Working in Nairobi, Kenya, has been a unique experience with challenges I had not initially anticipated, but it has exposed me to various nuances which will be helpful in the future. This experience enabled me to travel to Kenya for the first time and to work in a country other than my own. It has also provided the opportunity to learn and witness firsthand the implementation of the peacebuilding concepts and tools I have been learning in class. Since I am a foreigner with limited familiarity with Kenya, its culture, and the local language, Kiswahili, I have been observing this implementation process from an outsider perspective.
A bottom-up approach
Being in Nairobi, Kenya, for five months has enabled me to witness and learn about the importance of having long-term engagement. My perspectives about how to engage Kenyans in peacebuilding work have shifted over time, with greater exposure and interaction with locals. Working with a local partner has provided space for interrogation and inquiry about the dimensions and nuances that influence peacebuilding work. It has made me realize the importance of engaging in peacebuilding work with the aid of locals who are more familiar with cultural and social practices that are important to analyze. The significance of the local turn in peacebuilding is being put into practical perspective during this field experience, at least at the individual level where, as a foreigner, I am working and being guided by a local partner with vast local knowledge and experience in the peacebuilding field. A bottom-up approach is an essential skill in the field, because at one point or another you will find yourself in a foreign land or space where you will have to learn from others. In such situations, one has to learn to support and trust in the capability and knowledge of persons from that particular context, and abandon initial assumptions one might hold.
I believe this process of trusting and supporting existing local structures and persons is what is meant by accompaniment and a bottom-up approach, concepts that I am currently learning firsthand in Kenya.
The immersion process into Kenya, its culture, and the peacebuilding interventions implemented by our partner organization has also provided space to practice accompaniment by learning from others through observation and providing assistance with projects. This has exposed me to strategies for effectively engaging in foreign spaces and working with persons from varying identity groups to enhance adaptability, social bridging skills, and cultivate an acceptance of differences. These traits are vital for relationship building and working in foreign environments, particularly since soft forms of power such as relationship building (social harmony) are utilized in making societies more peaceful and just.
Although immersion has been challenging for various reasons including language barriers, I have acquired valuable skills and have come to understand the practical importance of a local dimension in implemented interventions. Additionally, I am realizing the importance of working in foreign environments where one has limited familiarity and discovering the strategies for navigating these spaces. I now understand what Susan St. Ville, the Director of the International Peace Studies Concentration, meant in her advice to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” in the field: the lessons learned in the field make the awkwardness of initial engagement all worth it.
How do you sum up a year-long experience where you’ve worked with a team of others, traveled to multiple countries, and examined solutions to some of the biggest challenges in the world today? This is exactly what we asked the students in the i-Lab to do on September 13—in five minutes or less, in front of the entire Keough School.
Over the summer the i-Lab sent 23 Master of Global Affairs students, in 7 project teams, to 14 countries across 5 continents, to work with organizations on the frontlines. Upon their return to campus, we gathered in the i-Lab space to let students tell their stories, explain why their projects are so important to their partner organizations, and discuss what they learned in the field and the impact they hope to achieve.
Our students were, in short, extraordinary. Here is a brief recap of their projects and stories:
Dorcas Omowole interns at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank based in Nairobi, Kenya. With Master of Global Affairs teammates, she assesses the implementation of devolution in Kenya, gathering data and interviewing county officials, civil society organizations, independent commissions and other devolution stakeholders.
A RICHNESS OF FLORA, FAUNA, FOOD, AND GEOGRAPHY
Not only is Kenya home to more than 42 communities, with an estimated 6,506 higher plant species, 359 mammals, 1,079 birds, 61 reptiles, 63 amphibians, and 34 fish species, it has the second highest population of bird and animal species in Africa (Survey of Kenya 2003, World Resources Institute 2003). It’s been interesting and awe-inspiring to experience this diversity, filled with the richness that Kenya represents.
From the community of Somali traders in Eastleigh, Nairobi to the Asian community, most cities in Kenya can be rightly defined as cosmopolitan.Our taste buds were not left out of this interesting experience as they savored Italian, Indian, Somalian cuisines in Nairobi. Of course, our tongues did not escape Ugali, a staple food made with maize and eaten with vegetables, respected in word and in deed by Kenyans.
Our eyes were also not left out, especially on meandering roads as we climbed the mountains on our way to Kabarinet, Baringo County headquarters and Iten. Iten is the headquarters of Elgeyo Marakwet County. It has very high altitudes and is a training ground for many national and international athletes. Iten is also tagged “home of champions” because many of the medal winning sprinters from Kenya are from Iten.
Virtually every curve met my awe as we faced the deep valleys on either side of the road. I was transformed to that experience where your whole life flashes before you and you wonder what if it all ended now. I had to close my eyes and hum some soothing lyrics to get my mind off the road. It was a relief that the journey from Nairobi to Kisumu was through relative lowlands and straight roads – or, maybe my eyes and heart had become immune.
A BUSINESS LESSON FROM A HIPPO
Our visit to the Masai Mara Game Reserve is in the offing, most likely post fieldwork in July when we may also get to experience the great wildebeest migration described by maasaimara.com as the “The World Cup of Wildlife.” However, we have experienced snippets of the variety of wildlife in Kenya through the monkeys and birds on our street, pictures and carvings in the museum, elephants at national parks, and zebras, baboons, camels sighted during our inter-county field travels, and the near sighting of a hippopotamus on Lake Victoria.
The ambivalence that accompanied the desire to sight the hippopotami by those who had seen them before was at first confusing. Hippopotami are herbivores but, in an effort, to protect their territory can overturn boats and provide food for crocodiles—intrinsic division of labour in nature. On hearing this story, although I still verbalized interest in seeing the hippos, I silently prayed that they do not show up or show up at a far distance.
