Category Archives: schooling

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 (

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.

Poems about Refugees

Adrie Kusserow is one of an increasing number of anthropologist-poets.  Or maybe more anthropologist-poets are just willing to come out of hiding.

Either way, I was delighted to catch up with Adrie and interview her about her wonderful book of poems, Refuge, that was published by Boa Editions (a leading literary publisher) in 2013.  Although the book is now a few years old, the subject of its title poem, and many others collected in its pages, remains all too relevant.  For more information, and a sample poem, check the publisher’s website here.

Adrie Kusserow, Refuge, Front Cover

If you’d like to find out more about Adrie Kusserow’s work as a researcher, an author, and the founder of an NGO, check out her website.

Her latest, short book that I’m featuring here contains 61 pages of 30 poems. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet packs a richly moving punch.

One of our discipline’s best writers, Brooklyn-based Renato Rosaldo–himself, a recipient of an American Book Award for his poetry–has this to say about Adrie Kusserow’s latest book:

“Kusserow’s splendid verses bring us devastatingly close to the recent horrors of the southern Sudan and its lost boys.  Her ethnographic gaze is compelling and her poems plunge us into unfamiliar social worlds, bringing us the news we need to know.  Both anthropology and poetry stand enriched by her work.”

I recently talked with Adrie Kusserow about her new book. Here’s a record of our e-conversation:

Interview with Adrie Kusserow

Adrie Kusserow Head Shot

Alma Gottlieb (AG): As a scholar trained in anthropology, what motivated you to write and publish this book of poetry?

Adrie Kusserow (AK): There were many reasons, but mostly I didn’t have a choice. Poems are always able to handle the emotions and subtle nuances of bodily habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term) that I encounter in field work. Poetry is also something I prefer to write and comes quite naturally. Once I had tenure I felt I could risk not writing as much academic prose. This is my second book of poetry, so I knew I could write another, and hopefully publish with the same great publisher (BOA Editions, New American Poets Series).

Ever since college I’ve had one foot in poetry and the other in social science, feeling like each “side” really needed more of the other. When I was in graduate school, anthropological writing seemed stiff. It was fascinating but not always engaging. At this point in my life, I write more poetry than I do academic writing. Poetry can take us into places of nuance and subtlety that can get pounded out by academic jargon. I use poetry to take me to places of insight and truth that I couldn’t get to through regular prose. For me it’s like moving from one- dimensional reality to three-. I wanted to write poetry because I felt it could hold all of the subtle dynamics and emotionality of doing work in South Sudan in a way that academic prose couldn’t. I also don’t just view it as trying to accurately reflect any given situation or ethnographic encounter. It is a tool for me that I use to get to places of deeper understanding. Connections and insights come up for me about my “data” in the process of writing a poem. I’m also a big fan of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, and poetry allows me to depict the tremendously subtle nuances of habitus.

I also wanted to have a book that I could use in my teaching. I very often use fiction, plays, and poetry to help students understand and appreciate core anthropological themes. Most of the courses I teach (on refugees, medical anthropology, and inequality) have a social justice current running through them, and I always try to get readings that will move my students not just intellectually, but viscerally and emotionally.

I also love writing poetry because it can sometimes help me reach a wider audience than I might with a scholarly journal that attracts readers who are, in a sense, already converted to anthropological jargon.


AG: For most people, poetry inhabits a different universe from a social science such as anthropology. Yet Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict, two of our discipline’s most illustrious American forebears, were respected as published poets, and we’ve had plenty more anthropologist-poets since then. Like Sapir and Benedict, you’re a scholar who writes and publishes in both academic and poetic genres. Do you see your two kinds of writing as fundamentally linked, or fundamentally discrete?

