Nicola Jones in conversation with Yitagesu Gebeyehu, Kiya Gezahegne, Abreham Iyasu, Kassahun Tilahun, Fitsum Workneh, Workneh Yadete
The GAGE Ethiopia qualitative research team have been carrying out participatory research since late 2018 with vulnerable adolescents across six different sites in Ethiopia, ranging from remote rural and pastoralist communities to the bustling city administration of Dire Dawa.
The adolescents involved in the participatory research groups are 15-19 years, and include young people with hearing and visual disabilities, married girls, out-of-school and working boys, and young people from IDP communities.
In the context of covid-19, the team was unable to continue with in-person group-based participatory research activities and has instead interviewed the participants virtually via mobile phone, to understand adolescents’ experiences and perceptions of the pandemic in their community. In this interview, the team members reflect on the process of carrying out virtual interviews in order to share some preliminary lessons about this research approach with vulnerable young people.
Nicola: The young people you have been contacting across Ethiopia span remote rural and crowded urban areas. Can you tell us about how you managed to get in touch with the adolescents and what some of the challenges were that you needed to address in the context of the covid-19?
Workneh: I have been working extensively with the field facilitators in rural East Hararghe to get in touch with adolescent boys in order to set up calls. Most boys have their own phones but for those who don’t, I discussed social distancing – the need to keep six feet apart and to wash their hands with soap and water before and after handling the phone – with the facilitator and the boys. No disinfectant materials are available as all markets are blocked and there is no access to urban shops.
Fitsum: Most girls from East Hararghe do not have mobile phones, so I worked with the field facilitator to negotiate the use of a family member’s phone or to use her phone. I told them to wash their hands carefully before and after using the phone. But there was no alcohol or disinfectant to use.
Yitagesu: I also told the facilitator to buy plastic bags to be used like gloves if the mobile had to be shared– but the majority had their own mobile phones. The issue was that their phones often ran out of battery, so I had to follow up several times to finish the conversation.
Abreham: In Ebenat (a district town), all of the participants had their own phones as did the boys in Dire Dawa (a large city), and so this wasn’t a major problem.
Nicola: What about the quality of the conversations by phone? What sorts of adjustments did you need to make?
Workneh: I was talking to queros (youth movement members) and IDPs and working adolescent boys, and although I had not talked to them all in previous rounds, they were familiar with GAGE and whenever I introduced myself as ‘Workneh from Addis Ababa’, they were happy to talk. The key thing I noticed was that because we couldn’t see the facial expression of the person – and even though I know the research sites well– the absence of these physical factors mean I can’t delve as deeply as I would have done in person.
Abreham: In my case, the interview process via phone was so positive – I didn’t encounter any problems employing in-depth probing, but we can’t control the environment. During regular fieldwork we select a quiet, neutral location like a school classroom where we are less likely to be disturbed. But in the case of Aquashmoch (a remote rural community in South Gondar), many respondents are from the centre of the community and know each other so if I’m interviewing multiple adolescents by phone, there is a chance they can share information about covid-19 and can listen to each other’s calls. Realising this, I used different questions –employed other ways of exploring how deep their knowledge was about the pandemic, and also urged them to find a quiet location off the main street given that in rural communities like Aquashmoch at the moment it is pretty much business as usual.
In Ebenat (a district town), people are under partial lockdown so it was different. Here, I interviewed adolescent boys with visual disabilities – almost all are living in their own private room – so it wasn’t a challenge to have an uninterrupted call. Moreover, because adolescents with visual impairments are accustomed to interacting without relying on facial expressions, the conversations were very comfortable.
Fitsum: The interview participants were open with me since they know us, and we have repeatedly visited their village as part of GAGE. The challenge during the first few interviews was to identify when the participants were pausing to think over an idea versus when they had actually finished articulating their idea. In this regard, I missed non-verbal information through phone interviews but I soon learned to adapt.
