Tohoyandou, South Africa (Piper)

Piper Shifflett

This summer, my partner, Sara, and I were privileged to assist with the PhD project of Mukhethwa Munzhedzi, a student at the University of Venda (univen). Since we were part of a new project focusing on malaria, most of our work this summer was focused on making community connections and gathering preliminary data that will serve as the groundwork for the sample collection during the upcoming malaria season. Our main objectives for our time there were both to master and optimize our lab techniques, and also work locally in the Ha-Lambani region to gain permission from local leaders and recruit and train field workers and nurses to collect data during the season.

One of the really unique aspects of our project was that it was a very hands-on and honest representation of what it takes to establish a health research project. Since it was just the three of us, Sara and I got really close with Mukhethwa and learned a ton from her about each stage of our work and what was going into the process. We were able to work pretty independently on projects like the pamphlet and analysis of the clinic data, but she also took the time to walk us through unfamiliar lab techniques, or local greetings and common phrases, and provide us with opportunities to practice and improve these.

I think the most important thing this project taught us was the importance of connections and all of the people who were there to help us when we encountered challenges. In the lab, this meant being there to give feedback, and attending events to support the other researchers, who in turn were always willing to help teach us to prepare buffers or proof-read our pamphlet. But beyond our research, the lab also became our friends as we made endless cups of tea together, attended presentations, and even got totally surprised by an amazing going away party. So, in lab we learned a lot about the human side of research, and the importance of supportive colleagues with shared interests and expertise to lend.

Our first meeting with the head of the Masetoni sub-head and his family. This was our first time in the Ha-Lambani region, and we were really nervous to be practicing our greetings and proper etiquette when meeting with such important community members. Pictured are Prof. Bessong and Dr. McQuade, along with the sub-head, his wives, one of his daughters and her son. We ended up good friends with the family, and would frequently come to spend time with them when we were in the field. He also brought us to meet with the regional chief, and worked with us to gather population data and anything else we needed for the project.

These lessons extended beyond the lab to the field as well. The nurses and manager of the clinic provided us with records from the previous years, and walked us through what they had seen in treating patients and speaking with them. A head of one of the sub-villages negotiated an audience with the regional head chief on our behalf, and pledged his support of the project, which helped us gain ultimately gain permission from the chief. When we were struggling to map the boundaries between the sub-villages, several members of the community spent the afternoon working with the software to map them for us, and helped us track down demographic data from each place. Although we only knew basic greetings and pleasantries, through Mukhethwa’s translations and a generous amount of improvised hand-motions, we made connections with more and more people as we worked through each of our roadblocks.

The best part of our experience in the field wasn’t directly tied to our research on the surface, but were the chances we had to just spend time with the people we were meeting in the community. The sub-head’s family became friends, and we would stop in just to visit and chat with his daughters and play with the younger kids whenever we were nearby. We attended church, and afterwards would joke with the little kids in the village about our bad dancing. We met Mukhethwa’s extended family, who took us down to the river to explore and let us pick fruit every time we came. While these interactions weren’t specifically linked to our research, we made friends and learned from everyone we met, which made our project that much more personal. On paper this summer was about establishing the foundation for Mukhethwa’s project and learning more about malaria research. But, I think in reality it was a summer of growing under mentorship, learning from colleagues, and understanding and appreciating the importance of community contacts, and how vital they are for global health research.

Me, Mukhethwa and Sara in our matching shirts that were part of our going away surprise. We ended up getting incredibly close over the summer as Mukhethwa was a combination of both a mentor and a friend. This was our last day in the lab, which was our second home for the summer, and we had both cried several times by the time this picture was taken.

Even outside of work, it was an absolutely surreal summer, full of incredibly welcoming people and beautiful new places to explore. We got really close with the Univen Volleyball Club, and traded learning about Tohoyandou and how to throw a proper South African braai for endless s’mores. We had the opportunity to travel and see gorgeous landscapes and incredible animals – including all of the big 5. It was a summer that was sometimes challenging and frustrating, but made amazing and unforgettable by the people we met and the friends we made. I feel like I’ve come away from it with a new perspective on the next steps I want to take after UVA, but also a renewed sense that Global Health is the right field for me and an excitement about my future in this work.

The biggest thing I can take away from this summer is what a privilege it was to work with Mukhethwa on her PhD project in her home village, and how that helped us become closer to both the work we were doing and the people we were helping. Being involved with laying the groundwork for data collection was a really unique experience with its own challenges, but every time we were stuck there were always leaders from the community willing to provide advice, resources, or a fresh perspective. In an unexpected but incredible way, we left this summer not only with a study site and colleagues, but also a community of friends who add another invaluable layer to our research.

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