Researchers as healers or witches?

“A researcher [mtafiti] is an important person because he indeed is the one who discovers everything [anayegundua kila kitu].” – Mzee Thomas Inyassi

Melissa Graboyes describes how research participants in Tanzania see the medical researchers who come to them for samples and information. On the one hand, “East Africans noted the similarity between researchers and doctors: they both gave out medicine and helped the sick recover.” On the other hand…

As healers and witches are understood to rely on the same skills, once researchers were compared with healers, it was not such a stretch to compare them to witches. … Witch doctors often work at night and want blood. … Researchers also worked at night, collecting blood samples by going door to door or collecting night-biting mosquitos by walking around in the bush. For both witches and researchers, blood was valued above all other substances and its use was shrouded in secrecy.

This, from Graboyes’ intriguing book The Experiment Must Continue: Medical Research and Ethics in East Africa, 1940-2014.

Lest you think this is limited only to medical research, consider the following passage from Kremer, Miguel, and Thornton’s randomized evaluation of a girls’ scholarship program in western Kenya:

There is also a tradition of suspicion of outsiders in Teso, and this has at times led to misunderstandings with NGOs there. A government report noted that indigenous religious beliefs, traditional taboos, and witchcraft practices remain stronger in Teso than in Busia (Were, 1986).

Events that occurred during the study period appear to have interacted in an adverse way with these preexisting factors in Teso district. In June 2001 lightning struck and severely damaged a Teso primary school, killing 7 students and injuring 27 others. Although that school was not in the scholarship program, the NGO had been involved with another assistance program there. Some community members associated the lightning strike with the NGO, and this appears to have led some schools to pull out of the girls’ scholarship program. Of 58 Teso sample schools, 5 pulled out immediately following the lightning strike, as did a school located in Busia with a substantial ethnic Teso population. (Moreover, one girl in Teso who won the ICS scholarship in 2001 later refused the scholarship award, reportedly because of negative views toward the NGO.)

Witches or healers?

One take away from this is that researchers need to do more to make sure participants understand what they are participating in.

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