Studying ‘streets as places’ through in-situ research is nothing new to social science. A classic in this regard is Doreen Massey’s work on the global sense of place with the example of Kilburn High Road in London. Other researchers – and most naturally anthropologists – also went to the streets of settlements and studied everyday life, community, and society. But why not take the bus to go from these inner-city streets to the outer rings of urban settlements and study their larger pendants: highways?! *
It is not really the highway per se for which I spent two months at the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. I was studying the impact of the massive upgrade of the Thika Road – now called Thika Superhighway – on the development of the peri-urban land along this corridor. But in order to do so, I had to go to the field and ‘feel’ the highway. As weird this image might be, it is basically nothing else than other researchers have done when studying the impact of pedestrian-only streets on inner-city neighborhoods – it is just a rougher environment.**
In only 30 minutes, you can easily reach the highway and its adjacent towns of Ruiru, Juja, and Thika by matatu (minibus). But once you are there, you are feeling like far away from all the comforts of urban life – you better have a map in case Google Earth/Maps cannot provide precise images of the ‘middle of nowhere’ you are just standing in. In contrast to urban research, you need water and some food for the day, you need a lot of sunscreen, and you better know where you are going.
Even though Kenyans are extremely hospitable, residents and traders along this highway have not often seen a white person coming there without a private car. And probably even more out-of-space for them must be a white person walking (!) along the highway. If you are not a missionary – born-again and saved Christians are very welcomed in Kenya – you better have a good reason to ‘visit’ those peri-urban settlements. In contrast to urban in-situ research settings, these areas are rather hostile – already with regard to the physical environment, but also because residents are skeptical about ‘intruders’. You can explain to them your research topic, but honestly: Who expects anyone to understand why you want to study a highway!?
Telling from my various field visits in January and February of this year, I am sure that it is nevertheless worth going into the field. Analyzing changes in the physical environment on maps and pictures or from texts is one thing. Making the reality check is another. What does it mean that a former four-lane highway is expanded to eight, ten, or in some parts even twelve lanes? How do ‘vacant land’, scattered development, and lack of infrastructures and services really look like? How is the interaction between people and environment – both in natural and built-up areas? And how do stark class differences and spatial segregation, which are so typical for the city of Nairobi, play out in its outskirts and satellite towns?
Those questions and many more are part of my current master thesis research, and for some of them, I will find answers. No matter how this turns out, going to the field and experiencing this rough environment and even ‘feeling’ the highway were necessary activities in order to know what I can actually talk and write about. A point to take home is that highways or roads through rural and peri-urban areas are also places worth to be studied. A global sense of place has already reached the ‘hinterlands of globalization’…
* For an ethnographic perspective on this topic, check out the DFG-funded project “Roadside and travel communities. Towards an understanding of the African long-distance road”.
See for instance:
- Paasche, Till F, and James D Sidaway (2010): Transecting security and space in Maputo. Environment and Planning A 42: 1555-1576.
- Wylie, John (2005): A single day’s walking: narrating self and landscape on the South West Coast Path. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30 (2): 234-247.