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.

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