Yitagesu: The only challenge I faced was interviewing the married girls as culturally, they are under the control of their husbands. As you know, usually we work with female translators when talking with adolescent girls but this wasn’t possible, so I needed to convince the husbands first. The facilitator went to the married girls’ husbands to request that they allow their wives to be interviewed. I worked with a local facilitator – a teacher in the primary school who is well respected and a member of the same clan as our respondents – so this worked well.
The other important thing about the environment was that there are no separate rooms in the traditional Afar ari huts – so I recommended to the respondents that they talk to me under a tree – 10-15 metres away from anyone. I was surprised – the conversations with the married girls were fascinating – they talked very openly…it was easier than with the boys.
Kiya: In my case, the phone interviews were completely different from doing an interview in person. As you know, with the girls in Aquashmoch (a remote rural community), it is difficult to talk to them even in person as they are not used to being the centre of a conversation or answering questions. So, it was a bit tough through the phone – they gave short answers – some were asking for help from people around them about questions related to covid-19 and this was hard to manage over the phone. It is really difficult to understand their emotions – phone interviews require more attention and there were lots of interruptions due to poor network connections and some participants quickly tired of talking over the phone as they are not accustomed to it. . Even though I explained at the beginning of the interview that we would need at least 30 minutes and whether they had time, they would say ‘oh yes, sure’, only in the middle of the interview to ask to wrap it up quickly.
Because of the lack of visual cues, I also made a mistake – I assumed one participant was Christian – we didn’t have religion as a variable and it wasn’t clear from her name – so I asked her about the role of priests at the moment and whether people were still going to church and she replied that she was Muslim so she didn’t know. But we talked it through and she wasn’t offended, luckily!
In Ebenat (a district town), all the participants were open to phone interviews – and it was clear that these adolescent girls are more accustomed to talking over the phone. It went great – it was really comfortable talking to them. Most were excited and happy we kept our promise to stay in touch and to continue to do interviews despite the lockdown.
Kassahun: And I think it is also worth highlighting that it has been a learning curve for us as a team. We are used to coming together to share tools and data management guidelines, and to meet in person for debriefings to share findings and insights. But now with the “stay at home” declared, we are having to manage this through group conference calls and a WhatsApp group, which is far from easy given frequent power cuts and poor connectivity in many parts of the city.
Nicola: The contrasts across sites and among different types of participants are fascinating and highlight how important it is as researchers to be adaptable to the context.
How much of a role do you think the fact that the young people you are contacting are part of a longitudinal research sample?
Kiya: If we didn’t already have our sample, it would be difficult to ensure the participants are who we need. When we piloted these virtual phone interviews, we talked to respondents who were not part of the participatory study group and even though we specified who we wanted to talk to, in one case I got an older lady – I am sure she was not an adolescent – you get that sense from the answers. So it would be difficult to ensure that the participants meet the criteria – especially in contexts where people think there may be some sort of aid – and if they can’t see the person on the other side of the phone or don’t know us, they may not be as comfortable or as honest. Having met the adolescents several times, they consider us part of a family. They ask how we are doing and what has changed; much like the kind of questions we ask them. It is comfortable not only for the adolescent but also the researcher.
Abreham: The respondents may not feel free to talk in detail if they think it is related to political issues. The current political situation is not stable – and there are many political issues to discuss which link to the covid-19 situation. So, unless they have prior contact with us – I don’t think it would be easy to have these conversations. Fortunately, this interview tool was quite specific and relatively short, but I don’t think it would be easy to conduct phone interviews on broader topics – there is a time threshold beyond which it is difficult to converse with participants by phone.
Workneh: I fully agree – for this research we have no other option and the team is good at talking in detail about the situation. But in the future, if we want to delve into more sensitive political issues, we may find it difficult to control whether others are listening which can negatively impact the quality of the data. Given covid-19, if the situation continues for some months into the future – we will have to think further about what tools and approaches to use. But for now, this works well for emergency purposes.
Nicola: Thank you all for sharing your reflections on this new research approach in the context of covid-19. We look forward to hearing about your findings as to how the pandemic is impacting the lived realities of vulnerable young people in the next blog in the series.