A Lighthearted Look at Our Everyday Ethical Dilemmas
Whenever IPSOS announces the results of an opinion poll, I remember MIX MIX.
It happened 35 years ago, but I still feel guilty. It is probably the reason I would not pass the integrity test if I stood for public office.
I was in my first year at a public university, and one of our professors hired us, his students, to research newspaper readership.
One of Kenya's top newspapers commissioned the study. Its objectives were to analyze readership habits, find out what types of stories readers liked, and determine which between it and its only competitor was more popular.
It targeted Nairobi and 16 municipalities, so he sent out a team of two to each small municipality, three to each large municipality, and eight to Nairobi. At that time, Nairobi was Kenya's only city; so, Mombasa and Kisumu were municipalities.
The contract was awarded to a private research firm the professor co-owned with his wife, so using students to administer the questionnaires must have helped him minimize costs. He paid each of us 6K, about a third of what he would have paid professional researchers.
Also, he was the dean of our faculty, and most of the stationery we used in the project was the university's property. That, too, must have helped him cut costs.
Four days before we went to the field, he assembled us in a lecture hall to share his expectations and allow us to ask questions. He said the study would run from Monday to Friday of the following week, and he expected each of us to interview 150 people. The interviews would run concurrently, so all of us should travel to our designated municipalities before Monday.
"I have never done research before. Will we be offered any training?" one student asked.
"It is not necessary," replied Prof. "The questions are multiple-choice, so it should not be difficult. Talk to anyone on the streets and ask him or her the questions on the questionnaire."
"How about our lectures for next week?" asked another student. "Won't our lecturers think we absconded classes?"
"Leave that to me," prof. responded. "You'll sign for the classes when you return. Although you'll have missed the classes, faculty records will show were present."
He gave us 2K to cover travel and accommodation, and he promised to pay the balance of 4K when we returned.
At that time, 2K was a lot of money. If you are the type that measures inflation by changes in the price of alcohol, the price of a bottle of Tusker beer was 7 shillings, but now it is 150.
Jacquie, Rose, and I arrived in Nyeri on a Sunday evening, ready to begin interviews on Monday. We divided Nyeri into three zones, and we agreed on who would cover which zone.
The first four people I talked to were uncooperative. The first one said he did not have time, the second one did not want to be disturbed, the third one asked me to pay him, and the fourth one told me to fuck off. I got demoralized and returned to the hotel.
Rose was at the reception, and she was crying.
"What is wrong?" I asked.
"I have given up," she explained. "All the people I spoke to were abusive. One lady called me a con woman, and it hurts me. I don't think it is worth it."
Before long, Jacquie also returned.
"Doing research is shit," she shouted from the entrance. "I am so pissed off."
We consoled one another, and we agreed to take a break for the rest of the day. We had four days to go, but none of us had conducted a successful interview. It means we each had to interview 38 people per day in the remaining time.
Tuesday morning was not bad for me. By lunchtime, I had interviewed eight people, and they all responded well. However, at 3 p.m., I met a man who spoke to me rudely, so I called it a day. I had three days and 142 interviews to go, so I had to interview 47 people per day in the remaining time.
At the hotel, the receptionist told me that Jacquie and Rose had checked out. There were no mobile phones those days, so there was no way I could find out what happened. However, I imagined their day did not go so well, so they probably gave up.
On Wednesday morning, I was preparing to go out to the field, but I found myself packing.
Back in Nairobi, I found some of my colleagues who were supposed to have travelled to other towns. Most laughed at me when I told them I had gone to the field.
"Hii maisha inahitaji ujanja," they mocked me.
Most had not left Nairobi, yet they had completed their questionnaires. Even Jacquie and Rose told me all their 150 questionnaires were ready for submission.
I asked them how they did it, and they introduced me to MIX MIX.
"'What is MIX MIX?" I asked.
"It's simple," Rose replied. "Each question has five possible answers: A, B, C, D, and E."
"MIX MIX," she explained, "is ticking one of these answers at random but making sure you also mix the answers."
"What does that mean?" I probed.
"It means you should not use the same answer for consecutive questions," she replied. "If you tick A for Question 1, the answer for Question 2 should not be A but any of the other four."
"It sounds complicated," I complained.
"OK," she said. "If you find it complicated, I can get you MIX MIX experts to do all the questionnaires for you by the end of the day. It will cost you 300 shillings."
I fished out three 100 shillings notes from my shirt pocket and gave them to her.
A month later, the newspaper whose research we had MIXED MIXED reported the findings in a screaming headline.
"Research shows we are the most preferred newspaper in East Africa," it said.
It said that its highest ratings countrywide came from Nyeri town.
"80% of Nyeri residents interviewed said we are the most informative, educative, and entertaining newspaper in Kenya."
In an afternoon lecture, I showed this finding to Rose and Jacquie, and the three of us laughed uncontrollably.