Category Archives: Intercultural communication

Doing Development the Right Way: A Conversation with Charles Piot

Anthropologist Charlie Piot has been conducting research on the political economy and history of rural West Africa for over thirty years. His first book, Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa (1999), has gained wide attention for re-theorizing a classic, out-of-the-way place as existing within the modern and the global.

 

His next book, Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War (2010), explored shifts in Togolese political culture during the 1990s, when NGOs and charismatic churches reorganized social and political life in the absence of the state.

His current project focuses on Togolese who apply for, and attempt to game, the US Diversity Visa Lottery.

You can find out more about Charles Piot’s work on his Duke University website here.

While pursuing his own research in Togo, Piot now brings undergraduate students from his U.S. campus (Duke University) for short stays in the West African villages of the Kabre people where he has made a second home.  While there over summer and winter breaks, the students have developed and pursued their own, small-scale development projects.  In developing these projects, the students aim to tap into both their own skills and the needs of the villagers.

Neophytes are notoriously doomed to fail in such culturally and politically sensitive work. But these students are lucky to have Professor Piot to guide them in the exceptionally thoughtful and informed way that anthropologists do best.  Many of the projects have already proven transformative, while the failures have proven instructive.

Piot has worked with the students to publish a striking collection of essays chronicling their efforts.  The result: Doing Development in West Africa: A Reader by and for Undergraduates (Duke University Press, 2016).

Anthropologist Brad Weiss calls the book “an innovative . . . eminently readable and teachable text valuable to courses in international relations, political science, and anthropology.”

The book was “Highly recommended” for libraries by Choice.

Recently, Charlie and I had a conversation online about the book.  During part of our conversation, Charlie was actually back in the villages, checking up on recent projects and tweaking them to make improvements.  I think you’ll find the conversation fascinating.

CP: Charles Piot

AG: Alma Gottlieb

 

AG:  This book features projects that your undergraduate students at Duke have undertaken in a rural area of Togo where you’ve conducted research among the Kabre people for a few decades.  What inspired you to compile a book of essays by and about research in West Africa done by American undergrads?

CP: The idea for the book was entirely student-driven!  One year’s group of students with academic leanings – all three went on to graduate study, with one now pursuing a PhD in medical anthropology – asked if they might write up the results of their summer projects in an Independent Study class.

I agreed and put them through the paces – first week, produce an abstract; second week, an Introduction; and so on.  Before you knew it, they each had short articles, which were surprisingly strong.  One of the students asked if we couldn’t try to publish them, and of course I said, “Sure”–while secretly imagining that we’d end up publishing them on a website of our own design.

But one thing led to another.  We added more essays the following year.  We found some money to fly in to Duke an anthropologist (John Hawkins) who had published a similar book of student essays, and he gave us outstanding editorial advice.  We had lunch with a Duke University Press editor who was super-supportive of the idea – for him, it was a novelty, a book by undergraduates for undergraduates about development – and said he’d send the essays out for review.  But then, of course, the real work of producing a book – of editing and fitting all the pieces together – began.

Then, too, the projects themselves have always drawn me in.  These projects – all, student-designed – are interesting and doing important work in the villages.  And they tell interesting cultural stories.

Recipient of the Writer’s Collective Award for Best Poem (with a Duke Student), in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

Finally, the problems and challenges of development in West Africa are vexing and fascinating.  I didn’t used to think so.  In fact, in years past, I would run the other way when I saw a development worker.  But now I find issues of development not only urgent but also (as Lévi-Strauss might have said) “good to think with.”

2017 Group of Duke University Students in a Kabre Village (Togo) 

 

AG:  Let’s start with that last comment.  As an Africanist, I spent three decades lecturing to students about the failures of large-scale “development” programs across Africa.  I suspect you did, too.  Yet we both find ourselves now working with small-scale “development” projects in our fieldsites.  Or maybe, it’s because we found so much wrong with those large-scale programs that we’ve both now embraced much more local, small-scale projects, in spaces we know well.  (Your work with these projects in Togo is exactly why Philip Graham and I invited you to join the Advisory Board of the Beng Community Fund that we founded, to create small-scale projects with Beng villagers in Côte d’Ivoire.)

In helping your students design their micro-projects, do you find yourself thinking explicitly about the failures of so many past IMF (etc.)-funded projects in Africa, and working with these students to design projects that will avoid those well-documented problems?

 

CP: Everything we do in Togo is tied to the spectre of development’s many failures that you reference.  My own feeling is that many of those failures, whether large-scale or small, are due to the failure to understand or engage with local culture.  How can you introduce new systems of debt (that come in with a microfinance project) if you don’t understand local notions of debt?  How can you design farming or health projects if you don’t understand local labor and cultivation practices, the way gender and labor intersect, and even local conceptions of the body?  But, astonishingly, most development projects never get down in the weeds of the local like this.  They assume the benefits of their projects will be obvious to all.  So they hire technicians and economists and agronomists, who are all well-versed in the Western sciences—but, rarely, anthropologists!

All of our projects in Togo – a microfinance opportunity for teens, a village health insurance system, computer classes, a writers’ collective – attempt to draw on local knowledge from the get-go, from design to implementation.  If we’ve had any success at all–and I believe we have– it’s because of our attention to local culture and history.

But there are no guarantees!  Indeed, as a provocation, I tell the students they shouldn’t get their hopes up too much, they should remain humble (and assume that locals know much more than they do – about farming, their bodies, local institutions), and even expect failure.  But such failure can be instructive in informing future efforts.

Another blind spot of many development projects is sustainability and follow-up.  Do they ever think about the time, five or ten years down the road, when the outside director or project manager will no longer be there?  Usually not.  This is a topic I’m preoccupied with right now.  What will happen to these projects after I stop taking students to Togo?  And what happens each year after we leave?  Do the computer classes live on, does the microfinance project continue to function?  I’m actually in Togo right now for a few weeks for that very reason, to follow up on all of the projects and continue to brainstorm the question of sustainability.

Charlie Piot Drinking Sorghum Beer with a Local Chief in a Togolese Village

 

AG: That’s fantastic that you’re writing about this from the village–using Internet supplied by one of your students’ projects.  That would certainly be one of the success stories.   Can you talk about the projects that have been the most–and least–sustainable?  In the case of the projects that are faltering, are the obstacles more technical, or sociological, or economic, or emotional . . .or a combination of some or all the above?  Are there things you now realize you could do in the future to make new student projects more sustainable?

Wireless Relay Station outside a Kabre Village (Togo) Demonstrated by Duke Student

 

CP: A nice question!  I’ll respond by discussing two examples of projects of ours that have had mixed success.

First, the health insurance system we’ve set up in a village clinic.  With this project, member families get free consultation and pay 25% the normal cost of medications, all for $4 a year per family.  The project has had fluctuating membership since it began 10 years ago, with only 25 families out of 200 currently enrolled.  And this, despite the fact that all insurees are unanimous in their praise of the benefits of the system.  Every year, we interview members and non-members to try to get to the bottom of why more families aren’t signing up.

Some of their responses: the health insurance scheme requires payment on a schedule, while the local system of payment and debt is more accommodating to unforeseen contingencies; the indigenous system of medicines is also efficacious and cheaper (you never “thank” a healer until after you are cured, with payment in kind – some beer, a chicken); some worry that paying for a cure before you fall sick might (through mystical means) bring on the sickness; others want to know if they can get their money back at the end of the year if they never attend the clinic.  All these responses make us realize how culturally shaped the idea of “health insurance” is!

The second example involves the cyber café.

                Muddy Flip-flops Left outside the Entrance to the Kudwe Cyber Café                          in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

The computer classes we’ve offered while we’re there have been wildly successful.

Schoolroom Chalkboard Demonstrating the French Keyboard in a Kabre Village (Togo)

And we’ve found a high school student, a real wiz, who took our classes, to teach them to others after we left.  That could make the project sustainable beyond our presence.

Students inside Classroom in a Kabre Village (Togo)

But last month, when I was visiting the villages, I discovered that the cyber café has been closed to classes since we left last August, because the person responsible was transferred to a town fifty miles away,  and the person taking over hasn’t yet done what they call a “transfer of power” (passation de service), because no one has yet compiled an inventory of the materials in the cyber café.

So, as you can see, these are not technical problems–they’re social and cultural.  And while both projects are “successful” – the health plan works well for some families, and we’ve taught computer and Internet skills to several hundred youth in the villages – they’ve nevertheless fallen short of realizing their full potential.

