Anthropological notes on “Learning from Africa”

The project “Learning from Arfica” of the Student Workforce in Maastricht consist of a short trip of three to four weeks to Africa. The main goal for the students during this trip is to reach a level of discussion with local African people in which both exchange thoughts about hopes, fears and expectations concerning their own and each others futures.
To speed up trust building and to push through the image of aid provider, the Demotech foundation provides the students with a certain “appropriate technology”. The students will learn how to make this specific device in the Demotech lab and henceforth will be able to copy the technology in the field, together with local people.

Within the context of these short notes on doing fieldwork I’d like to share some of my own experiences and expertise which I think might be helpful for the student workforce. Keep in mind that I’m not the world leading expert on this topic, but I probably know some interesting things. The following might appear like a list of horrors, but remember: doing fieldwork is great, but mind the gaps!

The aim of reaching a level of discussion through barriers of culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, climate and diarrhea is not easy, but I think “a level” can be obtained. In the following I will skip through the normal anthropological ways that could be useful in your research. The first step off course is to leave home in a prepared way: if you enter the field as a complete ignorant you won’t learn anything. When you are in Africa you have a lot of ways to understand the field by participating, talking, chatting, interviewing, observing, interacting and discussing: use as many methods as possible. This will all be meaningless if you don’t write it down and include yourself as well. And while you are in this lengthy and meditating process of writing at the end of every day you get the opportunity to think about your research. This is useful because everything will be different than you initially thought, keep in mind: you can’t plan a field research, but you can prevent chaos. When your back home again with your huge pile of writings it’s time to summarize these experiences in a readable and well organized way, to share what you have learned.

Preparatory investigation

Before you even think about going to Africa it’s good to realize that you’ll have little time to do your research. Therefore it’s of great importance to do as many work in advance as you can.

Your future
If you are planned to make a trip to Africa to have in-depth discussion with local people about the future it’s very useful that you have thought about it yourselves first: what are your perceptions on the future? Ask yourself, but also each other critical questions. In the meanwhile this is a good exercise in interviewing and leading group discussions (later on I will discuss these topics). Preferably exercise with strangers or grandparents.

Their past
Talking with locals about their past might be a very useful start in discussions about the future. So get to know there past. Dig into the history of the country and region your heading. Wikipedia is useful, but not enough.

Relevant literature
Also, it’s not very probable that you are the first to talk with locals about their perceptions on the future. In fact I am very sure that there are a lot of books and articles on that topic. Maybe not in the same country or on the exact same topic, but dig into it to learn from others: be inspired.

The research question
While reading a lot about the topic and reflecting your own perceptions more and more, it’s time to write your research proposal. Basically this is a (readable) document where all the information is joined together, concluding in a research question. This question is the spinal cord of your research and keeps you focused. The research question should contain information on “what”, “who”, “where” and “when”. For example: to what extent will my notions of the future change after social interaction with elderly women in village X in the summer of 2007. This question is split up in sub-questions, in your case something like: what is the current situation of elderly women in village X, what are my notions of the future right now, etc. (Note that every sub-question should be directly related the research question), after that these sub-questions are divided into interview topics/questions. For example: could you tell me about the time you were young, who was your father, who was your mother, did you go to school, etc.

I hope that it’s clear that this can not be done on a lazy Sunday afternoon; it’s a hard, arduous and meticulous quest for as much information possible. Besides it will be very useful to master the local language, or at least the official language of the country. Be aware of the fact that many people in deprived and/or remote villages probably do not speak the official language of the country. I doubt however if it’s possible you to learn Swahili (or whatever language), but if you can you will rule!

Physical preparations
Besides your mental preparations, you should also not forget about the physical preparations. I presume that most of you have traveled but non the less: Get your vaccinations in time! Especially the Hepatitis-B injection (subscribed for almost every country) needs at least two injections (with some interval) before you can leave. At the GG&GD you can make an appointment for consultancy on what kind of vaccinations you need. I strongly advise that one of you gets information on what vaccinations are needed. Also beware that vaccination cost money. I think it will cost about 200 euros, but also some insurance agencies cover these kinds of medical costs. Some other tips: Check if visa are needed. Check if your passport is valid 6 months after you return. For the ladies: they won’t sell tampons in Africa. Book your ticket in time. Arrange some dollars or traveler cheques. Scan your passport into the computer and mail the image to yourself so you will always have a copy of your passport available. And so on.

