Engaged Anthropology Grant: Nidhi Mahajan

Lecture at Fort Jesus Museum

While a doctoral student at Cornell University, Nidhi Mahajan received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Merchants of Mombasa and the Making of a Shadow Economy,” supervised by Dr. Viranjini Munasinghe. In 2016 Dr. Mahajan received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Illegality and Maritime Trade in Coastal Kenya: A Public Dialogue on Economic Transformation”.

Fort Jesus is an imposing structure that lies atop a coral ridge with a sweeping view of Mombasa’s harbor – an ideal point from which to watch ships pass in and out of the Swahili port city. This was indeed, one of the purposes of the fort, designed to look like a person laying down, their head to the sea. Built by the Portuguese sometime between 1593 and 1596, to secure their position in this part of East Africa and their ambitions across the Indian Ocean, the building is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Upon visiting the fort, now a museum, one cannot help but be struck by a mural presumably done by unknown Portuguese mariners from the sixteenth century – hand-drawn images of ships, mythical sea creatures, sailors, and the sea – carefully preserved within the museum’s walls, natural light in the display room playing tricks on one’s imagination, the past casting shadows upon the present. The fort marked the violent entry of the Portuguese into the Indian Ocean. Where once no state claimed authority over the sea, the Portuguese in the fifteenth century (followed by the Dutch and British) wed cannons with trade, and altered the shape of history. Trade that was once carried on freely across the Indian Ocean, came to be regulated by colonial states who ruled with the force of the gun.

My dissertation project examined the contemporary resonances of this long history of tension between Indian Ocean trade networks and the state in East Africa, focusing on the creation of a shadow economy in the Indian Ocean. Examining the entanglements between the sailing vessel or dhow trade and multiple regulatory regimes in the western Indian Ocean, I argue that these trade networks have been pushed into a blurry realm between legal and illegal trade by states as they pose a threat to state sovereignty. When I returned to Kenya in 2016, it was fitting that the Fort Jesus Museum became a space for engagement. While the museum is usually where objects such as ivory, jewelry, and intricately carved furniture from the Swahili coast are carefully displayed in glass cases, the photo exhibition I curated for the museum emphasized a humble object – the mangrove pole.

Mangroves poles from the swamps of the Lamu archipelago in northern Kenya were once harvested and exported out to the Middle East, where they were used for structural timber in homes. Sailors from Oman, Iran, and India would arrive in Lamu with goods like carpets, food stuffs, dates, furniture, and porcelain and carry back cargoes of mangrove poles, animal hides, ivory and even enslaved peoples from these shores. While scholars have written much about these luxury goods, mangrove poles, a key export from the Swahili coast have rarely been examined by scholars. This mangrove pole trade however, structured economic life in Lamu, employing a large number of its residents as cutters, porters, merchants, and transporters. While the mangrove pole export trade came to an end in the 1980s, as the government of Kenya banned the trade citing concerns about environmental conservation, many of those involved in the trade viewed its illegalization as wrapped up in other political economic concerns. Some say that the trade was banned to prevent ivory smuggling, while others believe it was a way for the state government to purposefully impoverish this community that lies at the margins of the Kenyan state. Regardless, the mangrove pole trade is well-remembered in Lamu, even if it remains undocumented.

As part of my engagement project, I curated a photo exhibition for the Fort Jesus Museum titled “From Swamp to Sea: The Mangrove Pole trade on the Swahili Coast.” Using photos in the archives of the Museum as well as private collections, the exhibit pointed to the complexities of the trade and its regulation. It opened on 19th July 2016, in Mombasa and will travel to other museums in Lamu and Malindi, on the Kenyan coast. On the day of the opening, I presented a lecture on the trade and its history in an effort to share my research with the community. Residents of Lamu and Mombasa present at the opening expressed their surprise on seeing an exhibit of a quotidian good in a museum, the curator of Fort Jesus even exclaiming, “We must think of history through these everyday objects!” as we discussed the political and economic ramifications of the trade and its ban.

For the rest of the project, I shared the results of my research with both, my interlocutors and the academic community in Kenya. I presented a public lecture “The Contemporary Dhow Trade in the Western Indian Ocean,” to residents of Mombasa at the Friends of Fort Jesus Seminar program. Against the backdrop of the fort, we discussed shifting regulatory regimes in the Indian Ocean, smuggling, and neoliberal economic transformations that threaten communities of seafarers and merchants across the Indian Ocean littoral.

These discussions then shaped a talk at the British Institute in Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, where I gave a seminar titled “A Sea of Suspicion: The Dhow Trade and Dispossession in the Western Indian Ocean.” Attended by academics based in Nairobi, the talk gave me the opportunity to communicate research findings to specialists of East Africa who don’t work on the Swahili coast, but are nonetheless engaged with broader debates about political economy in the country.

This engaged anthropology grant therefore enabled me to return to Kenya, to build on old connections and forge new ones as I communicated my work in different formats to the academic and non-academic community in Mombasa and Nairobi.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Roseann Liu


Dr. Roseann Liu

Roseann Liu is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Swarthmore College. In 2013 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to to aid research on “Educating for Justice: Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and a Charter School’s Pursuit of Racial Equality,” supervised by Dr. Kathleen D. Hall. In 2015 Dr. Liu received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘”Protocol and Professional Development, Reciprocity and Representation”.

Ever since the rise of multicultural education in the U.S., there have been efforts made to include minority students’ histories and cultures. More often than not, these efforts have resulted in token lessons or special celebrations that only scratch the surface.  The school in which I conducted fieldwork was noteworthy for its thoughtful approach toward including marginalized students’ histories and cultures into its curricular programs. However, it still struggled with how to teach, for example, Asian American history and African American history in a way that was not compartmentalized. This resulted in students’ categorization of certain lessons as being “for” certain racial/ethnic groups. During Asian-American week, black students asked questions like “Where were we?” and likewise, Asian-American students wanted to know more about the role that Asian Americans played in the civil rights movement. Part of the goal of this engaged anthropology grant was to provide teachers with the tools to highlight the intersection of different minority groups in American history, and the time to be able to revise their social studies curriculum so that it was clear that these groups’ histories did not exist in a vacuum. This grant allowed teachers to engage in professional development, and dedicated time to think about a social studies unit that would specifically address the student population that was mostly comprised of black and Asian students.

