Sunday, December 18, 2011

Back in Tanzania, back to blogging

I have been back in Tanzania for a bit over a week now, part of a short stint of consulting work on a case study of HakiElimu, where I worked when I lived in Dar previously. Being back here provides me with constant reminders of my mzungu-ness, which in turn reminded me of this blog and its legion of followers (hi, Mom). Also, my life just seems more blog-worthy over here, so I figured it was time for an update. Anyway, blog-worthiness is likely in the eye of the blog reader, the past few days have certainly been action-packed.

I spent the first part of last week in Dar es Salaam conducting interviews with the few government officials who consented to meet with me at short notice as well as a few other close observers of the education sector. Then on Wednesday I hopped a flight to Mwanza, a.k.a. Rock City, so named not for any connection to KISS but for its numerous and impressive rock formations. (Side note: KISS may not have any connections to Tanzania, but Queen does! Freddy Mercury is from Zanzibar, where his legacy is divided between those who celebrate his musical career and those who were less down with his being gay.)

Just prior to leaving Dar I had the somewhat surreal experience of interviewing a prominent, young Opposition Member of Parliament in the Dar es Salaam Airport VIP Lounge. He was on his way back to Dar just as I was preparing to leave so it seemed like the easiest way for us to meet. Getting into the lounge was something of a comedy of errors… I had to fight with the guy at the check-in counter, who did not want to let me in. So I called the MP and explained my plight and he told me to tell the check-in guy just who I was planning to meet in the VIP lounge. I dutifully and somewhat guiltily name-dropped and it worked! After he left I was allowed to stay and enjoy another hour of crushed velvet, air-conditioned luxury before boarding my flight to Mwanza.

The flight itself was a bit less luxurious – it was a small, noisy plane, and the air conditioning didn’t condescend to start working until about 30 minutes after takeoff. But immediately upon arrival I had the pleasure of meeting “Jammy,” the taxi driver sent by my hotel. When he learned that I was from California began rattling off a list of his favorite West Coast rappers and lamenting that hip-hop really hadn’t been the same since 1996.

The plan in Mwanza was for me to meet with one of HakiElimu’s “Friends of Education” (member of their grassroots network of activists) who would be my guide in the region, introducing me to other Friends in neighboring districts so I could interview them and learn about their activities. Due to some miscommunication I had thought I would be making these visits on short day trips from Mwanza so was surprised when I met my guide the next morning and he informed me that we had to hurry to catch the 9AM ferry to the first district and that there was no way we would get back to Mwanza that night. And so, my plan for two easy day trips turned into a rather exhausting – but extremely interesting – four-day whirlwind involving multiple trips by boat, bus and motorcycle. To round out the experience I picked up a stomach bug, which I suspect comes from drinking a glass of busara (“wisdom”) juice in a village in Serengeti – a yeasty concoction resembling thin gruel. Not bad, actually, but somehow did not agree with me.

There was only one point at which I actively feared for my life (this morning, when the bus back to Mwanza began veering off the muddy road, getting stuck at a precarious angle and forcing all the passengers off. After two hours of futile efforts to right the bus and get going, we caught another bus and made our way bumpily back). But perhaps if I’d been thinking more rationally there would have been others. Tanzania’s many wonders do not include a network of safe roads. That said, our route this morning bordered Serengeti National Park, so I got to see loads of zebras as we bumped along. I was slightly the worse for wear by the time we got back to Mwanza after 8 hours on the road but since my flight (on the ill-named Precision Air) had been delayed, I decided to rally and called Jammy up for a quick tour of Rock City.

I am now waiting in the decidedly un-VIP waiting lounge of the Mwanza airport, hoping that my flight will actually leave at some point, since I have a pretty packed schedule back in Dar tomorrow. Fortunately, the fact that it is nearly Christmas has made it difficult to schedule meetings for the end of the week, so I should have a few days to relax and work on my tan before heading back to the States. Or rather, work to undo my newly acquired T-shirt tan. It’s a tough life.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Searching for Africa

In the past few days, I’ve managed to form a slightly more nuanced impression of Njombe. Turns out, when the sun is shining, it’s actually pretty warm. Not to mention crisp and beautiful. The landscape here is very different than Dar – huge expanses of pine forest, alongside rolling, grassy plains. In the morning everything gives off a hazy, light orange hue, as the mist rises from the fields. I’ve also seen more women riding bicycles here than any other place I’ve been to in Africa.

In order to flesh out my impressions of Njombe and its environs, I spent Sunday in tourist mode. Two friendly Daraja staff members (one who I know from my days at HakiElimu in Dar) accompanied me on my tour. We first went down to “bwawani,” a magnificent (man-made) lake, which reminded me of Lake Jordan in North Carolina. My HakiElimu friend explained that the lake was built by the nearby flower company, and was very popular with the few wazungu that work there and in Njombe. Sure enough, we encountered about 5 of them, in the “Members Only” boathouse. They kindly allowed us to park there despite not being members and we proceeded to walk to the other, seemingly less proprietary, side of the lake and watch one flower company exec’s intrepid wind-surfing attempt.

