Waiting for the morning birds: researcher trauma in insecure environments

Waiting for the morning birds: researcher trauma in insecure environments

June 5th 2019
By Thamani Mwaka Précieux

Translation by Sara Weschler


The author, Thamani Mwaka Précieux



Doing research in the DRC is a dangerous job, due to widespread insecurity in various parts of the country, and complicated by the presence of multiple armed groups. This setting presents researchers with some very concrete challenges in relation to their safety. Most analyses of researchers’ security focus on the issue of physical safety. Yet, there is also a dimension of mental safety to take into account. Intense experiences in the field can leave profound marks on researchers’ lives. If the weight of these is ignored, such marks can transform into deep traumas.

My personal experience has shown that in the DRC, working as a researcher routinely puts you in life-threatening situations. At any time, in any place, you can lose your head – both figuratively and literally. While conducting a study in South Kivu’s Shabunda Territory, for example, a group of us were viewed as human shields after the national army took us hostage at its front line against a group of Mai-Mai rebels. In a village along that front, I saw rebel corpses laid out by the national army for identification. Before me, all I could see was darkness – which is to say, my own death, too. For some time afterwards, I could not stomach meat.

Another study took me to Walikale Territory in North Kivu Province. I was alone with a driver, who took me to see a spot where a rebel commander had killed a Colonel from the national army. I was familiar with the Colonel in question, as he had been one of the leaders of my own community. The rebel commander was a son of the village in which I was to spend my research stay. Feeling too frightened to work in such a setting, I managed to plead with the study coordinator for a change of village. However, the new village selected for the study was only 5 kilometers away from the first. Around 8pm, together with the other village men, the village chairman came to tell me, “We haven’t had any problems here, but during the night, our rebel son could turn up at any moment demanding contributions to pay his soldiers.” I realized that those 5 kilometers had not put any real distance between myself and the dangers I so greatly feared. Each day of my stay there, I waited anxiously to hear the birds in the very early morning. Each morning, I thanked God to have survived another night.

Beyond the instance described above, I could easily have mentioned other dangerous and difficult situations I’ve encountered while carrying out this work that I love. And now, I am constantly asking myself why I stick with this job as a researcher. Is it out of passion, for the pay, or from a desire to understand a given situation? At the same time, I realize that the effects of all the difficulties I have survived have taken root inside me, leaving me vulnerable in a way that I have long had to cope with completely on my own.

On rare occasions though, one does find spaces where one can open up about these issues. In January 2018, I participated in a workshop on the psychological burden of research, organized by the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural de Bukavu and the Université catholique de Louvain. There were many local and international researchers present, all of whom had worked in various parts of the country. The workshop made me realize that I was not alone in grappling with the psychological toll that research takes. Everyone had had painful experiences in the course of their research. This showed me that any researcher working in an insecure environment runs the risk of trauma at one point or another. We experience psychological blows for which we receive little preparation, training, or support. And so, very often we do not know how to treat, cope with, or heal from them.

Two dynamics could prove essential in easing the sense of isolation. To begin with, it would be important for us as researchers to break the omertà surrounding this subject. We should seek out networks in which to discuss it. This would, first of all, help us emerge from our isolation and exchange strategies for coping with our burdens. At the same time, it would allow us to collectively put the issue on the table, with the aim of making our experiences in the field more comprehensible to everyone, so as to work toward larger-scale solutions.

As for research coordinators, they should realize that the weight of the psychological blows we receive in the field is far from trivial. They need to know that researchers in insecure environments can find themselves in situations where the line between life and death grows very thin. At the same time, the imbalance of power between donors and employees often makes it difficult for the latter group to bring these issues to fore. Coordinators have an ethical obligation to take this dimension into account during project planning and development. Facilitating psychological support before, during, and after research seems key to developing a sustainable culture of research in insecure settings. For traumas are not mendable. And otherwise, how grave might the cost become?


Précieux Thamani Mwaka is a researcher with Land Rush at the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural of Bukavu. Contact the author at thamanimwaka (at) gmail.com


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