Your fieldwork is only as good as the people you work with.
– Neil Carrier
Hassan Kochore is an Anthropology student at the University of Nairobi, and a research assistant with the British Institute in East Africa. We worked with Hassan, a native of Marsabit, on a research project last year in northern Kenya. Hassan’s rare blend of superb language skills, deep local knowledge and an understanding of western anthropological research methods made him an invaluable asset in the field. As the quality of local contacts can either make or break a project, I recently sat down with Hassan in Nairobi to ask him about any advice he might give to other prospective research assistants.
What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to prospective local research assistants?
Always find out what the research project is all about. You’re the one taking questions from people. You’re the sacrificial lamb, so to speak, as the suspicions and doubts will be focused on you. Research is a spiritual commitment. There are ethical dilemmas in the collection and use of research materials that you can’t immediately resolve. You’re working to balance two worlds – the interests of the researcher and the researched. You take on a third role between those, so you’re not really either.
You have to ask yourself, what’s the interest of the researcher, and what’s the interest of the researched? Learn how to explain those things to both sides. Then there’s the whole issue of collecting people’s information, being in possession of those things. What are you going to do with that information? Are you going to do them justice? How is it going to be used? You don’t really know at the beginning.
What do you mean by the interests of the researched?
They want to know, “What will happen to all this information? How is it going to be useful to us, or harm us?” They don’t care about you publishing – that’s your interest and benefit, not theirs. If you don’t know yourself, you’re only going to be lying to them if you say that it will benefit them. It’s also going to be an embarrassment to you when people find out you don’t know what you’re doing.
Of course sometimes you wake up and realize you’re at a loss about what you’re doing. That’s
normal. It’s hard to understand it all at one go, and sometimes the research focus changes depending on what you find. Take as much time as you need to understand the project, its aims, and what will be done with the research.
The people who end up doing well are those who are willing to walk away from a research project if they’re not comfortable with it.
What are the most common mistakes made by new research assistants in Anthropology?
First of all, you’re tempted to be the broker; it’s very natural. You want to make an impression, because there’s money and prestige at stake. Naturally you want to control the research process and be indispensable. But to really be indispensable, you have to pretend to know all the answers to the questions – you want to feel very important – but that’s more like trying to play PR, “yeah guys, I know all these things.” Be honest from the word go; don’t say anything just to gain entry.
Even initially, I felt that way, wanting to be indispensable. But one thing I’ve always known is not to distort research or impose my own views. There’s a propensity to always answer things from your own perspective. Someone local you’re talking to might answer and give their own view, but you’re a local too and maybe don’t feel like that’s the popular view. So you impose yourself or try to please the researcher. Sometimes you’re not even processing what the subject is saying, but processing the idea yourself.
At the end of the day, just give the raw information, but if you feel something important needs to be added, do it afterwards, “This person thinks this, but I think this…” Suspend your own ideas for the time of the interview, and add your ideas later at the appropriate time to add context and depth to the research. Because I’m a local in my own right, if I don’t agree, I can debate it. But do that later when it’s the appropriate time. I wouldn’t have asked myself these ethical questions 2 or 3 years ago. It’s never perfect – nothing is 100% – but with time you get better at it.
Is there anything in particular you’ve learned about how to avoid imposing yourself on the research?
You should develop a self-induced amnesia for a while. Forgetting that you have a certain position in the community is important to gain a degree of objectivity. But that has to come after you gain an understanding of the project.
You’re not just interpreting language and words, but culture and embedded meaning as well. Try not to mix your own ideas and other people’s. That’s a very important stage as an assistant. Then it will be evident that you have good interpretation and communication skills , that you’re
the right person for this job. That’s how to win the trust of the researcher.
It sounds like it can be tricky to get off on the right foot with researchers.
Take it slowly at first. If you see this person as a tourist and not as a researcher, it’s a different thing. Many people who work as informal research assistants mix those two things up. The researcher you’re working with may not be excited to go around to all the places you’ve found. Researchers won’t be excited about going to sideshows. Maybe everyone can relax and socialize in the evening, but get the timing right – read their mood and do things when they want to, rather than when you want to. It’s hard for visitors sometimes to decline invitations. It’s hard work to follow you the whole day, and if you’re trying to take them where you want and it doesn’t further the project, it damages your credibility.
What do you find most satisfying about working as a research assistant?
As a human being, I want to express myself and have my ideas heard, and being a research assistant is a good avenue to do that. It’s also good to participate in research because you get to dispel misperceptions.
