Arrivals: the less innocent anthropologist

Two weeks later and I am drinking what is announced on the board outside of Billy Boo’s Cakery as “kickass coffee,” as midmorning life is passing by on Station Road in the Observatory, Cape Town, South Africa. The man who I assume is Billy Boo explained at length how brewing the espresso first and then adding water makes for a poor macchiato. He does it right. It is indeed kickass. There is a slight guilt; I’m an anthropologist on the clock, and I’m sitting in the kind of hipster heaven that I would sit in if I were at home in Denmark. I connect to the Wi-Fi and begin.

Arrival at a new field site is for the ethnographer often characterized by an overwhelming amount of practical activities towards answering questions like these: Where am I? Do I live here? How do I protect my body and my equipment (and in the long term my mind) from the weather/wild animals/destruction by ritual sacrifice/theft? Can I sleep safely? Do I need to get around? How do I get around? Who do I talk to? How do I address them? How do I respond without facing sanctions? What is dangerous? What is safe? What is good?

Though I am now installed in a cosmopolitan city with a population and area of about half the size of my home country, the kinds of actions that are taken to engage these questions do not really differ much from what ethnographers now call “classic fieldwork”. One of my favorite books about fieldwork is Nigel Barley’s The Innocent Anthropologist. He describes his first fieldwork among the Dowayos in Northern Cameroon. Back when doing anthropology, conventionally, meant spending years in a remote village. In 1984 Barley was right on time, as the discipline was shifting to focus on not only the results of fieldwork, but also the process and representation of fieldwork. He writes earnestly and humorously about the coincidences that led him to go to Cameroon, his arrival and failure to comprehend and act appropriately in relation to local standards, bureaucracy, common sense and just about everything else; his struggles to find practical answers to those fundamental questions of being and living in a (to him) strange place. As I have been mining the internet for the cheapest car hire, cleaned up the 1920s semi-detached that is now my home, then become acquainted with the cleaning lady that apparently comes with the house, found a plumber to fix the toilet, browsed the aisles of supermarkets and tried to learn how to operate the alarm system, I have sent Nigel Barley many loving thoughts. His notes from an African mud hut describe very different settings, but very similar processes. Though these tasks are mundane, and might even be considered as matters of routine, in the new field setting, the ethnographer is overwhelmed.

The Plumber and the Urbanized African

He has come to fix the toilet. He’s in his sixties, friendly enough, jeans, thick glasses and he’s white. His assistant is called Standard. He is black. The two work on the toilet, and when it is working as it should, Gene the Plumber writes up the bill in two copies on a clipboard, calculates hours, VAT and materials in his head. And he asks me what I’m doing here.

“Well, I’m a social scientist of sorts, and I’m here to do research on how pregnant women and new mothers use their phones and the Internet to find information about health,” I say.

“Oh, they don’t use that. The African family, it’s cultural. They send their children to stay with the grannies, the go-gos. It's not the mothers and the fathers who raise their children, cause they’re out working! That’s the culture of the local people here.”

I go along with the assumption that if I’m here to study people, it must be the “Africans", the others. I say that I understand that there are differences between how families raise children, and I guess there is a history with the migrant workers and all. Gene agrees, and says

“You see the urban African he is in-between. Between the western influence - the work, the job, the salary - and the cultural. From Monday to Friday he’s in the city everyday working, he’s making his salary. Then on the weekend, it’s all cultural. So you got to understand, the Urban African he’s living in two worlds. And the two don’t mix.

They don’t go to the hospital. They think if you go there you die! You only go there to die! If you want to get better you go to the sangoma (diviner). So there is the cultural.

It’s all lack of education. Take Standard here,” he says and points to his assistant who is packing up, “you can’t send him out to do the job of a doctor, he simply doesn’t have the knowledge. It’s all about education, knowledge, information, knowing how to do things! I’m not being racist, it’s just… They’re just two different worlds. You can’t tell them to change their culture. ”

As Gene explains, I nod and smile. I also freak out a little. But mostly on the inside. Because the story so effortlessly conjures and orders opposite categories of skin-color, urban space (the city center, the township, and the hinterlands where the grannies live), time (working days and weekends), culture (the western and the cultural/African), health practices (the hospital and the diviner) and power (knowledge – if we trust Foucault). Oh yes, and technology and “the cultural”. Because I know that this story about The Urbanized African is what my academic ancestors wrote against back in the 1930s, 1940s, 50’s and 60s. Max Gluckman and his colleagues and students at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute showed us that the Africans who lived in the cities at the time, the migrant worker, the clerk, the factory worker, the dandy, inhabited and also created social worlds in which there were indeed distinct arenas and modes of sociality. But these arenas were linked, interdependent and mutually constitutive. These apparently separate “worlds” are not separate, not apart, they are part of the same single system, the same world.

Something about mobile phones and riding a train while white

Apartheid or not, it does intensely matter what color your skin is in this new place that I’ve decided to live and work in. It matters to me, right now, for the practical answering of the initial fieldwork questions. My friend Darryn tells me not to take the train, because I’m likely to be robbed. I’m an easy target because I am white, and he knows because he’s not. My neighbor Brittany, who is white herself, is less categorical. “Sometimes when I do things like that, that are a bit dodgy, I put my phone and my credit card in my bra. So if it happens [that I get robbed], then at least I’ll have that.” I’m asking about the train, because I need to go down the coast to Fish Hoek. Working as a visiting fellow at Cape Town University, I have a new group of colleagues to meet in the First 1000 Days project. The train runs from my place to Fish Hoek. I don’t have a car yet, and I’m not going to take an Uber, when there is what seems to be a perfectly fine train running straight to my destination. So I buy the ticket and wait at the station. And I do as I am told, I am trying to learn how to be safe, how to be in the right way in this new place. At the station toilet, I take out my visa card and my phone and stuff them under the strap and the upper part of the left cup of my bra. It feels weird. It feels silly. It feels like I am making myself unsafe, and my eyes dart across the platform, as I come out from the ladies room. By doing this thing with my phone, I am acting on a negative potentiality. It’s a quiet, sunny morning, and there are a handful of black ladies waiting for the train as well. When the train comes, I follow them into the nearest car. The yellow plastic seats that line the car are populated with a variety of people; but they are all “not white”. I’m nervous and sit up straight, looking around, at the stickers on the walls announcing offers on penis enlargement, good luck with money and 15 minute abortions, if you just call this number. I try not to make eye contact. The suspicious behavior of the hyper-vigilant newbie ethnographer. When I get over myself, I realize that nobody seems to be paying attention to me. Many of my fellow passengers are simply riding the train, looking out the window. Others are paying attention to their phones. Which they are taking out of their handbags and pockets, which they are holding in their hands. I’m feeling pretty embarrassed and silly.  

The landscape opens up, and the train runs along the turquoise ocean, with the mountains towering above, and then it stops. It stops for ages. The car is getting hot. And I know that I’ll be late for the meeting with my new colleagues. Not a good start. And I can’t even send a message to say that I’ll be late, because my phone is in my bra.