Fieldwork Notes: ‘Just smile and be friendly Beth, you’ll do fine…’

by Beth Rebisz, Ph.D. student

For the two months running up to my departure in July for Nairobi, Kenya, I did what I do best: worry. I worried (for no reason) that my visa wouldn’t be accepted. I worried that my transfer wouldn’t be waiting at the airport when I arrived in the early hours of the morning. I worried that I hadn’t bought or packed all the things I needed (even though I was headed to a cosmopolitan city filled with shops). I worried that I’d be lonely during my six weeks in Nairobi.


Fieldwork for the first time. Author’s collection.

I had been planning for my first fieldwork and training trip in Kenya for around eight months, as part of my research on the role of humanitarian involvement in the Mau Mau conflict of 1952-60. As someone who has fallen in love with African history over the last five years, and has always been interested in the continent itself, I was finally visiting one of its countries for the first time!

It was exciting and terrifying. What was it going to be like conducting research, alone, in a foreign city so far away from home? There were lots of tears in the build-up to this trip. Some people are born fearless, with a get-up-and-go outlook on life, but I was not blessed with this personality trait.

Luckily I’d had a lot of help. The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s student development fund made this fieldwork possible, the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) were hosting me, and my supervisors Dr Heike Schmidt and Dr Stacey Hynd, and my PhD mentor Rhian Keyse, shared their wonderful wealth of knowledge with me.

Still, I was off on my incredible trip. As I sat on my flight out of Gatwick, fear and anxiety started to kick in. Now I was on my own. Or so I thought…

All those fears were soon washed away by the warm welcome I received in Kenya. My first week was a blur. After a long journey via Istanbul, I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in the early hours of 14th July. I managed to get a smile out of the immigration officer with my embarrassing first attempt at Kiswahili, and then I was through airport security and into the taxi to my apartment. Having been fortunate enough to affiliate myself with the prestigious BIEA, I was welcomed to stay in their guesthouse just down the road from their main offices. It’s a brilliant apartment and made settling in to the Kileleshwa area of Nairobi very easy.

I hadn’t needed to worry. I found over those six weeks that, if you’re willing to make the effort, if you’re willing to put yourself into alien situations, if you’re willing to just get stuck in, a fieldwork trip can be one of the most rewarding experiences not only for your research, but for you as a researcher.

So, here are my two main tips for conducting research in an African country such as Kenya.

Firstly, learn the language, whether that’s just learning general greetings or taking a more intensive approach (I had one-on-one training in Kiswahili). This is not always strictly necessary depending on your research topic, but it transformed my time in Kenya. I was amazed by the warmth I received from archivists, taxi drivers, my hosts, and everyone else by simply beginning our encounters with “habari yako?” (how’s things?). Through learning Kiswahili, I really improved my own knowledge regarding different cultures within Kenya, and I found people were far more willing to share their time, experiences, and advice with me.

BIEA learning

Learning Kiswahili in the beautiful BIEA gardens. Author’s collection.

I met many Kenyans during my time in Nairobi, but there are two individuals who will always stick out from the rest. First there is Esta, my brilliant Kiswahili tutor. Having failed epically at learning German at school (a comment from my Year 9 teacher: ‘It’s not going to get much better if I’m honest Beth’), I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this training. With Esta’s patience, however, I surpassed my expectations. We also had in-depth discussions regarding Kenyan society, its history, and the state of gender equality in modern Kenya (yes, I genuinely managed to have a whole conversation in a different language; take that Year 9 German teacher!). I found these discussions incredibly enlightening, and I developed so much respect for Esta as an independent, working woman in what she called the ‘man’s world’ of Nairobi.

Then there is Henry, a taxi driver I met by chance. When attempting a greeting on my first trip with him, I saw his eyes light up at the shock of a mzungu (a white person, a European) speaking Kiswahili. From that encounter to the many we had after, Henry has become a wonderful friend who allowed me to practice what I’d learnt with Esta. I genuinely feel it was this rapport we’d slowly built up that led him to share his family history with me.

Henry is Agĩkuyu, one of the main ethnic communities affected by the British counter-insurgency during the Mau Mau conflict in the 1950s. I learnt far more about the Agĩkuyu community through Henry than I ever have from any history books. He taught me so much regarding their culture, tradition, and language, and this has hugely influenced my own understandings regarding my research on Agĩkuyu women and their experiences during the conflict.

I spent six weeks reading files in the Kenyan National Archives, but it was really meeting Kenyans like Esta and Henry, speaking in their language, experiencing different aspects of their cultures, that led me to challenge my own assumptions and approaches to the research I’m currently conducting. These human interactions reminded me how out-of-touch we can be as researchers simply sitting inside the archival reading rooms. We often need to get out and find the answers to our questions from the people outside, especially when working on historical topics that are still within living memory.

This leads me nicely on to my second tip: speak to people!

Speak to as many people as you can. Speak to people in the shops. Speak to people in the archives. Speak to people on public transport. Speak to people who are also researching in that area.

I found my most exciting, interesting days in Kenya resulted through these conversations. Had I not asked a man in a phone shop how he found living in Nairobi, I wouldn’t have befriended the head coach of Kenya’s top football team, Gor Mahia, and been a guest at one of their games. Had I not approached other people working in the archives, I wouldn’t have travelled to Nyeri to meet a Mau Mau war veteran and his wife, who kindly welcomed me into their home. Had I not interacted with other researchers at the BIEA, I wouldn’t now be collaborating with the Museum of British Colonialism in their work to provide an accurate history of the British conflict against the Mau Mau movement.

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These incredible experiences have allowed me to grow as a researcher, and as an individual, and I feel very lucky to have met so many wonderful people along the way. One of the brilliant things about being a history Ph.D. student is the opportunity to really take yourself out of your comfort zone and to engage with a different community, to learn about their past, and to be a part of informing others about their rich history.

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