Elore 1/2001, 8. vuosikerta
Julkaisija: Suomen Kansantietouden Tutkijain Seura ry., Joensuu
ISSN 1456-3010, URL: http://cc.joensuu.fi/~loristi/1_01/jlat101.html
E-mail: loristi (at) cc.joensuu.fi

Reflections from a contact / conflict zone
An analysis in four acts

Johanna Latvala

In this paper (1), I will focus on the ethics of interpretation, understanding, and reflexivity in the context of anthropological fieldwork. My considerations are based on my fieldwork experiences among highly educated women in Nairobi, Kenya, on two fieldwork trips in 1997 and 1998. The first trip lasted for three weeks and the second one for three months. My fieldwork is a part of my PhD project, in which I study kinship conceptions and practices in urban middle class families in Kenya (2).

Here, I want to show how I, as a researcher, act in a certain way when having a discussion with one of my "informants", whom I also consider as a "friend". I want to consider the situatedness of the fieldwork encounters, and show the multiple voices that are present in the encounters. I feel a need to find a more equal way of doing research, and that contains without doubt revealing not only my own positions, but also my opinions and prejudices. If interviews are more like discussions, like mine are, the only possible way for the researcher is to be him or herself, and react like one reacts spontaneously. I have started to think, when I have reread my conversations with some of the women (especially those whom I know pretty well), that perhaps the fact that I sometimes disagree or pose leading questions shows that I appreciate the informant, and that I believe that she can make her own decisions and have her own opinions regardless of what I say. I think that a superior attitude would be to presume that I have so much power, that I could not even tell my informant my opinions in the fear that she might end up changing hers. Here, I want to emphasize that I am dealing with highly educated women in my research, and in the Kenyan context they often belong to the elite of the society. Studying "up" (Schrijvers 1991, 177), studying people with more power and prestige than the researcher, is likely to make the research setting more equal already in itself (Wolf 1996, 2).

Although many researchers have surely been in the same kind of situations that I will present later, it seems that it is difficult to discuss these questions, as so many ethical problems are involved in them, and sometimes it could be easier just not to pay attention to them. Some people think that these kind of things should not be set forth in the academic writing at all. One reason for this, at least in the context of anthropological research, can perhaps be found, as Ernest Gellner (1970, 26–28) suggests, in the fear of being accused of ethnocentricity. However, as the interpretations that researchers make will always stem from their own cultural background, I think that it is only natural that misinterpretations and disagreements take place when we try to understand other people's lives. I want to problematize the fact that I disagree with my informant, and even try to "make her see" something that she misses from my point of view (see Silberschmidt 1999, 56). Inevitably that effects how the interview goes on as well as what it contains.

During my fieldwork, and even more so after I have been reading through my fieldwork notes, I have come to realize very concretely, that the focus in the research is not the world of the "others" as such, but the world between ourselves and the others (Dennis Tedlock cited in Hastrup 1992, 117), and furthermore, as Kirsten Hastrup (1992, 117) states, that epistemologically there is no way to overcome its implications. Thus, my intention here is to problematize the very basic questions of understanding and interpretation in qualitative research (3). I would also like to show with the following example, that things do not always (if ever) go the way one had imagined, as the situations change fast and surprising things may suddenly come up in discussions.

For me, it is not possible to take a role of a "neutral" outsider regarding to my research and the persons involved in it, instead I want to dive into it 4 (3). As personality and background of the researcher are crucially important, especially in the surprising situations that s/he faces during the fieldwork, I feel that I will have to tell something about myself in the context of this particular interview.

More than just a white, middle class, heterosexual woman...

My interest in the family life of highly educated, urban African women grew out of my own life. A decision to concentrate on highly educated women was easy, especially after one African woman professor told me, when we were trying to find the best subject for my research, that "At least you have some chance to understand the lives of highly educated women, because you have something in common". Was I only imagining a slight irony in her voice? In fact she went on: "How could you ever understand the lives of, for instance, poor women living in the slums?" That was the first time when somebody from the world that anthropologists usually study, showed me her skepticism and perhaps also her contempt on Western researchers going to the Third World. So, here it was, the comment that I had been waiting for, and to which I had developed very well argued answers (5). The only problem was that I was not happy with these answers even myself. I had bad conscience, and I was embarrassed. Who was I to go to Kenya and study women's lives there? (Ch. for instance Vera-Sanso 1993, 160.) I felt that, in the most positive light, I was only disturbing, and in a more negative one, I was just continuing what the colonialists had started.

