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.