Participatory field research in Zimbabwe as a building block for conflict transformation

Claske Dijkema, 22 novembre 2012

European Science Foundation conference « In search of peace. Dialogue between theories and practices », Norrköping (Sweden), 20-24 October 2012.

Too often in Western media conflicts are presented through the eyes of the victims of human rights violations and political or State violence, presenting the regime on the verge of collapse. In Zimbabwe Mugabe’s party is still in power, after having committed a massacre in the South, a political crisis that has been lasting 15 years and a total economic collapse in 2007-2008. Western media have given much more attention to the weaknesses of the system than its strengths. It has been our objective in Zimbabwe to understand a violent regime, such as that of Robert Mugabe’s party, Zanu-pf, through both investigating what upholds its power and what undermines it. While Zanu-pf has been instigating violence for over 30 years, it still enjoys the support of large groups of the population who, in interviews, motivate their choice out of a concern for peace. According to interviews carried out in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare in 2010, support for the Mugabe and Zanu-pf is particularly strong in the rural areas. To get access to the opinions of people living in the rural areas has therefore been an objective of follow-up research. In 2011 a series of interviews has been carried out in both Shona and Ndebele-speaking rural areas into the question how people living in these areas interpret the political situation in their country [1]. This research has been participatory in its design. This article addresses some of the methodological challenges encountered in what way research has contributed to conflict transformation.

Participatory research: topics and context

Beyond the use of force, can the power of Zanu-pf be explained by the popular support the party still enjoys in rural areas? And if so,what role does party rhetoric about the rectification of past injustices play in this support? In several focus groups different age groups discussed what it meant to them to be Zimbabwean, how they saw the country’s history and its turning points and in what way these affected them, their future. They further shared ideas about good leadership, what peace meant to them and whether they considered they enjoyed it, the meaning of loyalty, party rhetoric and the presence of political parties in their village and their ideas about the Government of National Unity. Follow-up interviews with Zanu-pf supporters have addressed the same topics but have allowed ample context analysis. This approach has been inspired by Panos’ method of life stories.

Getting access to people’s knowledge in rural Zimbabwe is challenging for several reasons, the first being how to get physical access, the second how to get people to speak out and thirdly how to correctly interpret the meaning of their testimonies. Political repression is especially strong in rural areas. Having its origins in the liberation struggle as a peasant guerrilla movement, Zanu-pf is traditionally stronger in the rural areas, where they exert control through the co-option of customary leaders and the partisan distribution of seeds and farming implements. Doing research on questions that are politically sensitive can be a danger for the researcher, but even more so for those being interviewed. It has been interesting that in general the people belonging to Mugabe’s party, responsible for instigating the election violence in 2008, have shown much more reluctance to speak out. Especially youth regularly felt uncomfortable out of fear that they might be “victimised for speaking their political ideas”, even more so in the areas that have a history of violence caused by political party supporters (2008) [2]. To access these areas in a safe way we have relied on Zimbabwean NGO’s that do fieldwork in rural areas, in the domain of peace-building and human rights advocacy.

Challenges in accessing people’s knowledge in a context of political repression

Difficulty for white researchers to get access and the importance of “connectors”.

A young, foreign white person is easily associated with intellectualism, urban areas and Western influence, characteristics attributed to the opposition party, MDC. This increases the distance between me and Zanu-pf supporters. The latter have demonstrated greater reluctance to speak out about political issues out of fear for repercussions. To overcome this difficulty we have worked with Zimbabwean individuals and organisations who have served as “connectors” as they have guaranteed a connection between foreign researchers and the rural areas. During two weeks field research in 2011 these connectors have facilitated visits to several villages lasting one or several days. They faced the risk that bringing a foreigner to a village would break the trust they built through their work in communities.