After watching him take a few tumbles in the water, we proceeded with our true mission: searching for Africa. Or rather, a natural rock formation that very closely resembles the African continent. I had heard about this on Thursday night, when I first met the Daraja crew over beers, and saw a picture on somebody’s phone. The last naturally occurring Africa-shaped apparition I’d seen had been in middle school, in the form of a classmate’s birthmark – a tidbit I shared with the Daraja crew, to their amusement. Needless to say, I was excited.

Finding Africa proved more difficult than we anticipated. Neither of the guys I was out with had been there before and the directions we’d been given were rather spotty. We gave a lift to one old woman from a nearby village and she promised it was “just up ahead” but her directions proved futile as well. Finally we called the guy who had driven the guy with the picture on his phone, and learned that we had to see the village chairman and seek permission to see Africa. By this time, it was getting late and I was beginning to think this might be more trouble than it was worth. But ultimately we found some guys who seemed to work for the village chairman in some capacity, so they called him, got clearance (so long as we paid an entrance fee of about $4), and jumped in our car to direct us. We ended up retracing our steps quite a bit but it was worth the hassle. The Africa rock formation was quite cool, and it was situated in a spot with beautiful views, enhanced by the fact that the sun was close to setting.

Our “search for Africa” also led to an interesting conversation about perceptions of Africa in the West. When we posed for photos “on the continent,” I stayed in Tanzania and South Africa, whereas my friends from Daraja both hightailed it to Libya. I had asked what they thought of the current situation there, and they said – echoing what seems like widely held opinion here – that they thought NATO had gone too far, the West should have respected Libya’s sovereignty, and yeah Qadafi was a dictator but maybe a lot of people liked the way he ran the country. I responded that I hadn’t made up my mind and was curious to know what people in the U.S. are saying about the situation there. To this, one of the Daraja guys responded by asking me whether people the U.S. even pay attention to what’s going on in foreign countries. He didn’t seem to resent American lack of awareness so much as take it for granted. He then asked what I had thought about Tanzania before I ever came here and I had to confess I wouldn’t have been able to locate it on a map, and might have thought it was an island due to some confusion with Tasmania. (Those who know me well know that geography has never been my forté.)

I’ve now spent a few days in the field piloting my survey and have seen an even greater variety of climate and ways of living in this area. The first village we visited was stark – very hot and dry – so I was completely overdressed as I had prepared for a typical chilly Njombe day. But then today we were up in the hills, with beautiful views and a cool breeze. And I’ve just been told there’s a waterfall here I must see before I leave… I am wishing I had a bit more time here, though I must confess am looking forward to seeing the Indian Ocean again before I head back to the States.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Njombe: Where the weather is cold, but the Pentecostals are warm...

After an 11-hour bus ride (2 hours longer than advertised) I arrived in Njombe last night for the final phase of my Summer o' Research in East Africa. I wrapped up my work in Kenya last week and arrived in Tanzania on Saturday morning (somehow managing to get booked Business Class,). After picking up a Tanzanian SIM card and stopping by the bank (the Tanzanian shilling is worth about an order of magnitude less than the Kenyan shilling, so I’m still getting confused) I hightailed it to the offices of the Tanzanian opposition party NCCR-Maguezi to interview a young, enthusiastic Member of Parliament. The interview was related to some side consulting work I’ve been doing, but offered me some useful insights into Opposition politics at large in TZ. The MP I interviewed (David Kafulila) had been a member of the main Opposition party Chadema until he was essentially driven out when he advocated for democratic competition within the party structures. At least that’s the way he tells it. The interview was fascinating from a Poli Sci nerd point of view but by the end I was thoroughly exhausted after a 5 A.M. wakeup to reach the airport in Nairobi and an ill-advised glass of champagne on the plane. (Gotta take advantage of Business Class perks!) I spent another few days in Dar catching up with friends, relaxing and generally getting my mzungu on.

This was my second visit to Dar since I’ve been back in East Africa this summer and while I haven’t found Dar all that different from how I remembered it, my perspective on the city – and my life there – has changed significantly. I really feel that in the three months I stayed in Kenya I got a much better sense of how the average person actually lives than I ever did in Tanzania, despite staying there for over two years. Working and living in Kenya this summer, I had many more opportunities to “get down with the people,” as my Aunt Barby would say, than I ever did in my Dar es Salaam bubble. (An example: I was at a dinner party the other night where a crusty old Britisher declared that if it weren’t for the yacht club, there’d really be no reason to stay in Dar…. Clarification: I didn’t spend the majority of my time in Dar hanging out with crusty old Britishers at the yacht club, but I did spend a fair amount of time hanging out with other wazungu doing mzungu-ish things).

