Sunday 16th September
One of the initial challenges with a multi-disciplinary project such as ASSETS is simply bringing people together and this is immediately evident as members from the University of Southampton (UK), the Basque Centre for Climate Change (Spain), WorldFish (Malawi), Chancellor College (Malawi), LEAD South-East Africa (Malawi) and the Forestry Department (Malawi) attempt to come together in Malawi to share knowledge of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) techniques. Those travelling from outside Malawi had to contend with late buses, unexpected flight changes and road reconstruction before finally reaching Zomba. It is credit to the Malawian team that everyone reached the destination despite these difficulties.
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Monday 16th September
With about 25 participants, we held a full day of presentations, with knowledge and ideas flowing from all directions. Our aim was not just to train all project partners in the use of PRA techniques but also to improve our research methods based on people’s local knowledge and subject expertise. Our local partners introduced us to the Zomba region and our pilot village, whilst the European partners presented the definitions of key concepts in the ASSETS project (e.g. ‘What is an ecosystem service?’, ‘What is food security?’) and an overview of the work planned for the next week.
Ethics training was provided to participants next. However, this is a complex subject that rarely has right or wrong answers. After a lecture on standard guidelines used for social research, a significant part of the day was spent discussing about the practical dilemmas one face in real life (e.g., how to deal with local conflicts or when to intervene in life-threatening situations). This activity provided an interesting and rich discussion with participants, who shared their own experiences in facing ethical dilemmas in different parts of Malawi.
The day was concluded with an initial session on Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). Some key exercises, such as well-being focus groups and ranking, were discussed with participants. The past fieldwork experiences of the Malawi team proved to be useful in order to think about how to enhance the PRA exercises prepared for this week.
Tuesday 17th September
The discussion of PRA exercises from yesterday was reconvened. After describing and exploring most of the exercises, we began to practise how the PRA would be performed, each taking turns to fill the role of scientist and villager respectively. This practise proved invaluable tomorrow!
Wednesday 18th September
Today we held our first visit to the pilot village. This village was chosen as it was both accessible and representative of the surrounding area. Using the PRA techniques and methods that we had honed over the past few months, we began a trial of the data collection and analysis process.
Having natural scientists, social scientist and modellers involved in this process gave all a valuable insight into the value of the data that can be obtained using these methods. Our wide ranging areas of interest were of great use, enabling us to amend the surveys, ensuring that data required by all the sub-groups within ASSETS would be obtained. Simultaneously, the Malawians chosen to carry out the PRAs in our study sites were receiving real-world experience of how to perform PRA, as well as trialling how to best translate complex scientific ideas and terminology into terms that could be understood by even uneducated villagers. Separating groups of villagers by gender, it is immediately obvious that each group has very different dynamics and priorities. In general, groups of females were much more vocal and relaxed, often breaking out into song and dance.
However, groups of males tended to be more business-like. These differences were reflected in the results obtained too, highlighting the different social roles of each gender in the village. For example, in the Participatory Geographical Information System (P-GIS) exercise, there were key differences between the maps produced by both genders, with men focussing on agriculture and village boundaries whilst women highlighted fuel-wood and bore-hole locations. Through a full day in the field we were able to gather data on P-GIS, wellbeing and livelihoods, wellbeing ranking, farming systems and land use trends. The value of ASSETS is immediately obvious as villagers quickly identify that many of the ecosystem services they rely upon for food security have declined over the past 20 years.
Thursday 19th – Friday 20th September
Both Thursday and Friday followed a very similar format. In the mornings we would all meet and discuss feedback from the previous day’s work. If necessary, we made amendments to our methods, constantly adapting our techniques to the situation at hand. These meetings also served to test the suitability of the field report forms prepared in previous weeks. These are expected to facilitate sorting the information collected locally in a systematic and structured manner.
In these final days we were able to trial our methods, collecting data on seasonal changes, village time-lines, food security and perceived cause and effect relationships as well as examining the different coping strategies of men and women. After a week of great effort from all involved, we looked forward to a day off before more members of ASSETS arrived.