 

AG: You’re unusually honest in assessing the weak spots of promising projects. I’m guessing this is because your training as an anthropologist compels you to see the social fissures that are invisible to the directors of so many large-scale development projects, who often focus on the technical components alone.  Our propensity as anthropologists to see the invisible but powerful lines of the social universe may make it easy for us to spot problems that elude the gaze of others.

But, does that skill also enable us to fix the problems?  For example, once you discovered the personnel problem with the cyber café, did you perceive any viable way to tackle it?

The insurance situation strikes me as even more challenging, because there, you’re dealing with a clash of values, and that’s almost always far trickier to address than other challenges.

Thinking about both these projects–with their encouraging yet mixed successes–I wonder if you have thoughts about how the next group of Duke students you bring to Togo might brainstorm solutions that could further address this thorny but critical question of sustainability.

CP: I do think our training as anthropologists aims our attention to the social life of communities, with all its messiness and conflict and fissure.  Do these insights also enable us to find solutions to the problems of development in small-scale contexts like this?  In principle, yes.

To stay with the example of the cyber café we’ve installed: despite the frustrating loss of time – eight months of inactivity – my students and I have familiarity with the lines of authority at the cyber café and in the larger community, and we know what jealousies might be in play—so we are able to brainstorm solutions with local allies.

In this case, a promising outcome is in progress – and one that may vault the cyber-café into a whole new orbit of activity, with a private entrepreneur from a different ethnic group managing it, while adding a photo-copier and printer, and installing a money transfer kiosk. (Local wisdom is to go outside the community to look for a manager, as locals might attempt to poach on the goodwill of a family member or close acquaintance, quickly bankrupting the enterprise.)  So – perhaps!  Only time will tell if this will be a failure-into-success story.  If it does, even a success will surely generate its own new round of challenges and setbacks.

But, development in such a context is always like this.  If we’re lucky, we might take three steps forward for every two steps back.  And, in any case, staying with the challenges has its own rewards.

2017 Teen Microfinance Awardees (and Family Member Guarantors) in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

The Anthropology/Poetry Nexus–An Interview with Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

Can artists and social scientists inhabit the same universe?

Melisa (“Misha”) Cahnmann-Taylor embodies that nexus.

Her advanced degrees include an MFA in poetry . . . and a PhD in educational linguistics.

She’s published plenty of scholarly work in academic journals and books (about language learning, sustainable or fragile states of bilingualism, and teacher education) . . . and plenty of poems in literary journals.

She uses poetic and theatrical exercises to teach everyone from young children to future English language teachers.

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (in black, with hat) running a poetry program at an elementary school in Cajones, Mexico

 

Misha’s professional quest is to understand the complexities of U.S. bilingual education, second language teaching, and world language education . . . and, more broadly, the intersections between language, culture, identity, class, and power.  She dubs her work, “scholARTistry,” which she sees as spanning linguistic, cultural, and disciplinary boundaries.

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (back row, left) celebrating writing bilingual and trans-lingual creative writing with participants in a workshop for students held in Guanajuato, Mexico; sponsored by the Richard Ruiz Residency Scholar Program (a fellowship program for scholar-artists through the U of Arizona Resplandor program) 

 

Misha began her career as a bilingual (Spanish/English) elementary educator in south-central Los Angeles and went on to teach and conduct research among Latino/a communities in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Mexico City.  She now works with bilingual youth and their families in Georgia, where she is Professor of Language and Literacy Education in the College of Education at the University of Georgia.

As a teacher, Misha seeks a humanistic approach–one that honors lived experience, and that cultivates the potential for cross-cultural dialogue and deep listening in and out of the classroom.  Some of her pedagogical activities are inspired by Brazilian activist Augusto Boal’s development of a Theatre of the Oppressed.  A book that Cahnmann-Taylor co-authored on Teachers Act Up! Creating Multicultural Learning Communities through Theatre explores the potential for theatre to inform teaching.

 

Misha also incorporates poetry at every level of teaching.

A student’s edited poem done in a workshop taught by Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

 

Misha brings her creative approach to the classroom in training pre-service Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages [TESOL], foreign language teachers, and K-12 English language arts teachers.  To these different constituencies, she offers a wide array of courses on topics ranging from Spanish-language children’s literature and bilingualism/bilingual education to theatre for reflective language teachers, poetry for creative educators, and trans-lingual memoir.  

From her inspirational instruction, Misha received a national teaching award in 2015, the Beckman Award for Professors Who Inspire.  In 2016, she directed her first National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read – Jeffers Program.”

A moment with Edgar Allen Poe, while Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (center) directed her second Big Read-Jeffers Program for the National Endowment for the Arts 

 

You can find Misha’s university webpage here and her Academia.edu page here.  And you can follow her pedagogically oriented blog (Teachers Act Up–Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change) here.

One academic home that’s helped Misha unite the poetic and social scientific sides of her identity is the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.  Having won the Ethnographic Poetry Award from their journal, Anthropology and Humanism, Misha is now Dell Hymes’ successor as poetry editor for the journal, and she judges their annual poetry contest.  In her life as a poet, Misha has won a Leeway Poetry Grant in 2001 and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize in 2005.

Her book, Imperfect Tense: Poems was recently published by Whitepoint Press (2016).  

Many of the poems in this book reflect on what Cahnmann-Taylor learned while serving in 2013-14 as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Oaxaca (Mexico), where she researched American adults’ Spanish language acquisition.  In a pre-publication assessment of the book, distinguished poet Thomas Lux wrote: 

“These poems are about language and are brilliant evocations of what it is like to be human in a world that seems to make that more and more difficult. This is an original and powerful book.”

I recently interviewed Misha about Imperfect Tense.  Have a read (AG = Alma Gottlieb; MCT = Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor):

*

AG: Given your training as a social scientist, why do you (also) write poetry?

MCT:  One answer is that I was mentored and inspired–directly or indirectly–by creative scholars and anthropologists such as Ruth Behar, Renato Rosaldo, Fred Erickson, Nancy Hornberger, Ivan Brady, Gloria Anzaldúa, Augusto Boal, you, and others who maintained lives as creative people . . . and whose social science was better because of their engagement with music, image, metaphor, and vulnerability.  

Equally true is that I write poetry because it’s how I’m built.  I use the tools of an anthropologist to listen deeply, and see and process what I’m experiencing and what I’ve learned from others’ scholarship.  I also use the tools in which I was trained as an artist.  Metaphor, image, meter, rhyme, stanzaic structure–these aspects of craft and form help me shape what Robert Bly referred to as a “leaping consciousness,” one that is unafraid to go back and forth between the head and the heart.  I can’t help but want to “feel” data and find the right words in the right order.  With any luck, my poems may also help others feel the compressed complexity of human experience through lyric form.

 

AG: Does writing poetry also inform your ethnographic writing?

MCT:  Only now, so many years after writing about “arts-based research” (culminating in a book I co-edited, Arts-Based Research in Education:Foundations for Practice), have I begun to defy separation between these two genres and look at them both as forms of “trans” writing–writing that’s often trans-lingual and trans-genre.  Writing poetry has helped me clarify and claim my own voice as a poet scholar, or “scholartist”–one who wants to move away from tired explanations of method and theory.  

That said, when I wrote my 2013-14 Fulbright application to study adult North Americans’ Spanish language acquisition in Mexico through poetry, I did so with trepidation, as well as a healthy dose of “conventional” methodology–interviews, planned participant-observation.  I went into the field to collect ethnographic data much like any conventional anthropologist.  

Observing Jonathan Blasi teaching Spanish to an adult American language learner in Oaxaca

 

But doing so as a poet, perhaps, also meant that I was open to the unconventional, that my fieldnotes and poetry notes intermingled, and that the ethnography study I might also write might never get written.  The poems felt more accomplished than my ethnographic prose writing.  That said, there was one interview that I found too big and too important to compress into a single poem or series of poems.  This is why I took up ethnographic playwriting and wrote my first play.  But I don’t think I’ll do that again because it requires a commitment to working with staged readings and theatre companies that I just don’t have.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I prefer poems because I can craft them virtually alone.  

 

AG: Ha, yes, that’s probably something many poets might identify with.

Many of the poems in your new book have a “meta” foundation—they address different aspects of language itself, from being bilingual, or trying but failing to learn another language, to nuances of modal verbs and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Can you talk about the grammatically-themed title to this collection—“Imperfect Tense”?

MCT: The title is a direct result of an interview with an English-speaking, American woman I met in Oaxaca, Mexico in her 60s who described her own painful process toward the never-ending goal of “fluency” in Spanish.  Like many of those I interviewed, she was disappointed with traditional language classes for foreigners where verb tenses are taught in isolation.  She told me how accomplished she felt when she could describe a film she’d seen all in the “imperfect tense” rather than in the present or fixed past–a tense that doesn’t exist in English.  “The imperfect is so good for telling stories,” she said.  

