week 10/12: customizing my internship

I had put “week 9/12” in the title, before I looked up the calendar and realized this is already the last but two week of my internship in Nairobi. Although ten weeks have passed since I arrived in Kenya for the first time, I am only starting to discover that there remains so much I have yet to explore.

For my internship, one thing I have been trying to do is finding ways to get out of my office or someone else’s office or meeting rooms – aka, doing field visits. Though I am thankful for the opportunities to interact with many partners who make important decisions in the macro-level, I am also eager to see things on the other end. Thus, I have decided that when the internship package does not come with field visits, I make one (or more) for myself.

So last week I visited a school after work with my colleague, where I observed some real and tangible challenges on the ground, which seemed somehow contradictory to the ambitious top-down plan from the government that I have been working on. I will discuss more details in future posts. In addition, I got an opportunity to get out of Nairobi to visit Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya, as well as a nearby village, on a media trip with two journalists from a Chinese media.

Luckily, my supervisor is also very supportive and encourages me to create my own opportunities at the internship. In May he took me to a meeting with national library services representatives from Kenya, Ghana and Uganda, which was also joined by two NGOs specialized in content provision for schools and communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of them left me a good impression because their work in digital content distribution emphasizes contextualization and is relevant to a major ICT project my organization is trying to push forward. Since my supervisor is also interested in learning more about their work, I followed up with them to suggest another one-on-one meeting.

A month later, they came to our office for the meeting. Afterwards, I walked them out to the gate. On our way out, I asked them questions related to their projects – it turned out that they were partner of an organization whose evaluation report I had read for class last semester – also, they talked about their projects being implemented in schools across the country. I then expressed my interest to go to the “field”. They then offered to take me along to one of their future visits! I told my supervisor about it afterwards, he was also happy because I could use the opportunity to get to know the organization better and come up with a concept note for my organization to partner with them. So now, I am waiting for them to get back to me regarding their schedule in late July. Fingers crossed that things will work out, especially since now is rather a busy time of the year for the organization.

Last but not least, I would like to thank my organization for having a big complex and a long walk to the gate 🙂

week 7.5/12

July is a critical time period for roll out of the next stage of the Kenya E-learning project. At the same time, my supervisor has officially started his one-month vacation. Therefore, our team has taken up the full responsibility of making sure the project rolls out as planned. Since training of teachers will be carried out in August, all preparation work must be completed by the end of July. We will need to sort out all the offline and online trainers, 300 trainees from across the country, training materials, 5 venues in 5 counties, transportation and other logistics, and of course budget… all of which will require constant communication with a variety of stakeholders.

Last week on Thursday I spent half day calling and emailing representatives from a partnering institution who had some questions regarding the selection of trainers. They did not agree with what had been proposed at a joint stakeholder meeting held earlier, during which they were absent. After some back and forth we finally reached agreement. However in their email sent today, the response still indicated misunderstanding. They insisted that they wanted to do the selection their way, yet for my organization, things must be agreed through consultation of all stakeholders. Though the issue was resolved after another round of calling, I was still a bit confused with the rationale behind the institution’s individualistic actions. A colleague then hinted that them trying to avoid collective efforts was possibly a result of unpleasant experiences during last round of implementation.

As a result of all the meetings and workshops and communication with stakeholders in the past weeks, I am gradually getting the hang of how my organization interacts with them and how they interact with each other. I’ve had some interesting observations which confirmed some common challenges in actual implementation: being participatory, accountability, monitoring, sticking to the time line, etc. I have also seen the challenges of an organization that struggles to strike a balance between project implementation and knowledge management.

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Apart from work, I have been lucky to find different opportunities to experience various aspects of Kenya with different groups of people. This past weekend I invited some friends (including RT and DK) to join an outing organized by a group of Kenyan youth leaders (they do amazing work creating impact in the community). The weekend before I had the opportunity to visit Kibera with some filmmakers who were making a documentary there. As I walked inside the narrow alleys in Kibera, everything I saw and heard seemed strangely familiar, thanks to all the documentaries and media coverage. Yet the smell in the air and the conversations I had with the kids there were what made Kibera tangible to me. I wrote a journal in Chinese here, for those of you who would like to do some reading in Chinese. 🙂

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I would name this picture… the power of #ICT.

week 5/12

This past week has been one of the busiest, also the most rewarding since I started the internship.

On Monday and Tuesday, I reviewed and compiled a summary of the national policies and programs regarding education for persons with disabilities in Uganda, continued doing the trend analysis for local community radio stations in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, attended a second meeting on developing the organization’s communication strategy in Somalia, and prepared for the major theme of the week: a two-day revision workshop!

