By Violet Barasa
Violet Barasa

Violet Barasa. Image: Mary Ryan

I have reached a milestone in my PhD. I gave a Research Outline Seminar, or a ROS as it is commonly referred to at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), where I am based as a PhD student under the ZELS-AS programme. Each first-year PhD candidate enrolled at IDS must give a ROS, based on an in-depth proposal outlining their PhD research. It is required to get approval to proceed on to fieldwork.

There is no mark awarded for writing this paper or giving a seminar on it. But the unspoken rules are that: the paper has to be comprehensively researched, it must attempt to address the issues conclusively, it must ask precise questions and it must include a sound methodology.

At my first meeting with my supervisor, Dr Linda Waldman, it was stressed to me what an important juncture presenting a ROS was in one’s early stages of a PhD. So there I was, armed with a research proposal that I had prepared for my PhD application, being warned that it was just one of many versions that I would have to work on towards a proper proposal worthy of a seminar before an IDS audience.

Proposal critique

For some 10 months after I worked on this piece of paper, going back and forth with comments and corrections from my advisors, who I really must thank. You see, before a paper is called a paper, it starts somewhere – and the place it all starts is never pretty. Paragraphs upside down, words that mean an item off your kitchen shelf (apparently it is an academic paper not your grandma’s recipe …).

To think that this was just the beginning of a PhD was nerve-racking!

However, finally I was approved to present the paper to an audience comprising IDS fellows, research officers, PhD colleagues, library staff and friends – all asked to attend to offer constructive criticism on the paper.

These things are hard to summarise, never mind writing them, but here goes:


(The caps are intentional. It is a PhD title, not a heading for a love letter; it deserves caps.)

What are zoonoses?

Every time I introduce my PhD research to non-experts, I have to think hard about whether I have time to answer all the questions that follow. It is the term ‘zoonosis’ I am talking about. A friend of mine recently asked me to explain “a little” about my research. I wish I had Googled synonyms beforehand, because the moment I mentioned zoonosis, she and her mates stared at me in bewilderment and asked, “zoo-what?”

Well, once bitten twice shy. Now I know to simply say I study infectious diseases that people get from animals. Simples.

But I am neither a vet nor an epidemiologist. I am a social scientist who is interested in the impact of these diseases on poor people’s livelihoods in northern Tanzania. I am exploring aspects of zoonotic diseases that cannot be easily captured by epidemiology and veterinary sciences alone.

Pastoralist knowledge

Maasai village

Maasai village. Image: Sarah Cleaveland

There is a fantastic team doing a great job in northern Tanzania at the moment: conducting serological surveys and analysing patients’ hospital records to reconcile zoonotic disease prevalence in animal and human blood samples with patient diagnosis at local healthcare facilities. A fantastic job. It is a terrific opportunity to be a part their research, on a novel inter-disciplinary project, Social, Economic and Environmental Drivers of Zoonoses (SEEDZ). Two of us, out of the 15 ZELS student scholarship holders, are in social science and the rest are bio-medicals. Quite the combination. But we like it.

My research is premised on the idea that the assumptions we have about the existence of particular diseases, including zoonotic ones, have a long history that may constitute significant knowledge for managing epidemics. I intend to bring to the forefront the role of lay/traditional pastoralist knowledge in illness diagnosis, labelling and aetiologies (causes) that define and predict the occurrence of illness.

I will emphasise the narratives constructed from local people’s own experiences with febrile illness (fevers, which are associated with many zoonoses and illnesses of non-zoonotic origins). And I will document their narratives to help construct knowledge that will generate understanding of Maasai people’s experiences with febrile illness, of disease aetiology and of perceptions of risk.

Phew! Let me try and go easy on you with this: all I am saying is that people’s behaviours, relationships, perceptions and cultural norms have a bearing on illness transmission, identification, diagnosis and treatment.

And my job is to follow these trajectories and document each step of the way from when and where, how and who gets infected with a zoonotic disease, to what they do about it, up until it is cured or they die (and apologies for sounding so brutal about this real possibility).

Integrated healthcare

I am now preparing to head off to Tanzania to commence an ethnography for 12 months. I will be talking to people, and hanging around a small remote village called Lokisale in Arusha, northern Tanzania.

Through this, I hope to explore and experience at first hand how people’s interaction with livestock impacts disease transmission patterns. I will talk to ordinary folks about illnesses, interview traditional healers regarding illness labels, diagnosis and treatment, and I will accompany and listen to patients as they narrate their symptoms to healers, both at official healthcare facilities and in healer’s homes.

By the end of the 12 months, I hope to have gathered evidence to build a compelling case in support of integrated healthcare approaches to the control and management of zoonotic illness in pastoral settings.

Well, that’s it. Watch out for pictures and updates from the field on the LLH website.


Violet Barasa is one of 15 students on the ZELS-AS programme.



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