Conducting Research at the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi

Kenya National Archives

Getting There: The National Archives are in the Central Business District (CBD), which makes them quite easy to get to from anywhere in Nairobi. Simply get a matatu (mini-bus) heading to ‘town’. Depending on the stage (stop) where you arrive, the walk to the archives is anywhere from 5-10 minutes. Here, google maps or simply asking for directions is the best bet until you become familiar with the area. I find that much of the CBD looks similar (many shops, a lot of matatus and tons of people), so it can take some time to orient yourself. Luckily, however, the archives are a very prominent building, so it’s relatively easy to find, and if you ask directions, most people will be able to point you in the right direction. If you are spending a lot of time at the archives you might want to stay in the CBD, especially as Nairobi traffic can be extremely busy during peak times. While it might take you 20 minutes to get from Kileleshwa or Lavington to the CBD when it isn’t busy, it can take an hour or more when there is a lot of traffic. So, either plan your day around traffic, or stay somewhere within walking distance.

What You Need: As a foreign researcher, you will need to pay 1500 Ksh (about $15 US) for a yearly pass to the archives. When I first arrived, I was greeted by one of the archivists, and we sat and chatted about what I was looking to find. She wanted to make sure the archives would be of use to me and I would be able to find the necessary documents, before I filled out the forms and paid the fee. You need to fill out a form with personal and professional details, and then go downstairs to the reception to pay the fee. You take the receipt back up to the archivist, along with one passport photo, and you will be given a document that allows you access to the archives for a year.

When You Arrive: There is a museum on the ground floor of the archive, and so there is a reception desk when you enter the National Archives. If you let the receptionist know that you are visiting the archives, she we let you pass through. However, if you have a backpack, you will be required to leave it with reception (they will give you a number). You can take your laptop, notebooks, pencils and phones into the archives. You will go up the stairs on the left, and the archives are on the first floor. You are supposed to sign in everyday.

Accessing Files: The archivist will show you the digital system, housed in a row of computers, where you can search for documents using keywords. Once you have found documents, write them down, including the year, name, room, shelf and box numbers. There are requisition forms available at the back of the room with the two young archivists – one for books and one for documents. You will fill these out, including your unique ID number and name, and give the slips to the archivist. You can request up to 5 files at a time. I learned the hard way that it can take a long time to actually receive the files. At one point I waited a full 3 hours in the morning before receiving any files. So, either request more files when you are partway through your current stack, or request files in the afternoon before you leave. They will be waiting for you in the morning when you arrive! The archivists are all extremely friendly and helpful.

Reading and Recording Files: You can take photos of the documents, and it seems that the number of photos per file is not strictly enforced. Many people are working on laptops, and I find that a combination of notes and photos is the best for recording information. There are outlets in the reading room as well, which is useful.

Practical Information: The search room is open from 8:30-4:30, Monday to Friday. For more information, please see the Kenya National Archives website. If you are not finished with a file at the end of the day, simply placing a piece of paper with your name on it and put it to the side. It will be waiting for you when you return.

Technology for the Archives: As mentioned in my post on the Tanzanian National Archives, I recommend Evernote for helping organize your notes and photos of documents from the archives. I have a notebook “Tanzania National Archives” that has notes from each file I have consulted, and the corresponding photos. I have labelled and can search each file, including the photos I have taken.  I have Evernote on both my laptop and phone so I can easily sync both my notes and the photos I take.

Good to Know: The documents are not always where the digital catalogue says they should be, and this can cause delays, or worse mean that certain files cannot be found. There is one retired archivist, who you will likely meet while you are there. His name is Richard, he is extremely friendly, and he is a wealth of information. He knows the archives better than the back of his hand, and even if the digital catalogue is incorrect, he usually knows where to find files and whether or not files are accessible. Richard is a great person to know, who can really help you navigate the archives more easily. All of my colleagues have turned to Richard for help at some point throughout their archival research!