On Wednesday and Thursday, my team held a workshop in downtown Nairobi (yay getting out of the office) that brought together educational and technical experts to revise the online teacher training course which is a part of the national e-learning program. Since last year, the online course has been piloted in two groups of selected teachers across the country. Now that the second pilot has just concluded, feedback from the teachers was gathered and discussed at the workshop. Then curriculum developers, online facilitators and technical administrators broke into small groups to revise the course content, unit by unit, incorporating more localized examples, adjusting working time allotted to the exercises, adding new elements and fixing the languages.

For me, to see the project in action truly made it feel more tangible. The workshop was a great opportunity for me to communicate directly with some stakeholders of the project and learn about their perspectives. It was interesting to learn about their different involvement in and impressions with implementing the project. Despite various challenges, their enthusiasm and dedication were reasons to believe in a better future for Kenya’s education.

During the workshop, I joined one of the groups as they revised the course content. Our group had an extra arm because one of the group members was the administrator of the online platform, so we were able to make real-time changes in the course while other groups had to note down separately the changes to be made.

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I was also tasked with writing a press release for publication on the website, among many other assignments of the week. Luckily I was able to turn in the article by the end of the second day. #Multitasking! So this morning, it went online already.

Friday at the office was hectic because of being away for two days. I attended a meeting with a working group on media development in Somalia. Also I had to make two presentation slides on the analysis of the ICT in education competencies for Seychelles, a last-minute assignment for my supervisor’s mission next week. I managed to squeeze in between my supervisor’s even more hectic back-to-back meetings and presented to him the first drafts. Then I stayed late and made further changes incorporating new elements from some additional documents that were sent to my supervisor last-minute. Anyway, after a long and crazy day, crisis solved!

Happy weekend! Time for some rest and more Nairobi adventures!

a (policy) brief story

A major project that I am working on at my internship is a national e-learning program for Kenya, which aims to equip all public primary schools (starting with grades 1 & 2) in the country with tablets and laptops so that students can learn essential ICT skills for the 21st century.

As I mentioned in the previous post, before coming to Kenya, I had written my policy brief on this particular project in order to familiarize myself with the national context. It turned out that my host organization had signed an agreement with the government to help with teacher capacity development for this national e-learning project. As a result of this partnership, I was involved in this project as soon as I started the internship – attending meetings with ministers, content developers, teacher trainers and other partners, going through project documents, and preparing for a teacher training workshop that is going to take place next week. Thanks to the policy brief, it didn’t take long before I understood the current progress of the project. It also didn’t take long for me to discover some discrepancies between what had been planned and what had actually been implemented. As my recommendation section has pointed out, and I cite (Guo, 2016) :-), insufficient capacity is a major barrier to timely implementation of the plan.

I asked my supervisor some questions I had about the project. As he was surprised that I seemed to know something about it, I told him I had actually written a policy brief on it. Then of course he asked to read it. Then of course I got nervous and told him that “my online research might not be comprehensive enough” (so-called: managing expectations). He said it’s fine he just wanted to see a fresh perspective. So I emailed the paper to him, thinking that was probably the end of the story.

Several days later, at our team meeting, a colleague working in the Education sector greeted me:”I read your policy brief and I like it!” Surprised, I saw my supervisor giving out printed copies of my paper to the team. He commented that it was a good research which correctly pointed out many challenges the project is experiencing – thank you Dr. Wagner and your ICT M&E framework – “as if written by someone in Kenya”. He also suggested that it would be even better if the ICT competency framework (developed by my host organization) was included as one of the recommendations.

A few days later, I went with my supervisor to town for a meeting with education experts from a partnering nonprofit organization. The meeting was about teacher training and the use of ICT in Uganda, where the partner organization has done work. They are now looking in Kenya to see if they can find existing models to learn from. When the meeting was over, my supervisor suggested to them that I had written a policy brief on the Kenyan ICT project, and they expressed interest in reading it. Then of course I got even more nervous. Unexpectedly, my email sending the policy brief was responded within just half an hour with remarks complimenting on the review, analysis and references – “these references are always useful to have – so your research is great for all of us”.

That was indeed one of the moments I felt I was #AddingValues – being able to contribute academically to the work of the practitioners, as well as knowing my Master’s capstone does not remain as merely a school assignment.  #ThankyouIEDP

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As of now…

My supervisor and I recently had a conversation about my scope of work for the remaining weeks, and he said:

“I like your writing, so I am going to exploit you a little more by giving you an extra assignment – I want you to write a project document for us before you leave.”

#ThankyouIEDP

(Now where did I save the technical proposal….??)

Mimi na Kenya

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On my daily walk to and from work, I wished I could wear a mask to cover my mouth and nose as I walked through the many “dust storms” caused by cars driving by. However, the IEDPer inside me cautioned that I’d better not wear something like a mask which could potentially distance myself from the community – as if being the only Asian who walks along this road everyday isn’t eye-catching enough.

