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Monique and the Mango Rains: Qualitative Research in Action

May 10, 2011

Last week I described the first drops of the ‘Mango Rains’ here in Mali:  ‘The rains that come when the earth is dry and the heavy rains still far away to make the mangoes sweet’

Back in 1989, in a small village in Mali near the border with Burkina Faso, a Peace Corps Volunteer called Kris Holloway was also experiencing the Mango Rains for the first time. In the book ‘Monique and the Mango Rains’, Kris describes her two years in the village of Nampossela– the mango rains, the village politics, falling in love, but most of all, her growing friendship with a local midwife called Monique.

Monique was in some ways unusual for the time and location – she had been to school. Because her parents had valued the education of their daughter, Monique was able to become a local midwife and health worker  – a lifeline for the women who gave birth in the village where she worked.

Monique and the Mango Rains, through charting Kris’s friendship and two years with Monique, gives us a rare insight into the daily reality of Monique, both as a health worker, and a woman living in what was, and continues to be in many ways, a very patriarchal and restricted society.

In the early days Kirs describes how not all the women in the village were willing or comfortable going to Monique to give birth; ‘Because of her young age, there are women who will not come here to give birth. They think it is the old women who must do this work’.

Soon we are told that Monique doesn’t in fact receive her own salary – the 12 5000 F CFA owed to her each month is taken by what seems to be a combination of the village secretary, and her (otherwise described as kindly) father in law. It is only through Kirs’s pushing and ability to travel and see the ‘big boss’ in the near by town, that by the end she is receiving what she is owed. What is interesting in the description of the situation is the way that although Kris implies the village secretary may be taking some of the salary, it is considered acceptable by her father in law to be the one receiving and managing it – not out of malice or mal intent, but because that was what he believed was acceptable.

After only a few chapters we are introduced to the sad case of Elise, a friend of Monique who is neglecting her baby, who’s health and weight gradually declines throughout the book. No amount of bra promising (a valued item too expensive to buy herself), coaxing or pushing can bring Elise in to weigh the baby, or attend sessions on how to make nutritious baby food.

Regularly we see the deadly effects of diarrhea on small children; a reminder of how such a simple malady kills so many children under the age of  every year. What we also discover however is that there is no concept of ‘baby food’ amongst women in the village – once a second child is born, the first is weaned overnight and immediately put onto adult food, which its stomach can’t handle, causing diarrhea

Further on, we watch the efforts of the community as they work together to plant a field designated for growing baby food, and how these efforts nearly fall apart due to the lack of participation of one particular group.

Finally, we are saddened by the death of Monique, on a birthing table in a nearby town, and enraged as we learnt that her husband initially refused her permission to travel there, expecting her to ‘birth herself’ in the village alone. 125 000

The book is engrossing thanks in part to Kris’s writing style, but also because of the rare and intriguing insight it gives us into other women’s realities. I am not writing a review of the book however to praise its literary qualities. Instead what struck me about the book is how, through an informal ethnography, Kris so accurately highlights the very local realities which can make or break a development programme or project. Kris shows us that just because a health worker is trained and put in a village, does not mean she will be used by all the people living there. Elise is a reminder that ‘beneficiaries’ do not always respond to monetary or other incentives. And Monique herself challenges our definition of ‘women’s empowerment’ – is being education and finding employment enough?

Recently the blogosphere has been engrossed with debates on the use of Randomized Control Trials, highlighted by the recent publication of the book ‘More Than Good Intentions’. RCTs  are about evaluating the impact of an intervention, and Innovations for Poverty Action in particular seeks to address what these studies can tell us about what works, and what doesn’t in development more widely.

The chatter on RCTs however has also started to bring more attention to the contribution of qualitative research. Open the Echo Chamber highlights how in a recent article by Esther Duflo and Abhijt Banerjee, acknowledgement was given to the fact that in order to solve poverty ‘in practical terms…..we’d have to start understanding how the poor really change their lives’. As Open the Echo Chamber Rightly claims however, this is is what qualitative researchers have been doing for a long time.

Qualitative research is often being criticised for being  place specific, impractical and not of general value. Attempting to apply the lessons from an ethnographic study would in many ways defy its point. What Monique and the Mango Rains, and qualitative research more generally however can do is present lessons, challenge assumptions, and provide crucial information on the ‘why?’ aspect of impact assessment. Where then is the qualitative Innovations for Poverty Action?

One Comment leave one →
  1. David. L permalink
    May 10, 2011 5:45 pm

    I am speechless, not because of any personal values that I may have but at the complexity of issues that are in fact the ‘norm’ in other communities. your synopsis highlights the value of ‘infield’ experience and how easy it would be/is for well intentioned efforts and funding to fail in their aims. Time too is a precious commodity and yet clearly needed both to understand the norms and values of local communities but also to work through the issues to arrive at a desirable outcome[s].

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