Friday, December 17, 2010

Kitu Kidogo

The hemorrhaging of diplomatic intrigue from the Wikileaks scandals has included some juicy bits from our part of the world.  Nothing all that revelatory for those who pay attention to Kenya, but there’s a lot of diplomats (including the US Ambassador) saying pretty unsavory thing about Kenyan politicians and ministers all the way up the chain.  Mainly, we’re talking here about corruption.
Kenya has the distinction of having one of the most brazen cultures of corruption in an already pretty crooked neighborhood.  From the ubiquitous petty bribes to in-your-face siphoning of public money into private Swiss bank accounts, Kenya has it all.  And efforts to tackle corruption end up as epic (and bestselling) tragedies of lone crusaders fighting the unbending Goliath of vested interests, and waiting – in vain – for a Hollywood ending of redemption and justice that doesn’t come.  I wouldn't at all be surprised if the KACC, (Kenyan Anti-Corruption Commission) needs to also be greased along with other ministries to get any work done. 
OK.  That sounds pretty bleak.  But I actually haven’t had to deal with any of it directly as of yet.  I’ve successfully picked up a package from the post office without paying ransom and haven’t had to deal with any other civil servants or ministries yet. I'm hoping it stays this ... boring, but I'm not all that hopeful. 
But I do know from driving in matatus, that the drivers pay their “kitu kidogo” (little something) to the police at the checkpoints to feed their uniformly swelling bellies.  My neighbor is of one of the wealthier families in Busia. They have several cars, satellite TV and take planes to reach vacations destinations.  You might be thinking the head of household is a businessman, doctor or even minister.  No.  He’s the senior customs agent who works at the busy border post to Uganda.  Need I say more?  

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Edna's wedding

Whether it’s in cows, sheckles or diamond rings, one thing weddings around the world have in common is an ability to break the bank.  When I was in India years ago I attended several weddings which were always lavish crowded feasts in which people who normally worried about paying the rent saved up enough to hire 12 piece bands, horse-drawn processions and feed hundreds of their acquaintances.  It’s no different here in Kenya.   
A few weeks ago, we, along with the 200 person office we work in, were invited to attend a co-workers wedding.  Edna’s a delicately featured soft spoken and kind woman who met her husband to be, a Kenyan soldier on assignment to do peacekeeping in Sudan, in church.  She made a gorgeous bride.
In typical Kenyan fashion the church service, scheduled for 10 AM, started at noon, and the guest started arriving at the reception at around 4.  The reception was a vibrant mix of African and Western.  Guests presented their gifts  -- toasters wrapped in shiny paper along with goats -- to  bride and groom by queuing up and dancing up to the couple with their offering.  Traditional Luhya dancers were hired along with a DJ and MC.  An impressive white wedding cake was lavishly displayed in a tent of its own, and the guests dined on goat and ugali.  Suits and shiny bridesmaids’ dresses mixed with vibrant African prints and headdresses and fire red Kenyan military uniforms.  There were the familiar best man-type speeches but incongruously punctuated by ululating from the crowd. 
I used to go to events like these and lament the fact that they weren’t traditional enough.  I would grumble about the encroachment of Western culture on the purity of the indigenous traditions.  But I’ve learned now to appreciate the beauty, complexity and even occasional irony in the mix of cultures and know that it’s a pure representation of Kenyan culture as it is today.   
The lovely bride and groom
traditional Luhya dancers

Dancing up to the couple with wedding gifts

The beautiful bridal party

Party crashers

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Can I ask you a question?

The research projects here are run almost uniformly by economists, social scientists who see the world through the lenses of quantifiable data and predictive models.   They base their data points on questions like: How much money did you make, doing what and for how long?  And what did you spend it on? What was your child’s birth weight? How many times did you get sick and how much did you spend on it?  What price did you get for maize this month vs. last month?  They use these reams of data to explain whether or not an intervention had a “measurable impact” on lives and livelihood. 
They can thus say with a level of statistical confidence that the people in the group who got a treatment (a certain education intervention, access to credit etc…) are doing better than the group that didn’t along these dimensions: less likely to become sick, more income, greater harvest etc…  and can conclude that an intervention has been successful.
But there’s something missing in all of this, and even the economists acknowledge it.  It’s the why. 
Why is something working? Why are people deciding to open a bank account or not? Why do they choose to forgo fertilizer when it has benefited their neighbor? Why do they choose not to put water purification tablets in their water even when it’s free?  And until you know these answers, it’s difficult to say for certain that an intervention that works well in Kenya would also work well in Indonesia.   
This is where it’s helpful to have a sociologist’s perspective, that “softer social science” that I imagine normally evokes a bit of disdain from mathematically-minded economists.  That is, until they need to understand why something happens the way it does in a way that regression analyses and modeling don’t tell them. 
The researchers I’m working for now acknowledge the need to better understand the how and the why that hard data misses, and so one of my current tasks is to design and pre-test a qualitative survey asking people more directly why they make the decisions they do, what they fear and what they hope.  Of course, this is not as easy as it might seem and there are layers of cultural barriers to dismantle in order to collect information that best mirrors people’s reality.  But it’s a fascinating puzzle to solve.
Here’s an example:  When talking to people about saving for a goal we want to ask them to distinguish between their wants and needs.  We ask the question in the clearest possible language like “think of things that you are always happy to have when you have them, but that are not so necessary” without giving them actual examples.  But when we asked this question, our respondents were nearly uniformly baffled by the question.  They simply did not understand the distinction.  “If I buy something, it’s because I need it.”  Even if it looks like a “want” (like a trip to the salon), it doesn’t feel that way to me and I’ve expressed that by spending my meager income on it. 
But there’s also apparently less of a distinction between “need” and “want” linguistically, which may serve to further blur the distinction.  Yesterday, Colin was trying to tell Jane in Swahili “I need to go back to work” (nina hitaji ….) but instead said “I want to go back to work” (nina taka ….).  Being the self-appointed family Kiswahili coach, I corrected him and told him you mean “nina hitaji” (I need/must).  But Jane then duly corrected me and said “nina taka, ninahitaji.  They mean basically the same thing.”
We have another question asking respondents how likely they are to succeed at saving a specific amount of money.  (very likely, probably… all the way to doubtful)  Again, a seemingly straight-forward request.   But this assumes that the respondent has some sense of control over their future, has the confidence to make a prediction about it and is unafraid to tempt fate by voicing it.  So, we almost never got anyone to fit their answers into our neat little likely/probably/doubtful boxes.  Respondents simply said again and again, “I will try,” which really doesn’t answer the question. 
So the trick is to really disentangle what we want to know, unpackage the layers of cultural confusion and then ask it in a way that will provide a meaningful answer.  But the payoff of doing it right is finally understand the part of the story that fancy statistical analysis can’t quite capture.