Needles in Quicksand

I knew qualitative research wasn’t easy.  I did not expect it to be this hard.

Certainly the greatest lesson in all this work is recognizing the value of community and of the individual person’s contribution (or lack thereof).  I would not be able to have accomplished as much as I have if not for the hard work and know-how of the Kheth’Impilo staff member, Frieda Kasper, who’s been helping me track down participants for my study.  Trying to find HIV-positive Catholic women in the areas of Cape Town where we are working is, in Frieda’s words, “like trying to find a needle in quicksand without a magnet.”

It’s just that bad.

Cultural differences notwithstanding, I have to balance my urgent need to meet my goals with the reality that the NGO I’m working with is really just doing me a favor.  Everyone has other jobs and responsibilities and so there are few people who can really take the time to assist me in reaching my target number of participants, except for Frieda, who was asked to clear her schedule this past week to help me and help me she has done in spades.  A former community organizer, she goes door to door, working waiting rooms, making phone calls and following leads with her contacts in the clinics and homes in the Wallacedene and Bloekombos neighborhoods to find women for my study.

Kheth’Impilo (“Choose Life”) is a support network that works with the municipal clinics.  As such, they do not keep records of their patients’ religious affiliations.  As if finding Catholics wasn’t hard enough, then comes the issue of HIV-status.  Often, even if we can track down women who meet the qualifications for my study (to be 18 years or older, raised or practicing Catholic, HIV-positive, and not pregnant at the time of interview), some are embarrassed to reveal their HIV-status to a stranger, even one who promises anonymity and the fact that their secrets are leaving the continent with me in a week.  I’ve had at least three women walk in for interviews having been cleared by Frieda as meeting the specifications and who either recant on their status or flat out deny their status to me personally even before the interview can begin.  It pains me to know that I can’t interview those who deny their status upfront, because then I can’t give them the R100 gift card I’ve been distributing as a thank you.  if women knew of these upfront, I’d have a line of women knocking on my door telling me they are Catholic just to get the gift card (and yes, I’ve already had a few of these as well).

It’s heartening to know that after the interviews, I can provide something for them in the form of a small thank you–a R100 ($10) gift card to Pick ‘n’ Pay, a local supermarket chain.  Most of the women in these neighborhoods of informal settlements go a week without a meal and they are often sent to a local soup kitchen by the clinic for a daily meal.  A $10 gift card can go a long way toward food for women who are looking for work and with families to feed at home.  Because I offer this as a thank you and not an incentive (so they do not know they will be receiving it beforehand), they are often overjoyed and a few have clapped their hands.  One called me on my local cell to thank me again after leaving the office.

As for the results of these interviews, let’s just say I’ve come to the right women.  Though they are largely women of few words, they have strong convictions and the overriding theme emerging in their voices is that the church has a responsibility to teach its children well or it may soon itself be searching for its children like needles in quicksand.

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