A Multisensorial Journey through the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus East African Research Network Symposium

Between the 15th and 17th of November Leiden Delt Erasmus (LDE) and Nuvoni Centre for Innovation Research hosted the first LDE East Africa Research Network (LEARN) symposium in Nairobi. Against the backdrop of one of East Africa’s major cities, a city that stands as a live example of constant change and one of great contrasts, LEARN brought together multifaceted researchers, practitioners, and policymakers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and The Netherlands. Brought together to co-create an interdisciplinary multi-stakeholder research network. The symposium was designed to set a precedent for the emerging research network rather than acting as a space for the passive exchange of ideas, it was an immersive exploration. Through sensory walks and participatory activities, participants engaged directly with Nairobi's urban spaces and communities. The overarching question being: How could the LEARN network foster actionable, usable, and impactful research? 

This article serves as a dynamic audiovisual guide -all photos and videos courtesy of Know Your City TV (KYCTV)- to the symposium, capturing the essence of those vibrant days, inviting you to experience the symposium as more than a gathering, as a space where exploration met reflexivity. Participants were not observers; they were active contributors shaping the network's narrative. In the spirit of LEARN, this article opens a window into a space where academia, innovation, and the pulse of East Africa converged. It's a glimpse into a space where possibilities were explored, norms were challenged, and a future was envisioned where research becomes a force for inclusive change. 

“We want a research network that is bottom-up, that brings partners together on an equal platform to brainstorm: what kind of network we would look to build? What kind of impact would you like to have?” 

Dr. Elsie Onsongo (Nuvoni/ ICFI) 

Prof. Dr. Wim van Den Doel opened the conversation with the confronting statement “the leaders of 2050 are currently sitting in lecture halls”. Reminding educators –both academic and those involved in shaping minds in their communities – of the immense power they hold in shaping future generations of researchers, researcher-activists, practitioners, and policymakers.

Prof. Wim van den Doel
Prof. Dr. Wim van den Doel

In acknowledging the current challenges surrounding urban transformation, including issues with urban governance - as Ms. Beatrice Hati (Nuvoni/ ICFI) pointed out: “the way we are governing cities will not lead us to the just transition that we have talked about”- the attendees also discussed the siloed nature of the institutions and stakeholders that can drive the necessary changes. Particularly the disconnect between orthodox approaches to academic research, community-led research, and policy circles and the ways that this gap can be bridged. 

To this point, Dr. Jan Fransen (IHS/ICFI) added: “The value of this conference is to see how our small research links to bigger questions that all the cities in this region face...Despite all the research being done the improvements [in Mathare] have been very slow. So, we hope that the network can help bridge between the research that has been done and the ways we think of urban development.” The conference room walls were increasingly plastered with ideas from all sides on how those present could leverage their existing knowledge and connections to create a network that generates impact. The value and necessity of community researchers was emphasised as part of impact creation. Isabella Brozinga (International Institute of Social Studies): “I think bringing more people to the research decides the researchers, so the people to advocate, to engage with the community and to translate the knowledge.”

In a panel discussion between Community Based Organisations Ghetto Foundation, Muungano wa Wanavijij,, Slum Dwellers International Kenya (SDI),  SDI Kenya director Joseph Kimani spoke to the issues with gatekeeping when it comes to research: “Community leaders are well-informed about the realities on the ground, but there is serious gatekeeping when it comes to what counts as research and whose research is counted. In the end, research is about people’s lives. What community research does is translate the power of people to say in a real sense we have walked around our communities, we have counted our houses, and we have seen that we are 2000 people sharing one public facility.” 

Dorice Bosibiri (Muugano wa Wanavijiji) drove this point further, drawing on examples of how community data collected by community researchers has played an important role in fighting evictions issued by the city council.  Samuel Kiriro (Ghetto Foundation) added a social justice dimension to the discussion: “Researchers from outside may ignore the dynamics in communities. There are no boundaries on who is a community researcher, it is an open concept and term, it is about inclusion and participation for the sake of ownership. This is where social justice comes into the conversation sometimes it is not clear to people where ownership lies, research networks could come in to collaborate with CBOs to make sure communities and governments are in the know.” 

Based on this idea, on the second day of the symposium the LEARN team took to the streets to truly ‘sense’ the city and its different landscapes, including informal and marginal spaces. Walking through some of Nairobi’s informal settlements in various stages of transition allowed participants to gain a firsthand understanding of local challenges and community dynamics, facilitating the community engagement that was called for from the beginning of the symposium. As part of this, changemakers exhibition, to showcase the future of urban transformation. In a bold departure from traditional academic confines, the LEARN (LDE East Africa Research Network) symposium unfolded a transformative narrative on its second day as the LEARN team explored Nairobi's streets, delving into informal and marginalised spaces with a deliberate focus on youth marginalization and inclusion. 

Team in a garden in Mathare
Part of the group visiting the Dandora Transformation League's garden that was once a dump site

Navigating the dynamic landscapes of informal settlements, the participants gained firsthand insights into local challenges and community dynamics, embodying the symposium's commitment to genuine community engagement. This street-level exploration wasn't merely a theoretical exercise; it became a powerful bridge between academia and reality, underscoring the symposium's ethos. Moreover, the inclusion of a "changemakers exhibition" during this urban exploration served as a dynamic showcase, amplifying the voices and initiatives shaping the future of urban transformation, particularly those championed by the youth. In this singular act, the symposium not only recognized the significance of community involvement but illuminated a path toward a more inclusive, equitable, and youth-driven urban development.

Image of LEARN team walking through Mathare
Prof. Dr. Shuaib Lwasa and Prof. Dr. Wim van den Doel during a sensory walk through Mathare