Engaged Anthropology Grant: ‘Medicine, Morality and the Market: A Workshop’

Denielle Elliott is a member of the Health & Society faculty in the Department of Social Science at York University. In 2008, while at the University of British Columbia, she received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to  aidresearch on ‘Safari Research and Field Science: The Spatial Politics of HIV Vaccine Clinical Trials in Kenya’. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to follow up her research by returning to her fieldsite and conducting a multidisciplinary two-day workshop in Kisumu, Kenya to discuss the ways in which medicine, morality and market values are entwined.

This collaborative workshop between Maseno University’s Department of Anthropology and myself aimed to offer an opportunity for local Kenyan scholars to discuss the ways in which medical research is conducted in East Africa. The Kisumu region in the province of Nyanza in Kenya was called a “laboratory” by Dutch NGO Wemos, reflecting the amount of medical research being conducted in the area by foreign organizations like Liverpool University, the Wellcome Trust, the CDC, the US Army’s Walter Reed Project, among others. This massive assemblage of research in the area has multiple, sometimes contradictory, effects on local communities and organizations providing care and health services to Kenyans.

Our collaborative workshop offered a space for creative, productive, and engaging conversations about medicine, the global flow of capital, and local unintended effects of medicine and the market on values, culture, and morality. More importantly, participants in the workshop felt comfortable talking openly and critically about both the positive and negative consequences of medical research in western Kenya.

The workshop was held at Maseno University’s City Campus, in Kisumu, Nyanza, Kenya December 9   and 10 2014. We had papers delivered by 12 participants (faculty and graduate students from East Africa), 35 people in attendance, and the keynote was given by Professor Omar Egesah from Moi University in Eldoret.

Dr. Omar Egesah’s keynote discussed the politics of global aid and humanitarianism, and highlighted  local tensions in the ways in which aid and global health research are rolled out in East Africa. They keynote offered many questions for debate and discussion during the questions period. The themes he raised – inequities, ethics, and local governing structures – were revisited throughout the workshop in both discussions and the papers being delivered. In many ways, the workshop worked towards decolonizing medical research in Kenya by shifting the power relations in who gets to define local health and research priorities.

Introducing SAPIENS: A New Voice for Anthropology

Leslie Aiello, Wenner-Gren Foundation

Anthropology has a long tradition of public engagement. From Franz Boas’ battles over concepts of race, to Margaret Mead’s revelations about sexuality, to Ruth Benedict’s illuminations of national character, anthropologists have sought to use their insights to shape public conversations.

Yet, in the last generation, anthropologists have increasingly struggled to find ways to connect with the public at large. Although there have been important efforts by a range of scholars in recent years, as a field we have fallen far short of our potential. Anthropological research has arguably never been more relevant to the world we live in. War, climate change, health, economic disparity, forensics, identity, race, digital media, consumption, language loss, our origins as a species—these are just some of the themes that anthropologists tackle every day. The public, however, doesn’t learn about these issues from the scholars who study them most closely. Instead, the gap between anthropology and the public has been selectively filled by the popular media.

A number of factors have led to anthropologists’ limited engagement with the public. Too often, public engagement unfolds through single efforts by scholars working in isolation—an op-ed here, a TED talk there. There has been a noticeable lack of resources committed to public dialogue about anthropology, and this work has not always been valued by the discipline’s institutions. Anthropology, on the whole, has not gracefully entered the 21st century media landscape.

We hope this is about to change.

In January 2016, the Wenner-Gren Foundation will launch SAPIENS, an editorially independent online publication dedicated to popularizing anthropological research to a broad, public audience. The publication’s goals are to serve as an authoritative source of information about anthropological research, make anthropology more accessible to the general public, and demonstrate anthropology’s relevance to everyday life. Through news coverage, features, commentaries, reviews, and more, SAPIENS provides a public platform for anthropological research as well as for anthropological insights into current events.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation has undertaken this effort to celebrate its 75th year of supporting anthropology worldwide. Substantial resources have been invested in the publication, which will become a key part of the foundation’s ongoing investment in the field. Just as the foundation’s Current Anthropology has become a premier journal for academic dialogue, we hope that SAPIENS will become the nexus for anthropology in the public sphere.

