Account of a first-timer’s international research fieldwork- expectations and lessons learned in Botswana
The complex process of doing international fieldwork is widely acknowledged by researchers. In research methods classes, professors with such experience, try to prepare their students with anecdotal accounts and insights from their own experiences. However, fieldwork is a complex issue that can only be learnt by doing; and no amount of lectures or books are enough to truly prepare student researchers for their unique experience and quandaries. However, sharing of experiences are useful to provide hope and reduce uncertainty for first-time international researchers.
As a student researcher, with know-hows from three graduate-level research methods courses, academic knowledge from numerous African Community Health courses and experience from independent research in USA, I had the audacity to think that I am not too unprepared for the study I was embarking in. My professors have diligently taught me how to design research, write field notes and memos, prepare questionnaires, conduct interviews, analyze data and write findings. Additionally, I also learned to be reflexive of my positionality as a qualitative researcher and to conduct research ethically so that I don’t harm my research participants. But, no class has prepared me for instances when I could not even truly start my fieldwork even when I was in the field.
The dubiety with my research experience started with the very question of what type of visa I needed to conduct my research. The website of the Botswana Embassy told that all researchers, other than citizens of Botswana, are required to take ‘residence permits’ prior to entering the country. Knowing the time it may take to get such permit and considering I will be staying in the country for less than a month, the thought of going through the process was concerning. Email communication with our queries about research permit was terribly delayed because of lack of response from the community partner organization for our research. After bombardment of emails to them, we finally came to know that we will not need a ‘residence permit’ since ours is a ‘short research’.
Once this was confirmed, we applied for the visa to the embassy with its website assuring visa within 21 business days. We had one and half month in hand: of course were not worried about not getting the visa on time– and of course we were wrong! It was not only the day before I was flying that I received an email promising me “an on-arrival visa”. However, I did not know that the document needed an official stamp; and at every point of immigration and boarding I was barraged with questions . An apparently simple oversight on the side of the visa officer made my 20-something hour journey from Athens to Gabarone full of anxiety and confusion. When I finally landed at my destination point, the visa officer refused to stamp my passport without the visa stamp and my visa fee receipt which the Embassy never sent me. To top it, the day of my arrival was a public holiday in Botswana, because of which the immigration officer could not contact their head office to check my records. Thankfully, she allowed me to enter the country, with a document that asked me to visit the Immigration Head Office for my on-arrival visa. So, there I was in a continent I have never been to, in a country where I didn’t speak the language spoken by the common people– without a visa and with just my carry-on luggage. I wish I knew the importance of official stamp for all official documents and insisting in getting proof of all monetary transaction.
One of my first and perhaps biggest learning about international fieldwork is the importance of local contacts in the foreign country who can support you for unexpected incidents. No matter, how much you have read about the country and how much you have prepared, there will be instances when you will need immediate support for apparently silly(but important) things like an electricity socket that doesn’t fit the adapter you have bought yourself for the visit to more serious things like locating the exact officer who is in charge of stamping your visa. These are the people who I will remember the most after I go back home after completing this research.
I had expected to start data collection within a few days after coming to Botswana. We had applied for our research permit while we were in the USA, and were expecting it soon. However, the research officer had been on leave, which delayed our process. When the approval process finally got through, we had to make changes in the procedure of verbal consent to written consent. It is important to find out the preferred consent procedure from researchers with previous local experiences; which can be different for countries in the same continent. Something that worked in one African country, might not work in another country. It is also important to keep in mind that any changes made for one ethical review board needs amendment for the home -country IRB(Institutional Review Board) too.
Although we have technically not started our “research-work”, there are costs involved like food, transportation and communication merely because we are staying in the country/field. Because it was our first research experience, we had not anticipated some of the logistical costs involved. I came to appreciate to take account the time and effort it is needed to communicate and manage the logistics of the research project. When working in a team, recoding experience though field notes and expenditures through maintaining records is a necessity for informing, accountability and transparency. I had expected to learn a lot about research methods from my experience; however, I have learned more about project management, logistics and record-keeping, which are crucial components of research-work that are not discussed or taught in coursework.
In the absence of a research permit that would enable us to collect data, I took the initiative to immerse myself with the different organizations that dealt with the issues of my research. It was amazing how much I learned from merely talking to people about my research. Nowhere in the academic literature had I read about passion-killing and high attempted suicide incidents that locals immediately identified when I discussed gender-based violence. It was equally useful to hear real life stories about how HIV-positive adolescents may not know their status and are likely to be more vulnerable to violence. We had read about the silence regarding sexual issues, but it was eye-opening to find that even educators working on sexual and reproductive health would shy away when talking about these issues. It was only after warming up conversations with general discussions about practices in our own country, that the people opened up about their country. This gave me practical experience of building rapport, something we have been taught in the methods classes. I also took notes about important issues that I should be mindful of probing when I am asking questions to the actual research participants. These background encounters have prepared me better for the actual fieldwork. So, as much as I would have loved to embark on data collection as soon as I came, it is a good thing that we unexpectedly got time to get more acquainted with the field. The next time I would plan an international research, I would start preparing further ahead of time and definitely plan on keeping at least around a week in hand to get accustomed and immersed with the local people.