Positionality and Gender: Reflections on the Dilemmas of an African Female Researching in Africa.

At my confirmation of registration (COR) presentation in February 2019, I recall being asked “why I had chosen to study CSO networks in Kenya and Nigeria”. Without batting an eyelid, I responded saying that “aside from Kenya hosting the secretariat of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), my identity as an African and a Nigerian creates trust that would allow for easy access to information”. In hindsight, I realized that I may have overlooked the inherent complexities associated with issues of my positionality as an African doing research in Africa, my gender as a female and the implications that these identities may have for both access to information on the field and my final research outcomes.

My fieldwork required that I travelled to Kenya and Nigeria to closely interact with my research participants through meetings, conference attendance, participant observations and in-depth semi-structured interviews. During my fieldwork, I found myself continually trying to negotiate my position either as an insider or an outsider depending on the context including regional, national and sub-national identities, social status, age and gender. My identity as an African granted me several opportunities. Being African, I was considered an insider and readily accepted, thus making it easier for participants to open during interviews. However, being part of the academia and schooling outside of Africa had its limiting factors. For instance, during interviews, I was continuously reminded of my status as an academic. A common assumption was that as an academic, I had purely theoretical knowledge and with no practical understanding of the existing realities. Also, because I was schooling “abroad”, it was assumed that I had attained a certain level of financial security and/or access to powerful individuals in the society. Some participants saw it as an avenue to subtly demand for gifts or favors in return for participating in my research. I clearly understood that a certain level of reciprocity was in order in exchange for their time and information. However, I did not offer any financial compensation as this had been clearly stated in the participant information sheet. In exchange, I informed them of my willingness to share the findings of my research with them and offer technical support within my capacity when needed.

Being an African female meant that I was conversant with conventional gender hierarchies that still dominated most of Africa. Hence, establishing a professional relationship yet getting close enough to male participants to create a conducive space for greater engagements was a challenge. I was highly aware of my vulnerability as a result of my gender during interactions with male participants. I purposely took on different identities to overcome this challenge. For instance, using my understanding of the Nigerian cultural sensitivity, I constantly navigated my identity either as a female, colleague and other cultural identities (i.e. religion, tribe etc.). My female identity dominated mostly in my interactions with fellow female participants, many of whom saw me as an ally and spoke openly in our discussions. They freely discussed some of the struggles that they faced either as an organization or network and were modest about their achievements. With the male participants, I consciously had to work to bring to the forefront my identity as a researcher and colleague based on my past work experience and continuing professional engagement in the field of climate change and environment. While I found many of them to be amiable, there were still situations where I had to challenge some of the information that was being given. The common reaction here was for the interviewee to either exhibit “aggression” as a result of their perceived higher status or age differentiation to demean my knowledge and/or experience. I overlooked these reactions and played the “student-master” role of being accepting to be naïve, nonthreatening and subjugated to sustain engagement for the purpose of achieving my research objective. In cases where it was initially difficult to get access to some participants, I had to rely on other forms of cultural identities such as tribe or other forms of kinships or social relation ties. A few participants derived comfort in knowing that we shared the same religious beliefs, originated from similar ethic background or spoke the same local languages.

Though similar in many ways, my experience in Kenya was somewhat different. Being my first visit to Kenya, I was unfamiliar with the socio-cultural context of the country. Since I was travelling alone, I had to rely on the knowledge and experience of a colleague at PACJA who was introduced to me by a mutual friend. Naturally, I found myself getting closer to him and seeking his opinion on issues such as accommodation, transportation, meals and other local matters even prior to my arrival in Nairobi. When in Nairobi for fieldwork, I spent time discussing with him and trying to understand the local context of Kenya as deem relevant to my research experience. Also, I utilized the advantage of him being Kenyan to negotiate access to likely participants in my research. Before long, jokes romantically linking us together were being passed around the organization.  My initial reaction was one of disapproval. Aside it being untrue, I was concerned about how this affected my status as a researcher within the organization. Still, I understood how invaluable maintaining the relation was for me to advance my research objective. Since no one made inappropriate sexual advances at me, with time, I joined in on the jokes and would often laugh at them. I strongly believe that this attitude made other employees and members of the alliance “adopt” me as one of theirs. Before long, I was regularly invited by the team to have my lunch with them and granted free pass to attend most of their engagements. This allowed me significant access to informal discussions that I would otherwise have not been privy to.

Away from the field, I find myself wondering whether I had taken the right stands in terms of my positionality on the field. What implication does it have for the quality of the data collected? I am also confronted with the issues of trust and disclosure of information. My obligation as a researcher and my ethical responsibility to protect the mutual trust I share with my participants means that I am sometimes conflicted over where to draw the line on certain issues when answering my research objectives. Does my positionality make me more biased, objective, less critical or overly critical? I recognize that this is a unique dilemma facing all qualitative researchers. Nevertheless, it makes me acutely aware of the role of a researcher’s positionality on the entire research process and outcomes. Would I do anything differently if I had the chance to redesign my research? Perhaps not. Did my actions and identities on the field in anyway encourage unethical comments and behaviors at the workplace or promote gender stereotyping in Africa? Well, I leave that open to individual critique based on unique worldviews.

Zainab Aliyu, PhD Scholar.