I got a chills as soon as she’d said it.  That’s it!  What we tell ourselves as language learners are all stories of imperfection–I’ll never know enough, I’m not a good enough student, I’m not native–all these negative messages we tell ourselves and others.  These seemed to help me better understand the grit of those who study a second language in spite of the hardships–it’s a reckoning with permanent imperfection.  

 

AG: I love that.

 

MCT: In putting together the book manuscript, I had poems from earlier phases of my life as a bilingual teacher, a bilingual daughter, and future aspirations as a bilingual mother.  So the “past” and “ever-present” tenses seemed like good additions to the “imperfect” for drawing together different sections of the book and the poems that have composed my life.  

I should add that I’m teaching a course now on “translingual writing” and work toward changing my language from describing “bilingualism,” implying two separate codes, towards translingualism or code-meshing.  I’m grateful to Suresh Canagarajah for inspiring this movement.  Translingualism helps me grapple with my own imperfect command of Spanish, English, Yiddish, and other codes that transgress my system.

 

AG: The notion of “translingual” writing seems especially apt these days, with so many conversations about “transgendered” identities.

At the same time, another set of poems in this book addresses mothering, child-rearing, and childhood.  

A somatic statement on the politics of motherhood

 

The poem, “Mother Less, Mother More,” especially blew me away (and I love your dramatic reading of the poem, online here):

I can imagine that poem speaking to any mother, anywhere—no small feat.  If you agree, would you still see this poem as ethnographic?  Or do you think a poem must treat a culturally specific experience in order to qualify as “ethnographic”?

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor with her daughter in Mexico

 

MCT: That is a very good question, and quite a compliment.  That poem was published in a journal called “Mom Egg Review: Literature & Art” that targets mothers as its primary audience, so I was happy that this poem was showcased there.  While its audience, if I’m lucky, may find it compelling to mothers in general, its trigger is partly personal (I have two small children ages 8 & 10), but also ethnographic.  My training was in the Department of Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania founded by Dell Hymes.  I was informed by many linguistic anthropologists, including Elinor Ochs and Shirley Bryce Heath, who drew my attention to the different ways language is used according to race, class, gender, age, and a host of other variables.  

If I were restricting myself to terms current in linguistic anthropology now, I might replace “motherese” in the above excerpt with “caregiver speech” or “infant-directed speech.”  But that’s head language and not poetry.  And this is a poem, not ethnographic prose.  Or is it?

I had poems informed by theory, by the many academic disciplines in which I was trained, and the permission that making art has given me to defy boundaries and write it! (a nod to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”), anyhow.  I trusted that coherence between individual poems would happen.  It took quite a while, but the centering work of ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico gave me the backbone I needed to hold these varied language poems together in one book’s spine.

 

AG: They do hold together, even as another set of poems in this collection addresses your experiences with Judaism.  Religion is a classic topic for anthropology.  Why have you chosen the genre of poetry to write about it?  Do you think there are things you can say about Judaism (or any other religion)—or ways to say it—that work better through poetry than through social science?

 

MCT:  For me, the theme in this book is imperfection.  Speaking a “standard language,” or becoming a “good mother,” or abiding by the tenets of one’s “religion”–these are all socially constructed roles which privilege an unattainable ideal.  The poems are informed by interviews, participant-observation, library research, theory, and of course life experience.  I would say that choosing to write religious poems was the choice made by my unconscious mind, a choice I might not have made had I restricted myself to writing only about my ethnographic focus of Spanish-English bilingualism.

 

AG: Can you compare your process of writing scholarly texts (including the research necessary ahead of time) with the process of writing poems (whether or not this ever involves “research” for you)?  Any overlap, or are they two entirely different processes?

MCT:  Earlier, I said that I am taking advantage of aging into a voice that isn’t one or the other but is always both.  This may also be due to restrictions in the time I find I can spend doing extensive, planned fieldwork abroad, and to the increase in time I spend researching communities around me.  Recently, I have been teaching poetry courses to international students enrolled in graduate-level TESOL programs [Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages].  They will return to their home countries to teach English, and I am teaching them to consider their own poetic voice and those of their future students.  

Misha also incorporates drawing as a visual complement to writing in her pedagogy; here, students drawing on the streets of Oaxaca

 

Studying this process involved collecting data in the form of interviews, but also these students’ poems as well as my own poetic response to the shared educational experience.  I am constantly searching for ways to merge my thinking and my poetic voice.  Recently, I did this in a “manifesto” I wrote for a journal called Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal.  I needed a new genre as a way to find language for grappling with #BlackLivesMatter as a white, female academic.  Finding this journal and their open call for the “manifesto” form felt like finding a “home”–one I didn’t know existed but have been seeking.

 

AG: That “manifesto” genre is an unusual one for a scholar.  Did having anthropologist-poet role models like the ones you mentioned earlier help give you courage to explore new writing styles? 

MCT: I feel so “at home” when I meet members of this hybrid tribe.  I began to find community through the Society of Humanistic Anthropology where I first met Dell Hymes in person and was awarded the ethnographic poetry prize so many years ago.  

 

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor receiving Ethnographic Poetry Award from Alma Gottlieb (president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology), November 2003

 

Then I became a judge for this prize, and not long after, Ather Zia came to my attention. She was one of the prize winners, and she has been a dear companion and now co-judge ever since.  Nomi Stone, Adrie Kusserow, and Dana Walrath are some of the many other poetic anthropologists I’ve met through various meetings, often organized by the late, great Kent Maynard who I will forever miss since his early passing.

I continue to be drawn to panels at AAA that address creative crossings and genre bendings. At this last year’s 2017 meeting, I met wonderful poets and poetic anthropologists through the This Anthro Life [podcast series] and the wonderful new Sapiens [blog] from Wenner Gren.  I’m also newly connecting with ethnographic songwriters like Kristina Jacobsen, as well as with ethnographic fiction writers and ethnographic dancers.  My new heroes are often younger than I am, pushing and changing the field, daring to do things that might have felt impossible or taboo to do earlier.  

 

AG: What’s next?  More poetry?  More anthropological writings?  Both?

MCT:  I just came out with a second edition of my co-edited book on “arts-based research” as I continue to articulate what it means to create new transdisciplinary work spaces that sit between the social sciences and the arts.  I keep my creative writing alive, and I am open to more poems as well as finding new spaces for trans-genre writing that is both empirical and aesthetic.  

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (second from right) leading students and colleagues from the Autonomous University of Oaxaca at a poetry reading at the Oaxaca Lending Library

 

Finally, I am still doing some conventional qualitative inquiry, especially as I mentor students. It’s very important to me not to lose touch with the nuts and bolts provided by theory and ethnographic research design.

 

AG: As a scholar-poet, have you found a space in the academy that accommodates that dual career?  Or, do you bifurcate these parts of your life into two separate career tracks?  Based on your own experience, how would you advise young scholar-poets to construct their professional lives in the present moment of the academy?

MCT:  In the last chapter of our new book, Arts-based Research in Education, I answer this question.  I am tired of bifurcation and am teaching new generations of students to defy binaries.  They push and pull, and I push and pull back, and this is happening in different ways in creative writing, the arts, and social sciences both in the U.S. and around the world.  Based on my experience, I train students to strive to do “double”–to train in conventional research methods and theory as well as in poetry or other creative genres, and discover ways they can fuse them.  In this way, they can play more than one game, to be able to get through the dissertation process and find a job in various possible homes.  

But I feel I have a lot to learn from daring and younger scholars who won’t necessarily seek or find the same kind of academic jobs I was prepared for, and that I uphold.  Based on my experience, I encourage younger “scholartists” to take my advice . . . but I know that only 50% or less will be relevant for them, their particular identity, and the new market in which they find themselves.  To be relevant means to be present in the moment as you learn all about what has come before.  My job is to nurture confidence and humility, and try to exercise those skills myself as my students continue to teach me about unknown futures.  The poet in me tries to train the pedagogue to share what I have learned, but also to invite students to surprise me with what they know or can newly conceive.  

Everything You Thought You Knew about Orphans in Africa Is Probably Wrong

Policy makers, development workers, orphanage voluntourists, missionaries, prospective adoptive parents: ignore this book at your peril.

Crying for Our Elders-Front Cover

 

“AIDS orphans” are commonly imagined as the most vulnerable of the world’s most vulnerable populations.  In a provocative new study, anthropologist Kristen Cheney  challenges just about everything we thought we knew about the children of Africa who have been labeled “orphans.”  Along the way, she decries what she terms the new “orphan industrial complex.”

Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (2017).

In a pre-publication assessment, distinguished anthropologist Didier Fassin has written:

“Through her cautious, insightful, and moving ethnography based on fieldwork in Uganda, Cheney provides a deep understanding of the complex and unexpected forms of life that emerge around orphans. An important contribution to the growing field of critical children’s studies, Crying for our Elders is also a remarkable expression of ethically engaged anthropology.”

And in an early review, Rachael Bonawitz has written:

This abundantly researched work is essential to the study of international development and of orphanhood, as well as an enriching contribution to the field of children’s studies.

You can find a Table of Contents here.

Read excerpts online here.

The publisher offers complementary desk/exam copies to instructors here.

From the website of the Institute of Social Sciences/Erasmus University-Rotterdam (where she is Associate Professor of Children & Youth Studies), you can find Kristen Cheney’s institutional home page here.

At the recent conference of the American Anthropological Association (held in Washington, DC in December 2017), Kristen Cheney and I recorded a conversation about her new book.  Here’s what Kristen had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; KC = Kristen Cheney):

Kristen Cheney, Headshot

Kristen Cheney

AG: What gave you the idea to write this book?
KC: I had done fieldwork with children for my dissertation, which became my first book (Pillars of the Nation: Child Citizens and Ugandan National Development, University of Chicago Press, 2007).  In the process, I came across a lot of kids who were orphaned.  I was working at schools, so I’d often come to a primary school and have kids approach me—at least once a week—and give me letters, because they were too shy to talk to me directly about their situation.  A lot of the letters described their circumstances and asked for assistance—primarily, educational sponsorship.

In one instance, a girl came up to me one Monday and said that she lived with her aunt and uncle, and over the weekend, her uncle—who was her blood relative—had died.  Her aunt-by-marriage said, “You can continue to live here, but with him gone, I don’t know how long I can keep you in school, because I have to prioritize my own children.”  So by Monday, the girl was already coming to school and saying, “I’ll find the mzungu”—white person or foreigner—“and ask them if they can help me.”  That kind of thing happened fairly frequently.

So I decided the next book would look into how children experienced and understood orphanhood—as well as the broader purview of humanitarian responses to orphanhood, and how they either help or hurt those situations.

 

AG: That raises methodological issues.  In the book, you talk about adapting participant action-style research methods with children.  That’s a kind of research that’s become very popular in other disciplines, though we don’t call it by that name in anthropology.  Can you talk about the difference that this research method makes to working with children in this kind of project?

KC:  For what I term “youth participatory research,” the benefits were several.  I wanted continuity with some of the kids I’d worked with before.  My youth research assistants for this project were the young people who I’d worked with and had done life histories on for the first book.  So there was some continuity, because part of the purview of the book was mapping generational experiences of the HIV/AIDS pandemic onto different developments in the fight against AIDS.  These kids were born around the time of the “prevention of mother-to-child transmission” initiative, which meant that a lot of the kids who might have died from having gotten infected by HIV survived.

But their parents still often died when the kids were quite young.  So they were one sub-generation, in their teens by that time.  I wanted them to work with some of the younger kids who were 5-10 years old—kids of the post-ARV generation, for whom anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs had become much more available.

 

The post-ARV generation

 

Some of the teens had experienced these kinds of issues surrounding orphanhood themselves.  Some of them weren’t full or double orphans—some had lost one parent, some had lost both, some hadn’t lost either parent but had still struggled a lot.  So they were in a better position to work with the younger kids, by being closer in age, and having grown up in the same kind of society, facing the same kinds of issues.

Youth Research Assistant Works w His Group

 

A youth research assistant (right) works with his focus group, 2007

(photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

There was also a pragmatic element.  Being based in the US at the time, I’d be in East Africa for a while, or for a summer, and then I’d have to leave.  With this method, the youth research assistants could be visiting these kids with whom we’d matched them–visiting them in their homes or schools once a month, and talking about how it was going–and we’d get a broader sense of their lives, without me having to visit 40 different homes.  We could cover more ground that way.

I don’t want to claim a representative sample, but we could get a broader picture of what kids were going through.  That worked fairly well.

The down side is that this method takes you out of the field.  You have to yield your expertise and your authority, and make space for that to happen.

You have to yield your expertise and your authority.

I became a bit of an administrator rather than a direct researcher.  But when we had workshops together and compared notes and we asked, “What do we make of that?” it was much more participatory, and formulative of some of the broader arguments.  We’d decide as a group, Where do we probe further, and where do we go deeper into certain kinds of issues?

The research itself becomes transformative.  If you’re really interested in these issues, and you want to study it to help change something, and fulfill a sense of social justice, you start to see change within the community.  The younger children saw the youth research assistants as older brothers and sisters.  They became very close.  The young children would tell the youth researchers things that they would not tell anyone in their own family, and voice some things they didn’t feel they could voice, especially about loss—saying, “No one’s telling me what’s going on.  They think they’re protecting me, but I want to know.”

We really had to think about how we handled that relationship very carefully—think together, How do we counsel these kids?  Because the youth research assistants became mentors to those kids.  It was also transformative of relationships in the community.

I’ve done a lot of other youth participatory research projects since, and we’ve seen the same things happening.  Right now, I’m doing a project to study adolescents’ understandings of healthy relationships, for the Oak Foundation.  The work is supposed to help in the Foundation’s advocacy in preventing child abuse.  We’re doing that project in Tanzania and Bulgaria.

Youth Peer Researchers-Oak Fdtn ProjectYouth peer researchers in the Oak Foundation project on Adolescent Perceptions of Healthy Relationships, 2017 (photo by Kristen Cheney)

Now we have youth peer researchers who are as young as 10 years old!  I had a conference call—what they call a “learning call”—with some of the Foundation team, and I was describing the progress of the project.  They were already on board with the participatory method, so there was no having to convince them of its value, which was nice—because sometimes, you have to do a lot of convincing.  They said, “We’re really anxious to hear how your results will help our advocacy.”

And I said, “We can talk about that—but I want to be clear that our approach is that research IS advocacy.  We’re already seeing transformation in these kids, and the way that they talk about how, under the aegis of the research, they’re able to talk to adults across generational divides about things that they otherwise aren’t able to talk with them about.  Those adults come to see them differently, because they become informed about certain ideas and start to possess certain knowledge such that people start to see them differently. It raises their status.

So we’ve already seen a lot of transformation happen—between the kids we’re working with and their peers, and also other interlocutors in the community.

So I said, “It’s not research then advocacy; research is, in itself, a kind of advocacy.”

And they said, “Oh, okay.”  They hadn’t thought of that.

We have youth peer researchers who are as young as 10 years old!

 

AG: That raises another question.  Can you talk about how you compensate the youth researchers—whether financially or in other ways?  Because that’s a mode of doing research that may be unfamiliar to some anthropologists.

KC: Even working at ISS, a development studies institute, we work a lot on “capacity building” with non-academic development partners, and we’ve also talked with them about this.

We agreed that it doesn’t work well to do cash compensation with young kids.  It creates a perverse incentive, in a way, and doesn’t lead to quality research.  But there are other, non-cash incentives.

In the case of Crying for Our Elders, I helped the youth research assistants with school fees.  But it wasn’t conditional.  I said, “It would be great if you would help with this research,” but it wasn’t either a carrot or a stick.  They were happy to help with it.  I met with them before I published the book, a few years later, and had them reflect on the experience.  It was interesting for them to talk about that.  That issue of compensation came up, the ways that they gained skills—whether they were directly applicable in their professions as they got through school and went on, or just interpersonal skills. It was really rewarding to see.  That’s the sort of incentive I wanted to create—I told them, “You’ll build your skills, and they’ll be marketable skills.”

When my colleagues and I were doing a project for Save the Children that also used youth participatory research methods a few years ago, we trained almost 100 peer researchers in Uganda and Ethiopia.  None of them dropped out, unless their family moved.  But none of them said, “I’m bored” or “I’m not earning anything” or “It’s not helping me.”  They all stayed with the project for three years.  The idea that kids will be flighty and just leave is not necessarily true.

We trained almost 100 peer researchers in Uganda and Ethiopia.  None of them dropped out.

In our last workshop, we asked them to reflect on how they experienced the study.  We had them draw pictures of their journeys within the research project.  Some drew mountains, and some drew rivers with bends in them; there was always some sort of apex or obstacle to overcome.

One young man drew a bus and said, ”I feel like the bus is coming out of the woods and into the city.”  Basically, he was talking about the process of participating in the research project as enlightening.  Then he said, “The forest is illiteracy and the city is literacy.”

