What I learned

A review of the lessons learned during my most recent time in Bulozi

This is the second of two follow up posts written after my departure from Bulozi in early March 2017. In the first, I provided a recap of my involvement, with an emphasis on how things finished. In this post, I will go beyond descriptions of events; here I propose some lessons and conclusions that I gleaned from that two-month trip.

Six key lessons learned in early 2017

  1. It is possible to engage with (former) research participants on other terms

During my initial fieldwork in 2014, I had a concrete purpose that most people seemed to understand: I was conducting a research project. The purpose of this recent trip was harder for me to describe. I was engaging with the members of the groups that had participated in the research, but not towards a goal that I could articulate from the outset. In addition, I was not affiliated with a specific institution, which further meant that I could not claim to be a volunteer or an employee. With this dynamic, I felt that it was difficult to describe what I was doing any time I was away from Bulozi. The best that I could think of was that I was “following up with the participants to my thesis research”; a statemen that was often greeted with “What does that mean?” as a response.

By contrast, once in Bulozi, my engagement seemed to make perfect sense. Post hoc, it is easier for me to say that “I met together with the research participants. Together we spoke about the problems that were identified in the research. We worked together to devise solutions to those problems.”

It seems to me that there is something to be learned from the contrast in understandings: the dynamic that I shared with the participants was difficult for (most) outsiders to follow, but seemingly intuitive to insiders. The best that I can discern at the moment is that this is indicative of a genuine interpersonal relationship within which there are shared understandings. The possibility of engaging on other terms was refreshing: it renewed my faith in participatory research – even if this approach is not embraced by the majority of my researcher colleagues.

  1. I want to continue my involvement in Bulozi

A big question that I had coming into this trip was Should I renew my commitment to this place and its people? In the absence of other considerations, this question is easy: why not continue working here? When incorporated into my overall career and life plans it is more complicated: is my desire to continue working here sufficient that it would cause me to refuse competing opportunities?

Having completed the thesis and attempted some follow up activities, this trip could have been an opportunity to make a clean break. Instead, these additional two months confirmed the opposite: I have built up a number of relationships and a fair amount of context-specific knowledge, but there is still more to learn and to do.

Having made this decision, it was a priority for me that my next commitment be in Western Zambia. For this reason, I decided to develop project ideas with the supervisor to my postdoctoral fellowship at McGill University: he was open to the principle that all the ideas began with the foundation of working on disability issues in Bulozi.

  1. Good ideas do not always lead to good results

The leader of the urban disability group and I collaborated to develop a plan to move the group forward. It was a great plan except for one aspect: it did not work (see here for details).

I have taken some time to reflect on 2017’s surprise non-success. I plan to do more reflection with the group leader at a future time. I am sure that we will both learn from this. In the meantime, I think that there is still reason for us to keep our heads held high for having devoted energy to a plan that made sense.

  1. Structures that seem weak in one context can be strong in another

In 2014, when I was conducting my thesis research, I found the urban group easy to work with, while I found it challenging to work with the rural group.

In 2017, the dynamics were similar, but the results were different: whereas the efforts with the urban group seemed to whither without result, the collaboration with the rural group was fruitful (again, here for details).

It seems to me that my source of frustration in 2014 was a strength for the rural group in 2017: this informal and flexible collective was able to re-constitute itself very effectively according to the terms established through our discussion.

  1. Writing a blog becomes less fun once you make it part of your job

From late-2014 through until the end of 2016, most of the writing that I did was “scientific” (i.e., writing publications like my thesis or journal articles). In 2017, I made a pledge to start this blog as an enjoyable experiment. I also took this as an opportunity to conduct a complete re-brand of my social media presence.

The initial content and first few blog posts were very refreshing: I was able to devote time to writing the type of material that I enjoy reading. Those first few posts attracted many readers to the blog and therefore drew attention to my work. Things seemed great.

I monitored the viewership and noticed that it seemed to spike the most when I posted about a blog entry on Facebook, but each subsequent Facebook post drew fewer readers than the one before. Few people commented on the blog; meaning that it did not succeed in stimulating dialogue the way that I had hoped. These signs made it apparent to me that cultivating an audience that is interested in the content (rather than something their friend wrote) requires effort, time, and persistence. A few weeks into my time in Bulozi, my schedule started to get busier with competing activities.

The confluence of these factors made writing blog posts more of a chore than a pleasure.

The good news is that I now have a better idea about what writing a blog about participatory research relationships entails; for this reason, the experiment was a success.

  1. I have further reason to believe that a “binational lifestyle” is the one that makes the most sense to me

(For some exemplary proof that binationalism is really a thing, see reviews of this book)

I was incredibly energized by my return to Mongu and Kalabo: my work felt far more meaningful while I also enjoyed many other aspects of life. At the same time, I did not feel compelled to move to Zambia full-time.

Part of the reason to maintain a base in two countries is occupational: I continue to find professional opportunities in Canada. Another aspect is related to lifestyle: I quickly fell in love with Toronto when I relocated there in 2011. In a few months, I will move my Canadian base to Montreal, and I am very excited to come to know that city well too.

There are drawbacks to this arrangement: the regular re-locations and sometimes feel like dis-locations. More importantly, there are aspects that I cherish about Zambia and aspects that I cherish about Canada; by moving between them, it really does feel like I am able to experience the positives of both worlds.

***

With the publishing of this final post for “the January and February trip of 2017,” I will now put this blog to bed for the foreseeable future. Having devoted significant its establishment, I might re-kindle the blog at some point. If (or when) that happens, I will be sure to draw attention to it through my twitter account.

Between now and that time, thank you all for checking in and/or following along!

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