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Environmental Anthropology for the People

Earlier this week a fellow anthropologist from Australia posted a suggestion to our environmental anthropology listserve that we “consider ways to move our posts and conversations online to Twitter. I am serious about this.”  I giggled.  Not at my colleague, because I think she’s absolutely right about the need to take our work to the people, but at the idea that anthropologists could condense their thoughts into 140 characters.  Despite our ability to craft pithy interview questions and participant observe quietly for hours on end in far-flung communities, members of our chatterbox tribe tend to pontificate when provided the opportunity.  We are a long-winded and multi-syllabic people.  Yet a challenge had been issued.   And that’s when I found myself reopening a Twitter account from 2009 to see how it had evolved.

Needs pencils, notebooks, cameras, and digital recorders

My fellow environmental anthropologist raised some great points about how Twitter could be used by us all to reach a wider audience.

  • Are you worried about the public understanding of how environmental anthropology can help respond to pressing regional and global issues?
  • Would you like more people to know about your recent publications, job announcements, or call for papers?
  • Would you like to expand your network of colleagues, potential collaborators, and co-authors?
  • Is your university placing increased emphasis on rewarding scholars who seem publicly visible and engaged?
  • Would you like an open-access forum to debate topics about environmental anthropology, one that includes public participation?
  • Would you like to help build a database of searchable resources that secondary, higher education, and continued education learners could access on their smartphones and tablets within seconds of following a hashtag?

As a whole we are an invisible tribe.  That is not to say that exceptions don’t exist.  Margaret Mead, Temperance Brennan, and Indiana Jones are the most likely candidates for household recognition (well, at least those are ones my mom could name quickly), and two of them are fictional characters.  Those of us who work at the human-environment interface should really be making our work more widely known.  Sure a virus or an asteroid could wipe out life as we know it, but the majority of environmental problems we face as a species have their roots and solutions in human behavior and decision-making.

Engaging the public by relating what we do, how we do it, and what it means requires that we actually put something out there for consideration, recognize that people will respond, and commit to civil conversation that may take us in unexpected directions.   Public environmental anthropology might not get counted towards tenure (if that’s your goal), but it takes a step towards building scientific literacy, public trust, and a community that works together to make the planet a more sustainable place for all living beings.

So, I accept the challenge and will give Twitter a try for the summer. #environmentalanthropology

For more information:

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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

Training to Respond

Our work in the KRAC Lab focuses on how people, households, and communities use their environmental knowledge to respond and adapt to environmental change.  We work with rural communities primarily in southern Mozambique.  However, Ronga communities are not the only communities facing environmental change, potential natural disaster, and day-to-day emergencies.

Learn to Prepare

Back home, here in the United States, here in Maryland, we face potential threats and deal with emergencies big and small on a daily basis.  Heck, getting into the car to go anywhere in the DMV region is like a death wish with the way most people drive.

START Students Pioneer UMD CERT Program

Rebecca Alberda, a masters student in the KRAC Lab, has been working with START over the past 6 months on the social science side of Maryland and U.S. emergency issues, potential disasters, and terrorist threats.  Recently, she participated in an exercise to complete her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.  CERT is a FEMA program that trains local citizens to respond and assist in emergency situations.  Prince George’s County has a CERT presence and soon so will the University of Maryland, College Park.    It’s all part of UMD’s emergency preparedness plan.

Field Updates (long post)

I’m finally in the field. It was a struggle this year between dealing with personal life issues – some major milestones – and all of the last minute baloney that comes with teaching large courses – final projects, final exams and whinging about grades that would have been better had students put in the time earlier in the term.

This past week I (and my trusty field assistant Jordan) ran a workshop on quantitative and qualitative methods at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane.  Five intense days of lectures and activities that were scheduled to run from 9am to 1pm every day but usually lasted until 2-2:30 as people had questions about coding or interpreting data.  Jordan gave 2 brief lectures in all of it on coding interviews and quant methods (freelists and triadic comparisons).  She did a smashing job and gave me a short break to rest an increasingly sore throat.  Our topics ranged from writing good interview questions to turning interview texts into numbers to visual research methods, social network analysis, and participatory methods.

The Dept. of Biology hosted our workshop and its 15 attendees were faculty, research staff, and graduate students from biology, botany, geography, sociology, economics, environmental education, and agricultural engineering.  One of my best moments came at the end of the workshop when one of the botanists, a professor and research, stated that “Social scientists really have to know a lot.  You use so many different methods and analyze your data in many ways and you then have to interpret what people say.  Plants are so much easier.  Your sort of research is really complicated.  Plants are so much easier.”  She took a lot of notes, and given that her research involves plant distribution, use, and conservation, I think she was very interested in trying out some of the methods we discussed.  I shared her statement with Jordan, who laughed and agreed.  It isn’t just anthropology graduate students who find our tools complicated.  🙂

When not working, we’ve been enjoying the World Cup – people here get together to watch everywhere.  Oh, and what is up with Spain?  Boo!  There’ve also been new experiences like going to Xipamanine Market, where you can buy anything from used clothes, to food, to AK-47s, stolen tech, flip flops, capulanas, etc.  listening to new music, making new friends, and trying new foods.  Okay, Jordan’s done most of the new stuff since I lived here for a year and a half and have been coming to Mozambique since 2004.  But for me, it’s fun to see someone encounter Mozambique for the first time.