I was pregnant when I was thinking about my research plan, and felt my situation a bit controversial. I had recently finished my Master's, I didn't have a job or funding for further studies. And I was expecting twins. Although I was sincerely happy about my pregnancy, I felt insecure about the future, and did not know if I would get any job and was scared that I would be totally left out from the academic world because of my quite a long absence. I was not sure how I could combine work and family in the first place. In this situation I started to think about educated Kenyan women. If it all seemed difficult for me, what would it be for them? How would they organize their life in the urban environment where relatives were not a part of their lives in the same way as they were in the countryside?

During my first fieldwork visit I was alone, and the second time my husband and children (then one and a half years old) came with me. I am sure, that one positive element in my fieldwork was I being a mother of two small children. Almost all the women of my age that I met had children, and because the subject of my research was the family life, it felt very natural that I was in the same situation in that sense. Motherhood is greatly respected in Kenya, and a childless woman of my age would perhaps have received very different information and treatment.

Researchers have reported that they have been "forced" to lie for instance about their religion, marital status (Wolf 1996, ix; Katz 1996, 172), divorce (Schrijvers 1993, 148), or sexual orientation (Blackwood 1995, 56), because they have been afraid that they would not have been accepted otherwise. I did not lie, but I did not tell anybody about (what then seemed like) a serious argument, that took place during the fieldwork between me and my husband, and which almost led to a split between us. Why did I not tell, although I discussed with my informants their relationships and their difficulties with their husbands every day? I think I was just too tired both physically and mentally. Maybe I also thought that they would not understand the problems that we faced because nothing worked out like we had imagined, because of the stress that fieldwork caused me, because of the unstable political and climatic (floods) situation in Kenya at the moment, not to forget about the irritation of my husband who was completely tied up with the children. However, I thought, and I still think, that I was able to understand something important about the everyday life and the marital relationships of highly educated urban women in Kenya.

So, I did not tell them about our argument, because I thought that they would not understand, but more or less expected them to tell me about theirs. I talked about normal, everyday things openly, and even arguments on a general level, but not this acute one. Was I being superior by not telling? I do not see it that way. Rather, neither the informant, nor the researcher tells everything about herself, and different kinds of researchers also get different information (Haynes 1999, 667; Wolf 1996, 15; Visweswaran 1994, 40–59.)

I will illustrate the issues that I have been talking about by bringing forth one particular interview, which has made me painfully aware of the before mentioned questions. I have chosen the parts of our discussion (see Opie 1992, 59–62, about choosing the citations), where we talk about the informant's (ex)boyfriend, the father of her child. These citations show her reactions and feelings in different situations, as they show mine, too.

An analysis in four acts

The interview was made in an (almost) empty university café in Nairobi, in February 1998. I will call the informant Grace. The interview lasted about one hour, and we concentrated mainly on her relationship with her ex-boyfriend in it. First I would like to give some information about Grace.

Grace is a 26-year-old Master's student, among the best in her class, and a single mother. She declares herself a feminist. Grace is a Luo by her ethnic group, and comes from a polygamous family. Her father has two wives. She wants to be independent and support herself and her daughter. The father of her child is married to another woman. He is much older than she, and has been her teacher in the university. Their relationship lasted for years, and during that time the man lied that he was divorced and had not admitted being married all the time. Grace tells me that she has suffered a lot because of him, and is now in a socially uncomfortable position as a single mother.

We know each other pretty well; I had spent time with her quite a lot already during my first visit to Nairobi, and frequently before this particular interview. We are about the same age, and the age difference of our children is only one month. She is clever and open, and I really enjoy her company. At the moment of this interview, we were both quite tired, and the overall feeling of this encounter is informal. Our discussion is in English, and the following citations are directly from my transcriptions.

The following is an example of a discussion, which has elements of understanding, misunderstanding, agreement and disagreement in it. The first part of the title refers to Grace's feeling as I see them. The other part refers to my own feelings.

Act I: Crazy in love / Fake

Johanna: How did you find out actually that he, when did you find out that he was married already, you didn't know it from the beginning?

