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Student Perceptions on Health in their Environments: reflections from community research in Nairobi, Kenya (Part I)

by Jonathan Walker

Jonathan completed an internship with DASH in the winter of 2012 and has spent the past 6 months in East Africa, where he was working on a CIDA internship with The Aids Support Organization (TASO) in Kampala, Uganda, and subsequently organizing the PPM health project with teachers and students in Nairobi, Kenya.  DASH is excited to be able to share Jonathan’s experiences with student engagement from across the globe, his experiences show that when we put students at the center of their health and learning the results can be extraordinary!

The Kayole Health Participatory Photo Mapping Project (PPM) was a pilot study that looked to engage students of Kayole, an underprivileged community in Nairobi, Kenya, with assessing their school and community environments for health and well-being. This project could then further develop student-led community development initiatives based upon their research findings. The method of engagement, PPM, enabled the students to subjectively and objectively document the health assets and risks in the local community using photography, direct observation, note taking, interviews and focus group discussions. Part I of this two-part series looks into how the research process unfolded and some of the key findings from the pilot study.

After six months of preliminary research, reflection and organizing for the Kayole Health Participatory Photo-Mapping (PPM) project with my friend and partner, Charles Olupot, the day for Workshop 1 had finally arrived. I knew we had a great group of students and teachers supporting this project. It was clear that they all felt it was something important and needed by their community, and I was honoured to be a part of that.

Before heading out into the community to begin the photo-mapping research, a discussion was facilitated with the student participants to brainstorm the community health issues they wanted to explore. Each student had an opportunity to speak, and the following were the preliminary community health issues they mentioned:

  • Garbage collection
  • Health care services
  • Slums/ living conditions
  • Education
  • Security/ safety
  • Environment
  • Status of the roads
  • Pollution
  • Plants
  • Hunger

We broke up into three groups; two groups of three and one group of four. Each student put on their jerseys, both for safety and to indicate they were part of the project, and Charles moved with the letter of permission and stamp of approval from the local government, which enabled us to conduct the study and take pictures throughout the neighbourhood.

The field work went very well. The students were engaged in taking photos for the health themes they identified, and were busily taking notes to describe the site of documentation as well as their thoughts and perceptions. We concluded the first field study after about two and half hours in the community, and the three groups reconvened at the school. We decided that when the photo-mapping research for the whole of Kayole was complete, we’d categorize and present the photos using three broad, cross-cutting themes that, indirectly or directly affect the community health: Social Services (picture), Physical Environment (picture), and Pollution (picture). This would help with targeting future efforts towards advocacy and awareness campaigns.

We concluded Sunday’s workshop with each youth participant coming to the stage to present on their findings and express their thoughts about engaging in the research process. While taking notes on their presentations, I had the opportunity to exercise my listening skills. I’ve come to learn that listening skills are incredibly important for ‘outside’ researchers involved in community development projects. I was able to learn a lot from these students, and develop new insights and perspectives on health issues I’ve always taken for granted. For example, I had assumed that the common perception was that the more plants and greenery in a neighbourhood the better. Coming from Vancouver, I had interpreted a large tree in a neighbourhood with beauty and higher property values. I would think of flowers, fruits and vegetables when I’d think of plants; these are positive things that improve the health and perceived well-being of a community. However, the perception of ‘plants’ in Kayole was entirely different. Instead of being seen as an object of beautification, plants were discussed in relation to health risks for the community. Thick bushes were photographed and documented as hotspots for the cultivation of mosquitoes, a major health concern given the problematic prevalence of malaria. Additionally, the youth indicated that bushy areas with lots of plants in Kayole were also the places you’d be likely to find the drug dealers and drug addicts; hiding within the bushes for cover while engaging in their illegal activities.

Providing the students with an opportunity to express their own perceptions of health in their community environment through photography, writing, focus groups and public speaking was a key objective of the pilot. The project resulted in much success both in terms of student enthusiasm and developing a rich collection of qualitative data. Stay tuned for next week’s Part II to learn how the students are building upon their community research to design exciting health interventions and awareness campaigns in Kayole and beyond!

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