Blog Archives

Creative Dialoguing with the Nile Project

When Jane Hirshberg at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center asked me last May to participate in a creative dialogue with musicians from The Nile Project, April 2015 seemed a long way off. I was asked because of my research regarding rural African livelihoods, knowledge production, adaptation to environmental change, and community empowerment.  As the date approached I became nervous. I’d never done any research in the Nile River basin. I didn’t know much about the water security conflicts going on in the Nile Basin other than what I could google.  I’m not from the Nile Basin.  I don’t speak Arabic or Amharic or Swahili. I would be onstage at the Smithsonian in the Museum of Natural History.  I feel like I sound like an idiot whenever someone asks me serious questions regarding my research and anthropology in general.  In retrospect, it was basically a huge flare up of imposter syndrome.

Creative Dialogue on The Nile Project. L–>R Atesh Sonneborn (Smithsonian Folkways, Assoc. Dir. for Programs & Acquisitions), L. Jen Shaffer (UMD Anthropology, Assist. Prof.), Meklit Hadero (Nile Project, singer & co-founder), Ken Conca (American U School of International Service, Prof.), Mina Gergis (Nile Project, ethnomusicologist & co-founder), and Kojo Nnamdi (NPR host & journalist). Photo by R. Diaz Pulgar.

The dialogue focused on the Nile Project’s social and environmental messages.  From their website:

The forward-thinking musicians of the Nile Project channel the unsung beauty of East African traditions. In the collective’s collaborative compositions, resonant harps and lyres from up and down the river have learned new musical modes, while buzzing timbres and ingenious polyrhythms support vocals in more than ten languages.

Designed to captivate local audiences but feel equally accessible to international listeners, the Nile Project uses music to inspire curiosity about and active engagement with the cultural, social, and environmental challenges of the world’s longest river. The Collective’s collaborative model is a blueprint for a new way to organize the Nile.

The project began in 2011 by two San Francisco-based East Africans in response to the deepening water conflict in the Nile Basin. In a few years, the vision of Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero rapidly expanded to bring together musicians of all 11 Nile countries through Nile Gatherings and African and international tours. Building on the success of its musical program, the Nile Project is launching education, leadership, and innovation initiatives to empower university students around the world with the tools they need to make the Nile more sustainable.

Overall, it was a fantastic experience.  The focus (thank goodness!) was on the music and Nile Project.  Kojo spoke with Ken about water security and conflict – historic and contemporary – in this region, and Atesh talked about how music is an important component of social movements (see Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, etc.).  I was asked about livelihoods, the interconnectedness of rural/urban communities and water and the environment, and links between art and indigenous environmental knowledge.  I was super jealous of how composed and strong the answers Mina and Meklit had to Kojo’s questions regarding the work and passion of the Nile Project.  But I realized about midway through that they’ve been answering these sorts of questions for the past 4 months.  Practice does make perfect.  So does having passion and belief in what you are doing.  The musicians of the Nile Project are an inspiration and I feel rejuvenated in my own work after just a little time interacting with them.

Meklit Hadero’s TED Talk on The Nile Project

The Nile Project – Full Performance on KEXP (Seattle, WA) 19 Feb 2015

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Responding to a changing fieldwork situation

A good field researcher is relatively flexible and plans for the inevitable change of plans.  You still try to accomplish what you planned for – particularly when funding is attached.  However, ethnographic fieldwork is not bench laboratory work.  There is no real control, no do-overs, and your study subjects talk back.  This past summer I went to the field expecting to explore indicators of climate change, even though I wrote my research questions to be open to the possibility of discovering other sorts of environmental change indicators.  And while I did get to ask a few questions about responses to climate change, most local residents wanted to talk about elephants.  So I did.  It was a risk to go off “script”, but given the stakes for my friends and others living in this place, a risk I think worth taking.

I think this seemingly abrupt change of plans initially made Jordan, my graduate assistant, uncomfortable.  However, as I said there was some flexibility built into my research plan.  When anthropologists go to the field to work with people, that means we work with them where they are.  Pushing and pursuing questions that have no relevance makes immediate research difficult, and future research darn near impossible.  This is something they don’t tell you in school (and why pilot studies are so important).   The ongoing human-elephant conflict at my field site in Mozambique has entered a new phase, and as such, definitely constitutes a major environmental change to the social-ecological system.  Jordan finally got it when during one of her malaria interviews a woman told her that folks in the community wouldn’t even be speaking to her if I weren’t present.  They knew me and I was asking relevant questions (despite my anxiety that this wasn’t going to pan out).   Right now, their focus and attention was on the elephants raiding their agricultural fields not malaria.  The health clinic in Salamanga provides free treatment for malaria so this wasn’t really an issue.  Not having food to eat was an issue.

