Research is going slowly but surely. This past week was supposed to be our first full week of work, but due to rain (July used to be a dry month but seasons here shift on a 30-year cycle so it’s in the process of becoming a rainy one) and illness (my field assistant’s malaria, not me) and miscommunication (between me and the drivers), we didn’t accomplish very much. My field assistant/master translator is very bright, very outgoing, seems genuinely interested in the project, but he’s also a pain in the ass sometimes–I’m not big into being the bossman, but he definitely tries to boss me around and it drives me nuts–but altogether he is quite hilarious. Another researcher who was his employer before was telling me a story about when one of their other assistant’s wives had twins; Sabiiti, my homie, was super impressed and said, “Surely, I would not manage to do that.” Ok so that’s a story that does not transfer well to the online, but trust me, it’s funny. He is also super motivated to have as many pictures taken of him as possible, often in poses that are supposed to convey the seriously scientific nature of his work.
In addition to Sabiiti, my staff consists of two motorcycle drivers for transportation from farm to farm whose English goes no further than hello and thank you; my Rutooro (the local language) goes just as far. The three of them wear red helmets and I wear blue, and I imagine that we are an altogether stunning fleet as we zip around the countryside. It is colder here than I was prepared for, but so so beautiful. My favorite time of day is around 7:30, 8 in the morning, when the mist (we are at a tropical rainforest, I am perpetually surprised to remember) and the angle of light brings out all these different goings-on in the distance–hillside farms, tea estates, forest fragments, people winding around the hills on foot and bicycle and motorbike and car, the Rwenzori mountains in the distance. I’ve been trying to take good landscape photos, but it’s so hard with equatorial light. My plan for our next work day is to take a video with my camera as we head out of the park, because that is when I see some of the best views around.
A typical day starts when I wake up around 7, although I am trying to push it back so we can get more done in the day. Amy (the Masters student from UF) and I have leftover beans, potatoes, whatever, for breakfast on the front porch of our little house. I put on some reasonably clean clothes, pack peanut butter and bread and little bottled waters for lunch, wrap long bars of laundry soap in newspaper as tokens of appreciation for the people I interview, then rush to shove everything into backpacks because James the motorcycle man is much more punctual than I am. Before we get going, James says, “Ok, we go?” to confirm that my ass is all the way on the back seat of the motorcycle (all the bikes here are equipped to seat a driver and passenger quite comfortably and two passengers without too much difficulty), a ritual that I instituted after I nearly flew off the back a few times on the first day during surprise take-offs.
We go meet Sabiiti and Richard, the other motorcycle man, in the nearby trading center, which is a short block of cement buildings with corrugated tin roofs. I have a small fan club of snot-faced toddlers who usually run out to the road, chanting, “Omujungu! Omujungu!” (“Honky!” “Honky!”) Sabiiti and I confer briefly about what I want to accomplish for the day (“Um, ok, let’s talk to more tea farmers!”), and then we sort of just take off–I don’t usually know where to until we get there, and then it doesn’t really matter anyway because there are so many similar-looking villages on similar-looking roads that I am in a constant state of disorientation.
We go from home to home of local tea farmers, where Sabiiti introduces me in the local language, Rutooro, and explains that I am a student and not interested in taking anyone’s land or whatever people might think. Sometimes they ask me inside to doily-adorned parlors, but usually a child appears with wooden benches and stools. We sit down and I ask them all kinds of stuff–how they started growing tea, all the costs and revenues associated with the business, any problems and worries they have with their tea, whether proximity to the park is a problem for tea versus their food crops, and on and on. Interestingly, tea has been promoted by the government, the park authorities and NGOs in the area as an effective “buffer zone” crop, good for planting at the perimeter of the rainforest, because the crop-raiding baboons and elephants and duikers and whatnot have no interest in it. However, as far as I can figure out, no one has studied whether it actually helps prevent crop-raiding or is just resistant to crop-raiding itself, or even whether it is environmentally sustainable at the forest’s edge. On the other hand, the park authority has planted the perimeter with stands of eucalyptus, a non-native, water-loving species, so that just makes no sense, although it does a good job of providing the woodfuel that people depend on and have difficulty getting enough of.
The average interview takes about an hour. I’ve noticed that if the subject is an older person, well-educated, English-speaking, it can go way, way longer. I talked to one man whose daughter had attended college in Florida and who had visited New York, DC, LA, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor; we were there for about 2 hours. On Saturday we spent 2 hours with another such gentleman who told me all about how he plants trees to commemorate special occasions–presidential elections, visits from researchers (he said he would plant one for me that evening), papal visits, even the day that the world’s population hit 6 billion. He gave me all kinds of colonial history and theories about maximizing profits from commodities and whatnot. Many of the older people sell their tea to the grower-owned factory, which has been getting shadier in the way they deal with their outgrowers, so that is also interesting to hear about. Many of the older people also talk about life under Idi Amin, the brutal dictator of the ’70s who is depicted in the movie “Last King of Scotland.”
