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.