Archive for March 31, 2016

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Ndubueze Leonard Mbah

Dr. Ndubueze Leonard Mbah is Assistant Professor of History at the University at Buffalo. In 2011, while a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Emergent Masculinities: The Gendered Struggle for Power in Southeastern Nigeria, 1850-1920,’ supervised by Dr. Nwando Achebe. In 2015, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to produce a gendered narrative reconciliation film ethnography, juxtaposing male narratives and practices that seek to efface women and depict the Ohafia-Igbo as a militant Igbo society dominated by male warriors who subjugated women and preyed on non-Igbo neighbors for slaves; with female narratives and practices that posit Ohafia as a distinct matrilineal Igbo society dominated by female breadwinners and political rulers who forged filial links among multiple ethnicities in a borderland geography. 

I successfully carried out my community engagement ethnography with the Ohafia-Igbo, from June 1 to July 15, 2015, during the society’s annual homecoming festivals. I fulfilled the project’s primary goal, which was to share through accessible media, the findings of my historical ethnography with my community research partners. Moreover, I video recorded their reactions and feedback to the findings. The local custodians’ constructive criticisms, commentaries, validations and further clarification of my historical narrative and ethnographic interpretations, which I was able to obtain through this process, were most rewarding. The entire research journey, accessible in video media, affords students of history and anthropology a rare perspective into the methodology of historical ethnography.

In phase I, I developed and screened for Ohafia-Igbo participatory audiences, a 2h:40m documentary video of local gendered rituals and material culture politics, which memorialize the impact of the Atlantic world on transformations in gender identities and regimes over the past 300 years. Through tree cutting and plantain hunting rituals, war dances and new yam festivals, male-centered narratives memorialize the successive histories of settlement, slave production, and wealth masculinity. On the other hand, women’s contemporary rituals such as uzo-iyi (virginity testing) and ije akpaka (ritual declaration of war), political resistance strategies such as ibo ezi (strike and boycott) and ikpo mgbogho (social ostracism), and material culture practices such as the raising of matrilineal ancestress pot monuments (ududu), constitute female-centered narratives that celebrate women’s historic position as breadwinners and reproducers of matrilineages. The documentary presented these male and female narratives as complementary. Ohafia-Igbo villagers, including children, adult men and women, and members of specialist guilds such as spirit mediums, constituted the primary audience for the video documentary. The screening took place in village community halls, with the collaboration of community leaders, who assisted with conducive scheduling and public announcements (through town-criers). With the aid of a professional videographer, I filmed the audiences’ reactions to the documentary, as well as the extensive questions and debates that followed. In two particular cases, where the subject of debate was too politically sensitive to be discussed openly, I followed up with the concerned parties in private video-recorded interviews. I gifted copies of the documentary video to the village communities at the conclusion of the engagement.

In phase II, I assembled the male kings of the twenty-five Ohafia-Igbo villages, representatives of the female kings of three villages, several compound chiefs, university professors, and Nde Ikpirikpe Ogu (war dancers) at Elu, the society’s ancestral capital, on June 24, 2015. With the aid of a computer, projector screen and loudspeakers, I presented my book manuscript in the local language – Ohafia-Igbo. The event, which was also video-recorded, began with a public performance of the society’s history of migration and settlement through dance and songs by renowned Ohafia War Dancers. At the end of my 1-hour presentation, I received glowing affirmations of my thesis, namely, that the society’s concerted engagements with the Atlantic world through slave production, legitimate commerce, colonialism and Christianity between 1750 and 1920, shaped the demography of the African forced Diaspora, transformed local gender ideologies, and ushered a shift from a pre-colonial period characterized by female breadwinners and more powerful female political institutions, to a colonial period of male political domination. The audience was most impressed by the broader implications of their community’s history for the Atlantic world. Following my presentation, the Udumeze (king of kings) of Ohafia, in consort with the kings-in-council, honored me with royal Ima Nzu – the ritual adoption of an individual as a son-of-the-soil, as well as the War Dance – which signified that I had ‘gone to battle and cut a head’ for the community, in this case, by capturing what the Udumeze called “the very essence of our history, beyond the capacity of what we could have done ourselves.”

This Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Fellowship experience has been one of my most intellectually rewarding undertakings in the past seven years. It afforded me a wonderful opportunity to give back to my research community – by acknowledging their indispensability to the knowledge production process, and their co-ownership of the research product. It provided a platform for Ohafia men to publically acknowledge the central role of women in complex social transformations in their society, as well as the post-colonial marginalization of women from dominant spheres of political and economic power. Hence, while the engagement achieved the goal of mirroring before Ohafia participatory audiences the historical threads that have produced social inequalities, the process also engendered communitas. The community engagement has cemented the multi-disciplinary strength of my research methodology and provided me with a solid footing for the revision of my book manuscript.

NYAS @ WGF: Eben Kirksey and “Hope in Emergent Ecological Assemblages” [REGISTRATION REQUIRED]

This upcoming Monday, March 28th, at 7PM, the Wenner-Gren Foundation will host another great New York Academy of Sciences lecture, with Princeton University’s Eben Kirksey sharing his work. REGISTRATION IS REQUIRED.

New generations are learning how to care for emergent ecological assemblages by seeding them, nurturing them, protecting them, and ultimately letting go. This lecture will explore a series of interrelated questions: How do certain weedy plants, prolific animals, and adaptable fungi move among worlds, navigate shifting circumstances, and find emergent opportunities? When do new species add value to ecological associations, and when do they become irredeemably destructive? When should we let unruly forms of life run wild, and when should we intervene?

Rather than remain anxiously focused on possible losses, the talk will explore the imaginative horizons of organic intellectuals who are sifting through the wreckage of catastrophic disasters, searching for hope within landscapes that have been blasted by capitalism and militarism. Focusing on a reforestation project in the highlands of Costa Rica, the talk will consider one mans’ efforts to recreate a forest in collaboration with a multitude of plants, animals, and students on eleven hectares of derelict pasture near the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Rather than focus efforts on preserving rare species, this initiative involves cultivating alliances with weedy trees that are helping generate convivial assemblages. Using found objects and organisms—gleanings from the detritus of industrial food production and the litter of leaves in the forest—this project involves fostering an ecosystem that will endure many possible futures.

There will be a dinner at 6PM (free for students, $20 for others) with the lecture to follow at 7PM. Once again, YOU MUST REGISTER PRIOR TO THE EVENT in order to be admitted to the building.

 

 

 

 

 

Interview: Dr. Denise Blum

Dr. Denise Blum is Associate Professor in the Department of Education at Oklahoma State University. An educational anthropologist who has been conducting research in the Republic of Cuba since 1995, Dr. Blum received a Wenner-Gren Conference & Workshop Grant to organize ‘Rethinking Public Anthropology through Epistemic Politics and Practice’ at the Hotel Habana Riviera in Havana, Cuba, in collaboration with Rodrigo Espina Prieto and Rosalin Bayona Mojena of the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research. We spoke to Dr. Blum to learn more about this unprecedented collaborative project.

 

Could you talk a little about how this project first got underway? What goals were you hoping to accomplish?

In November 2014 I was on sabbatical in Cuba, doing follow up research about my initial research with 9th graders in 1999 now as 30 year olds to see how their lives had played out. Did they fulfill their aspirations of their high school years? What correspondence did their schooling have with their current employment and quality of life?

I was invited by the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research in Havana to collaborate and receive mentorship on my current project during my sabbatical.

During this time I initiated a conversation with my mentor, the Associate Director of the Institute, about the possibility of applying for a Wenner-Gren grant to bring an anthropology workshop to Havana.

It must be understood that, first of all, no one in Cuba has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, unless they were able to leave the country to obtain it. The discipline of anthropology was eliminated from The University of Havana at the beginning of the Revolution and did not rear its head again until the mid 2000s.  A course in anthropology may serve those in the natural sciences now, who pursue a career in archeology, forensics or health care.  A master’s degree in anthropology was recently created in 2008 and so far two selected cohorts have been able to pursue it——again for the same types of careers aforementioned. Therefore, the career as an anthropologist still does not exist in Cuba.