AK: Fundamentally linked….I have no interest in writing solely confessional poetry that has no insight into the role that culture plays in shaping individual lives, hence I tend to gravitate toward ethnographic poetry. I also have no interest in writing the kind of straight ethnographic prose that has no metaphor, rhythm, color and vivid imagery in it. So I am perpetually writing both. I see ethnographic poems as taking me to a powerful, liminal place that can harness both “sides,” rather than each having its own territory.


AG: You’ve done research in places ranging from New York City and small-town Vermont to Bhutan, India, Nepal, Uganda, and war-torn southern Sudan. What’s inspired you to research life in such wildly diverse fieldsites?

AK: I’ve always been drawn to the Himalayas. After my freshman year at Amherst College, I left school and lived in Nepal with Tibetan refugees and then in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile. From there, I became a religion major studying Buddhism with Robert Thurman, and then I went to Divinity School to study Buddhism. The landscape of the Himalayas, and Buddhism, are what pull me back time and time again. I love how small the ego feels there, the lack of a kind of hyper-individualism.

I never had an early interest in going to East Africa. It was the Lost Boys of Sudan that pulled me there and changed the course of my work for a time. I became so close to them in Vermont that I followed them back to Sudan to try and find their families, interview their friends in refugee camps, took students with me, and interviewed refugee girls about the challenges they faced. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, we had built a school for refugee girls in the very southern part of Southern Sudan on the Congo/Ugandan border.

The whole time I missed the Himalayas. And now, I’m unable to set foot inside of Southern Sudan because of the brutal civil war, so I’m back to working in India, which I love. In April I’m making a film to raise awareness on trafficking of girls from tea plantations in rural Himalayan villages around Darjeeling, which will be used by a local NGO with Nepali subtitles. I’m very excited, as I will get to combine my love of trekking with applied anthropology. The film is going to document the trek along the Indo-Nepal border as I follow a local NGO/Stop Human Trafficking team.


AG: You write poetry, you publish scholarly articles, you teach college students, you founded and run an NGO based in the Southern Sudan, and now you’ll be working on a film. How do you perceive these very different activities? Do they all feel part of the same project, or independent from one another?

AK: They all feel part of the same project, a kind of obsessive exploration of inequality and how people cope with suffering.

I teach not only because I love it, but I feel students need to wake up to and be challenged by worlds larger than themselves. I believe this leads to tolerance and compassion.

I co-founded an NGO (Africa Education and Leadership Initiative) because I couldn’t witness the extreme inequality in access to education that girls face in South Sudan, and not try and do something to help try and even it out.

Africa ELI School T-shirt (back) Africa ELI Students

I write poetry because I have to, and it centers me into a place of truth (the truths of what exist under the generic conventional wisdom that often parades as truth). It brings what is most meaningful and challenging for me to think about, into a kind of sharp, almost meditative focus. Poetry lets me describe and awaken to the world in all its true complexity.


AG: Some of your poems are obviously “ethnographic” in that they’re “about someplace else,” but others are more “personal,” about your children or your husband. Do you see those as “ethnographic” as well?

AK: No, I don’t really see those as ethnographic, but at the same time it would be hard for me to describe the exact line where a poem becomes officially ethnographic. When I write about my children, I am still writing about them from a white, American, upper-middle-class perspective, and I often try and convey this in a poem, so the personal is often intentionally depicted as seeped in the cultural. And yet, sometimes, I just write personal poems, like a love poem to my toddler son. I try not to force myself to write either kind of poem, but I’m noticing that most often these days, I’m writing ethnographic poems. It is a way to process and sift through all that I’ve experienced doing field work in another country in a way that I cannot do when I am there in the midst of participant observation. When I’m in India or South Sudan, I write in a journal and don’t attempt to edit at all, just pouring out impressions and reactions and observations. When I come home, I start the weighing and sifting and looking at the entries in a slower, more creative way, and that’s often when more insights come.


AG: In a poem titled “What to Give Her–A Confession,” you write:

In our clumsy home of incense and dog hair,

I crave the weight of old cultures,

Cranky and outdated as they may be.