SAPIENS will publish content that provides smart and surprising insights into human culture, language, biology, and history. We’ll skip the dry and stuffy for witty and fun, fresh and incisive, authentic and down-to-earth. Our aim is to deepen our readers’ understanding of the human experience through exciting, novel, thought-provoking, and unconventional ideas that are grounded in anthropological research, theories, and thinking.

Will you join us?

We need your help in spreading the word of the site’s launch to your colleagues, friends, and family. We also hope you will consider writing for us. We want to ensure the site reflects the ideas, views, and work of the entire field—we need your voice to be heard.

Please visit us at: www.sapiens.org.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Strengthening female political leadership and orphan interventions through community-based research

Break time with queen mothers of Manya Krobo Traditional Area during the Community Engagement Workshop (June 2013)

Bright Drah is an independent scholar based in Alberta, Canada. In 2008, while a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Crisis Fostering in an Age of HIV/AIDS: Experiences of Queen Mothers of Manya Krobo, Ghana,’ supervised by Dr. Daniel W. Sellen. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant

The Community Engagement Project (the Project) is in follow up to my 2008-2010 Dissertation Fieldwork on orphan foster care by queen mothers (traditional female leaders) in the Manya Krobo Traditional Area (MKTA) of Ghana. After disseminating the preliminary findings of the fieldwork in 2009, ‘orphan stakeholders’ (queen mothers, government officials, NGO executives, community leaders, health, education and social workers and journalists) requested that actions be taken to address the challenges identified by the study, especially to empower queen mothers and improve the wellbeing of orphans. They suggested that the empowerment process be facilitated by a “neutral person”, other than queen mothers or chiefs.

Queen mothers’ are responsible for the wellbeing of their citizens, including orphans. Their work is conducted through the 371-member pseudo-formal Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association (MKQMA). Unfortunately, the members do not make the decisions that govern the MKQMA; they cannot independently elect their leaders and the leaders are not directly accountable to the members. Rather, the paramount chief (Konor) and leader of the traditional authority has the final authority in appointing leaders.

Consequently, queen mothers are unable to challenge their leaders on issues such as abuse of power. In essence, they are frustrated by this sense of powerlessness. They assert that the  governance structure is “unfair”, however, any attempt to change the status quo is misconstrued as disobedience to the traditional authority. The situation is exacerbated by mutual distrust and infighting among the members and apathy towards the MKQMA. A strong MKQMA is critical because it enhances the position of queen mothers as leaders and advocates. It is also a channel for soliciting and distributing kin- and non-kin support to queen mothers and orphans.

In May-June 2013, I facilitated four workshops in MKTA to help empower the MKQMA. The objectives of the workshops were to increase dialogue between chiefs and queen mothers, promote queen mothers’ participation in MKQMA and increase the MKQMA engagement with the citizens.

Increased dialogue within the traditional authority, and increased community participation in local politics, could enhance political leadership and create opportunities to improve wellbeing.

Forty representatives from organizations that participated in the fieldwork attended the workshops. Of these representatives, 25 were from MQKMA and 15 represented government and non- government/community-based organizations. Chiefs were informed, but not invited to the workshops because queen mothers felt the chiefs may intimidate them and takeover the process. The Konor gave his approval for the workshop and agreed to implement the workshop recommendations.

I divided the participants into four groups. Using the processes of brainstorming, free-listing, consensus building and priority setting, each group identified and prioritized the leadership challenges facing the MKQMA and recommended remedial actions. The results from each group were presented to the other groups for further discussion and re-prioritization. The fourth workshop focused on helping participants to learn about the use of projective techniques to discuss sensitive topics with children.

The participants identified challenges relating to governance, membership, leader-member relationships and MKQMA-community collaborations. They recommended that the MKQMA must focus on enhancing its leadership and promoting the wellbeing of queen mothers, including re-establishing their welfare scheme. They contended that achieving these goals will enable queen mothers to address the needs of orphans. They recognized the importance of the traditional political authority and recommended that they develop innovative ways to continually engage chiefs and build stronger partnerships. They, however, recommended the separation of the governance of MKQMA (a ‘formal’ organization) from the governance of queen mother (a traditional political institution). Separating the two institutions would mean that the MKQMA will no longer be under the direct control of chiefs. This will allow queen mothers to make their own decisions. Specifically, they will determine the criteria for leadership and membership and establish the responsibilities and benefits of membership.