With this problematic and the desire to collaborate with the United States on this grant, we thought it to be most practical to focus the workshop on applied and activist anthropology. Regardless of recent changes, the Cuban government and society feel strongly about goals of social justice. Anthropological fieldwork, in general, does not always serve this purpose. Therefore, this way we could assure to serve Cuban interests the most, considering differing ideologies and politics, and bring focus to the workshop.

To be efficient with our time together, I advocated for the invited participants to be all Spanish-speaking.

 

How many of the non-Cuban participants had prior experience with the country? 

Surprisingly, out of the 13 participants, only 5 participants had visited the country previously.

 

What were some of the challenges of hosting a workshop in Havana? 

I assumed that all of the Latin American participants would not have any challenges while in Cuba. One really difficult situation is money.  A participant from Brazil called me at 11pm at the hotel and told me that the airport “Cadeca,” or money exchange, would not change her reales and asked me that if she got a taxi to the hotel ($20 USD equivalent) would I be able to pay for it. I agreed and fortunately all of us had enough extra money to pool our funds during the entire time to cover her expenses because nowhere in Havana (banks included) would they change her reales nor could she withdraw money on her bank or credit card.

For others, they brought some cash, thinking they could put many of their expenses on credit card. Very few places take a credit card: typically only hotels and very expensive stores. So people did ask to borrow money from me, and I was glad that I had extra cash. In addition, everything is much more expensive than you can imagine; oftentimes you would pay more than in the United States for the same item.  For example, at a restaurant, it might be difficult to pay less than $10 USD for a sandwich and drink. You have to really know Cuba to find the restaurants in Cuban pesos; then your meal might cost the equivalent of $5 USD.

For clarification, there are two currencies in use in Cuba: CUCs and the Cuban peso. The CUC, or convertible peso, has been in use since 1994, when it was treated as equivalent to the U.S. dollar. Officially exchangeable only within the country, its value is $1USD and is the more dominant of the two, especially for tourists.  The Cuban peso is valued at 22 Cuban pesos to the US dollar and is typically used by Cubans to obtain the limited goods that the Cuban government offers at the bodega, where the ration booklet is in effect, but staples are limited. Most Cubans earn salaries in Cuban pesos (average Cuban salary varies between $20-$30 a month), as they work for the state. They must convert these pesos to CUCs to buy almost everything they need, which are at prices equivalent to stores in the US, take for example, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, etc.

Definitely the most difficult situation for me was the money. I have been traveling to and doing research in Cuba for 20 years and am very resourceful and well networked, but I had never done a workshop before and this brought a couple of major challenges.

First, I was dealing with the logistics with a Cuban scholar who did not have a phone, not to mention internet for Skype. She typically used a pay phone on the street when making phone calls to anyone in Havana or she called from the phone at the research institute. However, neither place is equipped (because others need to use the phone too) to deal with lengthy phone calls (more than 5-10 minutes). This entire workshop was planned via email without ever talking to my contacts in Cuba—-hundreds (if not thousands) of emails Cuba-US. So many details and frequently there were misunderstandings. In addition, I had to communicate with the other 12 participants (3 from the US and 9 from Latin America), organize passport information and information for a Cuban visas, write letters of invitation in Spanish and English, translate wiring forms that were written in English to Spanish so that the Spanish-speaking folks could fill them out and my university could disburse traveling funds to them (there were also mixups with the money not arriving at the proper bank). None of the aforementioned went smoothly. In fact, the scanned passport pages would not pass through email. The Cuba side did not have access to Dropbox, so I had to find someone traveling to Cuba to take all of this paperwork on a flashdrive to the Institute.  There were glitches at every turn, costing more time and energy on my part.  Creating the program was a collaboration that went through many renditions until the day before the workshop. Some of the initial participants dropped out at the last minute. I invited new ones and the process of getting them into the workshop was repeated with these new participants.

