Culture and Bodies Workshop: Participatory Methods in Action

Otiyela Mtema, MEIRU

Day 1:  Monday June 18th,  8:40am, Sol Farm, in the outskirts of the city of Lilongwe. Nineteen people sit in a round-table setting in the conference hall, as formal as they come, with well learned, mostly serious looking individuals, from A person sits at a table delivering a talkdifferent disciplines: artists, epidemiologists, social scientists etc. Quite a few have recently flown in from the UK, a couple from Tanzania, and the rest from Malawi. It’s June, it’s freezing, the atmosphere is daunting, I can’t wait for this week to end!

Day 5:  Friday June 23rd,  2pm, Sol Farm. There’s over 30 people, a cheerful looking group of colleagues, friends, are on the lawn, watching a hilarious drama performance. It’s all reminiscent of the fun, informative, learning experience we’ve all had these past couple of days. I don’t want this week to end!

The Culture and Bodies workshop was such a memorable journey. It was my first experience with participatory methods in research, and right from the beginning, when we received our community hosts at Sol Farm, I felt a strong affiliation towards the thinking around it. The community hosts – members from the Area 25 community with a level of disposition around community arts – have known me for a while now, but were very unfamiliar with the rest of the project team, except for Chris and Cindy whom they had met the previous Sunday for a brief introduction.

The five hosts Klement, Susan, Grace, Angel and Kondwani, arrived at Sol Farm on Tuesday morning, as the rest of us were in the conference room about to finish up the early morning’s agenda. We had agreed to have a fun introduction exercise when welcoming them, but I was personally unsure about how that would happen, and was admittedly anxious about how our two groups would merge. Sharifa went out to welcome our Hosts. After about 15 minutes we had finished our discussions inside and came out of the hall to welcome our guests over coffee and some snacks.

As we walked out to welcome our guests, we were met with a reverberation of songs and hand clapping, in a twist of events, our group was the one being welcomed, Malawian style. The Glasgow team then responded with introducing everybody to a Scottish dance, the curiously named “Strip the Willow”. It was truly beautiful as I witnessed first-hand, for the first time, how within a few minutes the two groups had virtually become one, every-one seemed more loosened up, and we had all become more comfortable around each other, surely the perfect atmosphere for knowledge exchange.

The whole week would progress beautifully, and at most times seamlessly from thereon. With the hosts as guides, on the Tuesday afternoon, we visited a number of locations of interest in Area 25. The team were shown markets, small farms, and an informal Kachasu (local beer) distillery.

At the beginning of every day, and most so on the morning of the final day, we would have reflection exercises and discussions around the activities and experiences of the previous day, and one of the things that stood out the most for me was the complexity of being in an interdisciplinary team. There was a challenge some times to get everybody on the same page, and at times a discussion around a disagreement would have to be cut short, even before commonality was found. Nonetheless, the discussions were truly riveting, and I left every time, feeling that harnessing the expertise and experience of the different team members, would position us on an extraordinary platform, to combat NCDs, and create the positive impact in Area 25, and ultimately beyond.

We started the workshop without any clear idea of how our pilot project would look, we finished the workshop with a complete set of research questions, and a methodology.