Launching a Kenyan ethnography in the middle of a pandemic

I arrived in Kenya at the end of March 2021, ready to start my ethnographic fieldwork after it was postponed several times due to the pandemic.

The path was long and rocky: after a significant delay to the original research schedule, the University lifted the travel ban in January 2021; I could finally start thinking practically about my travel, always aware of the possible unforeseen challenges that could come up and threaten the trip. Due to the exceptional circumstances, a special and detailed risk assessment was required to account for all the possible scenarios in which the pandemic could interfere with my research, and related emergency plans were to be listed. Kenya’s government was very cautious with releasing a visa, and the bureaucratic process was made much stricter. At that point, red, amber and green lists were still not in place, but at the beginning of March the UK government banned international travel for anyone who didn’t have any medical, educational, or highly justified personal reasons. All this resulted in an exceptional bulk of paperwork to be displayed to different authorities along my intercontinental trip.

On Friday, literally two days before my departure, while England was reopening schools and starting to talk about a staggered reopening of the country, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a new lockdown.

A surge in Covid cases forced to extend the already existing measures - curfew, social distancing, and limitation of public transports’ capacity and public gatherings. In addition, five counties were in lockdown, banned from travelling in and out. Nairobi was one of them, but luckily not the Uasin Gishu county, where Eldoret is and where I was supposed to be based. That Friday, I was going out to get my fit-to-travel PCR test when Collins, my Kenyan fieldworker, called to inform about the new announcement. A long day of panicking followed, with lots of desperate calls between me and my supervisors. I was meant to travel that Sunday and no one was clear on when these new rules would come into force. The risk was for me to arrive in Nairobi and to be stuck there, unable to leave the capital and to take the internal flight to Eldoret. Once more, it seemed that the trip was cancelled – but this time, it was more frustrating than ever because everything was ready, after meticulous preparation that took months. Fortunately, Kenya announced a travel window until Monday at midday: I landed in Nairobi at 6 am of that Monday, and immediately took an internal flight to Kisumu, 3 hours away from Eldoret. Flights to Eldoret were all sold out, as lots of people were trying to leave the capital just in time. I will always remember that Friday afternoon of delirious plans and creative resilience, and I had a genuine cry when I actually landed safe and sound in Kisumu after 30 hours of travelling!

After that Odyssey, I found myself in Eldoret, eager to start my research in the informal settlement of Langas, at the outskirts of the town.

Nancy and Collins, local community health volunteers who I met during my first scoping visit in Kenya in January 2020, were excited to start after more than a year of waiting. Although, we were all aware that once more the epidemiological, political, and social conjuncture was not exactly the most favourable one to start an ethnographic research, which by definition entails participation in community activities, household visits, and a deep and prolonged physical immersion in the field of research.

Public Health authorities were busy once again installing programmes for Covid prevention (handwashing, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing); local authorities were trying to enforce Covid prevention policies across the city including dispersing public gatherings and crowds, and assuring that the curfew was respected.

In all this, Kenyans were exasperated by the new restrictions and their consequential and detrimental economic and social impacts that, as documented by our research group, deeply impacted food security and energy choices.

Already before travelling, I was worried about how the community would receive me, and whether they would see me as an additional threat in such a delicate moment. I questioned many times if my presence there was opportune and appropriate. The episodes of violence and stigmatisation toward “mzungus” (white people) happening in Africa at the beginning of the pandemic were still echoing in my mind. In all this, I was trying to access a vulnerable community that was impacted more than others by the pandemic and its side-effects.

Langas is an informal settlement at the outskirts of Eldoret. Although rapidly developing, it has for a long time been identified as a “slum area”, and thus stigmatised and marginalised from the rest of the city. Home for more than 100,000 people, moving from the rural areas in search of better economic possibilities, Langas is a melting pot of ethnic groups and traditions; it is an affordable location for low-income earners, but it is also home for “hasslers”, people who are generally unemployed and live of occasional jobs.

