This post was written by Patra Likonge Kapolesa. She is profiled here.
Lessons learned in my experience of working as a research assistant (RA) in the community
I have worked as an RA in two research projects with persons with disabilities living in villages in Western Province, Zambia. I would like to share with you some of the things that I learned and observed in my time doing this work.
State the benefit to the community of your work clearly and honestly.
This might not sound important, but I assure you that this is essential. Many of the people with disabilities who live in the villages where we work are living in poverty. When they see a visitor who has come in their community – especially a white person – before they can hear why that person is visiting, they fill their minds with the idea that the person has come to “help them” (by giving them handouts).This is not a good thing, because no matter how you will explain to them about your study – for example if there are no direct benefits – they will not listen, they will keep on asking for handouts from you. This can even continue after you have stated many times that you are not giving anything. Therefore, in my work as an RA, I learned that one needs to be honest and communicate clearly their work objectives.
We used the strategy of honestly and clearly communicating our objectives in the villages where we worked. People in the community sometimes seemed as though they did not understand because they continued to ask for things from us. Because we had been clear and honest from the start, we were able to remain consistent when it came time to remind them.
Some people will lose interest when they learn that you are not giving handouts.
The other observation or what I noticed was this: people in the communities show less interest the moment they understand that your work is not about giving handouts. I do not know if it has to do with the mindset or just how things are these days; I do not know. What do I mean by people showing less interest? I mean that when you first visit their home for an interview, they are welcoming and inviting. And yet, as you sit to discuss and explain your work, then everything changes. After this point, people begin acting as though they are tired talking to you and they just want you to be done and leave.
To the researchers (and other people working as RAs) who wish to work in the rural communities like we did, I would encourage you to state the benefits to the community of your work clearly and honesty: the moment you lie to them or promise them things of which you are not sure, they will not forget your name or what you have done to them. Instead, they will tell each and every person who visits the community how bad or dishonest you were to them. The other thing is that if you are not clear and honest of your work to the community, these experiences will alter the mindsets or perceptions of community members, such that they welcome with fear, or maybe not even welcome, other people who visit to do a research in their community.