I wouldn’t have thought that I would be able to go to Kenya after having my internship switched to virtual with the arrival of COVID-19 back in 2020. I give much credit to my virtual internship with the Center of International Forestry Research (CIFOR) for preparing me and showing me what it’s like to work and communicate in a global setting. By the time I arrived to Kenya and had my placement work started, I was able to take what I learned from my virtual internship and apply it in the setting I was supposed to back in 2020. Now that I have come in person to Nairobi, Kenya; I have been given the opportunity to absorb my physical surroundings and the rich cultures of Kenya. I can walk around and see everything myself, taste the foods, speak with locals, hear their stories and build meaningful connections.

Dawa, a foundational drink of Kenya that I have come to love. Check out my post on this humble drink here

With the effects of the pandemic, we’re now seeing many lifestyles enter a hybrid format where sometimes, one works in person and other times, from home. From this opportunity, I have now experienced both the virtual and non-virtual global working environment. With my placements with UN-Habitat and University of Nairobi, I have learned things that I couldn’t have if done virtually. You can’t replicate the feeling of entering an informal settlement for the first time through a screen. You can’t replicate the feeling of seeing and engaging with the youth in Mathare through a screen. You can’t replicate having to march into multiple campus buildings eventually leading you off campus to a hospital to find out who, what, where and how ethics application works in Kenya through a screen. A goose-chase to print and apply for ethics; realize they have been rejected the same day, run to the printing building, re-write and print everything then rush back to the building finding that everyone had left for the day except for a poor lady about to leave which we begged to stayed and look over our application for us. You can’t replicate running down a few blocks to a kiosk with 50 shillings in your pocket on a Monday to buy some cake for the kind woman as thanks for holding her back from her weekend. These are the small but big things that make this experience an impactful one.

Ethics applications had to be done physically; each including everything from the proposal to ethics protocol all binded. Over 200 pages were printed and reviewed to come to the accepted 75 pages in this photo (Lin, 2022)

In terms of the personal in-Kenya experience; I’ve had to address and recognize my positionality as I enter a new place with its own social and cultural views impacted by history and globalization. I’ve noticed on multiple occasions that many Kenyans perceive me differently as an East Asian compared to White and Brown people. It was during a conversation I was having with Cobby and Emmanuel Jr. about Kenyan and Tanzanian perceptions on certain races where they both agreed that Chinese have the most negative perception compared to White people and Indians. While I understand that not every person thinks that way, but there is the general perception of it that I have to acknowledge that exists. This roots on the past few years of China’s presence in Kenya. Kimari (2021) dissects the perceptions and situation between China and its influence on Kenya and its people. Much of it leads to a complicated feeling towards the Chinese which I have found myself experiencing firsthand.

I constantly experienced an odd divide between people perceiving me as a wealthy tourist or a rude Chinese living here exploiting the economy. It is a very weird feeling where half the time I experience a lot of privilege and the other half I am being silently negatively profiled by people until they speak with me. With this in mind, I’ve tried to position myself to be more engaging and talkative to those I come across to break barriers and negative perceptions. 

On the side of privilege, I’ve noticed my access to networks and people of higher-class levels than the general population. It’s hard to say how I feel about it as it’s a great opportunity but at the same time it can lead to a sense of main character syndrome in someone, where the moment of coming here, people notice you, they think you’re amazing/skilled or capable and want to connect with you simply because of your skin colour. I find it important to balance between being grateful for the opportunity to be able to access these networks but at the same time keep in mind of the reality that I’m not all of a sudden, a hero or superior by being here. On the other side, I have found myself constantly trying to prove myself to locals against negative stereotypes that have come up more recently that unfortunately exist.

It is definitely a privilege to be able to access the networks I have which I am eternally grateful for. How is it, other than privilege that a Canadian is allowed to come to the UN and work on research that people in Kenya may know better. (Lin, 2022)

Looking at development is always a complex kaleidoscope of emotions that one can’t say is entirely positive nor entirely negative. It is never a simple matter in establishing a sided opinion when it comes to urban development, nor do I think it should be simple or one-sided. The movement and migration of people is something that has always happened back to ancient civilizations. We cannot condemn the movement and migration of people as it happens everywhere and occurs under different circumstances and contexts. In the case of Nairobi, we see how the colonists shaped the city of Nairobi (Enns, 2022) where it almost portrays a small-scale version of the World Systems theory (Sorinel, 2010) of core and peripheral countries. While wealthy migrants and expats live in better areas of Nairobi(core), locals are segregated and must work hard to make a living while the those in the core profit higher from those in the peripheral. I understand this is not the case for everyone living in Nairobi, but in general, it somewhat concerningly portrays that.

