Saturday, October 27, 2007

Trouble Brewing

One of the things that jumped out at me when I was sifting through the Rift Valley Province crime reports last week was that in district after district, month after month, the most common type of crime, in terms of sheer number of arrests was the production, possession, or consumption of homemade brew. My interest in the topic was intensified by a recent post by Chris Blattman, whose surveys in Northern Uganda have shown that brewing alcohol is the leading income generating activity for the women they talked to there.

While it is impossible to make comparisons or draw inferences based on these two bits of information (as I know nothing about whether brewing is illegal in Uganda or if such laws are enforced, nor about the prevalence of brewing vis-a-vis other income generating activities in Kenya), I do think, as Blattman argues, that home-brewing is a topic that merits further attention. From my perspective, this struck me as an interesting example of the government trying to legislate and enforce a set of norms that are not necessarily accepted by the population at large. In my own field sites, the old Maasai guys who are frequently under the influence of mauritina certainly don't see themselves as doing anything illegal. Furthermore, they do little to hide their consumption, especially at big public ceremonies such as circumcisions and weddings, at which getting totally wasted on local brew is just what the old folks do. I'm curious whether this attitude is uniform throughout Kenya, or whether there are some straight-edge communities out there somewhere.

It would also be interesting to see whether police in Uganda treat brewing in the same way as police in Kenya. If they do, the high rate of brewing among Ugandan women is especially puzzling, as the activity isn't necessarily as low risk as Blattman argues- as profits may be offset by a high likelihood of paying a fine or a bribe.

More to come as I head back to the archives in coming weeks...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

data mining

Yesterday I got back from spending a week in Nakuru, the capital of Rift Valley Province. Rift Valley is the largest of Kenya’s 8 administrative provinces, and is home to some of the most beautiful terrain in Kenya, courtesy of the eponymous natural feature, a massive intercontinental gash that stretches from Israel all the way down to Mozambique. Nakuru itself is one of the gems of the Rift Valley, as it is home to the beautiful Lake Nakuru national park, which home to tons of great wildlife (in particular, hundreds upon hundreds of flamingos) and has probably become the second biggest tourist destination in Kenya (after Maasai Mara).

Unfortunately, the only glimpse I got of this beauty was from the roof of my hotel (the $5/night Mt. Sinai Boarding and Lodging) at sunrise. The rest of my daylight hours were spent in the beautiful 1970s post-colonial bureaucratic modernist interior of the Provincial Headquarters office.

Typically, data-mining is considered a bad thing in the social sciences, as the term refers to the practice of running a bunch of theoretically uninformed analyses on a mass of information and using the specification that works the best to support an argument – in reality I think this could be more accurately called “result mining”. Data mining could be much more accurately used to describe what I’ve been up to over the last few weeks, as my relentless pursuit of district-level government data on administrative presence and law enforcement outcomes made me feel very much like I was a prospector hacking away with a pickaxe deep beneath the earth.

If you will indulge me that simile, then, without a doubt, I hit paydirt this week. The brief history of my (retrospectively) not-so-quixotic quest is that I’ve been politely pushed from one bureaucratic office to another, with assistance being withheld either on account of allegations of insufficient authorization, or by claims that what I was looking for just didn’t exist. I kept on digging because I was confident that neither of these claims actually hold any water, and were just tossed off by bureaucrats who couldn’t be bothered to spend a little bit of time figuring out where to find what I was looking for.

The real breakthrough came when I went to see the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of State for Provincial Administration and Internal Security (PAIS) in the Office of the President (OP), on the advice of the deputy commander of forces for the north-eastern province. Although this didn’t pay off immediately (and led to me spending a few days getting bounced back and forth between dead ends in the Police Administration and Office of the President in Nairobi), my contact in the OP gave me a letter authorizing Provincial Commissioners (and their underlings) to give me access to any and all files I required, including personnel statistics from their Human Resources department and district level crime statistics.

When I reported to the Provincial Administration office in Nakuru, I was shown into the deputy Provincial Comissioner’s office, just as I was at the Coast and North Eastern Provinces. As I mentioned in an earlier post, when I was at the Coast, I was completely stonewalled because my contact at the Ministry of Education had neglected to give me a letter of any sort. Although the situation improved a bit when I visited the North East provincial headquarters in Garissa, the deputy PC pushed me off to the officer who dealt with all of the ministries OTHER THAN provincial administration and internal security. However, with a letter directly from the head of PAIS, the Rift Valley deputy Provincial Commissioner promptly set me up with two Administrative Officers (the Provincial Government equivalent of middle managers), who let me set up camp in their office and proceeded to send clerks digging around in the archives until they found pretty much exactly what I was looking for.