Just at this moment a local came up to us in the restaurant where we were talking and asked me somewhat pointedly, “What are you writing down?” When I explained that I was doing research and taking notes about my conversation with Hassan, he replied, “I’m a Kenyan. I’m a stakeholder in all of this. I want you to hear my thoughts too.” After some assurances that I was going to give an honest account of Kenya, he turned to Hassan and said, “Give good information. Sell Kenya properly.”
That’s just what I was talking about. People can be concerned how the information is going to be used, how it might help them or hurt them.
So how do you as the research assistant manage the expectations of people in the source communities?
That’s tricky. There are places you’ll want to avoid because of what people will think about your association with a wazungu – that you’ll have money, so forth. But those are places the researchers will want to go. You have to step up and know there are some compromises you have to make as a research assistant. You have to be direct sometimes with people. Don’t run away from misperceptions or the possibility for misunderstandings, just approach those things head on.
When you run away from people, or try to dodge their questions, they know you have something to hide. When you run away or avoid places, you create a bigger and bigger map of places you don’t want to go. Then after a while you can’t go anywhere.
Be open with friends and relatives about the kind of money you make from this kind of work, that you have a job to do and that it’s not making you rich.
Also, people in these communities sometimes think that you’re looking for something else, rather than the really obscure thing that’s the focus of a Western research project. They don’t expect a mzungu to be looking for such mundane, obscure things. They have the preconception that the researcher is looking for something big.
There is a way I’ll sometimes frame the questions so that I create a scenario of curiosity by telling someone, “I know you might be surprised that what we are asking you is common knowledge but it’s not easy to understand and explain as you do because…” This is why being honest and trying to understand the project as best you can is so important.
How did you get into this kind of work?
I was born in Marsabit, but went to Meru for high school, which a lot of people in Marsabit consider to be a foreign land. When people from Marsabit are going to Nairobi, they’ll often say they’re “going to Kenya.”
In 2008, I had been studying biochemistry in Nairobi, but had deferred because of various issues including personal experience with the course as well as a financial aspect. So I was back in Marsabit with nothing much to do. A girl from my village worked in a hotel and a group from the British Institute in East Africa came to stay. She heard they were looking for local assistants and mentioned my sister. It’s funny, but because me and my sister both went to ‘down country’ for high school the woman thought, “these people are foreigners and these kids have been to school (to learn foreign ways). Maybe they’ll understand each other.”
The researchers came to our home to look for my sister, and she worked with them for some time. After she left for school, they asked if I could assist them in their research. I immediately said yes. I wasn’t doing anything anyway, I just wanted to make some money without even knowing anything about their work. In retrospect I wouldn’t do that now. I’d ask what they were doing first.
I quickly became curious about the research questions – I started asking them about what’s behind all of this. I started asking them questions all the time. “What does Anthropology really mean?” “You’re a professor in Anthropology – what does that really mean?” My curiosity really helped build a relationship between us.
After two days I even forgot I was supposed to be paid. I just trusted that it would accumulate. It built a reciprocal relationship. Try to trust other people, and then they’ll trust you. Another guy working with us wanted to get paid every day, and never really built a trusting relationship with the researchers.
When they went back to Nairobi, I took a ride with them because I had plans to go to Nairobi anyway. On the way, we got into a discussion and they hired me to process and interpret the data. A few days later I was sitting around with some researchers trying to enter data into a computer, and I was wondering what had happened to me, what was I doing? The first few days were hard. But I kept asking questions and slowly started figuring things out.
That’s when I learned that research isn’t just walking around talking to people. It’s also trying to process all of this information. Listening to all the tapes we made, I started figuring out after how poor in communication I was – asking questions before someone was even finished talking, asking the wrong questions, not being attentive in interviews, not taking the time to really listen to what’s being said in an interview. When you work like that the data is so discordant, it doesn’t have any flow. You have to be careful that the questions you ask really build on each other, that you have a flow between the things you ask. When you’re in the field, you just have to bear in mind that this is the start of a process, not the end. It was a very helpful experience for me.
After the project ended, my good friend and mentor Dr. Hassan Wario Arero convinced me to go back to school to study Anthropology—it was not an easy decision to make as I still had passion for Biochemistry, but I decided to take up Anthropology, and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made in life! For that I feel greatly indebted to Dr. Wario who made in me, a ‘jijiram’ (change in boran) –not in the way I look but in the way I look at the world.
Where do you hope all of this leads you?
If you’d asked me twenty years ago what I wanted to become, I’d have said a teacher. I still hold that view: I have a feeling that I’ll end up in academia and my dream is to be a professor in a good university. One of the main reasons I’d want to live long is to see and understand what’s happening… it’s not easy.