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.