In 2019, when I moved back to Nairobi to conduct my doctoral fieldwork, the city was significantly different from the Nairobi I had first encountered in 2010. The sleepy malls with vast empty parking lots that my friends and I used to drive right into now had parking barriers, security checks for both vehicles and people, and required payment for parking. The road infrastructure had been significantly invested in since 2010, although Nairobi’s infamous traffic was still a big problem. Ride-share apps had arrived to the city in a big way in 2015 and Uber-branded cars and orange-vested Safeboda boda bodas (motorbikes) could now be seen all over the city. The cost of living felt higher. People complained all the time about the cost of ugali flour (a staple in Kenyan cooking), cooking oil, car petrol. Some things hadn’t changed: corruption, which had been the issue of the day in 2010 was still seen as the underlying problem by everyday Kenyans who attributed their rising cost of living and the problems of Kenya with corruption. A national sense of hope for an aspirational future that I had felt in 2010, seemed extinguished, replaced by a hardened cynicism and skepticism.
The overall focus of the dissertation is on the contemporary landscape of research actors in Nairobi, with an emphasis on changes since around 2010, the year in which I began to work in earnest as part of the Kenyan research landscape. 2010 was an important year for the nation as a new constitution that had been over 20 years in the making was signed into effect, a moment that political leaders at the time hailed as “the birth of the second republic.” The country’s first undersea cable to bring high-speed internet access to East Africa had only gone live the previous year (2009) and in 2010, mobile telephony operators were still laying down much of the Internet infrastructure in the country. 2010 also marked the opening of the first tech hub in Kenya, the iHub, short for Innovation Hub. In close partnership with iHub, the Kenya Open Data Initiative would be launched the following year in 2011 largely due to the advocacy of charismatic government official, Dr. Bitange Ndemo.
From 2010-2015, I worked as a research project manager at the iHub, where recent university graduates and self-taught techies came to meet others working on technology products for Kenyan users. What was initially a very “geeky” community of young Kenyan male coders, became increasingly diverse as the iHub’s reputation grew and iHub and start-up leaders alike recognized that skill sets other than computer programming were needed to grow a robust tech ecosystem.
Since I left iHub in 2015, my research focus has detoured and developed but remained grounded in the years that I worked there, partly because I came to recognize that in the decade since there have been key shifts in the way people in Nairobi think about, practice, experience and—importantly—evaluate research. This shift and the growing concern with what makes research good and ethical became the key focus of my research. Over the last decade, stimulated by continuing frustration with developmentalism, experiences of being over-researched, and waves of anti-racist reckoning around the world, more and more people in Kenya are reaching to figure out what it would look like to decolonize research and knowledge writ large. I came to think about this as work toward “postcolonial objectivity.” Through interviews, participant observation, a growing number of collaborations and work to design and build new, Kenya-grounded research infrastructure, I’ve learned how understanding and practices supporting postcolonial objectivity are taking shape—in different ways in different Nairobi organizational settings. I’ve also learned of the many ways that efforts to decolonize research in Kenya are haunted by imperial ghosts. Understanding how postcolonial objectivity is taking shape in Kenya today thus requires both historical perspective and organizational comparisons (recognizing both the density of research organizations currently operating Nairobi, and variation between them). It also calls for collaboration. Postcolonial objectivity is, in its very nature, aspirational, reaching for something new, more inclusive, and better. I, too, have been drawn to it, wanting to not only document and analyze but also help advance it. As I’ll describe further, I’ve worked as much alongside as on postcolonial objectivity.
I first worked in Nairobi from 2010 - 2015 as a research project manager at the newly established iHub. The iHub was one of the first of its kind on the continent, an open-plan community space with communal tables for young technologists to use for free as they worked towards developing technology-focused companies. Co-founder and public face of the iHub, Erik Hersman recounted how, when the iHub was first launched in March 2010, community members were told, “Listen, here is the foundation, what gets built on top of this is up to you. Now it’s over to the rest of the community to help make this community what it is,” (Hersman 2017, 47). Hersman has said that the magic of the iHub was that it was centered around the idea that “we, as a community, need to be connected to each other and we need a space. We need a place, a meeting space that will allow us to almost accidentally find each other from time to time, which will draw us in and connect us in ways that would not exist if we did not have it,” (Hersman 2017, 48).
