The sun has dipped behind the clouds that shroud the heads of the Zomba Mountains, and a coolness has settled over the landscape. Swaths of the valley glow in escaping beams of light or bask in the shadows. I’m watching the red dust of the road puff silently over my sandals, peeping out from under the hem of my tightly wrapped chitenge (the traditional sarong) as we slowly return to the main road after a long day in the field. The air is thick with woodsmoke from cooking fires, and all we can hear besides our own rustle of gear, footsteps and hushed voices is a chorus of crickets and calling doves.
We have spent four days in the field now, and completed twenty household surveys. From this pilot period, we are working on final revisions to the survey script to ensure that we consistently receive clearly defined, defensible quantitative data. We also needed to adjust some of the types of data we are collecting to better reflect the conditions we are observing. For instance, it started to become apparent by the second day that the number, purpose and construction of the buildings in the family compound may be an important indicator of relative wealth in these rural villages, despite the fact that some influential development studies have moved toward comparison of household assets like cell phones, bicycles, stoves and sewing machines to rank economic standing. We will be assessing both now, and expect some very illuminating and transferable insights to come out of the trial.
Tomorrow, we begin interviewing candidates for a second translator position to ensure that we can deploy two field teams in the coming weeks, as we ramp up to complete an additional one hundred and sixteen surveys using the improved protocol. We are working hard on expanding our knowledge of Chichewa as well, so that ultimately we can be more positively engaged with community members during the survey process, and we have found able and enthusiastic vocabulary teachers in the village children. While the translator is delivering the survey questions, there is generally some downtime. We are always cordially invited to sit on a mat made of bamboo slats or stitched sugar bags when respondents welcome us to their homes; these are kept just inside the door in every house, and quickly laid down over the hard packed and neatly swept earth near the front porch when we approach. Though it is a kind gesture, we discovered quickly just how sore one can get from sitting on the ground for six to seven hours every day.
Interacting with the clusters of curious faces that seem to find us in every corner of the villages is a good excuse to move around, and one of the best ways to make use of these gaps. Based on the warm reception that our educationally-gifted research assistants received, we now carry paper and pens everywhere. We draw photos of common things, from animals to clothing to village sights, and the kids love to guess what we have drawn. Our attempts to repeat the words they say in Chichewa are always met with hysterical laughter and huge smiles from our bright-eyed friends, as are their own attempts to repeat the words we say in English. Talking is, after all, just silly!
Field work isn’t always fun and games though. There is the noxious issue of the washroom. In the developed world, we tend to forget so easily that plumbed loos are an incredibly luxurious amenity, and it’s always a rude awakening when nature compels us to visit the facilities at our remote field site. A small, drafty, low-roofed structure with an elongated hole in the floor and a putrid odor of dank urine and feces is what greets most of the world’s population when they get up in the morning, and you’re quite likely to be attended by uninvited guests when paying your respects. Even at a relatively affluent homestead we recently surveyed, I was disconcerted to find that the margins of said hole appeared to be moving in the dim light of the thatched hut. A colony of cockroaches that wholly redefined “giant” for me were quite as eager to exit the structure as I was once the necessary deed had been executed.
Transportation is another challenging aspect of our work. Never again will I take vehicle maintenance for granted, after our hired car (an experiment to increase efficiency) ran out of fuel, got a flat tire, and had a dead battery in the course of three days. Along with our community liaison and half the kids in the neighborhood, we humored the driver by pushing the car a quarter mile down a dirt road in a doomed attempt to roll-start it. He then expressed his chagrin, as being closer to the main road (which we had just pushed the vehicle away from) would be a marked advantage, since he might be able to flag down another car with jumper cables. Exhausted as we were, the absurdity of the situation was so intensely amusing that we obligingly pushed it back uphill with our barefooted but indefatigable friends before paying him for our morning ride and opting to take the bus home.
As usual, the bus was a perfect circus. I must ride it with a perpetual smile plastered on my face, despite the pervasive aroma of body odor. We were herded into a van that already had fourteen people on board at the insistence of the negotiator that several people were disembarking “just up ahead.” Needless to say, several kilometers later, he was still hunched over the laps of the four passengers in the second row, and I doubt very much that any of us had enough real estate to actually plant both cheeks on the bench seat.
After a police checkpoint forced us all to disembark for a full inspection, I was reshuffled to a different row, where I found myself wedged against a limp black rooster that the woman next to me was clutching by the feet in the same hand as her purse straps and cell phone. I made a split-second assessment and agreed with my grown-up self that I was perfectly fine with sitting next to a dead chicken…until the bus clambered joltingly back onto the pavement after the umpteenth stop to ply the roadside for additional travelers to add to our already crowded accommodations, and the final bump was punctuated by a discombobulated crow from the vicinity of my right knee. We are, without a shred of doubt, not in Kansas anymore.