Lost in translation? Managing cultural differences in the face of risk in the field

Lost in translation? Managing cultural differences in the face of risk in the field

June 6th 2019
By Dieudonné Bahati

Translation by Sara Weschler


The author, Dieudonné Bahati 



In research, working within a team setting can be very enriching, particularly when the team is composed of people hailing from different disciplines, nationalities, and cultural backgrounds. Such collaborative work however can also entail a set of challenges linked, among other things, to cultural differences between the members of a single team. This becomes particularly clear in difficult circumstances, when people react differently to the emotions such situations raise – as described in two examples below.


To start with, a short anecdote from the field – one which I myself experienced – serves as an illustration. A 25-person team consisting of 20 Congolese members and five Europeans was tasked with evaluating the work of an international organization in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The project unfolded in various parts of the South Kivu Province. One day our work took some of us to the Ruzizi Plain in Uvira Territory. On the way back, we narrowly avoided a severe accident. Our car careened all over the place before coming to a stop some 200 meters from the road. Outside, peasants came running to help, convinced the accident had been serious. Inside the vehicle, the scene was one of general panic: death had felt so close that everyone was crying out to his or her God. And once the car had come to a halt, people called out their thanks to God for having spared their lives. Meanwhile though, Sandra (not her real name), a European researcher who was with us, looked on ironically, even allowing herself a burst of laughter. When we asked to know what had made her laugh at a moment that was so terrifying for the rest of us, she replied, “I felt like I was in a game.” This little remark further exacerbated our traumatized state of mind. To her, all the cries for divine assistance in a moment of terror had meant absolutely nothing. Still more troubling was the way she mocked our beliefs, demonstrating a lack of respect for her Congolese colleagues’ calls to God. It was revealing that the significance attached to religious beliefs may differ from one researcher to the next – particularly between colleagues who grew up in different cultural settings. During difficult moments, true cross-cultural communication indeed becomes a great challenge.

Another context in which such differences become apparent is in the realm of beliefs surrounding the occult. In January 2018, during a seminar on the ethical challenges of research in a conflict setting, several researchers took the brave step of divulging the psychological burdens they had accumulated as a result of certain incidents in the field. A few mentioned that during or after painful fieldwork experiences they had been visited by demons at night. The whole room listened very respectfully; but some said it wasn’t easy to discuss such matters with Western donors, since in many Congolese cultures it isn’t easy to broach any topic in front of the “boss.”

Afterwards, I reflected on all this with a Western professor who was present, and who has had a great deal of experience in the field. “Once, a long time ago,” she revealed, “a collaborator told me how demons regularly came to him in the night. I took it as an expression of his superstitions. At the time I was still a young researcher, deeply rooted in my European culture. I’m ashamed to say I even laughed a bit at his story. It wasn’t until fifteen years later – after I had lived through many difficult experiences in the field, and had myself suffered from nightmares – that I realized the extent to which the nightly visits of those demons may in fact have been an expression of the profound traumas my collaborator had suffered. It took me many years and a great deal of cultural exchange to understand just how inappropriate and profoundly insulting my initial reaction had been, given the courage and trust my collaborator showed in sharing his experiences with me.”

It should be noted that those researchers who are supposed to work within multicultural teams must make an effort to sufficiently respect the beliefs and convictions of others. This is all the more important in difficult settings, where the psychological burden of research is often heavy. The stakes are even higher in collaborations between researchers from the Global North and South – the former generally being the “bosses” of the latter, which can itself give rise to much more significant frustrations.

At the same time, it should be said that experience-sharing sessions could help both sides adapt to one another’s cultural considerations. These sorts of initiatives could have a significant impact on the research process. They may also help to deconstruct certain inequalities with respect to the power dynamics that implicitly privilege one cultural framework over another. Moving forward, such experiences may bear fruit not only in the context of fieldwork, but also more broadly in the areas of project design, and the implementation of methodological and epistemological approaches.


Dieudonné Bahati Shamamba is a doctoral student at the university of Liège  (Gembloux Agro Biotech) and researcher at the Land Rush project. Contact the author at bahati.shamamba (at) ucbukavu.ac.cd


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