This original articulation of the value of the iHub as a space for community (and whatever the community decided to be important) attracted a dedicated and diverse group of supporters. In a social and political context used to top-down imposition of what should be done, to have an open space (literally) where the only thing that “should” be done was to discuss and figure out what people wanted to be done, held and continues to hold promise in my eyes. Representing a notable break from dominant expectations of work in Kenya as formal and hierarchical, at the iHub, I would sit with recent graduates from Kenyan universities in our jeans and sweatshirts and think about how we might better make and study technologies in and for Kenya. We truly believed in and were excited by the possibilities for positive social change afforded by growing access to mobile technologies for Kenyans from all walks of life. As the community of technology entrepreneurs associated with the iHub became increasingly well-known globally, media and researchers came frequently to Nairobi to document how creative, innovative Kenyan technology experts were developing solutions for “African problems.” iHub’s popularity can be explained as part of the rise of mobile phone technologies in Africa in the late 2000s. The uptake of mobile phones surged in Kenya from around 2008, the year of the Post-Election Violence (PEV) (see Figure 3), and by 2010, the year that iHub was founded, more than half of Kenyans had access to a mobile phone (ITU 2019). Today, the latest figures suggest that the vast majority of Kenyans have mobile phone access (Kibuacha 2021). The organic uptake of these devices for communication was latched onto by the Development aid industry as the answer to older problems of poverty and government corruption and the potential of these technologies for social good gained circulatory power and was heavily invested in by non-governmental organizations and development aid. Academic fields like Information Communication for Development (ICT4D) and mobiles for development (m4d) emerged to promote and study the uses of technology for development problems. But within a few years it had become increasingly clear that there was much more required than just mobile phone apps.
One of the globally recognized tech success stories from Kenya, crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi, emerged from the ashes of the 2008 Kenyan Post-Election Violence (see Figure 3). The next elections, in 2013, were an important milestone to demonstrate globally and to Kenyans themselves, the progress that the country had made since 2008. However, techies began to realize that their busy attempts to build tech products for local users had not meaningfully changed deeper societal structures. That two of the country’s political leaders—informally recognized to have stoked the flames of the 2008 violence—not only ran for president and vice-president, but that they won was a wakeup call for progressive techies who expected the Kenyan citizenry to have voted otherwise. The impunity of these two current government leaders and the fact that they still reign in power sheds light into Nairobians’ diminishing trust in each other and growing cynicism about holding those in power to account.
As Nairobi cynicism about a government responsive to citizen needs set in, so too did disillusionment with the Kenyan tech sector and techno-solutionist narratives to solve local societal problems. The iHub had been founded on Erik Hersman’s ideals of tech meritocracy: “The iHub is about doers, not talkers,” (Hersman 2012). But less than five years later, the realization that technology and the tech sector too harbored injustices, bias, exploitative relations, and racism pulled the rug out from many who had been idealistically promoting it. In 2015, the first of what would be multiple scandals rocked the Nairobi tech sector. iHub members and Kenyan co-founders of Angani, a cloud infrastructure start-up, were forced out of their own company after ugly disagreements with new investors who included two of the iHub advisory board members, notably, Erik Hersman. The entire ordeal was closely watched by the tight-knit Nairobi tech community. This was just the beginning of what would become even uglier exchanges. In 2017, an Ushahidi employee raised an accusation of sexual harassment against upper management (Kabari 2019). While the incident alone was grave, the botched way it was responded to and handled became the bigger subject of critique. The scandal came to be covered by multiple Kenyan mainstream news outlets and led to board members of the NGO resigning. Fraught accusations—of racism, sexism, tribalism—divided a previously collegial tech sector. In a public post, a former co-founder of Ushahidi, Ory Okolloh, stated: “we as a tech community must examine the series of events that led us to a point where an organisation and community that is well placed to do better has failed,” (Okolloh 2017). Through all of this, it became clear that connections mattered more than the merit of a good tech idea. A serial Kenyan entrepreneur, for example, summarized the state of attracting financial capital in Kenya: “You’d be surprised by how this ecosystem works. Me and four locals trying to nail a partnership would take years. But just bring in a non-local, we just need to have them in the meeting and then we look more serious. It’s a reality,” (de la Chaux and Okune 2017, 281).
