PhotoVoice Fieldwork Diary – Zimbabwe

Kate Watson, Projects Manager at PhotoVoice is currently working with 14 community members in Lower Gweru, Zimbabwe on an evaluation project in partnership with Zimbabwe Red Cross (ZRC).

The participants are beneficiaries of the ‘Food Security & Livelihoods (FLS) Programme’ delivered by ZR, which ended in 2015. Kate has been delivering PhotoVoice training and workshops, and supporting participants to use participatory photography as a tool to share their experiences of the FSL programme.

Through photography, the project aims to enable the participants to feedback their thoughts on what worked well, what didn’t and what could be improved, communicating what change looks like at a local level and informing future ZRC programming.

Kate writes about her first week of community workshops below.

Day 1 of PhotoVoice Community Workshops

The first day of community workshops took place today in a space provided by Mdubiwa Primary School in rural Lower Gweru.

For the 14 participants, identified as community members who may have been marginalised from FSL activities due to their social or economic status (for example being pregnant during the programme, ill, elderly or living in isolated locations), this was the first time that they had been directly involved in a programme evaluation, and they arrived at the school with a mixed sense of curiosity, excitement and perhaps, some suspicion.

Working with staff community liaison officers from ZRC who had been part of the PhotoVoice staff training the previous week, the morning was spent with introductions and explaining the project objectives, before moving on to using the cameras themselves. The group gave a tour of their community and the local area, taking to their cameras quickly despite being the first time many had used them, and using photos to discuss what they were proud of in the community and where progress had been made, whilst highlighting some of the issues that they still faced.

It also included 50+ small primary school children who emerged from their classrooms, and peeking out from hiding places, bursting with giggles – followed along the community tour.

Whilst some of the suspicion dissipated, participants remained curious – cameras are not common place here and more often than not, it is the community leaders or those in positions of authority within the area who communicate with those implementing development programmes.

Building the confidence of the participants to see themselves as experts in the initiatives which they were part of will be part of the challenge for the coming days.


© Kate Watson 2017 | PhotoVoice | Red Cross | Zimbabwe

Day 2 of PhotoVoice Community Workshops 

The focus of today’s workshops was building the visual literacy skills of the participants. Using found images and brainstorming discussions, participants began to move beyond describing the narrative of the image to consider its aesthetic elements and the choices the photographer has made to convey their message.

Within an evaluation project of an agriculture programme like this, where the images produced in many ways serve as a data or an evidence source, creative elements – pattern, depth of field, composition, light, or movement can be overlooked in favour on focusing on the task of documenting fact and recording change.

But participants began to explore how they could communicate a strong message creatively in their work, helping them to talk about the images they had so far taken of FSL programme benefits, enabling self-expression and to plan for those they would capture in the coming weeks.

The ZRC FSL programme ended 2 years ago – and like with many end of project evaluations, the tangible facts of the project are no longer around to simply document or record. Some FSL activities only lasted the lifespan of the 5-year project. Capacity-building and training activities no longer take place, but in line with ZRC’s aims, these skills have been embedded in the community.

Today, the heavens opened and Lower Gweru became a small network of rivers, but many of the challenges to the FSL programme have been due to drought which severely affected this farming community’s harvest during the last 3 years, slowing down progress as the programme focus shifted to emergency relief.

In other cases, the problem issue – be it unproductive soil or nutritional illness due to lack of diversity of food crops, has been addressed through the programme and no longer exists physically to photograph. In these instances, the challenge for participants is to move beyond literal documentation and find creative ways to communicate what they feel are the most important messages or lessons learnt.

© Kate Watson 2017 | PhotoVoice | Red Cross | Zimbabwe

© Kate Watson 2017 | PhotoVoice | Red Cross | Zimbabwe

Day 3 of PhotoVoice Community Workshops 

The participant group for this project is composed largely of elderly women, identified in the ZRC recruitment as those who may have struggled to access the ZRC FSL programmes. Planning the project, perhaps using my own elderly grandparents as a reference point, I arrived with some preconceptions on the stories and images that might emerge when working community members 65+, and how the group dynamic might unfold. But as the workshops progress, and the participants begin to feel more at ease with their new roles as ‘Local Community Monitors’, characters within the group are emerging and any preconceived notions I had about working with an older demographic are being quickly dispelled – the elderly female members of the Mdubijwa village are most definitely coming into their own.

