DirtPol's blog posts for January 2015

A Cup of Tea with Milk in Downtown Cairo — Introducing our Data Management Assistant, Hadeer El Shafie

Jan

30

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 Cities are like us: They have moods. This is how I’ve always experienced Cairo. I have had the privilege to spend the majority of my childhood years in Cairo, with many, many days spent with my Grandmother, who back then, lived just three kilometres away from Tahrir Square.

When I spent the nights over with Mama Laila, I followed her routine. Every morning, we got up to do a little bit of exercise, followed by a very indulging Chai-Latte making in the kitchen, which we sipped in the veranda. On the stove, Mama Laila boiled water, added about half a spoon of gunpowder black tea. Then, she slowly added fresh milk. “This is the right colour”, said Mama Laila with the teaspoon in her hand. “Slightly dark cream colour. Add the sugar only at the end”.

The distance between the kitchen and the veranda was about 10 meters, but those ten meters marked the mental and emotional separation between the private and the public. From the veranda I could see life happening in the street. Cairo was pumping with life. Honks, school busses parking second rows, passers-by, street vendors, postman wearing his sweaty cap and bending forward with a bulgy duffle bag full of white and brown envelopes, “look, that envelope has the same colour as our tea!”. I always confirmed my milk-tea knowledge to Mama Laila whenever I had the chance. Day after the other, month after the other, this very veranda became my window to city life. From the veranda in my house, I sat there in salience next to Mama Laila and slowly merged into the life in the street.

Everyday, Cairo worked very hard to keep her dwellers, residents, homeless, and hope-seekers alive. She carried all the weight of the asphalt, the concrete, and the much lighter weight of the soil in public parks. She felt the rubber of the wheels too. Some went so fast like cars and busses, others went slowly like bicycles. But I could imagine, for Cairo, nothing felt like the footsteps of all the people wandering in the city.

Cairo heard all the noise, but she only listened to the brief silence every morning when the thin line of sunlight broke the dark skies. It was then that Cairo was able to take a deep breath.

Every day, Cairo experienced a cacophony of aromas: garlic-infused fava beans, the falafel, the rose scented waters in the fridges, and the incense in the Churches and Mosques, and indeed, the dust and the exhaust.

Cairo was alive. The city was pulsating with life. Everything and everyone in it was part of its ecology. 

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I did not know that those precious times I spent with my Grandmother would later materialise into an academic career. Everything in the city became an object of interest: the crowds, the walls, the doorways, the parks, the buildings, the squares, the cars, the Nile, the bridges, and well, dustbins!

Today, I study the dynamics of citizen action in urban contexts. I am interested in how the urban form and citizen action interact. I am especially interested in environmental issues and in what urban societies do in order to improve their environments. How do people perceive of concepts like the environment, cleanliness and nature? How do societies construct their understanding of environmental issues, and how do they create moments when they share a common understanding of a problem? How does this impact their choice of action? Are these social and cultural constructions of environmentalism fluid? Do they change or mutate and why? Do forms of citizen action around single issues evolve over time? What does this tell us about the city as an organic space in which politics and policies unfold? 

After all, cities are the constructions of our imaginations. The experience I had with my Grandmother during my childhood cannot be separated from the way I see Cairo today. I can tell, how over the years, Cairo moved through different phases, or perhaps, moods. In the city, each of us experiences a fluid self that changes and can be changed by the mood of the city we live in.

Hadeer

About the author: Hadeer El Shafie is a new member of the DirtPol team and she will be working with us on managing our increasing archive of collected data. Hadeer is of Egyptian heritage and is currently a PhD student in IDS, already having carried out research in rural and urban Egypt.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex. For more information please visit the DirtPol website.