 As in most deprived settings, Langas is lacking lots of the amenities and services that would easily be accessible in Eldoret town, and primary health care is delivered through the so called “Community Strategy System”. Introduced in 2006 with the aim of assuring Universal Health Care. The pillars of this system are the Community Health Volunteers (CHVs), members of the community elected and trained by the Ministry of Health to delivery basic health care and to refer serious cases to the closest hospital. Usually in charge of 100 households each, CHVs are coordinated by a Public Health Officer (PHO). Each administrative ward has its own PHO.

 Public safety and respect of the law are also enforced through a community-based model, where village elders are the ‘level one’ of community control. Village elders hold periodic meetings called barasa to deliberate on community decisions and they are administered by the Chief, the local representative of the central government.

Both CHVs and village elders have been essential in shaping a response to Covid19 in Kenya. Highly authoritative and respected, they had a central role in delivering public health messaging, in enforcing the respect of Covid rules, as well as in providing support and care to the most vulnerable households.

At such a delicate time as the launch of my research it was essential to inform both the Public Health (local PHO and CHVs) and the local authorities (village elders and the Chief). The research had obviously obtained ethical approval from both the local REC and UoL REC, and informal consent to be operating within the community was obtained through Collins in his role as a community health volunteer.

Besides the formalities, I would discover that searching for a direct, first-hand and in-situ approval from these community groups was possibly the most relevant and powerful move of the entire research process.

Senior hierarchies were not that bothered with my presence; but according to Collins and Nancy, the presence of a white, young, and female researcher would create quite a bit of curiosity at the community level.

In their opinion, to inform the representatives of Langas was an unmissable step: accordingly, on the first day of my fieldwork we went to one of the local barasa. After introducing myself, the institution I was coming from and the partnership I had with the local University, village elders fathomed the layers of my research in a way I didn’t expect, asking several questions that mainly had to do with the practical component of my work – which kind of activities I would do, which target participants I had in mind, which area of the settlement I would explore. After what felt like a very intimidating examination, village elders congregated to deliberate upon my entry into the community. Luckily, they released a positive outcome, mainly justified by the fact that I was liaising with Collins, a widely known, respected and dedicated community member. Amongst the CHVs, the process was easier. CHVs are more concerned with health than with security, so they felt that the matter had already been sorted by the elders.

Since the launch of my fieldwork and over the course of 4 months of my ethnography I have considered several times if those initial introductions were really necessary, as I barely ever met any of the elders again. I never had issues of security in a place where small crimes are known to be a daily matter; I was never rejected by any of the households or looked at suspiciously on the several occasions in which I participated to community activities. I always felt very much “normal” in Langas, and comfortable and accepted, somehow “normalised” and treated as a ‘local one’.  Interestingly, this is in contrast to what happen when I go to Eldoret town, where I am conspicuous as the ‘white-skinned one’ (Mzungu) and often annoyed by people interested by my presence.

I shared these observations with Collins and Nancy, telling them how I felt that we could have skipped those steps of community-entry because “Langas felt very much welcoming anyway”. They laughed and smiled at me exposing my naivety. Resolute, they both said that nothing would have been the same if we had not have informed the elders. The reason why I always felt safe, moved freely in the maze of an informal settlement, I was never annoyed, questioned or rejected, I could participate to any of the events with no awkwardness or suspicion was exactly because the village elders and the CHVs were informed. And they said that “you wouldn’t have lasted a week in Langas if the local authorities wouldn’t know about you. They would have made your life impossible”. Especially, they underlined how the CHVs worked a lot behind the scenes to make sure that everyone felt comfortable and safe as regards to Covid concerns when interacting with us.

The experience of community entry was deeply formative. To me, it represents a first-hand example of how essential it is to be tuned, respectful and humble when accessing a community as an estranger.

All these steps, whose complexity in terms of political, socio-cultural, and positioning values is here simplified, were not just a starting point. I can now recognise how they have been the skeleton and foundation for a successful, fulfilling and deeply immersive participation in the local community. I am immensely grateful to Collins and Nancy, irreplaceable interpreters of Langas complexity and companions in this fieldwork adventure, for guiding me through local rules and expectations, which I would have simply and unforgivably ignored if leading my research alone in Langas.

Nancy and I conversating during one of the household visits in Langas


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