By Dr Gerard Prinsen
As discussed in an earlier blog; a team of LLH researchers investigating zooneses in northern Tanzania has started interviewing butchers and people selling cooked meat. The first interviews are already giving us some detailed insights into what veterinary scientists call “the meat pathway from beast to bowl”, and what social scientists prefer to describe as “the meat value chain”. For example, we learned that operating a butchery business tends to be a long-term livelihood strategy. The butchers we interviewed had been in the business at least eight years and several had been doing it for decades. A lifestyle choice, if you wish.
In contrast, operating an eatery – whether informally at a street corner or formally as an established restaurant known as a mgahawa – appears to be a much more temporary undertaking. The people we talked to as managers of eateries had been doing it for a few years and none for more than eight years. People had done different things before, and we heard of several who had moved on to other businesses.
These different perspectives in butcheries and in eateries are likely to lead to different professional practices – including the handling of food and perceptions about food safety. For example, the proverbial ‘old-hands’ are more likely to say, “I’ve always done it like this!” whereas new-comers may be more inclined to ask, “What is a smart way to do this?”
The ‘positionality challenge’
However, this blog is not about butcheries or eateries, nor is it, actually, about zooneses. As I promised in the title, it is about men asking women to talk about their business. You may have noticed that the first three paragraphs of this blog use gender neutral language. That is somewhat disingenuous. Around the Kilimanjaro area, all butchers are men. And most people selling cooked meat are women.
I am told that, in addition to the mama lishe (‘mothers who feeds’) who run the informal eateries, there are also baba lishe (‘fathers who feeds’). However, I did not spot a single baba lishe in the two weeks I did research with my Tanzanian colleague Mr Boniface Mariki. And therein lays a particular challenge for us as researchers: the ‘positionality challenge’. (As I write this, I wonder whether some natural scientists among you now think if I am taking you for a ride to look for Schrödinger’s cat.)
As a research team, my colleague Dr Linda Waldman and I rely entirely on Boniface to conduct the interviews. The Swahili spoken by Linda and me does not even allow us to order from the menu, so Boniface’s participation in the research ensures interviews in which conversation is untrammelled by translators. (Boniface’s lead role in conducting the interviews also relieves Linda and me from having to deal with the complex positionalities of white European researchers talking to black African business people. But that is a thought for another blog.)
Richer men and poorer women
However, Boniface is not entirely free from positionality challenges. Sure, when he talks to butchers, he talks as one middle-aged, black, fairly well-to-do Tanzanian to another one. (Butchers, we learned, can earn five to 15 times more than a fellow villager employed as farm labourer.) So there is little chance that society’s unequal power relations will affect the interview. Both – butcher and Boniface – would normally engage on equal terms.
This might be rather different when Boniface approaches a woman who is running an informal eatery at a street corner. Will the unequal power relations between richer men and poorer women in society at large affect the relation between Boniface and the mama lishe during the interview? Can Boniface answer the question, “What makes a good man?” and engage with a mama lishe on an equal footing? Will a mama lishe (perhaps in response) feel empowered enough to talk about what goes on in her business and through her mind, or will she be deferential and try to give answers she thinks the man Boniface wants to hear?
I watched while Boniface approached and then interviewed six women. Three were operators of well-established restaurants or mgahawa and the other three operated informal eateries. In order to interview a mgahawa owner or operator, he had to organise an introduction by local authorities. The mama lishe – operating outside the margin of bureaucratic control – could be approached directly by Boniface during a lull in the business. Boniface informed them about our research project and asked if they would be interested to talk with us for 30-60 minutes at a later time that suited them.
Every operator of a mgahawa and each mama lishe accepted the request. Were they ceding to power or authority? I think the answer is an emphatic ‘no’.
A balanced power dynamic
The evidence for that, in my eyes, is comprised in a series of interactions that ensued after the appointments were made and in which the women demonstrated their ability to assert control over the situation. In one instance, we arrived at the business of one mama lishe at the agreed time and she then told us she was still busy and we could come back in an hour or just wait. In another, a mghawera operator was being interviewed by Boniface suddenly interrupted the interview to walk away to attend to an urgent matter in the kitchen, returning after several minutes. Yet another mama lishe interspersed her replies to Boniface by answering a phone call and giving instructions to a younger woman cleaning her pots and plates five metres away.
Moreover, I found evidence of a balanced power dynamic between both parties in the body language during the interview. Both sides used hand gestures in equal measure and often copied each other’s body posture, or seemed at ease leaning into each other when asking a question or making a point. Neither side expressed intent to impose on the other through the use of space. Also, the conversational interaction showed evidence of the male interviewer and the female interviewee seeing eye-to-eye. Both interrupted each other regularly, or raised and lowered their voices to underscore something important.
The upshot of this is that I think it is unlikely that wider society’s gender inequalities affect the specific interviews between the male interviewer Boniface and the women selling cooked meat. Trying to explain this, I think Boniface’s respectful attitude goes a long way. But at least as important is the idea that, these women have created their businesses, have invested time and energy in developing a space and activity that generates their income. And in running these businesses and dealing with men from all walks of life – remember the earlier blog noting that a very large majority of customers were men – most female operators of a mgahawa and mama lishe seem to have developed the ability to shape the terms of their engagements with men.