On the Dinner Floor

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When conducting fieldwork, most anthropologists will have to eat with their host. Blogger Nadya Karimasari elaborates why this matter is not as simple as it may sound.

What I like most about my preliminary fieldwork is the interaction that it brought. Eating together is one of the most essential ways to build a relation. Providing food for a new ‘guest’ or ‘stranger’ is not just a simple act of hospitality. Through food, the community that I lived with offered to have a relationship with me. By eating the food together, mostly on the floor, I opened myself up to commit to this new relationship and be more than just a guest or stranger.

The generous act of giving and taking food is not to be taken for granted in every setting. In the first days after I arrived in a remote highland in Aceh, I spoke with a man from the city who worked for a development agency. The first advice he gave me was the following: ‘Don’t eat with them. Bring your own bottle of water and cover the top of your glass.’ Why so? ‘This community still strongly practises sorcery. They will poison you with their food. I immediately got ill after eating their food,’ he explained.

I can’t imagine people like him doing anthropological fieldwork in a remote area. Of course, social research is not only about trying to understand the community, but also trying to understand ourselves as a product of our social context and interaction. If he were a social researcher, he would have to be more aware of the origin of his judgement. For a researcher like me, this small conversation says a lot about the interaction and non-interaction through food.

In my case, I never did get any stomach ache, did not get any food poisoning, nor did I experience any sorcery. I ate whatever they ate. My hosts almost always ‘forced’ me to have some more. The more I ate, the more they felt appreciated. When I was feeling full, they would frown, ‘oh, our food was not tasty enough!’

Of course, I wanted them to be sure that I fully enjoyed their meal and our little moments of feast together. But I also needed to be careful not to let my stomach become too full, because it would mean that I would have to go to the nearest river… and, let me assure you, this ‘river’ thing is not any less complicated.

 

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Research in conflict

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In the last days of her preliminary fieldwork, blogger Nadya Karimasari entered a contentious area where she needs to be extra cautious about her relations with both conflicting sides.

In a couple of days, my preliminary fieldwork will be over. The last place in Northern Sumatra that I am currently visiting is also the most contentious area. The farmers here have been protesting against the national park that has destroyed patches of farmers’ plots scattered over different villages. According to the national park officer, those plots were located inside the national park, but the farmers have a lot of evidence to disqualify that claim.

 

The farmers are strongly organised and on 15 February 2017, their candidate has won the local election at district level without any support from large, conventional political parties. The farmers’ organisation was very welcoming and supportive of my research. They brought me to meet five farmers who were leading the protest and had been imprisoned for 22 days. They brought me to their partially destroyed fields, and more.

I spent more time with the farmers and their families, because they are more diverse and complex than the national park bureaucracy, who have more of an official and uniformed version of what happened. The national park also asked me to stay at their barrack and observe their day-to-day office work, but I was afraid that the farmers would think I am a spy who works for the national park, no matter how hard I tried to explain.

As a social scientist at the beginning of my research, I tried to cover both sides to get a general overview. But there are different advices in social science about conducting research on conflicting parties. Some argued that if the researcher is trying to be neutral, she will only get superficial information from both sides.

I must make choices and along the way, I have made and will keep making mistakes. I should do what is right according to my judgement at that given moment. Instead of feeling afraid to make an imperfect decision, I should remember that mistakes are the best teachers. I learn through mistakes. Instead of trying to stay perfect and be a perfectionist scientist, I will try to be forgiving of my shortcomings and embrace what I learn from them.

When in the field (2)

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Awkward, unexpected, and extraordinary things happened during fieldwork. Blogger Nadya Karimasari shares a list of such events.

For approximately 10 days, my co-promotor Dr Stasja Koot visited me in Medan, together with my promotor Prof. Bram Buscher, who visited me for 5 days. Some funny and memorable things happened during my supervisory team’s visit that made us laugh; looking back:

  1. My promotor and co-promotor, both frequent world travellers, stayed at the transit airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a while, not realizing that their connecting plane to Kualanamu airport, Medan, had just left.
  2. When they arrived, they wore the exact same white, light, v-collared T-shirt. I thought they were twins.
  3. On multiple occasions, my promotor and co-promotor ordered the same menu. They took turn each day on who was the copycat and who was the original.
  4. Bram accidentally bit off a whole chunk of super-hot small chilly. Fortunately, no tears were shed.
  5. ‘Black coffee, no milk, no sugar,’ was Stasja’s key sentence. People in Indonesia tend to put sugar or condensed milk in the coffee they served in such a way, that the coffee tastes exactly like liquid sugar.
  6. A giant frog in the cottage room in Bukit Lawang that suddenly just … vanished. ‘I’m sure it’s in your suitcase, Stasja,’ teased Bram.
  7. A waiter at the Bukit Lawang cottage speaks Dutch in a very old-fashioned way – because he learnt from his grandfather, he told us. He also sings hilarious, old-fashioned Dutch songs, this time bringing tears of laughter to Bram and Stasja’s eyes.
  8. Earthquakes in North Sumatra. Quite a lot of small earthquakes while we were there.
  9. Two sleepless nights for Bram, three for Stasja.
  10. Quite a lot of semi-wild orangutans during our short trek in Bukit Lawang.
  11. One flat tire on our way back from Tangkahan to Medan.
  12. How best to tip local people who helped us. Researchers need local people a lot and it is common to tip them, but tips are not exactly something that comes with an invoice.
  13. It took some time to adjust to the Indonesian currency; you can easily be a ‘millionaire’, but one million rupiah is actually very quickly.

All set, a couple of weeks to go and so many research ideas to bring back to Wageningen.

When in the Field (1)

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Blogger Nadya Karimasari is in Indonesia to conduct her preliminary fieldwork. This is the first of a series in which she will share her experiences.

How are you, Wageningen? I am curious because currently I am in Indonesia. The reason is threefold: to avoid the light snow in winter wonderland, I mean Wageningen (hello, sunshine!), to visit my parents and mother-in-law for some time and to conduct preliminary fieldwork for two months. The objective of this preliminary fieldwork is to visit and explore several potential research locations in order to choose one site for my year-long research that will start in August this year.

I found that what constitutes the “field” or research location is not entirely as clear as I had imagined it would be. From the Netherlands, we arrived at my hometown, Yogyakarta, on New Year’s Eve. I was overjoyed to meet my parents and brothers. My plan was to have an exclusive family time for a while and then fly to the potential research field in North Sumatra and Aceh.

From the Netherlands, we arrived at my hometown, Yogyakarta, on New Year’s Eve. I was overjoyed to meet my parents and brothers.

But, when in Yogyakarta, my husband received a text message from one of my informants, a bureaucrat and authority figure, who was also in the same town during that time. In other words, the second day after I arrived in Indonesia, when the euphoria of the New Year celebration was still lingering in the air, I already had to start working. I had to meet my key informant because he had to fly to Jakarta the next day. Does this mean my preliminary fieldwork started then? Does it mean my hometown is also part of the “field”?

It was funny because I was on the road with my family to buy some groceries when he asked me to meet with him. I was not prepared at all but I went to meet him anyway. I didn’t bring my recorder. I didn’t even bring any notebook or a pen! He kindly gave me his new notebook and pen. He even played with my son and entertained him. I kind of like this familial approach.

It felt like a good start. Then, immediately afterwards, I fell ill. And then my husband fell ill. And then my son fell ill. I started to worry: in these conditions, when will we be ready to go to North Sumatra and Aceh? (to be continued)