kisumu, or another approved location in Kenya appropriate to the project. Experienced local academic advisors support each student in tailoring their project and methodology. Many students extend their ISPs into senior theses, while others use their ISP as the basis for Fulbright and other fellowship opportunities following graduation.

Sample topic areas include:

  • Gendered dynamics of health and human rights
  • Neglected tropical diseases in western Kenya
  • Informal settlements and their health challenges
  • Healthcare as a human right in Kenya
  • Grassroots development programs
  • Access to ARVs in urban and rural areas
  • Health financing in Kenya
  • Primary healthcare options
  • Maternal and child health
  • Family planning
  • HIV/AIDS peer education
  • Nutrition and health programming in Kisumu

Access virtual library guide.

The program consists of four different academic components: seminars in Health and Human Rights in Kenya and Urbanization and Public Health; Kiswahili language study; Research Methods and Ethics; and an Independent Study Project (ISP).

Links to syllabi below are from current and forthcoming courses offered on this program. Because courses develop and change over time to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, actual course content will vary from term to term.

The syllabi can be useful for students, faculty, and study abroad offices in assessing credit transfer. Read more about credit transfer.

Health and Human Rights in Kenya – syllabus
(IPBH3000 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
The Health and Human Rights in Kenya seminar explores theoretical links between access to and reliance on Kenyan healthcare services and the conceptions of human rights of individuals and communities in a Kenyan social context. The course is designed to provide firsthand academic knowledge of Kenyan healthcare challenges and healthcare systems, together with analyses of locally informed debates surrounding human rights. Course content, provided via lectures, discussions, readings, presentations, and educational excursions, details the mutually constitutive challenges of health and human rights in Kenya, while highlighting successful coalition-building efforts, civil society organizations, the private sector, and others pursuing community-based approaches to myriad contemporary issues. Throughout the course, students record and analyze aspects of the host culture and examine contemporary development theories and methodologies and current issues related to health and human rights in Kenya.

Urbanization and Public Health – syllabus
(IPBH3500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
An interdisciplinary seminar conducted in English, with required readings, examining health and the city in a Kenyan context. The course explores historical patterns of urban space in Africa through colonial medical discourses; interrogates healthcare and human rights challenges as they relate to housing and infrastructure in urban areas; and provides hands-on, experiential learning opportunities together with lectures, readings, and discussions to better understand housing policies and practices in Kenya and their implication for health and human rights.

Intensive Language Study: Beginning Swahili – syllabus
(SWAH1000-1500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Intensive Language Study: Intermediate Swahili – syllabus
(SWAH2000-2500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Intensive Language Study: Advanced Swahili – syllabus
(SWAH3000-3500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Emphasis on speaking and comprehension skills through classroom and field instruction. Based on an in-country evaluation that includes oral proficiency testing, students are placed in intensive classes at the appropriate level, with additional language practice taking place through homestays, lectures, and field visits. Daily classes during the first two weeks of the urban homestay are followed by continuing lessons in a variety of field settings, which provide an opportunity for additional Kiswahili language practice.

Research Methods and Ethics – syllabus
(ANTH3500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
A course in the concepts of learning across cultures and from field experience. Introduction to the Independent Study Project. Material includes cross-cultural adaptation and skills building; project selection and refinement; field study ethics and the World Learning/SIT Human Subjects Review Policy; developing contacts and finding resources; field study methods; developing skills in observation and interviewing; gathering, organizing, and communicating data; maintaining a field journal; and participatory evaluation and appraisal techniques.

Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR3000 / 4 credits / 120 class hours)
Conducted in Nairobi, Kisumu, or another approved location appropriate to the project within Kenya. Sample topics areas: malaria prevention policy and practice; Nairobi's informal settlements; housing as a human right; primary healthcare options in Kisumu; rural women's cooperatives; prenatal healthcare; land tenure in Kibera; family planning in rural Kenya; urban agriculture; HIV/AIDS peer education; girls' education; nutrition and health programming in Kisumu.

Browse this program's Independent Study Projects / undergraduate research.

Please note that in order to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, program excursions may occasionally vary.

One of my favorite things about SIT is its commitment to experiential learning. Rather than sit in a classroom all day, we visited organizations, spoke to Kenyans about current issues, lived with host families, engaged in fieldwork, and more.

Catherine Matthews, University of Richmond

tea factory in Kenya

Excursions give students highly interactive, hands-on learning opportunities that complement coursework conducted in the classroom. Excursions range from multi-week to single-day study trips.