Meanwhile, beyond the upheavals within the tech sector, crime, impunity, and the cost of living in the city all continued to rise under the leadership of a known criminal who was elected as the city’s governor in 2017 to the disbelief of the educated elite minority.In recent years, Nairobi cynicism and distrust has not waned, with one resident explaining on Twitter: “Since I came to the city, my faith in people has been diminishing,” (Duncan (@annnbelduncan) 2019) and another in agreement: “I have stopped shaking hands with people I don’t know,” (Syan (@bobsyan) 2019). This is the backdrop against which Nairobi researchers are now striving for alternative ways to do research better.
I arrived at my original object of study, Nairobi research data ideologies, motivated by first-hand experiences with research fatigue. Having participated as a research subject in numerous studies while working for five years at the iHub—with everyone asking very similar questions—I came to realize that the quotidian practices of making research field data produced much more than the data itself, including fatigue and sometimes even a sense of exploitation. While research can hold the possibility of being therapeutic, as several of my interlocutors told me in describing our own research encounters, that research in Nairobi is so often experienced as extractive is revealing of the ways in which it is often conceptualized and executed, as well as the structures of its production. This sense of research exploitation is not unique to Kenya or Africa, but the effects of extroverted scientific practices appear particularly acute in many postcolonial contexts.
I began my fieldwork wanting to understand how Nairobi-based researchers think about qualitative research data, what counts as ethical data sharing to them and how that has shifted in the recent past. However, as my fieldwork went on, I came to understand that qualitative research data was in fact a response to a larger question that my interlocutors were grappling with. How can scholarly knowledge in postcolonial contexts be made in more ethical, decolonial ways? This question, which has haunted knowledge production in postcolonial sites since the end of the colonial empire, looks to understand how to break from established research infrastructure while nonetheless continuing to conduct research in globally legible and credible ways.
A vibrant movement of African decolonial scholars in the 1960s led the original charge in thinking about how to decolonize institutions—which had been up to that point led by settler colonialists—as well as the minds of former colonial subjects. For example, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is well known for his seminal work on “Decolonising the Mind” (1986) and his activism in the early 1970s with Henry Owuor Anyumba and Taban lo Liyong within the University of Nairobi to abolish the English Department to make space for literary forms and aesthetics rooted in Kenya rather than outside (Musila 2019; Gikandi and Mwangi 2007). Soon after independence, parastatal and independent indigenous publishing houses were also established, that broke from formerly extroverted models of “collecting good manuscripts and forward[ing] them to London for vetting and publishing,” (Bgoya and Jay 2013, 18). Pan-African research and publishing organizations such as the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) established in the 1970s helped to support and grow social sciences research in Africa (Bgoya 2014; Amin et al. 1978; Ghai 1974).
In spite of the incredible achievements of this period, the movement’s decolonial ambitions were seriously derailed in the 1980s and 1990s as many of this generation of activist scholars were forced into exile abroad under the Moi dictatorship. Under this period, the university, which had been the heartbeat for student activism and a lively reimagining of the pursuit of scholarly knowledge in and for Africa (Amutabi 2002; Klopp and Orina 2002), became the subject of harsh crackdowns and a gutting of institutional capacity, racked by the double assault of structural adjustment programs and the Moi dictatorship. This period established the grounds for the figure of the entrepreneurial Kenyan that emerged in the 2000s with new president, technocrat Mwai Kibaki promising the rise of Kenya as a “world-class” technology leader. With new government openness to pursue the promises of technological progress, the 2010s marked Nairobi’s move towards becoming “Silicon Savannah,” a hub for technological innovation and the research-busy activities that accompany such a budding “knowledge economy.”