Obtaining Data

When you enter the field in a well prepared way, things turn out to be different than you expected. In fact there will be not much to find that is congruent with your initial thought. This is not a bad thing, but you must be flexible to conduct your research with “the other”, but (especially in your case) with yourself. In the next part I will discuss briefly the “where” and “how” to obtain data.

Culture shock
When you step out of the plane you might experience a so called “culture shock”. A culture shock does not mean that some things are a bit different, but it means that everything is different than you’re used to. Take a few days to get used to it. Also temperature and food will be different and - sorry - you will be sick for a few days sooner or later during your time there. But a little diarrhea will do no harm.

Yourself in the research
This is already research, because you are a research object yourself as well. You want to learn from Africa and what kind of effect this has on you. The only way to obtain information from the research subject “yourself” is – in my opinion – to carefully keep a diary. Except for investigating yourself, keeping a diary is important for three other things.

  • The main tool of anthropological research is “being there”. This however contains an ambiguity on the obtained data. Because you are there you get first hand and rich information from the field, but you will also be of influence for your research because you are your own instrument. The way you act is huge influence on your data. To understand your data when your back home, it’s important to know how you felt at that moment.
  • Another part of being there is that you’re there for the first time. You are a newcomer, and people tread newcomers differently than people they know for a while. Also you notice different things when you’re on a new spot compared to the same sport a few weeks later.
  • Keeping a diary is also a good way to stabilize your emotional condition, because sometimes you might be sad and writing it all out is a good therapy.

It’s therefore important to keep a private diary with all your experiences and feelings in the most honest way.

Okay this was obtaining information on yourself and including your own behavior into the research, but how to get information from “the other”? To obtain valuable data you have to investigate both local thought and local practice. You have to use your all your senses (in particular your eyes). Take advantage of your presence, so: be there when things happen and look around at what people do. Although most of your observations are not of direct concern for your investigation it is of great help for a general understanding of the situation. In addition it is an extra tool to verify your information, because people don’t always practice what they preach.

Example: a Guatemalan farmer told me that all the farmers including their wives and children went to the lake early every morning from 5 ‘till 7 o’clock to carry buckets of water to their fields. This was kind of new to me, because up ‘till then I thought all farmers had a gasoline pump. So, the next morning I got up at 4:30 to be there at this yet unseen activity. I waited until seven o’clock at an empty lake shore: it seemed that this farmer overreacted a little….

The main method, off course, is talking with the people. There are several ways of talking: semi-structured interviews, open interviews, group discussions and chatting.

Interviewing can’t be learned from a book. It strongly depends from you as a person, but you can practice it. To keep the information you can make notes during the interview and write down everything you remember directly afterwards. Another way is to record the interview with a voice-recorder. This is more accurate, but also more time consuming to write down. Before you start an interview always tell your informant what it’s for and ask if it’s okay if you take notes or record the interview. Sometimes informants prefer anonymity, which you can (and must) guarantee.
There are two useful types of interviewing that are alike: the semi-structured interview and the open interview. Within the semi-structured interview you have prepared some topics and direct questions. During the interview, however, you have to anticipate on what your informant tells you and keep on asking until you feel that you know enough or the informant isn’t able or doesn’t want to talk further on the certain issue. The open interview is less guided. You only have some topics to talk about, but there is plenty room for certain topics that your informant likes to talk about. This might not be the exact topic you’re interested in, but it can widen your insights and open doors to your topics of interest. The main advantage of this method is that your informant is most willing to talk. Though unstructured you can guide the conversation with ad-hoc questions leading back to the topics.

Group discussions
The method of group discussion is very useful to hear a lot of opinions in a short time. You can also see what kind of topics lead to discussion and what kind of topics are easily agreed upon. This says something about the differences that exist within the group. A nice method, but hard to arrange. People in non western countries are lesser slaves to time and appointments than we are. Also be aware that some people will not empty their heart in front of a crowd. As with interviewing you should take notes or record the conversation, but always ask permission.