Last Wednesday was Kenya’s national holiday so RT and I decided to explore the city a bit more when most people chose to spend the day resting at home. We walked around RT’s area around lunchtime, tried to look for one restaurant but found out that it was closed. As we turned back trying to look for another place for lunch, we were stopped by a group of about 5 security people sitting idly (probably also chatting), who questioned what we were doing. We answered that we were just walking around, then a male security person asked why we were doing that – I assumed they found it strange to see foreigners walking around in a non-touristy area on a national holiday – so I responded:”We are looking for a place to get lunch. Do you know…. Actually, anyone wants to come with us?”

A female security person raised her hand, then two other women expressed interest. So the five of us started walking towards another restaurant. As we were walking, I thought: inviting people to lunch isn’t a bad idea – not only did we stop the guards from questioning but we will also make some friends.

When we reached the restaurant, RT reminded me that it was more expensive than the previous one. I was aware of the “purchasing power disparity”, so I confirmed with the ladies, making sure they were okay to eat there.

While enjoying our Ugali meal, we talked about issues in education, employment and family in Kenya. As we finished eating we took turns to leave the table to wash our hands. I was the last one to do so and when I got back to the table, I found the check lying before me with everyone else looking at me. So, very naturally, I started to calculate the part that I was supposed to pay… before I realized that this time, it probably meant people expected me to pay for the table. I whispered to RT (in hindsight it was quite obvious and awkward) asking if we should pay for everyone, hoping that he would know more about local customs when it comes to paying for food. I was really confused because on one hand I felt I should just pay for the table since it was a very cheap meal for five (in American standards), but on the other hand, I felt uncomfortable being regarded as someone with more “power” and “resources” who pays for everyone when she is expected to do so.

After some awkward moments and my covert observations of all the “stakeholders” involved, I told the ladies we would treat them for lunch to celebrate their national holiday. They thanked us. We shook hands, said bye, and left the place.

As we were walking, it suddenly occurred to me it was likely that these ladies came to lunch expecting to get free food from the foreigners… I felt disappointed, and sad, somehow, because I had this naive thought that they came because they simply wanted to know us and make friends. My disappointment with them was followed by stronger disappointment with myself, for not being fully aware of the situation, for neglecting people’s different perceptions, and for making assumptions and acting based on these assumptions. I also felt conflicted, as I did not think I was “qualified” to feel disappointed with them “exploiting” us, the privileged, when I thought of the exploitation their community had to go through because of colonization.

The next day I told the story to my Kenyan friend and colleague, GM. Surprisingly, he found nothing wrong with the story – he said, in Kenya, the person who “takes others to lunch” is the one who pays: “Since you invited them to lunch, it is natural that you pay.” His response gave me some kind of relief, in a weird way, as it mitigated my disappointment at those ladies – Relax, I told myself, it was just a cultural difference, you were only experiencing a cultural shock.

But, really?

I think about the man and the little boy who followed us and begged for money –  both from RT, while I was walking silently beside them. I think about the road I pass by every day before and after work – the local pedestrians (who live in a nearby slum, according to GM) have been paying me all the attention equal to that I have ever got in my entire life. I think about myself, my presence and my positionality in this place that I do not call home.

Although only three weeks in, Kenya has made me learn a very important lesson: I, just because I am me, carry implications everywhere, every day, every minute and every second. It is one’s obligation to be aware of these implications, more so as they can never be eliminated.

On my daily walk to and from work, I wondered, since I decided not to wear a mask, if I should just always cover my nose with my hand. However, after observing all my fellow travelers breathing and talking normally in the dusty air as if nothing changed, I hesitated, as I was almost about to lift my hand.

First Week in Nairobi: Lessons Learned

Unlike some evaluation reports that usually end with “Lessons Learned”, my stay in Nairobi actually started with a few “Lessons Learned”:

Lesson 1: “Ten minutes” is not ten revolutions completed by the minute hand on the clock. It can be an hour, an hour and half, or thirty minutes, depending on who you are talking to.

Lesson 2: “Barabara” (road) can be found anywhere. When the locals point you to a certain direction and you see the road blocked by a closed gate, wait until you walk to the gate and somehow get through from the tiny gap between the cracked gate and the wall to claim that there is “no way”.

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(My classmate, RT, and I imagining our own cross walk in downtown Nairobi)

Lesson 3: “More research” is always needed. Thank you IEDP for having me write the Policy Brief before my departure… It turned out that my “past research” had prepared me for a major project that is being carried out by my host organization. I was able to quickly grasp what other people were saying even at the very first meeting that I attended about the project.

Lesson 4: Following the previous point, there is almost always a discrepancy between what is planned (& probably publicized) and what is actually implemented.

Lesson 5: Negotiating with different stakeholders is both a science and an art.

Lesson 6: Always be aware of different perspectives. For instance, I am no longer a summer intern now, but instead, a winter intern.

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