Moving Forward

If there is one thing I really wish we’d had a class on when I was a fresh-faced, enthusiastic masters student three dim and distant years ago, it’s exactly how wrong fieldwork can go. They’ve introduced such a thing now in the anthropology department at UCL, giving post-field PhD students the opportunity to talk to those just beginning their MPhils about the moments they thought their research was scuppered – when war broke out and they had to be evacuated, when they spent months on end sitting around some major capital trying to get research permissions, when the day after they arrived in their new field-home the head of their host family suddenly passed away. I’ve heard UCL Anthropology is even thinking of introducing post-field therapy sessions for final year students – a bold plan that could benefit many an anthropology department across the planet. When everything collapsed for my own fieldwork last year – figuratively in terms of my research, quite literally in terms of my lungs – I quickly realised that I was far from the only who’d had cause to make use of UCL’s excellent Student Psychological Service. In fact, anthro students who haven’t had to hump some major fieldwork crisis are probably very much in the minority. But there’s a kind of machismo to anthropology that sometimes stops us being open enough about the difficulties we’ve faced. Even if ethnographic fieldwork and all its attendant disasters is something of a right-of-passage for the fledgling anthropologist, I don’t think that should stop us being honest about the fact that sometimes it just really sucks.

New year, new fieldsite - the Dzanga-Sangha special reserve
New year, new fieldsite – the Dzanga-Sangha special reserve

I was amazingly lucky last year in having a hugely supportive cohort of PhD student friends (not to mention a hugely supportive network of non-PhD student friends, colleagues and family) to grab my back when I needed them most. Equally, while having two major operations on my lungs was not exactly a pleasant experience, it did force me to take some time out from my PhD and get exactly the kind of distance and space I really needed to process what I’d gone through in the field – the frustrating mess of being an applied, “activist” researcher trying to push an agenda that doesn’t match up with local bureaucracies, the physical and mental hardship of dragging one’s poorly adapted, unprepared and heartbroken body across unforgiving terrain, the *millions of fucking bees everywhere*. When the year finally turned, and with my lungs successfully secured to my chest wall to prevent further collapses, I could have chosen not to return to the field – I have more than enough material, I think, to write up my PhD as is. But instead I’m penning this from the rainforest, in the Central African Republic this time, chasing a lead that I think shows far more promise for my work – that, as Viveiros de Castro would put it, of “the ontological self-determination of the world’s peoples”[1] – than anything I tried to engage with in Congo. And this time I have the luxury of approaching the field fresh from the lessons of last year – I’m cautious in my optimism, my deep enthusiasm for ExCiteS’ work is tempered by the experience of its messy nature, and I have a much stronger awareness than before of my own limits and need for rest. Physically I’m much weaker than I was when I hiked through the Lefini Reserve and the Ndoki forest last year – I’m only 5 weeks out of lung surgery after all, and still very much on the road to recovery. But mentally I feel more prepared for the field than ever, just by virtue of having encountered exactly how unprepared I really am. As ever, I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

[1] I’ll write a post explaining this soon, I promise 🙂