So, while I enjoyed having a few days in Dar, and am looking forward to spending more time there, I’m also excited to have gotten an opportunity to see more of the country. I will be spending the next 10 days here in Njombe, in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, scoping out a potential topic for future research - piloting a survey, and interviewing some local government officials. (“Soaking and poking,” as we grossly like to say in Poli Sci.) Specifically, I will be looking into the work that an NGO called Daraja. Daraja encourages people to send them text messages monitoring water access, which they then forward to the relevant authority as well as local media. It’s an exciting project, particularly at a time when mobile phones have become ubiquitous in this part of the world. That said, my work in Kenya made me less convinced that SMS is an appropriate tool for government monitoring in this context given low literacy levels and cost barriers, but I’m still excited to see what I will find. I’m also really enjoying the process of designing my own research project, after working to implement someone else’s research program all summer. Lest I sound ungrateful, I learned a huge amount through that experience, and I’m eager to have an opportunity to implement what I’ve learned directly in a new context.

So anyway, Njombe is cold. As in, I’m currently writing this under my two blankets, wearing socks, pans, a long-sleeve shirt and a fleece jacket. I think it’s going to get down in the 50s tonight!!! But the people I’ve met here thus far are very warm. Especially the Pentecostals. Allow me to explain. As I mentioned, the bus ride here took 11 hours and in preparing for it I had charged my iPod and loaded it up with podcasts. But I didn’t end up taking the iPod out of my bag once, since I got so engrossed in conversation with my seatmate, a lady pastor named Asnath, who travels the country and the world trying to achieve her “vision,” preaching to people and working to heal them. A former nurse, she left a good job when she felt her calling was too strong for her to ignore, and she’s been doing her thing ever since. I really appreciated that she didn’t try to impose her beliefs on me even once in our conversation. She was fascinated to learn that I was Jewish, asking me what “Shalom” means (whew! The one word of Hebrew I actually know) as well as how much a Jewish prayer shawl costs, since she thinks they look neat. She promised to teach me how to make pilau when I’m back in Dar and I promised to buy her Dentyne Ice when I’m back in the States (and who knows maybe a prayer shawl!). Then at my hotel I was eating in the TV room with another very friendly Pentecostal, who was very patient with my clunky Swahili and insisted on buying me dinner. He also didn't proselytize, and was similarly fascinated by my Judaism, though a bit concerned that I didn't have any place to pray here. Still, unless they've been using stealth tactics, there have been no concerted efforts to save my soul just yet.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Feast and Famine

Last month a German friend emailed to ask how my summer in Kenya was going. He also asked whether I was being affected by the famine. I was a bit taken aback by the question. I had heard people complain about food insecurity in the villages we had been visiting – they even gave the recent bout of hunger a nickname, “Ocampo Six,” after the six accused perpetrators of post-election violence currently on trial in The Hague before the International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. But Ocampo Six did not really seem like a famine, and no one we met seemed close to starvation. It was just a few days later that news of the famine currently ravaging Northeast Kenya hit the local press and I realized this was what my friend was talking about.

News of the famine has now become inescapable. International aid agencies have rallied to support relief efforts and ordinary Kenyans are doing their part to help, too. One of the more inspiring responses is “Kenyans for Kenya,” a fundraising effort led by Kenyan corporations and media houses. Kenyans for Kenya has also set up a system through which people here can donate money to support relief efforts via M-Pesa, the highly popular system of banking by mobile phone. In the village I visited yesterday, one of the residents, who was clearly of humble means, told me that he was planning to organize with his neighbor to donate to the relief effort.

The Kenyan government’s response has been less inspiring. Just last week, a government spokesman declared that there have been no known deaths attributable to the famine. Furthermore, many observers have pointed out that the drought which caused the current famine is an annual occurrence, and the government should have been prepared. There have also been reports of relief funds being diverted.

I was chatting with my German friend again last night and he said he’d read my blog and found it rather depressing. Chagrined, I told him I was just planning to write about the famine. He told me to go ahead, saying “I guess that’s what we like to hear about Africa.” That comment made me depressed, since I don’t want to contribute more to the Afro-pessimism that is so rampant in the West. (I’ve even had a professor encourage me to focus on a different region of the world, since Africa is pretty much hopeless). But hopefully shedding some light on local relief efforts like Kenyans for Kenya illustrates that the situation here is not as dire as some would have us believe.

In the spirit of Afro-optimisim, I’ll end this post by talking about Kenyan food, which is abundant for many people living here. Like Tanzania, the staple food is ugali, a stiff porridge made from maize. You eat it with your hands, rolling it up into a little ball and then using it to sop up whatever is accompanying it (often sukuma wiki, a local kale that is quite delicious, or some kind of meat or fish stew). I’ve become quite fond of yellow ugali, which is made from yellow maize and is a bit coarser and also more flavorful (think polenta). Living in Nyanza Province I am close to Lake Victoria, so fish is plentiful – especially nile perch, tilapia and omena (tiny, sardine-like fish). One of my favorite things about the food here is that it’s a lot closer to the source than much of what we eat in the U.S. In other words, it's hard not to be a locavore. The avocados, mangoes and pineapples are amazing (and so cheap!) and the French fries really taste like potatoes. My main complaint about the local cuisine is the use of too much cooking oil. That said, I have developed a weakness for mandazi, the fried donuts available on every street corner. But I figure all the walking I’ve been doing around the villages, (not to mention running in the Migori hills and even going to aerobics classes!) will cancel them out.

