Fieldwork in Malawi

Field experiences that I encountered really required quick decision making with my supervisor who was thousands and thousands of kilometres away in the United Kingdom. It also needed to work within the means of my research participants; I would arrange an appointment but the unexpected often occurred. The fieldwork really taught me that key people in the community needed to be handled with care as they were so unpredictable. It meant literally checking with them on daily basis on when and what time one would meet them.

To get permission to conduct the fieldwork at Mponela Rural Hospital catchment area I had to obtain permission from the  Malawi College of Medicine Ethics Committee (COMREC), the District Commissioner (DC), the District Health Officer (DHO) and the Traditional Authorities (TAs) Mponela, Dzoole, Kayembe and Chakhaza. This took almost two months of meetings, travelling long distances over very poorly maintained dusty and potholed roads to finally get all my permissions to proceed.

It would often take all day to travel to a remote village, often to find that the participants were not there, or other things would happen that changed the whole course of the day. For example, on my way home, I found some women stranded with a child who was having fits; they were returning home from a traditional medicine man that had tattooed the child’s entire  body. However, it was clear to me that the child had cerebral malaria and I took them to Mponela Rural Hospital. Again all the roads were dusty and bumpy and narrow. Fortunately, the child survived.At the time of the data collection, there have been demonstrations and severe disturbances in Malawi. The Malawi citizens are not happy with persistent fuel shortage, shortage of foreign exchange money (Forex) and some governance issues. These had a heavy impact on the plan of the project and dates were changed frequently for the interviews. In addition, to get to the women’s homes to carry out the interviews meant travelling long distances and this became increasingly difficult when Malawi was hit by fuel shortage. Luckily, I only cancelled once and the interview was conducted a week later when I had found fuel.

However, in Malawi, cultural expectations often interfered with the process, for example on one occasion, the interviewee was not available because she was attending a funeral and we postponed the interviews to a later date. We went there for three times without meeting her but at last we met her and booked. She was very eager to be interviewed and the date was set. However, on the set date, she had gone to another funeral of the relative and the interviews were postponed again. Each trip was 70km from Lilongwe and took approximately 3 hours hours.My supervisor in Cardiff was constantly briefed on the progress of the data collection on weekly bases via text messaging and emails. However, email communication was a bit of a problem due to failure of the email system in Malawi and at times due to power outage and off-course, I was working in the rural areas where I could not have time and facilities to communicate by email. The most helpful mode of communication was text messaging because the mobile network is available even in the rural areas. On one occasion, the child was very ill and the child’s mother was part of the study. Naturally, when one is conducting a study, you would not intervene. But on this occasion, I had to intervene because it was a life and death situation of a child and the mother would not concentrate on the study discussions. I had to consult my supervisor in the United Kingdom by text messaging and we agreed to help the child above everything else. The hospital also wanted to stop supplying food supplements to the same child because the child had reached what they called weight limit for the child to continue receiving food supplements. The child was still ill looking and miserable despite reaching the weaning weight. This was communicated to the supervisor in Cardiff and we decided to intervene and the hospital continued supporting the child. When I left for Cardiff, the child had improved and was looking much better and playing happily with friends

Despite these difficulties, the project plan was met successfully and the first phase of data collection finished on 17th July, 2011 and I returned to the UK as planned. There was a lot of hard working in order to meet this date and there was no time to rest and I was leaving my home in Lilongwe for Mponela early in the morning and come back late in the night and although my supervisor asked me to take a holiday for two weeks, it did not happen because of the civil disturbances.   This meant my family were not amused with me because I was always busy with my project and they told me that I was no longer part of them but a member of Cardiff University. I hope to see more of them when I return for my second phase of fieldwork later this year….

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