Where the younger teenage members, can at times shy away from putting forward their ideas and, having only recently taken on the role of provider for their children, may focus on the immediate issue or problem they have experienced – the elderly women are ready with potential solutions and ways to move forward, bringing with them some decades of experience dealing with such issues.

Unlike my own grandparents, these elderly women have not settled into an easier life, after years of working and raising their children. For most, relying on the support of the younger members of their families has not been an option. The Lower Gweru region has been severely affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic which is currently estimated to affect over 15% of the adult population in Zimbabwe. An anti-retroviral drugs treatment programme arrived to the region as part of ZRC’s Community HIV/AIDSs programme in 2008. In the past 8 years, its progress in tackling the disease has been significant but not before it left much of the youngest generation orphaned.

Many of those affected by the loss of their parents are the grandchildren of elderly participants taking part in the PhotoVoice workshops. These elderly participants are now the solo female heads of household, and as their photographs reveal, coping is key and their main priority is providing for their young grandchildren, securing their education and ensuring that any income generated from the FSL programme activities is used in achieving this.

Their imagery speaks of resilience and portrays how they have have learnt to adapt, to modify their behavior and respond to the challenges that being a small-scale farmer and raising a second family brings. Within our small group they are a driving force – when energy is low they are ready with a way to lift the mood, find humor and bring the group together. Today, when after heavy rains had slowed down progress with the ongoing crop planting, and spirits were low, it was Agnus, Catherine, Lorraine, Sibuwiise and their neighbors who were ready with a dancing competition – traditional Lower Gweru style.

The group was energized, motivated and focused on a finding a solution to this latest setback. Though, on my part, if the measure of effectiveness for this activity was laughter, I will take some credit for roaring guffaws I brought with my attempt at a solo rendition of the local Mhande dance…

© Kate Watson 2017 | PhotoVoice | Red Cross | Zimbabwe

© Kate Watson 2017 | PhotoVoice | Red Cross | Zimbabwe

Day 4 of PhotoVoice Community Workshops 

An early 5am start this morning – Eddy, the new replacement driver for the PhotoVoice fieldwork is rather proud of his Land Rover Discovery Sport. Unfortunately, the road to the Mdubijwa village (where the workshops are taking place) has its fair share of potholes and lake-size puddles – and treating this vehicle with the fondness that you might a showroom fresh Porsche adds an additional hour or so to our journey. Still, it was the first time since arriving here that I had been awake to see dawn and the sunrise over the Antelope Lake where I’m staying, which was well worth the early wake-up call. Had I been properly awake, I might have captured the scene, thinking it would probably make a nice photo for this blog piece, but as it was, I was without coffee and instead stumbled a tad bleary eyed towards my waiting lift.

Bumpy napping done, we arrived at the school somewhat more alert, and ready to start the fourth day of participant workshops.

In this session, participants began to make plans for their own personal projects, creating ‘stories of change’ that document any progress made within the community since ZRC’s FSL programme intervention, which began in 2013.

During the Staff Training with the ZRC team the previous week, we had worked to create an evaluation framework for this project, identifying key programme areas. On paper they read as distinctive activity areas – small livestock donation, nutritional gardens establishment, seed selection training and micro-financing initiatives (Internal Savings and Lending Schemes- ISALS). Simple.

But, as participants – the beneficiaries of these programmes – continue take images and through group discussions provide insight into how these activities worked in practice, the reality of the programme is a lot more complex.

One participants described this today in her caption as “the chain of benefits”. The cash from a small loan she had taken to build a new house for her family was not used to buy bricks but instead, invested into her nutritional garden, with the income generated from selling the vegetables grown later used to buy the building materials needed for the construction. Another participant who had received seed selection training as part of the conservation farming programme was unable to find good seeds to select after an unsuccessful harvest. So, she used profits made from selling her high value produce to buy white maize, enabling her to select promising seeds and begin replanting, using manure produced from the goat donation scheme to ensure a prosperous harvest.