More on what they actually found for me a bit later, as well as on some details my interactions with these guys, but at least in the short run, I hope this shows that sometimes you can learn as much from trying to get data as you hoped to get from the information itself.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Norms and Tricks

Or Rather, Illusions, as a trick is something a whore does for money...

Whatever you call them, this recent slate article has a great discussion about a paper by a recent Yale law graduate, who examined the informal sanctions that Magicians use to protect their intellectual property. Its a great extension of the Ellickson "Order without Law" approach examining how institutions can work even in areas that is difficult for the state to regulate. Especially nice, given my own theoretical interests, is the discussion of how community boundaries and long-lasting networks of continuously interacting individuals are necessary for the operation of these kinds of informal norms.

Many thanks to Abbey's "specialists in violence" e-news update list for bringing this to my attention.

Today I had a close call with some elephants. Not that it was that close, but lets just say, I'm not sure who was more scared, the female elephant or me. At any rate, I can be sure that she didn't have any pants to crap.

More details, and photos, to follow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

the state as protection racket

Recently I went to get my research permit extended at the ministry of education. Or rather- I had the requirement of a permit extension foisted upon me. My goal was to get my permit extended to cover research in a number of other districts (collecting administrative data from all 8 of Kenya's administrative provinces). I suspected (correctly) that this might provoke some resistance from my good friend in the Research Permits office- when I presented him with the list of districts, he said that this was a different project and that I would need to reapply for a new permit. When I complained about this and asserted that I was not initiating any kind of large scale work in these districts, he relented a bit, offering to only renew my permit for a fee of $150 (only half of the full fee-what a bargain!). He was correct in noting that my permit expires in January, meaning that to continue work here in any capacity (which I intend to do), I would need to renew it anyhow. What irked me about the whole process is how fucking arbitrary the whole thing seemed. To my eye, it seems little different from paying a mobster so that your grocery store doesn’t start looking a bit flammable. Little about the setting made me feel as if the matter were being handled fairly- the fact that (like the last time) the guy put the money in his pocket, the fact that there were no really clearly published guidelines, and above all the only change was a few extra words on a piece of blue card stock that was otherwise identical to the one I already had. At the same time the whole thing worked- I need to do the research, and I can’t really afford to have some district officer or chief prevent me from working because he feels my documentation is incomplete (this has happened twice). Although the Research permit office does little in the way of its official duty of facilitating and regulating research, it seems to work quite efficiently as a tool for the government (or some agents of it) to extort funds from foreigners.

This was hammered home when I went to meet with the assistant provinicial commissioner for the coast province in Mombasa. The purpose of the meeting was to ascertain what administrative data they have that I can use for my cross-district comparison. Although the fellow was helpful enough, the entire meeting wound up in frustration as I once again continued to be tormented by research permit problems. The issue with the research permit is this- talking to people in villages, no one even asks for it at all, and yet when you talk to a government official (such as a provincial administrtor, district administrator, or chief) it is MEANINGLESS- they refuse to do anything without a letter from their immediate superior (in this case, the office of the president).

Why would one government ministry issue a document which is meaningless to other branches? Part of this seems to be inter-organizational politics that stem back to the Moi era, and showcase how that period differs from some trends in the current period. During the 80s and 90s, all research was cleared through the office of the president, which also houses the provincial administration and internal security departments. This is indicitave of the tendency in the Moi era for things to be concentrated in the office of the president, which was largely congruent with KANU (the ruling party) leadership, at least at the highest levels. Thus administrative tasks, rather than following a logic of specialization, were centralized to maximize the gatekeeper power of the president and the president’s circle. Around the time of the switchover to Kibaki, formal power over research permits was transferred to the ministry of Education, Science, and Technology. However, it seems that this was left out of the provincial administration training manual- what seems to matter most is not the permit itself, but a letter- and ideally from higher up in the office of the president. The assistant PC coast revealed this when he was on the phone to the Research Permits office in Nairobi- he said that a fax might be acceptable, but that a memo sent through the Office of the President would be the best. However, when I called to follow-up with the man who works in the research permit office, he wouldn’t hear of sending it to the Office of the President, and instead insisted on sending this directly to me. (Its also worth noting that I was only able to get through to him after about 6 tries of being routed to the wrong person by the switchboard operator).

