A research journey that brought power theories to life: Lessons from Korogocho, Kenya

Maria M. Muthoki, Veronicah Mwania and Beate Ringwald report back on the Korogocho ALIV[H]E study which involved four researchers (three Kenyans and one European) and eleven community co-researchers from Korogocho. A participatory research journey that brought power theories to life and changed all who worked on it.

From August 2020 to July 2021, we met community co-researchers every week, developed study tools, conducted interviews and focus group discussions, analysed data, and disseminated findings together.

During our first meetings with community co-researchers, we realised that our way of working was new and interesting to them. In the first meeting, we invested time to get to know each other and define how we wanted to work together. Before the next meeting, we made a poster with icons illustrating the agreed group norms. We saw surprise and curiosity in co-researchers’ faces, when we put up the poster and reminded them about the norms that we had agreed for forming and maintaining respectful relationships. Agreeing on ground rules was not a one-off tick box exercise. We reviewed groups norms and added new ones along the way, which helped us in becoming and remaining a functional team.

Some co-researchers had been involved in research before – mainly as mobilisers and enumerators. We realised that community co-researchers were used to execute plans and expected us to tell them what to do. Instead, we spent several meetings developing a shared understanding of the problem – intersections of intimate partner violence and HIV – and planning data collection, before eventually conducting interviews and focus groups.

We learned that members of the community are rarely asked for their views when studies and programmes are planned. Therefore, it took time to build trust and confidence needed to share ideas and views. For example, co-researchers frequently requested that we repeat tasks or questions for discussions during our research team meetings. Explaining tasks a second time enhanced assurance and confidence. One such event happened towards the end of the study when we asked co-researchers to brainstorm questions that we should ask to document key lessons from the study. After a few tentative responses, co-researchers proposed more and more questions on experiences, challenges, benefits, and recommendations regarding the research approach, roles, stages, and topic.

On several occasions, we witnessed how previous studies left informal settlement dwellers disenchanted and somewhat traumatised. Co-researchers explained how they and people around them were tired of responding to the same or similar interview questions. Many expressed their frustration that research has not helped improve their lives or the community at large. Collaborating with community co-researchers opened our eyes for the power imbalances in research. Slightly oversimplified, researchers are the experts, although they spend limited time in and with the community; research assistants are used to collect and analyse data; and community members are used as informants. In the process, researchers gain knowledge, while communities are rarely provided with study results and cannot use them for planning and action.

Suddenly, the limitations of research and knowledge creation were not abstract ideas but real – embodied in the lives of people and the community we worked with.

It takes time to understand the community – its political, historic, social, and economic context and its power dynamics. We researchers, including those who had worked in Korogocho before, gained a deeper understanding of the community through our weekly interactions with the co-researchers. As life in Korogocho continued, there were always new stories coming up, adding value to our study topic. In a way, data collection never stopped. The time spent in the community enabled us to validate study findings through own experiences.

Having engaged with power theories at the beginning of the study, we theoretically understood the main concepts, like “negative power” used to control others. The stories on abuse of power in intimate relationships, family, and the community that people told in research team meetings and focus groups discussions brought theory to life. We were baffled by people’s lack of awareness of their own (negative) power.

Stakeholders shared with us their experiences of feeling powerless within existing power systems, while we observed how the same stakeholders effectively – but maybe unconsciously – used their power to achieve their objectives. We got to understand that power is not static, but situational and dynamic. It is no surprise that co-researchers identified the “wrongful use of power” as the main driver for intimate partner violence and HIV among people in their community.

Over the course of the study, we saw co-researchers discover their “power within” and “power to” stimulate change. Co-researchers used their knowledge and understanding of intimate partner violence and its intersection with HIV to educate others. Some realised how their reputation within the community changed as they were now “doing something for the community.” Others discovered that they had a role to play in raising awareness and supporting people of their community who undergo violence.

None of this happened over night. Since our initial ideas and enthusiasm for community involvement, we gained hands-on experience and learned to be patient. Undertaking research, especially on complex and stigmatised issues, with the community is time-consuming. Initially, we underestimated the time that was needed for organising the research team and meaningfully engaging co-researchers. Regular debriefing, group reflection and counselling sessions helped us understand the context and needs of people involved in the study and adjust our plans and ambition accordingly.

