My Experience in Ethnography

October 5, 2021

By Anne Achieng, Research intern

“I am going to study anthropology, “I remember saying after being accepted to the University of Nairobi in 2015. 

“What is anthropology?” Was the all too common question asked by my family and everyone else. “Where will you work?” Back then, I didn’t have the answers, but I was sure of what I would do — “study human behavior.”

Fast forward to 2021, and I was engaged as a research assistant for the Safe Choice Project led by the APHRC and Rutgers. I traveled to Kilifi County, the study site, in Kenya’s coastal region on the shores of the Indian Ocean. For six months, I collected data using the primary data collection method in ethnography — participant observation. This experience took me back to early anthropologists who spent a lot of time with communities, living, sharing and learning their ways of life. I thought of Franz Boas, who studied the Eskimos and formulated the theory of cultural relativism, and Bronislaw Malinowski’s work among the Trobriand Islanders. Here I was, brimming with excitement to practice what I had learned at the University and during the intense training and pilot program that I was taken through by the project lead before setting out to the field.  

Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, we got to the field ready to work. I immediately started community mobilization for the project alongside the rest of the team. In all honesty, I was a little unsure of how we would be received since we were working on issues regarded as sensitive and taboo. Contrary to my expectation, our team was warmly received by county officials, who made it a smooth entry to the field. The community health workers, public health officials, medical and nursing staff were exceptionally welcoming too. During the immersion process at the local hospital, I donned my white lab coat with a name tag like other healthcare providers. I helped them with their daily activities, such as data entry and engaging patients, which gave me access to some of the study participants making my data collection work easier. I conducted in-depth interviews, focus group discussions as well as key informant interviews. 

My experience interacting with individuals and families at the community level revealed the extent of human interactions beyond race, tribe, religion, gender, and political affiliations. I was welcomed into people’s homes, offered tea or a meal; sometimes, it would be their only meal for the day. One unique thing about the culture of the Giriama people, the main inhabitants of Kilifi County, is that whenever I entered a homestead, a child of the host would run towards me offering a greeting “Shikamoo!” (how are you?) with a slight bow. I would reply, “Marahaba!” (I am fine!) and they would offer to carry my bag. I was always treated like a guest and not a passerby. I even ended up teaching some children from one of my participant’s families who had been sent away from school due to lack of school fees and uniform. Together with the project team, we raised some money for stationery that I used to teach. A community volunteer who had helped many young girls access education and navigate issues around early and unintended pregnancies was instrumental in assisting me to gain access to the villages and connect with participants who shared their lived experiences navigating unintended pregnancies and abortion.  

A notable moment was during my regular participant follow-up when I asked a 14-year-old participant her future aspirations, and her response was, “I want to be like you when I grow up. You do not inject people.” At that moment, I realized the impact of my work. Being an ethnographer at the health facility, the work I did was beyond data collection. Talking to participants at the hospital and learning of their experiences, being there for them, and reassuring them when they were in pain, occasionally buying them fruits, went a long way. 

Experiencing and documenting adolescents’ and young women’s experiences in accessing sexual and reproductive health services has been life-changing for me. I have seen the cultural limitations and opportunities to explore in policy formulation so that no one is left behind in the fast-changing world. 

It has been an exhilarating journey. The friends made, the bonds created, seeing happy children, the laughter and the tears, the weddings and the funerals, working with women, eating local food, taking long and exciting bodaboda (motorcycle) rides, lending a helping hand, and a shoulder to cry on. I am amazed at the extent of human connection through social interaction.

Anthropology is beautiful to me; it has shown the basics of human connection, the thought processes, the simplicity of life, the need to be heard, and the pride of being, just being.

When you look at people from their own worldview, you understand them; you experience life as they do.