Youth Peer Researcher-Save the Children Project

 

A youth peer researcher for a Save the Children project sharing his research journey, 2016

(photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

He also spoke really movingly about how the research group had become like a family to him by the end of the project.

 

AG: You had meetings for everyone?
KC: Yeah, we had workshops where we got together a lot.  But they would also go out and do data collection in pairs, or they’d do interviews or focus groups together.  And they had a lot of support at different levels.  All of them said, “We feel like it’s a family now.”  And they said, “We’ve learned how to talk to adults about things that had been taboo, or difficult to talk about—and even how to talk to adults, more generally.”  For me, that was rewarding in itself.

Youth Peer Researchers in Ethiopia, Save the Children Project

 

Youth peer researchers (left and right) for a Save the Children project in Ethiopia engage with their supervisor (center), 2016 (photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

For that project, we’d also brought a lot of swag and bling from my institution (the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague)—backpacks, pens, trinkets that said ISS on them, and so on.  Every time I came to a workshop, I’d always have a bag or hats or whatever.  But the one thing that was really special to the kids was getting a certificate.  Early on, they’d even asked, “Will we get a certificate for participating in the project?”  Because certificates really mean a lot to them as they’re building a professional portfolio.  Even if they were still figuring out what they wanted to do when they grew up, they knew they’d always have that certificate that said, “I participated in this project, and I did research.”  They were more eager about that than they were about the other stuff we’d bring them.  They thanked us for the backpacks, but when you gave them that certificate, they were so, so thrilled by it!  It became a career-building sort of thing.  That was the thing that was really important to them.

 

Youth Peer Researchers w Backpacks, Certificates

Youth peer researchers with their backpacks and certificates (Uganda, 2015)

(photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

I’ve also given certificates to some of the youth researchers who helped with Crying with Our Elders.  When I met them years later, they said they’d saved their certificates.  One of them even reached into his bag and pulled out his certificate that I’d give him almost ten years before.  He’d had it laminated.  Another one said, “Mine got wet and got destroyed, and I was going to ask you for another one.”

It’s not about, necessarily, financial incentives.

 

AG: In effect, the certificates, and what they represented, became a sort of intellectual capital.

KC: Yeah, it’s helping them see the long view of how the research project might help them with making connections with people, because we were working with local development organizations—ones that did the research and training.  So it’s connecting them.  They saw the value in the social connections and the skills building, and that was enough in a lot of cases.

 

AG: In choosing youth researchers, were you looking for students who seemed to have particular intellectual capacities?  Or was it the opposite—those who seemed to need the most help?  Or, something else?

Youth Peer Researcher, Jill

 

Youth research assistant, Jill, reporting at a project workshop, 2008

KC: In Crying for Our Elders, I returned to work with kids I’d worked with earlier, when they were younger.  Some of them were quite strong as students, but some of them weren’t.  That could become a bit of a challenge in this project.  For the workshop, some of them were keeping very detailed notes and journals.  But one of them just didn’t like to write, and just wouldn’t do it—he refused to write.  I would say, “If you go into the field and don’t write anything down, it’s like you didn’t do it.”  That didn’t compel him to write anything down.  But he was a talented musician who really liked to work with audio equipment.  So I said, “You have your voice recorder.  You’re turning it on to talk to the kids.  Just keep it on and take notes—do verbal notes.”  And he said, “Oh, okay, I can do that.  I can just speak into the thing.”
AG: I do that often myself, when I’m driving away from an interview.

KC: Right. So you work with where they’re at.  Others were very good about keeping notes.   But that’s obviously not the only way to do it, and we sometimes tape fieldnotes ourselves.

I had another youth researcher who was really enamored of the video camera.  I just said, “Take the video camera and run with it.”  And he’d do that.  He’d get all this nice footage of the kids and use it as documentary evidence.

In this more recent project, one of the examples I gave to the Oak Foundation of the advocacy issue is, when we had our first workshop after the kids were recruited in Tanzania, we had one kid who was no longer in school.  She was a 14-year-old girl and seemed very shy, almost mortified by everything that was happening.

Sometimes we’d say, “Everyone think of three things and write them down and we’ll go around and share them.”  And we’d come to her and sometimes she’d be physically hiding her face, as if she didn’t want to be called on.  At first, we started wondering if she really wanted to be there.  By the end of the day, it started to dawn on us that we were asking them to do a lot of reading and writing, and she couldn’t read or write.  She’d gone to two years of school and dropped out.

My local project leader said, “I don’t know how she’s going to do the survey if she doesn’t know how to read or write.”

But I said, “No, let’s not push her out.  There’s a reason she’s here.”

We discussed this with her, and she said, “Don’t make me leave.  I’ll come tomorrow with a friend who can help me.”

I said, “She can reach people we can’t reach.  So let’s not exclude her because she doesn’t have these skills.  We can find other ways around this.”

And she was saying, “I can find other ways around this.  I’m willing to improve in order to be involved.”

So I said to the local project leader, “Let her stay.  She could be the most transformed by this project.”

The next day, she came with a friend and was much happier to participate.  I think partly she had just been worried that the other school-going kids would tease her.  When they didn’t do that, she settled down and stopped excluding herself and started to join in.

We have these “circles of support,” and we said to the supervisor in the closest circle, “Can you help her find an adult education class nearby?”

Three months later, when I checked in, the local leaders said, “She’s already vastly improved in her reading and writing, because she wants to participate in the project.”

So we’re already seeing that transformation happening.

 

AG: That’s awesome.  You’ve talked about advocacy and social justice.  You’ve mentioned that research itself can be a form of advocacy.  Beyond that, can you talk about what would be your best-case scenario if policy wonks interested in the HIV and/or orphan crises in Africa were to read your book?  What would you want them to do differently?

KC: What we’re seeing now is people acknowledging that the traditional family system in Africa has largely weathered the storm of HIV/AIDS orphanhood and taken those kids in.  But what we’re also seeing is people picking up and running with this very broad definition that UNICEF has of orphans—that an “orphan” is any child who’s lost at least one parent.  That’s become a justification for a lot of private donations, particularly, to orphanages (along with some public investment in them).  We’re suddenly seeing a mushrooming of orphanages in Uganda and other places.  This is what I’ve been talking about in lectures I’ve been doing recently—what I call an “orphan industrial complex” that’s come out of this desire to help orphans, and thinking that orphanages are the best way to do that—but they’re not.  It also comes out of the growing popularity of what’s now called “voluntourism,” and working with children has particular purchase with people.  They see orphans as the most vulnerable children, so people say they really want to work with orphans.

 

Proliferation of Orphanages in Uganda

Proliferation of orphanages in Uganda since the height of the AIDS pandemic (bit.ly/orphanindustrialcomplex)

I’m really challenging that sort of “child rescue” discourse that’s actually jeopardizing children and breaking up families and causing unnecessary institutionalization, because they’re building orphanages and pulling kids into them.

In short, I would like to see an end to orphanages in my lifetime, and I think that’s quite possible to do.  Instead, we’re seeing a real increase in orphanages, because people who think they’re helping are setting up new orphanages without realizing this broader picture.

“I would like to see an end to orphanages in my lifetime.”

First of all, from 60 years of child development research—which a lot of the donors to orphanages haven’t read— we know that orphanages are not good places for children to grow up in.  A lot of this comes from faith-based communities.  They’re talking about the Biblical command to “visit orphans and widows in their distress.”  Somehow, the widow falls out of the picture very quickly, because there’s a much more emotional purchase in the orphan.  A lot of these people don’t have backgrounds such that they would investigate this history or this research in the child development literature.  “Child rights” isn’t in their vocabulary.  “Child protection” isn’t in their vocabulary.  So it can be very difficult to break through this idea of, “I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and start an orphanage.”

 

AG: Or maybe they perceive the “child rights” and “child protection” discourses in very different ways that make it look as if they’re actually doing everything they can and should do to help?

KC: Right.  But it comes from a very different register—either this spiritual idea, or from “voluntourism” and service learning, on which there’s been a lot of good critical literature coming out stating that that sort of transformation is much harder than something you can accomplish while backpacking.  The supporters of orphanages don’t often think through some of the issues I’m trying to raise.  This is not about the supply of orphans, this is about the demand for experiences with orphans.  We’re actually causing orphanhood, de facto.

“We’re actually causing orphanhood.”

Locally, what’s happening is—if you build an orphanage in a poor community, kids will come.  But they’re not coming because they’re orphans—they’re coming because they don’t have access to schooling, and recruiters are going into the community to entice families to institutionalize their children in order to access education.  That’s the #1 reason we’re seeing why families are being induced to put their kids in orphanages.  To the local community, it’s often presented as free schooling!