Participants also recommended that MKQMA be governed by a written constitution and decisions be based on consensus. They also stressed the importance of two-way accountability, where members treat leaders with respect and support them to implement programs, and the leaders are directly accountable to the members. They listed the qualities of a good leader as transparent, respectful, humble and tolerant. They preferred leadership that is committed to improving the wellbeing of queen mothers, values the freedom of expression, sets high moral standards and actively engages queen mothers and stakeholders.

Overall, the Project provided a ‘non-customary’ approach to empowering female leaders and engaging with their citizens to consultatively develop strategies to empower queen mothers. It enabled queen mothers, who belonged to different factions and have not worked together in a long time, to brainstorm and reach consensus on how to provide efficient and effective leadership to their communities.

The participants were very satisfied with the workshop; they will participate again in similar workshops and will apply the workshop approach to their work. The queen mothers said they have been encouraged by the workshop and that encouragement will help to build their self-efficacy, self-image and self-awareness. They stated that the lessons learned from the workshop and the implementation of the recommendations will help them to transform the MKQMA from a male-controlled group to an association owned and managed by queen mothers for the benefits of their citizens.

The inclusion of stakeholders other than queen mothers is significant. It allowed the queen mothers to focus on the issues affecting MKTA instead of their personal interests. It also created opportunities for partnerships between MKQMA and other groups to share expertise and best practices to improve wellbeing in MKTA. This was demonstrated when social workers and community leaders volunteered to help queen mothers write the MKQMA constitution and establish a welfare scheme.

Meet Our 2015 Wadsworth International Fellows: Abebe Mengistu

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the first of a series of posts introducing this year’s new cohort of fellows, we meet Abebe Mengistu of Ethiopia, who will be studying paleoanthropology at the University of Florida.

My interest in archaeology developed while obtaining my B.A. degree in History at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, followed by my employment opportunity to work as cultural expert in the World Heritage Sites of Lalibela northwestern part of Ethiopia. During the time I was working Lalibela, I had the opportunity to obtain archaeological excavation and surveying experience with various researchers. This archaeological field work opportunities in Lalibela laid the foundation for my interest in studying archaeology, an interest that lead me to pursue M.A. degree in archaeology from Addis Ababa University in 2011. After my M.A. degree, I had the opportunity to work as an archaeologist for the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for 2 years which has opened me more opportunity to involve in more archaeological research projects and to decide my future research interest and specialization. Due to this, in September 2013 and I went to Portugal and joined Polytechnic Institute of Tomar to Study another M.A. degree to benefit from a specialization in quaternary and prehistoric archaeology.

For my PhD research, I am interested to conduct archaeological research on understanding lithic technology that can make important contributions for understanding the dynamics of prehistoric societies. Particularly, I am interested on Late Pleistocene period, which is a very crucial period to understand modern humans behavioral pattern and their paleoenvironmental adaptation which uncovered on limited geographical regions where the prehistoric human population took refuge and later radiated elsewhere.  The project I am currently developing in Ethiopia focuses on understanding cultural changes of hunter-gatherers of the Late Pleistocene through close examination of land-use and mobility patterns, subsistence strategies, symbolic and social behaviors and technological innovations.

NYAS @ WGF, September 28: “We are Not Red Indians” (We Might all Be Red Indians)

The NYAS Anthropology Section lecture series returns to Wenner-Gren for another great season of speakers! We kick off the 2015-2016 slate with Columbia’s Audra Simpson on Monday, September 28. 

Three Pueblo Indian women displaying their ollas for sale at the railroad tracks, New Mexico, ca.1900.

“We are Not Red Indians” (We Might all Be Red Indians): Anticolonial Sovereignty Across the Borders of Time, Place and Sentiment