And with that, I'm off to lunch at a friend's place, having just confirmed with him that even though I'm an mzungu, I do eat ugali.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Big Love, Nyanza Style

The HIV prevalence in Nyanza Province (where I am currently staying) is the highest in the country, with rates of up to 40% in some areas. My awareness of this disturbing fact comes from knowledgeable friends working locally in the field of public health as well as the high visibility of NGOs and VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) clinics in the area. More recently, I’ve observed the consequences of the AIDS epidemic on a more personal scale. In almost every village we visit I have met large numbers of widows and orphans. I realize that AIDS is not the only explanation for their presence but it seems likely to be an important contributor.

One particularly striking consequence of the AIDS epidemic in this region is its impact on polygamous households. I have now encountered a number of households headed by multiple “co-wives” whose husbands died years ago. The other day I visited a homestead where 11 co-wives were still living together, 28 years after their husband had died. The late patriarch had been a District Officer; his grave (with birth and death dates marked as “Sunrise” and “Sunset”) dominated the impressive homestead/ I asked a colleague how these women supported themselves and he explained that they probably had grown children who helped them out. Today we met six co-wives who were widowed four years ago. The three senior wives had each brought a relative to the family; their younger wives were either cousins or sisters. The co-wives casually motioned to an old photograph of their late husband, explained that they live in harmony and have no desire to remarry.

The decision to remarry is not always a choice, however, as I learned today. In villages where wife inheritance is still practiced, a woman of childbearing age (under 40) must be “inherited” if her husband passes away. Traditionally the late husband’s brother was the inheritor but more recently inheritance has been open to other men. My colleague explained that wife inheritance is becoming less common as people’s awareness about HIV has grown, but it has not gone away entirely. And there are consequences associated with forgoing this tradition. For instance, today we met a young couple living in rented housing, which is extremely uncommon in this area. We learned that the husband’s mother had been widowed, and refused to be inherited though she was still of inheritable age. As a result, the young man had not been allowed to build a home on his family’s plot, since the necessary rites could not be carried out before his mother consented to remarry.

After explaining these traditions in detail my colleague asked if there were similar practices in the U.S. I decided against attempting to tell him what little I know about Mormonism or the plot of the most recent (read: only) Big Love episode that I have seen and simply answered, “not really.”

Monday, July 11, 2011

You can take the girl out of L.A., but...

I am now happily settled in Migori after one last visit to the Lasjona Hotel to pick up a few things I had left there. Good riddance! I am now staying at the home of the cousin of a friend of one of our interviewers, and in addition to being about half the price it is MUCH nicer to be staying in a place with a full kitchen and a functioning toilet.

But anyway, before I get too excited about my new digs in Migori, I figure I should devote some space to writing about the last week, which I spent in Nairobi. Though I spent the majority of my time there supervising data entry, I did have a few days to explore, and found myself really liking the city. It has a much more modern, cosmopolitan feel than Dar, and I could see myself living there for a while. The “Nairobbery” moniker strikes me as inappropriate; indeed an op-ed piece in one of the local papers recently defended the city, asking whether any Kenyan has ever called it by this nickname. Perhaps it would better be interpreted as a reference to the prices, which were the main reason I was happy to curtail my stay there. My only other complaint was the weather: Nairobi in July is cold!! At least, colder than my good-for-Africa wardrobe had prepared me for.

Anyway, after spending my first 5 days in Nairobi in a quiet guesthouse close to the Uwezo office, I decided to shift to a place called Wildebeest, which had come highly recommended, particularly as a good place to meet interesting fellow travelers. Wildebeest is a tented safari camp in the heart of the city – a bit silly, perhaps, but the wazungu love it. On my first night there I got in pretty late and spent a restless night shivering in my tent, kept awake by the cacophony of the nearby disco. I was seriously regretting my choice to shift from the pleasant guesthouse, and planned on leaving as soon as I woke up even if it meant forfeiting my deposit. But then at the communal breakfast table, I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me, after overhearing that she was a fellow PhD student in Political Science (at Harvard, no less). We nerded out for a while about our respective research this summer, and then when she mentioned going running later I asked if I could tag along. On our run she asked me how I like living in L.A.. I told her that I was enjoying it much more than I had anticipated and feel like being there for grad school is kind of the perfect situation since you can take advantage of the good (weather, beach proximity, people-watching) and avoid the bad (freeway traffic, vapid industry people) though the Hollywood scene can be fun to check out once in a while. At this she responded, “Or you can take in the Hollywood scene here.” When I looked bewildered she explained that one of our fellow guests at the breakfast table was a fairly well-known child actor, having recently appeared as the kid in Date Night and starred in Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler. At dinner that night I learned that his father (who was accompanying him) had worked for a number of years supervising films for Disney. This “supervision” appeared to mainly consist of managing famous animals – whether organizing airplane transport of the elephant in Operation Dumbo Drop, or corralling 150 dalmations in Paris (apparently they needed a few extra). At the mention of 101 Dalmations, an older British guest piped up, “Oh, so you know my friend Glenn Close.” This guy explained that Glenn was “lovely” though did not exactly explain how he had come to meet her. He did, however, share a colorful story about drinking tea in a Masai village: Having been invited into the chief’s home while on a safari, and asked what he would like to drink. When he requested tea, he was made to wait while someone cycled 20 km to the neighboring village in order get him a teabag (there being none available in the village he was in). This unfortunate courier got stuck in a massive downpour but returned triumphantly with the teabag, which the chief then proudly brewed for my British friend with cow’s milk and fresh blood!

