This past week, as part of my new program management responsibilities, I led a team of 4 in a community mapping exercise. As the name suggests, “community mapping” – a global health buzzword – is an activity used to understand and document resources that exist in a given locale. Although the process can be extremely technical, utilizing complicated computer software to generate detailed maps that clearly plot health facilities or key community resources, it can also be informal, resulting in a simple hand-sketched diagram or idea of community networks. My interesting experience was with the latter.
In preparation for a United Nations-funded project that would equip our community health workers with skills to work beyond health facilities and within actual communities, we wanted to understand what was already happening in regards to HIV and nutrition in our district of focus. What were NGOs and community members doing, and what gaps existed? What networks were already in place? We tried to do some background using government officials, health facilities, and of course the world wide web, but it was clear that we needed to investigate the on-the-ground reality.
Preparations began with a week of meetings and tool development (and some true insight to what it means to be a “program manager”), and then it was time to go into the field. After a 5 hour trip from the capital of Lilongwe, we spent our first day meeting government officials and interviewing NGO representatives. We devised a three-day plan for exploring existing community-based structures in a district of nearly 360,000 people, which involved meeting with rural health facility staff, identifying key community organization leaders, and interviewing members of local community-based organizations and support groups. On paper, it seemed like an easy plan – 2 to 3 hours transportation to and from, 3 interviews at 45 minutes to an hour each. In reality, it was another eye-opening experience involving hours and hours on the dusty roads traveling from village to village in search of these community structures (and getting creative when rains made certain pathways impossible to traverse across). Days started early and ended late, phone connections were challenging and at times unfeasible, but in spite of these challenges, communities were so open and willing to share their stories and experiences with us.
By the end of the week, we successfully conducted several interviews and focus group discussions and gained a much clearer understanding of existing community networks. I was so impressed by the work that members of the community had taken the initiative to do, supporting people living with HIV and addressing needs of their own communities. Now, with this preliminary knowledge of where gaps are and where communities want additional support, it’s back to the drawing board of proposal development!