Fieldwork Is So Much More than a Research Opportunity

Thursday, August 3, 2017 - 9:00am
Blen Biru and Research Team
First day of fieldwork with my colleagues at Stand for Vulnerable Organization. L to R: Chimdi, Mekonnen, Blen, Hailu and Misganaw.

By Blen Biru, 2nd-year MSc-GH student

It’s been almost two months since I arrived in the capital of Ethiopia—Addis Ababa—to complete my Master of Science in Global Health fieldwork. Given that I was born and raised in Addis, it took me no time at all to adjust to the weather, food, and culture, which vastly differs from that of the U.S. 

As I reflect on my journey, I realize that fieldwork is more than just collecting data for my research project, in which I’m seeking to understand how caregivers in orphanages maintain their positive mental health for a long period of time. In addition to helping us build practical research skills, fieldwork gives the opportunity to explore a city, discover many different ways of living and build meaningful relationships with those who cross our paths. 

In Addis, this opportunity does not require much energy; the hustle and bustle of everyday life comes with its own space for peculiar experiences. Here’s a brief anecdote of a particular day in the capital of Ethiopia, where I have been travelling to different areas to collect data with my colleague, Chimdi. 

Chimdi and I usually arrive at the office at 9 am. We plan our day together and strategize how to execute our interviews and surveys. 

On a recent morning, we left the office around 10:30am and hopped on a minibus taxi to go from our office to the institution where we conduct our interviews with caregivers. Minibuses are a common mode of transportation in Addis, carrying up to 11 people. Unlike buses, they have no designated stops; one can wait at any location by the main street. It’s almost like hitch-hiking except the rides are not free. 

Inside the minibus, we entertained ourselves by looking at posters dangling from the roof or pasted to the sides of the vehicle on which quirky proverbs and wise sayings were written in Amharic. After transferring to two other minibuses, we finally reached our destination at 12pm. 

Chimdi and I have made a habit of eating lunch after we get off the minibus and before we commence our interviews. That day, though, we didn’t have enough time for lunch, so we went to a “juice bet”—a bar where one can grab a quick juice or fruit salad. Most importantly, a juice bet is where one can get a “spris,” a puree of mango, avocado, papaya, and guava mixed with sugar. 

On such days, when lunch must wait, we relish this colorful, layered and filling juice. A lime wedge to kill the bacteria and a spoon if one wants to dig down into the dense layers are always available.

 
 

Blen (left) and Chimdi savoring their spris.

After having consumed a hybrid of complementary fruits, we continued our journey to an institution to meet the caregiver we wanted to interview. The caregiver warmly invited us into her house, where she raises nine children. 

While we were conducting the interview, the caregiver suddenly interrupted us to ask if we would like some coffee—an offer we didn’t hesitate to accept. “Social interruptions” are normal here in Addis, and the coffee ceremony is the glue that keeps communality alive in the busy town. 

With Ethiopia being the land of coffee, coffee ceremonies are highly valued social conventions that bring people together. Coffee is made in a “jebena,” a black clay pot in which the coffee grains and water are mixed together. Coffee is customarily drunk three times in one setting using a “cini,” a small white ceramic cup (shown in the below picture). The three “cinis” of coffee have different names—Abol, Tonna and Berekha—Abol being the thickest coffee and Berekeha being the thinnest (more watered down). 

To add water into the “jebena” and reheat the coffee over a traditional coal furnace requires some time, which we productively used to continue our interview with the caregiver. 

The caregiver informed us that she doesn’t really subscribe to the term “caregiver,” preferring to be called “mother.” From our conversation, we gathered her belief that caregiving should be analogous to “maternal love” and that she is responsible for nurturing her children as if she was their “real” mother, as opposed to viewing it as a mere job from which she earns a salary. We were impressed by this approach and called her “mother” throughout the rest of the interview.

 
 

Chimdi (center), Blen (right) and their research participant having coffee while doing the interview.

Having finished our three “cinis” of coffee as well as our interview, we started our journey back to the office. 

It’s now “Kiremt,” the rainy season in Ethiopia—when corn grows in abundance—so it’s not surprising to find copious amounts of raw, roasted or boiled corn on the streets. More often than not, the cool, damp atmosphere combined with the wet, muddy streets compel Chimdi and I to walk over to the corn sellers, following the aroma and warm smoke emanating from the corn. 

The woman in the picture below was selling both roasted and boiled corn, both of them delicious in their own way. Hesitating between which type of corn to get, Chimdi and I finally settled on the boiled corn, which cost us 10 birr (the equivalent of about 45 U.S. cents). After eating our hot corn, we were ready for the close-to-two-hour minibus ride back to the office. 

 
 

Buying corn on the streets of Addis.

From public transportation to crowded juice bars, from the traditional coffee ceremony to corn sellers roasting or boiling corn in the corners of streets, I’m immersed in the communality and business of Addis. In addition to collecting important data for my research project, these experiences make my fieldwork even more enriching.