Dealing with Loneliness during Fieldwork

Fieldwork can be a great time: you get out of the office, possibly out of Durham and out of the country, to go and do fieldwork in an exotic and distant land like Burkina Faso.  Your colleagues are jealous of you: while they are stuck in freezing England, you see the sun every day and drink palm wine and spend a lot of days lazing about, following the rhythm of life of the people you work with.

But this does not factor in the loneliness: the sometimes engulfing feeling that overtakes you at random moment, the feeling that you are truly alone.  Not because you have not made friends or do not have anyone to talk to, no.  But being a white person where white skin is synonymous with wealth, projects, funding, makes it harder to make real friends, friends who you are sure are your friends because they really like you.   And how do you know that?  Only time will tell.

So you find yourself lonely in the midst of a country full of people visiting you, calling you to say good morning, asking after your family.  But you still feel alone.  Because you cannot share your experience of being a white woman in Burkina.  And you cannot talk to people back home either, because it is difficult to explain.  Chances are the people back home do not even really know what your research is about, or why you came to Burkina to do it either.  So how can you explain the myriad of feelings which sometimes threaten to pull you down with them?  When you miss your family, friends, and even simple things like familiar food, cleanliness, roads without dust, good internet connection?

How to explain people stopping you in the street just to ask you where you are going, or to get them a correspondent in your country, or how Paris is (if you are white, most people assume you are French), or to get them a visa?  How to explain that being a white woman attracts hordes of men wanting to go out with you, and women being resentful towards you?  How to explain the subtle differences in the way of life of the country that might make your life a misery if you don’t understand them?  And most of all, how to explain the misplaced affection you risk giving to people you wouldn’t normally give back home?  Just because you have no one else to share your life with?

Handing Over too much of the Stick: When research becomes real messy

Robert Chambers (1994: 1254)[1] advised to hand over the stick in participatory research.  Now the reader must first know that I am a control freak.  And that in all the participatory exercises I have facilitated before (for the Masters’ assignments and dissertation) I have had trouble in letting go and stepping back to take up my role as a facilitator / observer.  So in the days running up to the participatory diagramming exercise I was to do with a group of people with disabilities in Fada ’N Gourma in Burkina Faso, I mentally readied myself to let go, to go with the (research) flow and let the group take me wherever they want to.

Right.  To begin with, I put a sheet of flipchart paper in front of the participants and asked them to brainstorm, thinking they will be happy to get a marker and write / draw, in a chaotic fashion, all over the flipchart.  You would think anyone would be happy to do that, right?  Wrong.  The participants decided to elect a chairperson and a secretary, and only the secretary would write down what the group said.  When did group work become so structured?

Meanwhile, the whole exercise was being dominated by mostly one person, who decided that he will either write everything himself or else dictate what to write to the secretary, while deeming what other people said (if different from what he said) not important, and stopping other people from speaking (because, he decided, it is not relevant to the topic) and then speaking endlessly himself (which mostly was, I decided, not relevant either).  To top it all, he was speaking over other people in general (making me worried about not getting a coherent recording).

You would be right to ask: where was I in all of this?  As a facilitator, I should at least mediate to keep the balance in the group.  But no, I was cowering behind my laptop, making half-hearted attempts at encouraging others to speak up but not really achieving my goal.  Worst of all, at this stage, I was not holding back so as to let the group take control.  No.  I was holding back because I was afraid of offending the dominant person, whom I needed to finish my research in the region.  Bad.  Very bad.  To be fair, the others let him take control because he is the eldest (and in Burkina, people respect the elder / eldest person in the group and would rarely contradict him), so maybe I can excuse myself by saying I was respecting the local tradition?  Probably not.

The worst part came after the brainstorming session, when I kept trying to direct the participants to formulate the research questions and develop the diagram.  But no, they had decided that they wanted to develop the brainstorming ideas further, and also write them down properly. (Why wouldn’t they be messy when I was giving them permission, nay, encouraging them, to be messy?  I was feeling rather resentful at the participants for not taking up my gracious offer to be unstructured.)  So they launched into what must have been the most boring (participatory diagramming) session ever, with our guy dictating, the girl next to him writing, and the others dozing off.  I swear they were writing a freaking essay.  Worst of all, we had not even formulated the research questions.

So at one point I decided to take over a bit and started ‘provoking’ them, asking why and how, and trying to get them to reflect deeper on what they were saying.  In this case, I asked them to think about the causes of the problems they were exploring, that is, problems people with disabilities encounter in Burkina (a theme they had decided on themselves).  They were also delving into the consequences, practically on their own, and so I directed them to also think about possible solutions.

At this point, I wondered if we even needed the diagram.  Time was ticking.  People were getting tired and restless.  But I still wanted my diagram, darn it!  This was supposed to be a participatory diagramming exercise, and, although a niggling feeling at the back of my mind kept telling me that this was the way they chose to do it, and it does not have to be a diagram, my white researcher complex took over and I preposterously convinced myself that, had they done the diagram, instead of them writing three whole flipchart sheets of long incomprehensible sentences, the session would have been much more alive.

At the end, we did the diagram, after the analysis! And I wrote down the research questions (very participatory of me) while they (mostly our guy) were developing the diagram.  So maybe the exercise was messy in the end…after all, the research questions were formulated at the end, and the analysis was done before the diagram.  And if that is not one messy participatory diagramming exercise, then what is?

[1] Chambers, R. (1994) ‘Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA): Analysis of Experience’, World Development, vol. 22, no. 9, pp. 1253-1268.