Feet taken from problem elephant. The animal harassed local residents outside a reserve area and would not return to live within protected area boundaries despite multiple attempts to chase him back inside. Image by L.J. Shaffer 2008.

This fall seven anthropology students are working with Jordan and I to code our summer interviews, field notes, and digital images.  I can’t take them to the field with me and given the elephant issue that might not be wise anyway.  However, they can learn how to use basic ethnographic tools and we are getting a serious lot of data organized in preparation for full analysis.  They will also help with some of the analysis, but the primary goal is to provide some hands on training on what it is that anthropologists actually do.   One of the first products we will produce is a report on the state of the human-elephant conflict in Matutuine District based on the data we collected this summer.  This will be sent to various Mozambican government agencies and the local communities.  Report writing is an important part of applied anthropology.  I would also like to put together a short piece for Mozambican newspapers, and maybe something on living with charismatic megafauna for American newspapers.  Elephants are one of the coolest animals ever, but they are also incredibly destructive if they are running loose in your maize and cassava fields.

We had a lot of visual data this summer – mine and some from local photographers who are participating in a PhotoVoice project documenting local changes to the environment.  Yesterday I used some of this data to put together a short video for my ANTH 222 course (Introduction to Ecological and Evolutionary Anthropology).  We are currently talking about biotic and abiotic factors and processes that influence evolution and shape landscapes.   Given that every term students ask me to talk more about my research, I thought the human-elephant conflict a good example.  Competition for food, water, & space resources, population growth, keystone species, fire, shifting climatic factors, national & international laws, cooperation, etc.  I’ve posted it below.  Please note there are some graphic depictions of animal butchering if you are squeamish.

Updated Happy News

Both Katie Chen and Raquel Fleskes successfully defended their honor’s theses. Katie’s thesis explored food security and how differences in data sets at the national and local levels could affect food aid. Raquel’s thesis involved the creation and analysis of new lab activities for a new course in our department – ANTH 222: Introduction to Ecological and Evolutionary Anthropology.


 

Chen, K. 2014. A comparison between local and national data: how food security definitions, dimensions and interpretations can impact aid. Honors Thesis written for the Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland. 38 pp.

Organizations around the world define “food security” in a variety of ways, but usually derive their version from the World Food Summit in 1996. Food security from this meeting is defined “as existing when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. This definition varies from organization to organization, and in this thesis I to compare the definitions from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO) in order to understand how the definitions are shaped and how this impacts the information they collect. In an extensive search through documents, survey data, reports and published works, I found that the surveys conducted may not give an adequate idea of what food security is. I also compare Dr. Shaffer’s socio-economic household survey conducted in Tanzania to the information collected by the FAO to see if the datasets are comparable and representative of food security definitions.


 

Fleskes, R. 2014. Facilitating a deep learning approach for university students in an interdisciplinary lab setting: a case study approach to the formulation of the Introducation to Ecological and Evolutionary laboratory course at the University of Maryland.  Honors Thesis written for the Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland. 171 pp.

In interdisciplinary higher education, the challenge for educators is to understand how to design a curriculum that teaches course material effectively, while still encouraging deep learning and interdisciplinary thinking in the classroom. We present a case-study illustrating how this was accomplished for the Introduction to Ecological and Evolutionary Anthropology (IEEA) laboratory course at the University of Maryland. Laboratory session styles varied between activity-based, discussion, station, and out-of-the-classroom formats and contained critical thinking and application-based questions. A pre- and post-test on learning objectives were distributed at the beginning, middle, and end of one academic semester to assess if students were learning course material. Additionally, student opinion surveys on the quality of the laboratory course were distributed to assess student-perceived effectiveness of the course. Over three academic semesters, laboratory activities were either modified or implemented, leading to improvement in the student opinion survey. The IEEA curriculum design provides framework for how educators in higher education can enhance course effectiveness and student opinions to facilitate deeper learning and interdisciplinary thinking for in their classrooms. [a good portion of the thesis is appendices containing the labs and related materials]


Also, Raquel was accepted into UPenn’s PhD program for molecular anthropology.  She will be studying under Dr. Theodore Schurr.  Congratulations!