How combining ethnography, PhD studies & motherhood became a strength for Dr Jacinta Muinde

Anthropological field work can be tough enough at the best of times – so imagine doing it when pregnant in a remote and difficult environment.

Newnham Student Jacinta Victoria Muinde shares her experiences of being a PhD student on a mission, an ethnographer in the field, and a single mother – and how the combination of the three has been unexpectedly successful.

“I wanted to be somewhere where women were talking about global issues, about changing the world for the better,” Jacinta explained. That’s why she chose Newnham as the college to do her PhD. Jacinta, originally from Kenya herself, set out to do her PhD on the impact of cash transfers on women and children, and gender relations among the Digo in Msambweni, Kenya.

Women have been compelled to take up the role of income providers

Islam, HIV/AIDS, deaths and high divorce rates, and unemployment have challenged the position of Digo men as heads and breadwinners of households. Historically a matrilineal society, Digo culture has been heavily influenced by patriarchal and patrilineal approaches promoted by the state and Islam. Legal statutes for marriage, land and property inheritance have privileged men. Now, women have been compelled to take up the role of head of the household and income providers – assisted by controversial government cash transfers. Jacinta was determined to understand whether cash transfers resulted in a culture of dependence, as some have feared, or whether they allow vulnerable households to establish themselves more securely.

But the field work didn’t begin smoothly. When she began, as a woman from another part of Kenya and a very different cultural tradition, the Digo women were suspicious. “They thought I was from the Government, some kind of government investigator for the scheme,” Jacinta recalled. When she asked about cash transfers, people refused to speak. Despite all her reassurances that this was an independent study that could help the cash transfer scheme continue, she was getting nowhere. Jacinta was increasingly worried that she would neither be able to finish her PhD, nor contribute to tackling poverty through her research.

“A pregnant woman in the field, in a very difficult context – I was so worried at first.”

When she realised she was pregnant, the situation seemed as if it had just got worse. “A pregnant woman in the field, in a very difficult context – I was so worried at first.” But, undaunted, she kept going, staying in the field and continuing to ask for participants. And things transformed.

“I was so surprised, women became so close to me. Every mother was so motherly, so ready to share advice.” And as a mother-to-be, she was accepted by the Digo women as a researcher. “All those barriers just disappeared. They would allow me to follow them to the bank, they filled out cash diaries about their expenditure. My motherhood shaped my field work – it became a success for my project. ”

The new-found access allowed her to understand the lives of these women in a far more nuanced way than has previously been possible. She has seen first-hand how cash transfers allowed women to negotiate a patriarchal environment, and bring security to the next generation. She feels that studies that have concentrated on economics have failed to understand the impact of the work. “This is the research of the everyday, those details that can be overlooked. Yes, their lives may not be improving to such a great magnitude economically,” she explains, “but cash transfers provide clothing, education, food – and social inclusion. They allow women to negotiate a patriarchal society.”

In the Digo culture, when women divorce or are widowed, they usually move back to their mothers, together with their children. Fathers were traditionally required to pay ‘malezi’, a patrifiliation fee, if they wished to remain in contact with their children. In the 21st century, this has become an ongoing upkeep contribution, much like child support payments in the UK.

“Cash transfers have changed and challenged gender roles”

Cash transfers, Jacinta’s research shows, do not result in dependence in this context. “I don’t agree with that,” she says firmly. She’s seen women develop sophisticated financial planning around their limited budgets, carefully balancing expected income against expenditure. Women are running small businesses, taking out micro loans, and receiving family contributions, alongside the cash transfer. Cash transfers have changed and challenged gender roles, with women receiving an income precisely because they are caregivers. This economic change of status has allowed women to negotiate for the first time. “The cash transfer allows for planning and negotiation,” she explains. “It helps the world become more inclusive. I really would encourage more development organisations to include more cash transfers.”

Her anthropological studies gave her a new insight into aspects of life that can seem very mundane. “We think that caregiving, we think about it as simply a normal thing. But it’s about the future, about kinship obligations. Women find themselves making these choices to become physically or socially a mother, by taking on the care of children. They look at their bodies in new ways, as sources of the future. ”

“My motherhood shaped my field work – it became a success for my project”

Three years on from her pregnancy, things look very different. Jacinta’s daughter is a generous, thoughtful child, attending one of the University’s nurseries, which she loves. Childcare is expensive, but in addition to her Commonwealth Scholarship, Jacinta received additional financial support from the Newnham College, the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge Trust and the University’s Central Childcare Bursary scheme.

And more or less consciously, Jacinta’s parenting has been shaped by her work as an anthropologist: “I see her negotiating her space too, and how she’s trying to understand her environment.”

Jacinta’s research is a clear success, with the Royal Anthropological Institute recognising her work with an award for an outstanding PhD dissertation. Two retired Newnham Fellows helped with the English language proof-reading of the dissertation to make sure it would meet her high standards.

And what for the future? Jacinta smiles. With her PhD in the bag, she’s taking up her first post-doc position at the University of Oslo, and talking to the Kenyan government about the cash transfer scheme and Universal Healthcare. Wherever she goes, she wants to contribute her skills and knowledge to the welfare of women and children internationally.

“I’m here to make a difference,” she says firmly, as she picks up a bag stuffed with children’s toys and sets off to pick her daughter up from nursery.