‘A Conversation on workers, wellbeing and care infrastructures in Nairobi and Oxford’

Reflecting on historical memory, author Arundhati Roy famously described pandemics as portals that have always invited breaks or ruptures with the past. This conversation explores care infrastructures and wellbeing practises during Covid-19 in the places that Naima Hassan and Anisa Daud live. The series aims to open parameters for what constitutes ‘essential’ work during a crisis and how care infrastructures operate within local, and transnational systems. It includes an initial dialogue between the authors and six conversations with workers in Nairobi and Oxford. The two cities that frame this conversation series also provide insights into how asymmetries in global health outcomes have shaped responses to the pandemic in the Global North and Global South.

Download the Nairobi interviews here

Download the Oxford interviews here

Naima Hassan: Can you tell me about yourself and work?

Anisa Daud: My name is Anisa, I am based in Nairobi and I work for an international NGO, we analyse the political and conflict situation in the Horn of Africa and provide policy advice to international bodies such as the United Nations, European Union and African Union. Can you introduce yourself and explain your decision to convene this conversation?

Naima Hassan: Hello, my name is Naima and I am currently an anthropology postgraduate based in Oxford. Before the pandemic, my teaching was based at the university museum [University of Oxford, Pitt Rivers Museum]. I am also a remote research attaché for a Nairobi headquartered humanities and social science research organisation. The opportunity was circulated by the Oxford African Studies centre, the centre has acted as an anchor during my time here. Like you, I am a remote worker.

There are a few factors that influenced my decision to convene this conversation with you. Perhaps it would be useful to summarise them, to you and our audience. As an anthropologist, I use multi-sited research, that is research that happens in two or more places, to explore how the local is always linked to a broader set of globalised relations. As my sister, who is currently based in Nairobi, I wanted to invite you to have this conversation with me in your locality, a place that our family lives, that I am dislocated but connected to. The neighbourhoods we live in, within Oxford and Nairobi are also similar. In many ways, they are more similar than the working class area we grew up in Leicester [United Kingdom]. I have lived in the Jericho suburb of central Oxford for a year now, it is a middle class and residential hamlet that hosts commercial and local businesses, various university colleges [University of Oxford] and an ancient meadow used for animal grazing and recreation. The land is known to have not been ploughed for around 4,000 years.

You live in the Karen suburb of Nairobi, which borders the Ngong Forest and is well known for its large European population and mid to high-income residents. Karen is also associated with the Danish author, Karen Blixen, known for her book Out of Africa. In her colonial memoir, Blixen reflects on her life in colonial British East Africa and her coffee plantation. Blixen wrote from a position of colonial authority and the Karen neighbourhood is unofficially named after her. When I think about the institutions in Oxford that are named after colonialists, the Rhodes House named after Cecil Rhodes instantly comes to mind. I recently discovered that the Alice in Wonderland novel by English author Lewis Carroll was inspired by the author’s time in the ancient Oxford meadow I have grown to love, that is on my doorstep. I reference these well known works of literature to make the point that Karen and Jericho are imbricated through colonial history. I want to connect our personal experiences in these neighbourhoods with the experiences of workers that support infrastructures across our cities.

The opportunity to explore these themes with an art organisation that invites a certain kind of thinking with the world, I hope, will contribute to the broadening rather than the narrowing of ways to think about the current pandemic and our mandatory isolation. Convening this conversation is an act of recognising hidden labour, workers in “essential” services and those supporting self-organized infrastructures of care.

This is my first artist commission. I got to know more about the ICF [International Curators Forum] because of the work that they are doing to explore diaspora art and internationalism. Their recent Global Plantations series [with artists and researchers Shiraz Bayjoo, Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Sancintya Mohini Simpson and Anna-Arabindan-Kesson] contemplates the global contours of the plantation outside of the Euro-American context. The artists involved are from places like Mauritius and Australia, places whose indentured and enslaved histories are largely invisible to the world. For our conversation, I want to move away from the idea that Africa cannot be a vantage point to examining life in the global North. I intend for this conversation series to express values which emerge from African humanism, and from African traditions. Anthropologists like Jean and John Comaroff and the scholar, Achille Mbembe are exploring this theoretically. In his work, Achille Mbembe is critical of colonial and developmentalist frameworks used to present Africa as a crisis prone entity. For Mbembe, this has long placed Africa in the position of being a laboratory to gauge the limits of Western imagination and epistemology. At work, I am supporting a conference on African research during the pandemic, resilience and indigenous responses to epidemics.

