Confessions of a researcher

When I began writing this blog several weeks back I had just arrived in Dar es Salaam to complete my PhD fieldwork. Fresh off the plane I was very put out by the regular near death experiences in traffic, the unabating noise, the dust, dirt and most of all the casual racism which I was subjected to as an Mzungu researcher. The reality of Dar was encroaching on my fantasy of having a relatively easy and event-free time doing fieldwork. And so I took to my laptop and had a good rant about it all. I have not managed to return to the blog until recently. But something happened in those few weeks, between my original piece, and what I am writing now. I began doing interviews with refugees living in the city. This is what my research is focused on: the vulnerabilities of both the urban refugee population and Tanzanian urban poor in Dar es Salaam. My eyes have been opened to a world very far removed from the one I am accustomed to.

I do not often come across sad people in the true sense of the word in my everyday life, but I have interviewed some in Dar. To look into the eyes of someone who you can see life has broken, while continuing on with my litany of research questions is something I have really struggled with. The difficult questions I always leave to the end. What brought you to Dar es Salaam? ‘They killed my husband. My wife. My mother.’ Children that parents had said goodbye to on their way to school that morning, lost forever as families were scattered to corners of different countries, a moment’s violence and a lifetime’s separation; 10 or 15 years on parents never knowing if their children were still alive, never mind where they were living.

Today, away from the violence, these refugees are still far from secure. Grinding poverty leaves them struggling to find money to eat. Some of the worst cases survive on one meal a day. Indeed, the results from my interviews so far, although a relatively small sample, do not make for happy reading. All people interviewed have suffered from malaria at some point, about 80 percent of their children are not in school or attend very rarely, and 70 percent have no electricity. Nearly all drink salt water in an effort to reduce costs, which clearly has its own health implications. To think that this type of life is preferable to another even worse situation is a sobering thought. It is not living but existing.

One particularly difficult interview was with a man of 56 who had fled the DRC during the war. When I met him he was staying in one room where he slept along with two of his children, as well as cooked his food and carved the statues and wooden crafts he sells at the local market. This is normal. None of the refugees I met ever rented more than two rooms, no matter how large the family. In the courtyard outside his room stood the lone toilet shared with ten other families. The sense of profound sadness in him when he spoke of his struggles since leaving the DRC — how his wife had been killed, the loss of contact with three of his children — was quietly devastating. And that was just the beginning. He came to Dar es Salaam completely alone, knowing no one, with just the two children he had managed to escape with and the shirts on their backs. Over ten years later he cooks three small fish, which will be the family’s only meal for the day. The children remain at home with him; the choice between eating or attending school is a moot one.

When I asked him what he had worked at in DRC he spoke about his job as a train conductor, and his haunted eyes lit up just for a moment as he remembered the life that had been so cruelly snatched away from him.

When I came home from that interview I cried for some time, not just for the private tragedy of this man but the sheer injustice and wastefulness of it all. My ever growing purchase of African statues is a testament to both my feeble attempts at helping the refugees and my abject failure to do so. They are symbols of the burden of the Mzungu. How many more people have stories like this man’s? In the Central African Republic? In South Sudan? In Syria? Thousands and thousands. Lives irrevocably damaged, separated, scarred with many more broken people struggling just to exist in often the most challenging and hostile of circumstances.

My time spent in Dar es Salaam has left me seriously questioning my own motivations and the supposed altruistic tendencies of this type of career. Who am I really helping while I am here if I am honest? Myself and my research.

I would like to think in an ideal world that someone might actually read my PhD thesis when I am finished. But even in the unlikely event of this occurring, the chances of it making any difference to policies in Tanzania, or indeed anywhere else, and therefore to the people I am supposed to be ‘helping’ are close to zero.

Indeed my disdain for the development industry is as far-reaching as it is hypocritical. I have dedicated three years of my life to supposedly become part of a sector that helps people yet many of my experiences to date have shown that my view of the humanitarian world has been very naive. It is all too easy to get caught up in the self-righteousness that appears to have taken hold of the international development community. On so many occasions after a meeting or an interview with a ‘humanitarian’ or ‘development worker’, I leave it saying to myself, I hope to God I don’t end up like that when I finish this research. These meetings are invariably in air-conditioned extravagant offices around Dar es Salaam with manicured lawns and important looking people swanning around with their acronym laden lanyards silently proclaiming, ‘I am important, look at me doing good in the world.’ Why so much of these organisations’ budgets need to be spent on massive offices and contracts with Toyota Landcruiser remains a mystery to me.

Yet on my fieldwork I have come to the conclusion that it is a no–win situation. As an Mzungu in Africa, or indeed any other developing region, I will inevitably be labelled as one of these types of workers. Alternatively, I could spend all my time traveling by dala dala, with very little money, going to areas where I am routinely shouted at and mocked because I am white, which I have been doing up to now. I could suffer in other words, and possibly be more accepted because of that. But in the end I know I will always still have enough money to eat, to go to a doctor, or just to quit when I have decided I have had enough and can return to the world of pedestrian crossings and Come Dine with Me episodes. It is a choice to be miserable or to feel less guilty, and most likely to make little difference whichever option is chosen.

That is not to say that no good work is done in development. As incredibly clichéd as it will sound and loathe as I am to even write about it, I have met some truly inspiring people while here. The local, on the ground NGO workers are so often incredibly bright, dedicated and most importantly have somehow managed not to be hardened by the years of struggle they have seen. They have told me stories which show the capacity of people to care in the most difficult of situations and have restored some of my faith in people, which is no easy task. But from what I have experienced overall, the development industry is just that, an industry. It just happens that the commodity in this case is people’s suffering. But it remains to be seen if altruism is generally more prevalent in humanitarian work than anywhere else. People often want what they seem to want in every industry: money and status. Whether there are enough genuinely good people in the industry to enact real change in light of an increasingly unstable world remains to be seen, but we can only hope.


Aisling O’Loghlen is currently completing her PhD in Urban Studies at Heriot – Watt University, Scotland. Her research examines the vulnerability of the urban refugee population in comparison to the Tanzanian urban poor in Dar es Salaam. Follow Aisling on twitter @aislinglo and keep updated with her blogs at



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3 Responses to “Confessions of a researcher”

  1. Toriqul Bashar

    It is quite an honest narrative about the reality on ground. Also, your righteous judgment regarding the effectiveness of development interventions should not require any further approval. Again, we are the members of the altruist philosophers often suffer in dilemma when come to choice between narcissism and altruism.

  2. Aedín Walsh

    Insightful, articulate, and painfully to the point. This article addresses the pertinent questions, without assuming the answers, in the crucial and accurate context of the world of today. Thank you for this. Your work, and your words have worth.

  3. Ann

    Well at least you haven’t any delusions of grandeur ;). But your PhD or this blog or those ngo workers just might help enough to tip the balance for someone somewhere somehow. As Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


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