Navigating Fieldwork, Rwanda-Style

From The New York Times “Scientist at Work – Notes from the Field”

Published August 26, 2010

By Michael Mascarenhas

Mwaramutse (good morning) from the muzungu (white person in Rwanda).

Social science fieldwork is messy.  There is no other way to describe it.  Decisions have to be made — or, more appropriately, negotiated — throughout every step of the research process: about how to begin, to get into a setting, to collect data, to exit a setting, to analyze data and to write.  And many of these decisions are simply not up to the social scientist.  Traveling to far-off places like Rwanda takes this messiness to a new level.

First, you have to be properly prepared, which in this case also meant being vaccinated. The messiness for me started with a fairly strong reaction to my yellow fever vaccination two days before I was scheduled to depart.  I was up all night with a fever and chills.  The next day was mostly spent in bed recovering.  In addition to the yellow fever vaccination, it was recommended that I be immunized for diphtheria, hepatitis A, polio, tetanus and typhoid.  And of course I needed to take a daily dose of anti-malaria medication once in Rwanda (which makes me have crazy dreams).  And just in case that concoction didn’t completely mess me up I had a couple of scripts for Cipro (antibiotics) on hand to use at my discretion.

Second, one also has to get to “the field.”  This can also be quite messy when you are traveling halfway around the world. The first leg of my flight was a red-eye from Boston to Frankfurt, on which I managed about three hours of interrupted sleep.  I then had a 13-hour layover before boarding my second red-eye flight in as many days to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  A short stopover, a lot of secondhand smoke and bad coffee, and another flight (this time only three hours) later, I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda — two days after I left the United States.

After a quick (and so refreshing) shower and a desperately needed change of clothing, we drove to the Water for People office for a group discussion about our project. The primary objective of our project is to produce a baseline assessment report of water and sanitation coverage in the study area.  The goal is to develop a methodology that can be used by the District of Rulindo (and eventually the entire country) to develop their own water resources management plan in the future.

Michael J. Mascarenhas – The dust-covered landscape on the way to Rulindo.

The next phase of the project involved a meeting at the Rwandan Patriotic Front office in Rulindo, a two-hour drive north of Kigali over poorly paved switchback roads that followed a narrow mountain ridge.  Because most of the roads are not paved in Rwanda, there is red dust everywhere.  I am constantly rubbing my itchy eyes and drinking water to assuage my scratchy throat. And given that it hasn’t rained here since May, red dust engulfs the landscape.  But there is a beautiful rosy hue to almost everything.

After picking up university student volunteers, our two-vehicle convoy arrived at the Rwandan Patriotic Front office a little late, which is on time in Rwanda time.  None of the district officials were present when we got there.  We stood around outside for an hour or so while the room was being arranged for our meeting.  District officials slowly trickled in, and by midmorning the mayor appeared to declare our research project “officially open.”  His speech on the value of safe drinking water and good-quality sanitation for a sustainable and healthy Rwanda was inspiring.

We took turns introducing ourselves and having our introduction translated into Kinyarwanda.  In fact, all conversations (and data collection) are to happen through some combination of three languages: Kinyarwanda, the official local language; French, which was recently replaced as the official state language; and English, the new official state language.  Depending on their age and education, most Rwandans can speak some level of either English or French.  So at any given time someone could be left out of the conversation if it’s not translated. And translation can be messy. I would like to think we got better at it with each conversation, but I have no way to verify that.

Michael J. Mascarenhas – The plan.

Organizing people to collect data is immensely challenging. Each research team is made up of three groups.  The first group are university students from Generation Rwanda, a nonprofit organization that supports post-secondary education for orphans of the Rwandan genocide.  Their primary role in the project will be to translate our survey to rural households where only Kinyarwanda is spoken.  I will be working with Jean Bosco Gatanazi, a talkative and enthusiastic student who dreams, he tells me in his best English, about “one day coming to American.”  The second group are the district government officials.  I will be working with Theophile Benda, who heads the Department of Agriculture, Livestock, Infrastructure and Natural Resources.  I will also be working with Etienne Rusagara, the sector’s fontainier (plumber).  The role of government officials is to help bring legitimacy to the project as well as to assist us with sample selection.

Michael J. Mascarenhas – Learning to use the hand-held data collection device, from left: Theophile Benda, Etienne Rusagara, Jean Bosco Gatanazi and the author.

After lunch we broke into groups and took turns practicing on the hand-held devices that will be used to administer the survey.  After everyone appeared to be on the same page, we loaded up into our jeeps and headed for Kigali.  The descent on the mountain seemed worse than the climb.  Nancy Laroche, Paris Edwards and I were in the middle bench trying to keep our stomachs in check.  Four students were sitting in the back. As I started to wonder if I could take the ride much longer, someone from the back yelled out, “She is sick.”  But there was no room to pull over — we had to finish the descent before stopping.  All we had to clean the car were two packs of tissues. Nevertheless, we were able to get the jeep, and four vomit-covered students, into a fairly clean state.

We slowly dragged ourselves back into the jeep.  The combination of heat, sweat and now smell was simply overwhelming.  Needless to say, the windows were fully rolled down for the duration of the trip. After dropping off the students we arrived at our hotel rooms in the dark — many of us, I am sure, wondering exactly what we had gotten ourselves into.  Tomorrow, our first day in the field, begins at 6:30, so I better get to bed.

Murakoze (Thank you).

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