I was very excited yet nervous before the recent Nepal RCA study in; this was the first time we were undertaking a study in semi urban locations. But also Nepal is still struggling with the aftermath of the earthquake and the subsequent border blockade affecting supply of food and fuel. We worried that households would refuse to let us stay with them. We decided to take some food with us to offer to the households to ease the potential reluctance to accommodate us. But food was not short as they still had their farm and stocks and the fuel shortage was not affecting them as they used firewood from the nearby forest.
RCA doesn’t have any space for assumptions but that doesn’t mean that researchers aren’t allowed to have any assumptions. Like everyone, I have plenty, but I don’t let my assumptions distort the reality that I am trying to reflect. Every time I go out there as an RCA researcher I challenge my assumptions and test their validity which ultimately enhances my ability to view things and situations through different lenses. From previous work, I have developed assumptions about urban situations. They are comparatively more challenging as people are busy, they have shorter attention spans and are less trusting. They tend to question you more regarding your affiliations and purpose rather than just sitting down and talking.
The beauty of RCA as a method is you don’t have to rush yourself. You can take your time and indulge in conversations which can be completely off topic on some occasions. I still vividly remember my conversations in rural areas; The Rock being a better wrestler than John Cena or Anil Gurung being a better striker than Jumanu Rai. These kinds of conversations had nothing to do with the study but it made me feel good and more importantly it also made the people with whom I was interacting feel good. It helped me in breaking the ice and opening a pathway into their lives. But if urban people are busy and less trusting, would I be able to do this? My biggest worry was that they might let me into their house but not into their lives and I might end up with superficial stories.
But the household with whom I stayed proved most of my assumptions wrong. They were indeed busy; father went into Kathmandu every afternoon until late evening, the son left home at 6 am for college and returned mid-afternoon, the daughter was at work from 10am until late evening. But I could spend fruitful afternoons chatting with mother while we both removed lice from the buffalo’s body. Other ladies from nearby households joined us in the front yard to bask in the sun and chitchat and I could just sit there and listen. Sometimes they would help us with the lice as well! I was able to interact with the other family members either early in the morning or late in the evening before dinner. Father, son and I would sit by the fire and talk. I would just listen to their stories and share some of my mine although mine was never as interesting as theirs. I would get them to help me understand some of the confusing things that I had heard during the day. The only time I could chat with the daughter was either while making morning tea or later in the evening while making dinner. Although I am not good with pots and pans, I would go in the kitchen to help make dinner. I couldn’t risk ruining a nice meal so I would just assist them in cutting vegetables, even that required quite a bit of convincing. We had rich conversations about her work and how she managed chores as well. She readily initiated many of the chats. With all of the family I felt we had close honest interaction.
And it wasn’t that they were less trusting just more knowledgeable. The family was a very educated one; all their children were studying in Kathmandu and father had too. Generally during other RCAs when asked about my educational background, I tend to give vague answers such as the importance of knowledge coming out of life experiences and the need to complement the knowledge coming from books. But this time around I had to be specific with my academic credentials as they knew the academic institutions in the city and wanted to know where and what I studied. Usually we play down our academic qualifications to reduce the power distance between us and the family. But this time I had to be specific, vagueness might have raised suspicion about my presence there.
One aspect of RCA which makes it stand out from other approaches is that it isn’t rigid and is constantly evolving by embracing the shortcomings of every study. Maybe we need to have some more RCAs in urban areas to get more insights into how to manage these without compromising the integrity of RCA. I would like to raise the following for further reflection: