Fieldwork in the time of corona

"Andrew Tembo, a typical Zambian” as he presents himself during our first online meeting, warns me: ”I hope the internet will be friendly with me. Internet is a challenge in my country.” Today we will talk about how in the light of the coronavirus outbreak, the topic of Andrew's research affected him personally.

Name: Andrew Wilfred Tembo
Country: Zambia
Role: ICLD’s Fieldwork Grant master student
Master programme: Development Studies
Institution: Lund university, Faculty of Social Sciences
Research topic: The role of the local government in the provision of alternative sources of energy in peri-urban areas in Zambia

Andrew worked in the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services when he for the first time seriously turned his attention to the problem of energy provision to Zambia’s citizens. For a long time, the nation’s energy production has been dependent on hydro systems around the country. Today’s challenges are a result of climate change, Andrew says. The rains have been reducing and this has affected the levels of water in the Kariba Dam, which is one of Zambia’s biggest hydro power stations providing power to the entire country. Consequently, Zambia of today is experiencing massive load shedding due to shortage of power: ”Many households experience more than 8 hours without power while others do not even have access to power at all.” Later on, Andrew will tell me about how he himself got affected by the problem under study – namely, about how he got stuck in Zambia while collecting data for his research in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak and, consequently, how he was forced to continue writing his master thesis in his home-country Zambia instead of Sweden. But let us not run ahead, we’ll get back to that later. 

In his field research grant application, Andrew explained that the scale of the problem cannot be underestimated and that without municipalities’ involvement in providing alternative sources of energy the consequences might be dire for the whole country:

– If this situation continues, Andrew argues, it is anticipated that the nation will lose billions of dollars because normal business and productivity are continually being disrupted and the daily functions propelled by effective provision of power have stalled. This is even worse in peri-urban areas where businesses have come to a standstill as small entrepreneurs cannot afford alternative sources of power such as generators and solar energy.

In February, it was finally time for Andrew for heading to his home country Zambia in order to start conducting the fieldwork.

– I left Sweden on the 20th of February. Here, in Zambia, the first cases of covid-19 were recorded on the 18th of March. At that time I was still in process of collecting data. When conducting my interviews with different officers within the municipality of Mufulira or representatives of local NGO:s, they would keep asking me: ”When did you come from Europe?” And only when they heard my answer – the end of February – they got relieved. ”Then, you are fine”, they said. So, most of them were concerned if they should interact with me or not. Another challenge had to do with the issue of people working from their homes. After I made an appointment to have an interview, the government imposed that everybody should stay at home. People were not found in the offices and I had to reschedule…

However, the biggest challenge for Andrew had to do with travel restrictions and border shutdowns. When he successfully finished his fieldwork in Zambia and was ready to head back to Sweden on the 30th of March, his flight was cancelled. After three failed attempts to get new return tickets to Sweden, he gave up the idea of returning to Sweden and to the university.

– I have been distressed, depressed and so on. I left my luggage in my room in Sweden. I came to Zambia just with three pairs of trousers, three shirts and a laptop. I was supposed to collect data, pack and – off to Sweden, where I was to continue writing the thesis. As of now, the idea of coming to Sweden is slowly coming out of my mind.

”I came to Zambia just with three pairs of trousers, three shirts and a laptop,” Andrew Tembo says during our online interview. Photo: Private.

Although Andrew’s institution at Lund university has made all the necessary adjustments in order to enable online education so that he can attend his classes, meet his supervisor and soon even submit his thesis online, Andrew reports having great challenges, which, ironically, are connected to the topic of his thesis: He is forced to write very fast – again, because of the challenge of electricity. It is gone around five in the morning, he says, and then it comes back around five in the evening. “As my laptop doesn’t work for more than three hours, I need to write the thesis really fast – before the electricity goes off again. I am literally chasing time.”

Surprisingly, we are able to conduct our online interview from the beginning to the end without any disruptions.

– While we are speaking at this very moment, Andrew continues, I have no electricity. When it is back again at five, I will be writing, writing, writing… And tomorrow it will repeat. It is like that every single day – all because of the power deficit in the country. We rely on the hydro system and that is the problem. Climate change is a fact: water in the Kariba dam andrivers has gone down, and there was a drought last year…

Thus, the problem of provision of energy served as the driving force behind Andrew’s studies and the idea of looking closer at alternative sources of energy along with the municipalities’ role in the process of providing those.

– While it is a real challenge for the whole country, people in the rural areas are the most vulnerable, especially those who are involved in informal employment and dependent on small income. Those people have no chance to have access to electricity.

Andrew Tembo’s fieldwork results show that the role of the local government in the provision of alternative sources of energy has rather remained peripheral. He says that the interviews show that municipalities are not providing any sources of alternative energy in peri-urban areas: The municipality has not taken interest in exploring this issue, he says. Meanwhile, it needs to be brought as priority in the communities.

Interview by Olga Shadura 

About ICLD’s Fieldwork Grant
ICLD’s Fieldwork Grant is a programme for master’s students in Sweden. The aim of the programme is to provide an opportunity for students to conduct fieldwork abroad.
The subject of study must have a strong connection to local democracy. Each thesis shall contribute to the understanding how local democracy and good governance can contribute to achieve sustainable development and poverty reduction.