Unexpected Events

Thank you, Susan Dray, for sharing your story!

Doing research in another country is always interesting and challenging. Doing research in shanty towns, slums, informal settlements or townships (as they are called in South Africa) adds another dimension of both interest and challenge.

We did a study in Khayelitsha, the largest Black (Xhosa) township in Cape Town, and in Mitchells Plain, the Coloured township that adjoins it. To learn about how people use technology, we did a series of interviews, contextual inquiries, naturalistic observations and participant observations aimed at giving us the richest possible experience of life there. Because it is common for younger people to move to the city in order to support their family back in rural areas, we also flew to the Eastern Cape to visit 3 families of people we had visited in Khayelitsha to understand these relationships and to understand if technology enabled or could enable closer ties.

While we were in “the bush” (rural Eastern Cape), riots against “foreigners” from other African countries (e.g., Zimbabwe, etc.) broke out in Johannesburg. They quickly spread to Cape Town and by the time we returned, they had swept the townships. The US Consulate advised me to stay out of the townships until further notice. That night, when we went to dinner with our “fixer”, we drove past a small settlement that was filled with rioters. It was a distinctly uncomfortable feeling, even though the protests were against other Africans who were perceived as taking jobs away from township resident, not against us.

By the time we were scheduled to do the visits in Mitchell’s Plain, the rioting had subsided according to the Consulate, and we were given the “all clear” to return to our research. We discovered that the rioting was not completely over, however, when our rental car was side-swiped and we needed to go to the Police station to report it. As we approached, we saw a huge crowd of angry people with anti-foreigner signs. Obviously, we weren’t going to try to cross their path!

But the real mob experience came on the very last day. My client had flown back to the States and it was just my Afrikaans-speaking translator/driver/facilitator and me doing the final visits. All went well and at the end, he invited me to come to his home for a beer. I am always very happy for such invitations from locals when I am doing field research, so I eagerly agreed.

We started up the hill to go to his house. Suddenly, he pushed me to the floor of his car and threw a large unfolded map over me. “Don’t move and don’t make any noise!” he whispered nervously. My heart leapt into my throat and I broke out in a cold sweat as I hunkered down under the dashboard, pulling the map down around me and making myself as inconspicuous and as silent as I could. I was afraid they could hear my breathing, so I held my breath.

The car slowed down and with it, time became molasses. He rolled down his window and spoke to someone in Afrikaans. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but it sounded like a hearty greeting. There was a roaring underneath the conversation. There were shouts from the crowd and more words with the driver, and then, again slowly, the car started to pull away from the intersection, up the hill. The roaring subsided and then, as he gunned it, the car hurtled over the top of the hill.

It had been at most 60 seconds at the absolute most. But to me and to my driver, it had been an eternity.

Once we had crested the hill, he peeled back the map and, ashen, smiled at me. “Phew! That was close!” he said, and I nodded, still confused. “What was close? What happened?” I asked.

He told me that there had been 2 large crowds of men converging on the intersection halfway up the hill – one from the left side, and one from the right. They were brandishing something – sticks or (as it turned out) rifles, and were shouting and denouncing foreigners in Afrikaans. I asked, “But why did you need to hide me?”

“Because,” he answered, “Had they seen you in my car, they would have killed us both.”

We were both quite rattled by the experience to say the least. Although that beer at his house would have been a nice way to unwind, ultimately, he was worried that we might have a similar encounter en route to or from his house so we turned onto the freeway and returned to the center city for our debriefing. Slowly, our racing hearts quieted and the adrenaline in our veins dissipated. Slowly, life became normal again.

Never before or since have I been faced with physical harm of this proportion while doing research for clients. And he said that, although he lives in a nearby township, he had never felt so threatened either.

It was a grim reminder that what we do when we do research is not always without risk. Knowing that the risk is real is a first step to mitigating it, but this experience reinforced that it is *always* critical to work closely with local people to help to interpret what you find out AND to read the landscape as well. I never would have thought my life could have depended on it, but clearly, at least on this occasion, it did.

Susan Dray is President of Dray & Associates, Inc., where she provides contextual and ethnographic user research, usability evaluation, and interface design consultation for a wide range of products systems, and applications. She has received several prestigious awards for her work, including the SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement in Practice Award in 2015. 

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