 

AG: So, to the policy wonks, maybe your big take-away point would be, “Don’t build orphanages; build schools”?

KC: Yes, in some ways.  The main goal should be: improve educational access.  Don’t support orphanages.  Don’t build them.  Don’t visit them.

I’ve actually been working with a group called Hope and Homes for Children that’s doing de-institutionalization of orphans in a number of places. They’re helping the Rwandan government to close all their orphanages by 2020, and they’re ahead of schedule to do that.  It doesn’t take a wealthy country to do this; it just requires political will.

By the way, we generally don’t have orphanages any more in North America and Europe.  There’s a reason for that: we know family-based care is better.  Why is it that we’ve decided orphanages are not appropriate in our home countries, yet we’re saying, “Let’s build them in Africa because there’s a lot of orphans there who need it”?  First of all, that’s not true.  A lot of people are even saying, “Let’s get rid of this word, ‘orphan,’ altogether.”  It’s stigmatizing.  Kids don’t want to be called that.  And it’s often a misnomer.  It’s not that a child without one parent has no family and needs to be in an orphanage.  All the kids I worked with for this book—some 40 kids—lived with extended family in their community.  So I didn’t really have any association with any child care institution until the end, when I heard there’s also these baby homes, so I thought maybe I should go visit them.  That’s what got me down this rabbit hole: the cultural politics and political economy of orphanages on a broader, global scale.

“All the kids I worked with for this book—some 40 kids—lived with extended family in their community.”

 

AG: Really, the concept of “orphans” is Eurocentric insofar as it privileges two opposite-sex, biological parents.  And, in effect, it implicitly claims that once you lose both of those, you’ve lost everything.  In so-called “extended family” communities—which we see all over Africa—the concept of “orphanhood” in a sense is superfluous.

KC: Right.  It doesn’t exist—not in that form.

 

AG: Because you’ve always got other people.  In the local language, many of those other people are called “little mother” or “little father,” or “big mother” or “big father.”

KC: Right.  Or they just don’t have a word that means “orphan.”  They say, “Well, we might say enfunzi”—and they would whisper the word.  Because they don’t want a kid to hear that.

 

AG: They know it’s stigmatizing.

KC: Yeah, they know the children would feel bad to be called that.  Because it doesn’t mean the same thing that “orphan” does; it means you’ve not only lost your mother and father, but you’ve lost your “little mothers” and “little fathers”—your aunties and uncles, and your grandparents—and have basically been cast out and abandoned and have nobody.  So it’s not the same concept.

At the same time, one of the things I noted is that, when you have humanitarian assistance coming, specifically, for orphans—essentially, targeting them—these same people who acknowledge, “I wouldn’t call a child an ‘orphan’ to his face, it would be insulting, and they’d feel very bad”—these same people will say, in English, “Here are my orphans.”  And they’ll push forward “their orphans” and say the word in English and continue, ”I hear you have resources that might help me educate and feed these kids.”

Elderly Guardian w Children in Her Care An elderly guardian (right) with some of the children in her care, 2017

(photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

The unintended implication of targeting orphans in the humanitarian response is one of the things I discuss in the book.  At first, they were targeting orphans, but then they would find quickly that the status of orphans would rise higher in an extended family when orphans were targeted by humanitarian agencies.  But there’s also resentment in the family, because some kids might be going to school because sponsorship was available for “orphans” in the house.  The biological children in the same household would say, “Mommy, Daddy, why can’t I go to school?”  The parents would respond, “Because you’re not an orphan.”

It got to the point where someone from UNICEF told me, “We’d have an event where we’d distribute books and pens to orphans, and we’d hear other children saying, ‘I wish my parents were dead so I could get schoolbooks.’”  The UNICEF staff thought, “What are we doing when we have kids saying, ‘If my parents were dead, I’d get to go to school’?”

Schoolchildren in Uganda

 

Schoolchildren in Uganda, 2013 (photo by Kristen Cheney)

 

AG: It pays to be an orphan.

KC: Literally.  Or in other instances, a child soldier.  These sorts of targeting and labeling actually make people take on a role and can actually inscribe trauma where it didn’t exist.  If you’re not traumatized, but you understand the Western assumption, “You must be traumatized by being an orphan, or a child soldier,” or what have you, you figure out that if that’s the way to entitlement, then you really need to adopt that role.

And it can end up that if you really adopt that role, you can actually internalize that trauma and become vulnerable.

 

AG: There are so many unintended consequences of labeling.  And this label that you’re applying so provocatively, the “orphan industrial complex”—I guess, borrowing it from Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” and then the second-generation term of the “prison-industrial complex”—that’s a really powerful concept.  I don’t think it’s yet been over-used, despite being adopted by folks critical of the prison system.  Do you find that your version of the phrase arouses interest, or just offense?

KC:  I’ve gotten good feedback.  I’m talking to those who are potentially participating in “orphan tourism”—college students, even high school students, from the global North.  So far, I’ve had pretty good reception to the term.  It is provocative.  But I do get people listening.  The way I lay it out, they start to see the bigger picture of how it works.  At first, they may come into it skeptically, saying, “What’s wrong with wanting to help?”  It’s difficult to be the killjoy who says, “This is what’s wrong with helping in certain ways,” if those ways really are destructive.  But I do say, “Here are things you can do that would be really helpful.  For example, helping keep children in families, and lobbying governments not to send them to orphanages.”

As I was saying about Rwanda, and Hope and Homes for Children, we went to DFID—the Department for International Development in London, which is like their USAID.  They handle all the development funds for the UK government.  We talked to them about divesting from orphanages and other organizations that support the institutionalization of children.  We were talking to them about this as experts.

And they were interested.  Usually, these people flit in and out of meetings, but they stayed for a good hour-and-a-half.  What really helped is that I had a former student who grew up in an orphanage in Kenya and talked about things they’d never thought about—including his loss of identity, as a child who grew up in an orphanage.  He ended up in an orphanage because his mother died in an accident.  The orphanage never made any effort to find his family.  When he was older, he wanted to see his file and try to trace his family—but he found out the orphanage staff had changed his name.  From the time he was four or five, he was called something else.

 

AG: So many layers of emotional theft. . .

KC: And he talked about how, when volunteers came to visit, they’d only pay attention and play with the cute, little ones.  It caused resentment among the other kids.  But once you’re not cute or little, you don’t get much attention from these volunteers.  Sometimes the staff would hide away the other children and only parade the disabled children, because there was a donor who was particularly interested in helping disabled children.

 “Once you’re not cute or little, you don’t get much attention from the . . . volunteers. “

 

AG: So it also pays to be disabled.

KC: There were all these ways they hadn’t thought about these issues.  I think that really moved them to have someone talk about that personal experience, and how identity gets erased. Being labelled an “orphan” has these lifelong effects.  Now he’s in his 30s, but he’s still saying, “This is the long-lasting effect of having gone through this.”

 

AG: I think your book is going to forge such a different conversation among so many kinds of people who I hope will read it.

KC: That’s what I’m hoping.  And also by being provocative about the “orphan industrial complex”—which, drawing on the “military industrial complex,” which deals with the politics of fear—but this is the politics of hope and love—and this idea of the “need to help,” as Liisa Malkki talks about, and trying to unpack that idea and be self-critical about it, and show how that has unintended consequences.  I do think people are listening to this message, and I hope they will change that discourse.

Interview with Perry Gilmore about “Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki”

Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki chronicles a charming and, indeed, remarkable friendship that developed between two five-year-old boys—one (Sadiki), the son of a traditionally pastoralist Samburu family in Kenya working as a wage laborer for wealthy British landowners; the other (Colin), the son of a white American couple of means, both students, living in Kenya for 15 months of graduate research.

Kisisi Cover

Kisisi was published in cloth, paperback, and e-editions by Wiley Blackwell in 2016

 

When they first met, the age-mate boys found themselves drawn to one another . . . but frustrated by their lack of a common language. Slowly, they developed their own language (dubbed “Kisisi” by Colin’s mother, Perry Gilmore), combining bits and pieces of Swahili and English into a constantly-evolving pidgin that they, alone, understood. Narrating the development of this unique pidgin, the book combines the engagingly personal voice of a proud and loving mom with the sharp observer’s eye of a trained anthropological linguist.

Renowned linguist, Deborah Tannen, has this to say about the book:

It’s part linguistic analysis, part gripping story of culture contact, part deeply moving memorial to a life tragically cut short. This book will fascinate anyone interested in language, children, or human experience.

The 136-page book has five chapters, and Gilmore writes like a dream. Once you start it, I dare you to put it down.