In the end this all worked out- I got the letter from a courier and every subsequent official has been much more accomodating (although at some other time, I'll rant about the difficulty of obtaining disaggregated data). At the same time, I was able to do this because i had the time, money, and sheer pig-headed determination to get what I wanted. Many Kenyans are simply deterred from even trying, due to the reputation that things were much, much worse than this during the KANU period, even though in reality the quality of service provision varies a lot from ministry to ministry and office to office.

Monday, October 08, 2007

meat and greet

This pile of molten meat is courtesy of Carnivore, the famous and very aptly named meat-emporium in Nairobi. I've been jonesing to go there ever since my first trip to Kenya, but could never get anyone to go with me (well aware that meating alone is the first sign of a "meating disorder", as well as an indicator of insufficient social capital ). However, my friend Lucy's visit to Kenya provided the first opportunity for me to get my fix. Carnivore used to specialize in the whole gambit of "farm raised" game meat- gazelle, alligator, zebra, and so on, but due to increased regulation, the most exotic thing on the menu was ostrich meatballs. It is pretty much a kenyan take on an Argentinian restaurant, with guys coming around with skewers of beef, lamb, sausage, and so on until you surrender and take down the white flag that is on your table (although, I think raising the white flag is a better sign of meat surrender).

The next day, I decided that the best way to defeat the meat hangover was the old "eat more meat" strategy. This time, I got my fix at the local nyama choma (literally roast meat in swahili) kiosks on the road behind the campsite where I stay in Nairobi. I have to say that while this place lost to carnivore in terms of "sheer spectacle", the quality of the goat was FAR superior to any of the individual pieces I had tasted the previous night. If I ever do fulfill my dream of opening my own Kenyan restaurant in New York, this is what I'm going to aim for. Or rather, I'd try to appropriate this into a nouveau meat-fest, Fette-Sau style.

And finally, here I am on top of the Kenyatta International Conference Center in Nairobi:

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Saturday, October 06, 2007

sometimes i hate kenya because i love it so much.

campaign rallies. somali pastoralists. new districts. army recruitment. 9 hour bus rides. three wheel motorcycles onomotopiatically called "tuk tuks". internet connections too slow to blog or skype. bureaucrats who act helpful but only really succeed at being condescending. bureaucrats who agree to photocopy 200 pages of administrative records. clubbing until 4 am. freezing cold campsites. afrobarometer. gradually improving swahili. new friends. old friends. counting litter. goat. goat. goat.

Monday, September 24, 2007

By spending time cheap lodgings in Nairobi, I’ve gotten to meet tons of backpackers, NGO workers, Peace Corps Volunteers, and fellow researchers. When I spend time around these people, I’m reminded of numerous descriptions I’ve read and heard about frontier societies that have existed throughout time-the peripheries of early modern Europe, the “wild” American west, and the first round of the European colonization ofAfrica. In all of these cases, colonization wasn’t a centrally directed process, but rather occurred as a result of the decentralized action of this hetereogeneous group of adventurers, crusaders, fortune seekers, social outcasts, and criminals.

Last night, I overheard a young man recounting the list of countries he’d visited to a woman he’d just met - Somalia, Columbia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and so on. “I’m not actually a tourist,” he told her, “I’m a freelance war correspondent.” As I listened with half interest, he regaled her with tales of his swashbuckling, risk taking lifestyle, an American sitting at the table behind me caught my attention and stage whispered to me “STAY AWAY FROM THAT GUY. HE’S BAD NEWS”. Before I could even ask him how he knew this, he told me that he was a peace corps volunteer working in central Kenya, and they had received an e-mail over the Peace Corps listserv warning that there has been a con-man working the Upper Hills campsite for the last few months, posing to be a war correspondent. After giving me this warning, the Peace Corps volunteer, a neuroscience PhD from Iowa, engaged me in a conversation that covered Kenyan politics, research, and the frustrations and trials of working as a teacher in a secondary school for deaf students. When I asked him how he’s liked his time, he said “oh its good” but with a familiar weary ambivalence. He was jaded, but full of ideas and seemed excited to have an outlet.

Its easy for me to narrate these events, as if I’m the “normal” observer who just happens to be running across all of these bizarre adventurer types. Yet, when I pull out the focus a bit, I realize that I’m every bit as bizarre as the strangest people I’ve met- a PhD student from Yale who hangs out with Maasai 20 somethings, riding around in the back of trucks, drinking blood out of cow’s necks, and obsessing about trash collection and littering. By adopting a certain degree of risk-accepting behavior I’ve unwittingly made myself part of this whole “frontier society”. The question is, if these misfits are the people who are engaging in development work (as we were the people driving prior rounds of cultural transformation and state expansion), can any good ever come of it? Or is “western” driven development doomed to follow the whims of the individuals who take it upon themselves to concern themselves with countries like Kenya?

