By Daisy Lafarge

Daisy Lafarge is a writer and artist working alongside LLH researchers. The following is an extract from a post on her reflective Tall Sister blog about her work.

One strange part of encountering scientific research is brushing up against its self-image, or what I’ve come to call ‘portability’. Whether you’re a livestock vet called into dairy farms in Dumfriesshire, or part of a research team working with Maasai farmers in northern Tanzania, the set of practices used do not differ in an essential way. Portability is the concept that one’s core training can be transported from one context to another; the new context might affect the practice (e.g. working in a different seasonal climate, or having a language barrier with colleagues), but it will not completely redefine it.


Image: Hans Splinter/Flickr

Coming from the arts & humanities, this notion of portability was novel to me. I was taught that context is a prism, refracting all that was previously known. That nothing can be seamlessly lifted from one culture into another, everything must undergo the subtle—sometimes violent—complexities of translation, in which features are lost, transmuted or created anew. Undoubtedly, the same thing happens with veterinary or epidemiological research, but science always aspires to be science, a general(isable) set of laws, and so perhaps the complexities of translation are more difficult to quantify. I became aware that they tend to fall outside of data sets and official results, so frequently their importance goes unrecorded, except in the form of anecdotes or personal, unvoiced observations. Here I can discern a useful role I might play.

In northern Tanzania, acknowledging context requires acceptance of complexity: a natural and cultural topography formed by two European colonial powers (German East Africa 1885-1916, Tanganyika under British rule 1916-1961); the radical socialist postcolonial government under Julius Nyerere (1964-1985); centuries of tribal identities formed through conflict and co-existence that interacted with both Christianity and Islam; international pressures to develop, to modernise, and to prioritise wildlife conservation.

Amongst all this history, there is the daily reality of widespread poverty. Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, and in the north of the country, where the research programme is based, livestock keeping is the main form of subsistence, as it has been for centuries, prior to, during, and after colonial rule. The scale and intensity of livestock herding varies from the ‘pure’ pastoralism of the Maasai, to agro-pastoralist tribes like Wairaqw or Wanyaturu (who mainly farm crops but may keep small numbers of animals), to individuals living in large towns or cities who may graze a few cattle on the town’s periphery (what geographers call ‘peri-urban’). These various practices of livestock keeping do not fall neatly along the delineations of tribal culture or income; there are a myriad factors affecting subsistence—population expansion, land disputes with national parks, and the growth of urban centres that draw younger generations away from rural areas.

The national language, Swahili, is a concoction of other languages, with Bantu and Arabic elements. It was consciously promoted by Nyerere’s government in an attempt to unify disparate tribes and ethnicities with a common language and national identity. In addition to Swahili, and the English taught in primary schools, many Tanzanians speak another tribal language, complicating the simplistic formula of an incoming Western (English) language, and a ‘local’ language. English inflections are embedded in Tanzanian culture and languages, as are German. And differences ripple between Kimaa (Maasai language) and Swahili, between Kimaa and Kiiraqw (Iraqw language), just as they do between English and Swahili. The ‘language barrier’ is more like a web cast between several poles, rather than a static line drawn between X and Y.

Further language interactions and dissonances occur in the encounters between villagers and researchers—as well as between researchers, as each discipline speaks to its own kind in institutionalised language. Language barriers exist in the lab or research seminar as much as they do in the field. There are no neutral spaces where differences hang in suspense.

It follows that there is nothing neutral about my own ‘outsider’ status, whether I am meeting a science researcher or Tanzanian livestock keeper. I come with my own privilege, with my cultural, emotional and institutional baggage, as well as what I represent and embody through the colour of my skin, my gender, my height, and the ease with which I can move across international borders.

I hope to engage with, rather than suppress, all the ‘difficult’ emotions that arise from being a white woman writer affiliated to a research team in a previously colonised country, those of guilt and shame (in all their individual and institutional shades), as well as vulnerability and sensitivity. Why is it that the sciences feel less guilt or hyperconsciousness about working in the Global South than the arts and humanities? Is it because the former is so culturally coded as ‘beneficial’ and the latter as ‘indulgent’? How did these distinctions come about?

Differences cannot be collapsed, but neither should they reduce to guilt-induced silence. A refusal to speak is also a refusal to engage with the terms of the creation and perpetuation of difference, and to imagine how it might be used to bring about other worlds. This is the space of dialogue, creativity, poetry.

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