I am not an anthropologist. I’m not “trained”, I have no critical understanding of the theories or methodologies, and I have a functional legal background in interviewing, not a research one. I am also rubbish at “living in the community” – I’m a skinny-jeans-wearing, foreign-food-eating, boozing-and-dancing inappropriate nightmare.
For example. It’s been the beginning of rainy season, and food options have been limited until the last fortnight – with the final, welcome appearance of melons, the first fruit in a long time. I’ve got bored of okra, and have bought pasta and tinned tomato paste (and conveniently, the ladies in one of my villages sell small packages of pre-peeled garlic and uncracked black peppercorns, which are like tiny plastic manna from heaven). I’ve also been enjoying the gender-ambiguous status of being a white woman in Aweil, by having a few beers every now and then with Malual, Akol and Gai Thok at home (a further note on being a semi-woman here later, maybe?).
I am also worth nothing in the household. I’m rubbish at bringing water (popped a finger out of joint carrying a full jerry can two weeks ago); I cannot cook. I am only good for buying coffee, and – primarily – having a computer and DVD drive, and thanks to my lovely man in the UK, a huge collection of films.
So, realising this, I am the founder of the Maper East Film Club, which consists mostly of highly grubby children, smatterings of teenagers, and a few amused women at the back. I began by showing my only film with me – The Hobbit – about four months ago now, when I first moved all my stuff up to Aweil to get on with work. I thought it would be a deeply confusing incident, but it turns out that good vs. evil is universal; orcs are generally enjoyed by young boys; New Zealand is beautiful to everyone; and Gollum is a brilliant character, approved of by all.
I followed this up with two seasons of Merlin, with much of the same CGI-style evil, prompting enjoyable conversations about witchcraft across continents. Then Rob gave me a wonderful parcel of films, so I’ve now shown Raiders of the Lost Ark, Shrek (a talking donkey is accessible and intensely funny to everyone here), Star Trek (we like weird wrinkly aliens almost as much as orcs), and – since last night – The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I’m aiming to finish the Tolkien trilogy by the time I leave on Friday.
I also showed Jurassic Park, which was probably my most successful night yet. Dinosaurs are not in the primary school* curriculum here, which is very Tea Party friendly, but I explained them as extremely large lizards that lived before humans, which seemed acceptable. (My rubbish Arabic can stretch to this, but not to interviewing.) Ayak, my mum in my compound, apparently had nightmares about the “very fast lizards” – I’m assuming the velociraptors – that night, and blamed me in the morning. But all agreed that putting the fuse board for the entire island INSIDE the velociraptor pen was a massive error on the electrician’s part.
As well as being a key way for me to wind down of an evening (admittedly while being sat on by three toddlers, who see me as a kind of film cushion now, I think), this film night has been a healthy means of building perspective on my place and difference here in Aweil. As I said, I have only the vaguest understandings of anthropological debates, but I know that I am part of my research, because it’s so obvious that my origins, colour, approach, ideas and persona are the starting point for what people tell me, rather than background noise. But the film nights have been interesting for working out how different, rather than just different, I am; they are spaces where my childhood meets other childhoods, my fears (velociraptors) can be compared to other people’s fears (now including velociraptors); where I work out what is funny because of language, and what is intrinsically funny because of humans and body language; where I feel both out of place and accepted despite my inappropriateness; and where I turn numb because of toddlers falling asleep on my legs.
I’m not pretending to analyse this too deeply. Maybe it’s just important to me that I contribute something, even if it’s just evening entertainment, to the household and surrounding compounds who come to watch. Maybe just the act of sitting down and enjoying a film, and people’s reactions to a film, is good for perspective on my local relationships and the place of my research within those relationships anyway.
*note: very few people have finished primary school education here, and the few who have are unlikely to have progressed to secondary education, for a variety of reasons including local wars.