The lingering questions regarding knowledge production, circulation and use value for society however remained unanswered. By the time I returned for my fieldwork in 2019, almost 60 years after flag independence was achieved, the question of epistemic freedom and decolonization of knowledge was increasingly coming into public articulation again. Widespread critiques were being made within the Nairobi tech scene about the lack of impact of the billions of dollars invested in technology solutions, combined with growing calls of racism evinced by the uneven distribution of capital skewed to particular companies led by white expatriate immigrants. Coming off the “Technology-for-Development”high as Uhuru Kenyatta, the youngest son of the first President transitioned into a two-term presidency, many of the tech researchers I met were increasingly jaded and unsure about the “good” that their work was actually doing.
Literature in the anthropology of development has shown that when practitioners turn social problems into technical problems, they end up missing what is at stake (Li 2007; J. Ferguson 1990). My work adds to this argument to point to the ways that these technical problems (and the ways such problems are studied and “solved”) also contribute towards a fundamentally cyclical redundancy that is worth parsing out. A repetitive, cyclical nature of Development and its accompanying research points to a larger set of structural and social forces at play that are not just about making knowledge for social good. The conditions for “postcolonial objectivity” are laid by growing recognition that the current production of research in Nairobi is and has not been about developing insights “for social good,” even if it has been justified as such.Jaded researchers are increasingly realizing that the development research complex must produce the conditions necessary for it to continue to be a viable operation. Disenchantment with what research is or is not doing—as expressed by the “jaded researchers” I referred to above—may very well be an effect of misidentification with what research is supposed to do, by researchers themselves and subsequently, their research participants. “I have asked my research participants what they want to learn from my research, and they tell me they want a development project,” a tenured American university professor who works in a rural Kenyan community dejectedly told me. “It’s made me realize that the kind of relationships they want aren’t research relationships and the types of things that they want to benefit [from] and they want to come out of these projects are not things I can do. … Most of them are looking for some kind of development project that they can earn money from.”
There are deeply embedded assumptions that there is public good to be derived from research conducted in and on Africa. Peeling away the developmentalist language and looking at the longue durée of research in the country begins to reveal the capitalist logics underlying the conduct of research. This sits uncomfortably with promises of knowledge to improve life. Community-based research, especially, often sits at odds with the dynamics of the Development research complex within which it is often ensconced.
“Do you ever say there can’t be any intervention? Must there always be an intervention?” I asked Freeda, the Akamai qualitative research director one day towards the end of my fieldwork. “Hmmm, there almost always is. In the two years that I have been here, we’ve always had an intervention,” she replied. She twirled her curly hair absent-mindedly in thought. “What about if the issue is a structural one?” I probed. “Then we would say that in the report, but then do something like, ‘If that structural issue wasn’t there, then we would suggest this behavioral change,’” she explained. Her explanation matched what I had observed at Akamai, an assumption that there is always some sort of individualized behavior change that can be done.
Postcolonial objectivity is intentionally broad so as to include both those whose attempts to do research “otherwise” reproduces their own structural conditions and viability, as well as others that are more radically attempting to undo the industry. Without being naive about the structural conditions of the production of research, this dissertation pays attention to these hegemonies while also making space for figuring out what emergent, better forms of research could look like. Here I seek to balance the structure-agency dichotomy. As Ugandan intellectual Mahmood Mamdani has aptly written: “if our agency is structured and blunted by history, is it possible for us as historical subjects to recoup agency through an understanding of the nature of these structural constraints so we may reshape that very structure and rethink and remake the future?” (2021, 2). This dissertation is part of my own ongoing attempts to answer this question.
The details of a growing articulation of a need for decolonizing knowledge production in Kenya are specific and place based. But my return to the academy to better understand personal experiences of being “over-researched” led me to learn that similar questions regarding extractive knowledge practices have preoccupied many scholars in feminist and indigenous STS, development studies, and African studies across time and locations. Work by indigenous scholars like Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) have critiqued the persistent colonialism in academic teaching and research while African philosophers have identified the ways in which “Africa” has continued to be the site of “epistemic imperialism” (Nyamnjoh 2006; Mudimbe 1988), the site of postcolonial intervention and study. Amina Mama wrote in 2007 that “…we might choose to design engaged methodologies that set out to demystify, question, and perhaps challenge global hegemonies, or we might choose to remain dis-engaged and reject any such responsibility. This, I would argue, is an ethical choice,” (2007, 7). Mama’s framing marks a move from earlier regimes of objectivity, which scholars like Partha Chatterjee and Achille Mbembe have critiqued as “ …a certain rationality, claiming to be universal but in reality, mired in the contingent and the particular…” (2001, 8) towards what I am gesturing at with the notion of postcolonial objectivity.
