Archive for December, 2016

Juliette Wairimu Kariuki is about to enter her second year of PhD studies at CAS.  Her thesis examines informal food provisioning systems in Nairobi, Kenya.  In this post she reflects on her preliminary fieldwork in Nairobi and the unexpected ‘learning moments’ it presented.


Juliette conducting research

Conducting preliminary field research was an exploratory research journey. I arrived in Kenya with no strict agenda or preconceived ideas. I went to learn and observe what is happening – what people are saying and doing about my topic of interest, urban food provisioning.  By doing this I stumbled upon realities that I hadn’t previously considered.

Informed by my Research in Africa module here at Edinburgh as well as the experience I gained as a research practitioner during my MSc degree at UCL (pictured above in MeK’ele Tigray Ethiopia), going to the field was different this time. I felt more prepared and aware of the advantages of doing fieldwork as well as the complications that one may expect to face in the field.

With this little bit of experience, I tried to be aware of my position and the dangers of having a ‘researcher as knower’ perspective. To aid me in this process, I made sure to pack a field journal to use as part of my journey, taking the time to record observations whilst on the matatu (public bus) or in the evenings after Chai (tea).

In my journal, I recorded notes based on any interactions and observations I had in the day (no-matter how small or seemingly unimportant). On the basis of these daily notes I could reflect and ask myself why did the conversations or observations go the way they did?

These accumulated moments of reflection enabled me to change what or who I was observing the following day, or even the location of my observations. Since returning from my preliminary research in Kenya, I have been asked by fellow researchers and acquaintances, “how was your preliminary fieldwork?” Each time, I find myself answering the question slightly differently, drawing on a different experience/note from my journal. Each answer I give highlights the many experiences one encounters in the field, from the creation of new research relationships, to the opportunity to explore new research narratives and questions.

At this moment, as I attempt to recollect the many experiences of my research, I find myself drawn two particular words, ‘learning moments’.  Learning moments, are instances where you can make connections between the existing complex contexts. For me, these moments helped connect the theory to the local context.

These new connections were not necessarily in line with what I had read.  In my case, these connections revealed my lack of knowledge regarding the constraints of my location, scope, and my research design. These moments of awareness, or reflection also pointed towards the lack of available data, underscoring the necessity of preliminary fieldwork to uncover these gaps in data. My reflections and learned knowledge were only possible through my improved understanding of the context of my research. In short, these learning moments involve the connections between what you think you know and the reality of what you don’t know.

To give a concrete example of a learning moments – when I first began my preliminary fieldwork, I made sure to keep my mind open to every interaction.  I paid particular attention to the natural moments of exchange that happened surrounding food. These exchanges occurred regularly throughout the day; they ranged from the conversations we had between the owners and clients of the corner juice stall, visitors to an open-air-carwash, vendors at the night markets, to the conversations with the lady making lunch for contractors building a four story apartment block.

What became clear in these learning moments is that the culture of food was much more than what I had read. I discovered different types of food served different purposes in different areas. It was only through reflection (going back to my diary notes) that my fieldwork began to take shape. I hadn’t realised the variation of available foods sold along specific streets, that both raw and cooked foods are sold by these vendors, some specialising in meat and others in both vegetables and fresh meat. I saw the extent to which each vendor used their unique relationships with their clients. I also began to take note of the role of the informal food system, the dynamics of rural assemblers and purchasing agents, and rural-urban wholesalers and brokers.

These learning moments were important because they added a deeper narrative to my research, a narrative I couldn’t have found in the literature. Instead, paying attention to the learning moments assisted me in reaching a more localised understanding of the lived experiences of inhabitants of Nairobi.

These learning moments prevented me from looking at the research field as a site of a problem that need fixing. Rather, the field became a learning experience, allowing me the space to discover new connections between certain themes I had once dismissed as well as to question my own positionality and assumptions. Although frustrating at times, being open to change, allowing your ideas and topic to be challenged and evolve is essential.

Preliminary fieldwork is definitely a step in the right direction if you would like to engage in research that will truly contribute to poverty reduction development agendas that are reflective of the community and are practical and sustainable.


Githurai Estate, Nairobi, Kenya.  A popular street market for food and other goods.


