The charms of the internet provision in rural Kenya, combined with a busy schedule – and what I take to be my spoiled European impatience – have made it difficult to update the blog these past four days. Internet provision is pretty sparse here. Just yesterday, at the only Cybercafe in town, a 10-strong bank of computers was reduced to a single PC with a 236.8 kbps wireless connection following a server error. After a half-hour wait to use the machine, the connection was just cripplingly slow and I abandoned the mission. Still, “hamna shida” it’s no problem!
The collaborative design project with the girls at Kwale Homeopathic Health Centre and College project is going very nicely! Today we began generating early design concepts inspired by some intense research and brainstorming of ideas carried out last week. Just to remind you all, the girls are working in groups and are tackling design challenges that they identified as key for the Kwale district, Kenya. These challenges can be summed up as:
• How can we deliver improved systems of Water provision for domestic and agricultural purposes?
• How can we deliver improved solutions for safe, clean, affordable, plentiful fuel (for cooking & warmth).
• How can we alleviate the impact and spread of Malaria among typical rural families.
Here follows a quick day-to-day breakdown:
Thursday 22nd July, ‘Research’
This session was all about researching and gaining a deeper appreciation for the context of each of the three Design Challenges; filling in some of the gaps in our collective knowledge and challenging/or otherwise confirming any assumptions.
Working in their design groups of six/seven students each, the class conducted a short period of intense research in response to the ‘Information Gathering’ sessions of the previous day (e.g. What We Know / What We Don’t Know). I facilitated the group in preparing interviews with relevant people within the region as well as conducting secondary research via internet searches and the Kwale District Development Plan.
The students first interviewed a local community expert, Mdme. Behati, to garner a deeper appreciation for the wider social, political, economic and logistical issues relating to each of their design challenges. We then mobilised to interview a cross-section of families from the Kwale community about their experiences to the problems described in the design challenges. We hoped to obtain some new insights from the very people we are trying to help through our design work.
Before setting out, we had to consult the local chief to check if it was OK to carry out these door-to-door interviews within his area. The director of the Homeopathy Clinic, Marie, arranged for two of the students and myself to meet with chief Masahraja to explain our intentions. Thankfully, he was most accommodating and very generously arranged for three of the local elders to accompany the girls on a tour of the Kwale district. “You have my blessings” he said before turning to the elders “You must help these girls. This is more important than a burial!”
The elders are well respected amongst the residents of their home communities and are very well liked too, so accessing a cross section of families was not a problem whilst in their company! The girls documented their experiences with digital video and pictures to help capture the context of each interview. I accompanied the group researching Malaria and we spoke with 6 families in the Gova village.
Each family seemed to be aware of the causes and possible preventions of the disease but were all concerned with the costs associated with Malaria prevention and treatments. Getting sick is not something many families can afford to budget for. A sudden outbreak of malaria can interfere greatly with a family’s finances. The purchase and upkeep of mosquito nets was seen as prohibitively expensive. Free nets are only offered to pregnant mothers and children under five. Attitudes toward any future innovations were positive and each interviewee said that they would be willing to pay more for a longer-lasting, more effective intervention.
Some of the people we met gave the girls gifts of tangerines and oranges. The sweet, cheerful citrus-smell was wafted all about us by a gentle breeze in the pleasant late afternoon sun as we walked among the trees of the Gova village.
With the interviews complete, the girls called each other on their mobile phones to arrange a meeting. We reconvened at the town square, thanked the elders for their time with a Kenyan hand-shake and then headed to the Wena Paradise Cafe for sodas. We concluded that the village interviews had confirmed much of the girls expectations of the problems – they were not surprised by the results – but they agreed it had been a worthwhile exercise for focusing the mind and prompting constructive conversation. We also gleaned a few unexpected insights (such as a disparity of views regarding the most effective method of mosquito prevention and people’s positive attitudes to innovation).
Friday 23rd , Session 4: Ideas Generation
Today was about translating the research insights into possible design solutions; making sense of all that prior knowledge-mapping and research and moving into the realm of innovation!
The design groups discussed their research findings of the day before and listed any interesting and potentially useful insights that they felt they had made. These ‘Insights’ would later act as the catalyst for new ideas. Insights were written as short statements such as: “Nets are deemed too expensive; Malaria treatment often presents an unexpected and interfering cost” Statements that make one stand to attention and encourage action.
The students were then assisted in grouping any complimentary or related insights into ‘Themes’ to enable the previously scattered information to be more easily interpreted. Examples of ‘Themes’ were: Problems, Obstacles, People, Technology….
Now we began addressing the themes and insights in sequence and drawing out opportunities for design, adopting the stance of, “wherever there is a problem, there is an opportunity for design!” The opportunities were written on Post Its for the group to share and phrased as “How might we…?” questions to promote a positive engagement with the problem. E.g. “How might we better assist people collecting water from a river 1 mile away?” or “How might we provide affordable/free nets for everyone”.
