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View from the field: researchers’ perspectives

Country research team on fieldwork in Ethiopia. Photo: Kassahun Tilahun Dessie

[NicolaI understand that when you went to Afar, a remote region in eastern Ethiopia where the population is largely nomadic, that it was fascinating from a content perspective but that there were challenges in the research process. Could you tell us about what happened and what it’s like to be a researcher on the ground?

[Kassahun] Field work in Afar was full of challenges. The first was simply reaching the research site. As expected, we faced difficulties crossing the roads; it was the rainy season and our cars got completely bogged. Normally, the road from where we stay to the district town takes 40 minutes but on that day, the road was full of mud. We had to get out and put stones underneath the car. The other car carrying the rest of the research team had to pull us out with ropes, which took around half an hour.

We ended up sending our local facilitators to the community, and asking them to escort the respondents to where we were stuck. They happily did so and in the end we conducted the interviews outside in the forest.

But from a security perspective, it was already tense. On our drive to the district town, we were stopped twice. The militia had closed the road with large stones. Our facilitators from Afar had to convince them to let us through.

[Workneh] Then before we reached the district town, we encountered  huge crowds participating in a demonstration. They blocked all the roads with stones and some of them threatened us, but one of our local facilitators jumped out of the car and talked to them. After much back and forth, we received permission to carry on to the town.

The next day, we managed to reach the community without any problems. The local militia youth were still blocking the road but let us through because we had already established trust.

However, later on during the interviews, we realised that people were fighting outside. Some clan members were beating one of our facilitators – the vice chairman of the local community – because they thought he had stolen the opportunity from their clan to join us as a research facilitator during our visit.

The research team debated whether to intervene as group punishments are part of the Afar culture, but I felt responsible and insisted that we explain the situation—which was that no one from the previous facilitator team was available when we arrived yesterday—to the clan members. We decided that whatever the consequences were, we had a responsibility to explain the research objectives and process. We explained everything in detail through translators and fortunately the clan elders understood, apologised for the misunderstanding and ceased the beating.

[Workneh] When we returned back to the town where we were staying that evening, however,  the situation had totally changed. It had been peaceful in the morning but in the evening, the whole area was invaded by the police and there was fear that the conflict would expand. We contemplated whether to continue the field work. In the morning, the fighting was still ongoing, but we decided it was still possible to reach the more far-flung research site.

[Nicola] What was the conflict over?

[Workneh] It was ethnic conflict.

[Kassahun] There are Amharas living unofficially in the Oromo zone of Amhara, which is on the border of Amhara and Afar regions where we were staying. But most of the people who live there are Oromos. The ethnic conflict was between Oromo and Amhara, likely over land rights.

[Workneh] But we had a problem with one of the vehicles. The evening before the driver had started to hear the car make a strange sound. But because of the conflict, he couldn’t find people to service it. In the morning, we decided to take one group to the research community and then Kassahun and one of the translators stayed behind to get the car fixed.

[Workneh] On route to the research community, the mud was still a problem. We took lots of equipment out of the car, and collected stones around the forest to put underneath the wheels. Finally, we managed to leave around midday.

By the time we arrived at the community which is about a two hour drive across the dessert on an unmarked road, the whole day had been wasted. We decided then to stay there until we had finished the fieldwork. However, this community is extremely remote, there is no accommodation, no services and it’s difficult to find anything to drink and eat.

Luckily Kassahun had brought some food in the second vehicle and the locals helped us with two goats: one for the Muslims, one for the Christians. We cooked on an open fire and I got up before sunrise to prepare the coffee and cook.

The men on the team slept outside under the stars next to the vehicles, while the female researchers slept in the two cars. Several local clan members kept guard at night given there was an ongoing conflict in the region with another ethnic group which the local community was anxious about.

[Kassahun] But beyond these challenges and tragedies, we did have a good time there. Especially when we stayed for two nights in the community where we could chat and share experiences, among us but also with the local community.

[Workneh] Some boys came to our area in the evening and started to sing, so we joined them. In Amharic we say ‘penetrating the sky’. Their voices were penetrating the sky. It was so beautiful.

[Kassahun] Despite all the challenges, I’m so proud to be part of GAGE and to experience this kind of field work. We have to reach to these communities and to listen to the voices of the people. In the future, we are planning to do a feedback session and stay there for 4-5 days, but be prepared with food, sleeping bags and the like.

[Nicola] It gives a new meaning to the Leave No One Behind agenda, taking it seriously.

[Workneh] I also think these kinds of experiences help us to learn that our researchers should always be ready to face challenges in the field and to think critically. Researches should also think about how to be flexible. If they weren’t, we probably would have missed the interviews in the communities but which were so rich – especially the interviews about adolescents experiences of early marriage.

[Kassahun] Also, researchers and especially facilitators must know the culture of the specific ethnicity and clan, and about the dynamics between clans.

