Ethnographic fieldwork what?!

For many weeks now I wanted to write a post to explain what exactly is that I am doing here as an anthropologist. I was searching for what I thought could be the most appropriate words to talk about ethnographic work, fieldwork experience, and participant observation - but I was never able to tidy up my thoughts.

Then, today, while I was visiting a household in Langas, a revelation came to me - in the form of a very brilliant and smart 10 years old girl. I was asking some questions to my participant, after having cooked with her brown ugali, kuku (chicken), and pumpkin leaves - to know more about the actual research click here.

Five kids appear in the dining room, curious about these visitors and about the colour of my skin. The oldest, Sofia, has long braids and a charming smile. She speaks a fabulous English and she behaves very politely. African kids always make me smiles - they are seen as a real treasure but they are raised as warriors - many are the challenges they will encounter in life.
We start a conversation, Sophie and I. She asks me where I come from, and I ask her where does she go to school. She asks my favourite Kenyan food, and I ask her how she is spending this week of school holidays: "We mainly help our parents with household chores and we take care of the small kids". Then I congratulate with her for her English and I ask what she wants to become when she will be an adult - these kinds of rethoric questions, you know...
She says she wants to become a doctor and to help people to achieve a better health. Then, opinionated, she flips the question to me and she asks "and you, what is your profession?".
Somehow the word "profession" intimidates me. I tell her that I am doing a research here and that I am trying to understand how people in Langas live and how they provide their energy sources. I dont know why I felt the need to go around the issue. I dont know why I wasnt upfront enough to say immediately "I am an anthropologist". I think it was a mixture of anthropological inferiority complex and assumption that a kid would not understand what anthropology is. But Sofia is too smart, and definitely not satisfied by my reply. "Okay but what's the name of your job?". "I am an anthropologist", I finally say. "I go to places different from the one I come from and I try to understand the local culture, to live as you live, to eat what you eat, to talk to people to learn things from them...", "ahh, and it's not stressful? Why would someone do that?".

Dear Sofia, it is stressful indeed. Being in Langas drains all my daily energies. I am supposed to work - meaning to take notes, to observe, to talk to people, to do interviews, to take pictures, to participate in their daily activities. But fieldwork is never so easy, it is never so easy to plan, it is never straightforward. Things always happen and you cannot predict them. Fieldwork is the ability to accommodate them as part of the experience, it is the ability to deal with the unexpected, with the surprise, with people bailing you out, with others who come to interfere unexpectedly.

Langas is a messy environment, where cars and motorbikes pass by so quickly and from the most unexpected corners - you need 10 eyes. Lots of people come to ask the most silly questions - "do you believe in God?" is their favourite, followed by "can I touch your hair?". I need to pay attention to where I walk, not to step on a hole, on a sewage or on a cow poop. Kids are everyday - often on the way. Same with chickens and chicks. We never sit down - mostly because there in not a place to do so, we just walk and walk - under burning sun or heavy rain. If we are hungry, we eat something in the street - mainly a piece of chapati or a samosa. I often prefer to go to these poor hotels, where they serve cheap local food but they dont give you cutleries - eating by hand! If you need a wee, well, we need to ask someone to use their pit latrine.
Doing ethnographic work is all this - and much more. I think it is an awesome process of learning, where you are actually always learning something, even when you don't think so, even when you are too tired and you think your brain is off, even when you think that that day everything went wrong. Fieldwork is a full-body activity: what really matters is your presence there, your ability to let yourself go, to be immersed in the field, to do what other people are doing. It is an imitation skill, it is the only assignment where you are allowed to copy :-)
It is about going inside situations, and to make yourself comfortable. It doesnt always matters that you are listening, or understanding or discovering something amazing. You surely are by just being there and by experiencing what local people experience every day.
And you don't experience only with your eyes, or by listening. You learn by acting, tasting, touching, smelling - often the most unpleasant things. "Embodiement", we call it in anthropology. During fieldwork, you are full of emotions, curiosity, and fears. You are always negotiating enthusiasm and limits - for example, when a participant asks you "can you slaughter the chicken?".
Fieldwork is this activity that you wake up in the morning and you may really not want to go out, because you just had a shower and you know you will come back smelling of smoke, sweat and covered in dust. Fieldwork is that activity which requires you to have in the rucksack the most unexpected objects - forget about the voice recorder and the notepad, you need suncream, and wipes, spare socks and possibly a spare t-shirt - never know what could happen. Blasters, a knife, and a scarf - which can come handy in different ways: you can cover yourself if people look at you too much, you can cover your head from the sun, you can use it as a mask...
Fieldwork is difficult, especially if people around you speak another language - and they often give you the impression that they are talking about you. Fieldwork is a slow process of gaining trust as a foreigner, and showing them that you are not such a different creature!
Fieldwork is tiring because you are dealing with people, and in my case, I am dealing with people who live with less than 1 dollar a day, and thus you need to manage expectations and to set boundaries, and to discuss ethical concerns and bla bla bla - ultimately, I always end up buying useless things from them to support their living. In Langas, fieldwork is difficult because it is frequent to find situations of such deprivation, and of violence and abuse, which you are never really ready to deal with.
So, Sophie, yeah. It is a bit stressful. It is so stressful that so far I wasn't able to describe what actually fieldwork is, and I wasn't sure from where to start. Fieldwork is such a weird activity, so personal, so different for everyone. Trying to explain to you what I am doing in Langas motivate me to try and explain to the wider public what an anthropologist "in action" encounter every day. Or, better, what I encounter everyday.
Why someone would do such a fieldwork? well, I am not sure. I always think that I am able to do anthropology only in a context different from mine: it allows me to see things from a distance, and to be surprised, stunned, sometimes shocked - and it is from there that I believe good curiosity and good (research) questions originate.
I hate Langas very often, but I also really love it. Now people start knowing me, and they allow me their trust. They stop to say "hi", they invite me for tea. The days pass so quickly, and when I come back on a motorbike, full of food, thoughts and emotions, all the stress and the homesickness acquire a new meaning. The meaning of an exhausting experience that I was waiting for so long and that now I am so happy it is pervading me!


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