Finally, we began the fun task of brainstorming new ideas in direct response to the “How might we…?” statements. The students were reminded that they should try to defer judgement when presented with another person’s idea to a shared problem and that there could be no such thing as a ‘wrong answer’ in this exercise (a concept that the girls seemed a little uncomfortable with) in the search for true innovations.
To warm-up, I asked the girls to pair-up and adopt the titles ‘Person A’ and ‘Person B’. the task was to imagine arranging a promotional event for the Homeopathy clinic in Kwale. For 3 minutes, ‘Person A’ had to state ideas for this event whilst ‘Person B’ rejected each idea; “No” followed by a brief reason for the rejection. That tasked completed, and another 3 minutes, this time the roles were reversed but ‘Person A’ now had to give a positive response to each of ‘Person B’s’ suggestions; “Yes” followed by a reason why that idea might work. This exercise was a lot of fun and much laughter ensued, but it was agreed unanimously that it was the positive environment of the second round that the students should adopt when nurturing new ideas in a successful brainstorming session.
As the girls progressed with the brainstorming exercise, the ideas came thick and fast and soon we had many ideas for possible design solutions; some practical and humble, others ambitious or whimsical. Tangible ideas such as grey-water recycling solutions for the home-toilet/shower cubicles or Mosquito net-repair kits to cloud-generating machines (for rain) and condoms for Mosquitos to curb breeding!
We had managed to complete a brainstorming session just before the start of the weekend break. I asked the girls to keep the challenges and possible ideas in mind so that at some level the girls could be reflecting on their ideas during this period.
Friday PM – Sunday AM: House visit at Kinango
I had arranged with Marie and Mary at the Homeopathic Centre to conduct a two-night house-stay with one of the student’s families. My host for this trip, Megeorge, a very smart, pleasant and outgoing girl in the second year at Kwale Homeopathic college. Kinango is her home town and her family very kindly agreed to let me stay for two nights at their home and experience a slice of typical Kenyan living.
We departed Kwale in a Matatu (a kind of mini-bus) from an unmarked spot in Kwale market. It is surprising to me how people here seem to ‘just know’ where to catch a bus! “No, not that spot! The Matatu that leaves there goes to Mombassa!” We drove for about an hour and half along some shaky roads and through some breathtakingly beautiful countryside. We both had to stand as the Matatu was full to capacity, but I didn’t mind. One kindly lady held my bag on her lap as I stood so as to make more standing space. Driving along, two monkeys darted from the bushes onto the road and coaxed some maize-cakes from one of the window passengers whilst another primate looked on incredulously from the roadside, scratching himself. People clung to the roof rack as the vehicle bumped, weaved, stalled, halted, stuttered and heaved it’s way across the dirt roads and into Kinango town.
When we arrived at the family home, just 5 minutes walk from the centre, it was getting dark so we set straight to making our beds before ‘taking’ supper as a family. We sat around outside the house eating Ugali with “Kenyan Cutlery” – our bare hands. Neighbours would stop and strike up conversations as they wandered through the compound. The kids (of which there were around 12) all fell about laughing whenever I tried to lift the food to my mouth, converse or indeed do anything. To them, my awkward ‘Muzungu’ ways were pure comedy gold. It was wonderful! How many British families enjoy the pleasures of such unity and social exchange over a typical dinner?!
After a very pleasant sleep, I emerged at around 6 am to find my first chores of the day. Megeorge offered me the task of sweeping the compound. The rubbish is gathered in piles amongst the broken sheaves of the harvested maize crops and then burnt. The burning of rubbish appears to be common practice throughout much of rural Kenya and the smell and crackle of the fires is there t almost every turn. Most families cook indoors over three stones and burn wood for fuel. As charming as this image is to me, the occasion visitor, one feels concern for the long-term health concerns and irritations of such prolonged exposure to smoke.
With the compound clean, Megeorge and I went to a nearby tap to fetch water for the day. Around 120 litres were gathered for the family at a cost of 18 Ksh. Enough for one day. Back again tomorrow. Megeorge ably carried a full 20L bucket on her head whilst I visibly struggled to carry the things at arms length. Yet more hilarity for the kids! After a fine breakfast of Chai and bread Megeorge took me on a tour of the town, taking in the Ministry of Forestry, Kinango District Hospital, Kinango-branch Homeopathic Clinic, several schools, the reservoir, many shops, market stalls and a women’s institute group who invited us to take lunch of Pilau with them.