Friday, May 25, 2007

This is the blood that we're made of.

yes. that is blood. yes. it is directly from the neck of the cow. yes. i will begin blogging again soon.

no. i do not have a new parasite. i think.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Yet another picturesque landscape shot. I know that after awhile, these all start to look the same, but if you look closely you'll see the rainbow arching across the sky. We're just getting into the rainy season, which is playing hell with the roads (shock-surprise!), but which is providing some beautiful views when 4 o'clock rain showers clear into 5:30 rainbows.

What I was up to over the last ten days was a census of all of the "inkangitie" or homesteads in two of the administrative sublocations in my study area; I'm going to add a third in the next few weeks. An "enkang" (singular) is a circular enclosure containing several usually households; usually several wives of the same man, but occasionally also married sons, brothers, or friends of the head of the enkang. I decided to do the census because it seemed like a lot of political authority in the pastoralist communities I've been studying (mostly Maasai, but also Samburu, Somali, and Turkana) operates at the level of very small groupings of 4-8 inkangitie- essentially small "neighborhoods" within administrative sublocations. That is rather than being organized clearly into large tribes or villages headed by chiefs, the relevant authority seems to be vested in the elders living in a particular "neighborhod". In order to start documenting how governance works at the neighborhood level, I decided to first map out all of the neighborhoods in three sublocations (two which are two different Maasai communities, the Mumonyot and Digiri, and one which is predominantly Samburu). Using GPS readers, my enumerators and I marked the location of each and every Enkang in the first two areas (146 enkang in all) and recorded a range of basic descriptive measures for each homestead including clan, subclan, number of wives, number of children, etc. We also collected questions that were designed to give a snapshot of political leadership in each neighborhood. My intuition from the first set of interviews with the old folks was that there is variation between Maasai and Samburu communities in how neighborhoods are composed and in what rules govern social interactions; this census data should allow me to take a first swing at starting to test this hunch more systematically.

Luckily, this broken down vehicle wasn't mine... in order to try to avoid the transportation mishaps that have defined the first portion of my trip, I sprung for a 6 day rental of a pretty nice land cruiser; it fit my research team comfortably, dealt with the shitty roads admirably, and didn't break down even once. Also it had no sheep inside it, which is always a plus.


stay tuned for complete wedding and circumcision coverage, as well as a special photo feature called "the puppies of Maasailand".

Sunday, April 08, 2007

I'm Gonna Tell it Like a Comeback Story

I spent the last 10 days out in the field doing a household census of two administrative sublocations, after which I attended a traditional Maasai wedding and a circumcision ceremony for two teenage boys. There was much singing and dancing, as well as the eating of fried meat soaked in blood. I hope to post more pictures and stories before I head back into the field on Wednesday or so. Until then, I leave you with this:

The other day I met a man called "Kidole Sita", which means "Six Fingers" in Swahili. It is not an ironic nickname.

Friday, March 23, 2007

I love when the Maasai make the news; its never an actual news story, and more like , "Oh those crazy Maasai! What will they do next? They love their cows so much! Silly nomads!" Still, this article is pretty hillarious; at the same time, most of the Maasai guys that I know would not be obsessing about their herds, and would be quite keen to make the most of being so up close and personal with Gisele.

Thanks to Rob Person for sending this along.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

little miss kenyan sunshine

That is, if you set the movie in northern Kenya instead of the American Southwest and you replaced the beat-up yellow VW bus full of a quirky family of misfits with a yellow beat-up VW bus full of sheep. And this guy right here!

That's right, in my ongoing adventures with transportation, I rode back from doing interviews on Monday in a van full of sheep. We were doing interviews in a town called Ngare Ngiro that is located about 40 minutes west of Nanuyuki, and which was having a big livestock auction that day. This worked out well for the interviews, as there were a lot of pastoralists around. However, by the time we wanted to go home, the only cars going east were also filled with animals. I thought this was fine at first, but then the VW started to break down every 15 minutes or so; in the end we had to get it started in a Litte Miss Sunshine-style running push. In addition, the butt of one of the sheep was pressed up against my leg, and i started to get afraid that it was going to poop on me, so I kept trying to push it away. I was vindicated in my fear when the sheep started peeing on the floor of the van, luckily now further away from my foot.