Under a regime of postcolonial objectivity, scientists begin to recognize their own methodological choices are not solely informed by scientific choices but also moral choices, that is to say, to consider the implications of our identities, locations, and institutional affiliations, as well as the epistemological and methodological constraints and choices that inform such studies. This shifting frame of the ethical scientific self appears to be in part because of growing uptake of African critiques of inequities in knowledge production (both academic and in various publics); support and allies around the world for the Movement for Black Lives; and more public understandings of the ongoing effects of imperialism around the world.
A major shift today in discussions about decolonizing knowledge as compared to the 1960s is the incorporation of the question of the digital. With the rise of internet technologies, the “global” and “local” inextricably meld and converge in a broadening middle register. Nonetheless, questions of governance and who benefits from a digital global scientific knowledge commons need to be attuned to local histories, power asymmetries, structures of marginalization, and categories of difference. Digital scholarly knowledge and data, theoretically and materially, are designed to travel globally. But how such data and knowledge are made, accessed, and governed within specific places is important to pay attention to in attempting to tackle the question of what more decolonial knowledge practices could look like.
There has been a growing chorus of voices calling for the decolonization of research and the advancement of public interest technologies (see, e.g., The Nest Collective 2021; Roll 2021; Pailey 2019). People and organizations in Kenya—especially in Nairobi—have been particularly vocal and articulate, reaching to understand and enact what I call postcolonial objectivity. Here I draw together rich bodies of work in the history of science on how scientific objectivity “is a multifarious, mutable thing, capable of new meanings and new symbols,” (Daston and Galison 1992, 123) and postcolonial studies, which have demonstrated “decoloniality” is not only a political project but also an epistemological one: to delink from structures of knowledge imposed by the West, and then reconstitute ways of thinking, speaking, and living (Mignolo and Walsh 2018). As postcolonial objectivity came into focus as my object of analysis, I realized that reaching for postcolonial objectivity is a way to question and work out the types of knowledge, knowledge production practices, and knowledge infrastructure (social and technological) needed.
For some of my interlocutors, I found postcolonial objectivity was being pursued by aiming for greater African representation in scientific knowledge production; for others, postcolonial objectivity required more explicitly tying research activities to the everyday needs of those being studied. Across diverse approaches to pursuing postcolonial objectivity in Kenya, I found robust contextualization of knowledge to be a recurrent argument and goal of postcolonial objectivity. Through work over the last decade within Nairobi’s tech-for-good sector, followed by a year of ethnographic research within organizations in Nairobi’s research landscapes, I’ve traced the contours and edges of postcolonial objectivity in Kenya. In this dissertation, I describe key actors and what postcolonial objectivity looks like in practice, while also developing an analytic framework for understanding how postcolonial objectivity takes shape in different settings, in context-specific ways. Developing an analytic framework for drawing this out is a way to enact and demonstrate the potential of postcolonial objectivity in my own research practice. I’ve also worked to build supporting technical infrastructure, both to support the research and as an experimental space for collaborative effort to figure out what kinds of questions can be asked under postcolonial objectivity going forward.
“Finally! I am so glad someone is interviewing me!” Abena exclaimed to me during our first meeting. On that hot February morning, we did not know that we would end up meeting many more times over the course of my fieldwork year and that she would in fact become an active member of the RDS working group and a good friend. But in the first few minutes of meeting, Abena, a Kenyan woman who had worked for several years as a development research consultant, exclaimed how glad she was to be included in my research. “I am so tired of researching other people, I am glad to finally be telling someone about it.” When we did eventually have an “official” interview together, she would afterwards tell me it was cathartic.
