Friday, December 31, 2010

Flesh and Bones

Advisor: I think you could probably make a dissertation out of what you already have.

Me: Does that mean I can come home now?

Advisor: No.

Me: Damn!


So where were we?

I have been a very negligent blogger these past two months. I’ve been alternating between being so busy that I’m too exhausted to write and being so depressed that I can’t summon the will to relive it all in writing.

Fieldwork, for me, has been a series of peaks and valleys. I have good days---days when I have two or three on-point interviews or even just one revealing, insightful conversation---days when I feel productive and useful---days when I can actually imagine this dissertation taking shape. Then I have bad days---days when I trudge miles for a couple of useless interviews or worse when I have absolutely nothing to do---no interviews, no site visits---days when I think this whole endeavor is a waste of time and when I can only see the huge holes that I still need to fill.

On my better days, when I can see with a bit of balance, and my advisor’s comment aside, I feel like I’ve reached the point where I have the bones but I’m missing the flesh. I have an outline, but I still need the narrative---the telling examples, the descriptive details, the stories.


Depending on your perspective, I’ve had the good (my advisor’s) or bad (mine) luck to come into my fieldwork just as the subject of my study---voluntourism---goes into decline. The economy plays a big part in this decline; not as many people can afford to spend several weeks or months in Africa. As a knock-on effect of the global recession, UK universities are reducing the number of available spaces and will be tripling the tuition. So gap-year students, who form a large segment of voluntourists in Malawi, are disappearing; these students don’t want to risk losing their place at university or waiting until the tuition go up by taking a gap year. And then there’s the spate of bad press on voluntourism. A recent paper on “AIDS orphan tourism,” in which the authors argued that short-term volunteers in orphanages can impair children’s development through a continuous cycle of broken attachments, got quite a bit of media attention in southern Africa and the UK. Other critical voices have been emerging over the past six months, as well.

In addition to the reduced demand, several large programs have had problems with local management in Malawi and, as a result, have pulled out or are in the process of doing so.

The combination of these factors has created a steep decline in short-term volunteers in Malawi. The programs that I identified during my preliminary research have either shut down in Malawi or have reduced both the number of trips and the number of sites.

Other, smaller, short-term volunteer programs persist. And it may be that the demand for voluntourism hasn’t so much declined as shifted from large, for-profit programs to small, NGO-based programs (but I have no way to quantify this). Although even some of the more successful NGO-based programs that I know are facing volunteer droughts in the coming months.

What this means for my fieldwork: Fewer volunteers, coming less often and through more informal routes, which makes identifying them---and therefore identifying a field site---rather challenging.


With the exception of two weeks at the lake just after Thanksgiving and a weekend in Lilongwe for Malawi’s “fashion week” (actually one night that showcased about 10 designers) , I’ve spent most of my time in Blantyre and its environs, hunting down and interviewing anyone who is even tangentially related to volunteering and my study. I’ve met with program directors, CBO and NGO staff, tour operators, volunteers of every stripe, community members, and anyone else who makes the mistake of answering my phone call or even sitting near me for more than 30 seconds.

Just about the same time as I was suffering acutely from malawia, I met with the director of a UK-based NGO that supports various community development efforts and has hosted various volunteer groups. Although the program doesn’t have any volunteers at the moment, the director was sufficiently interested in my research to offer me access to the communities that have been served by volunteers in the past---and to lend me some of her field officers to act as guides and interpreters (my Chichewa continues to be limited to the very basics). Figuring that something is better than nothing, I took her up on her offer and spent about four weeks in total going out to the program’s project sites.

Most of that time was spent in P., a village that is about as remote as you can get and still technically be in Blantyre. To get to P., you take a minibus to the stage at M.

Now, all minibuses are in some state of disrepair. But the minibuses to the outer villages tend to be in greater disrepair than, say, the ones that go to the suburbs or between cities. The ones to M. were among the worst that I’ve seen. In one of them, the steering apparatus was entirely held together by duct tape. The front passenger door of another one had a tendency to fly open on turns.

So you take the minibus to M. If you arrive alive, you then have about a three-kilometer walk, up and down steep hills, on an unpaved, rocky road, with no shade, sliding along the loose gravel on the downhills, leaning against the incline of the uphills. And you do this in November, which is the worst of the hot season. And that’s just to reach the village center. You then have an additional 2-3 kilometers of walking on even rockier, narrow “short cuts” to reach the houses for the interviews.

Getting to most of the other project sites---in C., K., and N.---was a similar process. For those couple of weeks, I almost felt like a real anthropologist. And the “something” that I got out of the interviews was worth the sweat; the interviews shaped the outline that I mentioned above.

(A brief aside on gear: I brought a pair of Ahnu shoes that I’ve worn almost every day for the past four months, including for these long walks, and I absolutely love them. Cuter than hiking boots or sneakers, but still super comfy, with good grip on the sole. The adjuster strap is starting to get a bit worn, and they stink to high heaven, but so far have performed very well.)


But even though my time in Blantyre wasn’t a complete loss, I haven’t found what I really need: a site where I can engage in daily participant-observation. So I’m hitting the road again. Next week, I’m relocating to Nkhata Bay, a tourist town along the lake in the northern region. (Not sure exactly when I’m moving because I’m still waiting on a couple of Christmas packages that were sent to Blantyre.) During my post-Thanksgiving trip to the lake, I visited the Bay and identified two programs that not only have a reasonably steady supply of volunteers but also are willing to let me hang around for a few months.

I’m still being cautiously optimistic. That “reasonably steady” supply could dry up as soon as I get there. And I’ve run out of back-up plans.

Nkhata Bay will be a big change from Blantyre. Despite being a tourist town---or perhaps because of it---the Bay is much more rural and isolated. It has only a couple of grocery stores, none of which carry “wazungu” food, and the market is mostly limited to onions, tomatoes, and one or two types of greens. As much as I disliked going to the Blantyre market, I could get a huge variety of fresh produce there. No more gym (and its pool privileges). I’ll have a choice of about three restaurants, which often only have about half of the menu available at any given time. The only bank that will take my ATM card is about a 3-kilometer walk.

But I’ll be right on the lake, with crystal-clear waters. I’ll be able to walk at night. And I might just find the missing pieces of my dissertation.


I’m officially at the halfway point. Twenty weeks to go!


If you’ve made it this far, you must actually be my friend. And so you might want my new address:

c/o Butterfly Lodge
PO Box 211
Nkhata Bay

I’m planning to be in Nkhata Bay until the end of April. Remember that letters take a minimum of 4 weeks; packages take at least 6 weeks.