Another goal of the engaged anthropology grant was to create more reciprocal relationships with practitioners at the school around ethnographic representation. A series of meetings took place with board members and administrators at the school so that we could begin a dialogue about the findings from my dissertation research, and the role of ethnographers in schools more generally. The first meeting included a presentation of the major findings from my dissertation and an opportunity for school members to respond in person that provided their own perspectives on my ethnography. The next step included chapter-by-chapter written feedback that school members provided to me. Shortly before I engaged in final revision of the dissertation, my dissertation committee met with school members to discuss issues of ethnographic representation, and more broadly explaining what anthropology and ethnography offers in terms of understanding broader social problems. We also discussed school members’ perspectives on my findings and the final dissertation was revised with their feedback in mind. In the final draft of the dissertation, I wrote a more nuanced explanation of the school’s founding history, it’s mission, and its curricular programs.

The dialogue also prompted me to provide, from my perspective, a realistic understanding of the forms of financial and human resources that can or cannot be expected, the specific research activities ethnographers are likely to engage in, and the timeline of moving from fieldwork to findings. This dialogue helped them consider the level of access they want to provide, to weigh the potential benefits against the costs of participating in external research, and to manage expectations around reciprocity. From these dialogues the board has been engaged in a process for thinking through how to entertain requests from researchers to conduct research in their school.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Melanie Martin


Tsimane mothers and children from Monte Rosa study community

Melanie Martin is a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale University. In 2012 while a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to to aid research on “Maternal Factors Influencing Variation in Infant Feeding Practices in a Natural Fertility Population,” supervised by Dr. Michael Gurven. In 2016 Dr. Martin received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Targeting Early Life Health Risks Among the Tsimane Through Mixed Educational Outreach Modes”.

I had studied infant care and feeding practices among the Tsimane from 2012-2013. The Tsimane are a hunter-forager population residing in the Bolivian Amazon, with a high burden of infectious disease. Tsimane mothers breastfeed intensively for 2 years or more, but introduce complementary foods relatively early (around 4 months on average). My research examined maternal perceptions of infant needs and other motivations influencing their feeding decisions, as well as variation in infant nutritional status associated with variation in the timing and quality of complementary feeding. Though not the primary focus of my investigation, my research documented local inequalities in prenatal care and vaccine coverage, as well as modifiable behaviors related to child nutrition and antibiotic usage that could be targeted through educational initiatives. With the  Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant, I returned to Bolivia in July of 2016 to revisit the families that had participated in my study, and present these results to the wider Tsimane community.

Martin in meeting with EBB director Carola Vaca and rangers

I first presented formal reports of my results to three organizations that provide or at times help facilitate health care for the Tsimane: the primary health clinic servicing the Tsimane (Horeb), the Gran Consejo Tsimane (the local governing body of the Tsimane), and the Estacion Biological de Beni (EBB), the bioreserve in which several of my study communities were located. During my field research, the EBB transported physicians to these villages when they otherwise lacked the funds to do so, thus facilitating the only available preventative care for many pregnant women and children—a fact which I highlighted in my report.

Martin and Nate present research findings on Radio Horeb broadcast

Following these meetings, my assistant Bernabe Nate and I gave a 15 minute radio broadcast discussing my results on Radio Horeb—a mission-operated AM station broadcast in most Tsimane homes. In discussing results of our project, we encouraged families to eat eggs, papaya, butternut squash, and legumes– foods that are rich in vitamin A and other nutrients that support healthy growth, development, and immune function. My research showed that although many Tsimane families cultivate these foods, children infrequently consume them. I had also documented fairly extensive misuse of antibiotics, which can be purchased over-the-counter at local pharmacies and market kiosks. Antiobiotic misuse and rising bacterial resistance are global problems, but the Tsimane have received little to no education on safe antibiotic usage. We used horticulture analogies and existing public health campaigns to explain how bacterial resistance develops, to warn families against administering antibiotics for common cold and flu symptoms, and to encourage them to purchase antibiotics only in a pharmacy after consultation with a doctor or pharmacist (to ensure the antibiotics are not expired and will be administered in the proper dosage). I created two educational posters depicting these messages, which were delivered to the Gran Consejo and the health clinic at Horeb, and presented to study villages in community meetings.

Community meeting in Chacal

The community visits allowed me to answer additional questions about my research, and visit the many families who participated in my research or otherwise welcomed us into their communities. These visits were the most gratifying part of my trip (and not just because it was prime fishing season, and I was invited to enjoy many massive meals of delicious, fire-roasted fish!). The infants I had worked with were all now 3-5 years old, and many mothers had had other children since then. They were delighted when I showed them pictures of my own daughter, now 3, who I was pregnant with while in the field. Tellingly, many families also asked, somewhat perplexedly, “so you’re not going to do any interviews?”, when I first showed up in their villages, and then smiled warmly when I replied, “jam, sobaqui momo” (“no, I’m just visiting.”).

Educational poster highlighting ‘Cuidado con los antiobíoticos’ appropriate and inappropriate antibiotic usage

In truth, though the educational messages were well-received, I can’t say how effective they were. But that is really beside the point, as ultimately this research was as much a collaborative effort with participants as a product of my own design and analysis. The Tsimane I spoke with appeared to understand and appreciate the initiative to share that joint knowledge with them, irrespective of what they ultimately do with it. It is difficult for researchers working in remote locations to make trips without a specific research agenda, and circumstances often move early career anthropologists to work with new populations. This was certainly true in my case, for which reason I remain grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with study participants and interpret meaningful aspects of my research, and their participation in it, for the wider Tsimane community.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Laura Bidner

Students in Il Motiok Primary School’s conservation club identifying animal footprints shown on a computer by Laura Bidner (Photo by Nancy Rubenstein)

While a doctoral student at Arizona State University Laura Bidner received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2005 to aid research on “Predator-Prey Interactions Between Leopards and Chacma Baboons in South Africa,” supervised by Dr. Leanne T. Nash. After successfully defending her dissertation and receiving a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant in 2011, Dr. Bidner went on to receive an Engaged Anthropology Grant in 2016 to aid engaged activities on “Clever Prey and Wary Predators: Using Monkey – Leopard Dynamics to Communicate Local Ecological Connections”.

It is late on an afternoon in June, and classes are just letting out at Ol Jogi Primary School in Laikipia, Kenya.  Students mill about and laugh.  One group is gathered on benches under a tree listening to a fellow student; it is a meeting of the school’s conservation club. I see familiar faces in the students and the faculty advisors of the club as I approach and sit to listen with the Princeton University student interns, who are working with the clubs this summer as well. I led activities with the club the week before on strategies baboons, vervet monkeys, and leopards use to survive around each other (i.e., to eat and avoid being eaten or attacked!) based on findings from research I conducted not far away in 2014.