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This vignette illustrates how those who became interlocutors and project collaborators—mostly researchers of different backgrounds—were drawn to my project for its “meta” or second-order quality. Most found my research to be unusual in its focus on the conduct of research in the country. In this section, I point to ways I am both entangled within the systems I study and, like my interlocutors, also reaching for postcolonial objectivity. I entered the field expecting to follow and thereby understand how qualitative research data was being produced in Nairobi. Positioning qualitative data as my object of study allowed me to work across diverse institutional types (libraries, archives, companies, individuals) since it was a legitimate object of concern shared by individuals and organizations working at various nodes within the Nairobi research landscape. I quickly learned that most if not all the researchers—from short-term field officers to upper-level management—were already familiar with critiques about certain populations in Kenya feeling “over-researched.” As a result of these critiques, all the organizations that I ended up working with were keen to understand how, if at all, they could better address the critiques.
But despite this shared interest in making more ethical qualitative data, something that I quickly observed during fieldwork was that there was an overall lack of established qualitative data sharing infrastructure. This was surprisingly true of both the well-resourced multi-national company as well as the small start-up. As a result, I offered to work alongside several research organizations to support them to begin developing their own organizational data archives as well as learn together about the kinds of infrastructures needed for more ethical research, reconfiguring my role as an ethnographer to include working with people to make things while also seeking to document and understand the processes at play.
Aware of the widespread lack of qualitative data archiving and sharing infrastructure in Nairobi research organizations, when I first learned about the Platform for Experimental and Collaborative Ethnography (PECE), I was quickly drawn to it. An open-source software platform built by ethnographers of science, I was particularly impressed by the explicit epistemological values embedded in its design. Using PECE enabled me to collaboratively play with ethnographic artifacts and conduct analysis at varying scales and with multiple layers of resolution. Thus, as my knowledge of PECE and its possibilities grew, I decided to develop my own instance of PECE, which I called “Research Data Share” (RDS). I conceptualized the development of the RDS qualitative data archive under three distinct rationales. First, I saw it as an elicitation device and grounds for collaborative discussion and engagement, imagining that the deliberations about the archive that I would have with those in the field would be a basis for my learning. Second, it was an attempt to produce something of value to informants and respond to the ethical questions about research fatigue that my project had started with. At the very least, I could give a transcript and/or audio recording from the research encounter back to my interlocutor. Third, I anticipated that key questions would emerge through my own process of building and studying that would be valuable.
By intentionally forming an ethnographic data platform to both study and use myself, I reconfigured my relationship with the topic as well as my relationship with interlocutors, enacting a new form of collaborative ethnography that took my own complicity in the structures of knowledge as a starting point for theorizing how researchers might better navigate, organize and re-mix existing collections of data. Focusing on an object—data—that resulted from but was not of the researcher/researched relationship opened up discussions beyond critique and set in motion a new set of social relations to study. It also situated me squarely as a participant in the production of the very things I was studying.
Prior to the start of my fieldwork, in addition to establishing the technical platform itself, I also developed textual devices for the relational infrastructure of qualitative data sharing. Inspired by the work of Max Liboiron and collaborators (2018) and Cath Traynor and collaborators (2019), I developed two draft working documents—a data circulation form (Okune 2019b) and a collaboration agreement (Okune 2019a)—to reflect my current thinking and also with which to continue to think. After sharing the collaboration agreement with the three research groups within the first few months of fieldwork (January through March 2019), I was given access to a variety of qualitative data, especially digital transcripts of one-on-one interviews and group discussions; photographs; coded summaries of data; final reports; and interview guides. Of this data, I selected one sample from each of the three organizations, anonymized the text (if it was not already), and uploaded it to the RDS platform with any available context as meta-data. I then used this data sample as an elicitation device for initial interviews (Okune 2019c). I found the exercise helpful to ground what can often end up as an abstract conversation about what is ethical research.