In the end I decided I could handle another slightly chilly night at Wildebeest, given the interesting company. And after chatting with them over two generous glasses of wine I hardly noticed the cold.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Tonight is my last night at the Lasjona Hotel and if I shed any tears over the matter, they will be tears of joy. The other night my fellow Rongo-based field coordinator asked where I thought we should have dinner and I replied, “well, Richard, my philosophy is A.B.L…. Anywhere. But. Lasjona.” He said this was a philosophy he could get behind.

It’s not that I expect four-star accommodations while working as a research assistant in rural Kenya. Rather, what’s annoying about the Lasjona is that it advertises itself as being semi-luxurious and is priced to match, and then fails to deliver in terms of the most basic amenities. As in, my toilet has been broken for the past week (albeit in a variety of new and intriguing ways each time someone tries to “fix” it). And on a number of days the hotel has lacked water – either for bathing or drinking. I would happily trade the mirrors and speakers embedded in my headboard for either of these more basic comforts.

Anyway, I am off to Nairobi tomorrow morning and am looking forward to a week of city life. I will be working at the Uwezo head office but should also have some time to explore. My goals include eating delicious, non-ugali-based meals (not that an ugali-based meal can’t be delicious, but I am craving a little variety), getting a pedicure and checking out some live music.

When I return I’m actually thinking of moving my home base to a different town. I’ve been thinking that it’s not just the Lasjona but Rongo itself that’s bringing me down. I was debating this with one of our interviewers, suggesting that maybe I just need to give Rongo a chance, and he responded, “No. Rongo is dead.” So I’m thinking I may move to Migori, a slightly bigger town about 40 km away, toward the Tanzanian border. I celebrated my birthday there yesterday and had a great time. Not only do a few friends and acquaintances stay there, it just seems to have a bit more going on than Rongo, and a variety of cheaper, seemingly nicer options for accommodation, all of which meet my primary qualification of being A.B.L. Plus there’s a disco and a Barclays Bank!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Village Life

I have now been in Rongo for about two weeks and have spent time in four villages. My experience in the villages has been at different turns enlightening, exhausting, depressing, inspiring and amusing. I’ll try to explain why.


Even though I have not spent much time in people’s houses, I have a much better sense of how people live in rural Kenya. Generally speaking, life is hard. People walk far distances to obtain water for their daily needs or go to school. Most spend hours out in their fields (shambas) tending to maize crops that they rely on for nourishment. Most people’s houses are constructed from rough materials (dried mud over a foundation of sticks) with thatched or tin roofs. The schools are often not in much better condition. Though they are typically built from more permanent materials, many have open windows and holes in the roof, which makes one wonder how students cope when it rains.


A typical visit to the village involves a preliminary meeting with the village elder to show my research authorization and set my enumerators off to do their interviews. I then visit the local primary school, tour the village, and convene a focus group of village leaders. This all involves a lot of walking around in the hot sun, on pretty rough terrain. One tricky part is managing to eat and drink enough during the day so that I can retain my attention span during the focus group. Since I’m typically being accompanied by someone from the village, I often feel very self-conscious about eating or drinking in front of them. One day I pretended I needed to get something from the car and gulped down a peanut butter sandwich; on other days I’ve just made do with covert handfuls of nuts and then swigging the soda that we bring to the focus group. Recently I was treated to lunch at the village elder’s home, which provided some much needed sustenance after another long, hot walk. I got to sample nyoyo, which I believe translates to a big ol’ plate of beans and maize. I ate as much as I could and then offered the extra to the elder, protesting nimeshiba (I’m full/satisfied). And I was, for once.


As I mentioned in a previous post, I am finding it difficult to witness the incredible need in these villages and to just be conducting research, rather than helping in a tangible way. What’s more, my mzungu-ness often gives people false hope, since they immediately assume that I’m representing an NGO or charity and have come to do a needs assessment that will be followed by financial assistance. And then I think that even if I were here to help in a tangible way, I wouldn’t even know where to begin since there’s so much need.