The Ups and Downs of Doing Interviews in Burkina Faso

Fieldwork being quite a lonely encounter, I wanted to write a bit about my experiences in Burkina Faso.  I am conducting research with people with disabilities and am currently in the eastern region of the country, based in the town of Fada n’Gourma.  

I have just returned from a trip to a village which is around 20km away from the Niger border, as I kept being reminded by the dozens of trucks and trailers passing by on the main road (or parked on the main road, thereby blocking it). They are carrying merchandise or material, anything from steel for the railway which is currently being built in Niger, to pagnes (a cloth which women wear as a skirt, tied around their waist and coming down to their ankles, or else use to tie their baby or toddler to their back, or to put underneath the basin they carry on their heads.  These cloths have various patterns printed on them, including 8th March (Women’s Day) celebratory pictures or religious (Christian) ones).

The different uses of the ‘pagne’


After having travelled 150km by motorcycle yesterday, and then again today, coming back to the town where I am currently staying, I was so exhausted and hurting all over that I could barely walk. (Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t doing the actual driving: the interpreter was, meaning I had nothing to do except sit back and enjoy the scenery.  Except that I couldn’t really sit back because I would have fallen off.  And the scenery does tend to get tiring after a while).  What’s more, I never feel satisfied with anything I’m doing.  Why, you ask? Well, because of lots of different reasons, which I will here try to enumerate without boring you too much.


Conducting an Individual Interview…

The concept of private individual interview seems to elude me each time.  Meaning, I go to someone’s dwelling to conduct an interview, usually in the courtyard, since the hut would be too small or too hot.  So we end up doing the interview with various family members, neighbours, and friends of the interviewee looking on, and sometimes chipping in for good measure.  What’s more, the president of the local disabled people’s organisation would usually be there too (especially if he would have accompanied us to the interviewee’s home.  I say ‘he’ because I have not encountered a female president yet), unless we can find a polite way to tell him to take a walk.

'Individual' Interview
‘Individual’ Interview


L’eau de l’étranger…

So we start by someone from the family bringing us a bowl of water to drink from, what they call here ‘l’eau de l’étranger’, meaning the water that you offer to strangers coming to your home.  And the interpreter drinks and the president drinks, and then it is my turn: to drink or not to drink?  That is the ultimate question.  To be polite and have a sip, or refuse on health, hygiene and, mostly, the word on everyone’s lips right now, Ebola, reasons?  Don’t get me wrong, I eat from the same plates as other people I am out with, and drink dolo (a kind of beer made from red millet) from the same bowls, but at least that would be with people I know…mostly.

'L’eau de l’étranger'
‘L’eau de l’étranger’


The wooden chair…

Then we sit down to start the interview: usually I am offered the place of importance, a concept which I hate but can rarely escape from, unless I want to offend the hosts.  But how am I to mitigate power relations and fight inequality when I keep being offered the best (least broken) wooden chair, which is, incidentally, so much less comfortable than sitting on one of those very low wooden stools people here use, or sitting cross-legged on a mat?


The strategic position of the dictaphone…

Then there is the problem of where to put the dictaphone…not only where to physically put it, but also where to put it so as best to capture the interviewee’s, the interpreter’s, and my voice and leave out the hens’ squawking, the sheep’s bleating, the donkeys’ braying and the children’s crying or shouting.

A small side note: children have a habit of behaving in two ways when they see me: they either stare at me with scared or surprised wide-eyed stares, and start withdrawing as soon as I approach them, or else scream for joy and start running after me, calling ‘nassara’ (white person) at the top of their voices and waving.  There are other ways as well, such as children coming over to me and curtsying slightly with their arms crossed, and saying ‘bonjour’ or, as was the case one time, running away from me as fast as possible, crying and screaming for their mother.


Managing the heat…

Then there are those interviews where I am sitting in a structure whose roof is sheet metal, in a 40-something degrees Celsius, with sweat trickling down my spine, and not a breath of fresh air in sight.  And I just cannot, cannot continue to ask any coherent questions or probe the interviewee on an answer they have just given, because I cannot wait for the interview to be over and to get away and go and have a coke with ice….oh no, wait, I cannot have ice because it is not bottled water.  And I wrote down, on the risk assessment form, that I am only going to drink bottled water.  Plus, I have just recovered from being sick for a whole week after I ate something out in the bush (I love that expression…it makes me feel like I am being really adventurous, or in one of those films like ‘Out of Africa’ or something).  Or maybe it was the rice with peanut sauce which had what I thought was beef in it, but afterwards discovered it was the cow’s stomach…

Huts and sheet-metal covered houses


Cow’s stomach and guinea fowl’s feet aside, I wouldn’t exchange this experience for anything else.  I would not want to miss out on meeting the people I have met, who kindly let me have a look at their lives (something which I struggle with all the time, as I know most researchers do, in the sense that I feel they are letting me into their lives and I am just a voyeur, greedily collecting data and expanding my knowledge, while realising how little I know and how, as the regional coordinator of the disabled people’s association kindly told me, I know nothing about Burkina.), whether they decide to expose to me the true version of their lives or a slightly modified one, if that is what they think I want to hear.  But, as a friend told me, their truth is always their truth and even when they tell you what they think you want to hear/find, it also says a lot about how they portray you/themselves within their sense of ‘globality’.  Which I think is a perfect ending to these rambling thoughts.  No, scratch that, it’s not the perfect ending at all…this is just the beginning.