Being There (Again)

Being There (Again)

"Being there has shown me the tiredness in the eyes of an eighteen-year-old greenhouse worker five hours into bending over a row of basil plants in the sweltering heat"

15-05-2023 · Column

I’m writing these words from Addis Ababa, seven years after my last visit. The number of cars belching black smoke onto the roads seems to have doubled. New skyscrapers compete for space on the horizon, and friends tell me real-estate prices have shot through the roof. Since my last stay, a ruling party has fallen, a new president has lost his glamour, civil war has broken out and been stilled by a queasy ceasefire. Some things haven’t changed: the cup of coffee sending up wisps of steam next to me remains some of the best in the world.

Being here in a city I first discovered as a PhD researcher—a city that has maddened and delighted me in equal measure—reminds me of something I’d been in danger of forgetting. Covid forced much of the data collection for our current project online. For a project focusing on the wellbeing of the female workers in Ethiopia’s foreign-owned clothes factories and horticultural farms, this meant conducting interviews with workers and managers remotely rather than in person.

As confident as I still am in the quality of our data, the past week (in which we’ve visited workplaces and spoken to all sorts of people involved in these export sectors) has shown me again how important it is to be there. There meaning anywhere we can be close to the subjects we study. For those of us who conduct qualitative research on people, it’s doubly valuable. Being there has shown me the tiredness in the eyes of an eighteen-year-old greenhouse worker five hours into bending over a row of basil plants in the sweltering heat. But it’s also allowed me to speak to her manager and to hear his stories of struggle: of adapting to an unfamiliar culture, and of being squeezed financially at the middle of an unforgiving and precarious value chain. Being there means I also get to overhear the laughter of that same greenhouse worker as she chats with her friends over lunch.

Being there stops us from drawing too-easy conclusions. I’m happy I could be there again.

Elsje Fourie, assistant professor of Globalisation & Development Studies

Author: Redactie

Photo: archive EF

Tags: elsje fourie,being there,data collection,Addis Ababa,research

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