2011: An Ethnography of Development

Kenyan Women’s Views on a Community’s Needs, Goals, and Potential
Sarah Brett Dustin Larsson
Sarah Brett Dustin Larsson
Branford College, Class of 2012

When I applied for support from the Chase Coggins Memorial Fund to conduct my summer research project, I thought I was going to a village called Nyaoga.  The development NGO that brought me there, and with whom I had volunteered since high school, called it Nyaoga, as did all of the volunteers.  This organization makes funding appeals for the Nyaoga Water Project, describes its partnership with the Nyaoga Health Clinic, and send volunteers like me to a village they call Nyaoga.  I traveled to Kenya the summer after my freshman year to volunteer with this organization and a local women’s group, and I wrote about Nyaoga in all of my blog posts.  But when I started talking to Kenyan friends this time about where I was headed, even those who lived within a half-hour’s drive from the place couldn’t tell me they had heard of any place called Nyaoga.  This summer I returned to Kenya, to the very same place where I had volunteered before, and I learned quickly that the place is not called Nyaoga.  It is called Koredo, and this distinction epitomized an essential knowledge-gap in not just my project, but in the project of development in Western Kenya.

Koredo is officially a sub-location—a municipality in Western Kenya that is one of two areas under one local government and chief.  Koredo has a market center, a half dozen public schools, several fishing beaches on Lake Victoria, and innumerous development projects led by just as many different organizations.  Nyaoga, I learned, is the name of one tiny “village” within this broader community: it is one clan of about 150 people, one of many clans that makes up the population of the place.  But, it is not just a linguistic miscommunication that led my geographic understanding astray; it is indeed a local organization called the Nyaoga Women’s Group that forms the planning committees of most of this development organization’s project boards.  The organizations main projects sit on land that is physically part of the Nyaoga village, though their services explicitly aim to benefit greater Koredo.  When I returned to Western Kenya this summer, I intended to conduct ethnographic research about local meanings in development for my senior essay project.  One of the first and most significant observations I made was a clear one: the way Nyaoga had been projected out to represent greater Koredo was parallel to the way development organizations project the hopes of a few individuals to represent an entire society.  Rapidly, my project shifted from a description of Development in Kenya to an exploration of the intricacies of development as an interaction—a project built of the relationships among those who call this place Nyaoga and those who call it Koredo.

In Koredo, residents use the name “Nyaoga” to describe a very specific space.  The Nyaoga Community Health Clinic and Dispensary sits on a one-acre plot of land, fenced around with wire, with a guardhouse at the door.  It operates next to the Lake Victoria Michelle Obama Women’s Academy, a women’s adult education center that runs both test-preparation and daily primary school coursework.  Community members involved in these and other development projects frequently use the Clinic site for meetings and gatherings, for which they pull out dozens of plastic lawn chairs from the back of the classroom and sit under a spreading tree.  At first, when I was conducting narrative interviews with residents about development projects in their town, I thought that people were talking about the entire community when they said, “We are seeing these solutions in Nyaoga.”  What the people who said that meant, though, was to signify the projects funded by this specific development organization—solutions happening in that specific space, for the people who choose to participate in them.

Nyaoga is also a very specific group of people.  Because it is the name of a clan, those who live in other villages in the area often assume that those with voice in the program—and those who reap the most benefits—are members of that clan.  I was asked more than once to put in a good word for other clans like Kodhiambo and Koboo, so that their residents could be more involved.  Just as the organization had projected Nyaoga to signify all of the community, so too did my perceptions of the project on the American side assume that the community spoke as a unified voice in asking for this development to happen.  In reality, as should have been apparent, this community exists through the same conflicts and uncertainty that characterizes any small town.  From disagreements on land ownership to grudges towards those who put in too little time in meetings, individuals and households frequently held their own agendas for development to be right, and criticized those who were not on board.  Often, it seems to be that the image of a “village” is a unified entity, whose interests align on a clear trajectory towards development as a destination; because the reality is not as clear, development programs need also to take into account these dynamics as implicated in all of their work.

The Nyaoga Clinic site also represents much more than development projects; it signifies wealth.  When members of the Nyaoga Women’s Group need to explain to neighbors why the clinic is not free, they frequently work through the challenge of convincing community members that the program does not experience a continuous flow of cash.  Turning around and looking at the site, I would assume that, too.  The Clinic and other projects funded by this development organization have been undergoing construction projects continuously for the last three years, and they host White American volunteers twice yearly.  Though it initially caused me to explore numerous ways to express in conversation that the organization really is struggling for funds and they cannot support every project, this association points to a larger issue in the project of development.  Specifically, when residents associate White Americans with development projects, and development projects with the money that funds them, it sets up a system of expectations that in this community has ultimately cultivated an insidious atmosphere of mistrust and neglect.  The organization is now left in a position of working to balance positive working and casual relationships among staff, volunteers, and community members with the reality that every project cannot be done.

While much of this assessment may seem negative, it really opens the space for a meaningful reassessment of development work in this community and elsewhere.  As a White American student living in Koredo, I built very real friendships alongside very superficial, manipulative ones.  Both community members and I were responsible for the quality of the latter relationships: I had come, after all, to consume information and carry it back to my university.  I still work strongly under the assumption that this project is the first step of many for me in building foundations to responsibly enter the work of community development in the future.  And I still donate hours of my time to this organization and to fundraising for the sake of programs that do indeed benefit my friends in Kenya, even if I doubt the infrastructure within which they are built. I would not have had the opportunity to glean this information without the opportunity to research in Kenya, and I am perpetually thankful to the Chase Coggins Memorial Fund for choosing to support me.  Now, with the space of this year to turn my research into a senior essay project, I will be able to integrate my observations of the summer with theory on anthropology and development, localized economies, gender studies, and cultural encounter, and synthesize what now seems to be discrete pockets of uncertainty into specific recommendations for development in this area.  At the very least, I can start calling it Koredo.