All is Sawa

Last time I was in Kenya I was doing research but it was generally relaxed. I had a regular office I went to and meetings within the office. I had clear questions and most people were really excited to share their opinions on them. So, because of my work was low pressure and because it was my first time in Africa, I really focused on having fun and being a tourist. I was also here for 6 weeks so had lots of weekend getaways. It is nice being back now and able to say I have already done a lot of the touristy things. I realize in retrospect I wasn’t sure what I was thinking when we went to Lamu since employees of  U.S., and until recently UK, governments are not strictly prohibited from traveling there. It makes me feel slightly bad ass in a sea of people who are much more adventurous than me.

This trip is not about being a tourist and seeing Nairobi for the first time. I am here to do exploratory research for my dissertation and this is really the first time I am “in the field” doing my own research. A lot of the work involves keeping track of who I have spoken with, who I have been connected to, and who I have emailed. I have elaborate documents with names of people I am trying to connect with here and when I am scheduling the meeting and then a separate one of people to skype with later. This is the type of task I am good at, but even for a type A organizational expert I am feeling burnt out trying to keep track of names and schedules, and time out meetings across Nairobi.

Once I get a meeting there is this balance in deciding if it will be more of a networking chat (usually happens with most of the meetings over meals) or a more formal interview. In both types of meetings, I am balancing taking detailed notes, asking questions, actively listening, thinking of a good next question, and paying attention to time. It is multi-tasking to the extreme. Additionally, regardless of what type of conversation it is I notice that people really want to feel like they are being helpful. I find myself wanting to reassure people after each meeting that they were helpful and for the most part they all are for different reasons. Additionally, I am bouncing across Nairobi from cafés to office buildings and never quite sure on whether I have timed things out correctly since I am not very good at Nairobi geography or figuring out traffic patterns. I asked David what time was rush hour and he says, “There is no rush hour in Kenya. It’s every hour and then there are just miserable hours.”

I try to use the time in between meetings to take in Nairobi. I “car window shop” looking at the stalls at the side of the road and yesterday asked David if he could remember the location of one I wanted to come back to with cool looking bags. I look at the fashion of Kenyan women and love their colorful skirts and dresses, but know most of them I can’t pull off back home. I saw a young woman wearing a cute skirt that looked like it could work in the U.S. and I had to hold myself back from opening the car window and asking her where it was from. Everywhere you look there is some sort of building being constructed or trees being chopped down (hence why our internet was out for 24 hours). There are piles and piles of red dirt. Yesterday we drove past Uhuru Park which is a sprawling park in the middle of the city. There were big statutes and families out relaxing in the park with the backdrop of a Nairobi skyline. I desperately wanted to take a picture (because I feel like I have had none to share from Nairobi for friends and family back home) so I rolled down my window and realized my immediate error when two people begging for money came over and stood at the window while we were stuck in traffic. One faces the same moral dilemmas of how to deal with this type of situation in the U.S., but I felt stupid for inviting it by opening my window. Most of the time I am sweltering in the back seat of David’s van because due to safety concerns I don’t keep my window open. At least I am not freezing in a Boston blizzard J I am often sounding ridiculous repeating Swahili words David is trying to teach me over and over again not quite getting the sounds and rhythm correct.

Many of my meetings have involved people telling me this research is too difficult to do for my PhD or pointing out the challenges I will face. I try to keep positive, but of course internalize what they are saying. Other meetings I have fantastic conversations and leave feeling intellectually stimulated and curious. The emotional rollercoaster of my day ends up leaving me feeling exhausted.

At the end of the day I come home and frantically write-up all my notes and thank you emails with reminders of who people offered to connect me to. When I get home it is early afternoon in the U.S. so other emails from my home life start coming in.

All this to say is I have lots of emotional and intellectual ups and downs and so most of the time this trip isn’t easy. But what I keep trying to remind myself is that is the point! I have gone to so many research workshops about techniques for field research and challenges for field research and I absorbed them in some abstract way, but now I am living it. Field research isn’t easy and it isn’t supposed to be! Part of the reason I haven’t been connecting lessons from the workshops is because when we think of “the field” most people imagine some rural village and meeting with locals about their experiences. My field research looks like bopping from cafés to offices meeting with people and getting their professional expertise, not usually their first-hand experiences. But it is still fieldwork even if it doesn’t fit the stereotype and involves sitting around and drinking a lot of my favorite new drink “dawa” (hot water with lemon, ginger, and honey).

All this isn’t to say I am not going to find the fun and joy in the experience, but that doesn’t have to be the point! And as I am constantly working on remembering in my life – experiences don’t have to be “perfect” or all fun to be rewarding and important. So for now things are “sawa” (my new favorite Swahili word meaning okay).


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