Grace: No, I didn't know it from the beginning. You see, initially when I met him he told me a veryY You know that girl was still so young, at heart and mind, you know, he was my first boyfriend, and when I met him, he told me stories that, even today I wonder how I believed it, but somehow he was able to convince me that there's nobody. You see, I love children so much. Then he had a son, so I felt so sorry for him that he takes care of the son alone. But that the wife was just away, I didn't know. I knew it later.

Johanna: What did he tell you, because he had a son..

Grace: He told me about the lady, told me they had problems, told me she went away and she won't come back.

Johanna: Okay.

Grace: So, being the young person I was, actually I was very young, those are the mistakes I wouldn't make now.

Johanna: I know. So how did you find out?

Grace: How did I find out? Ah, some of these things you can't hide forever. So she came back from study. How did I know she came back? One of his friends, we were just talking, then one of his friends, I think he thought I knew, then he just said that this person, the wife has come back. So I was so shocked.

Johanna: Yes.

Grace & Johanna:(laugh)

Grace: It was hard. But then I think, I really loved that man, even today I think it would be very difficult to get into another relationship very easily, because I really have deep feelings for that man. Then of course now, because of the baby. I really loved him.

Johanna: But how did––

Grace: ––So, when I discovered, I got hurt, of course, I asked him and of course he denied, I don't know how men are (laughs embarrassed/ amused) of course he denied, told me another fake story, but at least I've known. I found out from his close relatives.

Johanna: He didn't even admit it to you? (amazed)

Grace: No, (laughs) he didn't admit, didn't admit. So, maybe because I was still very in love, I continued to see him, until I got [my child].

In the beginning of our conversation I said that I would still like to know some details about Grace's relationship with the father of her daughter. I had interviewed her a year ago, and we had talked about the subject very quickly a few days earlier. Grace said that she is not sure if she remembers the details any more. I think she was not very anxious to talk about the subject.

When I ask her to tell me how she found out that her boyfriend already was married, she starts by telling me how he had lied. Then she changes her mind and defends her own behavior by appealing to her age and naiveté. She keeps on wondering how she ever believed a word of what he said. She goes on and states that she was very, very young, and would not do such a mistake anymore.

I answer by saying that I know. At this stage of the interview I really believed that Grace would not be as naive any more. She uses the word "mistake", and from all that I have heard her saying before, I was certain that she had learned her lesson. I try not to hide my opinion: I think that she has made a mistake by trusting him. But in the course of the interview I began to think that she is about to do the same mistake any time.

I have to ask again how she found out about the marriage. She tells me that someone they both know had mentioned that his wife had come back. She states that she was in shock. We both start to laugh, the situation feels so absurd. She said all this has been hard, and that she still has deep feelings for the man. In the end she says one more time that she loved him very much.

Afterwards I think that she was defending both what has happened and her contemporary feelings with the fact that she loved him so much. She does not, however, bring out one positive thing about the man.

I am going to ask her next how she reacted, but she interrupts me and continues that she asked him and of course he denied. She states that she does not understand men. She tells me that he was trying to lie even more, but that she had found out the truth. I get really amazed that he has denied everything, and I ask again, if he really did not admit that he had been lying. Grace laughs, no. Right after that she talks about love again and says that she continued seeing the man until she got the baby.

Grace finds herself naive for believing the man, but she explains everything by being so much in love. Although she is able to talk ironically of both herself and the man, at the same time she keeps on referring to her love in a very controversial way.

Act II: Still crazy in love / Too crazy in love

Johanna: Mmm. Have you had any other men after that?

Grace: I'm not interested. I'm more interested in my books, my work. It is very difficult. I think I got so much from this relationship. It's very difficult as it were if this man asked me to get married with him, I would. I would love a lot.

Johanna: You would? (surprised)

Grace: Yeah.

Johanna: Although he has another––

Grace: ––I won't mind. After all, I wouldn't stay with them. I have my work and I have my children.

Johanna: Are you sure that you would like to have that kind of a relationship?

Grace: Sometimes, you don't have a choice.

This citation is a good example of Grace's mixed feelings. In her first sentence she states that she is more interested in her studies than other men. The way she tells it implies that at the moment she rather thinks of her career than men in the first place, including the father of her child. Surprisingly she continues by saying that she would, however, marry him if he proposed her.

I am really puzzled, because I did not expect to hear something like that. I am about to ask, if she did not mind him being married already, but she interrupts me by saying that she would not mind. Instead she would continue to live her own life as the second wife. In this section, I forgot to ask one important and a very basic question: why? Why would you like to marry him?

As I mentioned earlier, Grace comes from a polygamous family. His father has two wives. Among the Luo polygamy is still quite common. The father of the child has the same cultural background in this matter. Earlier she has told me frequently that she does not support polygamy, because it causes controversies between the families. My attitude towards all this becomes quite obvious, when I keep on asking her if she really wants that kind of a relationship. So, I seem to have thought automatically that it would not be a good relationship. Why not? Surely one important reason was my own cultural background, where monogamous relationships is a norm (which is, of course, continually violated by extra-marital relationships). Personally it is very difficult for me to believe that a woman could be happy if her husband had another wife. One reason for my skepticism was undoubtedly my conception about Grace's ex-boyfriend. I would not have been excited about her marrying him even if he was not married already. I have to admit that I did not like the way he had been treating Grace. Thus, the general conception of what makes a good husband in my opinion was not something that I saw in this man. Grace, however, brings the realities of life ahead of me by reminding me that sometimes one does not have a choice.

I am very surprised of everything that has been said. Because I am afraid that this talented and self-esteemed woman, whom I like very much, ends up being a second wife of the father of her child, I still want to talk about it (to persuade her?). In fact, the reason why I feel so bad about what she has told me was that I was very fond of her. I had heard many stories of same kind during my fieldwork, and although I often felt somehow sorry for the women, I did not know them as well as I knew Grace. Thus I was not sure if I could, or should try to make them change their minds, because I did not know if that would be a right thing to do. But what comes to Grace, I thought I knew.

Act III: What a mess / But don't you see...

Johanna: But now if you for instance married him, so how could you trust him if you know that he has done these kind of things, he has lied to you and..

Grace: I don't. (emphazises)

Johanna: You don't?

Grace: I don't know, Johanna, I told you I live every day, I don't know. You see, sometimes I don't like talking about this because I really feel like I've messed up myself. You know. Yeah.

Johanna: How about, do you think that it would be difficult to meet another man, cause you have a child.

Grace: Well, I guess it is, cause you know, it's becoming very expensive to raise children, so people want one child, two children. See, if a man says that he wants two kids, then you have one already, it somehow spoils his plans. Alternatively, you see, by African standards, I'm a highly educated woman. Then I have a child, so definately––

Johanna: (laughs)

Grace: ––definately (laughs) it reduces my marriage market something.

In this piece of conversation, one can see that we know each other pretty well, and that we had a straightforward relationship. In the beginning I am trying to make her think over, to change her mind, when I bring into focus that the man is not trustworthy, from my point of view. Grace emphasizes that she does not trust the man. Now I am even more confused, and so is she. She sounds tired. Then she enlightens the situation to me by telling about her chances to find a new man. I start laughing immediately when she states that she is a well-educated African single mother, because the way she pronounces the word "definately" gives a firm impression that she is amused about the situation as well. More than amused, however, she is worried. It is not easy for a highly educated African woman to find a husband, as men easily take an educated wife as a threat (0bbo 1986, 187). Even more difficult it is for someone who already has a child, because the social pressure against single mothers is still strong (Suda 1996, 74; 78–79).

Act IV: Giving up / Feeling stupid

Before the next quote I am asking her if his wife knows about Grace's child. She explains that she does not want to revenge to the wife, because she is not guilty of anything. Then she speculates further:

Grace:.. But I think that we African women we are very forgiving. I think so. And can take a lot of rubbish. If she knows, maybe she just decided to .. I don't know.

Johanna: But even you are so forgiving, although you are such a feminist.

Grace: Yeah.

Johanna: You should fight for your rights.

Grace: How?

Johanna: Hmm.

Grace: How.

This particular part of the conversation embarrasses me (6). I mean, how can I say "You should fight for your rights"? I do not even know what I mean by that. Should she demand him to marry her? No. Should she demand him to help her financially? She could, but she does not want to. Should she demand him to at least stop lying? She could, but what difference would it make any more? My comment "You should fight for your rights' thus somehow closes our discussion; she does not know what to say any more, and neither do I.

