Thursday, January 20, 2011

18 Weeks

And counting down.

I’m so relieved to be past the halfway mark now. I’m beginning to feel a bit of the sense of urgency of only having a few months left to finish my research---the feeling of Oh crap, I still haven’t done X, Y, or Z. But more, I feel the relief of being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.


I’ve moved to my new project site, Nkhata Bay, a small town on the lakeshore in the Northern Region. The new site has its benefits: I’m staying in a lodge right on the lake; I go swimming nearly every day; things are a bit less expensive than they were in Blantyre.

But it has its drawbacks as well. I had gotten a bit used to living in an urban environment, with reliable, relatively quick Internet, hot showers, decent restaurants and grocery stores filed with Western goods and an enormous market with just about any type of produce you could want. Now I’m a 20-minute walk from the nearest paved road; the grocery stores stock just the basics and the produce market is limited to tomatoes, onions, and one or two types of greens (although it does have loads of fish). Internet is slow and unreliable. Hot water is nonexistent; even cold water is iffy since the water goes out every time the power does, which is several times a week. Those daily swims often have to double as baths (and sometimes laundry). And the weather is wicked hot, with almost no rain for even temporary relief. I’m getting bitten to bits by mosquitoes, and spend the better part of my day trying to ward off the ants and flies that get onto and into everything (me, my clothes, my food, my computer, my bed, . . . ). I try not to think about how many ants I’ve eaten these past two weeks.

I finally almost feel like I’m a real anthropologist!


The downsides are outweighed by one big upside: I found two places that have short-term volunteers and are willing to let me hang around for a few months to do my research. One of the places is the lodge where I’m staying (temporarily, I hope). The owners, two British women, bought the lodge with the intention to turn it into a hub for community development. They’ve opened a nursery school, an information center, and a youth club, along with supporting groups for widows, HIV-positive adults, and special-needs children. They have a demonstration garden and offer seeds and support for people who want to plant alternative crops. The lodge then is primarily intended to house volunteers, although it also gets its fair share of backpackers, some of whom do a few days of volunteering to take advantage of the half-price volunteer rate. The lodge also seems to be a social hub for what I’ll call “independent” Western development workers and volunteers. This category is largely composed of Westerners, many of whom originally came to Malawi as volunteers with an established organization, who are launching their own small-scale charity projects, mostly building single schools.

So I’ve gotten a lot done just by hanging about the lodge. I’m also volunteering with the youth club---and discovering that I’m absolute rot with kids. I wasn’t very good at being a kid when I was one, let alone when I’m in my mid-thirties. I spent most of my childhood with my nose in a book. Or at Girl Scout meetings and dance classes and piano lessons. Nothing that’s really very useful in this context.

The other place is a community-based organization in town. The organization was actually started by one of the women who own the lodge and a British man, and for a long time was part of a larger UK-based organization. It has since broken off from its roots---although it seems the British man is still involved, albeit from afar because he was kicked out of the country (details of the circumstances vary)---and is, at least nominally, attempting to become a self-sustaining CBO. It also has a nursery school , a library, and a widows’ group (the same group of widows served by the lodge . . . ahem), as well as supporting a school for the blind, offering an adult education program, and running a “shelter” school---an afternoon program, held in a shelter (hence the name), to provide supplementary education for young children. Also like the lodge, the organization’s director wants to promote alternative crops that can be used for health and healing (e.g., ginger, garlic).

I’m still working out my role with the CBO. They want me to help them with publicity and marketing. Which I know how to do. I did get my undergraduate degree in public relations and worked in PR/Marketing. But I’m a bit torn about helping promote both an organization and an activity about which I have some conflicting feelings. In the meantime, I am trying to insert myself into their efforts to develop some kind of cooperative with the other libraries and information centers in town. With any luck, I may be able to get two research projects for the price of one!

Interestingly---to me, anyway---both organizations are very keen for me to volunteer with their schools, even though I've made it clear that I have no experience or particular skill for teaching young children. Just the very fact of me being white and Western seems to imbue me with the aura of having some superior knowledge to their own, local teachers.