Initial field experiences from our lab members have been trickling in.  I also prodded Jordan to write a little about her initial thoughts on Mozambique.

From Rebecca at START (19 June):

I am finishing up the third week of my internship and I thought I would send you a quick update on how things are going.

I have thus far been working on several different projects and attending enrichment sessions/trainings that are offered through START. The nice thing about START is that they realize that their internships are unpaid, therefore they offer as many opportunities to their interns as possible to gain stills that are relevant to future employment, so that they can become employable and get a paying position once the internship is over.

Things I have been working on:

  • Literature Review: Learning APA (and becoming a master!)
  • Meetings: Brainstorming, updates, informational – you name it.
  • Interview Transcription: This is a skill that I am learning. It’s not easy and pretty much makes me feel like my brain is leaking out my ears, but this is the tedious end of qualitative methods, is it not?  [Yes, this is tedious but it could always be worse.  I prefer transcription to measuring spines on bryozoans under a microscope and then entering the data into a computer.  Yep, did that for a whole year once.  But that’s what scientists do when they start out – the grunt work.  I’m sure you’re doing a great job though.  You are really detail-oriented and that is exactly what is needed in transcription work.]
  • Proposal Work at START

 Additionally I have begun to reach out to Anthropologists in the government, to set up informational interviews. I haven’t worked on this portion too much yet but plan to in the coming week.

From Maria at SESYNC (4 June):

I started work with Dr. Hadden this week–she’s very nice! Right now I’m doing a lot of background reading–social movements, methods of social movement research and environmental policy. She hopes to interview 10-15 environmental groups this summer and I am to help her prepare for the interviews (writing up profiles for the organizations/people). After they are done, I will be transcribing them. I’m also to do “Protest Analyses”. We haven’t exactly talked details, but I will be using Atlas.ti to code news stories about environmental protest from the past five years and looking to see how media portrayal of protests has changed. Its an interesting complement to my work this past semester with comparing pictures!

SESYNC itself is really great. Their office is in Annapolis, and its super nice (they’re doing some construction/expansion right now, but its very cool). The other interns also seem great–a lot of variety. Materials engineer, marketing, environmental science and policy students…I’m excited to get to know them! We meet either on campus or in Annapolis once a week, which will be a nice break for my independent work.

I’m working on my own for the most part, and Dr. Hadden doesn’t care if I’m physically working in the office or not. Except for the Atlas.ti stuff, because that’s only on the office computer but I haven’t started that yet. None of my roommates are living in our apartment this summer, so I’ve been mostly in solitary confinement. Definitely a weird change, but I’m not that sad about it!

From Jordan in Maputo, Mozambique (18 June):

The first 4 days in Mozambique have been exciting and exhausting. There’s so much I could write about, but I thought I’d make this entry about funny things I’ve learned in Mozambique, so far.

Disclaimer: This is coming from a foreigner who has been in Mozambique for a total of four days.

The first rule I learned in Maputo is to always carry my own packet of toilet paper. It’s not uncommon to come across a bathroom without toilet paper. And don’t flush said toilet paper. If you do, you might clog up the system (this is common in many countries). No one wants to be that person. Also, check to see if you can find a stall with a trashcan inside it. The reasoning here should be evident.

The second rule I learned is that you should speak Portuguese or travel with someone who speaks Portuguese (the official language) when travelling in Mozambique. There aren’t many Mozambiquans who are fluent in English, although many can hold a short conversation. But when you need someone to tell you where you can buy a bottle of wine, or you’re trying to understand how much said wine costs, finding a Mozambiquan who can tell you (in English) is a gamble. So learn some Portuguese before you travel, or carry a Portuguese dictionary if you don’t want to be attached at the hip to your Portuguese-speaking travel companion (shout out to my travel companion!). Here are the words I’ve learned so far, spelled according to what I’ll call Jordan-phonetics.

  • Bom dia: good morning
  • Bom tarde: good not-morning (I think it means good afternoon) [that would be boa tarde]
  • Ob-ri-gado: Thank you (I use this one a lot, especially since it’s the only word I remember consistently)
  • Tudu beng: How are you? [tudo bem]

o   Ee tu: and you? (you ask this when someone manages to ask how you are before you ask how they are) [e tu?]

  • Esto beng: I’m well (there are many ways for people to respond to “tudu beng”. My rule of thumb is to smile like I know what they’re saying, hope they added “ee tu” somewhere in there, and respond with “esto beng”) [Estuo bem]
  • Na-o falu Por-tu-gesh: I don’t speak Portuguese [Não falou português.]

Here are the phrases I want to learn next:

  • I’m sorry (I need this one several times a day) [desculpa me]
  • How much does this cost? (not everyone has a cash register, yo) [Por favor, cuanto custa?]
  • Do you speak English? (I usually ask this in English, but in an effort to be less obviously foreign, I shall learn the translation) [Fala ingles?]
  • Where’s the bathroom? (I probably should’ve learned this one first) [Onde esta es la banho? o toilet?]

[Jordan has the phonetic spelling here. Pretty awesome for someone who doesn’t speak the language and was thrown to the lions 4 days ago.  She has been really taking it all in stride and is not afraid to just dive right in.]

Finally, I’m beginning to learn the road rules here. Roads are always interesting in other countries, and Mozambique will not let you down. There are very few roads with lines or stoplights here. The strategy works well for Mozambicans; everyone knows which side of the road to drive on, when to swerve out of someone’s way, and how to just generally keep from causing a traffic accident. But as a foreigner who is used to stop lights, pedestrian crosswalks, and cars that stop just to let you cross the road, it’s a bit terrifying. But then again, it’s an adrenaline rush…kinda like cliff diving, but with cars. From what I can tell, the rules of the road are as follows:

  1. Drive on the left side, not the right.
  2. When there is no one on the right, you can drive there too.
  3. Passing is fair game almost any time.
  4. If you’re driving down a narrow road, be ready to swerve as far to the left as possible when another car (coming in the opposite direction) gets within 10 feet of you.
  5. When you see pedestrians in the middle of the road, slow down enough so as not to hit them, but drive fast enough to hurry them along. (Side note—if you see someone running across the road, they’re probably a foreigner. Mozambicans generally walk).
  6. If you ride a motorbike, you do what you want.

I hope you enjoyed today’s “Taste o’ Mozambique”. We’ll be back soon with another entry.

From Alyssa in The Gambia (17 June):

I figured you would be interested in having a link to my summer blog. I started this site when I went to Gambia last time and will continue to use it over the next few months.

http://seahawkinthegambia.tumblr.com/

I am on it, slowly slowly…

These past two weeks I’ve been wearing my “program assistant hat” much more than my “research assistant hat.” My primary responsibility has been to train nineteen University of The Gambia students in SPSS (for those who don’t know – a statistical program utilized to store and analyze data in the social sciences). The students have been doing very well, reaffirming my conceptions of UTG students as passionate and engaged learners.

The purpose of training the students is to utilize their skills in a nearly decade-long project surveying Gambian high school students on their health, social lives, and risky behaviors. Each survey takes approximately three hours to administer and contains over 550 variables in the SPSS database. This summer, 300 surveys are being collected and in an effort to enter all of the data before leaving The Gambia, I have been working with three shifts of UTG students over eleven hour workdays.

Needless to say, these days have been exhausting, but it is exciting to observe the students’ progress and help them to successfully enter enough data each day to keep up with the flow of incoming completed surveys.

For Americans, living in Gambia is constantly one massive exercise in patience. Changing the abbreviation GMT to “Gambia Maybe Time” may be funny, but it is also a reality. Things just tend to move at a slower pace here, often frustrating Westerners. But it’s important to recognize that in keeping with the worldview of many if not most Gambians, God is in control. If a scheduled meeting doesn’t happen today or a professor doesn’t show up for class or you’re running two hours late…it just means that all of those things were meant to happen. It isn’t a human’s place to argue with the way things are, so they accept the amount of work that is successfully done each day and only make long term plans with the caveat – inshallah, or God willing – added to the end.

I think that living here in 2011 made me a bit more understanding on days when things didn’t go my way back home, but it’s nice to have this refresher course and remind myself that I can always be a little more patient, and it’s not always my place to question why things aren’t happening at the pace I would like them to. This data entry process has been tedious at best, but it is absolutely worthwhile and it is meaningful work that the UTG students and I are doing.

In both of the predominant local languages, Wolof and Mandinka, a common greeting is to ask someone how the work is – “Naka ligeey bi?” – in Wolof. The response is a phrase that I tried to make my personal motto throughout my first year of graduate school – “Mangi ci kowam, ndanka ndanka” – I am on it, slowly slowly. This phrase is a great reminder to take a breath, slow down, and realize that the things I’m stressing about probably aren’t as serious as I am building them up to be in my head.

As long as I am on it ndanka ndanka, I will continue to make progress…and probably maintain a bit more of my sanity along the way.

Real or Not Real?