Audra Simpson

Department of Anthropology

Columbia University

In a 2004 interview Yasser Arafat, in a state of near confinement and exhaustion, reflected upon his incapacity to move without the immediate threat of assassination, about the Palestinian right of return, about American elections, and his achievements. Among these achievements was the fact that “the Palestine case was the biggest problem in the world” and that Israel had “failed to wipe us out.” As a final mark of that success, he added the declarative and comparative and final point of distinction, “we are not red Indians.” This paper uses this point of comparison of a departure point to reflect upon the deep specificity and global illegibility of Indigenous struggle and life in the face of death and dispossession in North America. In order to do so I will choose a series of historical assemblages — of sociality, treaty-making, militarized pushbacks upon encroachment, spatial confinement (“reservationization”), and pushback for land, for life and for dignity within occupation to amend Arafat’s statement and reimagine “success.”  I argue that these assemblages are themselves a structure of political life that stand alongside and push against a “logic of elimination” – a logic that authorizes the removal, the attacking and “assimilating” of indigenous peoples for land. I consider these tangled processes in order to re-narrate the seemingly negligible political and corporeal life of Indigenous sovereignty within dispossession and settler occupation. This is an occupation that naturalizes itself through law and narrates itself as new, as beneficent and democratic atop the lands and lives of Indigenous peoples who persist, with sovereignties intact, in spite of this grinding historical and political process of settler colonialism. In order to put this point of comparison, and sentiment of Arafat’s achievement in relief the paper examines how is it that the very techniques of force, of pushback, of sociality and outright resistance receive the writ of dismissal within a global and comparative frame of resistance and (political life). At the end of the paper it is asked how these processes may be re-narrated and comprehended in a global, comparative frame of not only analysis, but struggles for justice.

As always, this event will take place at the Wenner-Gren Foundation Building, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York (at 32nd Street). A dinner and wine reception (free to students) will precede the talk at 6pm, with the lecture beginning promptly at 7pm.

Engaging the Kiowa Community: A Collaborative Approach to Sharing Research on Historical Consciousness and Intellectual Property Rights


Betty Washburn and her son Kendall Washburn, descendants of Set-tainte (White Bear), renewed their ancestor’s Red Tipi in the 1990s. Since then, the Chief Satanta White Bear Descendants have put up the tipi at a number of events, including the American Indian Exhibition and the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty Reenactment. The tipi serves as a mobile monument to Set-tainte.

Michael Jordan is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Texas Tech University. In 2008, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Descendants’ Organizations and Cultural Heritage in Kiowa Society,’ supervised by Dr. Daniel Charles Swan. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to his fieldsite and share his research with the community that hosted him. 

In 2013, I received a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant to conduct outreach and engagement activities with members of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.  The project built upon research that I conducted with Kiowa descendants’ organizations in 2008 and 2009. As outlined in my dissertation, “Reclaiming the Past: Descendants’ Organizations, Historical Consciousness, and Intellectual Property in Kiowa Society,” these grassroots organizations are primarily concerned with celebrating the memory of their nineteenth century ancestors and preserving and perpetuating Kiowa cultural practices that they deem “endangered.”  The project consisted of two distinct components, each designed to increase awareness and stimulate debate regarding topics that are of concern to Kiowa descendants’ organizations and which have emerged as central to my own research.

The first component focused on the development of a collaborative exhibition at the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma’s Museum in Carnegie, Oklahoma.  Interpretive material was developed in consultation with members of Kiowa descendants’ organizations and members of the Kiowa Cultural Preservation Authority, which operates the museum.  I worked particularly closely with Amie Tah-Bone, Director of the Kiowa Museum, and Phil R. Dupoint, Kiowa Tribal Historian.  The resulting exhibit, Reclaiming the Past, drew heavily upon interviews that I conducted during my dissertation fieldwork.

Kendall Washburn at the 2009 Satanta Days event in Satanta, Kansas. Kendall received the name Set-tainte (White Bear) from his grandfather, Clarence Sankadota, who had also carried the name. Clarence was the great grandson of the original Set-tainte, who died in 1878. Set-tainte’s oldest son, Grey Goose, was Clarence’s grandfather. Kiowa naming practices was one of the themes addressed in the exhibit at the Kiowa Museum.

The exhibit consisted of seven text panels.  An introductory panel discussed my dissertation research and introduced the themes that would be developed in the exhibit.  A second panel addressed the topic of historical memory, focusing on the way in which members of the Kiowa community commemorate and celebrate figures and events from the late nineteenth century.  Descendants’ organizations and their efforts to preserve Kiowa cultural practices and the Kiowa language were highlighted in the third panel.  The next three panels focused on martial exploits, Kiowa naming practices, and painted tipis.  War deeds, names, and tipi designs are all considered forms of intellectual property in Kiowa society.  The panels documented how descendants’ mobilize their ancestors’ intellectual property in contemporary contexts.  The final panel discussed my dissertation research and the current exhibit as the latest chapter in a long history of cooperation between members of the Kiowa tribe and anthropologists.  Admittedly, it would be possible to develop an exhibit on any one of these topics and it is my hope that future exhibits at the Kiowa Museum will explore these themes in even greater detail.

