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Fieldwork notes on Mali, Part 2

Being porous as a way of learning

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In Fieldwork notes on Mali, Part 1, Abby gave us a sense of what it felt like to be in the field. In Part 2, Abby explores how those sensations can be put into formal writing.


"Go and allow yourself to be swallowed" (Somé, 311).

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011: Adopting people's movements/habits around you… e.g.— the way my host mom abruptly pushes open the sheet-door that divides her room from the living room, something I observed for a long time and found half funny and half a sign of her power… I've now adopted it, because it really does make me feel a bit powerful when entering the room.


Thursday, April 7th, 2011: I'm thinking about your own sense of embodiment in another culture—Hany's comment about how some people have faces or bodies that don't grow old as quickly, like me and her… is embodiment the same cross-culturally? How much is someone's sense of their own body affected by space? Location? The people around them?


I've always been fascinated with anything and everything related to the body but found myself faced with a particular challenge when trying to write about my bodily experience in Mali after returning to the United States. So much of what I experienced felt so new, so visceral, and so immediate that I had no idea how to relay its fullness through formal writing.

In Mali, I felt the desire to mirror and mimic my host family's movements and habits as a way of knowing. At night, I wrote copious notes, some academic (e.g. is this what Taussig's Mimesis and Alterity was really about?) but mostly long rants (e.g. I can't fucking stand the way I feel after eating oily rice and tomato sauce. How could anyone eat this day after day?).

Back in the states, I read works by anthropologist Robert Desjarlais, known for his sensuous writing and research to try and understand my own experience.

To this day when I'm conducting fieldwork, his thoughts on immersion and embodiment still echo in my mind and body. In Body and Emotion, he poses questions of representing another cultures "embodied life" through writing, asking:

"To what extent, and through what means, can we grasp the emotional and sensorial life of another person or people?" (Desjarlais, 14).

Even through my mimicry, as a white, middle class American young woman, I obviously was having a different embodied experience than the average Malian. And beyond that, what gave me the authority to represent embodiment in Malian culture?

To quote Desjarlais,

"…we must bear in mind that subjective experiences of this sort are deeply patterned by the long-standing cultural context forming and informing one's identity" (Desjarlais, 17).

Still, I believe that seeing the contradictions and nuances and cracks in a group's embodied life and then comparing and contrasting that to your own sense of embodiment adds richness to any research you're "supposed" to be doing.

As I reread my field notes four years later, it occurs to me that part of understanding a person's sense of embodiment simply comes from closeness and connection:

March 5th, 2011: We are sisters, (Hany and I), in the way that sisters are, exchanging looks and glances to communicate, sometimes with passive aggression.

It is through this softening, through this mimetic and immersive means that an anthropologist grows a certain awareness of the culture she is studying. Boundaries must be let down. The fear of "going native," perhaps, is there, but as my mentor Professor Goslinga once explained in class, this fear is absurd in that you are you and it is impossible to become someone else.

However, I wonder if being open and permeable is a part of being privileged. I kept wanting to be more and more open to the Malian lifestyle — drink the tap water, trust Malian friends I made, or walk by myself at night — but my host sister Hany continuously told me to be wary of trusting Malians I met, that even if they seemed on the surface to be honest and friendly that they may have bad intentions towards me and as a foreigner I'd be unable to pick up on this.

She also worried greatly about the strength of my stomach, and insisted on washing the lettuce in not just two, but four tubs of water, treated with special tablets. My colonial body felt okay and comfortable with adopting others' bodily patterns and habits even if I knew there could be consequences.

Burkinabé scholar Malidoma Somé, however, comes from a different vantage point. Somé grew up in a rural village in Burkina Faso and was sent away to a British boarding school at age four. He describes himself as a "man of two worlds," and recounts the incredibly painful experience of needing to embody the Western man's ways while at a British boarding school, and then returning to his village and having to cleanse himself from those habits and embody the ways of a healer during his gruelling initiation process.

As much as Desjarlais or I would like to believe that we were treated as equals during fieldwork, our whiteness surely had a lot to do with the way we were perceived. Because of his background, Somé is more aware of the conflicting tensions, and sometimes pain, that comes along with inhabiting two worlds.

"At times," he writes, "that double perspective landed me in bizarre and uncomfortable situations…the two worlds could not be brought into harmony—and indeed I had the feeling that it never occurred to any of the students [at the seminary] but myself to even try to live in both of them" (Somé, 311).

While in many ways the body serves as a common denominator since we all have sentient bodies, bodily experience is both incredibly subjective and affected by sociocultural and historical processes.

The history that each and every one of us inevitably holds in our bodies — both our own personal histories and the histories of our ancestors — is not something that is easily relatable for people from very different backgrounds.

As St. Just explains in A Question of Balance,

"Our genes, and brain, as well, can serve as receivers, as well as storage vessels, for individual and collective memory" (St. Just, 93).

As obvious as it may sound, much of the present "everyday" is deeply affected by history, and in order to heal, it's necessary to recognize these "hidden forms of imbalance" (St. Just, 92).

I believe that part of the mission of anthropologists – or anyone travelling or learning about another culture — is to uncover these forms of imbalance and inequality and bring them to light. It's impossible to let someone seep into you and seep yourself into another so much to the point of complete and total bodily and emotional understanding — obviously.

Still, we cannot allow this inability of complete understanding to paralyse us. Our bodies are incapable of knowing everything, but are still highly important mediums for communication especially when in a foreign country.

As Desjarlais states early on in his ethnography, we must begin to achieve a basic understanding of the embodied everyday if we are to feel empathy for another culture so distant from our own.

Despite the fact that fieldwork conducted by privileged Westerners is fraught with echoes of colonialism and privilege, in the words of Guisso, Some's mentor, we must allow ourselves to be swallowed; we must be porous.

To what extent, and through what means, can we grasp the emotional and sensorial life of another person or people? Desjarlais

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Abby with her host family. Kalaban Coura, Bamako. May 2011. Taken by Cheick Diarriso.
Abby with her host family. Kalaban Coura, Bamako. May 2011. Taken by Cheick Diarriso.