Returning to the point I made earlier about the ICF’s Global Plantations Series and the practise of exploring histories that are invisible or rendered invisible. As a resident of Oxford for almost a year now, I have felt deeply connected to migrant and African diaspora communities. When I first got here, I did not know Oxford was as diverse as it was. As I settled into the city and explored areas like Cowley, I picked up on the various arrival stories of refugees and migrants here. As a student at Oxford University, I wanted to break from the tradition of centering the institution itself, there are many worlds that coalesce here. As I prepare to leave Oxford, I am leaving with an understanding of the histories of class dissent, protest and refusal that shape local people’s relationship with the university. This legacy is still felt. The Oxford Rhodes Must Fall group is leading this critical work and call for the dismantling of the colonial iconography that decorates the city. Returning to your question, having a conversation that is framed in the Nairobi sense and Oxford sense might also invite readers to explore their own ontological and epistemic traditions. I like this idea because I am already becoming aware of my own assumptions.

Anisa Daud: Thank you for explaining this. I welcome the opportunity to be involved to work on this project with you and to explore lived experiences, here in Nairobi. How are you framing wellbeing practises and why this is important to our conversation series? For me, wellbeing is a set of collective and individual practises. Living in the continent [Africa] has challenged my own understanding of wellbeing, and has removed me from the commercialised, western notions of wellbeing quite dramatically. African wellbeing practises focus on collectivism and on the metaphor of the village. During the pandemic, or corona times, as people say, we are all supporting our villages and creating connections with other villages that need help at this time. Perhaps such networks speak to what you describe as a care infrastructure.

Naima Hassan: This is an important question. Wellbeing to me, means a set of anchoring devices, strategies, practises and rituals carried out by an individual or group. Wellbeing is always a symbiotic process between the self and others. As far as etymology goes, the English word is derived from the Italian word, Benessere. The term can be traced to a 16-century calque or loan translation. I also think about wellbeing in conjunction with healing and ritual practises. Notions of healing and ritual are central to many forms of wellbeing, whether this relates to metaphorical transformations [of the spirit] or physical transformation. Our conversation thinks about wellbeing in relation to workers and care infrastructures during the pandemic. I like the way you described the metaphor of the village. Village or communitarian practises have developed extensively in the UK [United Kingdom] during the pandemic because of the demand for mutual aid. I want to begin our exploration with a simple question. How have you adapted to working during the pandemic in Kenya?

Anisa Daud: The restrictions meant that I had to change the way I work, instead of working from an office I work from home and have meetings online. It’s strange to find myself here, staring at a computer with no physical interactions during the day. I have attempted to break up the remote work day by walking and speaking to local people. This creates a feeling of normality. How have you adapted to work and life in Oxford during the pandemic?

Naima Hassan: Before the pandemic, my activities as a student involved attending workshops, symposiums and external lectures both inside and outside of the academy. My current job as a research assistant is remote-based, engaging with the digital research landscape as a student during the initial period of the lockdown helped my transition to remote work. To support this change and break up my remote work day, I try to go for walks or listen to wellness talks. I attended meditation classes at the beginning of the pandemic, where the collective need to reflect on what this moment meant was perhaps the most urgent. Returning to your question, greenspaces have provided me with the most sustaining outlet for adapting to the pandemic. I live a short walk from a meadow and have spent a lot of time there. The city of Oxford itself is almost an extended University campus and the university community occupies central North Oxford in particular. At the start of the pandemic, the university requested students to return home and many did. The central city became a ghost town. This also meant there was wider access to the many green spaces in the city. I would often take walks or sit in wide and open fields alone, or with one or a few other people. The World Health Organization calls green space a fundamental component of any urban ecosystem. Others would say that access and proximity to green space is a fundamental human right. I wanted to know if the social impact of the pandemic changed the way you look after other people or yourself?