The reopening of schools in January 2021 after the ten-months closure is a just one example that illustrates the continuous negotiation process. Seeing our own children go back to school freed time for work for us. We were highly motivated to accelerate progress of the study. On the contrary, sending children back to school was stressful for co-researchers and the wider community where many lost jobs and income during the pandemic. Instead of accelerating, we needed to slow down.

Participatory research means that community co-researchers are involved in decision making. We set out to give room to the co-researchers and community members to make decisions. This was not easy given that we had the power to influence their space and process to make decisions. We allowed them to brainstorm, discuss and agree. In the end, we saw their potential and meaningful solutions unfold when granted the opportunity. We had to resist from using our power as researchers to make decisions for co-researchers and the community. One such occasion was during the lengthy and tedious process of analysing data. We wondered if involving co-researchers at every step was beneficial to them. Co-researchers, however, were eager to be part of the analysis and gain experience, since this is one part of research that they are commonly excluded from. They did not want us to take shortcuts by doing the analysis for them. As a result, the research team summarised data – category by category – for weeks. It paid off. The moment was priceless when co-researchers saw a bigger picture evolving from the summaries that they had worked on for weeks. Together, the summaries told a story that was bigger than the summary of its pieces and, moreover, resonated with the realities of their community.

Towards the end of the study, we realised that coherence between message and method was critical. On one hand, we all learned about the multiple ways in which power imbalances between people in intimate relationships, families, and communities drive risk of intimate partner violence and HIV. On the other hand, research that aims to generate knowledge and solutions on issues caused by negative power needs to use approaches that facilitate experiences of positive power, respect, and solidarity. As we facilitated a participatory process of learning with a diverse group of people, we did not only observe co-researchers seeing the community and themselves differently but found ourselves changing as well. Participatory learning does not simply happen, it requires deliberate efforts and time.

Collaborative ways of working offered us as researchers, opportunities to grow professionally and personally. We, as Kenyan research partners, embraced being holistically involved in this study from planning to publishing – beyond our routine tasks of collecting, transcribing, translating, and analysing data as freelance researchers. In addition to gaining new skills and knowledge, the Korogocho ALIV[H]E study made us see ourselves as researchers differently and helped us discover our power within – just like co-researchers did. We began to see beyond the limitations of “traditional” research and envision more participatory projects. We discovered that we have a role to play in promoting participatory spaces and approaches. We realised that sustainability does not only involve the dissemination and use of study findings by stakeholders in Korogocho but is also a call to us to share our experiences of doing participatory health research with an informal urban settlement community. As Kenyan researchers, we anticipate creating opportunities for participatory learning in the research sector in Kenya through networking among researchers and practitioners who apply participatory approaches to research and programming.

About us

Maria M. Muthoki is a Kenyan researcher with 14 years of experience in qualitative research.

Veronicah Mwania is a Kenyan researcher with 18 years of experience in market research and health research.

Beate Ringwald has five years of experience in desk-based global health research and over ten years of experience in participatory work with youth, women and communities.

The Korogocho ALIV[H]E study is a PhD research project and partnership between LSTM, LVCT Health and Gitathuru village in Korogocho. ALIV[H]E stands for Action Linking Initiatives on Violence against women and HIV Everywhere. The ALIV[H]E framework, initially developed by Salamander Trust and partners, guided our study that aimed to strengthen community capacity to prevent intimate partner violence and HIV in Gitathuru, Korogocho, Nairobi, Kenya.

We are extremely grateful to the Korogocho ALIV[H]E co-researchers Augustus W. Kamau, Farida I. Nyawanga, Joyce W. Kanyosya, Linah Maina, Manjoy Kelly, Margaret Wanjiru, Maryann N. Mbatha, Rev. Michael G. Mararo, Nelly W. Njeri, Wilkister A. Lala, and Zainabu D. Omar for their invaluable contributions, time and work.

IMAGE CREDIT: Entering Korogocho by Carlos Fernandez is licensed by CC BY-NC 2.0