Força! A professor enthusiastically told me after I described the project our team was working on, and I thought to myself: force? What did he mean? Força is a term of encouragement offering energy and motivation to keep doing what you are doing. Everyone here has been very supportive, enthusiastic, and dedicated to the research project I am in Maputo to help with.
The project is a mixed methods study on HIV knowledge, attitudes, and behavior among higher education students at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM). Population level data indicate that 11.5% of Mozambicans ages 15-49 have HIV, with higher levels in urban centers like Maputo, 15.9%. Most of the HIV burden is on the young and sexually active—like university students. Thus, we are focusing on trying to understand what students know about HIV and how it affects their attitudes and behaviors.
This summer I have spent 6 weeks helping to get the first phase of this project off the ground. We will survey 500 higher education students across all the UEM campuses scattered throughout the different provinces in Mozambique—UEM is a large university! Then in phase 2 we will use the trends we found from the survey data to identify groups of students to call back for in person qualitative interviews.
So enough about study design, what am I actually doing with all those GHAC dollars? Well, the first 4 weeks I spent meeting the research team members, worrying about logistics, writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and most of all programming the paper version of the survey into an electronic form to be used on android tablets in an application called Open Data Kit. Check it out here: https://opendatakit.org/
Working within a different cultural context has truly been a lesson in patience and communication. I just have to laugh at the amount of cultural gaffs I have committed… Things like: scheduling a meeting at 1 pm—not knowing this is normally their lunch hour— and not providing snacks; my eyes meeting a room full of disgruntled hangry team members. Or the time I left a note outside my office door with my contact information letting my officemate know I had locked the door, just in case I had locked him out, to be greeted the next day by more than one security guard who was concerned about me leaving a note in public.
Things seem more formal here. People greet each other with “good morning” and “good afternoon,” there is a ritual to almost everything. A common greeting is always more than just “hi”:
“E voce você?”
—Things just take longer here—
The formalities extend beyond daily greetings. For instance, almost everyone has a secretary to take care of them and bring them coffee or tea. Or the fact that all the research assistants needed individual signed and stamped official credentials in order to survey students. Or the fact that our project has an extremely detailed “enrollment roadmap” dictating exactly how many students from each, faculty, gender, and grade level can be enrolled, no more and no less. I don’t know; I’m having trouble describing it. It’s not just university bureaucracy but seems to be a formality, a politeness, which pervades through all aspects of life here, a formality that I think we lack in the U.S. So, what have I learned? I have learned to slow down, to be patient for the hidden formalities that pop up like weeds in your garden, and most of all to ask when lunch is.