I have met some truly inspiring people these last few days. For example, the newly installed head teacher in one poorly performing school. A single mother, she is trying her best to improve the school and can’t wait for the school’s teacher housing to be renovated so she can move in and live on school grounds full time. Kenyan teachers can be posted anywhere in the country; many posted to rural areas often opt to live in the nearest town in order to access more modern comforts. But this woman explained to me that the best monitoring is from within, and that it would be no sacrifice to her to live on school grounds since that is how she could do the best job to improve things.

Another example: the acting village elder in the village that I visited on Friday. At the tender age of 24 he hardly lives up to his title (I joked that he should be called the “village younger”) but he is clearly both full of ideas on how to improve things and is also respected by the community. He was elected to his current position after the village elder was suspended for sordid-sounding reasons. After his father died a few years ago, he and his mother and his late father’s co-wives have taken in 15 orphans. He has also built a pen for dairy goats (though is still fundraising to buy the goat), launched a program encouraging all villagers to plant at least seven trees on their homesteads (to help with water catchment), and is personally counseling local school students to stay in school, thus reducing this year’s dropout rate to zero percent. The “village younger” also expressed to me his aspirations to go to college, since he said that “if you want to make a change, you have to be changed” – implying that in order for him to convincingly preach about the fruits of education he should be better educated himself.


One of my more amusing experiences lately was a visit to one of the local chief’s offices. It felt like a total caricature. The chief’s office was essentially a mud hut with a thatched roof and mud floors. I entered to find a rotund man seated behind a desk in a small room crowded with sycophants (or so I imagined them to be). He shooed them out as I entered and inquired about my presence. After explaining what I was doing there, he asked, “and why aren’t you doing your research on chiefs?!” I bumbled through some answer that he seemed to find acceptable and showed myself the door.

Maybe you had to be there.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Matatu madness

Back when I lived in Tanzania I blogged about riding the daladala, or local minibus. If you don’t feel like reading that whole post (I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t, but anyway) they are basically 14-passenger vans that regularly get crammed with 30 people or more at a time. We heard exotic stories about the matatu, the daladala’s Kenyan cousin, which was supposed to be much more regulated and safe. Supposedly, the drivers in Kenya would only allow 14 passengers and even enforce the wearing of seatbelts.

It seemed to good to be true. And alas, it is. Though the regulation is still in place, people demonstrate creative ways of getting around it. This past weekend when I traveled to Kisumu (the third largest city in Kenya, on the coast of Lake Victoria) my traveling companion and I were squeezed into a van that definitely contained more than 14 people. After traveling for a while, the driver pulled over and instructed four people to get out and hop on a motorbike (you read that right, four people on a motorbike; six is the most I’ve seen at once thus far) so he could pass the upcoming police checkpoint with impunity…

My matatu experience today was also amusing: I had the luxury of riding in a matatu equipped with a TV playing music videos! The veejay (haven’t used that word in a while, if ever) played a nice mix of Tanzanian and Kenyan videos, my favorite of which was probably “Papa God Ooh!” by MOG and Jr. Squeezy. Now that’s traveling in style.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What I Didn’t Learn in Graduate School, or, Survey Research is Hard!

Though I remain somewhat skeptical of the experimental turn in Political Science, I must confess that I have also grown a bit contemptuous of papers that are only based on survey methods. Well, in the past two weeks my esteem for survey methods has risen considerably. Survey-based research, particularly in a developing country context, is hard!!!

Logistics, logistics, logistics

For the most part, I was not privy to the development of the survey instruments we’re using, so I can’t speak to the challenges that were surely involved in developing them. Rather, I’ve been more aware of the logistical challenges associated with actually implementing the surveys in the field. We’re using a paper-based survey,* so I’ve witnessed and taken part in epic amounts of photocopying and stapling. Transporting the survey instruments to Rongo involved purchasing new suitcases and filling a number of cardboard boxes, which are all now littered about (er, organized perfectly, if my boss is reading this) my hotel room. We’ve warned the third PI on the project to pack light so he can transport the completed surveys back to the states for double data entry.

In addition to the papers and the paperwork, there are all the logistics of implementing the surveys in the field. Organizing transportation, making sure the enumerators are going to the right places, making sure they have sufficient credit on their phones to check in constantly with their field coordinators, buying refreshments for meetings. If you check out Kenya’s rating on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business survey, you can imagine that performing the simple transactions required for such activities is non-trivial.

Beyond Research Fatigue

In a previous blog post I worried that the respondents we were interviewing might be tired of being the subject of yet another research project, which does not obviously benefit them. The situation I have encountered in the villages I have visited so far has not exactly matched this prediction, but it has made me even more aware of conflicted nature of conducting research in a place like rural country. In a nutshell, we are getting a lot of requests for financial assistance. It makes sense. After people spend hours telling us about the enormous challenges they face in their daily lives, they wonder what we can do to help. My PI recently blogged about this particular challenge, in a more elegant manner than I am doing here so you should check out his post. (The post also contains a photo of me looking like a Mormon on a mission trip, for added incentive).

