Over the summer I traveled to Lusaka, Zambia to participate in the evaluation of an adolescent girl empowerment program for an International NGO. It was an experience that both reinforced my commitment and passion to global public health and at the same time raised challenges for me that I think many of us face when we work outside of our own countries.
The ever-present white Land Cruisers became home for me in Lusaka, Zambia during my practicum. Every day a team of 35 incredible local staff and I would hop into those vehicles, blast the top Zed hits, and head to the compounds in the nearby communities. The group of local female enumerators would spend hours locating and interviewing adolescent girls, asking them seemingly endless questions, ranging from who lives in their household to the last time they had sex. It seems like we wanted to know just about everything we possibly could about these 5,000 girls we would spend time with over the next few months as we evaluated the program.
I was given the option of staying in the office while I did ‘QC’ (quality checks) or going into the field with the enumerators. I ALWAYS chose the field. I love to be in the mix of things—learning, laughing, and (most importantly) interacting with the project’s intended beneficiaries. However, in the third week of fieldwork, I had two drastically dissimilar experiences that made me question the effect my obviously foreign presence had on this research project.
In the field, one of my roles was to observe Early Childhood Development (ECD) assessments and to provide feedback for the enumerators. However, in many of the households, the children were terrified of me, and I would have to step outside in order for the enumerators to complete their interviews. During these times, often lasting for a couple of hours, I would hang out with the child’s family members and their neighbors—can someone say a dream come true?? On one such occasion, there were a few teenagers cooking greens and doing laundry with their caretaker right outside the house. I awkwardly stood next to them and put on my big, cheesy smile. I wanted to hang out too! That awkward moment soon passed and moments later we were huddled in a circle attempting to chat about school in broken English and Nyanja, singing songs, and learning to cook greens Zambia-style. About an hour into the hangout session, one of the young boys ran into the house and brought out a photo of himself with a Muzungu (white person), holding it very tightly to his chest with evident pride. The caretaker followed him out, carrying a bag of peanuts as a gift for me. She told me:
The kids and I get very excited when we see Muzungus. All of these kids are orphans, and the photo that the boy is holding is his sponsor. All of these kids get sponsored to go to school. They got excited when they saw you because they know that people like you help them a lot.
I did nothing to help these teens. I was welcomed and cared for by this family because of someone else’s kind deed only because I had the same skin color as them. It did, on some level, warm my heart to know that something as simple as a school sponsorship significantly helped this family, even if I had nothing to do with it and even if it wasn’t enough.
A few days later, once again, another child was uncomfortable in my presence. The living room was very small, so I sat in the doorway to observe because I knew that the child needed a bit more space from me. A few minutes later, the adolescent girl’s brother-in-law walks by, stops in front of me and gets noticeably upset:
Why is SHE in my brother’s house?! She is drawing attention to my household! The neighbors will have questions. Did you even talk to my brother? Is she here because we are orphans?
He was raising his voice and, soon enough, neighbors’ faces began peeking out from their homes. I told him that I could leave, but he just kept repeating that I was attracting attention to his house. My heart dropped. I was sad and uncomfortable. Would the girl’s husband come home and be upset with her? Would his brother-in-law cause a scene after we left? Did my presence negatively impact this research? Later, I was told that it is not unusual for enumerators to be chased out by some families. Still, I couldn’t help but think that my presence made this situation a whole lot worse. Both of these families lived in the same area and included orphans, but they had vastly different (if equally acceptable) responses to my presence in their homes.
I had an incredible couple of months in Zambia and wished I didn’t have to leave. After I graduate, I would love to live and work internationally, but I know that these feelings will continue to well up and cause me to question the value of my presence in these settings. I love to be in the middle of all the action, but perhaps there are moments when it is better that I step back—and that is absolutely okay!