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Reflections of my interview experience in the villages of Singida, Tanzania

Two months ago, I was invited to support a project with their data collection in the villages of Tanzania. The project involved working with farmers to promote pigeon pea cultivation in Singida, a semi-arid region where legumes struggle to grow. The team had six interviewers who were supposed to interview 170 farmers on their cultivation practises and pigeon pea preferences. This was to be done in 7 days. My task was simply to observe the process and work on the ODK tool when an amendment was needed. But, after a few hours of observations, I found myself drawn into the exercise and volunteering to interview!

Nuru Kipato - Research Methods Assistant

So, a bit about me: I am normally working from an office position at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania. I’ve trained enumerators who go out to conduct interviews, designed questionnaires and am accustomed to using ODK for data collection - however, I’ve never actually taken part in the interviewing process myself, other than piloting with one or more interviewees during the enumerator trainings. So, when asked to volunteer on the exercise, I was very excited at the opportunity and thought to myself, “this should be easy and fun – I have seen people do this before!” Little did I realise that theory and practise don’t often match up! Here are my first-hand lessons learnt as an interviewer in the field:

  1. Patience is key: Remind yourself that as an interviewer you took time to study the questionnaire (or whichever tool you are using) before the exercise began, so remember to allow some time for the interviewee to also process the information you are feeding them. Don’t assume they will understand every question first-off - because the likelihood is that you didn’t either!
  2. Agree translations beforehand: We know that not every word in one language has a direct translation in another language, right? In our case, we had a scientific question that required farmers to mention ‘the crop’s growth parameters’ that they liked. First it was hard translating ‘growth parameters’ into Swahili, and even harder still when a farmer could not understand my hard-worked translation. Unsurprisingly, my colleagues faced the same problem! It would very much have helped if we agreed the translations before going to the field, and to pilot these along with everything else, so that no translation was done on the fly. This would ensure that the translations are clear and unambiguous, and that each translator uses the exact same translation.
  3. Rephrase and give examples: In my bid to find a simpler Swahili phrase for ‘growth parameters’, I found myself torn between looking for a simpler phrase and giving my interviewee examples of growth parameters as a hint. I knew the latter was wrong practise, but it was tempting nonetheless! The lesson learnt is to get the translation right in the first place, ahead of being in the field.
  4. Probing: How much probing is ok? A common mistake is to guess what farmers mean when their answer is unclear, or to prompt an answer when you seek clarification. This is a skill I am yet to master! And I look forward to learning more about this.
  5. Appreciation for the role of field workers: During my time in the field, I truly valued the extension staff who helped coordinate the farmers for interviews. Farmers are busy people and getting them in one place at the same time is not easy. For instance, there was a time when the group of farmers we were supposed to interview were at a funeral service. We waited for hours to interview them and couldn’t interview another group, as we hadn’t arranged it beforehand. And the village was at a very remote place to go back to empty handed! As a result, we really came to value the role of our field workers and all that they organise.


One of the fields where the interviews took place


One of the interviews took place under this tree


Overall, I really enjoyed my experience of interviewing and this was largely due to the people I worked with; all of whom were very welcoming and fun to be with, especially given that I had not met most of them before. They also made the exercise look easy and fun – and maybe that’s how I found myself volunteering! Secondly, the farmers were very cooperative and welcoming too - some walked great distances to meet us, would sit down under trees and say, “you’ve brought us knowledge, we are happy to give you any information you want in return”, referring to the project in hand. However, as much as the farmers were willing to give all the information we wanted, there were some sensitive questions about their sales which they were hesitant to share, and the clever farmers politely dodged the questions by responding that they were ‘yet to sell any crops that season’. This was great insight for me and provided me with further lessons to take home in terms of how the survey can be designed to overcome these evasions from farmers. Would I do field interviewing again? Yes, I would very much take up the opportunity to try this again, and I feel I’d be better prepared with my learnings next time!

So, these were my experiences, what was your first experience as an interviewer like? Can you relate to any of my lessons learnt? I’d be interested in hearing about any additional points you noted ?

Nuru Kipato
Author: Nuru Kipato

Nuru is a mathematician and Research Methods specialist for SSD in Tanzania. She was a Research Methods Consultant and Junior Statistician at the African Maths Initiative in Maseno, Kenya.

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