Thursday, October 21, 2010

Greener Pastures?

A whole month has gone by since my last update. Where to start?

How about with a small revision to my previous post: The Kindle was the best item I packed. Unfortunately it wasn’t really built to withstand the rigors of Malawian public transportation. It died during an especially unpleasant hour-long ride in a truck bed along a deeply rutted dirt road. (Fortunately it was under warranty, and Amazon is supposed to be spending a replacement. “Supposed to.” Whether one is actually being sent is still unclear even after 15 minutes of phone calls that cost me $25 and several desperate e-mails.)

So . . . when last I wrote, I was accosting strangers and trudging to the far corners of Zomba in the hunt for research subjects. And I was failing absolutely.

Off to Blantyre!

I had visited some volunteer sites in Blantyre during my preliminary research, and a cursory Internet search turned up some additional leads. I had initially planned to use Blantyre as a secondary site---visiting from time to time to supplement my findings from my primary site---but I began to think that it might be a good primary site for a few months. I could spend the first half of my time there, and then return to Zomba so that I’d be able to compare urban and rural experiences.

But first, I was off to Lilongwe. My visa application was finally approved, so I had to go to the embassy to get my passport stamped. Which meant that once again, I spent a morning at the bus depot. During earlier reconnaissance, I had ascertained that a coach bus left from Zomba to Lilongwe at 7:00 each morning. So I arrived bright and early to get a seat. Only to discover that the bus wasn’t running that day due to the nation-wide fuel shortage. Thankfully, I only had to wait a short while until a bus that had managed to get fuel departed for Lilongwe, and I arrived mid-afternoon. I abused my embassy privileges just a *smidge* to get a driver to meet me at the depot in Lilongwe and take me to the embassy.

I stayed the night in Lilongwe at the Mufasa Backpackers Lodge, which was fantastically located in the city center---and just a few blocks from the Old Town Mall, where I was able to satisfy a weeks-long craving for a caprese salad (in panini form, but so yummy). At the lodge, I continued to tell everyone and anyone about my research project, and lo and behold, I wound up talking to two British girls who had just arrived to spend part of their gap year volunteering at an orphanage---in Blantyre! Finally, things were looking up.

The next morning was yet another early bus trip, but this time I decided to “splurge” on a ticket for the Axa Executive bus to Blantyre: three times the price as a regular coach bus (about $25 versus $8) but it left exactly at its scheduled time, didn’t make any stops along the way, and got us to Blantyre in about 4 hours (versus 8 or 9 hours on the regular bus). We even got a small snack along the way! I also met a young Malawian man who worked at another orphan-care project outside of Blantyre, and we arranged for him to set up a meeting for me with a volunteer working there. And for once, someone kept his word: I went out that afternoon to meet with an Australian woman who is spending a year working at the project as a physiotherapist. She’s there for one year, so again, a bit outside my subject pool, but she gave me some other leads.

The next day, I went to the orphanage where the two British girls were volunteering. I had been to this orphanage during my preliminary research and had gotten a warm welcome then, and was welcomed again this time. I hung out for most of the morning---feeding babies, talking to the nurses and caregivers, and getting a sense of volunteering there. The matron and director agreed to let me return the next day to spend a full day there.

Perhaps the universe was finally giving me a break? Perhaps I had found my field site?

In the afternoon, I interviewed two volunteer staff members for the Lake of Stars festival, and they agreed to let me come in to some of the interviews to select local volunteers and to “embed” myself as a volunteer at the festival.

While in Blantyre, I also met with a woman who runs a “responsible” safari company that incorporates short-term volunteering and project visits into its traditional safari trips and got contact information for a street kids program that hosts short-term volunteers.

But the universe was just toying with me: I also managed to drown my cell phone, modem, and data-recording pen when a bottle of water overturned in my tote bag (which strangely is only waterproof from the inside; the cell phone and modem eventually recovered, but the pen was a total loss). And when I returned to Zomba, I was greeted by the caretaker’s wife with the news that we were almost out of electricity units (electricity is prepaid in some places). Of course by the time I got the news, it was Saturday afternoon, so the Escom office was closed and nothing could be done until Monday morning. I got through Saturday night, but we lost power on Sunday morning. Grrrr.

In any case, I returned to Zomba for a mostly unproductive week of chasing down my affiliation and reading in the archives. I did a couple of brief interviews with some long-term volunteers just to have something to do. I also finally got leads on a couple of short-term volunteer groups in town, but I had made up my mind to return to Blantyre until the end of December, so I tucked them away for future reference.

I was finally starting to feel somewhat optimistic about my research project. I thought the orphanage would be a good---if not ideal---site for a few months of participant observation, and I would have several supplementary sites that I could visit every few weeks. I would also get to spend at least a couple weeks---until I set up a home stay---at a lodge where I had hot showers, a decent kitchen, and satellite television (“Mythbusters” reruns every afternoon! Have I mentioned that Tory Belleci is my new imaginary boyfriend?).

But my optimism was premature. When I returned to the orphanage to get official permission to hang around until the end of December, they did an about-face, and my warm welcome was replaced with a rather cold shoulder. Not only could I not use them as my long-term, primary research site, but suddenly they didn’t want me there at all.

Being rejected by the orphanage pointed out a major flaw in my plans: The places that have sufficient volunteers to make them a good project site . . . . well, have sufficient volunteers and don't really need or want an extra person hanging around, particularly someone who doesn't have anything to offer them beyond an extra set of hands.

