You Don’t Have to Be Brave to do Field Work

When people say I am brave for coming out here, for doing the work that I do, my first thought is “No, I’m not.”

Partly, because people have no idea what the day-to-day work actually looks like in the field. Mostly, it’s boring and includes emails and phone calls in a local cafe, and lots of contemplation over what I should eat for dinner. On a good day, there might be a handful of meetings, a focus group, or a few surveys to conduct.

On the other side, I know I am not “brave” for coming out here. There are people who live here. This is their life. Some of them struggle to find water, to find food, to find enough money to pay for their children to attend school. Many spend most of their days growing the food that will feed their family for the coming months, praying that it does not run out during the hungry season. Others have never missed a meal, frequent 5-star hotels, and send their kids to prestigious private boarding schools. Some have never been on a farm in their lives. Some have never left their village. Some have spent years living and working abroad. Some take public buses for transport that are often incredibly dirty and overcrowded with people, goods, and even livestock. Others might walk several kilometers to work, school, or wherever they might need to go. Still others drive luxury cars that they purchased in cash with money they earned through hard work and ingenuity. Some live in houses made of mud and grass. Sometimes, if they had a windfall harvest, got a microloan, or managed to save up, they have a tin roof. Many do not have electricity or running water, and forget internet access. But others live in mansions with saunas and swimming pools and high speed internet.

Meanwhile, I have the luxury of dropping in for a couple of months, whiling away the hours in restaurants and coffee shops, speeding through the streets on taxi motos or even private cabs, and staying in mid-range hotels that have consistent electricity, running water, and sometimes even internet. I like to live like a middle class local when I am here, striving to avoid being just another expatriate. But all the same, even if the lady selling me cloth in the market sticks up for me, telling her friend “She is not a mzungu. She is like me”, I know what I am. I am not brave for coming out here. I am blessed. It doesn’t take much courage when you can choose to leave whenever you want.

Mostly, though, I refuse such statements because bravery implies that there is something to be afraid of, that others would avoid out of fear. So saying that I am brave for coming here is like saying that Africa is a big, scary place. There are dangers everywhere in this world. But to assume that whatever country I am working in is more scary than the US (or any other country) means that you buy single story. It shows a willingness to accept what is shown by the media and Hollywood. In my experience, such stereotypes are void of reality and only echo persistent, ignorant ethnocentrism in a (supposedly) globalized world. It shows how little most know about the places where I work and the people I have the honor of calling friends and colleagues.

So to all those wondering whether they have what it takes to do field work, I say go for it. It doesn’t really take bravery. It only takes an open mind, ready to learn about new places and get to know new people.

Photo Credit: Joey King 2010.
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