As a young researcher interning for the past months in the Documentation Department of the Justice and Reconciliation Project, I have come to experience and learn firsthand the challenges of conducting research and documentation work in war-torn communities in northern Uganda. Despite the fact that the reality on the ground in this part of the country has drastically changed over the last years, significant challenges must still be overcome if one is interested in engaging in this kind of work. I should add that as a foreigner who has never lived in northern Uganda before, the challenges naturally become much tougher. It is through the constant help and guidance of local researchers whose deep and broad knowledge of the region and local culture, that I have been able to quickly learn invaluable lessons about working with the Acholi populations of northern Uganda.
For instance, I have come to understand the relevance of seeking the assistance of local leaders or community mobilizers as we first approach a community. Their broad in-depth knowledge of the community, as well as their capacity to rally victims and serve as a point of communication between the researchers and the people is something that any researcher that does not directly belong to the community cannot compete with. The overwhelming majority of our work is carried out with populations that live in rural areas in which only a small amount of the inhabitants can be found close to a small town or a trading center and most inhabitants are rather located out in the countryside.
In addition, despite the lack of written records, the memories of those experiences endured throughout the conflict often remain deeply engraved in the minds of those that personally experience them. For this reason, I have come to learn how individual interviews then become a key tool that allows the researcher to understand what took place and how those events impacted that person’s life. However, individual interviews are not without their limitations; they are often imprecise and easily influenced by an unimaginable number of factors. In order to counter this, I have experience the importance of focus group discussions in which the participants are able to build on each other’s experiences and make us of their collective memory to clarify their account of an event. In many of these interactions the participants would challenge each other’s recollections of an incident and through this mutual dialogue it becomes much easier to reach points of general agreement.
Finally, I have learned how the long-term work in this region of numerous international organizations and aid agencies has greatly contributed to the development of a ‘research exhaustion’ in many communities. This term refers to those cases in which communities have previously interacted in repeated occasions with other NGOs, but have perhaps been severely disappointed by the results of this interaction and thus feel much more reluctant to engage once again in a new process with another organization that seems to be interested in their experience. As a way to overcome this challenge, I have come to understand the fundamental importance of developing an actual relationship with the community we are working in which there is a clear understanding of each other’s needs and expectations from the very beginning.