Four Months in Bula: Why Would I Do It Again
My name is Rita, and I'm currently finishing my Master's in Economics at Nova SBE. Last semester, I enjoyed doing an internship, as a research assistant for Nova SBE NOVAFRICA Knowledge Center, on a project on Health and Beliefs in Guinea-Bissau. This project's main goal is to evaluate in which way the beliefs people have influence their demand for healthcare. It was an amazing experience that taught me so much, both at a professional and personal level. 4 months that initially looked like a long time but ended up passing by so fast, leaving that bittersweet sensation of departing from a place where I felt at home.
The first days were a little bit agitated. I arrived alone in Bissau, but there were other members of Nova SBE NOVAFRICA Knowledge Center waiting for me and ready to show me around. Initially, we stayed in Bissau for a couple of days to get some things prepared for the project (such as buying a cell phone card and many other things that can only be done correctly in the capital). Eventually, we left for Bula, the place where we would stay for most of the time. Bula is a small city (even though it does not look like a city at all), close to Bissau, about one hour and something away by car. This was where we had our office and where we conducted all the project-related activities. Bula was definitely less developed than I was expecting: there was only one main road, electricity had a schedule (some hours in the morning and some hours in the evening), piped water was a rare thing, and everyone seemed to have a very rural kind of life. After some time living there I got used to the place! We were always hanging out with our neighbors, and we started to know people a little bit everywhere.
After some delays, very usual when working in Guinea Bissau, we were finally able to get things going on the fieldwork. Our goal there was to organize the implementation of a baseline household survey. We had to train the enumerators (the people who would conduct the survey questions), and then we were ready to start the interviews. We were supposed to interview pregnant women or mothers of children younger than 5 years old, in approximately 160 villages. The survey provided data on mothers' characteristics, beliefs related to religion and ethnicity, health behaviors, on children's anthropometric measures, and other household characteristics. During the internship, I would go to the field with the teams and observe interviews, which was incredibly interesting and taught me a lot about the context of rural Guinea-Bissau. For me, this was definitely the most interesting part of my experience. It has given me a whole new perspective regarding the data, where it comes from, and why it is important to collect it carefully and with rigor. On the other days, I stayed in the office, which was also my house and looked at the data we got on the previous days to check its quality and see if there were any problems.
As a development economics student, I think this experience really shaped my views towards research by allowing me to realize how complex it is to develop empirical work and how important all subparts are in creating quality work later on. Besides, it showed me the challenges of conducting research in a developing country's context. Many of the things we usually do very easily in countries like Portugal turn out to be much more difficult in countries like Guinea-Bissau. Logistical plans are often complicated because of the circumstances, the lack of electricity or cell phone network, and the constant internet cuts. Problems that I wasn't very used to deal with, happen quite often in Guinea-Bissau, and become just a normal part of work there. I believe the adaptation to a different context was an essential part of this experience, which ultimately taught me a lot about working in a context with many unexpected things happening simultaneously, and where usually the initial plan simply doesn't work out.
One of the best parts of living in Guinea-Bissau was the people I was able to meet there. After learning a little bit of Crioulo it was much easier to communicate with everyone. People are usually quite nice and really like to chat, are always ready to drink a beer or share their meals with you. It was also by meeting people there that I was able to learn so much about the country; it's immense culture and traditions. Besides, I had the pleasure to meet foreigners, just like me, that were working in Guinea-Bissau in different NGO, which was also an interesting contact with a reality I was not very familiar with. Last but not least, I meet a wonderful friend, with whom I shared a house, an office, a job, and many moments of joy. To her (Freda), I'm incredibly thankful for all the patience and laughs.
Overall, I think this experience has made me a complete person. On the professional side there were many challenges that contributed to improve my knowledge regarding empirical research and enhance my interest in development economics. On the personal side, it was a gathering of new experiences, new people, and new places that has definitely left its mark on me. I can't wait to go back.
This content was originally published in Novafrica.org