Another upside to my new field site: I’m only a few hours from the Tanzanian border. Admittedly, Malawi is small enough that you are never more than a few hours from the border of something. But I’ve already been to Zambia, and I’ve heard that Mozambique is a bit difficult to get around. So . . . Tanzania. I’m heading up there for a week of “vacation” at the beginning of February. The plan is to take the train from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam, then a ferry to Zanzibar.

Plans in Africa never seem to go as such. And I haven’t quite worked out how I’m getting back to Malawi. One would think it would be a simple matter of reversing how I got there. But again . . . This is Africa. Nothing is simple.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing someplace that isn’t Malawi and maybe talking about something other than my research for a week.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

PSA: Field Gear

I’m in a kind of reflective, middle place at the moment. Partly because I’m now just past the halfway mark in my fieldwork; partly because I’m in a fieldwork lull (holiday season + rainy/planting season = no one around to interview); partly because I’m feeling a bit liminal as I wait to move from one field site to another (a pox on whoever is causing my Christmas packages to be nearly two weeks delayed).

So I thought I’d do a bit of a public service post on fieldwork gear: what I won’t ever again leave home without, what was a waste of luggage space, what I wish I would have brought.

Yes, do bring . . .

* LiveScribe Pen. Despite not being waterproof, this pen has been one of my best tech investments. In addition to a digital voice recorder, it includes an infrared camera to capture your handwritten notes. You can upload both the voice recording and the notes to your computer (a handy way to back up your written notes). The written notes are then searchable, and the audio is synced to the notes; so if you want to see what people have said about, for example, jealousy, you can search for jealousy across your notes and then play back those parts of the interviews. The desktop software also includes handy features for transcribing, such as slow playback and a 10-second reverse button. The only downside is that you have to use special notebooks, and as far as I can tell, they only come in one, rather large, size.

* Knitting supplies, running gear, yoga mat. Or whatever you use to quiet your brain and rebalance yourself. These things can seem really expendable when you are facing a mountain of supplies and two puny suitcases. But, for me, it’s worth leaving behind a pair of shoes and that extra sweater to make room for your mental health.

* Netbook. Lightweight. Long battery life. And relatively inexpensive, so if it gets stolen or dies, you are replacing a $300 piece of equipment rather than a $1000+ piece. (But see below re: external DVD drive).

* External hard drive. Duh. Other “duh” items include a pair of super-comfy shoes (and a back-up pair; as already noted, I love the Ahnu mocs that I brought with me), an adaptor and converter for electronics, a small sewing kit, several passport-size photos, . . .

Yes, but . . .

* Kindle. I loved my Kindle. Right up to the point that it died (the victim of a violently bumpy motola ride). Getting customer service from Amazon while in the field in Africa has been beyond challenging. I now have a very nice paperweight until I return to the States (or travel somewhere within Amazon’s “worldwide” network; NB: I think newer models have more options for connecting to local wireless and therefore might be better suited for the field).

* Digital camera. A good digital camera is a must. You will want high-quality, high-res photos for your eventual book, as well as conference presentations, lectures, etc. But . . . I am regretting getting a digital SLR. The camera is bulky and heavy and I wind up leaving it behind when I head into the villages because I don’t want to carry it. I’m also less-than-pleased with the particular model I got (a Nikon). If I had it to do over again, I’d get a high-quality point-and-shoot and a handful of memory cards. (NB: Don’t try to stretch a smaller memory card by setting your camera to lower resolution photos. You won’t be able to use those photos for publication. Make sure you set your camera for at least medium, and preferably high, resolution.) Of course, ignore this advice if you are an experienced photographer, have the financial resources to invest in very good lenses, and/or are doing photoethnography.

