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.