Research in a Foreign Country

I never really understood the importance of a command of a native language while doing research – that is, until this trip. In Tanzania, there are multiple official languages, including English. When I saw this, I was reassured, since I figured that even the common man would speak basic English. This, as it turned out, was almost hilariously incorrect. Upon setting foot in the Dar es Salaam airport, I immediately discovered to my dismay that the immigration officer barely spoke English. Through some signing and pointing, I was able to get the correct visa, but I realized then that I was in for much more of a challenge than I had anticipated.

This problem asserted itself throughout my research. We spent many hours going through multiple drafts of a survey that we were attempting to translate from English to Swahili. When traveling to the rural district of Rufiji, hardly anybody spoke English, and we had to rely on our enumerators to translate for us. Had we not had many fluent English speakers with us, I have no doubt that the project would have ended in failure.

Similarly, it is really important to have a firm grasp of culture and customs before doing research in a foreign land. For example, we had planned to send out our surveyors on a Monday – only to realize at the last minute that it was important Islamic holiday that day. Similarly, we planned to serve lunch at our workshops, until realizing that it was Ramadan, and the women who were attending would very likely be fasting.

Essentially, before doing any kind of activity in a foreign country, it is really important to have a firm handle on the language and culture of the place you are studying.