Additional Information: There is also a museum on the ground floor of the National Archives, which is worth checking out at some point during your time at the archives. There are always between 5-10 local and foreigner researchers in the search room at any given time, and I genuinely found that working in the search room was extremely pleasant. It is bright and airy, with a cool breeze and the sounds of matatus and street hawkers coming through the window. You are a very much a part of the bustling city, while reading through Kenya’s fascinating and important historical documents. All in all, a nice contrast.

Inside the search room

Conducting Research at the National Archives in Tanzania


Getting there: The archives are located on Vijibweni Street in Dar es Salaam’s CBD. If you are coming from anywhere around Mikocheni, Namanga or the Peninsula, you can take a dala dala heading to posta (which, in October 2016, costs 400 shillings, or 25 from Namanga). Get off at ‘Aga Khan’, cross the street and follow Ali Hassan Mwinyi around the curve. Take your first right up Magore street & then your first right after that onto Vijibweni Street (see here on Google Maps). You’ll walk a few minutes down the Vijibweni and the archives will be on your left. Alternatively, if you are primarily in Dar es Salaam to access the archives, you can stay in Upanga or Kisutu, and simply walk to the archives everyday. There are plenty of hotels (both upscale and budget) in the area, as well as a handful of hostels (such as the YWCA).

What you need: As a foreign researcher, you will absolutely need to have your research permit from COSTECH in order to access the archives. When I was waiting for my research permit to be processed I brought a letter from the research institution I was working with, as I had read that foreign researchers could recieve short term access if they brought a letter from their local institutional affiliate. Be aware that this is no longer the case. You absolutely must bring a photocopy of your permit with you to the archives.

When you arrive: When you get to the archives you will sign in at the front desk. No bags, or drinks (including water) are allowed within the reading room, so you must leave your bag in one of the available lockers. However, you may bring your laptop, phone, notebook and pencils into the reading room. I recommend bringing a folder to help you organize notes, and keep loose papers organized.  The reading room is a single room, with a long table in the middle where researchers sit. The first time you arrive, you must provide the photocopy of your research permit & one of the archivists will set you up. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes.

Accessing files: This is where the process gets tricky, and time consuming. The archives have not been digitized, so there is no searching by keyword, and easily coming up with the relevant files. Instead, you have to roll up your sleeves and start digging through the physical record books. The record books are kept on two shelves within the reading room, and it takes a serious time committment to work your way even through these books. The records books themselves are not ordered, so your best bet is simply to pick a starting place and work your way from left to right, top to bottom. Each record book itself contains a list of files, related to either a single subject matter (such as education) or a single region (such as Mara). However, maybe half the records are well labelled, so it occassionally takes some flipping through each record book to realize the subject. Unfortunately, many of the record books are also falling apart at the bindings. You can order up to five files at a time. The extremely friendly archivist will provide you with a blank sheet of paper. Make sure you write down the accession number, as well as the file number and name. I once neglected to write down the accession number (usually printed at the top of each section of the record book, and was never able to find the record book that I had been going through again. Once you have ordered the files, you wait, and you hope that the files you want can be found by the archivist, or are indeed held at the National Archives. I am interested in the history of welfare policies in the Mara region, but approximately two-thirds of the files from the Mara region seem to be missing, including the files on the border councils between Kenya and Tanzania that I so desperately wanted to access. I am sincerely hoping that the archives in Kenya have the border council records, and that their holdings are better organized.

Reading/recording files: I find that there is something extremely satisying about a stack of old files being placed gingerly in front of me. Digging through the archives feels akin to a treasure hunt; searching for those valuable nuggets of data is both exhilirating and exhausting all at once. I sat in that reading room for hours upon hours, carefully turning pages of handwritten and typewritten notes dating from the 1920s to the 1960s, trying to decipher notes scribbled in the margins. Each gentle turn of the page (some of the pages seem to almost disintegrate under my touch), potentially brought new, useful data on colonial-era social welfare policies. You can take all the notes you want on the files, and honestly, after four days of taking handwritten notes, I brought my laptop with me and regretted not bringing it earlier. You can take up to five photos of each file. Of course when the files range from five to over a hundred pages, this sometimes requires assidious note taking for the files that happen to be both extremely relevant to your research and incredibly large.I recommend going through the entire file before choosing the documents you want to photograph. It can be helpful to bring strips of paper to mark potential documents that you may want to photograph.The five photo rule is strictly enforced by the archivist. If you want to take photos, you must first ask an archivist, who will come stand by your side as you take photos. The young archivist and I got into a steady routine and so one day he had stepped aside to help another researcher, while I was still taking my five photos. One of the senior archivists happened to come into the room just at that moment, and promptly (and angrily) demanded why I had not asked permission first. So, out of respect for the archives, the archivists, and the researchers that come after you, please follow the guidelines!

