Sunday, July 19, 2009

the observer

July 15, 2009 -- Khaudena VDC, Sarlahi district, field observation of a survey interview.

Bauvnath, the field director, told me he would translate the survey interview. Not every word. That would be too distracting. Just key pieces of information. 

It was hot.

Actually, that doesn't begin to capture the sensation. Imagine a wet cut of leather, dusted with lye, then submerged in a bucket of canola oil before being stuck inside an oven to dry. Now image that's your skin.

This time of year it’s always hot in the Terai. But it’s also usually raining. The monsoon is so late now that people are beginning to wonder if it will come at all. To plant rice you need rain. And once you’ve got a small lot of paddy, you have to transplant it to a much larger field. You have to flood that field when you transplant the paddy. You have to do this without a system of irrigation. You have to flood your field with rain water. But the monsoon is late.

Where there would normally be giant stork-like birds tip-toeing through tall reeds, searching for tilapia among the paddy, empty fields stretched out for hectares, absorbing the heat, drying, and with the confluence of wind, kicking dust into our eyes.

We followed the survey interviewer to a cluster of homely dwellings at the edge of a pond. She walked through the open front room of one mud and dung brick hut, so direct in her approach (it seemed to me), but she was clearly welcomed without hesitation. Then the interviewed-to-be disappeared around the corner, to emerge moments later with two wooden chairs.

[They speak Maithil and Bhojpuri, and a combination of the two in Khaudena. My twenty or so words of Nepali were worthless. I was relieved when we were not offered tea (Ma dudh chiyaa pudina).]

The next thing I knew we were following this woman back to the shared courtyard of the community's dusty cul-de-sac. “Bosnus” (please sit), one word of Nepali. And I realized what was going to happen. The guest would be treated in proper fashion, shown courtesy with the greatest humility, elevated above the host. And I was the guest. She stepped around piles of mud and dung, turned over some insignificant piece of weight (the precise image has escaped my memory) and dragged out a large woven mat. I would sit with my male counterpart above the subject of research, observing the operation, and at once being observed.

By the time the interviewer and our host took their places on the mat, a crowd had gathered to watch the exhibition unfold. Not knowing the words spoken, I still know what was said next. “How old are you?” “How long have you been married?” … it would have eventually come to “What methods of contraception have you heard of?” “Are you using one presently?” “Why did you choose this method?” “Who in your household makes decisions about family planning?”

But it didn't come to that, not in front of me anyway. The field director stopped the interview after the first question. The survey interviewer had not properly introduced herself or read the preamble explaining confidentiality. And who could blame her? She was nervous. And confidentiality would have sounded like a joke. “We’ll keep the personal details between you and me, and also this white man and my boss, all of your neighbor’s children, your mother-in-law, your daughters and this buffalo.”

Having taken the same read of the situation, I turned to Bauvnath and said, “This isn’t going to work.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Everyone is coming, so curious.”

“They want to know what this white man is doing in their village. We can’t achieve confidentiality when the observer is such a spectacle.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

The interviewer and the soon-to-be interviewed retreated into the privacy of a thatch-roof hut. And I... I simply retreated.

[This is the only photo I took in Kaudena. It's not generally appropriate to take pictures of people without their permission, in fact it's rather culturally insensitive if the subject of the photo is a woman. Women are often even discouraged from showing their faces to a man. Most little girls ran away if they caught sight of me pointing a camera in their direction, this one included. Photos are one thing, but if a woman is experiencing menstruation she’s not even supposed to stand on the same ground as a man. This fear of photography extends from that same patriarchal tradition, one meant to maintain the purity of men. Thus, I don’t feel bad about ignoring it. And before you chastise me, insisting that I didn’t consider how their community would react (I did) and saying that I may have put these girls in a vulnerable social position, allow me to reassure you that I got permission from the parents of many, and that nearly everyone else (see facebook) welcomed photos without hesitation. This young girl is an exception, but I strongly doubt anyone saw me take this picture through the window of our Jeep.]

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