As far as problems–mostly people gripe about how the costs of imported fertilizer and herbicides continue to rise while the market price of tea stagnates, the increasing difficulty of finding people to work their tea fields (it is a very labor-intensive crop, although not to the extent that sugarcane and cotton are, and generally only immigrants from other parts of Uganda are willing to work as a day laborers, as the indigenous tribespeople place a high value on land ownership and farming), the lack of support from the factories that buy their tea with regards to price protection and input supply and transportation (for quality reasons, tea has to go directly from the field to the factory). But they keep growing it, dream of expanding their farms (although a booming population means that available land is getting scarcer, and money for new plants are hard to come by) and say that they would recommend it to other people, because it is an “everlasting” crop, and what margins they do make allow them to afford school for their children, healthcare, home improvements.
At the end, I typically ask the person if they have any questions for me. Usually they ask how the research will help them, whether I will return with the results (as so many researchers do not–but the project I am affiliated with has a tradition of holding community meetings where they present the information using flipcharts), whether I am enjoying Uganda. No one has asked me for money, although I’ve seen people ask the other UF researchers for that; that’s probably because most of the people I’ve talked to have been fairly wealthy, as it takes a certain amount of money to maintain tea and then it also provides a relatively reliable income.
The man on Saturday asked the question I dread most when I am in Africa. He began, “So, you are not from Russia, where they are godless. You are from America, where they are believers, right?” Well, yeesss. “So, do you believe in God?” Well, I was raised Christian. “Which sect?” Methodist. “What?” Oh, I don’t know if they have that in Africa. “Oh, well, I am Roman Catholic. I believe in the infallibility of the Pope. Well, not when he says it’s going to rain, but on heavenly matters, the Pope is infallible.” I see. Then I present the bars of soap, which Amy also gives to her interviewees; she has been getting rough reviews, but my peeps have generally been really pleased and delighted, so that we go through a series of thank yous and whatnot. Then I offer to take their photograph and bring back the print before I leave, which is one of my favorite parts of the whole thing, and definitely more fun than asking the same damn questions over and over. Sometimes they ask me to wait while they put on different clothes or gather various family members; Saturday’s man changed into a clean shirt, and added a nice blazer and an elaborate rosary. We take the first picture in the African style: very serious–almost frowning, posed, stiff. Then I ask them to smile, which they find hilarious; these pictures are my favorites, although some of the older (and more Westernized) folks have given me really nice, dignified half-smiles on the first go, so we stick with that. I show them the pictures on my camera and then we say thank you and goodbye to each other for a good little while, and then we get back on the motorcycle and go to the next house. I wave to people on the way, and sometimes they give me looks of confusion and go-away, but mostly people just wave back and smile.
Recounting in my mind the different interviews I have had–how eloquently most people spoke of their problems, how perceptive just about everyone seemed to be about their external causes… I think if I asked most people back home what they imagine poor rural African farmers to be like, the people I’ve encountered is not what they would expect. Not that I buy into some variation on the “noble savage” theme–for sure, people in Africa can be real assholes, and selfish, and plain old dumb–just like some Americans. Hell, if you ask most Americans to imagine an American farmer, they’d probably think of some dumb hick, and that just ain’t always true.
Last week, Amy, Gosia (a researcher from Poland who is pretty much the nicest person ever), and I were watching “About A Boy” with this girl whose father is one of the teachers for a field course at the research station run through Cambridge; at the end of the movie, she remarked that it seemed so silly to be watching a romantic comedy in the middle of the rainforest “where people are just trying to survive.” I know she meant well, and, to be sure, there are some desperately poor people around who are on the brink of non-survival. The people who are considered wealthy would not be even middle-class at home. People here say that they struggle to afford schooling, healthcare; all kinds of stuff we basically take for granted, like electricity and running water in the home, are generally not even an option out here in the sticks. However, I have not met any Ugandans or Tanzanians who are constantly preoccupied with “survival.” People here plant flowers in front of their houses, argue about whether Manchester United or Chelsea are the superior football club, get drunk on homebrew, read the newspaper, gossip, cheat on their lovers and spouses, soothe crying children who are not their own, attend literacy classes, weave baskets, ride bicycles for fun, , yell at drunks and crazies for being creepy, repair roads and roofs, have parties for weddings and birthdays, talk on their cellphones too loudly at inappropriate times…you know, normal people stuff. Not that I always feel completely comfortable and at home here, because that kind of peace is actually quite rare for me, but it’s definitely a mistake to think that people who are poor are people who live boring, simplistic, marginal lives.
Ok, class, lecture is over for today.
I wish I could post pictures but the connection is way too dicey…when I get back to the US I will rework the hell out of this guy and it will be AWESOME. Oh my goodness, it ain’t that long before I’m on a plane from Amsterdam to New York (August 13)…