[Nicola] Yes, working with the local community requires skillful navigation, especially in such a diverse context like Ethiopia.

Meti, I understand that there were some particular challenges that you faced during the field trip as a female researcher. Can you tell me about this?

[Meti] It is a difficult environment to be a female researcher in Afar. There is no hotel and no guest house. There were four female researchers sleeping in the car. The drivers were sleeping in another car and Workneh and Kassahun were sleeping in the field.

Plus, we feared the conflict between Somalis and the Afar. We heard from our translators that they were beheading Afar ethnic groups, and the area we were sleeping was near the Somali border.

[Nicola] That’s very stressful.

[Meti] Yes. But while we were sleeping in the car, the adolescent boys and girls came to us and they invited us to dance the Sadaa traditional dance. We missed out [because our colleagues from another part of Afar were anxious about the conflict] but we heard their voices while they were dancing, they have really amazing voices.

Though as a female, it was not easy, there is no washing, we couldn’t change our clothes, we couldn’t wash our bodies…

[Nicola] No toilets either?

[Meti] There is a toilet in the school. But when Kassahun and our driver went to buy water from the closest town, unfortunately there was little available. You know it is a desert when you can’t find water, so we consumed the water only for drinking purposes.

[Nicola] That’s tough.

[Meti] During that time, I was fasting and there is no food, no water. We were forced to break our fasting and eat a goat which we bought from the local community.

But what was really tough for me was the experience of married girls. It is really tragic. They don’t want to live with their husbands. They’re about 15-17 while they’re husbands are 50-60. They don’t like to live with them as they beat and abuse them, and they are not allowed to move around the community. They’re not allowed to chat or meet friends, their mobility is highly restricted. They were begging me to take them away from their community.

[Nicola] How did you handle that?

[Meti] Unfortunately I told them that we came for the research and it’s not ethical to go with them or to take them to urban areas. We are doing this research to solve this problem but at this stage, I couldn’t help them.

[Nicola] Did they understand?

[Meti] Yes, finally they understood. I was sad because I couldn’t do anything for them, even though they were begging me.

[Nicola] It’s really tough.

[Meti] Yes it’s really tough. During the field work it was  also really hot and the car does not have AC. At the same time, we feared that someone might come when we were sleeping. In order to finish early, we did 4 interviews each day – not our usual 3.

[Nicola] That’s intense. When they first explained that you were going to sleep overnight because the road was too bad to stay there, what was your feeling?

[Meti] It was really horrible. We couldn’t find anybody to support us with the car and since it was rainy season, it was unthinkable to go back to the district town. I proposed an idea with Workneh, which was that if we really must do this research, we had to stay in the community.

[Nicola] Ah, so it was your idea?

[Meti] Yes, it was my idea. Because the risk is minimal in the community, but we had no idea what would happen if they couldn’t solve the problem. It was challenging but we were wanted to finish and spend the last two nights there.

[Nicola] It’s very memorable.

[Meti] Very memorable.

[Nicola] Wokneh said you also had some challenging interactions with some of the men?

[Meti] Yes, last time one of the elders came to my Afar research partner and asked whether I was married. It was simple for me to understand Afaric, since its Kushatic language and the root word is similar. I told her to tell him that I was married and have three children.

The other case involved harassment with an older guy. Myself and the translator were doing an interview with married girls when the guy came and asked my translator whether she needed camel milk. She said ‘I like camel milk, yes please’. To which he said ‘I will not give you camel milk freely. If I give you the camel milk, I need something back from you.’ The guy wanted to marry my translator. In the beginning, she thought he was kidding but the guy was serious. He invited her to go home with him and I said ‘she is married and has two children’ and he said ‘doesn’t matter, I also have lots of children and wives and I want to marry her’. It became quite awkward and tense, and we had to solicit the support of the community elders to intervene and explain the misunderstanding.

Also, the other team were interviewing adolescents. But there was a clash between our facilitator and a local man. The clan leader came to them and they started to beat our translator in front of me. I couldn’t intervene, I told Kassahun.  Workneh then came with our translator and told them the purpose of the research. They were fighting because the guy was angry that his daughter had not been included in the research. In Afar culture, whether or not you are at fault, the Clan leader will beat you.

[Nicola] That’s terrible. Why was the girl not included?

[Meti] She could not take part because she was above age. Finally, they were convinced and the beating was stopped.

[Nicola] Would you stay in that remote research community again or not?

[Meti] If we do field work there again, we will have to prepare well beforehand. If we had tents, sleeping bags and such, it would have been much easier. But we didn’t prepare well as it was a sudden decision, which is why it was so difficult.

[Nicola] In your work with married girls, do you think it was a positive experience for them to participate?

[Meti] Yes, they were really happy to talk, to share their experiences because their husbands are suspicious. They are not allowed to go to their neighbours’ or friends’, so the only option for them is to talk about their experiences with us. They were happy, laughing. They were so open.

[Nicola] Thank you very much Meti, very interesting findings.