You can find a link to a sample chapter here (“Uweryumachini!: A Language Discovered”):

If you’d like to request an exam copy for a course you teach, follow this link.

You can find Perry Gilmore’s contact information here.

I recently interviewed Perry Gilmore online about the book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PG = Perry Gilmore):

PG portrait

Perry Gilmore

 

AG: In the Prologue, you write of Colin and Sadiki:

[T]heir invented language helped them construct new identities and resist, transgress, and transform the marked postcolonial borders and harsh inequities of economics, race and culture that engulfed them and dominated the social power relationships and language ideologies that engaged all aspects of their daily lives (xvi).

As such, you call the book

a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and the politics of language and oppression . . . an ethnographic exploration of young children’s critical and resilient discursive agency in their innocent yet effective quest for language equality and a place for their friendship on the rigid borders of their vastly different language and cultural worlds (p. xix).

Similarly, in the final chapter, you write:

“the children’s language . . . [created] opportunities for them to cross deeply entrenched colonial borders as effective change agents and as an official effective language policy makers” (p. 95).

Those are impressive claims. How would you respond to skeptics who might doubt the ability of five-year-old children to disrupt the intertwined and entrenched legacies of colonial domination and racism in East Africa?

Colin and Sadiki Planning a Pretend Hunt

Sadiki (left) and Colin (right) planning a pretend-hunt

PG: I agree that these are impressive claims! But I am convinced that they are reasonable and accurate insights about the social dynamics that Colin and Sadiki’s border-crossing friendship generated – for them and for those around them.

In the early pages of my book, I express the hope Colin and Sadiki’s story will be able to amaze the reader. The boys’ story urges us to look more closely and see all children with a little more awe, wonder, and respect.

I, myself, was almost incredulous when I first discovered that, before two months, the children were communicating non-stop and with great facility in a Swahili- sounding language that only the two of them understood. My own shock, disbelief, and curiosity prompted me to record their language carefully and document the full range of their social interactions. In 1975, when these events occurred, I, myself, was doubtful that Colin and Sadiki – at only five years of age – could actually be displaying such creative linguistic virtuosity, strong agentive social roles, and active resistance to the existing language ideologies and conventions that surrounded them.

Having been an elementary school teacher for six years, a language and literacy curriculum developer for school-age children, and a graduate student in developmental psychology with a focus on language acquisition, I had a strong background in child development and behavior. All that I had ever read about children and about language at that time completely defied what I was witnessing.

In Kisisi, I present what I hope is a range of convincing contextualized behavioral evidence to demonstrate not only the children’s language virtuosity but also their effective and impactful social agency. No doubt, some might be skeptical about the ability of two five-year-olds to interrupt an entrenched and oppressive colonial order. I, myself, initially struggled with these more speculative ethnographic insights. For example, I could answer questions about “what” they were speaking with empirical linguistic descriptions that identified specific lexical innovations and new syntactic constructions. I could answer questions about “how” they constructed meaning and negotiated shared information in an empirically detailed discourse analysis that, line-by-line, examined their turn-taking utterances. However, to answer questions about “why” they chose to invent and continue to use their own private pidgin language instead of the Up-Country Swahili that they were expected to use, I used an ethnographic analysis that is necessarily more exploratory in nature and more interpretive in identifying underlying meanings.

A skeptic – or any reader, for that matter – could, and probably should, question my ethnographic interpretations about the children’s resilient and transformative agency. It was my task in the book to provide enough of their story to convincingly demonstrate their effective resistance in a rich description. I hope I accomplished that. As with all ethnographic work, however, I did not and cannot “prove” my analysis; instead, I explore its underlying meanings.

The case of the boys’ friendship, and the ephemeral invented language that helped create and sustain it, presents a provocative extreme along a continuum of possibilities in examining language choices and behaviors in social practice. The example also provides a lens for understanding how young members of language communities use and think about language – how they clearly exercise language choice, change, and possibility.

It is only in recent years, especially in the new and growing field of the anthropology of childhood, that children’s agentive behavior and early language ideologies have been recognized and explored. In earlier anthropological studies, children had generally been seen as the recipients of generational cultural transmission, rather than seen as contributors to and co-constructors of their own worlds. The role of children as language innovators and de facto language policy makers has been largely understudied, undocumented, and even ignored. This case of language invention provides documentation of children’s language creativity; gives insight into the agentive roles of children as language innovators in multilingual contact situations; and sheds new light on questions of language genesis, change, shift, and maintenance.

Even two-year-olds make their own decisions about language choice in multilingual settings. For example, in my Indigenous language work in Alaska, I saw young Yu’pik mothers in tears when their two-year-olds could understand everything their mothers said to them in Yu’pik, but would only answer in English. Somehow, much to the pain of their families, these very young language learners had made their own decision to choose the dominant English language over their Alaska Native heritage language. Examples like these are widespread and clearly demonstrate that very young children can and do resist existing language ideologies and exercise their own language choices.

Colin and Sadiki’s isolated and remote rural situation contributed to their more extreme language innovation, collaborative language choices, and social practices. I have argued that the children, by choosing to sustain, expand, and develop their own private language, resisted the dominant language ideologies that represented the hegemonic, racialized, post-colonial order of newly independent Kenya. Their public uses of their private language made a symbolic statement about what I describe as their “cultural critique” of an oppressive regime in which their own cross-racial friendship was considered by many as a violation of social norms. The boys refused to docilely participate in the existing colonial order and rejected the Up-Country Swahili language that was designated to keep that order in place. They resisted being socialized into a language ideology they rejected, and instead created a new language ideology that allowed a safe and celebrated space for their friendship. Sadiki and Colin used their language to deconstruct a colonial culture of fear and silence and reconstructed their own counter-culture of courage and voice.

Their resistance and language ideologies may not have been articulated with theoretical vocabulary, but they were boldly enacted. The boys did not resist through anger or aggression. Instead their effective, border-crossing agency was accomplished through loving verbal art and play. Their joy-filled language practices challenged the oppressive colonial culture that surrounded them, identifying them as a distinct and separate speech community that valorized its own social justice values and allowed a space for their treasured border-crossing friendship.

Colin & Sadiki-Proud Pretend Hunters

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right)–proud pretend-hunters

AG: What a persuasive response! I dare a reader to remain unconvinced. . .

In the book, you point out that, until recently, scholars of language overlooked children’s linguistic experiences as unimportant. How does your book contribute to developing scholarship about children’s language practices? Does what you observed about the development of Kisisi suggest anything about the origins of our species’ linguistic abilities?

PG: For centuries, speculations about the origins of human language and the genesis of new languages have presented daunting questions for philosophers, language experts, historians, and scientists. These questions had always fascinated me. My primary reason for being in Kenya in the first place was to study baboon communication. This type of ethological fieldwork was in part driven by a fascination for primate studies and its potential for illuminating the origin of language in the human species. The study of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat was a relatively new research practice at that time. Naturalistic, long-term primate studies promised to be a valuable source of information concerning possible models of early hominid behavior and communication. I had no way of predicting that it would be my son’s unplanned and serendipitous close friendship with his Samburu neighbor that would offer me an even more provocative language origin story!

Ethnographic studies of young children’s language socialization were just beginning to emerge as an area of interest and significance. In striking contrast to earlier widespread Piagetian language studies, which characterized children as developmentally egocentric and incapable of modifying their speech for an interlocutor, newer observational studies showed strong socio-centric abilities of very young children and even babies. For example, Elinor Ochs (1977) demonstrated that her infant twins were able to take conversational turns and repeat each other’s pre-linguistic babbling utterances. These findings in the late ‘70s defied the long-held Piagetian claims of egocentrism. Of course, Ochs’ work had not yet been written or published when I witnessed Colin and Sadiki’s socio-centric language invention.

The infamous “forbidden experiments” recounted by Herodotus and others, the failed and poignant attempts to teach feral children to speak (e.g., Itard’s Wild Child, and the case of Genie), questionable research proposals designed to create a new pidgin language by isolating speakers of different languages on a small island (e.g., Derek Bickerton), the study of a new sign language created by deaf children in Nicaragua, twin languages – all these cases were seen to hold the promise of finding the secrets of language origins and genesis. The study of pidgin and creole languages has similarly been seen as a fascinating place to see language develop and change over time.