Il Motiok students measuring and drawing animal footprints around their school grounds with guidance from Laura Bidner (Photo by Nancy Rubenstein)

Although I am not leading the activities with the club this week, I plan to ask a few follow-up questions to assess the effectiveness of last-week’s lesson at the start of the meeting. However, as soon as we sit down, I realize that the student speaking is discussing what the club did last week and what they learned from those activities! I am thrilled to find out that they had such an impact, and inspired to see the ecological interactions I have studied interpreted through new, young, Kenyan eyes.

I designed my Wenner Gren Engaged Anthropology project, “Clever Prey and Wary Predators: Using Monkey – Leopard Dynamics to Communicate Local Ecological Connections,” to convey results from recent research conducted at Mpala Research Centre (MRC) – partially funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation – to the local community around Laikipia, Kenya. I was able to coordinate my activities and visits to Northern Kenya Conservation Clubs set up at local schools with Nancy and Dan Rubenstein of Princeton University, who have worked to establish these clubs over the last eight years, and two Princeton undergraduates interns working with them this summer. In addition to leading interactive lessons on the dynamic relationship between leopards and primates at ten of the twelve schools, and hands-on activities on remote monitoring techniques and footprint identification at six schools, I also assisted with set up of remote camera traps around schools, aided interns in implementing ecologically-based lessons, and helped to prepare club groups for their Community Conservation Day presentations.

Laura Bidner showing the students in Ewaso Primary School’s conservation club a GPS collar used for tracking baboons (Photo by Nancy Rubenstein)

Although the date of the Community Conservation Day was delayed until after my return to the US, one of the conservation clubs played the “sneak attack” game from my leopard-primate interaction lesson as their presentation to the entire community during the event.

When I arrived in Kenya in early June to embark on this project, I did not know exactly what to expect.  I was very familiar with the research centre and the surrounding landscape where I had spent a year tracking groups of baboons and vervet monkeys, and stealthy individual leopards on a daily basis. As I prepared for the project in the US, I discussed how to tailor my activities to the rural Kenyan school settings with the Rubensteins via Skype and with a friend and former field assistant who had worked with the conservation clubs in the past. I also used my own experiences working with elementary through college students and international field assistants to develop engaging activities, and to design materials to distribute to the schools as part of my activities.  I arrived in Kenya with handmade, laminated “gametags” for the students to identify themselves as leopards, baboons, and vervet monkeys during one planned activity, as well as a camera trap to set up during that activity, and footprint guides for a track identification and measuring activity.

A camera trap photograph capturing students in Lekiji Primary School’s conservation club playing the “sneak attack” game

Visiting the schools to meet with the faculty advisors, and discussing my plans for my initial leopard-primate activities with the Princeton interns in the first week helped me get my activities ready to go.  At the research center I even found the perfect easily-transportable camera-trap stand, and an old GPS collar nearly identical to our project’s baboon GPS collars to bring to show the clubs.

My first meeting with the conservation club at Il Motiok Primary School across the river was filled with the enthusiastic sounds of students imitating the alarm calls of vervet monkeys, squealing with delight while fleeing to trees or chasing “leopards” during the game, and laughing uproariously at seeing themselves and their classmates captured in camera trap photos viewed immediately after the game.  When I planned and prepared for the project, I had been so focused on the intended conservation and educational outcomes, and on communicating these effectively to Kenyan elementary and secondary students, that I was completely caught off guard by how much unbridled fun the activities generated!

A camera trap photograph of a “leopard” cornering a “baboon” during the “sneak attack” game at Shiloh Nibor Primary School

I realized that the engagement of the students in ecological activities reflected not only their thirst for knowledge about local ecology, but also their pride of place, and that these together are the keys to the future of conservation in the region in the long term. Through this project I learned so much by working with the clubs, their advisors, Mpala staff, and the crew from Princeton not only about effective communication and educational techniques in ecology and conservation, but also about Kenyan perspectives, priorities, and lifeways.  I saw how sincerely everyone from Mpala staff whose children were in conservation club to the research center director, Dr. Dino Martins, valued conservation education, and I felt part of a very important, rewarding, and vital effort to help forge the path of Kenya’s ecological future.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Laura Montesi

Some workshop participants; and Adolfo Rebolledo, the second on the left, and anthropologist Laura Montesi in the middle (picture by colleague Diego Martínez)

While a doctoral student at University of Kent, Laura Montesi received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2014 to aid research on “Making Sense of Diabetes Among the Indigenous Huave People of San Dionisio del Mar, Oax., Mexico,” supervised by Dr. Anna Waldstein. After successfully defending her dissertation Dr. Montesi received an Engaged Anthropology Grant in 2016 to aid engaged activities on “Structural Food Nostalgia in Times of Diabetes”.

I arrived in Mexico in the aftermath of the Nochixtlán repression. In several Mexican states teachers had taken to the streets in protest of federal education reform. The government’s subsequent repressive acts were fiercest in Nochixtlán, a municipality on the outskirts of Oaxaca City. On the 19th of June, the confrontation between striking teachers and the federal police left a death toll of twelve civilians.

Listing the diseases affecting the community and ordering them by importance or urgency (picture by workshop participants)The education reform includes teacher evaluations aimed at selecting “good” public school teachers. Opponents argue that such evaluations allow the government to justify mass layoffs and the gradual demolishment of public education, and that they also ignore the ethno-cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic diversity of the nation and punish teachers stronger in traditional knowledge systems than in the national, hegemonic curriculum.

It was in this atmosphere of tensions that I reached my fieldsite, San Dionisio del Mar, an Ikojts/Huave community of 3,000, located in one of the most politically unstable regions of Oaxaca, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Here, the teachers’ discontent combined with other social demands, such as the defense of the territory against aggressive industrial exploitation.

Interviewing the elderly on the epidemiological transition and social change in San Dionisio del Mar (picture by workshop participants). Anthropologist Montesi in the back observing the interview process

My Wenner-Gren workshop, which promoted reflection on the link between health, food practices and cultural identity, was designed to be participatory and collaborative, encouraging research-actions that build upon the participants’ interests and skills. In a way, this engaged workshop is consonant with the social movements in Mexico that are fostering a transformative and culturally plural kind of education.

My PhD explored the experiences of Ikojts rural men and women living with diabetes in San Dionisio. In my research, I scrutinized how Sandionisians make sense of diabetes at a personal, family and community level. I discovered that diabetes is an idiom for vulnerability, namely a manifestation of structural and ordinary violence, and a metaphor expressing compelling concerns. These concerns include changes in the local diet, the most tangible sign of a more general loss of cultural identity and cohesion.