In past semesters, the program has visited the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) on the outskirts of Nairobi; the Mathare Youth Sports Association (one of the most celebrated success stories of urban African development); the Nyumbani AIDS Hospice for HIV-positive orphans; and the CDC-KEMRI campus in Kisumu.

Within Kenya, excursions also include Nakuru, Kenya’s fourth-largest urban center and Rift Valley provincial capital; Naivasha, famed for its flamingo-filled alkaline lake and its role in the cut-flower industry of Kenya; and Konza Techno City — a.k.a. Kenya’s Silicon Savannah — an emerging master-planned site near Nairobi.


The program takes an educational excursion to the western side of the Lake Victoria region all the way to Rwanda, via the vast landscape of the Great Rift Valley. This excursion provides an opportunity to examine other local cultures and learn about the human rights struggles and health and urbanization issues these communities experience. On this excursion, the program also visits other rural areas outside Kigali.

Students practice Kiswhaili in a local villageSeminar excursions

Seminar excursions focus on particular themes developed in readings, lectures, and class discussions, allowing for firsthand exploration from among the many resources throughout Kenya. The location and theme of the seminar excursions may vary.

Athman OmarAthman Lali Omar, MA, Academic Director

Athman Lali Omar completed his undergraduate work at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He received his MA in anthropology and African Studies studies from Yale University and is currently completing his PhD in archaeology, researching "Settlement Abandonment on the Kenya Coast" at the University of Florida. He has served as a Kiswahili instructor at both Yale University and the University of Florida.

After completing his master's program in 1990, Athman Lali Omar worked as a research scientist at the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa and as the curator of the Lamu Museum, on the island of Lamu. Until 2005, he served as the head of coastal archaeology at the National Museums of Kenya.

Athman has worked with SIT in Kenya since 1990, including serving as academic director from 1990–1991, and again since 1998. He currently serves on the boards of several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Kenya, including the Coast Provincial Educational Board. He is also a member of the organizing committee of Pwani University, the first university to be developed within Kenya's Coast Province.

Lecturers for this program typically include:

Leah Onyango, PhD

Dr. Leah Onyango is the chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Maseno University, and is active as a researcher and consultant on a variety of urban, regional, and agricultural development projects throughout East Africa. Dr. Onyango has published over a dozen articles on topics as diverse as climate change and agricultural security, gender perspectives on property rights in rural Kenya, and poverty. She has conducted research projects for the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, and the European Commission and recently presented a training in Southeast Asia with the International Rice Research Institute.

Dr. Onyango completed her BA and MA at the University of Nairobi, and her PhD in planning at Maseno University in 2008. Since 2003, she has lectured at Maseno University and became the chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning in 2011. In addition to her work as a professor and researcher, she serves on the board of Sana International, an NGO that deals with water and sanitation, and the St. Stephen’s Menara Secondary School.

Professor Patrick Alila, PhD

Dr. Alila is a research professor at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi. He holds a PhD from Indiana University, Bloomington; an MA from Indiana University, Bloomington; and a BA (Hons) from the University of East Africa. Professor Alila is an expert in rural development, political science, and public administration. He has conducted extensive research in the areas of local development systems, cooperatives development, micro and small enterprises, child labor, and Kenya’s electoral process. He has been a lecturer with the SIT Nairobi program since 1985.

Professor Mohamud Jama, PhD

Professor Mohamud Jama is associate research professor and director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi. He has a PhD and an MA in agricultural economics from Washington State University and a BComm (Hons) from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. His has 25 years of teaching experience in the areas of agricultural economics, environmental and natural resource management, and development. He has lectured SIT students on development, environment, wildlife conservation, and tourism development. Professor Jama has published extensively on natural resource and development issues. He serves as academic coordinator for the program’s community development module and has been a lecturer with the SIT program in Nairobi since 1987.

Professor Mohamed Karama, PhD

Professor Karama is principal research officer with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and is a part-time lecturer at Kenyatta University in Kenya. He holds a PhD in public health and epidemiology from Kenyatta University and has pursued various training courses in Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Japan. Currently he teaches and supervises students at the master’s and PhD levels at Kenyatta University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and Nagasaki University in Japan. He was appointed associate professor by the Graduate School of International Health and Development at Nagasaki University. During his earlier professional career, he worked with the Kenya Ministry of Health in the areas of disease control and epidemics in Kenya. He is a member of a faith-based health committee in Kenya. Dr. Karama has been conducting lectures for the SIT Nairobi program for the last two years and serves as academic coordinator for the SIT Nairobi health module.

village stay

The program includes three homestays: two in the urban areas of Nairobi and Kisumu and one near Kisii in western Kenya. The Nairobi and Kisumu homestays provide comparative perspectives on everyday life in Kenya’s urban areas and among a variety of families. Many of the urban homestays are within walking distance of SIT’s office and classroom spaces.