Practical information: The reading room is only open from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM. For more information, please see the Tanzania Records and Nation Archives website. If you are not finished with certain files when the reading room closes for the day, there are shelves where you can store the files you are currently working with. The archivist will provide you with a sheet of paper to write your name and “in use”, which you will then place on top of the files. A simple, but effective system!

Technology for the archives: Personally, I recommend Evernote for helping organize your notes and photos of documents from the archives. I have a notebook “Tanzania National Archives” that has notes from each file I have consulted, and the corresponding photos. I have labelled and can search each file, which will (hopefully) make consulting these files while I am writing much easier. I have Evernote on both my laptop and phone so I can easily sync both my notes and the photos I take.


Packing for a Year of Fieldwork


Over the years, I have overpacked many times for multi-country multi-month trips. Last year, when I was spending 6 months in Zanzibar, Tanzania and Ethiopia, with a stopover in Amsterdam on the way for a friend’s wedding, I definitely overpacked. Partly, it was the need to haul a bridesmaid dress across the ocean (which I later sent back to Canada with a friend), but it was also varying weather across countries. Knowing we were going on a multi-day hiking trip in the Simien mountains in Ethiopia where temperatures dip quite low during the night, had to be balanced with months spent in Stonetown, Zanzibar where conservative dress and light clothes to beat the heat are required.

Nonetheless, every trip I get a little bit better at packing less, and only packing what I will absolutely use. I am hoping that, eventually, I will get down to just a carry-on (but I am not holding my breath!)

What follows is a list of what I have packed for a year of fieldwork in Kenya and Tanzania. It will take me from conferences to elite interviews to months spent in remote villages near Lake Victoria. Often, when I am travelling for a month or so to remote villages I will try to bring only my carry-on bag and small backpack while leaving my larger backpack with friends or colleagues in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. It is easier to travel by bus or daladala (matatu) that way, and I can leave some clothes and books behind.

I carry on this duffle from Eagle Creek, which is lightweight, packs into itself and also has relatively comfortable backpack straps. All my electronics and important documents go into this bag. I also bring my hiking backpack.

Packing List


One pair of hiking shoes (sturdy enough to take me up and down a mountain)

One pair of running shoes (which I often leave in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam)

One pair of black leather keds (small, easy to pack and easy to clean)

One pair of black sandals (I like these ones, they have lasted forever. The ones I have are by RIA, not Pons, but are very similar)

One pair of beige flats


Most of my clothes are very neutral in colour. It might be a bit boring, but it makes it easy to mix and match outfits, which is an absolute must. I honestly think I overpack in terms of clothes. I could cut out a handful of the items below without missing them too much. However, it works for me because I can leave things in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam with friends, but if you have to move everything I do recommend packing even less.

Approximately three sets of interview clothes (two pairs of pants, three shirts and two light blazers/jackets)

Approximately three day-to-day conservative outfits that can be worn during interviews in remote villages and also after work in the city  (two long skirts made of lightweight cotton, lightweight black cotton pants, three lightweight cotton t-shirts and a button-up shirt)

Black jeans. As long as it isn’t too hot, these are useful anywhere. They can be dressed up for interviews with a button-up and a blazer or dressed down with a cotton t-shirt. I have these ones – they are expensive but worth the investment. They are so comfortable that I wear them on the plane.

Two sweaters. One is a beige pullover, the other is a black merino wool zip-up that can be layered for warmth. Sweaters are a must, especially at night in Nairobi. It can get cold.

