Practicum in Mukuru: A 7-Day Diary

Last month, students Shayna Hodge and Robert Jamieson traveled to Mukuru, Kenya as part of their Practicum in International Affairs. Shayna and Robert write about their project and experiences below.

When we first began working on this Practicum in International Affairs, I don’t think that any of us had any inkling that this project would include any fieldwork. This aspect was not included in the original project description and logistically it seemed too difficult to coordinate on such short notice. As we continued to collaborate with Slum Dwellers International Kenya (SDIK), however, it started to become clear we should at least see what possibilities were out there that would allow us to go. The two biggest concerns on our end were pretty obvious: time and money. Flights to Nairobi will cost you about the same as a month’s rent in Brooklyn and missing a week of class in the middle of the semester also did not seem like a realistic possibility. As is the lesson I learn with most projects, however, is that you will never know what is possible unless you ask. The other side of the time concern was whether or not we would have enough time on the ground to undertake meaningful work. Fairly quickly in the planning process, we came to the conclusion that we would only be able to spend 7 days on the ground despite SDIK recommending that we stay for two weeks. Obviously, two weeks would have been better but time and money were going to limit us to 7 days. With substantial help from The New School’s International Affairs program, we were able to make the finance part doable. The SDIK team also went above and beyond in ensuring that our time on the ground would be well spent. This included a two-day workshop hosted by the Red Cross in partnership with SDIK and WERK (Women Educational Researchers of Kenya) that we would be participating in. The workshop along with the opportunities to collaborate with the SDIK team in person and conduct personal field research in Mukuru made the trip an absolute must. Below is a general overview of our experience.


On the Ground

Duration: 7 Day Trip. Departed NYC Sunday March 3. Arrived Monday March 4th. Departed Sunday March 10.

Daily schedule

Day One: Arrival and meeting with SDIK

We arrived at the Kenyatta airport around 9h Nairobi time and we were promptly picked up by our driver for the week, John. Admittedly, sometimes it is much easier to say you want to hit the ground running than actually doing it. Despite being only slightly jetlagged from the 14-hour flight we met with the SDIK team around 14h to be formally introduced and finalize the itinerary for the week.

Day 2: More meetings more greetings

Although we were extremely eager to get to Mukuru and begin to try to fill the gaps in the mapping data that we had, day 2 still required a bit more preparation work with SDIK and a formal meeting with WERK. Little did we know that with the help of SDIK’s incredible Urban Planner, Betty, we were able to correct a lot of the mapping data in regards to the schools that we were missing. After a revitalizing lunch of the Kenyan staples ugali, sukuma, and avocado, we made our way to the WERK offices. WERK, who would be leading the Education Consortium workshop in the coming days, walked us through the agenda for the workshop gave us their expectations of how we could best contribute. While our role evolved multiple times in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the workshop the initial meetings with both WERK and SDIK proved vital in the preparation process.

Day 3: Mukuru

Despite the workshop being the item on the agenda that involved the most preparation visiting, Mukuru was, without a doubt, themost anticipated. We had been researching and attempting to map the settlement for almost 6 months and to finally step foot on the ground was almost surreal. We met early that morning with the SDIK team in Mukuru who connected with community mobilizer, SDIK contact, and Mukuru resident, Denis Weche. Denis is a 3rd generation Mukuru resident and very much invested in the Special Planning Area (SPA) process. Walking through Mukuru, you immediately become aware of how dense it is. While encompassing much physical area, we were only able to cover from the far western side of the settlement up to the river where a  railway runs directly down the middle. With our GPS device in hand, we were able to gather some of the missing coordinates of schools on our map but we quickly realized that one day would not be nearly enough time to collect all the data that was required.

Day 4&5: Education Consortium Workshop

Hosted by WERK in partnership with the Red Cross, the education consortium workshop may not have been the only reason that we were able to make this trip but it was definitely the catalyst. It not only gave us hard dates to center our trip around but also furthered the legitimacy of the trip for funding purposes.

The workshop was held at the lovely Kyaka Hotel in Machakos, which is about 1.5 hours southeast of Nairobi. Attendees of the workshop included representatives from; The Ministry of Education, WERK, SDIK, The Red Cross, Nairobi City Council, the housing consortium, (who else), and The New School. The goal of the workshop was to move closer to completing the integrated plan for the education consortium, which would be submitted to the Nairobi City Council. On the first day of the workshop, we presented our findings from the initial school surveys as well as the most recent consultation meetings with the goal of helping to establish the most important issues as stated by the community members and a possible timeframe for their implementation.

Day 6: Team Bonding Day

After an equally challenging and rewarding week, the SDIK team thought it would be a good idea to spend a bit of time together outside of the office. We had no objections to this. The climate in Nairobi is almost too good to be true. Despite being so close to the equator, the strength of the sun is offset by typically crisp air due to its elevation of nearly 2000m. For our last day together we went to Karura Forest in northern Nairobi. The drive to the forest included a complimentary tour from our Uber driver (the preferred mode of non-public transportation for both Kenyans and expats alike) of the pristine row of foreign embassies that have long occupied some of the most desired real estate in Nairobi. Its proximity to Karura Forest is a clear reason for this. The day included a jog to a waterfall, lounging in the park grass and of course a little bit of football all of which was plenty to work up quite an appetite for the best meal of the week.

Day 7: Lake Nakuru National Park and Departure

Despite futile protests on my part, I joined the rest of the group for a day journey to Lake Nakuru National Park for a game drive. Even if you are more skeptical than myself (which I doubt it possible) of the fruits of game drives or something similar I must concede that it is something that you have to do. My only recommendation would be to spend the extra money and do at least a 2-day trip that would allow you both camp at the park and be in a position to see wildlife at the hours they tend to be active. Hint: not when the sun is high and hot. Despite the drive back to Nairobi not going exactly as expected and our driver not being too preoccupied general traffic laws, we had a pretty amazing day. And then with one below-average sleep, we were back in New York and back to our normal routine making it seem like we almost never left. A week’s worth of jet lag, however, brutally reminds you of the contrary.


Moving forward

Upon returning to New York, we quickly realized that we left Nairobi with a lot more work to do than when we arrived. The deadline to submit the integrated plan for the education sector is quickly approaching and for SDIK, our assistance in contributing to this is the main deliverable they want from us. On our side, however, a key element is the mapping aspect where we must produce deliverables for our GIS class. When beginning the project, we had hoped that this mapping portion of the project could also be a deliverable that we could provide to SDIK. Yet, as can be seen from the map below this is simply not one of their most pressing need thanks to their incredible urban planning team. For us, there are both pros and cons to this. For while we most likely will not be providing any spatial analysis required for the SPA, this does allow us to be a bit more creative with our final GIS projects that will still focus on the education sector in Mukuru.

Shayna Hodge, for example, will be focusing on the vulnerability of specific villages and schools to floods based on historical flood data in the area. Through satellite imaging taken during the rainy season over the last 5 years, she will be able to show the extent of the flooding and create a recommended buffer soon for future school construction. Our project team has also discussed the possibilities of creating a suitability analysis based on the initial data from the school surveys. A suitability analysis would allow us to qualify, compare and rank the schools based on how closely they adhere to the criteria we are trying to select and define. The benefit of a proper suitability analysis is that only allows for a critique of the methodology created to determine the criteria of the map and not the map in and of itself. A critique of the methodology by SDIK would be the best outcome for the suitability analysis because it would allow for a more accurate map representation of the schools and could be a useful tool moving forward for the SPA.

Here is to more hard work moving forward.