* First aid kit. My first time in Malawi, I brought an enormous first aid kit. You could have performed an appendectomy with this kit. I think I may have used a couple of band-aids and some aspirin from it. This time, I scaled down considerably. Even though I haven’t yet opened it, I do feel a sense of comfort knowing that if I slice a finger while making dinner, I won’t have to call a taxi to take me to a hospital and figure out the local word for “boo boo.” So bring some basic first aid supplies---band aids, ace bandage, antibiotic ointment---but don’t go overboard.

* Solar shower. I haven’t had to use it often, but when I have, it has worked surprisingly well. I may move this up a category after a few weeks in Nkhata Bay (if I ever get there). Lightweight and easy to pack, I would recommend it if you are going someplace where hot water can be iffy. Although it perhaps won’t be as helpful if you are in Eastern Europe in the winter.

Don’t bother . . .

* The whole darn medicine cabinet. As per usual, I completely overpacked on toiletries and pharmaceuticals. Of course, you should pack any essential prescriptions and a good starter kit of toiletries. But if I can find tampons, delapatory creams, and hair dye in Malawi, you can almost definitely find everything you need at your field site. Same goes for the pharmaceuticals. (NB: The one exception to this advice is contact lens solution, which is notoriously difficult to find in non-Western countries. So pack lots of it and bring your glasses.)

* Batteries. Ditto the above. You might have to pay a bit more for them than you would in the States, but they are heavy and take up valuable luggage space. Rechargeable batteries are probably worthwhile, except that if you are anything like me, you will forget to recharge them until your flashlight dies in the middle of a blackout. At which point, the charger isn’t going to do you a whole lot of good and you have to resort to regular batteries anyway.

* Books. Because I had the Kindle, I didn’t pack any books. Once the Kindle died---and I had gotten over my panic attack at not having any books---I discovered the wonderful worlds of secondhand shops and swap shelves. I haven’t lacked for (cheap or free) reading material since. Again, if I can find these things in Malawi, you can almost definitely find them in your field site. Pack two or three books to get you started, then have fun hunting the various corners of your site for secondhand shops, swap shelves, and libraries (many cities have an “American” or “British” library).

Shoulda, coulda, woulda brought . . .

* External DVD drive. The lightweight netbook is great (see above). But it gets to be lightweight by stripping away all the extras, like drives. And depending on where you are, Internet connections can be dead slow, making downloading media content nearly impossible. An external DVD drive and a few (absolutely legal, officer) DVDs from the local market can be a saving grace when you are trapped at home, alone, every night. You might also want to load up your external hard drive with some media before you leave.

* Extra flash drives. My one flash drive got a virus the very first time I used it on a public computer. Bring several, because you will likely have to trash a few.

* Eyeglass repair kit. Beyond the obvious use, that little screwdriver can come in handy when, say, you spill a bottle of water in your bag and have to perform life-saving operations on your various electronic gizmos.

* Make up, hair care, and a “going out” outfit. I’m going to do fieldwork in Africa. Who cares what I look like? Well . . From time to time, I wish I had packed a few items for “dressing up.” Nothing real fancy or formal, but just so that I can feel put-together when I find myself attending a fashion show or going out to a club. Fieldwork is full of surprises, and even if you plan to spend your whole 10 months in a remote village without water or electricity, you will likely at some point travel into the city or meet with urbanite professionals. For me, I feel more comfortable if I can make myself look appropriately presentable to the situation.

* A portable photo printer. Yeah, a photo printer is a bit of extra weight, especially when you factor in paper and ink. But sharing photos is a good way to give a little something back to the people whom you interview and who let you take their photo for your research. People in Malawi especially love to have photos of themselves.

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive of everything I packed. I thought I’d highlight a few things that might be helpful for my fellow fieldworkers.

As for field notes, I won’t really know how effective my method is until I’m trying analyze data and write up the dissertation, but I’ve been using Evernote. It’s a free download, and it seems to have some useful features (keyword tags, online backup, ability to store multiple formats) although it does not seem to be searchable across notes, which is disappointing.

Anyway . . . Perhaps this rather lengthy review will be helpful. Perhaps not.

Anyone have anything to add?