Learning about and playing with photos (picture by workshop participants)

With my Wenner-Gren grant, I could stay in San Dionisio for a month and work with younger members of the community (high school students, aged 15-16). They documented, analyzed and produced materials on past, present, and future foodways through photographs, interviews, and videos. A holistic view of health emerged from the multiple relationships discovered between wellness, ecology and local knowledges.

The workshop was divided into four main parts:

During the first week, my colleagues — Adolfo Rebolledo (ecologist), Juan Pablo Mayorga (journalist specialized in environmental topics), and Diego Martínez (documentary maker) — and I encouraged discussion on a range of related topics: everyday diets, origin of food resources, characteristics of local and imported/processed foods, emerging diseases and the epidemiological transition, and the nature of diabetes, including its medical and social aspects.

Workshop participants present their work at the local high school

These topics were addressed through a number of activities. For example, the participants categorized their food and beverage intakes of the previous 24 hours into sets. Some chose to classify them by nutrients, others by origin, others by when eaten. All identified comida chatarra, junk food, as an independent food category, prompting us to analyze processed food labeling. As a result, the students realized how little pre-packaged food labels revealed and how privileged they were to have locally produced foods such as corn, fish, shrimp, and fruits. A territory mapping exercise followed, with workshop participants asked to draw San Dionisio del Mar and all its surroundings, and to locate its sources of food. This exercise helped us rethink the value of local food systems and the implications of food dependence on community well being. We also interviewed elders about the social, dietary and health changes they have witnessed. The students enjoyed being researchers in their community.

During the second week, they received training on the basic principles of interviewing as well as documenting through photographs and videos.

A view of San Dionisio del Mar and its salty lagoons

The third week was dedicated to research projects. One group explored the fishing techniques of poor fishermen and analyzed the unequal relationship between Ikojts fishermen and external, often Zapotec, traders. In a wonderful documentary they made, they express the hope that Ikojts fishermen will be able one day to compete more fairly.

The second group exemplified the dietary transition in a photo essay portraying an Ikojts woman, Doña Carmela, preparing supper. Diabetic, Doña Carmela told her interviewers that she is confused about processed food: “My daughter-in-law cooks Maruchan pasta often. My husband thinks it’s not good and causes cancer. I sincerely don’t know.” Her words reflect how uncertain people are about food today.

The fourth week of the workshop ended with the presentation of the students’ work at the local high school. Pupils from other classrooms and the students’ families were invited. I also shared my research results and underlined the importance of community-based initiatives that, conjugating scientific and community knowledge, craft appropriate responses to local needs. The project met with great approval, and the students’ families requested it be repeated next year. May this be the first of similar initiatives!

Attentive at the presentations

As part of my Wenner-Gren activities, and thanks to the initiative of anthropologist Citlalli  López, I also helped organize an intercultural exchange between the teachers of San Dionisio del Mar and the educational community of the Intercultural University of Veracruz (UVI). This university, which offers bachelor degrees to young minority and/or disadvantaged students, is nationally recognized for its strengthening of communities’ knowledges and practices. I traveled with my friend Obdulio Muriel, an Ikojts teacher, to the UVI in Zongolica, in the state of Veracruz. Obdulio, an advocate of linguistic rights, and I have worked together on several projects.

At the UVI, we presented our work in the interrelated fields of language/culture revitalization and traditional medicine. In exchange, the UVI students and teachers, mostly Nahuatl speakers, showed us their projects on environmental and food systems conservation. We all found that our topics display interesting overlaps and agreed to continue this intercultural exchange.

Ikojts teacher Obdulio Muriel talks about his community and our work on language/culture revitalization to UVI students and professors

At the end, Obdulio said: “This experience was very useful. I feel satisfied because I was able to make public all the work that we [the school he works in] have done and that usually remains confined to our small village. Reciprocally, the people here showed us the work they are carrying out with their communities, and this can be an example we [the Ikojts] can follow.”

Just after a lively discussion on the socio-cultural aspects of diabetes at the General Hospital in Tamaulipas

These exchanges of ideas and experiences, which were helped by the Wenner-Gren grant, should have a place in academia as well as in the public health sector. To this end, I presented the core themes of my research to diverse audiences. During one presentation, given at CIESAS (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social), I met with Mexican anthropologists working on diabetes among indigenous peoples. This was a valuable opportunity to make ethnological comparisons and explore future research collaboration. With medical doctors and nurses at a public hospital in the northern state of Tamaulipas, which has one of the highest prevalence rates of diabetes in Mexico, I shared a sociocultural perspective on diabetes. The medical staff talked about its successes and failures in working with diabetes patients, and was glad to learn about a more “humanistic” approach to this metabolic disorder.

Overall, all these experiences made me realize how transformative anthropological research can be when we dare to cross spatial, cultural, and disciplinary frontiers.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Ather Zia


A preliminary meeting in progress: Discussing the Engaged Anthropology project with the APDP (JKCCS)

Ather Zia is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Center for Asian Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder. In 2011 while a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Politics of Absence: Women Searching for the Disappeared in Kashmir,” supervised by Dr. Victoria Bernal. In 2016 Dr. Zia received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Exploring Strategies for a Stronger Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir”.

This project, building on the findings of my previous study worked on  how the women-led Association of Parents of the Disappeared Persons popularly called the APDP[1] in Kashmir could overcome three challenges that pose a threat to its goals and long-term sustainability. In Kashmir, since the armed movement broke out in 1989, India has deployed massive number of armed troops. In the lethal counter-insurgency laws measures implemented by India, human rights groups claim that over 70,000 people have been killed and more than 8000 men have been forcibly disappeared in custody by the Indian army.  The APDP member-activists  are mainly Muslim women, including mothers and wives (called half-widows) of the disappeared men who have become tireless human rights activists, an unprecedented engagement in a conservative Muslim-dominated society. The APDP activists mobilize demonstrations, pursue court cases and collect documentation.

Lawyers and activists strategizing

On one hand the APDP has become an internationally visible movement, but on the other hand it faces three challenges that threaten its effective working towards searching for the disappeared men; 1) the legal cases pertaining to the disappeared persons filed in courts against the army and the state by the APDP activists are languishing in courts without results, 2) APDP suffers lack of funding to support its day to day activities which includes documentation, legal proceedings, creating public awareness and even salaries for the member staff [who are trained human rights activists) 3) In case of half-widow-activists, there is lack of awareness about the duration they have to wait before they can remarry. While not a direct challenge to APDP as a movement, the half-widows need support because having lost husbands who were their primary breadwinners, these women have also lost financial means and social status.