This post, written by MAA student and lab member Rebecca Alberda, describes her experience on 29 March with a Red Cross Global Refugee simulation in Washington DC.  She participated as a refugee.  The day was cold and rainy at Bull Run, VA where the exercise took place.  ~Dr. Jen Shaffer

By Rebecca Alberda

TRIGGER WARNING: Due to the nature of this topic and my decision to use exact quotes, foul language will be present in the following blog post. Additionally, while I do not believe there to be anything that would be too disturbing, anyone who has experienced a refugee situation may find the following to serve as a trigger.


Quickly I pull up my hood, keep my head facing forward, with my eyes on the ground tracking the movements of the person in front of me, submissive. Soldiers, carrying guns, run up and down our single file line, screaming, “Where the FUCK do you THINK you’re going?!” and shove whomever falls out of line. The girl in front of me mistakenly starts laughing or smiling, I am not sure which as I am more focused on not tripping and falling into the muddy stream at my feet. Her laugh results in the halting of our line, a combatant gets in her face asking “What THE FUCK do you find so funny?” She doesn’t respond and luckily he moves on. In that moment I am strongly reminded that I too, at times, respond to stress inappropriately by laughing. I quickly bite my cheeks so that I do not make the same mistake. Soon we are past this latest obstacle. We do not look back, knowing that there are more like this to come.


photo (1)

“Tennis shoes or rain boots? Tennis shoes or rain boots?”, It’s a debate I have with myself for a good two days. I know that it’s most likely going to rain, but do I really want to hike for two miles in my rain boots? In the end I decide that, yes, rain boots are the correct choice. I’d rather have achy feet than soaking wet and cold feet. “What should I pack? They said anything in my bag could most likely get stolen or traded…what would I be okay with parting with?”, I choose some mismatched socks, a pair of old gloves, some food (granola bars) that I planned on dropping in the graduate lounge, an old sweatshirt from my ‘to donate’ pile, and some band-aids. I have the distinct advantage of knowing that I will most likely lose my possessions along the way, do real refugees know this when they pack up their bags to flee? I’m nervous, my nails and lips are a wreck, I don’t know what to expect, this part at least seems very real. I don’t sleep well the night before, dreaming about all the situations and scenarios I *might* find myself in. This too, is very real.


Est-ce votre famille?” The border guard screams at me in French. I don’t speak French, but I recognize the word family and go to respond “Yes,” however in that moment, my brain fails me and instead I answer “Si!” – thanks a lot brain. Fail. Despite answering in Spanish, the guard simply puffs his cigarette smoke in my face, hands back my rain soaked passport, and seemingly satisfied that I was not a combatant, waives me through to refuge.


photo 3 (1)

I am assigned a family when I arrive at the check-in point. There are seven of us, six females and one male. We are each given a story to memorize, a new name, a passport, and some (fake) money. We make decisions on who will have what, who will be in charge, and if we will talk to the press (we do not). We learn the nature of the conflict back home, why we are fleeing, which side we support, where we are going, what that country is like…the situation is dismal. We have it memorized. This will be important later, however, when under stress, our memorization will often fail us.


“Follow the footsteps of the person in front of you!”
“Look, right there, one is buried right there!”
Landmines. We step carefully, knowing that every step could be our last. So that’s why there were danger signs.


photo 1 (1)

This stupid wood is far too wet for the nails to stick properly, but somehow we manage to build our shelter. We all pile in, eat our now cold rice and beans, and watch while others struggle to build their own shelters in the pouring rain. We’ve promised one another that we wouldn’t touch the “tent,” not confident in our building skills, and have mini-heart attacks every time a UNHCR official moves the tarp to speak to us. Yet, the shelter stands firm.

photo 2 (1)


I’m cold. I’m wet. I’m very very muddy. My right rain boot has a leak in it and I’ve had to change my sock twice. But, I’ve survived. The same can’t be said for many along the journey. In fact, we have three missing in our family alone. But, we aren’t sick, or hurt. And we are together. The same can’t be said for many in this situation.


“Get off the fucking bus!”
“Move! Move! Move!”
Solider’s everywhere, pounding on the windows, shoving guns in our faces, there is smoke.
It is made clear that choosing to sit at the back of the bus was not a good choice as the soldier screams “YOU IN THE BACK, FUCKING MOVE IT! YOU’RE MOVING TOO SLOW!”
And when we finally move past him he gives us a little shove down the stairs.
We are running for our lives.

My heart starts to race with adrenaline. And though I know this is only a simulation, I am a bit nervous. I don’t know what to expect.


For more information on the Global Refugee Simulation by the American Red Cross Visit:
http://www.redcross.org/global-refugee-simulation-and-conference

For more information on ways to help or get involved in the Refugee Crisis:
http://www.icrc.org/eng/
http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home
http://www.refugees.org/