How graphics helped me to learn from rural communities

I applied to University for two reasons. First, I loved my subject, Geography, and wanted to be surrounded by others who were passionate and driven. Second, I wanted to do research abroad, using a network of experts to help gather data on sustainability and natural resources.

Both these ideals were fulfilled, and I set off to Madagascar in 2010 to research into deforestation, climate and forest-dependent communities. Before I left, I packed my mind with theories on participatory research and interview techniques, and packed my rucksack with voice recorders and pads of paper.

zebu madagascar
Zebu in the spiny desert

Once I got there, however, I noticed that despite my understanding and ample equipment, it was not effective in gathering the data I needed. For example, I wanted to look at land use in a forest area of southern Madagascar, requiring local people to draw on my maps and write labels.

Mistake #1: Don’t assume that local people, especially women, will know how to write.

It is not that all local people were illiterate, but the ones who mattered most in my research were. Policy officials and important leaders in the community were of course willing to participate in my research methods, however their voices did not give the whole picture.

I had to adapt.

Solution #1: I went on a tour of a local hamlet in the spiny forest with a group of young boys and an older man. They showed me, visually, where their tombs were and how the forests around them were untouched due to the fady; a deeply important spiritual taboo that means locals cannot cut down trees, defecate or do anything but respect the natural environment. We sat down on the dry ground of an old river bed, under the midday sun. There, the boys and man started to draw. They used a stick as their ‘pencil’, and the fine silt and gravel as their ‘paper’.

Drawing a map on the sand, Madagascar

They showed me exactly where each important spiritual site was in the area, and how zebu trails mark land ownership boundaries. They showed me where local schools were, and how they were separated from these services by a river. They showed me where zones for ‘permitted deforestation’ were, and how these were in the same location as their spiritual zones, creating a conflict between needing timber and respecting their spiritual beliefs.

Without this visual aid, I would never have gathered this data. Without removing my perception that Western methods such as writing, dictophones and traditional maps were the ‘best’ methods, I would have never even considered using creative visuals.

India rural village
Being welcomed in India

This change in perception was fundamental in my research in India, later in 2013. I travelled to Uttarakhand, a northern state nestled between Himachal Pradesh and Nepal.

Here, my research was on millet – a grain – and farmer networks. Policies in India, and even internationally, had started claiming millet as the new, climate-resilient ‘superfood’, being gluten free and easy to grow. The Indian government created policies to support millet production, including supplying ‘modern’ versions (i.e. genetically modified) and fertilisers to farmers.

Yet, were rural farming communities actually benefiting from these policies? 

I stayed in a remote rural village, close to one of the old colonial ‘hill stations’. Rice fields lay alongside old ruins of British Raj prisons, one of which I slept next to in a small, tarpaulin-floored yet homely room.

Two women, Geeta and Kusum, acted as my ‘mothers’, cooking and caring for me. They did not speak English, and I was very poor at speaking the local dialect. Again, visuals and senses had to be used to build a relationship with these wonderful women. Simple things such as rubbing my stomach when full and happy, or shrugging and pointing if I was confused by something, went a long way.  We forget how signs are so important across cultures. 

kusum and i
Kusum and I

With visual signs being useful in building friendships, I also witnessed how signs can be used to gather data.

I attended a focus group where women of different ages, literacy levels and caste gathered together to talk about what was impacting their millet crop production. Universal logos such as rain, heat, insects and so on were used to understand how climate change and pests were causing a decline in crops each year. They also used coloured paper circles to visually show how they traded millet and other foods within the community, coping with the decline. 

Using coloured circles to indicate sharing of food and seeds, India

These techniques were simple and accessible to all. Policy makers in India, often not using these creative visual tools, cannot gather data that includes all. This was shown by many of the policies not understanding the needs of farmers in rural areas, especially women. 

With all this in mind, what do I conclude?

Visual graphics and signs should be a necessity in research, the formation of and implementation of policy on sustainability. They cross language and cultural barriers. They are creative and adaptable to the local environment. And, most of all, they allow marginalised voices to be heard, understood, and for our shared paths forward to be seen. 

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