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Ismaila Ceesay, who has just finished his PhD at CAS and is currently a Lecturer in Political Science at the University of the Gambia has written a piece on the recent unexpected political changes in that country.  Continue reading below or enjoy in the original format over at Africa at LSE.

Nestled inside Senegal like a ‘hotdog in a roll’, the Gambia is surrounded on all sides by its larger neighbour, except for its short Atlantic coastline. A micro-state, the Gambia is considered to be one of mainland Africa’s smallest and ‘least important countries’ with no strategic resources. However, since gaining independence from Britain in February 1965, the country has make up for its ‘insignificant status’ by demonstrating time and again its propensity to defy existing conventional political norms in the African continent.

In the immediate aftermath of its creation as an independent sovereign state, the Gambia’s largely poor colonial legacy, combined with being poorly endowed with strategic natural and human capital resources, triggered a wave of pessimism among observers of the post-colonial African theatre. Amid the independence euphoria, some sceptics were apprehensive about the country’s survivability and long-term viability as an independent state, a sentiment aptly expressed by Berkeley Rice’s proclamation of ‘the birth of an improbable nation’, suggesting that the ex-British colony could not exist as an independent reality, and that the Gambia might sooner or later be co-opted by Senegal.

Despite all the gloomy forecasts, the Gambia survived as an independent nation. Except for a brief period in July 1981 when a group of leftist rebels made a failed attempt to overthrow the government of President Dawda Jawara and replace it with what they proclaimed to be a “dictatorship of the proletariat” under the leadership of the Libya-trained Marxist-Leninist Kukoi Samba Sanyang, the Gambia became a symbol of peace and stability in an unstable African sub-region. In addition, the country was distinguished as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s longest standing multi-party democracies. This was perceived to be an exception on a continent where military dictators held sway and one-party rule and authoritarianism the norm, making the country a deviant case.

The Gambia was once again perceived as a deviant case when a military coup in July 1994, led by a 29-year-old lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, toppled the Jawara government thereby defying the post-1989 sub-Saharan African trend away from authoritarianism towards pluralism and multi-party politics. This sweep of democratic impulses through Africa, also referred to as ‘Africa’s springtime’, the ‘second independence’ or ‘third-wave democratization’, saw mass movements against authoritarian rule by a resurgent civil society demanding the end of one-party dictatorships and the liberalisation of political spaces.

The recently-concluded elections in the Gambia and its political ramifications, to some extent, is reminiscent of political earthquakes of the same magnitude as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989-1991 and the end of Apartheid rule in South Africa in 1994. The December 1 2016 polls saw the defeat of incumbent strong man Yahya Jammeh by a united coalition in an election whose outcome defied logic that incumbents in Africa hardly lose elections and took many by surprise. What was more unfathomable was Jammeh’s decision to concede defeat to Adama Barrow, the coalition candidate, even before all the results were published. It has always been the belief that dictators of Jammeh’s ilk will never preside over elections that they know they will lose or easily concede defeat without first attempting to subvert the will of the people.

In a continent where the few standing brutal ‘dictators-cum-big men’ of the likes of Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Paul Kagame, Omar Al Bashir, Paul Biya, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, José Eduardo dos Santos, Idriss Deby, Joseph Kabila and Pierre Nkurunziza are using a combination of tactics to consolidate their grip on power and extend their already lengthy rule, the Gambia, once again, became a deviant case by democratically voting out an eccentric dictator who had promised to rule for a ‘billion years’ and who has consolidated his 22-year rule through a potent mix of fear, intimidation and mysticism. In its show of deviance, what is happening in the Gambia is the first time in post-colonial Africa’s political history that a ‘military-turned-civilian’ dictator, whose rule has been so entrenched, has conceded defeat in a generally free and fair elections and is ready to peacefully hand over power.

Jammeh’s defeat in the polls is not only due to a unified and emboldened opposition, a massive social media campaign by Gambian dissidents in the Diaspora as well as a disgruntled and youthful population. It is also the result of Jammeh’s attempts, partly because of complacency, to minimally reform the electoral system by introducing ‘on the spot counting’. The transparent and efficient nature of this system inhibited any attempts of electoral malpractice that would have led to a different outcome. I could not agree more with the French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville’s assertion that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.

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