Two jackets. One is a down North Face jacket. I regretted not bringing this to Nairobi last trip. I was incredibly cold. It packs down, and easy to transport. I also pack a lightweight rain jacket.

One set of workout clothes.


Any medications you aren’t comfortable buying in country. I do recommend buying antimalarials in-country, however. It’s much cheaper, and you don’t have to haul them everywhere.

Glasses and/or contact lenses.

DivaCup. For women, this is a great alternative to sanitary pads and/or tampons. Just be sure to wash it with purified water – this is an absolute necessity. I have heard horror stories of women who have travelled with the DivaCup, used tap water to clean it and ended up with infections.

First aid kit and needle kit (the latter is necessary for remote locations only). I try to keep the first aid kit simple and pack it with bandaids, polysporin, antibacterial wipes, a tensor bandage, water purifying tablets, antidiarrheals, allergy pills and paracetamol. All of this can be found in-country, but it’s useful to carry with you, especially to more remote areas.

You can find almost everything else in-country if you need. I bring a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, contact solution, etc. However, I buy replacements of everything in-country and always buy shampoo/conditioner once I arrive. The only thing I bring extra of are hair elastics (which were surprisingly difficult to find in Zanzibar).


Voltaic solar charger kit. I am so impressed with voltaic, as a company. They are incredibly responsive, support some great projects, and have good products. I use the Arc 20 watt solar charger kit, which comes with the panel and universal battery. I also ordered the MacBook adapters, which are amazing. Given that Apple has proprietary cords it can be very difficult to find solar panels that will connect to Apple laptops. Voltaic solves this by doctoring used cords to fit their system and sells them for a reasonable $20. Given the nature of my research, Voltaic also gave me the 30 percent discount they provide to PeaceCorps volunteer, which I was very grateful for as a PhD student! The solar charger is a lifesaver when I am working in remote villages, where electricity is either unavailable or unreliable.

Jumping rope and resistance bands – they are easy to pack and transport, and are very useful when I don’t feel comfortable going running.

Camera. I go back and forth on this. I love taking photos, but it takes up a surprising amount of space and weight. It sometimes makes the cut, and sometimes doesn’t.

Moleskine notebooks. I like the medium-sized volant notebooks as they are a bit sturdier (I can throw them into my bag without much worry). I have tried to move as much as I can to my computer. I have always preferred hardcopies and actual books, however, when you are travelling light, you cannot afford to bring too many books. I will usually bring one novel for the plane that I will trade or give away, and one non-fiction book that will get donated somewhere (such as BIEA’s library). That being said, notebooks are a must for me. They are useful in the archives and for taking notes in the field. You never know what is going to be relevant, or when you are going to want to jot down random thoughts. I always carry a notebook with me, and Moleskin has small versions that can easily put in a pocket. It’s well worth the extra weight, trust me.

Harddrive. I back up my data in two ways: first, using dropbox and, second, using my  hard drive. Losing data is an academic’s worst nightmare. Not worth the risk. Also, a couple of USB sticks are necessary, for backing up work and also for printing. I like the University of Toronto USB sticks because they are easy to identify!

Sunglasses. I don’t know if it is just me, but I struggle with brightness and am perhaps too reliant on having sunglasses with me. My Rayban wayfarers have lasted me over 5 years, and I am not easy on them. I have dropped them countless times, but they have never broken. I think they were worth the investment.

Two bags. First, a lightweight backpack from MEC (this one seems to be a classic Canadian one. It’s no longer available, which is a shame. It’s easy to pack down, is durable and serves well as a daypack). Second, a shoulder bag that I can carry to interviews. I have this one.


It has been a long time since I have actively kept a blog. Since I was living in Ghana in 2008, in fact.

However, during fieldwork, I keep a journal that details every aspect of the day. It helps me keep track of the ups and downs of fieldwork, as well as remember both the mundane and exciting details that potentially impact my interviews and research as it unfolds. The fallibility of human memory has necessitated such detailed field notes.

This blog will be less personal than the journal, but will provide links to interesting research, scholarships and data sources and also provide a forum for me to discuss my research and fieldwork as it unfolds. Thanks for following along!