What does a Chicken, Drums, Whiskey, Gossip, and International Diplomacy have in common?

With the Ethnography.com website’s updated ‘modern’ look and my ‘mysterious’ long-term disappearance from America, you may be wondering about the site’s header photos, and what the heck is going on over here?  Maybe call this ‘flash ethnography’ mixed with ethnographic photography. Here are five short stories…

^ THIS IS THE CHURCH COURTYARD at the ethnographer’s primary Fulbright research site. It is an important Pentecostal church in town that is also a small community. Seen here are handmade ‘ngoma‘ drums, which are used during important parts of worship services. Even my friend the Pastor plays a mean hand drum! When the Pastor starts playing, everybody knows it, and the worship gets hot! For months, this church became a home to me, and I met some of my closest friends. In this place, teachers, composers, singers and members of the church band and choirs– we had many discussions and debates on the nature of experiencing Congolese music styles at church, defining different styles from Congo, and teaching and learning from each other. Our group interviews, which soon turned into sometimes heated debates, became known as ‘muziki darasa’ or music class. During our classes, everyone was a student, and everyone was a teacher.

 

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^ A LIBRARY AT A TANZANIAN GRADE SCHOOL full of books on every subject imaginable for young students. One can read about colonialism in Africa and Tanzanian history, or parts of the human body, or peruse outdated, I mean, antiquated English poetry. The little library made me wistful for the ethnographer’s previous home– the university library in California. I remember there was a sign conspicuously posted outside the school that read “SPEAK ENGLISH!” The books were in English, but no one was speaking English. Language has a funny relationship with culture. The “language of the nation” is KiSwahili. A lot of times, people talk about me and crack jokes. I even get marriage proposals, presumably assuming I don’t understand KiSwahili. When I respond, the looks are somewhere between horror, shock, and joy. I don’t have much hair, but if I did, I’d flip it–  I hand the driver the fare or pay for my soda and say ‘poa’ real ‘cool’ like and walk off, leaving everyone in a state of shock mixed with joy.

 

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^ LATE AFTERNOON AT A BUSTLING INTERSECTION on main street near the main market in Kigoma, Tanzania. My favorite part of this photo are the contrasts! This town has literally become home for me, no longer a ‘research site.’ I don’t think Fulbright or the U.S. Embassy were too happy with my decision at first. They tried to rush us back to America. But I have stayed here during the Covid-19 pandemic, and I’m glad I did. Even though it’s sometimes a little lonely. We have been blessed that the pandemic never arrived here. Even the scientists are baffled! I have chosen to stay, live here, and call this my home for several reasons. One reason– I don’t believe it is ethical for researchers or Westerners to enter an African city or village for personal gain, or ‘fix’ what they think is ‘broken’ then leave for the ‘safety’ of America when the going gets tough. Too many Western NGOs, white ‘do-gooders,’ researchers and journalists fly in on a jet plane, then leave with their profit or feeling like they’ve ‘helped.’ Or when an epidemic or war breaks out, there’s a Great White Exodus. Or, when it’s over, they leave just as fast as they came, leaving gaping holes in social infrastructure. When the going gets tough, the tough don’t get going– they stay. This philosophy is sorely missing in international relations and diplomacy today.

 

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^ THE NEIGHBOR’S SKINNY CHICKEN visits the anthropologist working at her craft (even though I didn’t ask for a tutor). In this case, the anthropologist is studying KiSwahili so she knows the proper way to ask an auto rickshaw taxi for a ride to the liquor shop. My first day in Kigoma, Tanzania was a disaster because I didn’t know one word of KiSwahili. It was pretty really stressful, so I thought a little whiskey would help me calm down. After several attempts at finding an auto rickshaw taxi, with tears welling in my eyes, standing in the street after dark, I looked at my Lonely Planet dictionary and requested a ‘duka la pombe’ (liquor store) before returning to my hostel. Obviously, we still had a misunderstanding, because instead, the rickshaw driver bounced me up a dusty road and delivered me to a pulsing night club with neon strobe lights, dancing, and a karaoke band. This was when I realized, I needed to learn the lingua franca language of Lake Tanganyika. Eighteen months later, all my Fulbright research interviews with teachers and musicians were conducted in KiSwahili.

 

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^ WALKING TO A CLOSE FAMILY’S HOUSE for dinner one evening at sunset in Kigoma, Tanzania– a place always full of movement and sound. There’s nothing quiet or still about Kigoma, Tanzania. I remember this one old man, and every sunset he would walk this road. The people I love here, they love to visit each other. Especially in the evening hours. They yearn for and know and live only to visit, if only a little, and very respectfully, especially in the evening hours. It could be every evening. It could be friends, it could be potential lovers, it could be mothers, fathers, daughters or brothers. Or simply friends, who prefer to consider each other relatives. They may talk a lot. They will probably gossip. Or, they may reveal a little and just sit. Every evening, the neighborhood, the circles of friends and neighbors comes alive very quietly when the heat of the equatorial sun has subsided. One night when it was getting dark, there was a neighbor lady (who I’m pretty sure was a witch) told us, “Now that we’ve all sat around and chatted about the day, I feel like now– I can go to bed with peace…”

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