So bottom line: survey-based research is hard. It’s a little depressing that our fairly small-N research this summer is unlikely to have very much “power” to shed statistically significant light on the questions we’re asking. But hopefully the open-ended nature of the survey tools will provide a wealth of qualitative data, which will be interesting in and of itself, and also help to inform the next round of larger-N (and thus even harder!) survey research.


I was just brushing my teeth after having posted this and realized that it may come across as rather whiney. So I figured I should add that I’m also finding this particular experience with survey research to be incredibly fulfilling. Spending my days outside in a beautiful place, talking to people and learning out their lives is pretty amazing. As is the T-shirt tan I’ve acquired in the process.

*I’ve been lobbying my PI’s to adopt a smartphone-based survey, such as those one can create with Open Data Kit, in future rounds of this research project. They have raised a number of challenges associated with adopting more advanced technology (e.g. power outages, difficulty in entering free-form responses, intimidation of survey respondents) but I’m not sure these trump the challenges associated with the paper-based format. With this in mind I’m planning to try and develop a smartphone-based version by the end of the summer if and when I find the time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bongo vs. Rongo

Residents of Dar es Salaam frequently refer to the city as “Bongo,” using a slang word for head/brain, the idea being that life in such a hectic place requires that you use your head. I haven’t yet determined whether Rongo has any common nicknames, but as a small town it’s certainly less hectic. That said, you still need to have your wits about you, especially when crossing the street. This morning when I was out for a run with my Kenyan co-Field Coordinator, we saw a car hit a motorbike. This confirmed my decision to completely avoid motorbikes while I am here, despite their being a common mode of transport.

If I am honest, I am mainly comparing Bongo (my former home in East Africa) and Rongo (my present one) because it’s fun to say, “Bongo vs. Rongo”. But hopefully this can serve as a way to tell you a bit more about the place where I’ll be spending the next 11 weeks.

First off, Rongo is incredibly scenic. Not so much the town but the surrounding environment. Incredibly lush and green, with breathtaking views of rolling hills and valleys. “Bucolic,” if I may use a GRE word.

My precise coordinates in Rongo are at the Lasjona Hotel. I’ve already told you about my pimptastic hotel room (picture coming soon!). Other notable features include: extremely slow service at the restaurant, frequent power outages, and an entrepreneurial cleaning staff. (On my second day here, one of the cleaning ladies ushered me into a random room and whipped out some lovely soapstone carvings, which I was convinced to buy on the spot).

As an mzungu I am something of an oddity here, though given the high presence of churches and NGOs I am not a complete novelty. Today some of my American colleagues and I were resting outside one of the many Seventh-Day Adventist churches in the region and a woman came out and asked us if we had been there last year. When we said no, she said she must have gotten us confused with someone else. All us white folk look alike, I guess.

If Rongo’s amusements prove insufficient over the next few months, it looks like there’s plenty to do in the area. Wildlife reserves and a rainforest are possible weekend trips. Also, due to the fact that we’ve hired a bunch of great enumerators, I have an instant network of local friends. In addition, I’m extremely grateful to have found someone to go running with, though it involves waking up a bit earlier than I might like. We had plans to go this morning at 6:15 so I set my alarm for 6. As I groaned to turn off my alarm I got a text from my running buddy informing me that he was back already from his 5:30 AM jaunt and ready for another one. In fact, he got a bit tired during our 6:15 session but we came back and did boxing drills in the hotel parking lot. I showed him a few pilates moves in return and suggested we make a workout video: The Rongo Boxing and Pilates Workout. It’s totally going to be the next L.A. fitness craze.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Research fatigue?

No, I’m not referring to the exhaustion associated with spending too many hours in the library. Rather, I’m talking about my latest manifestation of mzungu guilt.

When I lived in Tanzania, I spent my first four months feeling distinctly uncomfortable about being there. The feeling resulted from a combination of my awareness of being a white person in a country formerly colonized by white people, as well as a realization that a lot of the so-called do-gooders in the country (donors/NGOs) were doing more harm than good. When a former colleague from D.C. came to Dar for a conference I began unloading on him until he finally cut me off and told me that my feeling guilty was not doing anybody any good. He reminded me that there is an element of hypocrisy in most human interactions and that I’d do better to get over it and get on with trying to do something useful rather than sit around moaning about feeling guilty.

Less navel-gazing and more on what I'm actually doing in my next post!

More recently, one of my greatest mentors from Tanzania made me realize that mzungu guilt is not only unproductive but may also miss the point. About a year ago I was excitedly telling him about my plans to conduct PhD research on the negative impact of foreign aid on the accountability of African governments. He finally cut me off (this seems to be a pattern…) and pointed out that foreign aid was only part of a much larger story in terms of the challenges facing African governments and their citizens. This speaks to a broader tendency of framing such challenges in terms of the “bad” white people (colonialists, foreign aid donors, insensitive and/or greedy NGO directors) and the “good” ones (implicitly whoever is doing the framing).

