My research focusses on sex education and the use of contraceptives among young urban professionals in Nigeria. I wanted to know what kind of sex education they had received, about the implementation of that knowledge as well as its effect on their sexual development and sexual life.
I planned to start my fieldwork in Nigeria in July 2020 after giving birth to my son in May. I had planned to use a community in Ilorin, my hometown, as the focus of my research, to do participant observation among married couples. I planned to set up physical meetings with selected people and do recorded interviews with them.
Then Coronavirus struck. Nigeria recorded a Covid-19 case in late February 2020. Estonia, my country of residence, recorded its first case on the same day. By the end of March, Nigeria had reported 131 cases and the governments across all states had to initiate lockdowns. This made me reconsider my plans, I even thought of focussing on Tallinn as my case study, but realised that with the language barrier, it would be too much of a challenge.
Because of the restriction of travel and having a newborn to look after I decided to redesign my fieldwork to an online form. I began the fieldwork in July 2020 and ended in November 2020. The fieldwork comprised of digital questionnaires and online semi-structured video interviews through conventional video calling platforms, especially Zoom and Skype.
In order to acquire respondents, I wrote a short description of my research and forwarded it to different individuals and groups in various social media platforms, including Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, etc. I also acquired respondents through family and friends networks. I interviewed 43 people; 25 of which were females and 18 were males, between ages 18 and 35 years. All but 3 of them were graduates, mostly doing white-collar work.
Unlike traditional fieldwork, the value of the internet age has been evident in my research. It
takes a few words to grab the attention of 10s and 100s of people; which would otherwise require a lot more work in terms of travelling, gaining attention, etc. The experience was similar to having a real-life, physical interview: the one-on-one conversations were straightforward as most of the respondents were very open to discussion. I would begin by acquiring their demographic data by asking them various questions such as their age, religion, residence, family background, tribe, religion, type of environment they grew up, etc. This helped me to organize and keep track of the information that I acquired from each respondent and made the respondents warm-up to furthermore intimate questions. With their permission, I also recorded the videos of the meetings with most respondents. I used a casual tone to make my interviewees comfortable, which resulted in very open to discussions my respondents were aware of Nigeria's lack of sex education.
Nevertheless, some respondents were uneasy about the interview, perhaps because they were not comfortable sharing their very personal stories, for instance about forced sexual relations and abortion experiences or issues related to fertility. But the majority of respondents were open and casually talked about their past, for example, a male respondent who freely shared the story of his first sexual. Thus, both those with positive and negative experiences regarding sex could relate to my interview questions. Despite being online, it was amazing to hear about young Nigerians’ experiences, and their willingness to share their personal stories. The online fieldwork helped me build confidence as well as to answer my research questions.
Online fieldwork comes with its positive and negative sides. From a personal point of view, one of the most important benefits of online fieldwork was that I didn’t have to overwork myself as a nursing mom. I was able to establish a balance between nursing and research. Unlike physical fieldwork, I didn't experience the stress of travel nor the financial demand for fieldwork. I also managed to avoid physical contacts which was crucial at the time of the Coronavirus pandemic.
In contrast, I also noticed some downsides of this experience. Getting people to agree to an interview was quite demanding and not completely stress-free. In the process of searching for informants, many of my messages were left unanswered. Many people were not interested in participating in the interview, because they believed they could use the time to do other things, especially the entrepreneurs who also had customers to attend to. Some appointments were cancelled. This either happened as a result of a network interruption or because the respondent had a low battery, lack of adequate power supply or insufficient mobile data for the connection. These problems were specific to Nigeria as the country has never enjoyed stable electricity and WiFi is uncommon, making mobile data the predominant mode of internet connection. Sometimes there were distractions during the interview, especially from respondents who used phones. Occasionally, distractions from my own side occurred when I needed to cater to my newborn baby during interview sessions.
I have understood that fieldwork does not necessarily have to be executed offline. An online version is fine. Despite the distance and the time difference between Nigeria and Estonia, technology made it easy for me to acquire the data for my research, though, a physical, offline conversation would have helped me establish a stronger relationship with my respondents. If I had an opportunity, I would like to execute my fieldwork both offline and online. I only regret to have missed the fun and excitement of something that anthropologists commonly do: tell stories of their beloved fieldwork trip.
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