Reflections on Fieldwork Among Kenyan
Susan Beckerleg and Gillian Lewando Hundt
Our reflections on fieldwork derive from 2000–2001, when we undertook research on the lives and health needs of women heroin users living in a Kenyan coastal town. Susan had been working there for some years with the Omari Project, a community-based rehabilitation program for heroin users. We had also worked together previously in the Middle East and knew that collaboration suited us. In this earlier study Gillian had been familiar with the setting and led the study. In Kenya, Susan was on home turf and Gillian took more of a supporting role. Susan's involvement with the Omari Project gave her access to heroin users. However, this same involvement meant that she could not appropriately interview health personnel and local healers in the small town on the services they provided for users. Susan therefore carried out the ethnographic work with users while Gillian joined her to interview health personnel of all kinds but also to support and accompany her in the field. The fieldwork was difficult and sensitive. This chapter has two foci: the nature of the awkward spaces encountered and how they were managed on a day-today basis; and the role of team ethnography as a joint enterprise where experiences are shared and understanding negotiated through separate but parallel observations.
There can be no doubt that heroin users occupy awkward spaces within Kenyan society. They use an illegal drug and constantly need to raise money to purchase it, which they do through tourist work, sex work, theft, and begging, as well as legitimate activities. Fieldwork involves negotiating access to, hanging around in, and exiting from these socially and physically awkward spaces. It also involves the daily management of strong emotional pressures. Heroin users are often in distress, nearly always require money or other assistance, and sometimes die. We reflect here on the strategies we adopted in our fieldwork with users.