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Researchers who love their “field”
Rita and Mireille from DMI’s research team both recount the same story: In order to visit the village of Tondjata, in the Djibo region, it was necessary to cross a lake by canoe. The researchers, unlike many others, did not refuse the challenge and took to the water, winning the admiration of the villagers.
This is just one example of the relationship between the DMI researchers and the rural population of Burkina Faso, the target of DMI’s 3-year radio campaign to reduce infant mortality. One of the four members of the research team, Souleymane, sums up using a culinary metaphor for this love of the field: “We eat tô (Burkinabé food) from the same plate as the villagers”.
Of course, there is a lot of literature about community knowledge and behaviours in rural Burkina Faso. “But the fieldwork we do is indispensable”, insists Rita, who leads the team. “Studies can be either patchy or dated. For example, the prevention of malaria has long been the object of study, but the massive distribution of mosquito nets in recent years has dramatically changed the context. Often our interviews with villagers surprise us and our findings are different to the literature.”
One of the problems that the researchers have encountered is that villagers are often unavailable for an interview. “There may be something unexpected: a baptism, engagement, a death or traditional ceremonies which exclude foreigners in the village. We have to adapt to their timetable” explains Souleymane. Furthermore “When young parents - in these times of shortage - leave to look for resources far from the village, we have to talk to the elderly people instead.”
Souleymane adds that when they do get a chance to speak to the villagers the researchers must listen carefully as “there is always someone who says something that one hasn’t expected. In the village of Yasso, we discovered that there was a local myth that baby stools were non-hazardous.”
In the building that houses DMI, the researchers’ floor is situated under that of the scriptwriters: the work of the former is the foundation of that of the latter. On return from the 5-day missions of “thematic research”, the team formulates a short brief on the “theme of the month”: for example “complementary feeding”, “breastfeeding”, or “neonatal health” This brief describes the behaviours to promote as well as the barriers to change. Jean-Paul, Health Advisor of the team, makes sure that the briefs conform to Ministry of Health policy.
The scriptwriters rely on this brief to write and produce half a dozen radio spots that will be tested with the villagers. The researchers then visit the rural populations to present these six spots that have been recorded in the local languages of Mooré and Dioula. The “panel of listeners” sit under the shade of the trees to listen to the different spots. They react and comment, rank and choose, in an atmosphere that is both hardworking and fun. “Because it takes humour to keep people’s attention” emphasises Mireille. The feedback from the listening panel help the team to choose the four best spots that will be broadcast by radio, not only in Mooré and Dioula, but also in Fulfuldé, Gourmantché, and Nuni.
The feedback from the panel of listeners is given to the scriptwriters to help them to write the next batch of spots. “The Scriptwriters must write about the reality of the village, if not, the spots will not work” notes Rita. The scriptwriter, Sidi, who accompanied the researchers to test the scripts written about handwashing with soap, knows something of this. His script about talking germs, which was very popular in the city of Ouagadougou, was not “understood” in the village of Tengrela as it was too far removed from everyday life.
Having visited 15 villages in five months, the DMI researchers are impressed by what they have learnt from the rural population. According to Mireille, “Some farmers are better informed than female city-dwellers.” “The problem,” cautions Rita, “is that often information on health has been added - without replacing - old beliefs. Nowadays, everyone knows that malaria is started by a mosquito bite, but when a child is seized by malarial convulsions, some also see the hand of an evil spirit.”