Ethnographic Lesser Evils

From the Series: Con-text-ure

Photo by Ramadhani Senge.

Ni Mnyama pekee anaeruka,
Yasemekana mchana haoni bali usiku,
She is a creature of flight,
Day-blind and night-sighted,

If animals are mentioned at all in our ethnographies, they are pushed to the background—their presence lacks the textures and affective dimensions of human narratives. But in what ways can we tell the stories about the presence of animals and the interventions they make?

Mama Umize trained village ambassadors (VA) on family planning. Mama Umize was a female project facilitator for UNGA; a project started to increase knowledge and use of family planning in three rural and peri-urban villages in Morogoro, Tanzania. The VA who translated the project on the ground included traditional birth attendants (TBAs), retired teachers, community health workers, and religious leaders.

Traditional birthing attendants received training alongside village ambassadors. It was believed that TBAs discouraged villagers from using (modern) family planning by providing traditional birthing services. These practices, and their practitioners were thought to cause mother and children’s deaths—a form of evil. However, the connection between traditional birthing practices, deaths, and evil was never made explicit. Instead, the idea was for project facilitators to show TBAs the benefits of modern family planning and let the newly enlightened TBAs and their fellow VAs show villagers the benefits of biomedical ways of birthing.

Si kweli kulia kwake kuna ashiria kifo,
Bali huyu ni bundi,
Not a bearer of death,
Those praises to the owl,

This was our sixth training session. “Ladies who are afraid of their husbands would hear about their use of birthing pills, DEPO [injectable contraceptive] is your savior because once you inject it in your arm, you will be pregnant-free for six months,” Umize told the captivated audience. As the training on the lower side of the classroom continued, another conversation was taking place on the roof. Bats perched high on the roof emitted shrieks and squeals to the irritation of the facilitators. The VAs, for the most part, remained unconcerned, their backs hunched and hands pen-clasped, jotting down notes. To compensate for the bats’ cries, Umize, sometimes paused slightly in the middle of her phrase, as if to differentiate signals in the cacophony of sounds. At other times, as if to dwarf the bats’ sounds, Umize raised her voice. This tactic had a reverse effect. Participants cued into the sounds. They looked up, shifting their attention, momentarily, from training below to the conversations emanating from above.

Utasikia watu wakisema masikio kama popo,
Huyo ana uwezo wa kusikia mbali,
Hata mchekecho wa mbu
Some men are called bat-eared,
Abled to trap distant words,
Even mosquito’s murmurs

The bats' cries followed a semi-discernible pattern marked by silence, a solo cry, and wing flaps. At one moment in class, bats shrieks continued at a raising intensity. At their climax, we heard hesitant knocks on the classroom door, and then the door was flung open. A low murmur rippled across the class. Kafupi, one of the co-facilitators, swung her body to my side with a shocked expression and whispered, “God help us! Even animals can sense what is evil.” Mama Asia, a gentle, seventy-year-old TBA walked through the door into the classroom. Wrapped from head to toe in the colorful cloth, she sat on the front desk and softly apologized to Umize for being late. The bats’ cries gradually subsided.

Here, bats gave voice to project facilitators' unspoken beliefs about the association between TBAs with tradition and with evil; something facilitators previously skirted around. The bats emboldened Kafupi and others to make the connection. To move unspoken, dense thoughts into speech. It was a thin flap of light that illuminated the connections and then disappeared (Haraway 2007; Reynolds 2019).

Acknowledgments

Poem is entitled "Popo Ni Mnyama" by Suddy Kigamba, 2019.

References

Haraway, Donna J. 2007. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Reynolds, Pamela. 2019. The Uncaring, Intricate World: A Field Diary, Zambezi Valley, 1984–1985. Edited by Todd Meyers. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.