Mfiko Kenya: Arrival in Kenya

[Post written on Saturday, July 19, 2014 @ 11:34 p.m.]

Hamjambo kutoka Kenya! Greetings from Kenya!

I’m sitting here in the Downtown Hotel in Nairobi after a pretty grueling 32 hours of travel, made all the tougher by the fact that I set out with only a few hours sleep to begin with.

Needless to say, I didn’t actually see much of the insides of the planes because I was asleep most of the time. Only two minor travel hiccups to speak of: My original flight from Jacksonville was cancelled, but they put me on another flight to Atlanta instead, and from there direct to Amsterdam in time to catch my flight to Nairobi. In Amsterdam, my reservation mysteriously vanished, and all hopes of seeing my luggage again with it. They managed to find my reservation and work some airline magic on it, but no word on my luggage. I packed smart though, so that the only thing in my checked luggage was clothes and toiletries; all my equipment, notebooks, meds, etc. were in my carry-on (which meant lugging a backpack, a sling bag, and a small duffel around all weekend – definitely not my preferred mode of traveling light). So I wasn’t too worried: if my luggage didn’t show, I’d have to go around naked, but at least I could still do fieldwork!

When I arrived in Nairobi we had to be bused from the plane to the “terminal”, which looks a lot like the inside of a parking garage because, well, it is. The old terminal burned down last year, so they quickly retrofitted the parking garage to receive passengers there. To be honest, I think it looks a little better than the old one did! Everything’s freshly painted, and they’ve got beautiful pictures of tourist sights all over the walls, with lots of sayings in Swahili and their English translations. They even had conveyor belts for the luggage, which were absent in 2006 when I was there the first time (they just dumped everybody’s luggage on the floor of this big room and you had to go find it). I decided to wait at the luggage retrieval belt, more for kicks than out of any expectation that I’d see my bag. I waited and waited, and then just as I about ready to chalk one up as a sacrifice to the airport gods, lo and behold, there was my bag.


I can’t believe my luggage actually made it here.

Luggage in hand, I exchanged some money for Kenyan shillings and grabbed myself a taxi downtown.


Unfortunately it was night when I landed in Narobi, so I haven’t actually been able to see much of anything yet. The same thing happened the first time I was here as well. I remember the first time I arrived in Kenya, leaving the airport in Mombasa that first night, and being really intimidated. I just remember a lot of people walking around dilapitated-looking buildings in poorly-lit areas with dirt roads that all looked a lot like dark alleyways – all things that in the States would make you think twice about going anywhere near that area. But I came to learn that these things had more to do with the state of infrastructure in Kenya than how safe the area was. The signs for recognizing what areas are safe and not are just very different here, and take getting used to. I had a similar experience again tonight taking the taxi to my hotel. I mentioned to the driver that I wanted to buy a phone, and so he stopped at a cellphone shop (which turned out to be closed) on the way to the hotel. It was perfectly safe – there were hundreds of people about, hitting the local bars and enjoying the weekend – but just unnerving because nothing’s well-lit. Imagine Times Square with all the people doing the same things they normally do, but none of the lights on the street, just the light from the shop windows, and you’ll get a sense of what downtown Nairobi is like at night.

Realizing just how exhausted I was during the flight to Nairobi, I decided to stay two days here in Nairobi before proceeding to Mombasa. And here’s a tip for my fellow fieldworkers: consider bringing along your journal from previous visits, or scans of it. Through a bit of luck, I happened to be leafing through my old journal entries from last time I was in Nairobi, and found an entry about this hotel I had stayed at in Nairobi called Downtown Hotel. I had completely forgotten about it until I read that. Moreover, I had even listed all the things that were in the vicinity of it, some of the neat things to do in the area, and the names of the staff. Talk about useful! It’s like past Danny wrote future Danny a guidebook. Since then, I’ve been referencing my old journal entries whenever I get the chance, and they’ve turned out to be tremendously useful, reminding me of names, where things are and what’s nearby, and who good resources are for different things.

Downtown Hotel is an ideal spot to recharge before I embark. Me and the other School for International Training students stayed here back in 2007, and I stayed here again at the end of that semester for a few days. The rooms are tiny but clean and comfortable, and it’s within walking distance of everything downtown. On the same block are some good eateries (including a place that serves traditional Swahili cuisine!), an internet cafe, a small shopping center where I’ll pick up a Kenyan phone and some bottled water in the morning.