Within the purview of the engaged anthropology project as proposed I conducted a series of workshops with various sections of the host community and external resource persons to understand the breadth of the aforementioned issues and interrogate strategies through which the APDP as a organization can be made more robust and create support for its members. These workshops provided a chance to generate a dialogue between the members and other participants for creating successful legal strategies, raising funds, and supporting the organization in most crucial aspects.

APDP activists discuss life, activism, financial, and legal struggles

This engagement project aimed  1) To enable a dialogue between the APDP members and legal practitioners, scholars and activists to explore strategies for making legal procedures for enforced disappearance cases yield maximum results; (2) To generate a conversation amidst APDP members about their challenges and struggles of emotional, legal and financia nature,  (3) To enable a dialogue between APDP member-activists, professional HR activists and potential donors towards exploring the possibilities  for fundraising, (4) To enable a dialogue between the APDP members and religious scholars to address the issue of re-marriage for half-widows; its religious and social consequences and creating awareness.

The participants in the workshops included those that have previously and/or are currently involved with APDP, such as, mothers, half-widows and other kin-activists; APDP administrative staffers and internees; Lawyers, judicial officials, and legal activists; Religious scholars and social activists.

Workshop 1: Legal Workshop – Rethinking, and Strategizing Human Rights Cases

Exchanging ideas and recording details

This workshop proved to be a significant milestone in rethinking and strategizing APDP’s legal struggles. The Wenner Gren Engaged anthropology project was pivotal in generating a legal network; gathering relevant participants, and creating discussion.

Workshop 2 & 3: Sustaining solidarity and the Future of APDP

The conversation between the activists was cathartic and eye opening. This meeting opened floodgates of emotion and concerns by asking the members “now what from here on?” The activists shared their concerns and challenges both concerning their private and public activism. The discussion included talking about topics: like sustaining solidarity; reinforcing the APDP efforts; funding for APDP; help for families; half-widows; engaging the next generation with APDP and future challenges. A few initiatives were discussed aiming at alleviating some financial challenges of the activists and the organization.

Workshop 4: Future of Half-widows: Remarriage or Property Rights?

Discussing Legal Challenges and Struggles

One of the most important findings of this workshop was that remarriage is not a priority for the half-widows but in the last 30 years acquiring property rights has emerged as a their primary concern. Concerning remarriage as per the Indian law, half-widows are not recognized as widows until seven years after the disappearance; in the interim, a half-widow cannot remarry or qualify for any government welfare plans. To counter the rising social problems of half-widows, Islamic scholars in Kashmir have shortened the duration of time until remarriage to four years. The time duration, either four or seven years, implies the possibility of return, and the men are technically considered not dead. Most half-widow-activists maintained a strong hope that their husbands will return and have not remarried. This is supported by a survey of half-widows, which records that about 91% of the half-widows refused to remarry. Most participants in the workshop agreed that attaining property rights was where they required support. The JKCCS/APDP in collaboration with designated lawyers and Islamic scholars plans to devise legal and religious strategies to solve the property rights issues of the hal-widows.


Property Rights not remarriage an issue for Half-widows

Fieldwork Highlights

Guest contributor for ASAP – Association for the Anthropology of Policy

The PI was invited to be a Guest Contributor from the field and post to the instagram website of Association for the Anthropology of Policy (ASAP). The PI has tweeted all the postings to the Wenner Gren twitter account, which was duly acknowledged.   The postings with images are available on the link provided. Please see from Kashmir Post 1 through 15.

[1] This project was specifically conducted with APDP (Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society). A similar project is planned in future with my other host community APDP (headed by Parveen Ahangar).

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Doc Billingsley


The author describing the research that preceded the report, with friend Jaime García (L) who served as MC and organizer

Doc Billingsley is a member of the faculty in the Department of Modern Languages, Anthropology, and Geography at Southeast Missouri State University.  In 2010, while a doctoral candidate at Washington University in St. Louis, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Networks of Maya Knowledge Production: An Ethnography of Memory in Practice,” supervised by Dr. Bret Gustafson.  In 2015, he was awarded an Engaged Anthropology Grant, which allowed him to return to several of the key communities who participated in his research in Guatemala, sharing the results of his work in a bilingual Spanish-K’iche’ report.

In the five years since I completed my dissertation research, Guatemalan civil society has experienced a number of watershed events: from the short-lived conviction of former President Ríos Montt for genocide, to the election and eventual imprisonment of President Perez Molina after tens of thousands of citizens took up the call for an end to impunity. As I’ve observed these events unfolding and discussed their significance with my Guatemalan friends, I’ve been continually reminded that the questions I set out to study five years ago remain important for understanding the context of these democratic transformations: What is historical memory?  How are memory activists expanding the Guatemalan national narrative to include more perspectives—including the experiences of Maya communities who have suffered the greatest burdens of state-inflicted violence?  And what are the wider social and political consequences of this democratization of knowledge production?

Copies of the report lay ready for participants before the Cantel presentation

Thanks to the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation and a Fulbright-Hays award, I was able to live in Guatemala during 2010-2011, working alongside the members of several influential Maya intellectual organizations that play a role in linguistic and cultural activism.  I also became familiar with the groups of activists—primarily young, urban, and Ladino—who draw on historical memory as an organizing theme and objective in their diverse public events, from marches and graffiti campaigns to film festivals and teach-ins.  My research gradually shifted to examine the relationship between the projects of these two public spheres—Maya intellectuals and memory activists—and the broader question of how knowledge production can serve to create, shape, and unite publics.  I adopted an interviewing method for collecting historical memories from my participants.  As I coded and compared narratives from participants of different linguistic communities, age groups, and educational and class backgrounds, I was struck by how much of their knowledge about the past shared common features, patterns, and metanarrative characteristics—a common “gist” to the story of their nation’s past.  I also noted that the vision of history presented by my friends and participants differs greatly from the perspectives enshrined in Guatemala’s museums, monuments, and textbooks.  I began to imagine the possibilities for returning my findings to the communities who originally shared their experiences, showing them how much they have in common with each other and how their shared perspective may offer an alternative to the stale, racist, status quo version of Guatemalan history.

