Working the field

mauriceFieldwork, the most exciting, and perhaps scary, part of the 2-year Research Master in African Studies (RESMAAS) offered by the Africa Studies Center and Leiden University. With this blog, the first out of two blogs on fieldwork experiences, I hope to give you some insight into the experiences of some students who just returned from their fieldwork. Hopefully, this will make you a little bit more excited to start with the RESMAAS program.

Maurice carried out his fieldwork in Malawi and looked at legitimacy, the national myth and political culture. While also using newspapers as a major source of data he considers the “tracking down and interviewing” of informants to be the most fun part. The fact that some of these interviews required a slightly uncomfortable bus ride did not deter from the thrill. Cramped minibuses are for many part and parcel of the charm of fieldwork. The willingness of respondents to share their knowledge was always gratifying, as was a cold beer in the evening to relax after a hard day’s work. That fieldwork is a serious and complicated task in which it is essential to remain critical towards your informants is another thing Maurice experienced at first hand. While talking to an informant (alleged) intelligence agents monitored him and asked what he was doing. Following this meeting he met a prominent politician who, according to old newspapers, was involved with “charges of fraud and corruption, and active involvement in trying to depose the newly elected (former) president!”

Informants with a history are however not the only thing to be careful about, as Marina experienced during her research on epilepsy in Tanzania. While taking pictures of a few peacocks she managed to upset the police. The background of her pictures was the “Ikulu, or the Presidential Palace” earning her an impromptu trip to the police station. So much for sticking with the plans for that day! Or at least, so it looked… events took a fortunate turn. Marina describes: “In my fluent Swahili I explained to him that I was only taking photos of the two peacocks and never meant any harm. The guy started wondering where I came from and how I learned Swahili. Little by little I began to feel that the policeman stopped seeing me as a dumb European girl who he could scare with the police station talk to extract some money from her. Our conversation was becoming more and more like a friendly chat.” Eventually, he felt sorry and decided to let Marina go (after deleting the peacock pictures). This exemplifies the benefits knowing the local language can have. Not only can it earn you a lot of sympathy and get you out of tricky situations but it also aids tremendously in the process of data collection and getting integrated in your fieldwork community.

Marina with some locals in Kigamboni, Tanzania.

Leaving police and intelligence agents behind, Mariska takes us to Ghana. Her research focuses on school feeding programs. In her case, it is not a crowded bus (Maurice), nor a ferry (Marina) but a bicycle and motorbike which are used for her transportation. After waking up at 6am she goes with a circuit supervisor of the Ghana Education Service to a school participating in the Ghana School Feeding Program. Mariska notes that while the traffic in her new ‘hometown’, Tamale, is a lot calmer than in Accra, Ghana’s capital, compared to the Netherlands, it is utter chaos. Traveling on a motorbike allows her to enjoy “the nice breeze and the colourful sights of the streets of the city centre.” When leaving the town and paved roads to her research location of the day, a school in Kotingli, “the landscape becomes greener, as it still is the rainy season, the houses change to thatch roof huts and the pace of life, and of Joseph’s motorbike, slows down.” Here Mariska gets a firsthand experience of what the school feeding program entails, and see what the menu looks like, as she speaks with head teachers and cooks. It also gives her an opportunity to take pictures that will help her when looking back at the notes she took during the visit. However, there is more value to be found in the visit because Mariska is introduced to “the caterer and some of the farmers in the village” whom she intends to ask questions “about the link between the programme and local agriculture.” After this, a second school is visited followed by a relaxing drink with a friend back in Tamale. After a long and productive day, Mariska can enter the weekend satisfied!

Children at a school feeding program in Ghana.

Children at a school feeding program in Ghana.

These three fieldwork experiences show the diversity in research topics and locations that are possible within the RESMAAS program. Nonetheless, there are also similarities. The gratification after a productive day is universally shared. Similarly, one almost never knows how that day of fieldwork will work out. Every day can lead to exciting, new situations in which you will have to adapt quickly in order to get the best out of your day. In the end, fieldwork changes in the field and so enter it with an open mind!
–          Roeland

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