Out of Edinburgh: a research semester abroad

International Development PhD student, Declan Murray, describes a typical day as a field researcher in western Kenya.

“Hey, white man! How are you?” – opens the beginning of most interactions, delivered in English, Swahili or local Kipsigis. Then comes the usual barrage of where you’re from, which team you support (you can only choose Barclays, Clydesdale hasn’t made it this far), which church you go to, and, of course, whether you want a Kenyan wife. After these introductions, the lecture begins. Common topics are getting a visa for the UK, solving corruption in Kenya or the ever-cheerful issue of poverty. The sad thing is that such lectures aren’t just a PowerPoint here but people’s lives.

Feeling suitably laden with thoughts of systemic global injustice I head to the ‘Fitness Center’ (sic: despite the whole colonial thing, Americanism is the preferred dialect in these parts). Unlike the CSE there’s always a free treadmill, albeit a broken one. The cross-trainer is usually vacant too, but only one side works. On the positive side the changing room is protein, aerosol and banter-free. Don’t worry though: true fitness is still measured in bicep circumference rather than anything cardiovascular. The Plank then becomes yet more intriguing and that little bit harder to hold under the bemused stares of local strongmen.

Having established my appetite, it’s time for tea. Eating out isn’t a big deal here, indeed most townfolk do so. The national staple is a white entity called ugali – a boiling hot dough made from maize flour and water. Typical accompaniments to such are salted beans, over-boiled spinach or bony beef stew. Like the drinks in Subway the ugali is unlimited; you can request extra servings all night long. For a Sainsbury’s cookie fiend like me, however, there is a distinct lack of pudding on offer. Although there is a supermarket that sells chocolate at £2 a bar, the main challenge is to get it home before it melts.

Cafes are firmly separated from bars, however. While eating out might be common, drinking is far less socially acceptable. Thankfully for my liver, Hollywood has produced a pervasive view of white people as being immoral. This means I can drink and even smoke without incurring the social shame that a native would endure. Draught beer may be the stuff of dreams, but after a hot day of interviews cold alcohol is cold alcohol. I sip on such whilst watching the latest scandal of domestic politics unfold on the news – the seven o’clock edition of which is put on in every bar, everywhere – a political consciousness that puts contemporary Britain to shame.

When I am four £1.10 bottles of beer in and the news has finished I remember I still have to write up my notes from the day’s research. I make to leave. In Kenya, it is customary to say goodbye to everyone you meet by shaking their hand. At times the hold is of a length that would kill most Brits of embarrassment. These hand-holds can often last the length of the mini-lectures I outlined above. So, after shaking off the handshakes of everyone else in the bar I get to the door and meander home, switch on my solar-powered light (incidentally the topic of my PhD) and scribble away my thoughts for the day.

If this sounds like pleasant living in a calm retreat then I am misleading you. My room is far from the fifth floor of the Main Library. I stay opposite the Farmer’s Bar where, surprise surprise, the farmers gather to drink away their day’s earnings and dance to Bongo beats on loop before hopping on a boda (motorbike taxi) back home only to do it all again the next day. The funny thing is, I, too, will do it all again tomorrow.

Image: Simone Roda

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