Chatting is the most fun method there is. Just walk around in the village until you see some one who looks interesting. Just talk loosely and try to find out something interesting in a kind of open interview. Do not take notes during this conversation, because you will look even stranger than you are. When the conversation is finished the first thing you do when you walked around to corner is to take notes. The most useful equipment is a small notebook that you can put in the pocket of your pants. Make “jottings”, short notes from which you can write down the whole story in the evening. Jottings are also very useful during observations and to write down some ones name (this you can do at the end of a small talk conversation).
You can practice chatting by going out (alone) and talk to strangers. It depends on your personality if you’re good at it or not. If your not used to just talk with someone you’re probably scared. Though understandable you’ll absolutely have to overcome these fears, because there is nothing to fear. Meeting people is great and who knows, maybe you can expand your dutch network of interesting people as well…

Great, but how do I meet interesting people? This is one of the biggest questions in life and here is the answer: keep on searching. Like everywhere in world there are intelligent and talkative people, but the opposite is more prevalent. The great art of doing research is to look for a “key informant”. A key informant is a person that has the ability to interpret his/her own culture and understand why things are done or said. He/she is part of that culture but also a bit of an outsider. To find such a person is a matter of luck and keep on expanding your network. These persons are rare and don’t be upset if you don’t find one. That doesn’t mean that “non key informants” are useless. Just keep on expanding your network. After an interview ask if your informant knows some one who could tell you more about the topic, and if you have the feeling that your informant has more to tell, make another appointment. If your informant doesn’t appear to be of any use, politely thank him/her and don’t make another appointment.

Like I said before, making appointments is hard. Don’t be surprised if you don’t find the person at the agreed time and place. Try to make something useful out of your wasted waiting time, for example have your paperwork with you to work upon your notes.

While you talk with people you should be aware of four things that occur in every conversation.

  • People will never empty there heart in the first conversation with a complete stranger. Don’t expect in depth conversations on, let’s say, sexual habits during the first interview.
  • People won’t tell you the truth in the first conversation. This, however, isn’t lying. Just imagine the first time you are at your boy/girlfriends parents: you won’t tell about the things you stole, the drugs you took or whom you slept with: you’ll polish up your image. People tend to give the answers that they think the other will be happy to hear, or they give answers that suits them best. I hope I made this in the example of my early wake up to see the bucket irrigation. The farmer probably mistook me for a development worker and overreacted.
  • Another issue that is especially related to your research is that people tend to disgust or romanticize the past or the future. The only thing you can do about this is to extract their opinion out of what they tell, instead of bluntly copying their opinion. I´ll call this the grandma principle. My grandma usually talks about the horrors of poverty and war during her young days, but in the meanwhile she tells so many wonderful anecdotes. Out of this I extract my grandma´s opinion that – though it was hard – those days had great moments as well.
  • The fourth issue is misunderstanding. Be aware that your questions and thoughts are embedded in a different cultural perception than the answers you will get. I’ll try to clarify this in the next example.

A Guatemalan farmer proudly told me that he cultivates his vegetables in an organic way. But when I asked him what he does to keep insects away from his crop, he summed up a few very nasty chemicals that he spread over his field. “Organic” in Guatemala means that you use organic fertilizer…

A common research method in the western world is the method of inquiry. Personally I’m not a fan of this method. If I ever fill one in it’s always in a rush and not very serious. I think I’m not the only one. It becomes worse in less structured societies. Nevertheless I tried the method in Guatemala to get a general overview on farming. I handed out some simple question forms in person to farmers I knew well. They all promised to return it as soon as they could. I received two out of twenty and still they contained vague or useless answers. You can try it, but you’d better spend your energy on something useful like direct conversation.

The most important issue in talking and interacting with people is an awareness that social structures are fragile harmonies. You have to build up “rapport” (trust). This is a gradual process that probably speeds up when you start with a small appropriate technology project. Like many things, it’s easier to break things down than to build things up. You can loose your trust easily if you offend some one and your investigation is over. Therefore it’s of the highest importance to tread every one with respect and to be aware that some people (like a chief) need more respect than others. Be aware of the power of gossip and that you are observed with more attention than you can possibly observe them. Needless to say: don’t get drunk, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex, don’t create any circumstance that people might think that you have or had sex, mind your language, accept dinner invitations, accept gifts but most of all: keep your data to yourself. Don’t tell to any one what some one else told you, because your informants tell you things because they trust you.
Two less obvious matters: mind your clothing. Girls: do not wear tight shirts nor reveal your belly button. Boys: keep on your shirt even if it’s hot as hell. In general: wear normal cloths. Do not wear impoverished cloths. Do not wear local clothing: you’ll be like an American tourist in Maastricht walking on wooden shoes. The other matter is politics. Do not talk about it. In African societies this can be a very offensive subject with which you can put yourself or someone else in danger. If someone starts to talk about it it’s okay, but remind that it’s confidential. Do not bring on the subject yourself.