Tune in Friday, when I cross the red sea in a dinghy with a bunch of somali pirates.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

900 cubic centimeters of raw whining power. No outstanding warrants for my arrest.

Oh man, another incredibly busy week. I think I'm going to hold off on writing extensively until I get a chance to resume writing daily journal entries (I'm praying that that will happen soon). In addition, my internet connection seems to be pretty crap-tacular right now, so another photo-heavy update will have to wait (which is a shame, because I have a ton of good ones). Suffice it to say, interviews are going well- so far, I have recorded over 25 hours of oral history from 16 old men and women from various pastoralist communities in the area. I've been working with two enumerators for each interview, one who asks the questions (usually in Maa, occasionally in Kiswahili) and another who translates for me, so that I can follow along and ask follow-up questions if I need to. For the most part, the interviews have gone really well, yielding some fascinating details about the history of the communities I'm studying (which I'll describe in more detail some other time).

Anyhow, I just wanted to share that I rode a motorcycle (a pikipiki for all of you following along kwa kiswahili) for the first time in my life. I suppose "motorcycle" is less accurate than "totally awesome off-road dirtbike driven by a maasai guy named nicholas". I was able to line up an interview with a 104 year old Maasai man in the village of Chumvi, but I wasn't able to rent a car. However, I managed to take a public bus (matatu) to where the paved road ends; from there, my research assistant managed to find a friend with a motorbike who could take me the other 8 kilometers or so back to Chumvi. It was pretty much the most fun thing I've done in the history of ever, and I'm seriously considering buying one and learning to drive it, as it is cheaper than continuously hiring cars, and I find it a lot more pleasant. And don't worry mom, I wore a helmet.

Hi-Diddly-Dee! Goddamn! The Pirate's Life for Me!

More soon! I promise!

Monday, March 12, 2007

On The Road Again

So, as you might be able to tell by the protracted silence, I've been busy. I was in the field from last Wednesday through Saturday night, and am on my way back out right now. In addition, the internets have been quite slow here in Nanyuki, so I've been stymied in my last few attempts to post. At any rate, enjoy these pictures from the weekend, and look for regular posts to resume sometime in the next few days!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

So as of yesterday, the Suzuki was not yet road-ready; however, it happened that Saaya's uncle Massere was going to be going to be visiting Koija, a group ranch in western Mukogodo and that we could get a ride with him.

On our way to Koija, we stopped briefly in Kimanjo, which is a small town in the Digirri community (one of the five Maa speaking communities of Mukogodo). The village itself was quite small; essentially two rows of small concrete and corrugated metal buildings built across the side of a hill, with houses extending in both directions up and down the hill. Something that I noticed was that most of the people that I saw in the central town were male; pre-teen and early teen boys kicking a soccer ball, older teenagers of the warrior age set standing around with spears and knives, and still older men sitting and talking in front of buildings and under trees; the only women I saw were in transit, carrying large packages from one place to another.

After sitting and chatting a bit, we headed on to Koija, a group ranch in the far western end of Mukogodo division, in the LeUaso community. The idea of the group ranches, which were created in the late 1970s by a joint project of the Government of Kenya and the World Bank, was to formalize a system of communal land tenure, giving entire communities title to the land. The idea was to help “rationalize livestock management” and essentially turn these nomadic pastoralists into market-oriented cattle ranchers. The group ranch project in Koija (unlike in many ranches in southern Maasailand), has succeeded, not necessarily because of improved efficiency of livestock production, but because the community used the group ranch land to create a community-owned eco-lodge in the late 90s. While the group ranch eco-lodges are also common on the other group ranches in Mukogodo, what is more unique about Koija is that it operates in a partnership with a western investor, who actually manages the lodge and does publicity, with the profits after expenses going to the community. The purpose of the trip was that leaders from Tessia, another group ranch on the other side of Mukogodo, are also considering partnering with a western investor, as they currently manage their lodge alone, and they barely break even, and occasionally run losses. The meeting was brokered by Mesere, in his role as a community facilitator for the Laikipia Wildlife Forum.