Each of the hotel rooms had the name of an animal on it in Swahili. Mine was kongoni, for 'hartebeest':

Each of the hotel rooms had the name of an animal on it in Swahili. Mine was kongoni, for ‘hartebeest’:

If there's hot water, you have to flip the switch to turn it on.

If there’s hot water, you have to flip the switch to turn it on.


Malaria protection! (Thanks to Cat!)


The courtyard in the hotel.

A panorama  of my hotel room.

A panorama of my hotel room.

From there, I’ll focus on getting tickets to Mombasa either via plane or train – not sure which yet; I’ll call Kenya Airways once I have my phone to see about prices. Hopefully that’ll leave me enough time in the day to make the best of a day in Nairobi by walking around downtown for a while, or maybe even make a visit to the linguistics department at the University of Nairobi to browse their dissertations.

So far the worst part of fieldwork has been sleep deprivation (because that never happens in grad school), lukewarm showers, and going without a Starbucks for 24 hours (ok but this one seriously doesn’t happen in grad school; dissertations are written on lattes, you know). It’s a rough life, I know. :) The best part, other than having all my luggage, has been getting to practice my Swahili again (most of my conversation with the cab driver was in Swahili, I’m proud to say). All in all though, it was a pretty rough but standard day of travel. I’m looking forward to being in Mombasa, seeing my homestay family again, and starting work with Kennedy and Gladys on Ekegusii.

Karibu tena: Returning to Kenya

The Longing
Seek patiently and you will find.
~ Traditional advice of the Muses
In 2007 I left Kenya after a year’s stay, wondering anxiously if I would ever return to the place that had so many powerful memories for me, and where I first came to understand the issue of language endangerment. As I finished college, began work in Rosetta Stone’s Endangered Language Program, and immersed myself in working with Native American communities to revitalize their endangered languages, it looked less and less likely that I would ever go back. Then in 2013 I was thrilled to find myself starting a PhD in Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Suddenly, returning to Kenya to continue studying language shift in the region was a real possibility again. The idea of taking all that I had learned over five years of working to document and revitalize languages in North America and applying it to studying the endangered languages of East Africa thrilled me.
While I absolutely loved my previous year in Kenya, I had no idea what I was doing. I had never taken a field methods class, never even heard of language endangerment, and had almost no background in language typology. All things considered, I made out OK: I learned pretty quickly to pay speakers to help me with transcriptions, and my organizational nature ensured I had good metadata to go with my files, for example. But I can’t help but think of all opportunities I missed, had I just known a little more about language endangerment and field methods at the time. My year took me all over East Africa, and I could have been documenting different varieties of Swahili everywhere I went, not to mention all the other smaller languages I encountered in our field visits. As I learned more over the years and realized my oversight, I determined that if I ever went back to East Africa, I’d do things right this time (although at this point I know enough to know that there’s no such thing as ideal fieldwork or fieldworkers – we do the best we can with what we have). While returning to Kenya was once again a possibility, there was still a lot of work to be done if I wanted to make it happen. Funding, of course. (Always funding.) Human subjects approval (just got my approval today!). Lots of careful thought regarding how fieldwork would fit into my research agenda without derailing my PhD. Many conversations and much guidance from my wonderful advisor, Carol Genetti. Did I mention funding? And yet, somewhat incredibly, it all came together, and here I am 12 hours away from embarking on a 2-month fieldwork trip to document and revitalize the Ekegusii language of western Kenya. Funny thing is, I almost turned down the opportunity to work with Ekegusii at all!
The Call
When a moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.~ Boris Pasternak, Russian novelist
It started last summer, after I had finished celebrating my acceptance to UC Santa Barbara. Carol, my advisor, sent me an email about my interests working in East Africa. “I know you were really interested in working on Nilotic languages,” she said, “but there’s this great team of people working hard to revitalize the Ekegusii language, and I can put you in touch with them.” Ekegusii is a Bantu language, you see, which means that it belongs to a huge family of languages spanning across the entirety of the African continent. Some days it seems like every Africanist has worked on Bantu at some point. I admit, I was kind of a hipster about the whole thing. I wanted to go work on something less well-studied, something that I knew less about. Well, wish granted! After hedging back and forth for a while, I committed to working on Ekegusii, and it turns out that the bibliography on the language barely covers a full page, and it has all sorts of wonderful tonal processes going on that interact at all levels of the grammar. As part of my dissertation research, I’m also extremely interested in lexical categories in the language, since one and the same root can serve as the base for dozens of different derived forms. Every language has something wonderful and fascinating to contribute to our understanding of how language works, and Ekegusii is no different. But what has turned out to be the most incredible and rewarding part of this project so far is, of course, the people. Collaborating on the research end of things with me is Carlos Nash, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, alumnus of UC Santa Barbara Linguistics, and former student of Carol’s. Carlos completed his dissertation in 2011 on the tonal system of Ekegusii, and is now working to write a grammar of the language. The data I collect this summer will contribute directly to that project. And since Carol advised Carlos’ dissertation, she’s the perfect person to have as an advisor for my own work on the language. None of this would be possible, however, without the incredible efforts of two people: Kennedy Bosire and Gladys Machogu, both native speakers of Ekegusii, and both deeply concerned with the gradual loss of traditional Ekegusii culture and language in their community. Determined to do something, they formed the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project, and set out to create the first-ever dictionary of Ekegusii, which was finally published just last year.dictionary-7Now, Kennedy wants to create teaching materials to use in schools, so that Abagusii children can learn about traditional Gusii culture and language. My research this summer has been designed to abet this goal: I’ll be working with Kennedy to record traditional folktales, stories, and songs, as well as make videos of things like wood carving or dancing. All of these things can then be made into instructional or documentary videos that children can watch and learn from, while at the same time serving as a rich source of ethnographic and linguistic data for my research. I’m absolutely thrilled to be contributing to the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project in this way – I can’t wait to dive in!
You plan like hell until you leave, but you have to become a providentialist the moment you step out your front door.
~ George Greenia, Professor of Medieval and Pilgrimage Studies, The College of William & Mary
Fortunately, I won’t be waiting long. Tomorrow morning I take off from Jacksonville, Florida (where my partner Jacob lives) to begin my adventures. I’ll hop up to JFK in New York, where I’ll sit around the airport for 4 hours before boarding the 7.5-hour flight to Amsterdam – all quality time to get some work done! I arrive in Amsterdam at 7:30 AM, wait around for another 4 hours, then take an 8-hour flight to Nairobi, which is here:
After that, it’s up to me! I’ll buy a cheap Kenyan phone and get in touch with Kennedy and my homestay family, and grab a hotel in Nairobi for the night (a quiet little place called the Downtown Hotel, where I’ve stayed before), and then go about making arrangements to get to Mombasa (maybe plane, maybe train – we’ll see what prices are like once I’m at the airport). Once I’m settled in Mombasa, I’ll start the work of recording and transcribing discourse in the language, and generally helping Kennedy with whatever he needs for the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project. There’s even been talk of a trip to Kisii district in western Kenya, where the language is predominantly spoken, to record folktales from elders and visit some of the schools there. For now I’ll just take things one day at a time. Because as they say in Kenya, leo ni leo, kesho ni uwongo (‘today is today, tomorrow is a lie’).