I could not help thinking that she should not marry him. But from her point of view, her chances are limited. If she marries her ex-boyfriend, she will at least be married, and even to her child's father. The fact that she is the second wife is not something extraordinary in Kenya. If she keeps on waiting and hoping to meet someone else, it is very possible that she is left alone. In that case, and also if she decides to stay unmarried, she will be in a marginal position in her society. It is also possible, as I understand now, that Grace wants to marry that man exactly because he is already married. As I have already told, she is a very self-esteemed woman, and one way to keep her relative independence without being in a marginal position, is to become a second wife and have her own household (Chikwenye Ogunyemi in Arndt 2000, 716–717).

All in all, despite the subject of our discussion, I feel good and even amused during the interview, because of the great sarcasm and sense of humor that Grace has. The contact with Grace that I have been analyzing in this paper is still very vividly in my mind. I have often afterwards thought about her and that particular afternoon.

Epilogue, 2 years later:

Grace has graduated, and has an interesting job, although she is not satisfied with her salary. She has two children now, by the same father. He has not suggested marriage, and she says she is not keen on it either. She says that her social life is quite mixed up. All in all, she is not happy about the situation. I think that she was pregnant already at the time when I was in Nairobi, and even when this particular conversation that I have been analyzing here, took place. Why did she not tell me? Or: Why would she have told me in the first place?


1 I am indebted to Mary Louise Pratt (1992, 6–7) and Kamala Visweswaran (1994, 40) for the title of my article. This is a slightly modified version of the papers which I presented in ‘Personal Writing’ Summer School of Cultural Studies, June 14–17, 2000, in Jyväskylä, Finland, and in ‘Gendering Ethics / The Ethics of Gender’ Conference, June 23–25, 2000, in Leeds, UK. I want to thank all the participants for the very lively (Jyväskylä) and encouraging (Leeds) reactions that my paper evoked, making me convinced that researchers need to be honest, even in cases where it is not very favourable to them. I would also like to thank Academy Professor Ulla Vuorela and PhD Laura Aro as well as all the members of the Minna Canth Project for Women’s Studies for their comments.

2 In Kenya, like in many other African countries, the society is in the state of flux; with many controversial views about what is ‘wrong’ and what is ‘right’ (Suda 1996, 77). This antagonism is especially strong when it comes to gender roles (Silberschmidt 1999). As kinship is one of the basic institutions in Kenyan society, this social change will be shown clearly in the way that people think about their relatives. Traditional African way of understanding kinship as a large network of solidarity seems to be changing, especially among the urban middle class. My discussions with the informants were mainly on their marriages, relationships with the relatives and arguments that they had in the family.

3 The question of understanding different cultures is problematic. Melford Spiro (1992, 134) argues that maybe anthropologists only have an illusion of understanding. For instance Renato Rosaldo (1989, 3–11) has reported his misunderstandings and misinterpretations, which were due to his inexperience as a human being. Only after a painful personal experience he found a new way to interpret the meaning of headhunting for the Ilongot. In the end, he understood, at least he thinks so, and possibly that is exactly the reason why he reports about it so openly (Latvala 1995, 123). It is, of course, possible to misunderstand without realizing it. But what if one knows that one has misunderstood? Gellner (1986, 86) suggests that ‘Perhaps such anthropological failures don’t present their thesis, or even report back from the field at all. This doesn’t prove, of course, that it has never occurred’.

4 The requirement to reveal one’s positions has been set forth particularly in dialogical (for instance Tedlock 1979, 388–389; Maranhao 1986, 308; Crapanzano 1992, 189) and feminist anthropology (for instance Abu-Lughod 1993, 6: Okely 1995, 14; Hastrup 1995, 122–123; Bell & al. 1993).

5 I had been developing different kind of answers since reading the arguments of ifi Amadiume (1987, 7) and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (1991, 56–57). Later, for instance Mary E. John (1996) and Uma Narayan (1997) have raised disturbing thoughts in my mind.

sup>6 See folklorist Laura Aro (1996, 191; 224) about the embarrassment of the researcher.



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Johanna Latvala, FM
University of Jyväskylä
jylk_jl (at) cc.helsinki.fi