Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Tracing what shapes decisions by drawing 'rivers of life'

By Emmanuel Quarshie

In Ghana we have been researching the interplay of gender, generation and migration using a participatory approach to data collection and analysis - the River of Life. This blog summarizes how the method is used to gather data and its relevance to the broader context of qualitative research. Also, it highlights the challenges faced in using the method and how they were resolved with recommendations for future studies.

The River of life is a qualitative data collection tool that allows participants to reflect on their personal experiences, highlighting the factors that have (de)motivated them in their personal and professional lives. Originally designed to serve as an ice breaker, it provides participants in workshops and seminars the opportunity to quickly introduce themselves to one another and start to build a rapport with the group. 

The River of Life method is also used by non-governmental organizations and other development agencies in their activities. It helps provide development workers with an insight into the lives of the various residents in the communities in which they work. For the purpose of the Gender and Generation study, both adults (male and female) and youth (male and female) participated in this method.

Relevance of the River of Life method in qualitative research

The method is a visualization of the life stories of the participants. By drawing the obstacles and opportunities that have influenced the flow of their lives, the method helps participants and researchers elaborate complex narratives with many twists and turns. The River of life thus creates a setting for discussing what shaped the choices and decisions the participants have contented with over the course of their life.

If the River of Life method is an activity to animate a focus group discussion, it is particularly useful at the scoping stage of the research, where the objective is to understand the general trends and experiences in relation to the subject being studied in a particular community. For this particular stage, accounts given are usually from a broad perspective and are very descriptive in nature. This helps the researchers to identify the themes that would be most interesting to explore in more depth using other qualitative research methods. The River of life method can also be used in individual interviews. Here, the story of the participant’s life is recounted with a focus on a particular theme of interest to help elaborating the complexities, interconnections and disruptions that have influenced the course of life.

With the participants’ consent, the visualizations of the obstructions, openings and prospects that influence the research population’s choices and strategies can also serve as valuable resources in the dissemination of the findings to different audiences.

Relevance of the method in the Gender and Generation study

Across many cultures, a river can be considered as a symbol for illustrating a personal journey or one’s history. With respect to the specific context of the Gender and Generation study, the aim was to allow participants to present their family’s history of migration and its effects on their past and present lives. We adopted this method to complement participant observation, in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and the use of mock money to understand the allocation of remittances, which are all established qualitative research methods employed in this study. 

In-depth interviews and focus group discussion place a heavy burden on participants’ time. The river of life approach was convenient due to its ability to help researcher access relevant information for the gender and generations research. In addition, the method did not take as much time and more importantly, it provided a visual understanding/interpretation of the textual material gathered through the other methods we employed. 

The approach became even more relevant when the in-depth interviews and focus group discussions established that migration presents both positive and negative outcomes to household members. Given this theme, the river of life approach gave participants the opportunity to recount the story of their lives emphasizing how migration may have triggered any positive or negative life experiences.

Challenges and solutions

A number of participants were unsure about their ability to draw their life stories as required by the approach. Some exclaimed that they were illiterates and therefore they could not use the approach.  Those who were still not confident enough to draw their experiences after the method was explained were aided to do so by the researcher and the research assistants. In such cases, participants recounted their stories and the researcher drew their ‘life’s river’ in full view of the participants and with their approval.

Further, the participants had some difficulty depicting in a consistent form, the degree of the challenges or benefits they encountered due to migration. In order to elicit the full meanings of the symbols used in the drawings, the researchers added notes to the symbols, which will aid the analysis of the drawings.  

Way forward

The river of life approach is undoubtedly a very interesting and useful tool that enables researchers to delve into the lives of participants. Compared to other tools such as interviews and FGD’s, the approach is fast and concise.

However, the approach is relatively undeveloped and thus not widely known in the community of qualitative researchers. The Gender and Generation research hub could develop it further and popularise its usage by incorporating it into research methodology modules. 

The "River of Life": A useful methodology for storytelling

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Investment for inheritance among single mothers in Southern Africa

House built by a migrant daughter

By Vupenyu Dzingirai and Emelda Muchadzoka Tagutanazvo

‘It is hard being across the border. You perform things against your conscience’, remarks Tendai, a single mother who divides time between Zimbabwe’s Chivi district and South Africa.

These ‘hard’ performances include unlicensed trading and ‘kuzvitengesa’, the use of one’s body to mobilise money. Commercial sex, with both foreign and local men, is a key performance that single mothers do in the plastic shacks in South Africa’s informal settlements. The settlements are mostly found in Johannesburg and Pretoria, two big cities in South Africa attracting migrants from the region.  

Quite why these women do this is a matter that puzzled research teams under the Gender and Generation project. Whatever that caused women to risk discrimination and potential violence from their home community by choosing to earn money this way, was a very serious matter that required detailed and policy-oriented ethnography.

For single and divorced women, the desire to invest in their family of origin informs this process. Pointing to a big three bedroomed house she has built, Tendai says, as daughters they ‘want to build houses for parents’. Her friend has done the same for her parents who are neglected by the male children that customarily care for them. This reverse investment – where women target original rather than marital homes - is a widespread phenomenon in south western Zimbabwe.

This investment achieves two intended outcomes. On the one hand, it challenges the local myth of daughters as a waste of patrilineal resources. One daughter reported how her father now recognized her as more important than male siblings, ‘who neglected them and only invested in own homes’. Chiefly though, the investment convinces parents to adjust their patrimonial considerations, accommodating previously neglected daughters whose property they now enjoy. In Tendai’s case, parents situated her house on the centre of the stand, while her siblings were located in the periphery of the family home. These outcomes suggest that, unlike sons who have automatic claims to patrimony, daughters must earn theirs through investments at home of origin.

Neopatrilineal states, and organizations operating in them, will of course find women’s travelling to work and sex work immoral, distasteful and meriting criminalization. The raft of measures suggested and implemented by these old-fashioned states - border searches and deportation - addresses their patriarchal concern that women should not engage in sex work. But the measures have little to do and, in fact, frustrate, the concrete plans for southern Africa women to achieve recognition and membership in households and lineages that customarily deny them. Such practices, declares Tendai, will, ‘not end our mobility and our enemies must learn to live with this.’

Vupenyu Dzingirai and Emelda Muchadzoka Tagutanazvo are from the Centre For Applied Social Sciences, University of Zimbabwe. Email:;