The exhibit opening was held at the Kiowa Museum on Saturday, September 28, 2014 and was attended by over sixty community members.  Kiowa elder Raymond Tongkeamha, a member of the Chief Satanta White Bear Descendants, opened the event with a prayer.  Following this, I presented a talk, discussing the history of my involvement with the Kiowa community, my dissertation research, and my findings.  A reception held to celebrate the opening of the exhibit offered an opportunity to answer community members’ questions about my research and to distribute copies of my dissertation to interested community members.

Dr. Michael Paul Jordan and Bambi Ware Allen (Comanche, Kiowa), Curator of the Southern Plains Indian Museum. In August 2014, the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, Oklahoma hosted Dr. Jordan’s presentation “Reclaiming the Past: Art and Historical Memory in Contemporary Kiowa Society.”

In addition to developing the museum exhibit, I presented a series of public lectures exploring aspects of my dissertation research.  Early on, I decided to focus on the nexus of historical memory, materiality, and intellectual property rights.  The talks examined how the descendants of nineteenth century Kiowa warriors honor their memory by creating works of art that incorporate their ancestors’ tipi designs and depictions of their martial achievements.  I argued that through their artistry, descendants sought to assert their ties to prominent historical figures and to foster a vision of the past that highlights their ancestors’ contributions to the physical and cultural survival of the Kiowa people.

While one of the lectures was held in conjunction with the opening of the exhibit at the Kiowa Museum, the three remaining lectures targeted members of the Kiowa community who live outside the immediate vicinity of Carnegie, Oklahoma.  I selected Anadarko, Norman, and Tulsa as venues for these lectures because each boasts a significant Kiowa population.  The lectures were hosted by the Department of the Interior’s Southern Plains Indian Museum, the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, and the Philbrook Museum of Art.  In addition, the lecture in Norman was co-hosted by the Jacobson House Native Art Center.  The lectures provided me with opportunities to share the results of my research with members of the Kiowa community who might not have an opportunity to view the museum exhibit.

While the focus of the Engaged Anthropology project was on disseminating the results of my dissertation research, it also paved the way for future collaborative endeavors.  During the exhibit planning stages, I worked closely with members of the Kiowa Cultural Preservation Authority and the staff of the Kiowa Museum.  As the project came to a close, we sought to harness the energy and momentum that we had developed.  Ultimately, we decided to apply for a Smithsonian Institution Recovering Voices Community Research Grant.  Furthermore, the museum exhibit and lectures heightened Kiowa community members’ interest in their nineteenth century ancestors and their intellectual property.  The renewed interest in these topics is likely to translate into future research opportunities.

The success of my dissertation research hinged on the support of members of the Kiowa community and I will forever be indebted to the Kiowa people who shared their knowledge and insights with me and who made a place for me in their lives.  I am likewise indebted to the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which along with the National Science Foundation and the Whatcom Museum Society, funded my dissertation fieldwork and then made it possible for me to return to the Kiowa community to share the results of my research.

Upcoming September-October Conferences

A look ahead to what Wenner-Gren is sponsoring in the coming months.


Eleventh Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS 11)

September 7-11, 2015

Vienna, Austria

With the landmark conference “Man the Hunter” in 1966, the study of hunter-gatherer societies became a major topic within the social and human sciences. Since then, some of the topics and concerns – egalitarianism, sharing, and mobility – remain central, while others – such as social and technological evolution – have seen better times. Thus, while scholarly trends change over time, the goal of the initial conference, to establish a unified field of hunter-gatherer studies, is still valid. The general question of CHAGS 11 therefore is how the results of the last 50 years and new research agendas can be utilized for the present and future. While many hunter-gatherers are forced to give up their ways of life and subsistence practices, they figure prominently in public discourses on ecological and ideological alternatives to industrial society. Thus, CHAGS 11 will attempt to attract a variety of stakeholders in these debates – indigenous representatives, NGOs, scholars, etc. Based on fieldwork and research from the full spectrum of hunter-gatherer ways of life and from all perspectives our disciplines have to offer, the goal of CHAGS 11 is to bring hunter-gatherer studies back to the center of the human and social sciences.


