The pitfalls of fieldwork: A brief account of how my research in Addis Ababa did (not) go

By Rachel Dubale, student of the Research Master African Studies at Leiden University.

This is the first blog post of a series written by students or recent alumni of the Master and Research Master African Studies about their research internship or fieldwork. Their posts will appear on an irregular basis.


Legend has it that, on average, nine out of ten researchers during fieldwork find themselves having to reconsider and change part of their original plans once they arrive in the field. Well, I was no exception.

Relocation to condominium complexes
I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by the end of September 2022. The main purpose of my research was to investigate how people who had been relocated from the centre of the capital to the outskirts as a result of large-scale urban development plans, lived in the new relocation areas. Specifically, I focused on the Integrate Housing Development Programme, the social housing project launched by the Ethiopian government in 2006 with the aim, among other things, of reducing the capital’s slums by 50 percent, building instead condominium complexes in the suburbs. Among the plethora of such complexes, my research site is Jemo condominium, one of the largest condominium projects completed in 2010 on the outskirts of Addis Ababa by the government.

The future of the city Addis Ababa
My interest was sparked by the fact that my paternal grandmother was relocated from the centre of the capital to the suburbs. But beyond that, I was intrigued by how these new four-plus-storey apartment blocks are defined as the future of the city of Addis Ababa, given the increasing mushrooming of the population as opposed to the shortage of housing. As the target group is mostly the lower class of the capital, such relocated housing areas are radically different from what relocated people are generally accustomed to, alias houses made of mud on the ground, with bathrooms - holes - shared by 15 and more people. In this regard, being relocated to flats equipped with a personal bathroom, living room and kitchen appears at first sight to be an improvement, yet there are non-negligible side effects, especially concerning the social fabric lost by relocated people once moved. In addition, water and electricity are intermittent in Jemo, and quoting one of my interviewees in this regard, ‘What good is a shower all to yourself if there is no water to use it?’.

The hypothesis
However, I wanted to focus my study on the relationship between territorial administration in Jemo - at the level of the woreda, the smallest unit - and the quality of life of these citizens in the resettlement areas. The hypothesis, in a nutshell, was the following: where the woreda neglects its role as custodian of the utilities, the citizens in Jemo operate. And where these citizens operate, I assumed based on my prior knowledge of the area and the concept of social capital, they operate jointly to cope with daily shortages such as water, electricity as well as issues such as general security.

The unfolding: ‘Welcome to Fieldwork’
Unfortunately, my assumption was partly wrong: mutual help is rare among the relocated citizens in Jemo. Or at least, one could capture instances of mutual aid and social capital, such as the young boys in the neighbourhoods who take weekly shifts in guarding the area to cope with the lack of electricity in the evenings and the resulting crime. ‘And woe betide you if you skip your surveillance shift without a valid reason,’ one drowsy boy explained to me as he came off his surveillance shift, ‘because you will incur hefty monetary fines.’ The trouble is that examples like these are not the rule, but rather the exception.

To this day, relocated citizens struggle to create a network of relationships to react to the so-called ‘ye condominium hiwot’, in English ‘condo life’. The condominium structure itself - summed up by many with the metaphor ‘you live with your door locked’, as opposed to the old neighbourhood where they hardly had a key -, the fact that they have been scattered in different parts of Jemo, and the mistrust towards the other residents, hinder it. And so, I was faced with the pitfalls of fieldwork.

Thus, my research on social capital in Jemo seems to have turned more into research on asocial capital, the hurdles and challenges people face despite having lived for more than ten years in the area to create a new social fabric. This no longer worries me, especially after receiving a good-natured smile from my lecturers in response to my concerns, followed by a simple phrase: ‘Welcome to fieldwork’.

Conducting research in Jemo between closed condo doors and open bars
Seemingly, Jemo appears to be the most social and open environment in the world: Bars packed with young people from morning to night, communal gardens populated by children playing ropes. Next to them, seated on stools, women busily chopping onions to celebrate weddings or newborn babies.

It seems implausible to juxtapose such sharp images of conviviality with stories that reveal a far more complex and certainly less rosy reality. One respondent’s latest account relates that it took a week before they discovered the death of an older man living on the fourth floor of the apartment. ‘None of us worried; besides the elderly person was used to not leaving the house, being a cripple and living on the fourth floor without a lift, no one worried too much about him’. It was only when the stench was too intense that the residents decided to force open the door - obviously, closed - and check if he was alright.

Peeling onions with the women in the courtyard
‘How was it possible to conduct interviews in such a hostile environment?’ one could ask. What interest would people, inherently suspicious of strangers, have in talking to me? Indeed, it was not easy, especially in the beginning, when people would dismiss me to the tune of ‘I have better things to do’ and ‘I am busy’. However, as time went by, repeatedly seeing my face and forcing the best Amharic I could muster to explain my reasons for being here, I achieved something. I could not name the perfect ingredient to make oneself familiar in such a context: In my case, I think it was inserting oneself and meddling in their mundane time, sometimes with a bunna (coffee) prepared for a family, sometimes by peeling onions with the women in the courtyard. And all in all, am not so displeased with the pitfalls of my fieldwork.

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Photo credits
All photos by Rachel Dubale.


housing policy
urban development
social capital
Addis Ababa
research master
African studies

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