With the support of an Engaged Anthropology Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, I returned to Guatemala in June and July of 2016 to begin this new, collaborative phase in my research.  The primary objective I set out in imagining this project was to share some of my ideas about the common features of Maya historical memory, combined with excerpts of the original interviews and some discussion of the theories and methods that informed my work.  My preferred means of communicating this information was to prepare a multi-lingual written report, which could be shared and discussed following the model of a book presentation.  Based on my earlier work with Editorial Cholsamaj, I knew that published materials featuring Mayan languages or incorporating indigenous forms of knowledge are regarded as symbolically charged indicators of the rising epistemic authority of indigenous communities.  That is, regardless of the specific contents of a given book or whether the possessor has even “consumed” the literature, the very existence of the object is recognized as a sign of a revolutionary shift in access to education, citizenship, and human rights.  The public debut of printed materials also provides valuable opportunities for members of the public to participate in lively intellectual discussions about topics of interest. These events typically devote at least half of the allotted time to allow questions from the audience—a stark departure from the paltry few minutes typically reserved after a similar talk in the U.S academy.  The support provided by the Engaged Anthropology Grant, combined with the editorial assistance and goodwill of my friends at Editorial Cholsamaj, led to the just-in-time production of a visually appealing, short report containing a few key ideas from my dissertation, translated into Spanish and K’iche’.  In addition to providing the impetus for gathering in workshops, these printed reports allowed me to leave behind a small yet tangible reminder of each community’s participation in the research and discussion.

Surprises, as Expected

Discussing the research topic with the members of Editorial Cholsamaj, with reports still warm from the printers

In the course of preparing and carrying out this engagement project, I experienced several interruptions, chance encounters, and logistical challenges.  I came to think of these hiccups as “expected surprises”—I knew there would be difficulties as well as serendipitous discoveries, based on past experiences and the wise council of predecessors—Micha Rahder’s post on this very blog a year ago was especially enlightening.  Consequently, I tried whenever possible to allow for flexibility in planning, expecting surprises to come along and change my plans—sometimes for the better.  Indeed, it felt like every scheduled event was tentative, sometimes right up until its conclusion.

Some of the surprises were known to me in advance, but their full impact was only registered once I was in situ and chatting face-to-face with old friends.  Most significant for the project was the news that all of my colleagues in one organization had been dismissed by the newly-elected president of that organization—a move that is fairly typical in state politics, but a new feature in organizations associated with the Maya movements.  The economic hardships caused by their sudden lack of employment was an unwelcome sight; the lingering tension between them and the new representatives of their organization was also a complication for my plans.  Fortunately, I was able to draw on another NGO in the community to serve as the host for the local workshop—a decision which led to a more diverse audience, in the end.

Other surprises crept up at the last moment, including such happy occasions as one of my friends—and the principal organizer of one of the workshops—going into labor on the same morning we were scheduled to meet.  Nonetheless, her fellow teachers showed up in force and participated in the largest and most interactive of the workshops, in the K’iche’ town of Cantel.

Some surprises were the result of technical issues common to our digital age.  One of the four workshops was ultimately postponed until next summer, due to simple miscommunication involving email. The preparation of the report was delayed at several points by missing drafts and spotty data coverage, and the task of coordinating translations from multiple assistants required more face-to-face communication—and cross-country bus travel—than I had anticipated.  In the end, the three workshops were conducted in a three-day blitz near the end of my trip—not the most restful approach, but nonetheless a satisfyingly climactic and productive end to the trip.

Articulating historical memory: “Power,” “patterns,” and “databases”

A view of the cover of the report printed by Editorial Cholsamaj

One of my goals in this project was to extend discussions of anthropological topics—especially collective or historical memory—to broader audiences, and to evaluate and improve my understanding of the local interpretations of his concept.  I was pleasantly reassured that memoria histórica remains a peculiarly salient and widespread topic of interest in Guatemala.  The discussions that followed my presentation at each workshop were enormously valuable for me as a researcher, and many participants told me afterward that they appreciated the opportunity to gather and discuss these topics from a thoughtful perspective.

There were three comments in particular that immediately grabbed my attention, each offering a definition of historical memory and its relevance to current events.  For one participant, the community of Cantel has a unique relationship with history, in that Cantelenses have on multiple occasions fought back against the status quo or dictates from the state; they have the power to respond as a people, and “Historical memory gives us this power.”  Another noted that the contents of Guatemala’s past, as experienced by indigenous communities, are shaped by “patterns of violence and racism” that continue up to today.  Another commented on the utility of my project itself, referring to the printed report and our gathering to discuss the topic as a process of transforming historical memory into a “database,” “when it’s shared like now, and written down.”

The Engaged Anthropology Grant allowed me to experiment with new methods of research that are more accessible and collaborative, and ultimately more meaningful for everyone involved.  I view this past summer’s project as the pilot for a new, more engaged methodology going forward—I’ve already begun making plans for additional workshops next summer. And with the benefit of first-hand experience, I hope to be better prepared for any more expected surprises that come my way.


Engaged Anthropology Grant: Carina Heckert


Preparing for the workshop for civil society organizations

Carina Heckert is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso. In 2013 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Gender Relations, Illness Experiences, and HIV/AIDS Care in Santa Cruz, Bolivia,” supervised by Dr. Nia Parson. In 2015 she received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Improving Experiences of Care for People Living with HIV/AIDS in Santa Cruz, Bolivia”.

From 2013-2014, while a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Methodist University, I conducted fieldwork supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for the project “Gender Relations, Illness Experiences, and HIV Care in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.” In the summer of 2016, a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant gave me the opportunity to return to Bolivia for one month to host a workshop series titled “Improving the Quality of Life for People Living with HIV.” This series included activities with public health officials, people living with HIV, and representatives from civil society organizations. The workshops involved a presentation of my research findings alongside room for debate and discussion about how to improve experiences of care for people with HIV. The series culminated in a roundtable forum that brought together various local stakeholders as a means to foster dialogue among these different groups.

My dissertation fieldwork explored the ways that global health, national, and local policies intersect to shape the context of care for HIV and how individuals experience various forms of care.  As I began my research, an AIDS funding crisis began to emerge as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria froze Bolivia’s active grants.  The Global Fund had been funding nearly 80% of HIV-related activities at the time.  The freezing of funds came after the Ministry of Health announced that they would takeover the management of Global Fund grants, which involved a violation of the terms of their grant agreement.  The Ministry of Health’s actions were in part motivated by the national government’s agenda of moving away from vertical, disease-specific initiatives, which it sees as a vestige of the neoliberal era.  Widespread shifts under the political party in power, MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo/Movement toward Socialism), include efforts to implement a single-payer universal healthcare model, viewing NGOs and international aid efforts as undermining this larger goal.  Subsequently, actions on the part of the national government have resulted in a loss of funds from major donors that were financing HIV programs.  However, the national and local governments are far from achieving a universal healthcare system and have yet to commit sufficient funding to the maintenance of HIV programs that had been financed by international organizations.