The study of Colin and Sadiki’s language adds to this literature in captivating ways. It is a rare, first-hand account of an emerging language-in-the-making. Most of the examples of “new languages” are anecdotal and discovered after the fact. I was in an unusual situation whereby I could document the boys’ language practices as they occurred over time. Invaluable also was the benefit of seeing all of their behavior in social context. The ethnographic details of their situated everyday language practices were unique compared to other studies. These ethnographic data allowed for a more “emic” interpretation of the functions, uses, and meanings of their communication in context. This “ethnography of communication” approach enabled me to describe the children as members of a vibrant (if tiny) “speech community” who used their new language for specific purposes and in specific situations. I did not simply provide a structural description of their “language” in a vacuum but in the context of their complex, multilingual social life.

What can Colin and Sadiki teach us all about human language and about children’s language? One reviewer, a linguist and pidgin/creole scholar, has commented that Kisisi “shows that two five-six year old children can create a new grammatical system” and it “can happen fast.” I suggest that the boys can teach us many things about children and language. What seemed to me at first to be a small and simple story of two children inventing a language turned out to be a story that was complex, nuanced, and multilayered. Their experiences raise many profound questions causing us to rethink common assumptions about children and about language. Their “not-so-simple” story provides provocative insights about some very big ideas concerning language origins, children’s innovative language competencies, and the significant role of play and verbal art in language genesis. Their experience provides compelling evidence concerning the agentive roles that very young children can exercise in language and culture resistance, choice, and change.

Sadiki and Colin’s language began in response to a pragmatic need to understand each other in order to be playmates and friends. Their early genesis of an original, simplified Swahili pidgin served that immediate function, facilitating their play and budding friendship. As time went on and their close bonds deepened – even as they had learned and used other local languages – they continued to use and expand Kisisi, its linguistic form and structure, and its semiotic functions. It was fun. It was secret. It was theirs. It was an artistic verbal spectacle that surprised and captivated unsuspecting audiences. Their new language bonded them as much as it reflected their bonds. They created a secret language with a public function. Through their language use, they carved a new, exclusive, and symbolically resonant space, a separate universe for their controversial friendship.

Their experience taught me that we scholars of childhood need to view all children’s language, in its many complex forms, as inevitably intertwined with the lives and meanings of the children who use it.

Colin & Sadiki Closing the Paddock Gate

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right) closing the paddock gate

 

AG: You lived in Kenya, where the events described in this book occurred, some 40+ years ago. Some people might think that the data are too old to be relevant; others might think you’ve forgotten too much by now to write accurately about the events. Can you talk about the advantages of waiting so long to write about past events?

PG: Producing what Johannes Fabian would describe as a “late ethnography” that (re)presents and interprets historically situated events and practices, I have written this account forty years after I experienced it. I had deliberately accumulated a substantial archive during my time on Kekopey Ranch in Gilgil, Kenya. Like so many who had come before me, I intended to write a book about my time in Africa–although I originally thought my book might be about my life with the baboons I was studying. With that in mind, I was very meticulous about keeping lengthy journals and records. I also kept carbon copies of all the letters I wrote to friends and family back home. And I kept copies of the audio cassette voice letters we regularly sent back and forth to the States. Those voice letters included rich descriptions of our activities and environment, as well as many instances where Sadiki and Colin told jokes, recounted events, and sang songs for Colin’s grandmother, other relatives, and close friends. Because I was fascinated with their new language, I made regular tape recordings of Sadiki and Colin’s language interactions in a range of contexts and kept detailed notes about and translations of their developing language.

At the time, I was a professional writer for a nationally funded educational laboratory, Research for Better Schools, Inc. (RBS). I was on leave to do the baboon research but was able to do freelance writing for RBS drawing on my Kenya experiences. I mostly wrote children’s poetry and short stories for an anthology for a reading and literature curriculum we had been developing. (I had a wonderful supervisor at RBS who arranged for me to continue as a long distance writer on our project. This was amazing since it was long before fax machines, e-mails, Skype and scans! The international packages took six to eight weeks to arrive at their destinations.) I did this writing for the entire time I was in the field. The poetry and stories I wrote were largely focused on the boys and necessarily captured many subtle details and evocative descriptions of their daily life events.

The letters, journals, notes, recordings, and RBS writings all provided an extremely rich archive for me to draw on, decades later. Even forty years on, the accounts seem vibrant and vivid, and the now-digitized recordings bring the children’s giggling voices right into the room. I also maintained a growing library of local books, newspapers, documents, and articles that captured the local colonial life of the period. Furthermore, I drew on the parallel memories of many colleagues, friends, and Sadiki and his family, who lived with us in Kenya at the time. Many of them were kind enough to read early drafts of the book and/or talk with me about these past times and events.

You ask about the advantages of waiting to write about past events. One of the most exciting advantages of writing the book now is that over these decades, the field has grown so rich theoretically, and that has allowed me a range of theories, concepts, and language to work with that did not exist before. When I was first examining their behaviors, we didn’t really have the theoretical frameworks or the critical language to fully describe or understand what the boys were doing. Post-colonial studies, critical ethnography, language socialization, power and hegemony, decolonizing methodologies, agency, resistance and language ideologies didn’t yet exist as areas of study. I was better able to capture all aspects of their profound and complex story by relying more heavily on more recently developed ideas as central issues in telling their story. It was as if the field finally caught up to the boys!

 

AG: Ha, yes. We sometimes talk about scholars being “ahead of their time.” In this case, two five-year-olds proved “ahead of the scholars’ time”!

In that regard, in the Epilogue, you suggest that Kisisi offers pedagogical implications for language learning (including bilingual education) that could prove useful to teachers of students at various levels and in various contexts. Can you share some specific ideas you might have along those lines?

PG: Ethnographic inquiry about children’s language practices can inform and often enlighten educators. Ethnography can expose children’s language competencies that hide in plain sight, often unnoticed and unimagined. Kisisi can provide one ethnographic account of young children’s competencies that might help teachers look at their own students differently. Teachers might be encouraged to use an ethnographic lens in their own daily pedagogy. An ethnographic eye can reveal otherwise unseen or unrecognized competencies. Ethnographies like Kisisi can present strong counter-narratives to a dominant, destructive, deficit discourse that unfortunately persists in many educational settings. In a time when deficit arguments continue to hang heavy in US educational circles – fueled, for example, by the so-called “30 million word gap” research (Hart and Risley 1995, 2003), which falsely argues that low-income children in the U.S. at three years of age have been exposed to millions of fewer words than have been their wealthy counterparts – it’s a good time for teachers to use an ethnographic eye to confront the unequal power arrangements that obscure the potential linguistic talent, virtuosity, and strength we need to recognize and nurture in all children. By paying close attention and documenting children’s everyday talk, teachers can identify competencies and start to work from from a resource-rich stance rather than a deficit bias. All students come to schools with naturally creative and flexible multilingual and translanguaging capabilities. Colin and Sadiki are not unique. They demonstrate the fluid language abilities that all children are capable of. What is needed is a safe and respectful space to use language(s) in ways that enhance rather than threaten children’s identities and ideologies. When teachers create those meaningful contexts, language learning and use will flourish.

 

AG: Speaking of which . . . President Trump began his presidency with an executive order founded in deep suspicion of immigrants and refugees. Your book seems founded in the opposite aim: the urge to find the common humanity linking young children from radically different cultural traditions, historical contexts, economic resources, and life options. Have you had any reactions to your book from readers who might have approached it from something closer to Pres. Trump’s position of skepticism? More broadly, do you think your book, and others like it, can make inroads among those who hold deep convictions about the unbridgeable divides separating people via discourses of “otherness”?

PG: In an era of division, I have had very positive responses to Colin and Sadiki’s story. I believe the boys touch a place of hope and optimism in the hearts of those who have read the book. In this Trump era, Sadiki and Colin’s story reinforces a vision of building bridges, not walls. I think it sparks a yearning for deeper human connections with the “other.”
Colin and Sadiki Running in the Tall Grass w Perry Gilmore

Perry Gilmore, Colin and Sadiki walking through tall grasses

 

AG: Who do you hope will read this book—among scholars/students, policy makers/politicians, and the general public? What’s your fantasy for the impact that this book could have, if it were read by the right people?

PG: I hope a wide array of people will read the book. The two boys offer us a beautiful lesson in humanity. Love and play are at the heart of their creative language virtuosity and their healing, social justice transformations. I hope those who read the book will forever after watch all children with more awe and wonder! Linguists, anthropologist, educators, policy makers, and the general public can all find something in the book for them. The boys have left us a unique gift – a rare language legacy; and a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and resilience in challenging the politics of language and oppression.

And, finally, I wrote this book as a memorial tribute to my son, Colin Gilmore, whose life was cut short by a drunk driver when he was only 18 years old. One clear hope of mine is that readers will remember Colin and the courageous and loving lessons he and his dear friend, Sadiki, left us.

 

AG Update: Check out the fabulous review of Kisisi here.