Okbichaloni (Things Aren’t Always What They Seem to Be. Know That for Sure): Hustling, HIV, and Hope in Luoland, Western Kenya

Gemma Aellah

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine


The act of academic writing simplifies and fixes the rhythms of both long-term ethnographic fieldwork and the many-side lives that ethnographers try to represent. Finding ways to retain and meaningfully convey complexity is challenging. But it is also vital if we, as anthropologists, aspire to contribute less to objectifying and othering practices.  This piece of writing is a commentary on the limitations of ethnographic writing genres and an experiment in ‘writing otherwise’ (Stacey and Wolf 2016). Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2008-2012,  it offers an analytical reflection on the lives of a Luo generational group living in Western Kenya, disproportionately affected by HIV, who were/are trying to make a living and a good life in precarious times.  It also aims to convey the intangible zeitgeist of this time, while making transparent that this is experienced second-hand by the ethnographer.  To do this I use the format of song lyrics to evoke the rhythm of life during this specific time-period in Luoland, a rhythm punctuated by a poignant mix of optimism, pessimism, vitality and apathy, and underscored by the certainty of knowing that you will always be surprised by the turn of life-events. 

Departing from more conventional ethnographic genres, my piece is presented in three parts: 1. The written form of a song, each stanza representing a different story from my fieldwork, and composed using a bricolage of fieldnotes, Luo puns, snatches of song-lyrics popular in Kenya at the time, even a biblical verse. 2. An explanatory academic commentary annotated with images and 3. A Glossary which provides contextual understanding to the phrases used in the song. The glossary can be consulted to reveal some of the double-meanings and deeper contexts in the phrases used. But, equally, I want the reader to be able to first read the lyrics without it, in the way you might listen to a song, picking up on the feeling, and then only later getting the layered meanings. By encouraging this I celebrate the ‘elasticity of the idiom’ (Nyairo and Ogude 2005) as used by my research participants.

Update: This piece of writing has been shared with some of the global health researchers working in the region described. Interestingly, feedback indicates that this unconventional format was found illuminating for helping them to understand some of seemingly puzzlingly situations they encountered during their work. More so than a more conventional publication I also shared about why young men living with HIV might struggle to adhere to their life-saving HIV medication consistently. This suggests a future where such experiments need not/should not be confined to conversations with other anthropologists within Creative Ethnography Special Issues.

See: Gemma Aellah (2020) Understanding men, mood, and avoidable deaths from AIDS in Western Kenya, Culture, Health & Sexuality, https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2019.1685131  


HIV; Kenya; Ethnography; Fieldwork; Othering; Global Health; Music

Author contact: gemma.aellah [at] lshtm.ac.uk

Citation: Aellah, G., 2019. “Okbichaloni (Things Aren’t Always What They Seem to Be. Know That for Sure): Hustling, HIV, and Hope in Luoland, Western Kenya”, Irish Journal of Anthropology, 22(1), 12-27.