It is this diversity of wildlife and landscapes that makes Kenya a beautiful sight to behold and compels tourists who bring with them 60 percent of government revenues. It is this diversity that people travel from far to experience. It is this diversity that has made Kenya famous. It is this diversity that Kenya cherishes and protects. It is this diversity that Kenya keeps seeking opportunities to maximize.
BRANCHING OUT TO DO GOOD AND BE MORE
Our discussions in Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties had been along similar lines. Having both highlands and lowlands within the county, these counties plan putting in mind the unique needs of and benefits from both terrains.
Nature is full of images that aim to instruct us that branching out is a means to be and do much more. A river that branches out does more good compared with a river with one branch, which tends to become a deluge that drowns some and starves others. It is the same reason that we use a comb with multiple teeth to comb our hair. It is the same reason that we prefer a rake to a stick when clearing our garden and prefer a watering can or sprinkler to a bucket. Not only would a bucket be of no help, it would be cumbersome to use and there is the risk of hurting or killing the plants. For this same reason, Kenya wisely branched out into 42 counties with a decentralized system of government in 2010.
As we cherish and protect the varieties of wildlife, we should cherish and protect even more the variety of peoples that make our country what it is. Our common history and future binds us. Every tentacle or part of the body has a role to play especially in providing support to the other parts, helping it play its part better. The beauty of diversity is the multiple blessings that diversity offers when the benefits from all parts are acknowledged and maximized.
I am proudly Nigerian and have lived the most part of my adult life in Lagos. In my opinion, Nairobi is a milder version of Lagos. I get more frustrated by the complaints about traffic or mosquitoes in Nairobi than by the traffic or mosquitoes. So far, I am loving Nairobi. I am also loving Kenya. Kenya is calm.
At Kisumu, the owner of the venue we had rented for our Focus Group Discussion—an ArchBishop—thought I was Luhya. When I told him I was Nigerian, he said, “Nigeria!” with an accent, saying, “that was how Nigerians say Nigeria.” I smiled. He was indirectly saying Nigerians are sassy, and was referring to our country with some sophistication and class by stressing the “er.” The ArchBishop even had a pose and accompanying head movements as he said, “Nigeria.”
Back in Nigeria, I get comments that I must be Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and it’s hard to place the tribe I am from. I just tell people I am Nigerian and I am pleased with any tribe I am placed in. Nowadays, my conviction (that God created the earth) override and I see myself as a global citizen—although, I have only travelled the world in my dreams. By close of day I was christened “Nanjala,” confirmed in the mouth of three female witnesses (participants at the Focus Group Discussion) and no male protesting. It is interesting that these women were not there in the morning when the Archbishop said I was Luhya but thought a Luhya name was best.
Nanjala means rainfall, and is the Luhya name for a girl born during a time of hunger/famine, as a prayer for the rains to come. Although my given ancestors are of the Luhya tribe, I would rather also just be proudly Kenyan.
as the rain falls,
may it wash away every filth and pain, make us see and know the things that really matter,
may the rains become a river that branches out and feeds all,
may the words of the Kenyan national anthem resound in sonorous unity and supplication.
Today, it has been two weeks already for me here in Nairobi, Kenya. Time flies so fast but my feeling is one of familiarity as if I have seen or lived in this place before. Actually, this is my first extended visit to East Africa, two years after a short visit to neighboring Tanzania.
Nairobi is also called “the green city in the sun,” as I was told by a Kenyan Somali lady I met. She tells diverse stories, some are glorious and some are worrisome.
I DISCOVER A CITY OF RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY
Here, respect for diversity and religious freedom are not slogans for an election campaign. Indians and Somalis specifically found a home here. They became Kenyans and built flourishing communities thriving through business and culture. My Somali friend, whom I met when I visited the local mosque, told me that Kenyan Somalis are proud of their country and feel free to practice their religion and wear religious garments according to their beliefs.
I am an eyewitness to this fact as well. While strolling through the busy areas of the city, I saw splendid mosques, beautiful churches, and magnificent Hindu temples scattered all around for all the believers to worship and connect with their faith.
We even found a small China town for the Chinese community that has grown throughout the years with the rise in Chinese investments in the country.
Those were some facts from the bright side of Nairobi. The gloomy side to the city is instantly noticeable through the deteriorated road network and the crazy traffic. A researcher from our partner organization, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), told us that the number of cars circulating Nairobi alone is equivalent to all the cars circulating the entire country of Ethiopia. The bad road conditions are an issue rooted in poor urban planning on the surface, but they are also symptomatic of the widespread corruption that is draining the country’s resources.
Our project with the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is to assess devolution—transferring power to local levels—in Kenya. It is a chance to have an inside look into Kenya’s ambitious devolution system, established with the constitutional reform of 2010. In addition to our general observations of Nairobi, we will conduct intensive interviews with the city officials, 9 independent commissioners particularly. We will use this information and insight to dig deeper into the political economy of devolution.
BONUS: OUR CHANCE TO VISIT RURAL AREAS
We are also traveling to 2 rural areas, Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties, next week for more interviews with stakeholders from different sectors to complement the picture. This was a deviation from the initial plan, which was centered on the 6 urban areas of Kenya. But I see this addition as necessary to get a holistic view on the focal question of the project.
All in all, everything seems more promising and enlightening to me with time as I get to immerse myself in the local culture and think more about the various challenges Kenya is facing on the way towards a better future.
Hakuna Matata, Keough School of Global Affairs, the Kenya team will carry out our mission!
This is not study abroad. It is a truly professional experience that involves student teams working closely with an NGO, think tank, institute, or nonprofit dedicated to addressing complex, large-scale problems. We call it the Global Partner Experience.
They’ve been preparing for over nine months with their global partners. Now it’s time to put planning into practice.