The ladies at the women’s group ran a business providing mass-catering for the schools and local functions. A constitutional ‘Yes’ rally taking place in the town that day meant that they were keeping busy! One lady told me how NGOs had brought about many positive changes in Kinango, especially in providing opportunities for schooling and the empowerment of women. The women’s institute for instance, was much supported by the Academy for Educational Development which helped the ladies establish an independent business and is now also providing lessons in English and life skills. She pointed out however that when NGOs first started working in the area they would often make the mistake of helping individual endeavours (such as individual school bursaries) which would breed discontent and accusations of ‘favouritism’. One time, some newly installed water tanks, installed by NGOs were destroyed out of spite by disgruntled town folk. “Now,” she said “the NGOs in Kinango engage exclusively with projects that benefit the community at large”.
A white man visiting rural Kenya it seems, can not stay inconspicuous for long! The children in particular stop what they are doing to look as the ‘Muzungu’ walks by and within seconds, cries of “How are you? Fine!” ring out from all corners of the compound. A few brave kids approach to pull at the hairs on my arms, to ‘hi-five’, talk football (something which I know very little about) or to practice their English. It is utterly charming; the excitement and curiosity the young children show in this foreigner seems genuine, but I find it utterly embarrassing – like an undeserving phoney celebrity – and oh, how I wish I could blend in a little more! The slightest glimpse of my camera in rural Kenya has been enough to prompt a stampede of kids all jostling to be in the picture and to show off their karate or athletic skills, completely blowing my attempt to capture some delicate element of Kenyan life in a calm and candid way. Still, it is always a lot of fun. One can’t help but laugh with them.
Back at the compound now and I am helping the family to make dinner by shelling and preparing the maize kernels for milling and turning into Ugali. I have been told that a chicken is to be killed to celebrate the arrival of the guest. The family seems really excited by this prospect and I did not wish to offend. I don’t eat chicken as a general rule. Ever since I got some chickens as pets and named them all, I have gone all soft on the matter, but that night in Kenya, I ate chicken. Cooked very simply in its own fat with a punch of salt and some tomatoes. It was delicious!! Megeorge and I had brought sodas and sweets home for everyone. A rare treat and much appreciated. “Thank YOU! Thank YOU! Thank YOU” the kids chanted. Once again we sat, ate, talked politics, joked, laughed and even danced a little by the light of the full moon. No TV dinners here.
During my stay, I noticed a beautiful hand-woven basket which was being used to collect and carry maize. Stylistically simple but beautifully and intricately constructed, these bags matched in style, the large oval mats that we sat on to eat. I couldn’t imagine how they were constructed, nor how long each would take to make. I didn’t want to know. They were magical! I wanted one! “My dad makes and sells them” said Megeorge. “I MUST have one, no, TWO, can I buy some?” Megeorge’s father kindly gave me a basket as a gift. When I later asked if I could buy a second, I was astonished that the going rate per basket was just 100 Ksh (around £1). I would have gladly paid so, so much more for this beautifully crafted, culturally rich object.
Africa needs to trade – locally, transnationally and internationally. “Poverty is central to all problems here” said a Kinango shopkeeper when we asked him his opinions on the three design challenges we have set. It was true, I felt. Of course it was! Even in the harsh dry-lands of Kinango, those people who had money enough could afford all the provisions for a comfortable, healthy life; decent stone-floored housing, piped water, electricity for lighting and power, ample fuel for cooking, mosquito nets, money for schooling, land for fruit crops etc. Those people struggling to support very large families without the means of generating a source of secure, steady income have a much tougher time.
Many such people are subsistence farmers and can afford little time for work to generate income when also committing to the hard graft of growing food, fetching water, raising a family (which may include any number of inherited family members). I met many people during the field interviews and during my stay in Kinango whose main source of income was through selling goods either at the local market, road-side stall or a shop in the town. Many of the houses in Kwale have make-shift shops sitting out front.
‘Design Kenya’ is an organisation operating out of the School of Art & Design at the University of Nairobi which brings together educators and designers in monthly meetings. Design Kenya recognises the importance of engaging with the ‘Jua Kali’ (hot sun) producers, which account for around 70% of Kenya’s working population; to harness and promote the indigenous design knowledge of these people and to inform design strategies at policy level for the acceleration of economic development in Kenya. How might design promote the work of the Jua Kali workers? How can design open up trading opportunities for these producers, perhaps even on an international level? I think ‘Sole Rebels’ from Ethiopia is a sweet example (please take a look at the earlier post).
Lastly – PK licorice chewing gum! A childhood favourite of mine is back (or maybe never went away) IN AFRICA! And gargantuan multi-pack bags of the stuff too!
Apologies, this isn’t meant to read like a ‘holiday diary’ and I hope I haven’t bored or upset anyone. Yes, I am having some wonderful experiences here but more importantly, this time in Kenya has been very informative for one trying to engage and better understand the challenges, subtleties and opportunities for collaborative design in developing countries. Cultural immersion, understanding and for want of a better phrase ‘user empathy’ are essential , I feel, for delivering successful design. I am learning a lot, day by day.
Usiku mwema! Good night! Nos da!