The small livestock (mostly goats) donated by ZRC form part of a pass-on scheme where once the received goat has had kids and the targeted beneficiary has been assisted by the dairy products produced and possible sale of the animals, it is that person’s role to pass on some of the new goats to another community member identified as in need, and so on.

Income generated from the sale of vegetables grown in the nutritional gardens, or small loans taken out to ensure their successful cultivation, are shared between the garden members, who have formed committees to decide where profit is best spent in the wider community.

Capacity-building training received from ZRC for each of these activities is passed on through informal sharing with neighbours and families, and a regular public training programme established by Mdubijwa’s village head. In initiatives such as these, the impact of the ZRC programme has extended far beyond the initial targeted beneficiaries and is bringing value wider community.

Out of this comes a great deal of learning in best practices which can help to inform ZRC’s forthcoming FSL programmes in other regions of Zimbabwe. And for PhotoVoice, it makes our evaluation a somewhat more challenging, but ultimately valuable task.

© Kate Watson 2017 | PhotoVoice | Red Cross | Zimbabwe

© Kate Watson 2017 | PhotoVoice | Red Cross | Zimbabwe

Day 5 of PhotoVoice Community Workshops 

Next week, the workshops will move to participants’ homes where I will be providing focused 1:1 support for the Local Monitors to develop their personal projects and to edit their photographs and provide captions for their chosen images. Most of the FSL activities such as the nutritional gardens, small livestock pastures and conservation farms, are located close to the participants’ houses and throughout the workshops, they have been keen to share the progress they have been making with them – each day bringing in examples of the produce they have cultivated and an array of plants they traditionally use to treat sick animals. As the pile of vegetables, plants and cuttings has steadily mounted on my desk, they are now very excited at the prospect of showing me these activities in person – taking a lot of pride in how they taken ownership of the ZRC initiatives, adapting and expanding to involve the wider community.

In advance of this, this afternoon was an opportunity to start planning the local forthcoming exhibition and community engagement event, which will take place at the end of next week. The school classroom where the workshops have taken place provides a bright and central space to display the work and the headmaster has kindly offered its use as a venue.

Today, amongst a buzz of excitement, participants provided suggestions on people they would like to attend the exhibition. As each participant suggested names, it quickly became apparent that this the invitee list was in fact the entire district ward of Lower Gweru and some of its neighbouring ward members … and then some more…

The project has generated a lot of curiosity and interest from the whole community, and beyond celebrating the achievements of the participants involved, this event is an opportunity to share the participants’ messages and best-practice methods. By creating a platform to raise awareness about the FSL initiatives and the livelihood issues they seek to address, it aims to engage a range of stakeholders to facilitate wider community engagement in sustaining and expanding the FSL activities.

I have no doubt that the event will provide powerful insight into the experiences of community members. That said, reviewing the growing invitee list of participants’ friends, families and neighbours, Village Heads and local government, Elders, local press, District Councillors, Ward Representatives, the Agriculture Committee’s trainer experts … I am experiencing perhaps a little anxiety.

It’s similar to the feeling you might get in the hour before hosting a party at your house, of everyone turning up at the same time, raising perhaps some room-capacity issues in our modestly sized classroom venue. But not to worry, a Plan B staggered approach to viewing the exhibition is in hand.

Other participant suggestions for the event include, but are not limited to:

  • a drummer and dancing – dancing apparently is an absolute must. In fact there will also need to be a PA system in addition to the drummer, as I’m told this is a special event that will warrants both traditional dancing and contemporary dancing to the latest Zimbabwean hits;
  • The group will perform a drama piece bringing to life the FSL activities, which they are busily preparing specially for the event;
  • PhotoVoice and ZRC will introduce the project and a few of the participants themselves have volunteered to present to the audience on their experiences of the programme and their work.
  •  Using the event as a platform to encourage dialogue around the programme, time has also been allocated for a community discussion on feedback and next-steps, before the event rounds up with a community feast of the local dish of Sadza and Dovi (Peanut Butter Stew), accompanied by fried roadrunner.

It looks to be a great event. I am as equally excited as the participant group. And my task for this weekend? Finding out where exactly one procures a PA system in rural Lower Gweru….