Follow DirtPol on Twitter:@ProjectDirtPol

‘IT’S NOW MY TURN!’: ETHICAL CHALLENGES IN FOCUS GROUP DISCUSSION (FGD) ENVIRONMENTS by Anne Kirori

Jan

05

During one of my many field visits to XXX School in Nairobi, I had an interesting experience. I thought it better to share and get opinions from the others who get a chance to read this. As part of a data collection exercise for the DirtPol Research Project, a focus group discussion was scheduled to take place […] at the school bus park. This focus group discussion was pre–planned and the different participants were expecting me at 9am on a Monday morning. I prepared well and at 8:30am I walked into the school and was received by A., the leader of the sub-ordinate staff. A. was the one who had organized the FGD and he was pleased to tell me that the participants were ready and eager to start. I thanked him and went ahead to greet the 15 members who had been gathered in one of the school buses for the FGD. I informed the participants that we would start in 10 minutes time and this gave me some time to relax, reflect and go through my topic guide just to refresh my memories. I noticed that all my participants in the interview were male. This did not bother me but I knew it would be a memorable one because it was the first FGD that I had done that was male–dominated.

10 minutes later I walked into the bus and was shown where to sit. This was at the front of the bus. A crate of soda which was turned upside –down was my seat. There was total silence as my participants looked at me waiting for what I would say. Once seated I greeted them warmly. I could sense the tension in the room. Everyone did not know what to expect including myself. I looked at all the participants and observed that they were from different age groups. Their age ranged from 25 – 60 years. We had a round of introductions which was done by A. who then handed the ball back to me. I took this opportunity to explain to them briefly about the DirtPol Project and the reason why we were gathered there. Most of them acknowledged to have seen me in the school for several months now. I went ahead to seek their voluntary informed consent to have the group discussion recorded. A. also informed me that he had briefed them earlier on about being recorded and they were okay with it.

I started the discussion going by asking them their opinion about Ebola disease. This was an issue that was being aired on media frequently for the past weeks. This set the discussion going and as we progressed other topics such as foods & eating habits, housing, politics, house chores, cleaning practices, occupation, lifestyles, culture, city life and challenges were discussed. 30 minutes later, one of the participants excused himself and went out. He was replaced by a new member 3 minutes later just as I was starting a discussion on cleaning practices. The new member fitted into the discussion very well and provided very useful insights together with the others. I did not mind since the change did not affect the flow at all. 10 minutes later, another member went out and just as in the first case was replaced by another new member. The discussion continued. This second new member was talkative and would motivate the quiet ones to talk as well. He seemed to have the energy and influence on the others. This trend of participants walking out and being immediately replaced by some ‘new’ others went on throughout the 3 hour session. By the end of the discussion, I had 14 new members, different from the ones I started with. The only constant participant was A. who was my contact person and was responsible for organizing the entire FGD. The number of members remained 15. I was amazed at this turn of events and also by the fact that the constant turn-over of participants did not affect the quality of data (but see Comment on Ethics, below).

At the end of the session everyone seemed happy and wanted to take part in a similar exercise next time. I ended the discussion and promised to be back. Once everyone was gone, I called A. aside in an effort to understand how the ‘turn-over FGD’ came to be. A. seemed disappointed in his people and could not also understand how it happened. According to him, the sub–ordinate staff in XXX School are 40 in number and he had randomly selected 15 of them to participate in the FGD. He struggled to understand how 14 new members got involved. I told him not to worry, thanked him for the effort to organize the group and went away. I took time in the evening to listen to the interview once more while and later reflected on the day. I only came to one conclusion that more than 15 sub-ordinate staff wanted to be involved in the FGD but since their leader, A. only selected 15 of them, the rest decided to come up with a plan of getting involved. This plan had to be implemented in collaboration with the selected sample. The aim was to ensure the sample size remained as 15 while at the same time ensuring that 30 participants got a chance to get involved. It worked!! Everyone was happy and I collected my data. My conclusion is just an assumption and I could be wrong. The big question remains. “Is this type of methodology acceptable in modern research?”

About the author: Anne Kirori is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in education and schools.  Anne's based in Nairobi, is 26 years old and fluent in Kiswahili, English and German.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex.  For more information please visit the DirtPol website.

Follow DirtPol on Twitter: @ProjectDirtPol