Gondar is a wonderful old city, built on hills in the north of Ethiopia. Coming in from the south, it reminded me of a hill town in Italy or France, with its central square, 1930s buildings, and dusty park. Later I discovered the reason for the similarity: Gondar had been occupied by the Italians during Mussolini's expansionist period in the 1930s. I was there early in 2000, working with the Media Development Office of Swedish Radio and the Danish aid organization Orgut. We were organizing an audience survey - perhaps the first ever - in the Amhara National Regional State of Ethiopia.
I ran a two-day course, training interviewers and supervisors for the survey. Most of them were educated people, high-school graduates and above. To my surprise, all of them spoke English. (This was one of many surprises in Ethiopia - another was the 500-year old castles in the centre of Gondar.)
After the first day's training, I sent all the new interviewers off with a task for the late afternoon: to interview a stranger, using the questionnaire we had prepared.
The next morning, when we reassembled for the second day of training, I asked the people how their interviews had gone. One man mentioned that he had a problem. He had found a woman at the market, and asked if he could interview her. She readily agreed. But when he started writing her answers in the questionnaire, she became puzzled and worried.
"Why are you writing the answers down?" she asked. She simply could not understand the concept of being interviewed and having her answers recorded. "Are you a spy, or a government official?" she asked.
Only then did I realize that being a respondent is a job that has to be learned. I remembered that when I worked for Morgan Gallup Polls in Melbourne in the early 1980s, the wall of the foyer was completely covered in cartoons taken from newspapers and magazines. This was the oldest market research firm in Australia, having started in the 1940s - and some of the cartoons were that old, too.
In a typical cartoon, a male interviewer is standing at the front door of a suburban house, holding a clipboard. The door is open, and somebody (usually a woman) who lives in the house is talking to the interviewer.
Having seen all these cartoons, the average Melbourne woman would know that when a man carrying a clipboard knocks at the door, he is likely to want to interview her. She will know what happens: he will ask questions, she will answer, and he will write the answers down. After that, nothing will happen.
In Gondar, though, there was no tradition of printed cartoons, and perhaps nobody had ever been surveyed before. So before we could do interviews, we had to teach members of the public how to be interviewed. From that day onwards, interviewers gave respondents a detailed explanation of what was happening, and how the results would be used.
One of the many castles in central Gondar.