Susan Shepler and her research assistants spent months traversing countries in West Africa. That team consisted of, from left, Shepler, Wusu Kargbo, Sia Mani, David Mackieu, Nathaniel Boakai, and Fertiku Harris. (Photo courtesy of Susan Shepler)
Lost and Found in West Africa
Susan Shepler (Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia)
Africa is rough terrain for a researcher.
It’s not just the sketchy roads, sweltering heat, or threat of disease in much of the continent. It’s also the comparative lack of data. Information is hard to come by. Records are often minimal and unreliable.
Susan Shepler knows this well. Back in the 1980s, she was a Peace Corps math teacher in Sierra Leone, and developed a love for the region that turned into an academic passion. She has logged many miles in West Africa as a scholar and program evaluator, often spending months at a time in the field.
Her most recent project is a window into the challenges of studying Africa and a glimpse into how it’s changing.
The SIS professor took a half-year research sabbatical to travel across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia in pursuit of an answer to the question often posed by those who work in international development. What is the long-term result of a program in which an international nonprofit invested significant time and resources?
In the 1980s and 1990s the Inter-national Rescue Committee had trained hundreds of teachers living in refugee camps in Guinea after fleeing violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. With the conflicts over and the teachers gone from the camps, the IRC wanted to know what became of them and whether their training in teaching methods, health, and conflict resolution had been useful.Yet no one quite knew where they’d gone.
In Shepler’s hands were the names of about a hundred teachers last seen in Guinea. The best places to look for them, she reasoned, would be the countries they’d fled. That narrowed the search—to some 139,000 square miles.
Shepler’s academic research had taken her past armed checkpoints in the back country of Sierra Leone, so she was game for the challenge of riding motorbikes through Sierra Leone and Liberia and joining the crowds on local buses as she hunted for the former refugees in countries that were now at peace.
This time she worked with a team of six research assistants—some of them former refugee teachers in Guinea, some of them teacher trainers—who knew the region and its issues well. They fanned out across Sierra Leone and Liberia, tracing leads, calling each other with tips, and meeting up regularly with Shepler, who crisscrossed the two countries to oversee the team and, along the way, conduct her own interviews.
How did they fare on their hunt?
“Cell phones have made a huge difference. Everyone has a cell phone now,”Shepler says. Community ties were also still strong so friends and neighbors were keeping in touch across the miles. “One person would say, ‘Oh, this guy Sam? I think he went to Monrovia. I think this is his number.’ At the end of each interview, we’d ask for more names. But sometimes it was just a wild goose chase.”
In the end, Shepler and her team tracked down over 600 people, many of whom were still teaching.
Were the onetime refugees still using their teacher training?
In some cases, the answer was ‘yes.’ Health training had proved to be useful, as did conflict resolution training, which they were applying in everyday conflicts over things like land disputes.
Implementing the training in teaching methods was more difficult. Teachers in schools with several IRC-trained teachers had some luck in bringing about change,but for many, it proved too difficult for a single teacher to buck the system.
“The assumption is you train somebody and supply them with tools [so] they can be an agent of social change, but it’s not just knowledge that allows you to do it. There are barriers at all levels, from the ministry to the local level.”
What stood out in the interviews though, says Shepler, is the commitment the former refugees felt toward their careers. “Our findings highlighted the motivation that we too often take for granted—people teach out of a love of teaching, and a love of their community and country.” —SA