Anisa Daud: Yes, our immediate family is in the UK so being here in Nairobi without you has definitely impacted me, I make sure that we are always in touch, my phone activity has increased because I call you, mum, and our sister to check in. Because of the curfew in Kenya, my social life is restricted so I utilise virtual spaces to stay in touch and connect with others. I only live with my dad so this period has given me a lot of time to focus on my health. Karen is on the outskirts of Nairobi so it’s a great place to go out and walk. This pandemic has allowed me to reconnect with myself and nature, prior to this period, I went to the gym for physical exercise but there is something about going for long hikes and being around nature that is freeing, I loved discovering this. Also, sometimes my dad joins me in my walks and this has become a bonding exercise because when we are out walking we have no distractions from phones or computers so it provides us with an opportunity to talk and learn new things about each other. This pandemic has been a process of discovering new things about others and myself. Going outside for an hour every day and walking is liberating because the time I get to reflect on things that matter to me outside of work. This is something I would have never done before the pandemic, it was always go go go, this extra time has allowed me to stop and think. To return your question, how has the social impact of the pandemic changed the way you look after yourself or others?

Naima Hassan: I also operated on the idea of go, go, go. The social impact of the pandemic initially devastated me as I found it difficult to be in Oxford. It was still very new and alien to me, the pandemic has certainly facilitated intimacy with the city in ways that I did not anticipate. Prior to the lockdown I would visit London quite frequently and decided to live close to the Oxford train station. This was definitely a strategic decision. The social impact of the pandemic changed the way I looked after myself as I had to creatively adapt to support my wellbeing. The digital helped during this period as it has allowed me to stay connected via scheduled calls. I have also developed care practises with an intimate group of Oxford friends. This has involved meditation, nature walks and doing things like potlucks and watching films.

The absence of physical gatherings and mobility during the lockdown has led me to consider new ways that I can look after others and myself. I would like to believe that I have used this time to support others and myself. A practise I can think of includes starting a film club with close friends who were in different physical locations. I think this helped with our mental health as it provided a weekly platform for doing something without necessarily speaking or presenting ourselves in the virtual space. Virtual fatigue exists outside of work and between loved ones too. Are there any other wellbeing practises you engage with?

Anisa Daud: Apart from going on hikes and walks. I have also used baking as a wellbeing practise. Spending more time at home allows you the space to experiment and cook new things. I’ve never been interested in cooking or baking so it is great to gain a new hobby. For example, I’ve learned how to make bread and this is something I never thought I’d say, but because of this we don’t go out and buy bread anymore. I don’t think this would have been possible without the pandemic.

Naima Hassan: I have also enjoyed baking during this period and have discovered that I am somewhat of a natural. Perhaps we can do a bake off in Nairobi. How have these practices enhanced your awareness or mindfulness?

Anisa Daud: When I go out for walks, I know it will greatly improve my mood and ability to feel mindful, it’s not only been an escape for me but that time to reflect allows you to see that the small things are insignificant and how precious time is. Is this different or the same for you?

Naima Hassan: We have both lived in places like London and know the effect that busy, metropolitan life has on awareness. I have tried to meditate throughout the pandemic. My meditative sessions and days are often facilitated by the practise of incense burning. In a recent discussion with a friend, I told her that social isolation is challenging because I feel like I am meeting myself for the very first time. The parts that I have jettisoned or hidden. It is difficult to sit with yourself once the usual [social] distractions of life stop. Returning to our earlier discussion of wellbeing, I wanted to explore how culture frames our understanding of wellbeing. What does our culture tell you about wellbeing?