In short: use your common sense, talk and write it down.

To conclude with a small anecdote on sex: a male anthropology student from Holland went to Guatemala for his research. I do not know the guy, but this is the story. One night he went out with a local girl he became friends with during his stay. They were not in love and just went out to an adjacent town to have fun. When they wanted to go back home it appeared that there were no more busses and so the spend the night (in complete Platonism) in a hotel. The next day when they were in the village again the father of the girl was very happy to meet his new son in law. He insisted that the two “lovers” were obliged to get married, because they already had spent the night. It took a huge effort of the guy to prevent his oncoming marriage.

Guiding the research

Doing research is a puzzle, sometimes you’re on the wrong track and you have to back. Always keep on reflecting new information and make new steps out of it. The only way of doing this is writing. Calculate two or three hours a day on writing. This has to be done next to the actual research, small talk, having diner, being ill, writing e-mails to the home front and probable household tasks for the girls (sorry). Whenever you’re in doubt on what you’re doing: talk about it with your fellow students or contact us (if possible).

Things that can (and probably will) go wrong:

  • People don’t want to talk about your subject: Try to find out why or maybe you haven’t build enough credits yet. In the mean while talk about other subjects to build up a general understanding and to build up trust.
  • People give unsatisfying answers: Maybe your questions are wrong.
  • After a week or so you might experience a dip. You might get the feeling that you’re useless and the (probable) initial warm welcome becomes a normal greeting. People seem to be less interested in you and your investigation. This might feels very sad, but in fact this is an indicator that you made the first step of being part of the group! People tread you as “normal”. This feels a bit colder, but in fact you’re doing great!
  • You’ll get ill. Prevent it by not eating salads or anything else that has been in contact with contaminated water. Only drink purified water from bottles. If you do get ill, have some diarrhea stopper with you and take a rest.
  • You’ll be seen as an aid provider, which you are not. People will ask you for advice and gifts, which you can and must not give. Explain that you’re just a student. At the end of your research, however, you can leave some things behind and buy presents for people who helped you. Remember that some people invested quite some time in your research, it’s nice to reward it afterwards.
  • People want to get paid for interviews. Don’t do it.
  • Etcetera

Whatever happens: get yourself together and anticipate!

Writing an article

When your back home with a pile of data you can share the results with fellow students or maybe publish your research. Two documents need to be made. The first is your field report, where you deliberate on your methods and write down all your data in a readable text. This is a lengthy report. The next document is an article, where you briefly come up with the most important information and connect it with some scientific theory. Articles must be short and to the point. I presume that you’re all familiar with the process of writing papers and essays, so I’ll leave it here.

In short


  • Write a paper (±12p.) on the subject concluding in a research question. Use your own thoughts, interview and group discussion practices and at least ten literature sources on the subject.
  • Practice interviewing, preferably with a grandparent or a stranger.
  • Arrange your documents, vaccinations and other stuff in time.

Obtaining data and guiding your research

  • Talk, use your common sense and behave.
  • Keep a personal diary. How you feel what you think etc.
  • Work on your field notes. Write down interviews, observations and other relevant data
  • Keep on reflecting and (if possible) talk about it with fellow students.
  • Make jottings when you see interesting things.


  • Write a field report (±40p.)
  • Write an article (±5 p.)

Suggested reading

Raybeck, Douglas
1996 Mad Dogs, Englishmen and the Errant Anthropologist: Fieldwork in Malaysia. Illinois: Waveland Press.

A real fun autobiography of Raybeck’s fieldwork in Malaysia. It is about all the stupid mistakes the well prepared Anthropologist made entering and being in the field. You can borrow my copy if you like

Search for

Recent Changes - Search:
Demotech Research

Noticias del Agua

Demotech Research


D-Project Reporting



PmWiki is a WikiWikiWeb system developed by Patrick Michaud in the PHP scripting language.

edit SideBar

Page last modified on November 06, 2006, at 11:42 AM