I have now come to think that while guilt is not a productive emotion, it is important to remain sensitive to whatever made us feel guilty in the first place and then try to do something to address it. Of course, it’s always easier to give such advice rather than take it, so I’ll spend the rest of this (long-winded) post on what I’m feeling guilty about at the moment, and then hopefully at a later date I’ll have some ideas about resolution.

As a relatively accessible and peaceful place (recent post-election violence aside), Kenya seems to have had ideal initial conditions for Western scholars of African politics. Over time, a community of researchers on Kenya has grown, making research into this country’s politics even more common. For similar reasons, there are a great number of NGOs operating here. Hence, it seems likely that Kenyans might be sick of being research subjects. This fear was confirmed this morning when my principal investigator and I paid a call on the local District Commissioner. When we told him we were conducting an evaluation of Uwezo, he complained first that he had never heard of the project, and then when we explained it to him he protested that Uwezo should not come to this district and conduct their assessment without sharing the results. We assured him that the results were preliminary and would be shared in due time, and promised to share the results of our research as soon as possible. But the broader point that he made stuck with me – so many researchers come into local communities, taking up people’s time with survey upon survey, and then people do not see any tangible benefit. To me this reflectsa broader, troubling phenomenon that I like to call “development as petri dish.” That is, many researchers seem to view developing countries like some laboratory in which to conduct innovative experiments, without fully considering the fact that their research specimens are human beings with their own wants and needs, which might be entirely at odds with the researchers’… Anyway, I am still convinced that there is some social value to academic research, or else I would not be doing it. (God knows I’m not in this for the money.) But finding the balance between being a good scholar of global development and a good citizen of the world remains a challenge.

Less navel-gazing and more on what I"m actually doing in my next post!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Karibu Tena

After three years I am back in East Africa, albeit in a different country and a different context. Despite these differences, some things remain constant. For instance: the dramatic and sudden sunsets. The alluring neatly stacked piles of tropical fruit at roadside stands. People’s strong allegiances to a particular local beer, despite the fact that all are made by the same company and taste pretty much the same. (In the four full days that I have been here I have already self-identified as a Pilsner drinker. Seriously, folks, Tusker?! It’s like Bud Light. Like having sex on a boat. I could go on.)

In addition to being back in East Africa, I have also decided to reënter (sorry, that was the New Yorker reader in me) the blogosphere, after an even longer hiatus. Granted, it may be taxing to be in the public eye again, but I feel it’s my duty to my devoted fans… In all seriousness, I intend to use this blog to keep any interested parties (hi, Mom) informed about my experiences in Kenya and Tanzania this summer. I also hope to use the blog to process those experiences, so I hope you will forgive or ignore any self-indulgent navel-gazing…

So anyway, what am I doing here, exactly? Well, other than rhapsodizing about sunsets and drinking Kenyan beer (Hint: there might be a correlation between those two phenomena) I am working as a research assistant on an evaluation of Uwezo-Kenya. Uwezo (“capability” in Swahili) is a four-year initiative to improve competencies in literacy and numeracy among children in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda through a civic-driven and public accountability approach to social change. The principal investigators on this project are a team of three professors from MIT and Princeton, one of whom was until recently at UCLA. I first became familiar with Uwezo when I worked in Tanzania at HakiElimu. HakiElimu’s founder went on to found Twaweza, which is the umbrella organization that oversees Uwezo.

Our assessment will cover two districts in Kenya – Rongo (where I am based) and Kirinyaga. In each district there is one American field coordinator and one Kenyan field coordinator. We will each be hiring a team of eight local enumerators and the next two weeks will be devoted to conducting surveys in a number of villages in each district. The local enumerators will be conducting household surveys and the field coordinators will be conducting surveys of local “elites” (head teachers and village leaders). After the survey period we’ll go back to Nairobi to work with Uwezo staff on data entry and then we’ll come back to the field for follow-up surveys and more observational and ethnographic research. I’ll spend the first two weeks of September in Tanzania working on some of my own research, and hopefully spending a few days at the beach.

So far I have spent four days in Nairobi, getting to know the professors leading the team and my fellow field coordinators. (And figuring out my preferred Kenyan brew. This latter task was a very scientific exercise, which involved a blind taste test.) I really don’t have much of an impression of the city as much of our time was spent in hotel conference rooms. I did notice some similarities with Dar es Salaam, but Nairobi does seem wealthier and English seems to be more of the lingua franca. When I told anyone I knew some Swahili after living in Tanzania they would say that I knew the “true Swahili.” Unfortunately, my “true Swahili” is not going to serve me so well in Rongo, where people are more likely to speak English if they speak anything other than the local language (Luo). But I’m keen to learn Luo so hopefully it won’t be too hard to pick up the basics.

We have a long day of enumerator interviews tomorrow, so I think I should probably sign off. I imagine I will sleep well in my Rongo hotel room, for which I fear words will not do justice. I will try to post a picture soon but for now just imagine my red wall-to-wall carpet, gold bedspread, and plush headboard inlaid with mirrors and speakers (?!). It’s like Austin Powers on safari.