Modern Man in Northern Africa; Chronology, Behavior and Cultural Heritage

Late October, 2015

Rabat, Morocco

This conference will bring together researchers from Canada, France, Italy, Senegal and Morocco to discuss research concerning the history of modern humans in the Maghreb. Two main subjects will be discussed: chronology and behavior of modern humans since their appearance in the region around 130,000 years ago; and characterization of pigments and colorants using different non-invasive and portable methods in the frame of cultural heritage. The goals of the conference are to establish the state of research in Morocco and reinforce the dialogue between teams working in the country and in the wider world.


Conservation, Knowledge, and Collaboration in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

Micha Rahder is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University. In 2011, while a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Satellites and Senses of Place: Local Perceptions of Remote Sensing in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve,’ supervised by Dr. Andrew Matthews. Three years later, the Wenner-Gren Foundation awarded her the Engaged Anthropology Grant, which allowed her to return to her fieldsite in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) and share the fruits of her research with the community that hosted her.

In Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), the largest protected area in Central America, the line between success and failure is never entirely clear. My research addressed the intersections of violence and inequality with technoscientific knowledge production, conservation decision-making, and environmental governance in the MBR. I wrote about how knowledge moves unevenly, with unexpected scale jumps and shifts of meaning between contexts. Sometimes it does not move at all. With support from a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant, I returned to Guatemala in June 2015 to report the results of my research to the remote sensing technicians, conservation NGO staff, and local community members who supported my fieldwork in 2011-12, and found my own knowledge caught in the same dynamics I had been describing. Successes and failures, shifts and gaps.

Focused primarily on technicians in a state remote sensing/GIS lab and staff of a US-based conservation NGO, my dissertation analyzed how technoscience is embroiled with deeply felt desires for clarity on a landscape characterized by uncertainty and rapid change. A portion of the fieldwork for this project, supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, extended my ethnographic focus from state and NGO actors to investigate the perceptions and impacts of remote monitoring and conservation in communities inside the reserve. I found that the violence and political paranoia that characterize post-civil war Guatemala are deeply entangled with the production and interpretation of scientific knowledge about its landscapes and people. Paradoxically, this official knowledge can facilitate collaboration across social and political difference, while also reinforcing those differences and their embedded power dynamics.

The tension between the necessity of working together and structural and epistemological barriers to effectively doing so is one that people living and working in the reserve struggle with on a daily basis, and I designed my Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology project with this tension in mind. I planned a series of small workshops with different groups – conservation NGOs, GIS technicians, and members of two local communities – to present my results and use activities to generate discussion, reflection, and feedback within familiar and trusted groups.

The first workshop, with staff from two conservation NGOs, generated the most discussion and the most tension. Familiar with anthropological critiques of conservation, some entered the room ready to defend themselves, then expressed surprise at the analytical focus on the challenges and questions they confront in their daily work. Many attendees were glad of the opportunity to step outside their often frantic daily rhythms to reflect on broader dynamics affecting their decision making, while others – particularly the Directors of the NGOs – requested more applied, concrete suggestions, even when addressing enormous structural issues. One anonymous comment read: “political interests prevent recuperating the MBR, how do we eliminate that problem?”

Staff of a remote sensing/GIS lab work on a series of discussion prompts in pairs as a warm-up activity after the presentation.

The remote sensing and GIS technicians, in contrast, were less interested in applied suggestions and more interested in discussing ideas about objectivity, the politics of knowledge, trust, and communication. Given that the vast majority of studies in the MBR focus on reserve residents, both NGO staff and monitoring technicians strongly noted – mostly with pleasure and curiosity – the shift in gaze that turned them from those watching and analyzing to those being studied. That this shift was greeted positively itself reflects the differences in social position, power, and access to knowledge that structures relations between conservation actors and local communities.

In contrast, in my presentation to the first village – a small community with a sustainable forest concession in the reserve – discussion focused largely on the dynamics of knowledge extraction that shape villagers’ relations to outside institutions. While community members harvest wood and non-timber forest products from their concession, institutions and independent scholars (including myself) harvest data from the village – data that travels around the world but is rarely reported back to villagers. Those in attendance were strongly aware of this dynamic, and excited that I had simply come back to report results – even before delving into the details. Those at the workshop were most interested in understanding where knowledge about their village travels and what purposes it serves, and how they might gain access to more of these data, studies, and reports. They were curious about what it is like to work in conservation institutions, and spent time discussing in depth how their village and concession fit into the larger landscape and political dynamics of the reserve, a broader perspective that they are rarely invited to engage.

