Rediscovering Nairobi: Reflections on Research Scoping in Kenya


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Photo by Ben Nemeth, Nairobi, Kenya

I used my GoAbroad funding to support scoping and preparatory activities for my PhD research in Nairobi, Kenya. Prior to undertaking my PhD, I had lived and worked in East Africa – Kenya, then Rwanda – for 4 years, which served as the primary motivation for my research. Because I had lived in Nairobi, Kenya for nearly 3 years working for a research and policy organisation, I felt fairly confident in my ability to transition back to the area as a PhD researcher. I had maintained a large network of contacts, had a decent grasp of the main local language, Kiswahili, and was familiar with the process for gaining research approvals. In essence, I was not particularly nervous or worried about arriving in a ‘new’ place, because the place wasn’t really new.

But travel always has a way of surprising a person. While many aspects of returning to Kenya felt familiar, it also felt very different in unexpected ways. I was surprised by how new it felt to experience Kenya as an independent researcher, completely detached from any local organisation, which was equal parts liberating and challenging. I relished in the freedom to follow potential leads on research contacts and let my surroundings and interactions inform the direction of my research. On the other hand, encountering unforeseen hurdles to securing approvals without the resources of an employer to fall back on was frustrating. I was reminded of the importance of flexibility, humility, and persistence in navigating a ‘new’ place. My experience also reminded me of the power of human interactions – whether a moment of shared laughter or brief conversation – to transform challenging or frustrating situations

While the reality of research prep work is not nearly as glamorous as the image of several months in Kenya for fieldwork, this preparatory phase was critical to my ability to carry out my research and I am grateful I had the resources to support it. During my time in Nairobi, I was based at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (see photo), the local research affiliate that I worked with to secure the necessary permits and approvals. The Institute was also a central point for engaging with other researchers, both Kenyan and non-Kenya, who were working on issues ranging from archaeology and land rights to labour and migration. In addition to the logistical prep work, I was also able to meet with the director of an organisation where I hope to carry out my research to begin building a relationship and discuss plans for data collection. My time in Nairobi was fruitful not only from a research perspective, laying the groundwork for my upcoming fieldwork, but also from a perspective of personal growth and learning, which is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of travel abroad.

Categories: Africa, Go Abroad Fund, Kenya

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