Zambians have been suspicious of our project, to say the least.
The main focus of my research has been on Malawians living near the border with Zambia. But because I want to look at trust and economic interactions across ethnic and national lines, I need to recruit some Zambians for the behavioral activity we do twice a week. This has proven to be difficult week after week.
The first few weeks, the Zambians would drift in hours late, and we’d end up having to send the vehicle out to their villages and try to rush back with enough to get started, since the Malawian participants would have already been waiting for hours. One upside of picking people up in the car is that we were able to fully explore the question of how many people you can fit into a two-door Rav4.
Once we had fully impressed upon village elders that being on time was really important, we hit another hurdle. For some reason unknown to us, a fairly influential man living in one of the bordering Zambian villages stood up at a funeral (at a funeral all people living within walking distance will be there) and told everyone present that we (my research team and myself) were satanists. He went on to say that if they accepted money from us – we pay them something for participating – they will die within two years.
The guys worked day and night for a few weeks trying to undo this damage. They talked with the guy who said it, explaining what we were really doing, and he conceded that we were not, in fact, satanists. But the damage was already done. We’ve had a hard time recruiting since then.
In a separate incident, some people saw that we were giving out red tickets and asking them to come to the local hospital at a certain time, and they determined that instead of participating in the research project like we claimed, we really wanted to suck their blood. There is a common belief that people with cars often sneak into villages and suck people’s blood while they sleep. The way I have heard it, it is not like a vampire biting your neck, but involves needles. This suggests to me that the belief must have started somewhere in the past based on a real occurrence. But if you google “blood sucking” and Malawi, you will see that this is a big problem.
When we were speaking to one of the senior chief’s advisors about this in Zambia, he attributed our problems to the “primitivity” of the people. Even once, in the height of frustration, Augustine blamed our problems on the Zambians we are working with being so “backward”. But, before you judge them, and nod your head in agreement, ask yourself how many people you know that won’t walk under a ladder or open an umbrella indoors? I know that my grandfather would turn his car around if a black cat crossed the road. Did you know that most Americans do not “believe in” evolution? Who’s backwards now?