Panorama of Mathare. While we aren’t even local, we have the privilege to access local social networks and resources many locals can’t. This makes you think about your positionality as a foreigner in Kenya. (Lin, 2022)

Development in a time a globalization can be complex with several local, national and international factors. It is something to take into consideration of when approaching urban planning on the effects of capitalism and globalization where there are local needs and international interests. This is something that was studied as well in the case of Pudong, Shanghai China where it was noted how globalization brings in various ideologies rooted from different histories and cultures in which these dimensions will influence and impact the development of a globalized city (Chen, 2007). Nairobi is heavily influenced by migrants and the external forces of globalization. There are many people both locally and globally attracted to the opportunities to cities like Nairobi which will bring in strong waves of forces, influencing its development for the good and bad as we see with the impacts of colonialism.

Source: https://committees.uflib.ufl.edu/committees/deij/

In the more recent years, the term JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) has come up in urban planning (Thompson, 2022). While I am against applying a framework to all situations; pursuing justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in the urban planning is something that a place can apply its context into these to create goals and guidelines that work for them. The realist in me thinks that it’s hopeless in the environment of Nairobi with its fast-paced uncontrollable development from migrants constantly moving in and out doing their own thing to try and work together towards a city that promotes justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. The idealist in me hopes and dreams for a better future for those living in Nairobi frameworks like JEDI are being used to develop a city for the people, not for personal profit.  

Being present at the focus groups with the South Sudanese refugees/migrants showed another perspective of positionality, where they identified themselves as their own person or South Sudanese or even Kenyan, not just a refugee and refused to position themselves in a way that appealed to the stereotypical look of a refugee. It was empowering to see them embrace their identity and own positionality through hardships and suffering and maintain their pride and identity even with the restrains being put on them. This can be a theme seen across refugees living in urban and high-income areas where their agency is restricted and they aren’t able to pursue their full potential due to these restrictions (Gingell, 2022). This was actively voiced during the focus groups held for the MiFood project and seems to be a recurring problem for refugees and food security, as seen in Gingell’s (2022) article.

Those living in Kenya from the “expats” to locals to refugees have painted a complex picture of the country for me. From doing work for my placements to simply experiencing Kenya. I have come to really appreciate the country. It has its own complications like any other country with informal settlements, corruption, and transitions in security; but it also has a beautiful culture, beautiful people and beautiful environment. I’ve made many meaningful connections and learned much during my time in Kenya. Huge thanks to Dr. Cherie Enns and the QES program for making something like this possible for students like me.

Abbey is a student at the University of the Fraser Valley studying Global Development. Previously she had the honour to do a virtual internship in 2020 with the Centre of International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her physical placements in Nairobi, Kenya included the assisting on the MiFood project regarding food security and COVID-19 for South Sudanese refugees living in urban areas of Kenya led by Dr. Cherie Enns and Dr. Samuel Owuor. The other placement at UN-Habitat included working on the data analysis on research on youth organizations in the informal settlement, Mathare.

My QES posts: https://instagram.com/abbeyqes?igshid=Zjc2ZTc4Nzk=


Enns, C. (2022). Sustainable community design amidst social challenges: Insights from Nairobi, Kenya. In Finger, M., & Yanar, N. (Eds.). (2022). The elgar companion to urban infrastructure governance: Innovation, concepts and cases. (pp. 87-108) Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Chen, Y., & Technische Universiteit Delft. (2007). Shanghai Pudong: Urban development in an era of global-local interaction. IOS Press.

Gingell, T., Murray, K., Correa-Velez, I., & Gallegos, D. (2022). Determinants of food security among people from refugee backgrounds resettled in high-income countries: A systematic review and thematic synthesis. PLoS ONE, 17(6), 1–29.

Helene Charton-Bigot, & Deyssi Rodriguez-Torres. (2010). Nairobi today: The paradox of a fragmented city. Mkuki Na Nyota Publishers.

Kimari, W. (2021). “Under construction”: everyday anxieties and the proliferating social meanings of China in Kenya. Africa, 91(1), 135. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0001972020000996

Sorinel, C. (2010). Immanuel Wallerstein’s World System Theory. Annals of the University of Oradea, Economic Science Series, 19(2), 220–224. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=bth&AN=65287264&site=eds-live&custid=s5672269

Thompson-Tan, S. (2022). Breakdowns and Breakthroughs of Intercultural JEDI Work in a Non- Profit Global Organisation. AI Practitioner, 24(4), 18–24. https://doi.org/10.12781/978-1-907549-53-3-4

Vallet, M. E., Frankenberger, T. R., Presnall, C., Otieno, L., Fu, C., & Lee, E. (2021). Where are the development actors in protracted crises? Refugee livelihood and food security outcomes in South Sudan demonstrate the potential for fragile settings. World Development Perspectives, 24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wdp.2021.100366

Leave a comment