Fieldwork immersion

There’s not enough bandwidth out here for pictures, so it’s just words for now. Today was a deep fieldwork immersion day. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to this research journey: no problems getting through the gate, no meeting with the council of elders or council of elected officials to yet again explain (beyond the Ministry letter of approval) why we should be allowed in, the president couldn’t have cared less that we were here (he only wanted to be sure he wasn’t needed), and we got 7 interviews completed in about six hours. I know mothers don’t usually travel along for dissertation fieldwork, but I’m pretty sure mine is good luck. Last year, we were very restricted in who we could talk to; this year we roamed free and talked to whomever we pleased all day without supervision. Last year, we spend at least half the first day negotiating with the camp committee to get access to the camp because they just didn’t think the letter from the government was good enough; this year the president scanned the letter for about five seconds and was done with us. It was pretty magical.
There are some noticeable updates to the camp. First and foremost, the “front gate” that used to be a single thin strand of twine is now a fancy wooden stick with a weight on one end. The houses are slowly being upgraded from faded UNHCR canvas to corrugated metal; there are new feeding stations where school children have porridge in addition to their rations, there are more shops—and in particular more cell phone shops and places selling banana beer; the market now carries extra soap and feminine hygiene products—a real luxury before; some of my friends have moved out of their family houses and into houses of their own; and there seem to be more small kitchen gardens around to supplement the standard issue World Food Program rations of rice, beans, corn and salt.
We started the day in the main square where our friend Gaston met us in his DeVry University sweatshirt. As we stood on the main road deciding on a plan for the day, I felt the tiny tug of little hands in my hair and the little hands that swiped my legs as they ran by. Children accumulated around us while we talked, chirping little “Good morning” and “Bonjour” greetings. By the end of the day, this inevitably turns into five kids hanging off each arm, clutching one of my fingers with all their might, while others twist and pinch and pet. It’s cute at the beginning. By the end of the day, after word’s gotten out about the “muzungu” traveling through the camp, I’m yelping and running away from hoards of little ones. It’s not that they’re not cute. 10 children holding each of your fingers and trying to walk around each other, pushing one another off a finger so they can have two, is actually really heavy. I start to walk slower and slower as I’m dragging a gaggle of itty bitties down a rocky, bumpy, awkward dirt road. Eventually I have to shake them loose to regain a little speed. The more ambitious of them will reattach shortly—I’m pretty sure I never offend any of them—it’s just a game…
Immersing ourselves in our work, we followed our guide into the crevices between the mud houses and up alleyways into parts of the camp I’ve never seen before. People popped out of nowhere and received us in small, shared spaces to indulge the foreigners in their many questions about citizenship, identity and belonging. Wooden benches, stools, and chairs emerge from various rooms—I never really thought about how this type of thing is shared. We interviewed neighborhood elected leaders and one of the interesting themes that came up again and again is that in the camp, there is no conflict. Neighbors easily get along with one another because there is nothing to fight over. Everyone gets the same rations, and essentially everyone has nothing. I wonder if the chairs are communal and just shift around from house to house. The most pressing issue for neighborhood leaders to tend to are reports about leaking roofs—perhaps the impetus for the changeover to metal roofs. We shared the afternoon with many different people, men and women from all age groups and different villages of origin in the DRC. It made me really energized about my dissertation work.
The day ended with a visit to our friend’s small house, the “new” one he got after he applied to be able to leave his family home. There we met his best friend who had the most amazing story of survival and human resilience. I’ll just share a snippet here so you can get a sense of the intensity of my day:
This young man left his village at the age of 10 after raiding militia groups killed his father, mother, and one of his siblings. With three of his siblings in tow, and no other direction than a few neighbors to follow, he crossed an entire province through a major city and ended up in a refugee camp in Rwanda. The neighbors, not being family, were all sent to different camps. He and his siblings were settled into a house in this camp just like any other family. Sometimes neighbors to his camp house would help them figure things out, but other than that, they just lived “day by day” figuring things out as they went along. The house, for the four of them, is about 6 feet wide by 15 feet long. Now that they are all grown (the youngest is 15), the house is incredibly small and they must share one bed. The biggest fear he expressed to me was, “What if they close the camp and told us all to go home to Congo?” That’s a really good question. He doesn’t remember it, he has no family there, and he’s basically grown up (and raised 3 siblings) in this camp. He knows nothing else. He said the best plan would be to start somewhere else, because at least if he was resettled abroad someone would help them figure out where and how to live. If he was told to go “home” to the DRC, he wouldn’t even know where to start. But, he said, I just continue to live day by day. “God saved me from the terrible times that killed my family, and I have to believe that he will keep showing me the way.” It’s never more clear for me than in situations like this the role that religion can play in people’s ability to keep moving forward.

I know it’s not everyone’s idea of a “great day,” but I always feel so lucky in my life to have the chance to hear these people’s stories—each alike and different at the same time. I deeply appreciate that they indulge my questions, agree to relive some of their experiences so that I can better understand their point of view, and so openly share their daily lives with me. As my part of the bargain though, the running theme of my blog, and the entirety of my dissertation, will be focused on the promise I made to them: I will tell you, and everyone I can, about their stories and their lives so that you can be awakened to the fact that right now a war rages on in the Congo. It’s not a massive kind like the one that involves global super powers sporting fancy weaponry and matching uniforms. It’s the kind that happens because colonialism left the Congo in shambles, because precious resources like the metals that power your cell phone come from mines in the poorest but most sought after regions of the DRC, and because the international community in general chooses not to intervene in one of the largest massacres of human life and dignity that the planet has ever seen. The Congo is a war forgotten. Refugees wait out long term solutions for decades in the cramped monotony of camp life where neighbors are all an arm’s distance away, there’s no hope of further education or employment, and tonight we’re eating rice, corn, beans, and salt…again. It’s a complex war that will take global interest to solve. So, as I promised, I have to tell you about it.

3 Replies to “Fieldwork immersion”

  1. Oh, Erika, I share your journey through your journal meditation. Thank you. Even in the very small world I inhabit, I, too, have been struck by the profound role faith plays in the lives of my grief group members who have suffered life blows at advanced ages and continue to hold fast to hope. Love to all there with you. v

  2. I love you, I love this, I love the stories you bring to like. You and J (and your momma!) continue to inspire me in your calm, open, loving and listening nature. Bring on the stories. I am in deep awe and will try to keep my usual jealousy at bay and just read and think and be grateful for your presence there, the friendships you've made, the example you set. I will say that your writing and ending tone has shifted–in a HUGELY great way. The ending cal to action, the call to listen, the call to KNOW why things are the way they are. THAT is what I've always wanted from your stories. You toed the line before but now it seems you know that these things must be said and shared. Love and light and good storytelling to you my dear friend. I can't wait to read more. <3

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