I crave sediment,

whole layers of history upon us

like a wet blanket, but without the stink,

the itchy suffocation.

Some anthropologists might see that sort of cultural nostalgia as old-fashioned. Did you feel more comfortable writing about it in a poem rather than in a scholarly text?


AK: Yes, I did. In poetry, I can say things I’m not supposed to say as an anthropologist–visceral, gut feelings that don’t obey anthropological theory or political correctness. In this poem, I am describing a mother who feels lost, and without the guidance of an orthodox religion. Motherhood now involves hearing hundreds of different perspectives on the best way to raise your child. Sometimes this can feel dizzying and overwhelming, and I crave one solid Bible telling me what is right. Indeed, I can know on an intellectual level that the weight of old cultures is……..but that doesn’t keep it from rising up from the gut into a poem.


AG: What’s the one question you’re most hoping interviewers will ask you about the book?

AK: Oh, actually I love to be surprised. I love it when someone asks me a question that sheds a whole new light on the book or makes me think about field work or the writing process in a new way. I love when a question forces me into new terrain instead of the same old generic answers and stories about ourselves we come to rely on and just automatically offer up. I like when questions make me question some of the narratives I get used to giving. It’s important that narrative not become too predictable and one-dimensional; after all, it’s just a story, and no story can encapsulate any one reality .


AG: Since this book has been published, the US has elected a president in good part because of his hostility to immigrants and refugees, especially those from the Muslim world. You’ve worked intimately with refugees, who have already been targeted by our new president’s two restrictive executive orders. What are your thoughts? Do you plan to teach classes educating students about the issue? Write more poems responding to the issue? Write more scholarly articles about it? Write Op Ed pieces? Something else?

AK: I plan to keep teaching courses on refugees, working with refugees in Vermont, introducing my students to refugee field work, and promoting internships and careers for my students in refugee-related fields. Beyond that, I will continue my work with, and supporting refugee students in South Sudan when the civil war allows us to. (The refugees I work with are almost all Hindu or Buddhist, from Bhutan, or Christian, from South Sudan.) On a more personal front, I have lots of work to do with supporting my South Sudanese family here in Vermont, one of whom is struggling in a psychiatric hospital and the other just had another child who they named after my mother, Suzanne, which was a great honor. I also support a young Nuba student in a camp in South Sudan who is trying to just stay alive and be able to return to school some day.

In general, I’m tending towards writing that gets published in more mainstream journals and magazines, as I like the wider audience.


AG: The American Anthropological Association has embarked on many new initiatives to promote anthropology to a broader reading public beyond our students and colleagues. Do you see your poetry as contributing to this goal? What about your NGO?

AK: Yes, I do see my poetry and my NGO as contributing to this goal. Reaching a broader reading public is extremely important to me. I recently wrote a short story called “Anthropology” for a magazine called THE SUN which has a much wider circulation than many of the journals I’ve published in. I am in full support of trying to reach a broader reading public!

As Usual, The Devil’s in the Details; or, Why Ethnography Matters for Everything

A new study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee fail to achieve any long-term gains. Republican lawmakers are already seizing on the news as evidence that pre-K programs don’t work in general, and should no longer be funded.

By contrast, the same study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Boston are achieving significant long-term gains. Democratic lawmakers will no doubt seize on the news as evidence that pre-K programs do work in general, and should be further funded.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.

The Tennessee program emphasizes passive classroom strategies that are dull even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children sit and listen while a teacher talks.

Students Sleep in Lecture
The Boston program emphasizes active learning strategies that are tried-and-true even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children learn to measure distance by measuring the shadows their bodies cast on the ground, and brainstorm about making their city a better place by using skills they learn in reading, math, art and science to present a proposal to City Hall.

Boy Measures Own Shadow
My conclusions:

1. Conclusions are only as good as the data they draw from.

2. “Think global, study local” should be the official Congressional mantra.

3. Everything is better with ethnography.