This reflective article also appeared in May 2018 in the Africa Oxford Initiative student blog, University of Oxford
I had a long day of driving around today. As most local drivers in my fieldwork city probably do, I noticed the hawkers on the street corners selling everyday accessories (from hats and sunglasses, to car stickers and soft drinks). I noticed the dancers weaving through cars stopped at a red traffic light and entertaining bored drivers in the hopes of some money in return. I noticed the beggars asking for money and food.
At one red traffic light, I noticed a young teenage mother on the street corner. She held a one-year old baby boy in her embrace. He was swaddled in a dirty brown blanket. The young mom waved to me from their perch at the intersection. I smiled, indicated that I had no money, and waved back. The little boy smiled at me from the warmth of his mother’s back, especially important in the brisk winter afternoon air.
As the traffic light turned green, I drove away thinking about how each of us are walking a different life path – by choice or destiny – be that beggar or DPhil student. But how unfair, I thought, that some of us (like me) grow up with so much while others (like the little infant swaddled by his mother) grow up with so little? Of course, the situation prompting my existential reflection is not unique to my fieldwork city. Poverty is a global phenomenon, familiar to people at each stage of life or death.
I drove my car straight into the garage when I arrived at my apartment. As I walked through the door, I greeted my friends – other students with whom I shared my accommodation during fieldwork. Unlike me, they were all local to this city. After washing my hands, I walked into the kitchen and started to make my dinner: a boiled egg and steamed broccoli – again; no doubt a testament to my waning student budget and limited culinary skills. Gertrude, one of my friends, was also making her dinner.
I shared my driving reflections: I asked Gertrude how I could make sense of the unfairness of poverty and responsibility of privilege. I was voicing the usual, expected questions of a privileged person: How could I create equity in an otherwise off-balanced social system? How could I use my privilege to speak truth to power? What could I do to help? Gertrude shook her head while straining her rice: “You can’t really do anything. None of us can. We’ve come to accept it [poverty].” I felt uncomfortable, as though someone had told me there was no more chocolate in the world.
What scared me was Gertrude’s complacency. As privileged graduate students, did we not have a moral or civic responsibility to brainstorm and chew on possible solutions? While I acknowledge that the onus lies heavily on the have-nots to break through the glass ceiling, it is not solely their responsibility to correct social and historical injustices that have placed their communities at a disadvantage. If the haves become comfortable with a social system that is off-balance, then how can the have-nots break the poverty cycle?
As I reflected on Gertrude’s response, Amanda (another friend) chimed in: “It is not the baby’s fault. I feel sorry for the baby. When teenagers have lots of babies, then the children suffer. These girls know they can get a grant from getting pregnant. But the babies did nothing to deserve being born into poverty. I feel sorry for the babies.” Now I was speechless and uncomfortable.
I wanted to tell Amanda she was wrong: teenage pregnancies in poor communities are sometimes the result of assault. Even so, the rate of teenage pregnancy this country has in fact been declining since social welfare ‘child’ grants were offered. Besides, a grant is insufficient to support a child every month.
In that moment, I felt I had to teach Amanda, and share all the facts I knew. But was it my place to teach someone from the area? I remained silent. Amanda walked away triumphantly thinking she had convinced me with her opinion, given that I had said nothing in response,
Since my fieldwork started, I have reflected on my role: Can I influence the worldview of the people in my environment, or can the people influence me? Must I change the people in my environment, or must the people change me? Should I teach the people in my environment, or should the people teach me?
When I reflect on these questions, I feel terribly conflicted. On one hand, I understand that the fieldwork experience is one designed for an observer to learn. In this role, as an observer, it seems that my role is to do just this – to learn. In order to learn, I must let the people and their opinions change me, influence me, make an impact on me. I do not believe that I can learn if I am also trying to teach.
On the other hand, some of my interactions (like the anecdote described above) leave me speechless. It seems that some opinions are not only archaic and discriminatory, but are also biased and factually false. In this instance, I feel a responsibility to teach and share new information in my interactions; in the same way a journalist brings current information to her audience.
What makes me want to reconcile these ideas: learning and teaching? Perhaps I can attribute my need for reconciliation to my training as a critical thinker and independent researcher. These are, after all, the skills that we are taught leading up a culminating fieldwork experience.
I am not saying that our graduate school courses teach us to impart our privilege knowledge alongside learning in communities. At least I hope no respectable graduate school assumes their students know better than ‘the locals’ – without whom a student could hardly conduct research.
I am instead saying that our graduate training encourages us to critically consider our role in the communities where we spend time. Such consideration perhaps brings me back to my original question: do I learn or teach in the field? If I learn, then perhaps I indirectly or passively allow the people in a new environment to influence me and my worldview. If I teach, then perhaps I actively influence those same people.
How can I reconcile both ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ if I am meant to reconcile this ideas at all? Perhaps the true growth from any and all fieldwork experience is that we cannot always reconcile these ideas: both ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ are intertwined like symbiotic vines on which a host tree (researcher) has learned to depend.
Feasibly, the privilege of reconciling these ideas belongs to those who comprise the community instead of observers – outsiders – immersed in a culture for a capped amount of time. Perhaps it is the people who belong to, not only live in, a community who are invited (perhaps even expected) to dictate its mores of learning and teaching.
With this in mind, it seemed that I could not tell Amanda or Gertrude that I thought they were wrong. Growing up in the city, both had assumedly contributed to their communities much more than I ever could. It seemed to me that it was their privilege to reconcile ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ if and when they chose to – and my privilege to observe them doing so.