By Eric Goldscheider
Photos by: Betsy Charron*
Tulane graduate students are reaping the benefits of having a base of operations and a network of contacts in Kenya. Last summer Erin Peacock, who had served in the Peace Corps in Tanzania and speaks fluent Swahili, came to Kenya to conduct pre-dissertation research. Her proposed project considers how faith influences the decisions people in low-income and subsistence households make around healthcare. The research will involve looking at choices around such things as whether to seek modern as opposed to traditional health remedies and will extend to broader concerns about how belief affects healing.
“There are a lot of questions to explore,” said Peacock in a telephone interview from Siaya District in the southwestern region of the country near Lake Victoria. “Religion impacts people’s risk assessments. Religious communities can mobilize people to advocate for heath care, and they provide social support systems.”
Peacock notes that independent churches “have popped up all over the place.” These have splintered off from mainline Christian churches and are themselves splintering off further from each other. “I am interested in how social support systems are changing as the churches become more fractured,” she said. “Some of the literature I am reading is about religious coping and people turning to religion to cope with situations in their lives.” When she returns to New Orleans, Peacock will defend a prospectus of the research she plans to conduct as the final requirement for her Ph.D.
Peacock, who earned her MPH from the University of Arizona, chose Tulane for her terminal degree in large measure because of faculty like Kate Macintyre and Associate Professor Laura Murphy. Murphy is officially based in Louisiana but spends much of the year in Kenya. Murphy’s interest in the social impact of AIDS, the interplay between technology and society, and the intersection of population, the environment, and development has taken her to Indonesia, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In recent years she has built a working relationship with a Nairobi-based nongovernmental organization called the Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH). The executive director, Mary Ann Burris, is an adjunct faculty in the department of International Health and Development at Tulane.
Murphy introduced Peacock to TICAH where she was able to assist in conducting a scientific survey of household spending on traditional medicines which led to the area where Peacock eventually plans to do her dissertation research. Murphy’s connections to TICAH have also been fruitful to master’s students Betsy Charron and Cate Irvin, both of whom worked with TICAH last summer to fulfill their practicum requirement.
Charron’s undergraduate and work experience is as a photojournalist and commercial photographer. She came to her interest in public health by volunteering in an HIV clinic in Atlanta and is now considering a doctorate that combines anthropology with health policy. Her work in Kenya involved interviewing nearly 100 people about their attitudes and practices surrounding traditional medicine; then compiling eight of these stories together with photographs in a self-published storybook entitled “Valuing Health, Honoring Tradition.” Her qualitative research on individual stories gives depth and texture to the survey research TICAH is undertaking. “This was such a wonderful learning experience for me. I learned what research was all about and to work with people of different cultures,” said Charron, adding, “I didn’t really understand and appreciate the coursework I did last year until I had this real-world experience.”
Irvin did her work in a slum neighborhood called Viwandani near Nairobi’s industrial area. She focused on the use of urban agriculture and kitchen gardens not only as a way in which people grow a little extra food but also to see how they contribute to building community and enhancing the quality of life. A class Murphy teaches on population and environment sparked her interested in the topic. Irvin employed a young artist and community activist who grew up in Viwandani as an informant who helped her identify people to interview. He also provided translation services when language barriers arose.
Life in a Nairobi slum is not easy. The passageways in Viwandani are narrow and many of the abodes are constructed out of castoff materials such as rusted sheets of corrugated iron nailed to poles that are planted in the ground or lashed together to create a roof structure. The paths are strewn with garbage and, in some areas, human excrement. There is no plumbing and residents have to pay to use poorly maintained outhouses. Water for drinking and household use is sold from public taps.
Irvin’s strategy was to identify small plots where food crops were being grown, sometimes in what are called “sack gardens.” These are nylon or burlap gunnysacks in which a pile of stones is used to create a small tower in the center. It is then filled with dirt. Seeds – usually kale or spinach – are planted in holes that are cut into the sack around the periphery. If done successfully, these can become little columns of edible greens that don’t require a great deal of acreage.
Irvin asks the people she interviews about their personal histories, relating those to questions about how and why they chose to raise crops, often in alleyways or in small patches of dirt alongside their abodes. The intrinsic value of these inquires, said Irvin, is as data for anti-poverty groups working in some of the poorest communities. “If you don’t know the main challenges that are being faced and you don’t know your population, it is very hard to create a program that is going to serve them.”
* MPH student Betsy Charron used her background in photojournalism and commercial photography to augment her practicum, which she completed in Kenya over the summer.