Members of a village with a community-managed forest concession fill out anonymous response cards.

Yet true to the difficulties of working in the MBR, these successful workshops were balanced with failure. The planned fourth workshop, for a Q’eqchi’ Maya migrant village located inside a National Park, fell apart due to a complex set of coincidences, miscommunications, and troubling dynamics. I ultimately learned that some organizations – especially political parties, as it is an election year – have been directly paying community members to attend meetings, making voluntary attendance at events like mine increasingly difficult to maneuver. In the end, I prepared and sent a short document instead, inviting further communication and engagement. However, that this village – the most marginalized, vulnerable, and structurally disadvantaged site from my research – was the one in which I did not hold a workshop, is troubling. While the failure was beyond my control, it ultimately replicated the same dynamics of exclusion that I critique in my research, rather than providing a space to address them as the workshop was intended to do.

The resulting gap in response, feedback, and discussion from members of this community will be further amplified as I take this work forward – at least until I wrangle another opportunity to visit. I am currently brainstorming future engagement possibilities and preparing recommendations and guidelines for distribution to a wider set of local actors, based on the discussions and commentary raised in the workshops I did conduct. It is deeply frustrating to become caught in problematic structures and dynamics even when working to undo them, a frustration familiar to anthropologists and conservationists alike. Yet, as those working and living in the MBR also recognize, it is worth the fight even when you lose. Siempre en la lucha. 

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Pnina Werbner

Pnina Werbner is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Keele University. In 2009, she received the Post Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on ”’The Mother of All Strikes’: Politics, Law and Vernacular Cosmopolitanism in Botswana’s Public Service Unions’ Activism”. In 2014, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite and share her findings with the public sector unionists who hosted her and academics and policy makers in Botswana. 

Labor Songs Reverberate in the University of Botswana’s Library Auditorium

It was never going to be easy. Botswana may be ranked the No. 1 country in Africa for transparency but, equally, it probably comes first in snail-pace implementation: procedures, committees, consultations and long deliberations precede any action, so my aim of bringing together learned academics from the University of Botswana with manual workers for a public debate on ‘Inequality in Botswana’ was clearly a challenge demanding imagination, tact, patience and perseverance.

In fact, once we got our team together – myself, Elsinah Botsalano from the Manual Workers’ Union, Dr Sethunya Mosime from the Department of Sociology and Prof Patricia Makepe from Economics, we were unstoppable. As I watched workers stand up to sing their labor songs in the hallowed surroundings of the University of Botswana’s magnificent library auditorium, songs filled with gallows humor and deep emotion, I knew that our efforts had been vindicated – that the ivory tower had been breached not only intellectually but bodily and experientially.

Unionists sing a song mocking Ian Khama, invented during the public sector strike.

It was important for the unionists that the proceedings should open with a prayer and a string of labor songs, as all union meetings are, and should close with a giant spread of delicious food, like all events in Botswana are, an essential feature of any gathering, or so I was told in no uncertain terms when I suggested, somewhat hopefully, that tea and cake might be okay. The debate was opened by the National Chairman of the union, who had travelled especially to the capital all the way from Serowe, and closed by the General Secretary. People were introduced and thanked according to protocol by Dr Mosime, who welcomed the audience on behalf of the University, and Professor Makepe, who chaired the event, trying desperately, against the odds, to keep time (12 minutes for each of the six debaters, clearly a futile hope).

The Business Weekly Review, Friday, 6-12 March 2015, Pages 12-13

The challenge of holding a debate organized jointly by the union and the university became apparent soon after I arrived in Botswana when I met the head of Sociology. He claimed to be ‘busy’ and saw no benefit for the department, he said, from such an event, reducing it, despite my denials, to a mere ‘launch’ (of my book, The Making of an African Working Class: Politics, Law, and Cultural Protest in the Manual Workers’ Union of Botswana, Pluto Press, 2014). He did finally agree to participate and to book the hall, only to announce soon after that he was ‘unavailable’ on the very day he himself had chosen.

So began a dance of shadows. It was only after he delegated the organization of the debate to an energetic junior colleague that the university’s participation was assured. The union too wanted a book launch. In the end, we compromised by having the launch right at the end of the event, following the debate.