What I got out of the meeting was that the success of the Koija group ranch was not so much due to the partnership with the western investor as it was its internal structure of the group ranch. What is interesting is that although all group ranches were chartered by the same law, the constitution of the group ranch was up to the individual communities, meaning that it was up to them how to structure the organization. As the Koija group ranch leaders explained it, the unique feature of Koija is the strength of community development groups; small independent organizations created for a specific purpose (women’s beadmaking groups, young men’s singing and dancing groups, etc.). In addition to participating in income generating activities in and around the lodge (selling souvenirs and entertainment to tourists), these organized groups are themselves the constituent units of the Group Ranch Institutional Management committee. As the leaders said themselves, this ensures that information flows from both the level of the group ranch chairperson and board of trustees down to the community, but also in the other direction, providing very good information about the micro-management of the ranch. They also mentioned that these flows of information have also been utilized by the area chief, therefore helping with local government. It will be interesting to see how this organizational structure compares with other group ranches in the area, and how the actual day-to-day operation of Koija matches this description.

Monday, March 05, 2007

In my country, there's a problem...

And that problem is the transport.

As I mentioned in my last post, at the end of last week, I had been pretty eager to get out into the field and start doing interviews; I arrived in Nanyuki on Wednesday and had been in a bit of a holding pattern all day Thursday and Friday, as Saaya had some meetings regarding his HIV/AIDS initiative. At any rate, he and I had sat down on Thursday night and sketched out a relatively ambitious schedule for Friday and Saturday night whereby we would interview 5 or 6 elders from in various neighborhoods in his home community, Il Ngwesi, and then return to Nanyuki sunday so he could have a final meeting about the HIV/AIDS initiative. We arranged to rent a small Suzuki four wheel drive vehicle from his uncle, who works as a community facilitator for the Laikipia wildlife forum. I got a bit nervous when I saw the car, as it looked pretty old and beat up, but he assured me that it drives well.

So around midday on Friday, we set off, eager to get to the village where were going to be doing our first interview. About 15 minutes out of Nanyuki, we started to smell smoke, and when we pulled over, the engine was totally overheating, and it looked like a tube from the radiator to the engine had cracked, meaning that no water was getting to the engine, which is why we were standing at the side of the road looking at a hot, steaming mess. Luckily, while were stopped there trying to figure out what to do,Githeri, a family friend of Saaya's who just happens to work as a mechanic, was coming by on a bus, and he stopped and gave us a hand, changing the tube, and riding with us to the next closest town, where he proceeded to tinker with the engine for the next 2 hours or so- as soon as he fixed one thing, something else seemed to blow.

At any rate, once he got everything fixed and running, we were quite eager to get back on the road. Saaya, Githeri, and I piled into the Suzuki, and we headed off towards our first interview. However, once we got out of range of this village, the roads started to get terrible, until it narrowed to little more than a dusty, uneven path. How bad was it? So bad, in fact that at one point, we skidded off the road and the vehicle TIPPED OVER ONTO ITS SIDE. Everyone was fine, as we were wearing seatbelts, but we were definitely a bit rattled, as was the Suzuki. There were relatively substantial scratches and dents, and the rear view mirror on the driver's side had come off completely. In addition, all of Githeri's intrepid tinkering had apparently been undone, and for the rest of the day, the suzuki stalled out every 20 minutes or so. By the time we got to our first interviewee, it was 6 PM. We decided to just do the interview, and then cut our losses and head back to Nanyuki to have the car looked at by a car repair shop.

