Laela Adamson

What it is like to carry out research in rural Tanzania

07 September 2015

Laela is studying for a PhD, 'Language, literacy and learning to provide an ethnographic perspective on student language practices in two secondary schools in Tanzania', at University College London. In 2014, she was awarded the £2,000 Tim Morris Award bursary and is using the funds to help support her 8-month field research in Tanzania.

At the beginning of August I was walking from a rural Tanzanian secondary school back towards the main road where I would catch a dala dala (a battered old minibus very tightly packed with people) back to Morogoro town, where I have been staying since January.

The dirt road is a deep ochre colour and by the time I reach home, my feet are always stained orange, with white stripes created by my sandals. I was walking with a girl who is in Form 4 and is one of my student researchers. I have divided my time between one rural and one urban school and am interested in how students cope with the fact that their lessons are all in English – a language with which they all struggle – while they use Swahili in all other areas of their lives. Although I speak Swahili, many rural students still back away from me out of fear that they might be required to speak English. But after weeks of observing lessons I approached Halima, who had caught my attention as an active participant in lessons.

The importance of student voices

When designing my PhD project, it was crucial to me that I not only create space for listening to student voices, but I wanted young people to lead in the research process. With the funding from the Tim Morris Award I bought voice recorders and cameras to give to students who wrote their own interview questions and led different activities. This particular Saturday, the student researchers from both schools had met at the rural school to conduct a programme of activities with Form 1 students (13-15 years old).

My fieldwork hasn’t been without its challenges: I have spent a lot of time waiting for students; organising data is stressful when identical voice recorders are thrust at me from different directions by students who want to take them home again to listen to the music they have uploaded. But most challenging has been stepping back to allow students to take the lead, even when I feel I might have done it differently. I am also doing my own research activities, and I want this element to belong to the students, but as a teacher myself, it’s not easy to keep my mouth closed!

Limited resources: unlimited gratitude

On the walk home that Saturday I was also feeling a bit disheartened. I had paid for easy transport from town to the village and I would buy lunch for the student researchers. I bought juice and biscuits for the younger students, but I had been told that some students thought there wasn’t enough. Although I know that these young people do not understand that my resources have limits, I was feeling a little dejected. But as I walked the 3km with Halima, she produced a ball of sesame seeds bound together with sugar syrup. She smiled at told me that she had made them for me because I had given them many rewards and she wanted me to have a reward too. It was just one of many small moments where my frustration was completely eclipsed by the honour of having been able to spend 8 months building relationships with some quite remarkable young people.


Laela Adamson won CfBT's Tim Morris Award in 2014 and used the bursary to fund her fieldwork in rural Tanzania