WMU prof wins NSF grant to study stress in Kenyan communities

contact: Mark Schwerin
| WMU News

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A Western Michigan University anthropologist has been awarded a $135,891 National Science Foundation grant to study the impact of intercommunity violence on young people in rural northern Kenya.

Dr. Bilinda Straight, professor of anthropology, is one of two principal investigators involved in the project along with Dr. Ivy Pike, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona. Together they will assemble a research team studying the stress levels of young people living in communities at war with each other.

Photo of Dr. Bilinda Straight


Building on previous research

The total award for the project, which builds on previous research conducted from 2008-2011, is $293,395. The research team will revisit the Kenyan ethnic groups known as the Samburu, Pokot and Turkana. In earlier studies, Straight and her colleagues had assessed members of the pastoral ethnic communities for mental and physical impacts of violence across the age spectrum from babies to the very old. This time, they will have a closer look at the impact of violence on young people ages 10-19.

The researchers use a combination of anthropometric measures and ethnographic methods to assess the impact of stress due to violence on community members, from physical measurements to mental health screening and health self-reporting. Not surprisingly, they found older people to be one of the most vulnerable groups, but they were surprised to find teens up to the age of 16 had some of the lowest body mass index scores.

"That was a bit surprising at first," Straight says. "Then, as we thought about it, it wasn't a surprise because the teenagers are doing the bulk of the herding and the bulk of the difficult herding. So they're growing fast and putting out a lot of energy. And they're not as privileged for food."

When apportioning scarce food resources, most communities will give more nourishment to infants and little children than teens. It appears the pastoralist groups in northern Kenya are the same.

High risks, high stakes

The title of the project is "Vulnerable Transitions and Cumulative Embodied Stress Among Teens in High-Risk, High Stakes Pastoralism." Straight says raids or attacks by rival groups are not uncommon, and small battles can flare up quickly, especially at night, with youths caught in potentially violent situations.

"Kids and young adults who are off at these cattle camps are on the front lines, as it were," Straight says. "We're very interested in understanding their decision making. On the one hand, they are under the supervision of their parents, especially fathers, who are managing the herds. But on a daily basis, and on a minute-by-minute basis, they are the ones who are making immediate decisions."

Straight has been studying the Kenyan pastoralist groups since 1992. She is able to converse in Samburu and is fluent in Kiswahili. The new project will begin in the summer and will take two years to complete.

High-tech methods

The researchers are exploring the use of several high-tech methods, including mobile tracking devices the youths control so they can participate in the research, as well as monitoring their body mass index, measures of stress and immune function, mental health screening and self-reporting.

"We don't know enough about teenagers globally," Straight says. "We know a lot about teenagers in western countries or more economically developed regions, but we don't know as much cross-culturally. So we want to understand how they make their decisions, how they respond to the stresses that they have, the levels of vulnerability they are facing and how resilient they are to the vulnerability they are facing."

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