The interview went well, but on the way back to Nanyuki, I couldn't help despairing a bit. It sunk in just how tough it is to do research (or anything for that matter) here, and just how bad the transportation infrastructure is. Even though one of my big aims in my dissertation is disproving arguments that state weakness in Africa is solely due to bad roads and other infrastructural problems that make broadcasting power difficult, I am now certain that this is in fact a part of the picture that it is IMPOSSIBLE to ignore.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Something I’ve been wrestling over in the process of writing my prospectus and preparing to start my project is exactly how to describe the communities I’m working in. My initial inclination to check out Laikipia District as a field site over the summer was reading in several different places that there were Maasai communities there. Upon visiting, these writings seemed to be confirmed; I recognized at least the most superficial aspects of Maasai culture from my prior trips to Maasai communities in the south, and most of the people I talked to self-identified as Maasai. However, things started to get more complicated as I read some papers in the Fall which made strong claims that there were no Maasai in remaining Laikipia, and that all existing Maasai sections were either in southern Kenya or Tanzania. I more or less ignored this discrepancy and carried on, describing this set of communities I intended to work with as “Maasai” in my prospectus. In the last few days, I’ve managed to clarify this situation by reading a bunch of work by Lee Cronk, an anthropologist at Rutgers who did work in Mukogodo division (the area I’m planning on working in) in the 1980s. Cronk clarifies that although most of the people living in Mukogodo division self-identify as Maasai, speak Maa, practice a number of Maasai rituals, and practice cattle pastoralism, they all have in the past practiced some combination of hunting, gathering, or cultivation, all of which fall ouside of the “Maasai Mainstream”. As a result, they are categorized as “Il-Torrobo” by the Maasai, a word that means “hunters” but which carries substantial social stigma.
Cronk’s work focuses on the Mukogodo, who were previously cave-dwelling beekeepers who became cattle pastoralists in about two generations. More interesting to me is a neighboring community, the Mumonyot, who are one of the remnants of the Laikipiak maasai, a peripheral Maasai community that was politically dominant in the early 19th century, but was defeated by an alliance of core maasai sections in the 1860s. After the defeat, some of the Laikipiak were assimilated into the victorious Maasai sections, while others adopted hunting and gathering while trying to regain stock by raiding neighboring communities of Samburu, Boran, and Rendille. Eventually they started herding cattle again, but they are still recognized as being “Dorrobo”. What I think is really fascinating about this community is that it raises important questions about what “survival” of political units entails; even though the Laikipiak were eliminated as a political unit, this didn’t entail death for all (or even most) of the people who had previously identified as Laikipiak. In addition, looking at this community should provide an interesting opportunity to look at the effect of changes in the size, structure, and economic orientation of a community shape and are shaped by local institutions.

truth be told, I wrote this on Tuesday, before I left Nairobi for Nanyuki, the captial of Laikipia. I tried to post it on Thursday, but the power cut out before I got to save (that's how things roll here up in Laikipia), and then I spent the past two days starting my interviews with leaders from two different Mukogodo Maasai communities. Lots of stories from both of those, but not until I'm less exhausted.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

the logic of pirates in civil war

It looks like my friends the somali pirates are back in full effect, having just hijacked another UN food program ship (although this time after it had already unloaded its cargo).

What's interesting is that this is in fact the first such "piracy incident" in the last 6 months or so- during the brief time that the Union of Islamic Courts was in power, no attacks were reported at all, which is noteworthy because throughout 2005 and early 2006 attacks on commercial shipments, food relief boats, and even cruise liners in the waters off of the Horn of Africa had become commonplace. If this isn't just an isolated incident, and attacks actually pick up again, it will definitely seem that the UIC had been somehow effective in preventing piracy, much as they were reported to have created considerable security in the streets of Mogadishu. At any rate, the way that piracy fluctuates with the patterns of control in the coming months should be an interesting marker of how effective the various parties are at shutting out rival specialists in violence.

Monday, February 26, 2007

One of my biggest anxieties coming into Kenya was yet I hadn't yet obtained a Permit to Conduct research from the government. The biggest problem was that I had been hearing vastly divergent information from different sources. Some researchers I talked to said that I didn't need to bother getting one at all. At the same time, the Government's permit application stated very clearly that an application needed to be submitted by mail two months before research was supposed to begin, and that I would only be able to obtain a visa and enter the country before the permit was granted. As I didn't really have time to submit the application on their timeline (which would have required submitting the application back in October, well before I even knew for certain whether or not I'd be coming back), I decided to gamble and just try to get the permit once I arrived.

A few days ago, I headed down to the Ministry of Science, Education, and Technology with 5 copies of the filled out application sheet, my CV, letters from my advisors at Yale and ILRI, sample interview sheets, my 10 page project description and $300 cash (or more precisely 21,000 Kenyan Shillings). I checked in at the reception desk of the Ministry of Health building, which like many of the government buildings here has this aesthetic that I can describe only "early 70s post-colonial professional"; lots of browns and yellows, flourescent lighting, and mottled floor tiles. I was directed to a room on the 10th floor. From there, I was sent to another office down the hall, and from there to another office on the 9th floor. On arriving at room 923, I found a man seated at a desk; I introduced myself and presented my massive stack of application materials. He said that he had heard that I would be coming because someone from ILRI had called ahead, and said that it looked like everything was in order; the application would be processed immediately and the permit could be picked up the next day. He then asked for the application fee, which he put DIRECTLY INTO HIS POCKET. Seeing me get noticably tense, he said that the cashier's office was closed for the day (it was about 4 PM) and that he would be able to get me a receipt the next day when I came to pick up my permit. At this point I started to freak out again, but was too shell shocked to put up much of a fight; I did get the man to write down his name, office nubmer and cell phone number on a piece of paper. The rest of the night I fretted a bit about whether I was experiencing a bit of that famous "Kenyan Corruption" in action. The next morning around 11 I called the number that he gave me, and the person who answered said "Are you sure you came in yesterday?", which I assured him I did. Not wanting to wait any longer, I caught a bus downtown and headed back into the Education building, expecting the worst.

