Anaise Williams- Creating Relationships in the Field: Experiences from Dhaka

dhakaOn the first day of lecture in my introductory global health course, the professor asked if Americans working in low-income settings abroad causes more harm than good. I know this is a basic question that we have all heard, but for me it caused a flashback.

It is three days until my flight out of Bangladesh, after a year of ethnographic research on postpartum depression in Dhaka, and I’m standing ankle deep in water in a four feet wide slum road. Trash and a dead rat float near by. Drenched in sweat, all I can think about is a shower and how I shouldn’t have come today. I didn’t have to give gifts to all my informants; I had come the week before but a few women had not been home. I look up and see three shredded pieces of tin that make the walls of some of the shacks appear as prison bars. Through them, the face of one of my informants, a seventeen-year-old named Teeptee, peered through, her baby slumped over her shoulder.

There are of course many different ways that “westerners” work in global health, and therefore many different ways to cause harm and good. For me, I was doing an exploratory, anthropological study on stigma towards mental health and the experience of post-birth stress. I was not providing services, but rather getting to know thirty-six women living in a slum on a very personal basis to understand their life struggles, with the goal being to generate knowledge of a generally neglected population. I did not have any connections with people who would make a program or intervention out of my findings. Is this harmful?

Teeptee and I shared our lives with each other over the course of months. I showed her
pictures of my family, my university, my parents’ house in Maine on the lake. She shared her story of marrying her drug-addicted husband without her parents’ consent, leaving her, a teenage mother, in a situation where her family refuses to help her because it was a love marriage rather than an arranged one. She told me about her husband’s abuse and the time he tried to kill her. My interpreter, an incredible Bangladeshi woman, and I knew that Teeptee enjoyed our company and consistently invited us to return. I consciously made my questions extremely open ended and vague so that she drove the dialog. We had a connection, and it was a safe space for her to open up about her life.


But was it harmful that I gave her a glimpse of my world? She saw my IPhone, and asked to see pictures of my life. She saw my wallet and the way I regularly bought scores of children treats. She saw the way I walked wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, unaccompanied by a man.

And before we both realized it, it was time for me to go home. We had been in her space together and I had momentarily felt the harsh reality of her life sentence: and now I could leave. Leave to go back to a bedroom two times the size of her slum home that I share with no one, back to my restaurants, my libraries and theories and lecturers who claim ownership and scholarship of places they have never lived long-term – something I find myself doing all the time about Bangladesh. Is this harmful? There is an argument saying no: her story might not be heard if I don’t share it, her health problems not evaluated, her needs not assessed.dhaka2

The true privilege that characterizes the global power dynamic is that I can have both my world and hers, but she can only have hers. I can go to her home and learn about the tragedies of humanity, but I can step out of it as soon as I want. I can cry with her; I can help her buy baby formula and medicine. She spoke with me, maybe because she wanted to, but it is naive to ignore the possibility that she only talked to me because she wanted economic assistance. I figured this was good for both of us- I get access to a secret world and people in her situation could benefit from research that will hopefully contribute to our general knowledge of how to make the world a better place for women.

But sometimes, when I think about it late at night, I feel like I was buying her world. I was taking it for my Fulbright stamp of approval, I was sharing it at conferences and in classrooms, I was using it to grow and feel passionate and successful and purposeful.

dhaka4I feared my friend had become dependent on me, after months of sharing her struggle and me listening intently. Then I left, and I know from her words and her situation in a Dhaka slum, that there is no one else she can regularly share her emotional stress with. I know it was good for her to be heard- she told me she wanted her name and story in a book. But when I chose to leave, had the choice to leave, how did that make her feel? My presence undoubtedly gave her hope and demonstrated how there are people who care about her wellbeing. It gave her a glimpse of how things could get better, how there is a world out there that is better. What happened to that hope when I made my last slum visit, gave my last smile and parcel of fruit?

If I knew, I could more readily approach the question of if this kind of global health work causes more harm than good.




Kathryn Davis- A Day in The Life of a Dar Es Salaam Mapper: Mapping Drainage in Chang’ombe

Photo1_EPD ColumbiaJanuary 14th, 10:30am. We arrive in Chang’ombe ward (an industrial area in Dar es Salaam) after weaving in and out of traffic in the project bajaj (rickshaw) through different neighborhoods. Johannes Peter, a seasoned mapper with the Dar Ramani Huria project, takes another look at his drone imagery printout of the area, and indicates that we’ve arrived at our starting point. He starts the OSMTracker app on his phone, ready to start work (the tracker app helps him to geolocate, and take pictures of interesting areas, with the pictures tagged to a GPS location). Mappers like Johannes detail key drainage and water infrastructure that hasn’t been digitized before, and that can be used for disaster risk reduction planning and flood resilience. He stops to check the map again, and then we’re off looking for drainage systems (our main task for the day). Carolina and I (two Columbia University graduate students, here on a preliminary trip to evaluate the project) are tagging along on a regular day for the Dar Ramani Huria project, to see the work team members are doing in the field.  It’s not easy work, but essential to the project.

Almost immediately, we see drainage on the right side of the wide dirt road, and mark it IMG_3259on the map. Johannes quickly identifies where we are on the map, and starts using the OSM Tracker App to identify the drainage, and to note indications of garbage or other debris blocking it.  He uses his phone to photograph this: the Tracker App automatically geotags the image, to give a visual for other OSM map users. All the data that Johannes collects today will be “digitized” (added to the online map) later, so it’s crucial to get details right, and we spend time noting each part of the drainage system that we can see, including the direction of water flow, which might indicate a drainage convergence at that point, or where drainage ends abruptly with no continuation. Johannes is systematic in his mapping: we cross part of the outer perimeter of the ward, then move down inner roads, stopping each time to note important drainage details.

IMG_3168By now we’re halfway through and the midday sun is shining on us, but with a quick water break we’re off again, to finish the area we’ve been assigned for the day. We see drainage under construction: Johannes indicates that on the map too, as drainage on these roads is likely to change in the coming weeks. We also see that part of one of the roads is flooded after light rain the day before. Drainage can go underground,  or we may need to figure out where the road is IMG_3191from the map: walking these roads and mapping takes a person who is comfortable asking questions, and Johannes, who’s from the city, is always ready to ask people in the neighborhood he’s mapping for help, whether it’s for directions or the name of someone who might know where the non-visible drainage lines go.

After a day in the field, Johannes brings the now annotated maps to BUNI Innovation Hub to digitize. BUNI which is where the HOT team works from in Dar es Salaam when they are not in the field mapping. At this phase in the project, mappers typically work two days in the field, then one day IMG_3180digitizing their field data into the OSM platform. The 22 mappers currently on the project (most of whom have been there since the initial mapping in early 2015), have mapped many wards in the city of Dar es Salaam. The project has completed in detail infrastructure of 21 wards in Dar es Salaam and is now finishing a review of the drainage in these wards, and mapping 32 additional wards.

As we’re pulling away in the bajaj at the end of the day, we IMG_3249asked Johannes about using the data, mapping and being part of the project. He told us that “we are the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Humanitarian means that we are taking care of people, and this means that some things we have to do voluntarily”. Most of the main mappers (including Johannes) have recently obtained university degrees in urban planning or geography, and are extremely passionate about their work. When he visited the Katavi Region in the southern part of Tanzania to visit family, he saw there were no maps, so he started mapping the area using the skills from he learned from the project. For Johannes, mapping isn’t just what he does at work with the Dar Ramani Project. It’s also something he does in his free time.