Personal notes from a field visit – ‘a week co-working in rural South Africa – July 2017’ (Part 2)

By Lindsey McEwen

Thinking about methods:

Setting up scenario-ing can be challenging in any culture, for a series of reasons – including framing, language and different cultural expectations. In the DRY project, we have been using ‘What if’ as an alternative way in.  In our workshops in Folovhodwe, there were some initial technical and ethical issues in communicating drought scenarios in ways that did not elicit fear and anxiety within more vulnerable groups in the community.  This situation was perhaps inevitable given people were aware of the impacts of lesser droughts from their recent drought history in 2015/16 when the livestock farmers lost cattle.  Linked to this was the challenge to our ability to communicate the concept of a scenario as ‘one possible future’ in a clear way that was not lost in translation.  Some villagers understood the “scenario” as an actual prediction – a situation that appeared exacerbated when only one scenario was presented.  There were also difficulties in presenting the more nuanced situation of different variables changing alongside climate, and climate change of 3oC being only one possible future – most extreme scenario – over the given timespan to 2050.

Additionally, there were language issues in the conversion of the narrative of the scenario into Venda, the local language of the villagers.  This was limited by the initial but developing expertise in storying science and the understanding of the four research assistants, and then compounded by issues about how to convert the “scenario” into something accessible to the villagers given the availability of words and meanings within Venda language.

It was also useful to reflect on approaches to scenario-ing the science.  Could the scenario be more storied in cultural communication in Venda?  One issue was how to communicate in the local culture – in the oral tradition (with variable literacy) and without using visualisation which might be routinely used in Western settings of science communication (see below).  It would have been useful (personally) to have had more prior cultural insights into how the “scenario” might be articulated or visualised in ways meaningful to villagers.  As might be anticipated, Western visualisations of simple timelines and possible systems did not engage, or at least were not used as preference by the research assistants.

Mulling cultural issues:

Some issues to work with during workshops included the limited ability of UK researchers to track discussions about how the dialogue was progressing within the workshop.  This involved the need to develop ways of new communicating with research assistant during workshop that did not disrupt the flow of discussion.  Gesticulations and facial expressions of participants became much more critical in tracking the narrative flow, and in our general communication across language barriers.

Local cultural memories of extreme drought among workshop participants were more limited than I had expected.   Recent drought memory (2015/2016) was mainly about livestock loss and government help. Some people either possibly chose to forget or did not to remember previous more severe droughts and their impacts (e.g. in 1983 – most extreme drought in the last 40 years?).  Other villagers had moved into the village since 1983.

The methodology also facilitated very different types of knowledge exchange and brokering that took place face-to-face in the mix of the workshop processes.  These knowledge exchanges included those between villagers (within and between selected livelihoods and socio-economic situations); from villager to researcher via intern; from scientist to villager via intern; from villager to intern. The phased methodology (beyond my visit) was then intended to play out through others listening to the stories – villager to government official; researcher to government official; villager to wider world through the web.  Each of these communication pathways brought opportunities and challenges – in socio-cultural-scientific terms.  For example, the relative status of older versus younger women in the community affected the dynamic of workshops and who spoke.

Surfacing perceptions of future risk:

As might be anticipated perceptions of risk were polarised.  Dominant initial perceptions seemed to focus perceptions around: belief in divine intervention (probabilistic perceptions) and the “will of god”; deferral of responsibility with reliance on government and state (with past experience of ‘government grants’ and government supplying water); and unfailing faith in the role of external scientists and their technical solutions.  There was a sense of outcome expectancy and perceived limited impact of local human agency.  It became very important to the workshop process to continue work with the villagers to explore deeper for other more ‘hidden’ stories – to think through what adjustments could be made as individuals or as a community, rather than just to capture ‘immediately-shared’ narratives.

Thinking about the nature of the stories – dominant and more hidden:

Stories varied from more dominant or most obvious narratives of impacts (disease and mortality featured highly; emotional impacts, impacts on the family unit) to more in depth exploration of less dominant or counter narratives that were shared with outsiders – around adaptation. This deeper analysis surfaced awareness of the connections within a web of more systemic impacts: on parents’ ability to pay for the costs of school if livelihoods were suffering; on children’s ability to work and progress at school if they had insufficient food leading to longer term impacts on local capital; on increased crime rates with people stealing water and food in desperate times; of shocks to the food chain with implications for livelihoods – of hungry baboons taking down weakened livestock.


Some adaptations and ‘ways to get prepared’ suggested by villagers were borne of old practices – digging down the river bed to access further water reserves when the river was dry;  growing and storing maize; drying fruit, vegetables and meat in times of relative excess.  Other stories focused on health and wellbeing – use of bleach to kill germs in water; of hungry children fainting in school.  Some stories shared the ramifications of excess heat as well as lack of water – inability to gain shade from trees; the need to bath in ditch water that might be contaminated; the necessity to sleep outdoors with the risks of disease.  Some stories were of piecemeal small adaptations; I was left mulling whether there were more transformative options for increased resilience that could make a difference.  For example, the possibility of accessing more local grazing land with reduction in the size of the neighbouring Nature Reserve – impounded in the 1930s – was muted by some livestock farmers but, of course, is out of their control.

Sustainability and legacy issues and responsibilities

In our workings with the community in capturing these stories, there was a strong sense of needing to feed the narratives back into the ‘community archive’.  Sharing of the story archive with the village and with government officials seemed particularly important in this setting; this ‘closing of the loop’ happened after “my week in rural South Africa” through other team members.

The CreativeDroughts team fed back to the village in other targeted, practical and visible ways – a set of tables and chairs for the new village hall.  The steer from the Village Chief was that this was preferable to payment of individuals for participation.  I left reflecting on what sort of knowledge and investment would make a real difference in Folovhodwe.  More water storage tanks at house level seemed one relatively low-cost possibility that could be in the mix – in an area that suffers both droughts and floods (intense rainfall).  But archiving local knowledge of adaptations to water and heat stress in ways that were culturally share-able was also very important.  This seemed a large responsibility in local co-working with the community of Folovhodwe.  What has worked or could work in different situations in terms of drought frequency and severity?  And this is a village with two dams; many rural villages in the wider locale do not have this water storage.


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