As a classically trained political scientist, I have grown to value the importance of qualitative fieldwork. Asking policymakers the tough and often uncomfortable political questions is essential to drawing any sort of useful conclusions.
However, there is an art to crafting these questions. Though covertly I may be playing hardball, overtly I must address my interviewee with the warmth of kindergarten teacher. And until recently I was succeeding in this endeavor.
Then I sent an email with my list of interview questions to the former South African health minister’s office. I needed security clearance before I could begin my thesis-based inquisition, and the minister’s office needed time to prepare carefully crafted responses to my line of questioning.
I admit my questions were more biting than those I had given the Ugandan Minister of Health. Then again, Uganda had seen significant declines in HIV prevalence, and South Africa sadly had not. Nonetheless, I made a conscious effort to ask questions, rather than simply castigate with question marks.
In constructing these questions, I created two documents– one containing the questions I intended to send, and the other reflecting the frustration I had with South African decision makers. And perhaps because it was 6 AM and I had yet to have my first latte, I sent the latter document.
When I heard nothing, I emailed a friendly reminder. The response from the administrator, “Are you serious? You ended your line of questioning with ‘How do you sleep at night?'” Moses. Have. Mercy. I had just asked the South African health minister how he slept at night given the years he had wasted pursuing a policy of inaction while the HIV epidemic promulgated and innocent individuals suffered.
I needed to redeem myself– to play the game of politics and manipulate my own words. I began research into the life of the health minister. It turns out he had some of his own problems and insomnia was just one symptom of those problems. In responding to the administrator, I explained that the egregious question in contestation was actually a reference to the health of the minister himself, who my research indicated might have some sleep-related issues.
Yes, I simply wanted to ensure he was up to the challenge before subjecting him to an hour long interview. And in a moment that reminded me why I believe in the One Above, the administrator believed my line of reasoning. I secured the interview and learned a valuable lesson: Never send an email before drinking your morning cup of ‘Jo.