Anne Harless was born in the countryside in one of the largest language groups of the central part of Kenya, the Kikuyu. She lived there for the first few years of her life before moving to Nairobi, the capital Kenya, for the rest of her adolescence.
The environment Anne grew up in was very different than westernized culture, in that it was highly communal. Someone was always around to keep supervision of the children and all of the adults had the right and ability to punish any misbehaving child.
In addition, the doors were always open to anyone walking by in need of something to eat, drink or a place to rest.
“It didn’t matter who it was, I don’t think we’ve ever thought, ‘Oh my gosh, somebody is coming at dinner time!’ It’s just that’s the way we were brought up and everybody else is the same way. So if I walked in and everybody was having their tea, then you would drink tea,” Anne said. “Same thing if somebody walks down your farm and they’re hungry and there’s fruit. The rule is you can eat as much as you want, as long as you don’t take it with you.”
Anne explained that if you’re in the community, then you’re family.
As for biological family, she grew up as the third child of six, and said she considers some of her best memories to be time spent with her grandparents.
Oftentimes, her grandfather would decide he wanted the entire family to get together for the slaughtering of a cow. In order to gather everyone together, someone would be sent to tell everyone in the family there was going to be a get-together. Since there were no telephones at the time, they relied on this method of word of mouth.
“Then all the kids and grandkids and great grandchildren and people you hadn’t seen in a really long time all coming together and it was just as if we lived in the same place and we were never apart,” Anne said. “Those get togethers I think for me were a big part of growing up.”
Anne also grew up in the Catholic faith and attended a Catholic school. She said since they were colonized, a lot of Western religion was present in Kenya. However, before becoming colonized, each language group had a way of thinking of how they originated.
For her language group, the Kikuyu, they had believed creation began with a man and a woman and they lived on Mount Kenya where God was, and had nine daughters that everyone traces their roots back to.
One downside to her childhood that she remembers was the patriarchal nature of their society and culture.
“The male is the authority figure, so everything — the decisions (are) looked upon by the male. And really in a lot of families the females don’t have a say. Even if there was a disagreement between a husband and wife, the wife would have to go to the elders to come and intervene into that relationship because she doesn’t really have a say,” Anne said.
She said even in a Christian upbringing, people are taught to be meek with whomever they are in a relationship with, but the way her home culture wanted submission was completely different than the way she viewed submission.
What she didn’t like about this aspect of her culture was that the female had no say in anything. The female’s existence was to be in the home and do what they’re told and if they don’t, they can be beaten.
However, Anne described her parents to be more liberal, so the way they were in relationship with one another and the fact that her mother had a career as an educator shaped the way Anne felt about the overall patriarchal society of her culture.
“I think the way my mom puts it that she knew when I grew up, that nobody would be able to boss me around. Because in my mindset, I just knew that I would not take crap from anybody and I vowed that I would not be treated that way,” Anne said. “I knew that if I ever got into a relationship who disrespected me, that that was not going to be it for me.”
Though Anne did date in high school, it was something that was not accepted at that age, so she couldn’t do it openly. Her mother eventually figured it out and was tolerant to a certain degree, her father was very against it.
“It wasn’t an accepted thing for you to be seen out with a boy at that age … we would go to the movies, but you couldn’t tell your parents you were going out to the movies with a boy,” Anne said. “And when you’re out in the city, you hope that you’re not going to run into people you know … they would probably tell your parents. Because that was just not accepted.”
Anne’s father worked as an accountant for various companies, including Unesco and United Nations Environment Programme, which is ultimately what opened doors for Anne to pursue education in the U.S.
Her family would host students who were interning for these companies for the U.N., one of them coming from a school in Sweet Briar, Virginia. When Anne met her, she asked Anne what she was going to do with the rest of her life, as she was finishing high school soon.
“I said I really don’t know, because the education system in Kenya is almost an elimination system. If you’re not good enough you can’t make it. And there’s only so many limited opportunities for college,” she said.
The intern then advised her to apply for colleges just to see if she could get in. Anne went on to take the SATs and apply for Sweet Briar College, and she ended up being accepted. She decided to major in Economics and Political Science, and minor in Math.
“I was excited because I knew it presented an opportunity that most people will never get. I know there’s a lot of smart, very bright children who really did not get to be what they could have been, just because either they lacked the resources because tuition is very expensive, and they just lacked the opportunity,” Anne said.
She did not take this opportunity lightly, and was very driven to succeed.
However, moving to the U.S. did bring its challenges. Anne said she experienced a big culture shock upon her move.
For starters, the food is different than what she was used to.
“The American way of eating was not really what we were used to. There’s a lot of snacking, and for me, truly a lot of kids at home in Africa, if you get two solid meals, you’re really lucky to have two solid meals … So snacking is not even an option. To see this much abundance of food and that people are so picky and just tossed food away like they didn’t even give it a second thought was just really shocking,” Anne said.
Additionally, being in the south of the U.S. in the 1990s, Anne was exposed to racism and even segregation for the first time. On top of that, the weather, language and loneliness were also big adjustments.
Anne did end up transferring to Randolph-Macon College in Lynchburg, Virginia due to expenses, where she finished her initial college education in 1994. Following graduation, she moved to New Jersey and took computer classes and did medical assisting until 2001.
In 2001, not even a month before 9/11 occurred, she moved to Speedway, Indiana, where she began nursing school and worked for Hewlett-Packard, and then went to work for a small company in Carmel where she met her husband.
Upon attaining her LPN and ASN from Ivy Tech, and her BSN and master’s degree at Indiana University Purdue-University Indianapolis and getting married, she began working as a nurse at a heart hospital. She now lives in Pendleton, Indiana.
And it all began with taking the first step at age 18 to move into the unfamiliar.
“I knew that it was my one opportunity to do what I wanted to do. That if I didn’t do it, I wasn’t going to really get what I wanted to do in life,” Anne said.