Beginning the presentation aspect of the workshop with people living with HIV

At the time of my research, there was substantial anxiety over the state of HIV care in Bolivia, especially among people living with HIV. Upon returning to Bolivia, I discovered that this anxiety, and the effects of it, had become significantly worse. While the Ministry of Health had been able to meet the requirements to have their grants from the Global Fund reinstated, their most recent grant agreement had come to an end. While the Country Coordinating Mechanism, an invention of the Global Fund that involves a group of local stakeholders, was in the process of developing grant proposals for the next funding cycle, there was little optimism and a general sense that Bolivia would receive insufficient funding to continue with the level of support for HIV programs that had existed in the past. Further, as the Country Coordinating Mechanism awaits a decision, there is no money flowing in from the Global Fund.

When I returned to Bolivia during this halt in Global Fund support alongside the loss of funds from other international financers, organizations that I had worked with in the past were in a state of disarray. The most well known HIV-related NGO in Bolivia had gone from a staff of roughly 10 to operating with a staff of two people, who were doing a majority of their work without pay. To continue operating weekly support group sessions, they had resorted to holding weekly raffles where support group participants all purchased raffle tickets upon their arrival. The Ministry of Health HIV clinic continued to have a steady stock of first-line ARVs that are now being purchased by the national government, but several staff positions have been terminated, second and third-line ARVs are no longer available, and the provision of care for opportunistic infections has been dramatically reduced. Within this context, there was substantial interest in my workshop series. Some people saw potential to use my research findings in grant proposals and as a way to support their demands for a more comprehensive response to HIV from the national and regional governments.

A group of women discussing how to improve access to ARVs during the second workshop

I tailored the first workshop toward the concerns of civil society organizations, many of which are struggling to keep their doors open and have had to significantly scale back their programs due to insufficient funding. Within this group of 10 participants, there was significant interest in discussing how my research could be applied to improve services that still exist and how my data could be used for the justification of reinstating programs that had been cut. The second workshop, geared toward people living with HIV, had 25 participants. In this workshop, I only dedicated a short amount of time to presenting my research, since much of what I had to say was intuitive to this group, whose experiences I had learned so much from. Instead, I used a majority of the time during this workshop to conduct a group work activity aimed at generating points for debate for the upcoming roundtable forum. I had initially planned to also hold a third workshop for public health officials, but this turned out to be far more complicated than I had anticipated. A formal invitation is necessary for employees in the public health system to receive authorization to participate in such events during work hours. I had anticipated this and had put together formal invitations to distribute. However, as I began to speak with public health officials about my plans, I realized that many viewed a workshop and a roundtable on the same issue as duplicate events and would only commit to one of the two events. Since I viewed the roundtable as the more important of the two events, I dropped plans for a third workshop to ensure participation from public health officials in the roundtable.  In lieu of the third workshop, I had several small group and one-on-one meetings with the public health officials who were eager to discuss my research with me.

At the end of my month in Santa Cruz, I hosted a roundtable forum where I served as the moderator for a panel consisting of people living with HIV, the director of the regional HIV program, and representatives from civil society organizations. While the event was open to the public, primarily public health officials and representatives from civil society organizations were in the audience. Unfortunately, to accommodate the schedules of these audience members, I had to have the roundtable in the morning when fewer people with HIV could attend due to work conflicts. However, I was able to use the ideas generated in the activity from the second workshop as a way of bringing in the perspectives of people with HIV. The roundtable discussion focused heavily on how different parties could contribute to improving the quality of life of people living with HIV in Bolivia in the midst of cuts to programs.  The aspect of the roundtable that I found most important was the opportunity for panel members with HIV to share their perspectives with public health officials who are very often disconnected from the everyday realities of people with HIV.

Roundtable panelists and a few of the audience members

I found that this workshop series was an effective means for sharing the results from my research in a meaningful way.  Further, the roundtable brought together different groups who have a common interest in improving the lives of people with HIV, but who have different perspectives in how to achieve this. I do have to admit that organizing the workshops turned out to be much more work than I had anticipated. Just the delivery of invitations to the roundtable took days of bus rides across the city. While I could have delegated this task to a research assistant, I decided this was a good way to touch base with people I had established relationships with during fieldwork.  In many cases, the delivery of an invitation turned into a lengthy conversation. In one case, it turned into a several hours long event that involved me accompanying a doctor on rounds to check on patients in the hospital.

While I feel like my efforts had some positive effects, I also cannot help but feel impotent to some extent as the broader structural issues that perpetuate AIDS deaths in Bolivia remain unchanged. However, being an engaged anthropologist requires a best effort to make research accessible and relevant, even if it is an imperfect endeavor.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Joshua Walker

University and high school students follow discussion.

While a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, Joshua Walker received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2009 to aid research on “Crisis or Reconstruction? Street Children and Diamond Miners in Mbujimayi, Democratic Republic of Congo,” supervised by Dr. Jean Comaroff. In 2015 Dr. Walker received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Post-Extractive Futures: Living Without and Beyond Diamonds”.

University of Mbujimayi Rector Tumba Ghislain Disashi officially opens the conference. To his left is conference participant Academic General-Secretary Tshula Kabongo.

Between October 21-23, 2015, Dr. Joshua Walker and Professor Emmanuel Kambaja Musampa of the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and the University of Mbujimayi (Democratic Republic of Congo), respectively, co-organized a conference at the University of Mbujimayi. The conference theme was based on Dr. Walker’s Wenner-Gren funded doctoral dissertation research. It was entitled: “Post-Extractive Futures: Living Without and Beyond Diamonds in Mbujimayi.” This constituted an opportunity for local academics from a variety of disciplines (including anthropology, geography, geology, history, linguistics, and sociology) to meditate on the past, present, and future of the city of Mbujimayi in relation to the diamond industry.

The exchanges included both formal conference papers given by academics as well as an intervention by two former diggers, known as creuseurs in French. It was an occasion for academics, as well as university students and others, to reflect on the role and impact of diamond mining on the city and its environs. Mornings included formal academic papers and question and answer sessions; afternoons were largely devoted workshops where conference participants and attendees (most of whom were university students) reflected on different aspects of the morning’s theme.

Professor Adrien Munyoka consults with student Patrick Kambaja on the program.