Connecting rural citizens with international researchers

1. International research and network organisations: Network University, Modus Operandi, Irénées, IRG

2. Connectors: Zimbabwean NGO’s form the link between rural and international actors: Action for conflict transformation, Nosisa, Munjodzi, Grace to heal,

3. Rural communities

In the mentioned time frame it has not been possible to gain the trust of rural Zanu-pf supporters. Therefore Zimbabwean partners have carried out 40 follow-up interviews.

Getting lost in translation

How to ensure a correct interpretation of the meaning of Zanu-pf supporters’ testimonies? There are two steps in the interpretation of results where meaning might gets lost. Firstly in the translation from Ndebele and Shona to English and secondly in my interpretation of the transcription of interviews. When an interviewee speaks to a Zimbabwean interviewer he/she takes many explanations for granted that I might not know. Regular skype meetings between the interviewers and the foreign researcher have tried to address this issue.

The participatory dimension

Becoming equal drivers of the research process

The shared elaboration of research questions, being one of the principles of participatory research, has been a challenge. During the two weeks field research in 2011, partner organisations were waiting for my research questions for them to carry out the interviews. Time was lacking on both sides to build trust and establish a more equal relationship. Questions reflected my research objectives but did not necessarily mirror the interests of the local interviewers. Certain research questions seemed obvious for local interviewers and did not lead to probing. Achieving a partnership where both partners are equally driving the research requires more time and trust-building than had been programmed. The debriefing sessions over skype have been an important step in building research relationships.

Overcoming social norms that devalue the views of “uneducated” people

The underlying conviction in participatory research, that each individual has valuable knowledge, is not common in Zimbabwean society. In this context, as in many post-colonial societies, education is one of the principle determinants of social status. Formal education gives one the “right to speak” and invertedly, the lack of it decreases one’s right. These social norms were reproduced in some of the interviews carried out by Zimbabwean researchers. In debriefing session they mentioned that answers were “off” in case respondents didn’t answer directly to the question or if they had not understood the question, which they explained as a lack of education. As result, people feared not to say the right thing. Valuing each person’s knowledge has been one of the main foci of the debriefing sessions.

How can accessing this knowledge act towards conflict transformation?

The experience of interviewing and being interviewed is an interesting exercise in role inversion: for the researcher to take on the role of the one who doesn’t know and for a peasant in rural Zimbabwe to be placed in the role of expert. It moreover develops listening skills in the interviewer, limiting judgment.

During this research process, space was created in rural areas to discuss topics in public that were in general restrained to private conversations. An interviewee (MDC) mentioned that he was happy that we came to conduct a research of such nature because it gave him enough courage to speak about politics and it gave him hope that “there is security now to speak without the fear of being victimised”. In focus groups others commented on the experience of being listened to by those outside the community and the deception that foreigners came to listen to them while their political leaders wouldn’t. Can we speak of a form of hope or confidence that has been given? The management of expectations on the other hand raises important questions for the researcher about his responsibility.

Speaking out is a step towards conflict transformation. Before a conflict can be addressed an oppressive situation must be recognised as being a conflict. A situation has to move from a “silent conflict” which is the term used by one of the participants during a workshop organised by Civicus, addressing the issue of civil society organisations in situations of conflict. He said: “To some people, and those outside Zimbabwe, it may seem like there is no conflict here. But they are misguided. The arrests, detention and even disappearance of opposition voices are part of the regime’s plans to keep the people quiet. We have a silent conflict because people are scared to speak out”.[3]


Shona is one of the two major languages in Zimbabwe and is the language of the political elite. The other language is Ndebele. The majority of Ndebele-speaking people lives in the South of the country. The region was equally the home of a competing liberation movement prior to 1989 and as a result of massacres linked to a power struggle that have been carried out by Mugabe’s regime in the early ‘80’s, there has been a longer history of opposition against his regime

According to researchers from the Bulawayo based NGO, Grace to Heal.

Civicus, Civil Society Organisations in Situations of Conflict, Adele Poskitt & Mathilde Dufranc, April 2011