In addition to one-on-one interviews with individual researchers including American academics, Kenyan academics, Kenyan research staff and consultants, and research business management and founders, I conducted nine months of participant observation at the offices of Nyagaard Research, Akamai Research, SDI, and in the Kenyan National Archives. I established particular days of the week where I worked out of each of the different sites and then adjusted my schedule based on the various activities taking place in any given week. Through these interactions, I set out to understand how research data was being made in diverse ways and where opportunities for collaboration and sharing might be. I learned that investment of time and money were front-loaded in data processes, with heavy investment in the design and collection of data, and little to no care for data analysis and storage. STS scholars Estrid Sørensen and Laura Kocksch have introduced the concept of data durability, that is, “the period in which scientific data can operate in a socio-technical apparatus and uphold their capacity to make claims about the world,” (2021, 13). Their notion of data durability draws attention to durability as an achieved quality of data rather than one inherent in data. I found that across the Nairobi research landscape, few if any of the organizations were working to make their data durable.
As part of my fieldwork, I also conducted a landscape analysis and initial mapping of the various archives and libraries available in Nairobi and through this work came to collaborate with Book Bunk, and Ukombozi Library. Towards the conclusion of my fieldwork, I co-organized a public event entitled “Archiving Kenya’s Past and Future: Management, Access and Responsibilities of Open Data and Collective Knowledge Production” at one of the oldest libraries in Kenya. The event laid the groundwork for what would turn into three collaboratively written dissertation chapters: Leo Mutuku, co-author of Chapter 2 was my event’s co-host; Syokau Mutonga, co-author of Chapter 4 was a panel speaker at the event; and at the conclusion of the day-long event, the Research Data Share KE working group (which co-authored Chapter 6) was formed to continue the discussion that had started.
Returning to my desk in Richmond, California in January 2020 after a year of fieldwork, I began to sort through the variety of data I had collected: extensive field notes from 12 months of fieldwork from 2017 and 2019; interview data; photos; organizational data shared with me; multimedia artifacts; and physical and digital research reports and newspapers. After organizing these materials around an initial scalar set of analytic questions, I began to write out some of the initial arguments that were emerging. As I wrote, I also went back to the literature for guidance as I tried to interpret and understand what is transpiring in Nairobi. While closely examining the variety of materials I had on hand, I developed another set of analytics that were more granular to the text. A last analytic set emerged as the frame of the dissertation began to stabilize. This set was used to query how different actors in Nairobi are attempting more decolonial knowledge practices.
“I think we talk more frequently now than we even did when I was in Nairobi!” I half-jokingly laugh to Syokau, co-author of chapter 4, during one of our weekly writing calls. “We definitely do,” she agreed, “Nairobi is just too busy.”
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The idea of co-authoring parts of my dissertation offered a way to extend what had already become a process of collaborative learning, with people I had met through fieldwork or even earlier engagements. Research-busy Nairobi often feels too frantic for collaborations that exist outside of funded project formations, with barely enough time to finish consultancy projects, let alone find time to work on exploratory, unfunded, and undefined projects together. But I found something important about collaborative writing where co-authors and I met not as interviewer and interviewee, or researcher/researched but as friends, former colleagues, co-authors, and collaborators.
Co-authoring the chapters shifted the stakes and further deepened my relationships with interlocutors, who were now enrolled in the project as co-authors. After a first draft was developed based on multiple virtual discussions (drafted in a google doc where all members had editing privileges), we had additional conversations about the draft and further edits were made. Here recursivity hit the digital pavement as the lines between speaker, interlocutor, author, and expert blurred. Regularly scheduled virtual meetings over nearly nine months of the writing process allowed us as co-authors to express “this is where I am speaking from and why I understood it this way, what do you think?” which facilitated deeper understanding of perspectives. Through such processes, both in the field and post-field, I learned that collaborating, on data and on writing, not only refreshes the social contract of qualitative work, it can also enhance the robustness and validity of the knowledge produced. Through such on-going processes undergirded by investments in and a commitment to the relationship, ethnography is made more robust, increasing not only its ethical validity (by increasing researcher accountability and representations of those we engage with), but also strengthening its research validity. This is a marker of what I describe as postcolonial objectivity, a variegated process through which knowledge is developed, evaluated, legitimated, and used in postcolonial contexts.