Following the conference, the organizers produced a report (in French) that includes an introduction co-authored by Dr. Walker and Professor Kambaja; the conference abstract; the conference program; the written texts of the papers presented; and a conclusion written by Professor Kambaja. The latter includes a series of recommendations and reflections concerning the relationship between the diamond industry and the city. It proposes, among other things, the creation of a diamond museum; and the creation of a chair at the university in natural resource studies. It also notes some of the themes of the various papers: the need to diversify the local economy; the need to convert former mining sites into ecologically sustainable lands; and the need to promote other forms of income generation that have arisen since the decline of the artisanal and industrial diamond economies.

The report has been distributed to local academic institutions, government offices, and non-governmental organizations in Mbujimayi. It has also been made available online here. Finally, Professor Kambaja also did an interview in French and Cilubà concerning both Dr. Walker’s dissertation research as well as the theme of the conference and its outcome that was broadcast on multiple local radio stations over a period of several days.

University students follow discussion and debate.

In addition to this principal activity, two others were undertaken: Dr. Walker addressed a group of adult literacy learners and a church group in Cilubà on the questions surrounding the conference theme: namely, what have been the effects of the industrial and artisanal diamond mining industry on the city of Mbujimayi, and how citizens can begin to imagine and create a collective future outside and beyond diamonds.

Chef de travaux Banoka Nsona presents her paper. To her left are conference participants Tshibanza Monji and Joshua Walker.

Finally, Dr. Walker, along with Professor Kambaja and Professor Munyoka (one of the academics who presented at the conference) held two field workshops in mining villages near Mbujimayi: Kabwe and Bakwa Tshimuna. These two localities have both historically depended on artisanal diamond mining in the postcolonial period. Under the auspices of the Catholic church, we gathered small focus groups of 10 people in each place, with a mixture of men and women, young and old. The purpose of these workshops was to both inform members of communities surrounding the city about the ideas that had been presented at the conference, as well as to solicit their own reflections. The most important theme that arose in these conversations was that while a return to agriculture may be a way to mitigate the effects of the decline of the diamond economy, agriculture is no panacea. There is difficulty in finding arable land, for example. There is also the question of the scale at which agriculture can be conducted: a return to subsistence agriculture will not necessarily be useful in promoting a general reduction in poverty. Agriculture at a larger scale will require investment and coordination with the local and provincial authorities.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Dolly Kikon

Bihu dancers from Gelekey with a Naga Dobashi from Anaki C Village (Photo by Dolly Kikon)

While a doctoral student at Standford University Dolly Kikon received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2009 to aid research on “Blurred Borders: Unsettling the Hill/Valley Divide in Northeast India,” supervised by Dr. James G. Ferguson. In 2015 Dr. Kikon received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “A Foothill Sanrhutav: Sharing Experiences of Women Traders in Northeast India”.

I successfully completed the foothill community gathering and feast on July 13. As I had submitted in the proposal, I was able to complete the key proposed goals: (a) present my research to the host communities; (b) provide a forum for the communities to gather and share their experiences and establish mentoring networks; (c) invite key actors of different indigenous communities such as village headmen, student associations, coal traders, teachers, border peace committees, and householders from Naga and Assamese villages to discuss the plight of women traders, and broadly gender relations among foothill communities. Due to the monsoon and unprecedented floods across Northeast India, several landslides had washed away roads and bridges. This prevented certain Naga villages situated in the uplands to attend the meeting. Given the existing challenges, I chose Gelekey, a small town in the foothill border of Assam and Nagaland as the venue of the community meeting and feast. The border town of Gelekey town (in Sibsagar district of Assam) shares its boundary with the districts of Longleng and Mokokchung (in Nagaland). Thus, Ahom, Assamese, Phom, and Ao villages attended the community gathering and shared their experiences and hardships of living in the militarized landscape.

Women from Gelekey at the gathering (Photo by Dolly Kikon)

The gathering was held at the Adarsha Bidyapith School in Gelekey town. The location of the meeting was both symbolic and strategic. Gelekey is not only an important coal-trading hub and oil exploration site, but also attracts numerous Naga villages from the uplands to the Atkhel haat, a weekly market that takes place in the outskirt of the town. Although the electricity was erratic, I was able to make a power point presentation and shared my experience about doing an ethnographic work among the host communities in the Assam-Nagaland border. Drawing from my field notes and the publications I have brought out (Anthropology News, Economic and Political Weekly, South Asia: Journal of South Asia), I explained my ethnographic journey at the gathering. During the community interaction session, communities underlined the anxieties of living in the foothills. They reiterated my ethnographic notes that I had connected between 2006-2011 about the place that witnessed a heightened presence of armed forces. This was due to the extractive resource activities like oil explorations, tea plantations, and coalmines across the foothill border of Assam and Nagaland. In addition, the foothills, like other parts of Northeast India, were under the jurisdiction on an extra-constitutional regulation known as the Disturbed Area Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). Movement of goods and people in the militarized foothills, as the community sharing revealed, immensely highlighted the importance of the Engaged Anthropology Grant that helped communities to come together and share their reflections and experiences. A central point of the community gathering and feast was to discuss the experiences of women traders from Nagaland in the foothill markets known as haats. Sharing my field notes and interviews of several women traders I had collected, I explained how these weekly markets represented the dynamic, multifaceted, and tangled lives of the residents of the villages in the foothills of Assam and Nagaland.

Ahom Women at the community feast (Photo by Dolly Kikon)

Women traders from Anaki C village shared their thoughts. Ms. Emer Phom, the president of the Phom women’s collective known as the Bedestha Group said that they had to go down to Assam for their basic needs like medicine, food, and clothing. Speaking at the research interaction, Mr. Shingnyu Phom, member of the Border Peace Committee from Yonglok village appealed to the gathering to maintain peace in the border areas and the importance of engaging in meaningful community dialogue. Adding to the conversations about peace, Mr. Imkong Phom, the village headman from Anaki C village thanked the gathering for the conversations and stressed the importance of understanding and respecting each others history. Mrs Kunti Borah Gogoi, an Ahom educationist from Gelekey reiterated the importance of maintaining the people to people dialogue and connection in the border area. She said that such communities gathering were important events to bring together the Naga people and the Ahom community to reaffirm their friendship and kinship as well. As a gesture of solidarity and love, she presented all the Naga guests with a phulon gamusa (a traditional Assamese scarf). Ms. Rashmi Saikia and Mr. Promud Monuranjan sang Nagamese, Assamese, and Hindi songs for the audience, and a group of mainas (little children) performed a Jhumur dance to conclude the meeting on a musical note. After the interaction, the guests were invited to a community feast.