Under the Hot Sun

Today, we managed to talk to five jua kali along the main drag that passes by the Ivory Hotel. We had always seen them working while on our way into Nyeri, welding torches glowing or hammers flying. Talking to them in person, combined with a couple other resources, helped illuminate what was previously a mystery to us: who are these jua kali, and how did they get to where they were? We can point you to a paper (Fallacies in Policy and Strategies of Skills Training for the Informal Sector: evidence from the Jua Kali sector in Kenya) and an online book (Making Do) for more info on the jua kali, but more info on what we found will come a little later.

Stay tuned!

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They See Me Rollin’…

So, rapid update in plans: tomorrow we see the juakali (craftsmen in fields like metalworking, carpentry, etc.). It’ll be a long day, starting at 8 and running to some unspecified time. We’re hoping to talk to at least five shops, in the pursuit of their perspective on how the juakali system works, our connectors, and the innovation space model. As a subset of Kenyan society already well-versed on the challenges of making in this kind of environment, knowledge of their situation, their journey, and their opinions could prove to be invaluable. Expect some interesting updates tomorrow.

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Steady As She Goes

Another slow day at the Ivory (with a brief stint at the CYEC). Our goal is to have everything nice and organized by tomorrow, so that will be great to finally present to Khanjan.


It’s hard to believe it’s almost over. Stay tuned for the final few updates!

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Back to School

Today, we went to Temple Primary school. We prepared for it by buying soda from the soda wholesaler, and then we bought some bread. We had three teams come in, the first two of 5 boys, 5 girls, and the last of 5 boys and 3 girls. After we did this activity, we all went home and crashed.

The school itself was actually pretty gorgeous. It has the similar layout to the CYEC, though much better kept. All of the students were in uniform, something I had experienced first-hand in the States. It didn’t quite work as well here, however, since there were still obvious indicators of income (one of the main purposes of a uniform in my mind).

The activity went well from our perspective. The students seemed engaged in the activity (even though they were staying even longer at school… on a Saturday), and it was fantastic to have some more data on exclusively female groups. The main takeaway from the activities was, once again, the importance of fun when it comes to being creative. There was one female group that, by my standards, had a particularly overbearing leader. She was calling most of the shots, made sure everything was organized to the t, and seemed to be directing the group without much consideration for others’ ideas (it’s a little hard for me to say this with much conviction since most of the conversation was in another language). But there was this one girl, who decided to kinda do her own thing, and began simply playing around with the connectors she had before her. Eventually, she created something that made her laugh, which she showed to the rest of the group, jokingly. But that small act of play made all the difference. Up until that point the group had been struggling with coming up with any ideas for what to build, and their one major attempt was scrapped due to geometric issues. Even though we only have one documented creation after this point, the change in attitude of the group was remarkable. Soon, the other group members were creating their own versions of what the first girl had made, and they all finally started to look like they were having a good time. The other, more complicated, side to this particular example was the fact that the creation we documented from that group was actually the variation the leader made on the first girl’s creation. We’re constantly re-evaluating our research methodology as we’re going through this, so to me this indicates a glaring, yet revealing, flaw. How many other creations have we misattributed to the “leader” of the group? How many creations have we missed, simply because play was squelched by the “vision” of the most influential group member? One of the potential directions we could go with this project in the future is supplementing the hand-written notes with video, which would allow us to revisit the activity over and over again, revealing new insights with each fresh viewing that we may have missed in the moment. Video has been a tool used by designers for a long time, and it’s a tool that could benefit us greatly as well.

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A Coral Reef of People

More compiling of data today, though we did have a brief stint into Nyeri a little after lunch. The town itself is actually quite a bit larger than I was lead to believe: the streets are teeming with people, especially on a Friday afternoon. There’s the familiar developing-country craziness and buzz of the all voices of locals chatting with each other, punctuated by the occasional call from a matatu conductor or street vendor. Unlike other places I’ve been, things tend to be a lot less aggressive here, especially when it comes to the markets. I’ve been places where people will come up and grab you by the arm before yanking you into their shop, but I’ve found that there’s a cultural disposition towards letting things go. That mizungu didn’t bother to buy anything from the shop you own? Not a big deal. Taxi driver almost run you over while crossing the street? Hakuna matata. Still, I can’t help but feel alert whenever I walk through the crowded avenues and alleyways. When you don’t speak the language of the place you’re in, your best strategy for avoiding trouble is to look as inapproachable as possible. Don’t respond to people calling to you in English, look straight ahead, scowl, and move quickly and purposefully. That small piece of advice has been crucial to me in my many travels, and so far it’s worked just as well here.

Tomorrow, we’ve got our last currently scheduled session with a local primary school – Temple Primary – where Peter used to go to school.

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Progress and Focus

Today consisted entirely of compiling the data we’ve gathered thus far. The current count: 68 total participants (46 of which we can use for the final paper we would like to publish), around 8 hours of data collection, and roughly 30 different creations from our teams. Weirdly though, that seems like a far fewer amount than I would have expected, given how tired we are at the moment.