In addition, a Dropbox was created so US and Latin American scholars could deposit select research articles, which could be uploaded to flashdrives to share with the Cubans in the workshops. Folders (with paper, program, and pen) were created at my university for the workshop. We had, with 6 Cuban panelists, a total of 22 presenters for the workshop and 38 Cuban scholars attending in the audience.  Everything for the workshop was created with 60 people, presenters and audience, in mind.

The major challenge for me was that I had reservations at the Hotel Riviera via email based on prices I saw on their website at $35 USD per night. When I arrived in Havana 4 days before the workshop began, the hotel told  me that that website operated under a different entity than the hotel and that they could not offer me that price. I contacted the website and they did not have those rooms available any longer.  The hotel was quoting me $144 per night for a double and $125 for a single. The rooms were not paid for —–only reserved—-and I had 12 people arriving in 48 hours to Havana.  Needless to say, I did not have the cash to pay for this. The Latin Americans would not be able to afford the rooms at this price, and all of the other hotels, which were only slightly lower in price, were booked.  We looked for peoples’ homes to place the participants—–nothing available. Finally, I decided to pay for the rooms through the agency. They accepted my credit card because it went through a bank in Amsterdam. I asked all of the Latin American participants to pay me $35 per night (for 3 nights) and the 3 US participants to pay me the full amount.  I never revealed this story to the Latin American participants; I absorbed the cost and was a nervous wreck in the process and broke out in hives that didn’t disappear until the workshop was over.

Other than the various situations with the money, it was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, partly because it brought so much meaning to all involved, an eye opener every day. My mentor, renowned cultural anthropologist, Doug Foley, had always wanted to conduct research in Cuba and for various factors in his life, stayed in Texas and accomplished his well-known ethnography on the raza in South Texas instead. He has spent years living vicariously through my research and this was a thrilling experience for him.  When I was able to finally take him to a school compound on our own, where I had connections to the teachers there, we were able to visit several classrooms and hear from students. This was an unplanned visit. What he witnessed and his reaction was so moving to me; it was additional confirmation to me that I had had the best mentor possible in my career as an anthropologist. He said, “This is very emotional. It has touched my heart.”  We all strive to be understood. I’m sometimes seen as fanatical about Cuba’s education system, and finally, the person who had been reading my work all of these years understood me and knew why Cuba’s education system is truly revolutionary. This marked an important moment for me.

 

It was very important for your workshop that you publish on a Cuban press. Could you talk a little about the Cuban publishing process?

Oh my gosh.  Well, since I did the bulk of the legwork on the workshop, the Cubans at the research institute will review the manuscripts. The Juan Marinello Research Institute has its own publication press.  In Cuba, typically you have to pay to fund your book and most Cubans find funding from external sources. We were quoted that $3000 will fund 1000 copies of the book (approximately 250 pages) containing chapters from those participants who presented research and ideas on activist and applied anthropology at the workshop. This will be published in Spanish and be able to have a further reach to Cubans, rather than being published outside of the island. Our manuscripts are due by March 4th and the hope is that the book will be published by September 2016.

 

What was it like working with Cuban anthropologists? Was there anything particular that caught you by surprise? 

That there are no Cuban anthropologists, except Jesus Guanche, who was able to obtain his Ph.D. outside of Cuba.

 

Finally, what did you take from this remarkable (indeed, groundbreaking) experience? Does the group have any plans on working together again in the future?

The Cubans commented on how rich in information the group was and how cohesive we were as a group—-that there a strong, warm personal connection and solidarity—- where few people knew more than one other person besides myself.  Everyone was very very appreciative of this opportunity. Everyone learned something new and has maintained contact.

Charlie Hale, UT Austin senior anthropologist, has talked about having a follow up conference in Austin that might focus on the role of emotion in activist work.

I am bringing 3 Cubans to a conference in Austin in about a month.