Raising the Dust Chapter Reflections – Chapter Four: The Research Process.

in the fieldIn last month’s article, I suggested that research does not always go as planned. This month’s article takes this theme further, providing an insight into the nature of qualitative research, as a process. In this article, I explore some of the challenges of naturalistic research. Last month I explained that beyond the initial theoretical and conceptual frameworks of the research, there is a complex interweaving of the ethical, methodological and practical aspects of the study. I explained that I needed to prepare myself for field work, and be clear about my research position, before I left behind the comforts of home to spend a number of months in the field.

As soon as I arrived in the field, I realised the challenges I had before me. My field work area was completely foreign to me as it was very rural. Those who have lived in rural parts of Africa, or spent any time there, will know that the scale of rurality is different to the “rural” and regional areas of Australia. Life is very basic. Roads are dirt, dwellings are simple, villages are far apart and infrastructure is very basic, or does not exist at all. My field work accommodation was very comfortable though, sharing a large house with other associates of the NGO supporting my research. I was allocated a room of my own with the big house and my bed was an old fashioned, army type, metal bed with an old mattress, two flat sheets and a blanket. The day I arrived I asked for another blanket but by the look on the house guard’s face, knew not to ever ask for anything more than I was given again. As soon as I arrived in the field, I made an immediate commitment to the area, with it’s beautiful mountain, visible from the dining room of my accommodation, and it’s poor, yet exceedingly generous and happy local people.

After becoming familiar with my immediate surroundings ‒ that being the local market, the shops and the local taxi (mini bus and bicycle) rank ‒ I began my research straight away. I was assigned to two areas of the mountain, Nessa Village and Phalombe district. My first research area was a taxi ride and then a long walk up the hill. On my first trip up there, to find the Peacecorps volunteer and his local counterpart, who I had been assigned with, to begin discussing my research, I got lost. A local man helped me to get back on the right path. I told him about my research and as we were walking he pointed to a small one-roomed dwelling and told me it was his ‘clinic”. He said he practiced traditional medicine there. Two ladies asked me what I was doing and when I told them, they laughed and told me to keep going, I would find my Peacecorps friend sitting and eating cassava on his front porch “to make him strong”.

Further up the hill a small child looked at me and then screamed in terror. Two ladies laughed heartily and waved at me. Other children hid in between their mother’s legs. I wondered what the local people thought about a strange white woman coming into their community, wanting to talk with them. I finally made it up to my proposed interview site and soon realised that things had already been discussed, and to some degree, set up for the interviews to begin. The area where the interviews were to take place was part of the mountain that had experienced severe flooding a few months prior and, under the funding and direction of the NGO supporting my research, a group of local traditional healers had got together to assist with the revegetation of the area with both traditional medicine plants and other local and exotic vegetation.

image 1      Image 1: The regeneration area above Nessa village

After talking with the Peacecorps volunteer and his local counterpart, it was clear that the interviews were to begin taking place the next week. I left the area knowing that I would need to modify my research questions according to both local conditions, and to my participant’s availability. Having set things up in this area, I began thinking about my other group of participants on the other side of the mountain. Doubt, and a level of anxiety, began to set in.

It did not take long for me to make contact with a connection on the other side of the mountain.

We discussed the research aims and my contact gave me the name of the president of the local traditional healers association as well as some instructions about how to go about my research.

When I returned to the original interview site a week later, my participants were all waiting for me in a group, with the women sitting and kneeling on the ground, and the men standing behind them. We began the interviews after going through the ethical aspects of the interviews (Consent form and Plain Language Statement), and the research aims as a whole. I got through a couple of interviews that day before it was time to stop and for me to make myself comfortable in the Peacecorps volunteer’s very basic dwelling. The participants were instructed, sternly, by the local counterpart, not to be late the following morning (in addition he had told them to be at the interview site an hour before they were actually due to start). Next morning, we continued with the interviews but they were interrupted by the news that someone in the community had passed away and so the research participants needed to attend to burial duties. The night before I had heard a man running up and down in the village in the darkness of night, shouting out in what seemed to me to be a very serious tone. I realised then that his shouting was alerting the community about the death of one of the villagers. I left the village soon after to return again after the rightful community burial procedures had taken place.

In the meantime, I began setting up my interviews on the other side of the mountain. After setting them up, I arrived at the interview site, on the back of a motorbike, driven by the local forestry officer. There was singing and clapping as I got off the motorbike. Feeling awkward, and dressed in cargo shorts and with red dust in my eyes and hair, I quickly wrapped a jtenje, a piece of brightly coloured printed fabric, around my waist to show respect to my participants, especially the women. When I looked up, I saw a large crowd of traditional healers, sitting in groups, representing their local village divisions. I felt complete overwhelm and looked at the forestry officer saying, “I can’t, I can’t interview everyone, I exclaimed”. He dismissed my foolish statement and began to guide the research formalities. The village headman was present for the proceedings. 12 Participants were chosen by their groups to represent them, a man and woman from each local area, except one area, where the only two representatives were both men. The interviews began in a rustic bamboo dwelling with the sounds of chickens and goats, babies crying, children laughing and men and women talking and singing in the background.

rustic dwellingImage 2: The rustic dwelling where the first of the Phalome interviews took place

I had to return to both these sites again to finish the interviews. On the one side of the mountain, we finished the interviews under the banana trees, with the roosters disrupting the quality of the recordings. On the other side, we completed the interviews in the shade of two big trees in the garden of the President of the local traditional healers association. I conducted a follow up interview in the village a week later, sitting on the exposed roots of a large mango tree, with the two men who were representing their district. They provided me some insights into the politics of the local, sub-branch and national levels of their association and what this meant for them as healers. It was somewhat of a relief to have successfully completed all the interviews.

It had taken me until about two weeks before I was due to leave the field. During my time in the field I spent many hours observing, and then writing up my deep descriptions of local life. This had been fraught with challenges of all kinds, both practical and also methodological. For example, when I was doing the second day of the interviews on the further side of the mountain, I had stayed in a guest house overnight so I could complete that day’s interviews and then finish them up the next day. I had spent the night fighting the mosquitos and trying to make sure they did not find their way under my holey net. I must have been a bit tired in the morning because just as I was about to start the first interview, I realised I did not have my sound recorder. The forestry officer gestured me to his motorbike and without a word drove me back into the boma.[i] to the guesthouse where I had stayed, and I searched the room frantically until I located it under the bed! It was a great relief to find it as I was 50 plus kilometres from where I was based.

Besides these practical challenges, interpreting the knowledge, practices and beliefs of others is tricky. One morning, I was walking down the track, away from the shared guesthouse where I was being accommodated, and I came across a woman shinning a mirror up into the mountain. I assumed it was some kind of mysterious morning ritual but I asked the man walking up behind me what she was doing and it turned out she was actually chasing the baboons eating her crops!

Research is a process; qualitative research is also a journey into the lives and worlds of others. I am motivated towards these methods, they inspire my inner curiosity and wonder at life, as a complex and interrelated experience. Whilst I am motivated to know about the lives of others, my own field work experience taught me that, even by talking with others about their knowledge, practices and beliefs, and through participating in their lives for periods of time, our understanding of others is always limited by our own worldviews, practices and beliefs.

Next month, I will provide readers with the first of the data chapters, as I unravel my findings. In next month’s article, I will discuss my findings about traditional medicine, as practiced by traditional healers in the two areas of Mulanje Mountain described above, Nessa Village and Phalombe district. In the meantime, if you would like any further information about my research, please don’t hesitate to email me at hippygolucky@hotmail. com


Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605


[i] The “boma” is the heart of the village, it includes the official buildings within the local community