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Four lessons on conducting short-term site visits

Four lessons on conducting short-term site visits

I’d read the e-mail reports. I’d seen the photos of the group meetings and the community centre. I’d chatted about the local cuisine. But none of that fully prepared me for actually going to East Africa to conduct site visits.

Many people argue that long-term positions in developing countries are always better than short ones, and that people who drop in for short visits are too out-of-touch to accomplish anything meaningful. But a huge number people working in development have jobs that require short site visits, including people based at the headquarters of international organisations, those visiting a site prior to a long-term position and those doing long-term stays who are requested to make short trips to other areas. And even people who have done short visits in one place may find themselves feeling like a newbie when making visits to other places.

In my work as Executive Administrator with Spirit in Action, I haven’t been able to do long-term fieldwork. When I’ve visited our partner organisations in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda, I’ve only been able to spend a few days in each community. While I read up on how to conduct and prepare for site visits, those resources couldn’t fully prepare me to deal with the cultural aspects of my trips.

From my past experiences, I’ve learned four lessons about diving into new cultural settings quickly and with grace:

1. Dress nicely.

When traveling for a site visit, it doesn’t help to look at packing lists for African safaris. When I made my first set of site visits, I did follow those checklists and packed loose, lightweight trek clothing. And then I got there, and met with grassroots organisation leaders who were dressed in suits and dress shoes. I realised they had put a lot of thought and effort into dressing to impress, while I looked as though I wasn’t taking the trip, or them and their hard work, seriously.

Learning from past experiences, on my second trip I packed appropriate-length skirts, blouses and cardigans, and my colleague brought a suit jacket. Instead of looking like tourists, we got compliments on how nice we looked during our visits. I think it showed a measure of respect, and it also made it feel more like a meeting of partners. It’s not just a trip to Africa–or a safari–it’s a work trip.

2. Understand how we react to smiles.

In many cases, part of site visits is taking photos of grant projects in action and portraits of project participants. Besides the practical ethics of getting permission from the people before photographing them and portraying them with dignity, I ran into the question of whether or not to ask people to smile. In Manymula Village, Malawi, I noticed that as much as people smiled and laughed while they told us their story, they put on unsmiling faces when we asked to take a photo.

A participant in Spirit in Action's programs in Malawi.
A participant in Spirit in Action’s programs in Malawi. Photo from the author.

My North American selfie culture wanted the smile to exist in the photo as well–it conveys a positive impact of the work. For them, the lack of a smile conveyed the seriousness of the positive impact. I consulted with our host, who was happy to ask people to smile. And they did smile willingly. It just took a moment to navigate the different expectations of standing in front of a camera.

3. Know whether or not you’re supposed to accept the tea.

Visiting many different partner organisations and project participants can lead to many offers of tea. Even cultural settings where I am generally comfortable sometimes leave me wondering whether I’m supposed to accept or refuse the first offer. In the Philippines, it’s polite to refuse the first offer of food. In California, there might not be a second offer. So, which is proper for the place you are visiting? Sometimes the best way to figure out the cultural expectations is to simply ask. And so I checked with our host.

Turns out, in rural Malawi (and with our rushed schedule), it was recommended to refuse all offers of tea during site visits. They were mostly offering just to be polite, and accepting could impose an economic burden, especially as our team grew throughout the day. Also, we simply didn’t have time to drink all that tea and make it through our schedule. Sometimes participating in cultural ritual is beneficial; sometimes it cuts into the reality of making the visits. Knowing that the meal schedules will be out of my control, I always pack a few snack bars to give me energy for the long days, eating them when I can find some privacy so as not to offend my hosts.

4. Understand the gender dynamics.

Conducting site visits as a woman has put me in some murky situations. In many communities I’ve visited, the traditional role of women and the typical role of guests were at odds. This was especially the case in parts of rural Uganda, where women greet men with a handshake while on their knees. Should I be on my knees to greet (as a woman) or standing (as a guest)? Some members of my team from Nigeria and Kenya expressed discomfort seeing the women kneel to greet us. It felt demeaning to them.

In the end, I went with accepting the role as guest–I felt it was more important for me to maintain the same role as my male colleague and accept the respect they were showing me as someone who had traveled a long way to be there. I realised this wasn’t a time to shake up the social system by getting on my knees or by encouraging the women to not greet me from their knees–and so I smiled and shook hands with people however they approached me. Every region has slightly different expressions of gender roles, and people may not be able to articulate the expectations in which they are immersed. For understanding some gender dynamics before arriving, asking people from your own culture who have also visited the area might be your best bet.

I’m not naïve enough to think I have it all worked out, but I do have more experience now with paying attention, adapting on the spot, noticing, asking and being able to laugh graciously.

What are your experiences and tips for gracefully surviving short-term visits?

Featured image shows a participant in an agriculture training sponsored by Spirit in Action in Ghana. Photo from Spirit in Action.

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Tanya Cothran is the Executive Administrator at Spirit in Action, an international micro-grant organisation working in East Africa. Trained as a librarian, she finds satisfaction in tracking down bits of information. Tanya is working on a book of essays, "Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems," with 23 other international development professionals. She holds a B.A. in Geography from UC-Berkeley and a Master's of Library and Information Science from St. Catherine's University, and she lives in Toronto.

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