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Village research part II

We stood in front of the trading area and a few other people came by. Our guide’s son, Richard, told us that several of them would be attending our meeting. We smiled and thanked him, but also tried to make two points: first, we had brought a few refreshments for our meeting – about 8 sodas – and those were still in our car, quite a walk away from here. At the very least, we would want to go get them. Second, we were really hoping to have a conversation with just a small group of people to talk about how things worked in the village, not to call a village meeting.  “Oh sure,” he said. “That’s ok.” And I assumed that as magically as this meeting was being arranged, it would be modified to our requested format.

We continued to proceed up and over the hill. Richard explained that some villagers were on their way to a meeting with British American Tobacco, and would plant and sell for them. Meanwhile, as per our protocol, Ruth was receiving SMS messages on her phone that the questionnaires were going fine. Our enumerators were finding the households and conducting the interviews, but they would later explain that these were extremely impoverished and difficult conditions, even for this poor area.

We agreed that we would hold the meeting near where we parked our car – which was in front of a small but solid structure that we learned was a church for the community, one of the three Seventh Day Adventist churches in the village. It was very hot out, and we had toured the village, so we decided to proceed to the car and wait there for our 2pm meeting. We arrived before 1pm and already about 8 people were sitting on the stoop in front of the church. Ruth and I were both hungry and thirsty, but we were also conscious of not eating in front of a group of people who might be hungry, but for whom we did not have an adequate supply to share. So we subtly climbed into the car, kept our heads low, and scarfed down our peanut butter sandwiches. It was so hot out, and my throat was so dry, I practically choked on a glob of peanut butter, but quickly washed it down with a few swigs of warm water.

When we exited the car, there were about 15-20 people hanging around the front of the church, and more seemed to be coming. Each new person would shake our hand, and those of everyone else present. Ruth began to conduct the interview under the sliver of shade cast by the church, but in so doing was unable to face most of the people who were also protecting themselves from the blazing mid-day sun. I asked if we could have the meeting inside, which was easily arranged since the church leader was in our midst and opened the door.

We entered the room, which was simple and dark, but relatively cool. Before I could help, the church deacon placed two chairs in the front of the room, and we would face two sets of pews, divided by a small aisle – about 4 rows that could fit about 5 people each on either side. The women and some children filed in to our right, all of the men to our left. Among the adults, there was no crossing of the aisle.

Ruth guided the group interview, which was mostly dominated by a few men who felt comfortable speaking. The women were not silent, but it was clearly not a balanced discussion. They answered our questions clearly, told us about how decisions were made, the sources of frustration, and the problems of education, poverty, and a recently unpunished murder in the community.

Our plan was to serve refreshments mid-way through the discussion, but we brought just 8 sodas for a planned group of 4 or 5. There were now at least 30 people in the room. So while Ruth carried on with the meeting, I stepped out and called Richard – our field coordinator, not the elder’s son, who was still in the meeting –  to ask his advice. He asked me if there was a nearby place where I could buy more. Nothing within at least 45 minutes each way by my estimation. So he asked to get on the phone with the elder, and I passed my phone to him. They spoke for a few minutes and I got back on. Richard told me to skip the refreshments altogether. The elder would tell people to go home after the meeting. I was glad to not cause a commotion, but felt badly that we would not be able to provide our small token of appreciation.

Ruth continued and concluded the group interview, gathering the information we needed. At the end, one man stood up and said something more or less like the following: “This is a great day for our village. On this day, for the first time ever, the wazungu (white people) have come. Together, we will remember this day forever. God must have been smiling on us. We will build a primary or a secondary school and we will name it after Ruth and Evan.” We smiled. I was glad they were happy to see us. But as always, we had taken great pains to explain that we were researchers, that we would try to provide knowledge to the wider world about the challenges they faced, and we hoped that out of our work would come some positive benefits. But we were not providers of goods or services and could not arrange for such provisions. People said they truly understood. But nonetheless, the hopes for something else were still there. The ethical dilemmas of doing research, frankly of doing anything in these communities, are ever-present. Just because the education is so poor, and we could see that first-hand, does not imply it was our responsibility to fix it. But it’s also heartbreaking to see the problems, to get back in our car, and to drive away.

Ruth in the church after our meeting

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

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