Data workflow in the field

While attending CoLang 2014 these past two weeks, I took the time to put together a data workflow for use while I’m in the field this summer. Having a clear data workflow in place is very important in linguistic fieldwork, because it helps you to keep track of which stage of your data processing each file is at. For example, it can help you remember if you’ve backed up your files yet (what about your photos? have you renamed the files with good metadata?) or given copies of materials to the speakers who produced them for you (and did you give them your contact information? did you store their informed consent somewhere and back that up as well?). In addition to just having a workflow in place, it’s important to also have a means of tracking which stage of your workflow each file is at. A simple Excel sheet works fine for this.I’ve attached the typed version of my data workflow, along with the statuses I’ll be using in my Excel sheet. Feel free to make use of this in your own fieldwork in its present or modified form. Feedback and discussion welcome!

Degrees & Dimensions of Grammaticalization in Chitimacha Preverbs

Today I had the wonderful opportunity to present at the 17th Annual Workshop on American Indigenous Languages (WAIL), held at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My talk was titled, ‘Degress & Dimensions of Grammaticalization in Chitimacha Preverbs’, and I aimed to illustrate how the grammaticalization of preverbs should not be viewed as a monolithic process proceeding in a single direction, but rather as the confluence of a number of different processes working in tandem. Check out the slides and a draft version of the paper below! (Feedback welcome!)

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Building the Lexicon for Awakening Languages

Tomorrow I’ll be presenting at the Conference on the Sleeping and Awakened Languages of the Gulf South at Tulane University. My talk will be on Building the Lexicon for Awakening Languages, in which I’ll discuss some general tips for adjusting language planning to language attitudes in the community, and offer specific, practical strategies for how language revitalization teams can coin new terms for their language.

You can download my slides and handout below. The handout is meant to be a handy reference sheet for language teams and linguists to use when needing to coin new terms.