After a day after feeling seriously sorry for myself, I rallied to the cause and started looking for another site. I got a list of NGOs in Blantyre and started cold calling any that sounded like they might have volunteers. I also started knocking on doors---going to travel agencies and organizations that might either sponsor volunteers or know who does. I got a couple of good interviews out of my efforts, but still no project site. Then I headed back to the street kids program; I had called ahead and found out that they had just had new volunteers arrive: two American girls who had recently graduated from nursing school. While at the site to meet with the girls, we were joined by the local volunteer coordinator who had placed the girls at the site. Voluntourism has created its own industry in Malawi, including these local coordinators who act as the go-betweens to identify volunteer sites and housing, as well as to trouble-shoot on the ground. Most of the coordinators work part-time as freelancers for several programs, and it is a bit unclear whether their primary allegiance is to the agencies that are paying them or to the community organizations for whom they recruit volunteers.

K., the local coordinator for this program, agreed to help me find a project site through his list of contacts. I once again had some cautious optimism. And, at first, the optimism seemed to be winning out. K. set up a series of interviews with community-based organizations who had worked with volunteers in the recent past. I got some great information: a broad spectrum of experiences with short-term international volunteers and some common themes that could help guide my observations once I got into a long-term site.

But after an initial burst of productivity, the cautious side won out: Three weeks later, I still don’t have a long-term project site.

I had also arranged for K. to find me a home stay. As comfy as I am at the lodge, I have definitely been spending too much time “on the veranda.” I’m really belaboring this metaphor, aren’t I? But it’s an issue that is constantly on my mind.

I wouldn’t classify myself as particularly shy, but I am extremely introverted and private. One of the greatest challenges for me in my fieldwork is the almost complete loss of my privacy. Not to put it too starkly, but . . . I’m a white woman in a place where public spaces are dominated by black men. I stand out. I relinquish any sense of anonymity and privacy the moment I step off the lodge property and into public space. Children shout, “Azungu! Azungu!” Men fall into step next to me to ask, “What is your name? Where are you from? Where are you staying? Why are you here?” Or worse, they cat call as I pass, “Hey, Mami!” The level of intrusion has varied from place to place. In Zomba, I often had someone accompany me for a short bit if we were heading the same direction, but they kept a polite distance and took the hint when I would give them curt answers and a cold shoulder. In Blantyre, they cat call and occasionally go out of their way to walk with me---crossing the street or even reversing direction. (They also sometimes try to lift my wallet.) Cape Maclear was the worst: they would reverse direction, cross the road, and intrude into my personal space---practically forcing me off the path. And they would become aggressively rude if I rebuffed them or sometimes directly asked them to leave me alone.

I don’t mean any of this to be read as a totalizing statement on Malawian men. The vast, vast majority of Malawian men are perfectly content to let me go about my day as they go about theirs. And not all of what I experience as intrusion is meant maliciously. But rather just to say that I feel a daily sense of intrusion and exposure---along a continuum from annoying to harassing---that affects how I am experiencing field work and what spaces I chose to occupy in the field. I find myself seeking out “wazungu” spaces---spaces primarily occupied by ex-pats, temporary residents, and tourists---where I feel like I can let down my guard a bit.

On the one hand, I need these spaces for my mental health. And they do fit into my research as I think about how and where international volunteers interact with local community members. But on the other hand, they could become a crutch and a way of “surviving” fieldwork without having to put myself into the uncomfortable---exposed, vulnerable---position of being in the local community.

The lodge seemed like one of those crutches, so I asked K. to find me a home stay. And he did---with his neighbors. Unfortunately, I decided that the situation wasn’t right for me---I’d be sharing a room with their teenage daughter, the father was a heavy drinker who had me out at the bottleshop at 11 a.m. (not really the impression I want to make on the community)---so I’m back on the veranda---at the lodge---for now.

As an aside, because men---and those mostly in their twenties and thirties---dominate public spaces, my informant pool is very heavily skewed toward that demographic at the moment. I’m struggling to find ways to get more women and greater age variation into my sample.

Anyway, that was a rather long diversion. Where was I? Oh, yes: same story, different city. Still no project site. I’m now more than 2 months (almost 10 weeks!) into a 10-month project; I’m starting to panic, and my resolve is starting to flag. The intrepid anthropologist---who knows she should be out in the community making contacts, finding informants, and participating in “real” Malawian life---is at war with the introverted librarian---who just wants to settle into the wazungu life, surrounded by books, venturing out for the occasional interview. Not helping: I had a nasty cold that had me out of commission for several days, and now I’ve come down with a stomach bug.

This update has gone on much too long---even with judicious edits (I have to save something for the dissertation!)---so I’ll save my stories from the lake for another post.

And fear not: I will rally again. If only because I do not want to return after 10 months without sufficient material to write a dissertation.

To end on a bright note: My affiliation finally came through! So at least I’m officially approved to do research---if I can ever find a place to do it.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A Word from Our Sponsors

A very overdue---and likely very long---update is forthcoming. In the meantime, for those who are interested, I have a mailing address:

c/o Young Voices
PO Box 30010
Chichiri Blantyre
PH: 0991746546

You need to include the phone number so the post office will call and let me know that I have mail. Or just tell me that you've sent something so I know to start checking for it.

The address is good for things sent by early December.

Also, for my fellow fieldworkers and future fieldworkers, a book recommendation: Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork by Allaine Cerwonka and Liisa Malkki. Skim the first chapter---it's mostly a poli sci grad student making the shocking revelation that ethnography is a valuable method. But the bulk of the book is an e-mail exchange between a student in the field (Cerwonka) and her adviser (Malkki) about all the vagaries of fieldwork: how to choose a field site, who makes a good informant, what to include in fieldnotes, etc. I've found reading the exchange hugely helpful---both in answering my own questions about fieldwork (seeing as my own committee is ignoring me) and in reassuring myself that I'm not a total failure at fieldwork (e.g., it's not unusual to spend the first few months just trying to locate and settle into a site).

Stay tuned for a massive round up of a month's worth of ups and downs.