Anisa Daud: There is a somewhat of a disconnect between our culture and wellbeing. We are often told to be strong or that God is the answer. Mental health is not a priority, as you are expected to be stoic as an individual and to not express excessive emotion. I don’t think that our culture understands this aspect of wellbeing. Do you agree with this, or does this differ for you?

Naima Hassan: In part, I agree, we do however experience different forms of Somali culture and traditions now that you live in Kenya. As I am largely dislocated from the Somali community because I live in Oxford, the lockdown has provided me a new understanding of Somali culture. I have also gained an understanding of Somali wellbeing because I started to really engage with Somali culture and rituals outside of the family home for the first time during the lockdown. As you know, I love Somali music, so I remedy some emotions by listening to old Somali songs. The slow melodies of the Somali band, Iftin have been important anchors during this period. I agree with the suggestion that there is a disconnection with our culture and wellbeing, but I also want to consider wellbeing in our community beyond a western or eastern framework. Once we consider traditional Somali practises, our oral and storytelling traditions in particular, a new language for understanding Somali wellbeing practises opens up.

For me, Somali frameworks for wellbeing relate to collectivism and shared practises. I am also thinking about how war and displacement can impact diaspora communities from conflict states and the residual impact this has on wellbeing and mental health more broadly. Perhaps there is a strong emphasis on God and embodying strength because of loss and trauma? On one hand, this affirms the importance of collective practises but it also suggests that individual practises can be neglected. Before we close our interview, my final question focuses on outdoor spaces and wellbeing. Are there spaces around your area or in Nairobi which help your wellbeing?

Anisa Daud: I’m very lucky to live in Karen where most of the homes have one or half an acre of outdoor space, this space has been incredibly useful for escaping the indoors and for sitting or reading outside in the sun. It is a privilege that many don’t get here in Nairobi or in the wider continent as outdoor spaces are limited and vulnerable to land grabbing. Many families here go to Uhuru Park in the central business district and they travel far to access this park as it is free. In Nairobi, there is also a national park where you can drive through and spot animals. Once you are in the park, you do not feel like you are in Nairobi or in the outskirts of a capital city. So many Kenyans have started using recreational spaces and access to them has become somewhat easier, this is a positive consequence of the pandemic. There is still a great deal of work to do where access to green space is concerned. Returning to your earlier point, this access is absolutely a human right.

Naima Hassan: Thank you for having this first conversation with me. I look forward to seeing what emerges from the conversations we have with workers in Oxford and Nairobi. I also look forward to exploring the generative possibilities of pandemic research. In this moment, researchers are being called to move outside of their institutional towers, to really be in touch with the world. Perhaps our conversation series can speak to this. When I refer to being in the world, I want to point to the work of Caribbean philosopher, Édourd Glissant. In One World In Relation, Glissant suggests that because quick thinking leads to definitive and fixed conclusions, we understand the world better if we simply tremble with it. This is what the world does, it trembles organically and geologically. Glissant’s notion of trembling also speaks to the insurrection of the virus itself. We were forced to tremble with its destructive faculties on our bodies, our ways of living, our economies and the global system itself. I hope our conversation series will invite readers to tremble with the world and others more.

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Video: Conversation series excerpt with Simphiwe Stewart. Film by Naima Hassan (2020)

Naima Hassan is an anthropologist and artist who lives in the United Kingdom. She is currently a research attaché for the BIEA, a Nairobi headquartered Eastern Africa research organisation. Hassan utilises her training as an anthropologist to explore the itinerant contours of memory, repair and dislocation through socially engaged practise. She approaches art research collaboratively and works across various mediums. The Blue Skies conversation series acts as a departure point and mapping exercise for her upcoming project. Learn more by contacting Hassan on interpolationmatter@gmail.com. 

Anisa Daud is a Nairobi based researcher trained in Human Geography, International Law and Human Rights. She works for an International NGO and is currently working on the 2020/21 Somalia elections providing analysis. She also provides conflict resolution in the Horn of Africa and policy advice for international bodies such as the United Nations, European Union and African Union.

This conversation also received editing support by James Jordan Johnson and Florenza Incirli.