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Research Obstacles

Jordan and I have slowly been getting fieldwork done here at the Maputo Special Reserve.  A number of obstacles have popped up along the way that have provided us with some learning opportunities, but also have me thinking about the feasibility of continuing research here in the future.  

Field office at Maputo Special Reserve. This is a patch of electrical outlets foraged closest to our base camp.

Field office at Maputo Special Reserve. This is a patch of electrical outlets foraged closest to our base camp.

1. Transportation – this has always been an issue.  The reserve is located on coastal sand dunes and has no paved roads.  4WD is absolutely necessary.  Despite shelling out to repair the car we are using, there is still no 4WD.  We were told this after we got to the field, with the promise that if we returned to Maputo we could get it fixed and then…  Our time is very limited so this is not really an option.  I was also unaware that the vehicle needed repairs until 3 days after we arrived.  So I had not planned for paying or waiting while the repairs were made.  My arrival date was known more than 2 weeks in advance.  The estimates could have been done while I was in the US so that I could have the proper amount of cash ready.  Then the repair work could have been done during the week I conducted a workshop at the university.  Hey presto!  No waiting around an extra week in Maputo for car repairs and spending money out of my own pockets that I don’t have. While we do get use of the car from the university here free in exchange for some of the repair work, any future research trips will require me to either rent or purchase a vehicle.  I cannot take students out with a vehicle that is iffy.

2. Students – As part of the agreement I have with Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, I take the occasional Mozambican student with me to the field for practical hands-on training.  To date, this has been fine but now that I also have my own students coming from Maryland this situation needs to be clarified more.  Conducting ethnographic work requires building rapport with the interviewee and trust with the community.  Having more than 1-2 people in addition to a translator while conducting an interview can make the interviewee uncomfortable and unwilling to participate – when the extra people start asking questions, they can slow interviews and create confusion.  We hit the limit on this trip our first week.  In addition to Jordan, Fatima – a sociology student at UEM – also came out with us.  I have been working with her on her MS research project.  She also brought her own translator.  All 5 of us worked well as a team, but I think we overwhelmed the folks we interviewed.  Between having 5 people sitting in on one of my interviews and then both students needing to collect their own data on top of my research, it was too much.  And so horrible for the shy people I occasionally interview.  There were other issues and additional problems I can foresee if the group was larger.  Any future student training will require advance preparation and paperwork on my part, as well as that of the students.  While I recognize that students may not have the hands-on practice before they come out to the field with me, there are many things they can do in advance to prepare that didn’t happen on this trip.  I cannot be responsible for everything.

Shooting the breeze about elephants and other problems - Jordan Tompkins, Prof. Adriano, Prof. Candido, Domingos Cuna.  Taken at Madjadjane Primary School

Shooting the breeze about elephants and other problems – Jordan Tompkins, Prof. Adriano, Prof. Candido, Domingos Cuna, Joseph Mucombo. Taken at Madjadjane Primary School

3. Costs – Doing research is a funny thing.  Some of the questions I get from non-scientists back home – or both scientists and non-scientists here – indicate that folks really think the US government pays for everything I do in the field.  They don’t.  I am not a scientist because I can make a lot of money.  I am a scientist because I am intensely curious and would not be happy not-knowing what’s over the horizon or why people do what they do and why it is different in one place/time versus another.  I create a budget for my research project.  There are costs that the organization who pays for the research will cover – certain types of equipment, housing, some food, fuel, some ground transport, translators, office supplies/photocopies, airfares – and a whole lot that they don’t cover – some food, “non-monetary gifts” that may be given as thank yous for interviews or other types of assistance, emergency repairs, emergencies,…  Okay, that makes sense.  But then I often have to pay upfront out of my own pocket and then get reimbursed.  Actually, some of this could be paid in advance by credit card, however, most of Mozambique where I do research doesn’t use credit cards.  So I am out until I get reimbursed.  My bank account looks miserable, and every time I go to the field I worry.  I have a mortgage and car payments, but that is the extent of my debt.  Graduate students have it much worse with tuition debt and then often putting everything on a credit card.  Anthropologists have traditionally traveled abroad to conduct research in hard to reach places with significant problems, and I still want to, but I see the advantage in working in the United States.  

Southern entrance on main road between Ponto d'Oro and Salamanga.

Southern entrance on main road between Ponto d’Oro and Salamanga.

4. Communities – I love this place where I work.  The people of Matutuine District are very kind and friendly, and hard-working.  But, based on their comments, they are getting burned out with visiting researchers.  “Many people come Dra. Jenny, like you.  They ask questions and write, but then what?  Where does this information go?  What does it do for us?  We are still having problems.  There is no hospital.  We have elephants eating all our machamba [agricultural crops].”  Jordan has been told flat out that if she were not with me, no one would be answering her questions about malaria.  “That is not the problem.  The elephants are the problem.”  I have been able to rework my questions a little since I am here to ask about environmental change and response – elephants killing people and destroying agricultural fields is a change that requires response.  Yet, tiring people out with constant questioning doesn’t advance our knowledge of how the world works or how we might make people’s quality of life better.  And they need to see the results.  I have presented my work to the community and given them results from past work.  I will be writing a report on this project for the community, the reserve, the government conservation agency, and anyone else who I can hunt down and hand it to.  But not everyone does this.  Publishing in journals doesn’t do anything for the communities where we work.  Governments don’t read journal articles and sometimes other scientists don’t either.  Communities take on many forms.   I will be able to get my research done, but I need to rethink and definitely think larger for the next project. 

The interviews are coming slowly.  We are getting great data though – when we can get people who have a little time to talk.  The PhotoVoice interviews have been fantastic!!!  Madjadjane and Gala have some great local photographers.  We have one more week in the field, my fingers are crossed.  One of the biggest lessons I have learned from working with my friends in Mozambique – be they in Maputo or Matutuine or Maputo Special Reserve – is that obstacles can be overcome, they just require time and hard work and patience.

Jen Shaffer and Domingos Cuna interview local photographer, farmer, and community secretary, Sra. Albertina Mondlwane of Gala, Mozambique.

Jen Shaffer and Domingos Cuna interview local photographer, farmer, and community secretary, Sra. Albertina Mondlwane of Gala, Mozambique.

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