Participatory Rural Appraisals – the reality

by Oriole Wagstaff, University of Southampton Master Student

After hours of training, and planning methods, there was still a level of uncertainty about how exactly the Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRA) would unfold within the Malawian villages. The drive through the first village, like much of Malawi, was not only amidst beautiful landscapes but filled with hard working people and children; relentless in their smiling and waving, whilst chasing our bus. Malawi, as a nation meets its reputation as being welcoming and friendly. This, as always, eased any anxieties. Still, knowing what to expect about the formalities or procedures of how to introduce a PRA was difficult. When we arrived in the first village the greetings began. I had learnt beforehand, and after extra practice with our translators, the appropriate greetings in Chichewa. The headman especially was amused by this, much to our delight. Everyone introduced themselves and this ritual of greetings set off the first day of PRA’s.

PRA in Malawi - September 2012 (c) Carlos Torres-Vitolas

PRA in Malawi – September 2012 (c) Carlos Torres-Vitolas

Our first PRA experience was great. The participants were interested and keen to help. Their ability to speak English, and read maps, made for a smooth first session. The next few days revealed the real nature of PRA’s – unpredictability. Often people turn up at varying times, and it is almost impossible to predict the number that will arrive.  Regardless, all our PRA’s have for the most part generated discussions. This is the element of PRA’s that I enjoy the most; hearing the experiences that people have to share. As farfetched or shocking as they are these are the stories that I always hope to hear.

The initial PRA’s also revealed the first glimpse of data lost in translation. Our translator spoke Chichewa and English brilliantly. However, when a group of women started speaking in Yao (another tribal dialect) we were all a bit lost. Nevertheless this was easily solved. Translating the words for certain animals often proves difficult however where no translation actually exists. This was sometimes overcome by using images or describing the characteristics (as much as we could without actually have seen any ourselves) yet this sometimes increased confusion. At times, this planted a seed of doubt in our research about whether the participants were discussing the animal we were noting down. This doubt was often added to when varying groups of both men and women produced different answers. Nevertheless this provided insight into how perceptions of game, pollinators, pests and pest control vary.

Another unexpected element of PRA’s arose in the fairly awkward arrival of unforeseen members that didn’t meet the requirements. The open and casual nature of these discussions means that any curious passer-by could sit down with the participants. This seems to be a common occurrence in multiple villages and inevitably leads to the awkward situation of having to ask unexpected members to leave. Nevertheless this often made for a serendipitous occasion whereby we gained more participants for the next day. Interestingly group dynamics seem to change with the addition of only a few members and as I learnt recently any number above seven does not prove successful. In this particular case the group split in to two opposing groups who were particularly keen on playful debates around almost every comment the others made.

It is hard to ignore in such hard working communities a level of guilt and discomfort in taking people away from work. Often the underlying intention to improve food security through this research, without direct and physical benefits, can be hidden by the somewhat unusual nature of our discussion points. In turn, without immediate visible actions, these PRA’s understandably are an opportunity to gain something through compensation. This, as only a token of compensation for their time, has led to a range of reactions within all 3 villages we have encountered thus far. From vast gratitude, to reluctance to get involved, it is evident that compensation is key motivation behind involvement. Justifiably, negative reactions tend to arise from wanting greater visible actions or compensation, highlighting that the nature of our research is not immediate.

Nevertheless, generally people tend to enjoy the experience. Not only are PRA’s an opportunity to widen knowledge around our research, participants highlight their own appreciation of learning from us. This is a particularly wholesome thought and one that I hope works in both directions. Regarding the larger and often more dangerous animals, people take pleasure in sharing their own close encounters. It is impossible to ignore the wider, often cultural lessons learnt from the discussions. So far I have heard stories of magic and mystery, caution and danger, and if you are lucky, sometimes even witness some miming. This also highlighted my dependence on interpreting body language which, to my dismay, has proved fairly ineffective at interpreting some of the more intriguing stories.

Of the 10 PRA’s I have carried out so far not one has been the same as another.  Every PRA is an experience that reveals something new. The language barrier can at times be infuriating and I resent my ignorance of this language; a lesson I will learn for future research. Whether it is learning about the place and it’s people, the faults in PRA’s or the awkward encounters, PRA’s act as a platform for village stories, experiences, frustrations and education. They are definitely an experience and it is in fact their unpredictable nature with such a variety of people that makes them worthwhile.

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