6 Reasons I'm glad I did a pilot fieldwork trip

I arrived in Tanzania just under a week ago and have been reflecting on why I'm very glad I did a pilot fieldwork trip last summer. This blog is a quick run down of the benefits of doing a pilot fieldwork trip before your main fieldwork trip.

1. Navigating the bureaucracy
I made several mistakes on my pilot trip which I am thankful to have been able to mitigate for this main fieldwork trip. These mistakes mostly stemmed from ignorance. However, I am a big fan of learning from trial and error, so I deem my former ignorance as an inevitable step in the learning process.

First off, I didn't have a letter from my Tanzanian host charity to obtain my business visa in the UK. I found this out too late to get a letter from my host organisation before travelling, so I bought a tourist visa and was assured I could upgrade in country. When in country and applying for my work permit, I was told that, being a researcher, I needed research clearance from the government department for science and technology (COSTECH) in order to apply for my work permit. This could take up to 2 months and my pilot trip was just for 7 weeks. This meant that my role was reduced to shadowing staff and observing - fine for a pilot trip, but would have been massively frustrating for my main fieldwork trip.

2. Day-to-day knowledge
During my pilot trip, I spent the full 7 weeks learning about the area, where was good to eat, where I can get large sums of airtime in one transaction, where to change money, which sim card has the best tariffs for me and other such useful information. This is in addition to learning about the children I'd be working with through my shadowing. I learned where the children spend time, what they do with their days and how they interact with adults, for example.

I also learned that, although where I'm staying is small, doing daily shopping is a big task since walking places in the heat takes a long time. So, this time I brought with me a folding bike and I can sail into town and back to my desk in no time at all! 

3. Getting to know good people to work with
I met many great people during my pilot trip and kept in contact with them over Whatsapp during my 6 months in the UK. Upon arriving in Tanzania, I was able to meet with most of these people within my first week and get the ball rolling with building the team for my research straight away. This also helped me to look forward to come to Tanzania despite being away from my husband and friends for so long - knowing that I had people in Tanzania I was looking forward to seeing again made me excited for the journey. Without these in country contacts, it is likely that a 6 month trip to Tanzania would have been very daunting and it's more likely I would have suffered from loneliness.

4. Understanding the research context
During my last visit I took a zero agenda approach to getting to know the local charity, it's staff and the children the organisation works with. Because I wasn't asking anything of the staff or children during this visit, I felt able to build more genuine relationships and to make observations of the organisation and their work, which would inform my methodology, before I "went native". I believe that the time I had to reflect following my pilot trip will make my final research better.

5. Having the right kit
On the first trip I brought loads of things I didn't use and didn't bring things I would have liked to have. These are things you can note on your pilot trip and ensure you pack smart and stealth on the second outing!

6. Learning the language
I put a lot of effort into learning Swahili before and during my pilot trip. With some thought and effort (and patience on behalf of the listener), I can communicate fairly well in Swahili and I'm excited that I have another 6 months to improve even more! Learning the language is good for building rapport with local people, and crucially for communicating with and interpreting meaning from what your research participants are saying. I may not know enough Swahili to lead interviews myself, but I will know enough to not completely phase out when a child is speaking to my research assistant, and may even be able to verify some of what my research assistant tells me!

Most of this stuff it is possible to learn and to acquire during a fieldwork trip which is longer than 6 months, but if you have reservations about being in the field for too long at a time, then a pilot trip is a good secondary option.