Something that’s become apparent through this whole experience, something that wasn’t obvious at all going into it, is just how exhausting simply paying attention can be. I wouldn’t have thought sitting in a chair all day, watching groups of students come in and play with a bunch of pipes and metal rods, and writing what they’re doing down in a notebook would take all of the energy I have, but I’ve come to realize that will-power is an exhaustible resource. On some level, I’m a little grateful that the last day of tests at the YMCA fell through: I could tell that my notes were becoming increasing sloppy, and I think my teammates would agree that we all needed a little bit of a break.


Even without the extra sessions, the iSPACES project is still managing to test our focus. In particular, transcribing the audio from the focus groups is a challenge; the mixture of Swahili and English, the poor recording environment, and the lack of quiet spaces for us to work on the transcripts together is what makes it difficult. But it also highlights the importance of having people you can depend on when tackling things like this. Working as a team, we can catch each others’ mistakes, push each other to keep going, and lighten the mood when things get tedious or frustrating. I’ve seen the value of teams emerge several times while watching the Kenyan students work with our connectors, but there are lessons about teamwork I still need to discover from my own group.

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I think all of our participants were afraid they would melt in the rain. In conclusion, we had zero participants in our study today. Luckily, the people at the YMCA are very understanding and we did not have any monetary losses. We will make up for this loss of a day by having a session next week at the the YMCA. We are still working hard to compile our data from the past four days of sessions and discover trends in how different people build Tomorrow will be spent at the Ivory working on compiling our data some more. Today dinner was amazing thanks to Chef Khanjan.

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We’re short on shorts

Today once again we worked out of the YMCA. We got twenty-six people total which was a pretty good turn out. We did run into the problem of having sessions over-booked but people were pretty cooperative and some would wait for about an hour and a half to come in and do their session. Working with our two recruiters for this session has turned out more helpful than trying to get people to attend on our own. So overall we had a great turn-out totaling twenty-six people and collected some interesting data. Tomorrow we plan to have four sessions at the YMCA with thirty-two students total and hopefully getting more females in the study to better compare our data.

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Nipe Mabawa

What happened today? I can’t speak too much on the first session, as I went to go get copies of the consent form, but apparently the first group was nothing to get too excited about, even though it was our only 1-hour session of the day. The second and third groups came simultaneously, so we had to push one of them off for a short amount of time while we did a condensed version of the normal activity. It worked out fine, especially since we got a total of 20 people today, but with such a short amount of time it tends to feel a lot more rushed than it needs to be or should be. In our tests, we found that 45 minutes was about the time that groups feel like they hit the first “wall” with their creativity (think “runner’s wall”). That’s the moment that they have to really stretch, and we get to see some of the most different, creative, and sometimes desperate inventions of all. Anything shorter than 45, and you tend to get similar things: chairs, cars, beds, houses, and so on. But today was kind of a “you gotta do what you gotta do” kind of days, and everyone was feeling a little under the weather anyway.

The most exciting part of the day for me, personally, was hearing one of the participants fully express the purpose of our project without telling her anything about it beforehand. When asked about whether she felt she could start a business with these connectors, she said that she could imagine how a carpenter might use this, such as when he’d have to make a chair. The customer doesn’t want a chair that they didn’t envision, and the carpenter doesn’t want to waste the time and resources on something that ultimately won’t be bought or returned, so the carpenter can use something like the connectors to “build a model” [read: prototype] so that the carpenter can show how he interpreted what the customer said they wanted. It was a completely unexpected, but brilliant example of what we pitched to the class almost a month ago.

More updates and, hopefully, more progress tomorrow.

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Hey look! It’s a tree!

Sorry for the delay in blogs, the time before we left for a trip this weekend was a little crazy – but more on that later.

Friday was another interesting day of observation. Just like the day before, we got about half of the number of signups we wanted, but the density of information still made it productive. Of course, there was some improvising to be done: the people who were supposed to show up at 8:30 didn’t get there until about 10:30, and there were some people who even showed up at 10:45/11:00. We just played things by ear – we shortened the normal building time from one hour to a half hour, and we let people hop in and build as soon as they arrived. While definitely not kosher when it comes to the IRB, it gave us our first religious symbol, and it was the first time we attempted to pass around our recording mic.


Then, Peter hooked us up with some of his friends for an unplanned second session, our first all boys, all girls even-numbered competition. We still have a lot of data to dig through with that session in particular, but one of the things we have to determine is what correlation there is between gender, values, and creativity in Nyeri – this is something that I believe we will at least catch a glimpse of before our time here. After all of our last group failed to show, met up wiith a local school called Temple Primary to set up an event next weekend for younger students to go to.


Almost immediately after that, we had to start preparing for our trip to Samburu National Park. “What for,” you ask? To go on safari! The trip was excellent, we spent the days going on what are called “game trips” whose sole purpose is to enjoy the landscape and spot animals, which we saw quite a bit of: giraffes, elephants, lion and even a cheetah. The single night we stayed there was spent eating, drinking, singing and generally having a good time. It was the perfect break from our first week of stressful observation, and I’d say that we feel ready to tackle whatever we have ahead now.


So, what’s next? We’ll have more people ready for tomorrow, it’ll be pretty much the same old, same old, except we’ll be trying to be more stringent with regards to our IRB protocol. That means: only two groups at a time, no late entrants after the activity has started, and more stringent following of the consent form procedure.



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