Research Nomads

Keitumetse Tshwene, a Research Assistant, carries the equipment necessary for in-home HIV testing and counseling.

By Martha Henry

Each of the two field teams for the Botswana Combination Prevention Project (BCPP) consists of 16 Research Assistants (RAs), seven drivers, two supervisors, two lab assistants, and two IT assistants. Team members come from across Botswana. In addition to Setswana, many of the RAs speak other local languages. They range in age from early 20s to late 30s. Many of them worked as HIV counselors before joining the team.

When the team arrives in a new village, each member must find his or her own meals and lodging. Though there’s help from the advance team, basically it’s a scramble to quickly get settled and begin work. Most team members rent a room or rondavel in the village.

Conditions can be difficult in rural villages, with no showers and water only from a shared tap. The constant uprooting can be stressful. Crime can be a problem. Often there is poor cell phone reception so keeping in touch with friends and family is hard. The team will be on the road for the better part of three years. Several RAs have recently married. Many have partners and children they rarely get to see.

On the road, there are expected inconveniences as well as unforeseen dangers. In the rural village of Gumare, one of the RAs, Neo Kelapile, was bitten by a dog when she entered a house. The local clinic was out of rabies vaccine, as were the surrounding villages. The BCPP staff called Maun, a tourist center 150 miles away. Surprisingly, no vaccine was available there either. To work effectively, the vaccine must be administered soon after a bite. Neo and a driver ended up making a 10-hour drive to Francistown to get a dose at a private clinic. They brought the remaining two doses back to Gumare in a cooler. At the time, Neo was eight months pregnant. (She delivered a healthy baby girl a month later. She and her daughter are doing fine.)

“They’re living in an environment that is very challenging,” said Dr. Mompati Mmalane, Co-chair of the BCPP Community Engagement Working Group.

Team of research assistants arrives in a new village.
The field team packs up after a month in Shakawe. Photo by Molly Pretorius-Holme

Along with challenges, there are rewards. The RAs have a strong sense of the contribution they’re making to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana. They’re also getting to know their country in a way that few others experience. When senior BCPP leaders from Gaborone or Harvard make a field visit and witness the RAs’ sense of purpose and camaraderie, they often leave with a renewed sense of their own mission.

On a recent visit from Boston, Molly Pretorius-Holme addressed the teams. “I’ve been involved with this project from the beginning. We’re all looking forward to the data at the end and the science that’s going to come out of it, but the real action is here now with the care and the dedication you have for the jobs that you do.”

Title Photo: Keitumetse Tshwene, a Research Assistant, carries the equipment necessary for in-home HIV testing and counseling. Photo by Dominic Chavez