Frequently, students enjoy the time with their urban and rural homestay families so much that they opt to return to stay with one of their homestay families while conducting their ISP research, further deepening their linguistic skills and knowledge of their host communities.


Students live in a home in a residential area of Nairobi, in neighborhoods ranging from working- to upper-middle-class socioeconomic levels, for two weeks. Homestays are within walking distance of the school as well as Internet cafés, restaurants, and shops.


Students also spend several weeks living with a family in Kisumu, a trading city at the crossroads of East and Central Africa.  A relaxed city in a beautiful setting on the sloping shores of Lake Victoria, Kisumu offers insights into the culture of the Luo community, Kenya’s second largest ethnicity.

Rural Stay

Students also have an extended stay with families in the rural community in Koru, near Kisumu. They also get opportunity to visit the village of Tabaka, outside Kisii, and the center of soapstone carving in Kenya. During the village stay, students complete a research assignment exploring issues of health and human rights from this local perspective. Many students regard the rural excursion as both the most challenging and the most rewarding component of the program. Students sometimes struggle to adjust to the slow pace and basic living conditions of rural Kenya, only to find that they have formed surprisingly strong bonds with their host family during this brief period.

Other accommodations on the program may include hostels, guest houses, tented camps, small hotels, and private homes.

A diversity of students representing different colleges, universities, and majors study abroad on this program. Many of them have gone on to do amazing things that connect back to their experience abroad with SIT. Learn what some of them are now doing.

Recent positions held by alumni of this program include:

  • Founder and Director, Hatua Likoni, a youth education and career development center, Mombasa, Kenya
  • Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Applied Anthropology, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida
  • Special Assistant, Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs, USAID, Washington, DC

Program Dates: Fall 2016

Program Arrival Date:  Aug 28, 2016

Program Departure Date:    Dec 10, 2016

The dates listed above are subject to change. Please note that travel to and from the program site may span a period of more than one day.

Student applications to this program will be reviewed on a rolling basis between the opening date and the deadline.

Application Deadline:   May 15, 2016


SIT Pell Grant Match Award. SIT Study Abroad provides matching grants to all students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding; this award can be applied to any SIT semester program. View all SIT Study Abroad scholarships.

Tuition: $13,930

The tuition fee covers the following program components:

  • Cost of all lecturers who provide seminar instruction and educational excursion leadership to students in:
    • Urbanization and development
    • Health and human rights
    • Politics, development, and economics in Kenya
  • Research Methods and Ethics training in preparation for the Independent Study Project (ISP)
  • Intensive language instruction in Kiswahili
  • All educational excursions, including all related travel costs
  • Independent Study Project (including a stipend for accommodation and food)
  • Health insurance throughout the entire program period 

Room & Board: $2,820

The room and board fee covers the following program components:

  • All accommodations during the entire program period. This includes orientation, time in the program base (Nairobi and Kisumu), on all excursions, during the Independent Study Project, and during the final evaluation period.  Accommodation is covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend provided to each student, or through the homestay.
  • All homestays (including Nairobi, Kisumu, and the rural homestay)
  • All meals for the entire program period. Meals are covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend to the student, or through the homestay.

Estimated Additional Costs:

International Airfare to Program Launch Site

International airline pricing can vary greatly due to the volatility of airline industry pricing, flight availability, and specific flexibility/restrictions on the type of ticket purchased. Students may choose to take advantage of frequent flyer or other airline awards available to them, which could significantly lower their travel costs.

Visa Expenses: $ 100

Immunizations: Varies

Books & Supplies: $ 100

International Phone: Each student must have a phone in each country. Cost varies according to personal preferences, phone plans, data plans, etc.

Discretionary Expenses

Personal expenses during the program vary based on individual spending habits and budgets. While all meals and accommodations are covered in the room and board fee, incidentals and personal transportation costs differ depending on the non-program-related interests and pursuits of each student. To learn more about personal budgeting, we recommend speaking with alumni who participated in a program in your region. See a full list of our alumni contacts. Please note that free time to pursue non-program-related activities is limited.

Please Note: Fees and additional expenses are based on all known circumstances at the time of calculation. Due to the unique nature of our programs and the economics of host countries, SIT reserves the right to change its fees or additional expenses without notice.


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SIT was founded as the School for International Training and has been known as SIT Study Abroad and SIT Graduate Institute since 2007. SIT is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc. (NEASC) through its Commission on Institutions of Higher Education

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