Mobilising speakers was another challenge and the programme kept changing as speakers accepted, changed their minds or were unavailable after repeated telephone calls. As well as academics, we wanted representatives of the judiciary, Ditshwanelo, the human rights NGO, the trade union movement and the employers’ association. We needed urgently to print a poster and distribute it throughout the University and to the various unions and their workers well before the date chosen. But the poster was held up as speakers changed their minds and university managers demanded the correct logo, which had changed, changed again and then reverted to the original. Each step on the way was another hurdle.

the final poster.

The final letter of invitation to speakers stated that

Inequality has become the central topic of discussion and concern worldwide, even raised at the World Economic Forum at Davos 2015. In Botswana there has been a recognition of the problem of poverty but little public discussion of the widening inequalities between rich and poor, and the implications this has for our society. We hope to kick off this central debate.

…. The panel will include some six distinguished trade unionists, academics and public figures, each of whom will speak for about 10 minutes. This will be followed by refreshments and an open discussion with audience participation, before the book launch. … The event, supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, is open to everyone and we expect it to attract a wide spectrum of trade unionists, academics, students and other concerned citizens.

The Manual Workers’ Union had bought 75 copies of the book, and was in the process of distributing these to unionists and supporters among the great and the good in Botswana. I was not involved in the distribution, but Elsinah also gave copies to the speakers at the debate. On the actual day, we waited on tenterhooks for the debaters and audience to assemble. At the very last minute, Judge Dingake announced his withdrawal, claiming it would be unseemly for him to launch a book that had praised him (see below). Our anxiety mounted. Where were the other speakers? One by one, they trickled in, Tobokani Rari, Secretary General, Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU), rushing in last, straight from a union federation meeting about the bargaining council. Gradually, the audience assembled. While we waited, we put up a slide show of the public sector strike on the screen behind the speakers.

Standing for the national anthem.

Academics from the University were last to arrive. As it turned out, however, there was no need to worry – this was just another instance of Botswana’s tradition of time keeping. The 200-seat auditorium filled and speakers spoke solidly for two-and-a-half hours, followed by questions from the audience. There was still time for a sumptuous buffet spread, served by a crew of charming young trade unionists. The book launch was managed by the University Bookshop, which sold out all its copies. This in itself was an achievement, since getting the book posted from the publisher in England turned out to be a challenge in its own right.

The debate got quite wide coverage. The Botswana Daily News, distributed free throughout Botswana at government, municipal and civic offices, carried a picture of me with Elsie Alexander, a speaker at the launch well-known for her gender activism, which (rather unexpectedly) highlighted the ‘activist’, ‘feminist’ message of the book. Perhaps the most flattering remarks, at least for me as an anthropologist, came at the end of the debate when the Secretary General of the MWU, Ms. Maophala Makgosi, speaking in Setswana, thanked me for helping the union to know more about itself.

The Botswana Daily News, Friday, March 6 2015 No. 44, Page 12

By the time the debate was over we were all exhausted and needed time to recuperate. Elsinah, who had been a moving force in helping to organise the debate at the university, was now involved full-time with the public sector bargaining council. It took time to convene another workshop, this time the subject being the ‘Aftermath of the Public Sector Strike’. The workshop was chaired by the Union’s National Chairperson himself and it was an exclusively in-house affair, which gathered together all the elected representatives of the Gaborone region, some thirty in all. The result was an exciting, even unprecedented, brainstorming session which went on for two hours – a serious conversation among union activists, without any set agendas or need to reach any definite plan for future action, who found in the workshop a rare moment to reflect upon themselves and the union. I spoke briefly. This time, tea and cakes sufficed.

I (and Wenner-Gren) owe a special debt to Elsinah Botsalano, below in the red dress. Without her all the events described in this blog would not have been possible.

VIDEO: Alexander Dent on WGF Symposium #151

This past March saw the 151st installment of Wenner-Gren’s legendary symposium series, as we invited scholars from around the world to share their work and discuss the transformation of public life in the context of rapidly-evolving media technologies. Alexander S. Dent, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at The George Washington University, sat down with us at the symposium’s conclusion to share his reflections on the experience and what it could mean for future research.

WGF Symposium #151- Alexander Dent-HD from Wenner-Gren Foundation on Vimeo.