Learning to make the unfamiliar familiar

Mathilde Roze
Sunday 7 July 2019

After five intense weeks of research, I am now in Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Kenya, waiting for my flight back home. My first summer research on elite secondary education in Kenya just finished. I am now leaving Kenya, exhausted and relieved to finally get back home. Everything is still so fresh, but I will now take some time to reflect on this crazy experience.

My research started by two calm weeks in St Andrews. As I learned it is the case for most researchers, I doubted a lot, felt lost and sometimes lost faith. I made surprising discoveries from exciting readings that reinforced my desire to continue the research. But overall, nothing deeply life changing… until I took my flight to conduct the second part of my research in Kenya.

Working in the British Institute in Eastern Africa library in Nairobi

These three weeks alone in Kenya were without a doubt among my most challenging life experiences. This is the part of my research I will focus on in this post.

I did not go there just because of my love for random adventures. The data on education in Kenya I needed for my research had never been collected. So I knew I had to go and collect it by myself. This is why, three weeks ago, I started a 20-hour plane journey to Nairobi. The plan was to prepare everything for my research next year – including obtaining official support from schools’ principals and the ministry of education, – make new contacts and access relevant library resources. Then, in 2020, I would go back to Kenya to conduct the main part of my research in one of the top female Kenyan high schools.

It may sound relatively simple and straightforwards. At least, it did to me when I left St Andrews. In reality, this trip was everything I was not prepared for: deeply challenging, moving, exhausting.


This feeling of being a white alien

The first thing that struck me was the city itself. Living in Nairobi was so different from anything I had ever experienced before. It was huge, busy, loud. Nothing looked like it belonged together.

I did not feel like I belonged there neither.

I brutally discovered what it’s like to be the minority. Being a female from a different background from most people I met in St Andrews, I thought I knew how it felt to be the minority. In the streets of Nairobi, I quickly realized I had no idea. I felt lonely, different, nothing I tried made me fit in. While we were told by the Laidlaw team that research can be lonely sometimes, I was not expecting it to be that lonely. Everyone in the street was looking at me, and I was unable to understand their intentions. Some were friendly and asked for a picture as I was white; other would grab my wrist and not easily let go.

A white female researcher in Nepal I talked with mentioned the feeling of being a white alien for weeks. That’s exactly what I felt for the entire first week.

With time, I got used to it. I started to feel safe in the city despite knowing absolutely no one, and realized most people are only curious and just willing to start a conversation. From that point, my experience of the city became nice and enjoyable.

Nairobi skyline


Administrative system can always get more complicated

Once relatively adapted to the city, it was time to start intense preparations, including getting the final confirmation from the school that they would welcome me in 2020 for my research.

Last February, one of the top female schools in Kenya told me they were interested in my research and that the principal could meet with me to discuss it further whenever I want. I thought I was all set, and would just have to call once in Kenya to organize the meeting. I was blindly naive. After a dozen of unsuccessful calls to the school, being constantly told to call back a few hours later or the following day, I was left with two explanations: 1) They really didn’t want to hear about my research but won’t tell it to me directly. 2) Calling to book an appointment was not the way to go. Two days before leaving, after more than a week of daily calls, I got over the feeling that all the secretaries in the school hated me and decided to just go for it. I woke up at 5am and hired a driver to bring me to the school. At 7:30am, I was at the front gate of the school. The principal never showed up that morning. But after 3 hours waiting, I was able to meet the deputy principal. She loved the project, and told me the school would happily welcome me for my research next year if I get a letter of approval from the Ministry of Education.

How hard could it be to get a simple letter, right? Well, it took two days, 8 hours being sent to 15 offices in two cities far apart… to be told I could not get this letter. I needed a research permit first. And for that research permit, which takes around two months to be obtained, I would need ten more documents, including an official affiliation to a Kenyan research institution.

Facing this alone in a foreign country was not easy. I had to discover and reproduce the local way to deal with administration. I learned to be bold, to ask for explanations without being made to feel stupid and, more broadly, to stand up for myself. I am now gathering the documents to apply for the research permit, and feel relatively confident I will make this research happen, even if it implies dozens of phone calls and hundreds new emails.

View of the dawn on my flight back home


I want to sincerely thank my supervisor Mattia Fumanti for everything he did for me. He helped me even when my emails would just tell him how confused I felt, and his support undoubtedly played a key role in the overall successful results of my preparatory research. In addition, I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw team for offering me the opportunity to take part in such an amazing experience.

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