Fortunately (and as the picture above indicates) this story ends in pure anti-climax. I went into the office, the guy was there, and after a 10 minute wait, he came back with both my permit and receipt. I was stunned and sort of waiting for the catch but there was none; I easily survived my encounter with the much villified Kenyan bureaucracy and was finally ready to start my research.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Somehow I do more reading and finding of secondary sources at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) campus outside of Nairobi than anywhere else in the world (Yale included), and conversely it seems like this reading takes more of my time here than any other activity. I have mixed feelings about this; do I really need to be in Kenya in order to be downloading and reading papers? If I’m doing all of this reading and finding all of these things that I’ve never seen or considered, am I really ready to be in the field, or should I just still be in New Haven doing background reading? An advisor once told a friend that “Data analysis in the capital city doesn’t count as fieldwork”- if that’s the case, then I’m doubly damned, since I ain’t analyzing SHIT in any kind of systematic way.

Maybe this is self-justification/rationalization, but I really do think that it is precisely being here in Kenya, even before heading up to my field site, that is pushing me to discover these sources and lines of research that I otherwise wouldn’t discover working on my own at school. Somehow, when I am in New Haven, it is easy to patch over complexities and make generalizations and believe that everything is working as I assume it is, but as soon as I get here, I start noticing TONS of findings by other researchers that really challenge what I was thinking about on some fundamental levels.

What I’ve been engaged in over the last few days (and what I think is driving this burst of discovery of sources and new arguments) is a process of talking about my project a lot (and preparing to talk about it) with various researchers and colleagues here at ILRI. Talking to people who know the details of the context intimately has forced me to be try to be more specific about what I want to study, why I want to study it, and what I think is going on; when I lack the precise knowledge to do that, I’m pushed to do some searches on Google scholar until I find some pieces that clarify what I was struggling to articulate. I suppose I would have some of this pressure if I had an Africanist to talk to on a regular basis (which I should now that we’ve made a few key Junior faculty hires), but I still don’t think that is any substitute for engaging with researchers who are Kenyans or who have been working in Kenya for over a decade.

Certainly this method of learning from the field is far less glamorous than running around in villages, but so far its been of equal (but distinct) value for me, and I think it is an often overlooked benefit of doing field research.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It amazes me how difficult even the most simple tasks are when removed from a familiar/habitual context. For instance, the very basic act of getting home by taxi and getting into my home (which I’ve done HUNDREDS of times over the last 7 years) took me WELL over an hour… and this is from when I was on the street where I am staying. I assumed (incorrectly) that the numbers went up and that all even number addresses would be on one side of the street, and odds on the other. Thus, when looking for 83 Loresho Crescent, I thought I was almost home when I saw 81 and 92. However, the numbers then jumped up to 97 then down to 74 then up to 115. I realized then that I had totally found the address by dumb luck the prior night when I was coming in from the airport, and I wasn’t sure exactly how to find it. What ensued was at least 45 minutes of driving up and down my poorly lit (but gated and therefore safe) street, inquiring about the location of number 83 to every security guard in the neighborhood, none of whom were able to give exact directions (although I did get a good review of the Swahili locatives and words for across from/next to etc.). Eventually, we found a guard who knew the friends I am staying with (“Oh, you stay with Mr. Carlos!”), and he was able to send us practically back to where we had started (of course, why wouldn’t 83 be RIGHT BESIDE 72). Upon getting inside, it took me another 15 minutes to unlock both of the locks (one a kind of tricky padlock and the other an old-school key with key-hole.

I’m up in the air as to how much this difficulty is due to the fact that the new context is a bit “alien” or foreign and how it much it is due to just being somewhere new. What leads me to believe that it is at least somewhat due to the degree of differentness is that I can’t imagine myself having this much trouble if I just picked up and moved to Atlanta, Topeka, or Sheboygan-in any of those cities, I have a good expectation of what kind of lighting, signage and locks I’d encounter and would be able to navigate that very easily, without a lot of effort. However, even subtle and small differences in how houses and neighborhoods are set up here were enough to require IMMENSE amounts of effort and concentration. I imagine that through time, this will become internalized, but until then it seems like even the most mundane details of daily life will be epic quests.