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Multivocal Expressions of Latinidad
Learning a language is not something neutral. For me, learning Portuguese had to be through critically understanding the history and culture of Brazil, and acknowledging their diverse production of knowledge like music, literature, art, philosophy, and forms of political organization. The reason why I gave so much weight to history and politics in Brazil in this travel experience, was because I want to pursue a degree in Latin American Studies fully in Portuguese and Spanish. That is why, during my time in Brazil I wanted to prioritize deepening my understanding of this area of study through literature, books, and museums.
On top of that, at Williams, I am majoring in WGSS, Environmental Studies, and Latinx Studies, and in a way this fellowship allowed me to make interdisciplinary connections between the three areas of knowledge grounded in Brazilian soil. The classes were more than just learning grammar or spelling, but rather we got to incorporate notions of social justice, race and gender in Brazil, indigenous liberation, and environmental degradation, as part of the day-to-day curriculum. Professor Catia (you can see her in the last two photos with people) was the best mentor we could have ever asked for, as she accommodated the classes to our interests. For example, as part of the class, I did a presentation on Indigenous women's fight against extractivist and for the defense of territory in the Amazonian rainforest, which brought together my interests not only in Portuguese but also in women's liberation, environmental studies, and decolonization as an active project. I am really looking forward to meeting all of you personally on April 29th and talking more in-depth about our experiences.
Thank you for allowing me to dream of opportunities like this one.
Untold Tales: An Archive of Rwandan Stories
We set out to answer one crucial question this January: who are Rwandans, and what are their stories. This is a complex and multilayered question that historians and anthropologists would study over the course of their lifetimes. We sought to answer this within a month and came to so many interesting discoveries. Rwandans by nature, are very reserved people, and living with strangers is often a reason for them to become even more reserved or perform differently than they usually would. This is something Natasha and Sharon were acutely aware of, but was quite a culture shock to Victor. There were many culture shocks for Victor, one of them was that Rwandans stare a lot for people who keep quiet and he had to adjust to the staring. Since he’s Kenyan, he looked very similar to everyone. Many people spoke to him in Kinyarwanda until he’d shake his head or speak Swahili. During his time in Kigali, Victor was exposed to the day and nightlife of young Kigali people. His hosts, who are college students, invited him to hang out with them in third party places and social events around the city like youth gatherings, soccer games, college club events, and youth church services. He found it easy to socialize through mutuals, and talk to different people since many people speak English in Kigali and even Swahili at times. His favorite stories were the stories of boarding school life in Rwanda- mainly because of the many parallels he could draw between his own experiences and Rwandan teenage experiences.
Natasha in Karangazi spent many days with boots, a large coat, and a walking stick in her hand tending to cows, sheep, and goats alongside Nemeye. As someone from Nyamata, Natasha was accustomed to hot weather and bicycles everywhere. However, the slow life and pace of activities in Karangazi was new to her. Mutara (the original name of the region) is sparsely populated and filled with plains and thorns where people rear their cattle. Natasha noticed that most people in Karangazi wake up at six am and go to bed at seven pm, which was an adjustment for her but she came to really appreciate it. Talking to the women in the community was easy for her- all she had to do was hang out with women and girls after their church choir rehearsals and listen in to the day-to-day stories and gossip shared. Getting to sit down and hear other perspectives like male perspectives and older stories was trickier. She did this by attending weddings and was lucky enough to attend a family celebration in the area where the family elders shared origin stories about their ancestors (who were of royal blood) in the pre-colonial era.
Sharon enjoyed her time in Gisenyi, spending evenings at Kivu Lake with the girls who played football nearby. She got to meet with some interesting people who knew their ancestral lines and could name up to fifteen generations of forefathers that came before them. She got to learn about the Bagogwe people, their origins, and their ties to Kinyarwanda-speaking communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She got to learn about the migration patterns across the Rwanda-Congo border during the Belgian colonial rule and their impact on exile experiences of Rwandans in the DRC. Sharon got to see the small islands in the Kivu lake between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and learned about the different economic activities like fishing and welding. She found the overall energy of Gisenyi to be quite laid back in comparison to Kigali and found herself sometimes confused because people there speak a mixture of French, Kinyarwanda and sometimes Swahili, which was new to her. Overall we had beautiful experiences and can’t wait to share the stories that stood out to us that we’ve written. This winter study changed our perspectives and taught us so much. It was eye-opening and truly magical.
Sponsored by a Gaudino Winter Study Fellowship, Danielle Grier '18 took on a grueling—and transformative—challenge
In January of 2016, Gaudino Student Trustee Danielle Grier ’18—along with classmates Rehaan Vij and Diego Guimaraes-Blandon and senior Sarah Austin ’16—drafted a proposal for a Gaudino Winter Study Fellowship. Their goal was to immerse themselves in an unfamiliar culture and experience, and to force themselves to critically examine their own beliefs and understandings. Their project, with its clear grounding in the Gaudino philosophy, was funded by the Gaudino Fellowship, which is awarded to two to four students at the College during Winter Study for collaborative projects focused on direct encounter with unfamiliar experiences and self-reflection.
“[Rehaan] told me about Parivaar, which is a residential educational institution located in India for impoverished, homeless and/or parentless children,” Grier told the Williams Record. “He showed me a video that he had made about the institute after staying there for two weeks during high school and told me that he wanted to go back.”
The trip encompassed a visit to Parivaar, a 10-day silent meditation, and attendance at an Indian wedding in Jaipur. The wedding and the Parivaar orphanage were impactful, but it was the Vipassana meditation experience that each of them felt had the most intense and perhaps lasting effect. For Grier, the experience was grueling—and transformative.
“If someone had told me just how difficult the meditation course would be mentally, emotionally, and physically, I am not sure I would have agreed to doing it,” she wrote in her subsequent reflection. “The physical pain was so extreme to the point that I would begin to sweat from it. I was in emotional distress almost constantly.”
Nevertheless, over time, her perspective began to shift. Her favorite part of the day was listening to the teacher, Goenke, explaining the philosophy and theory behind the Vipassana meditation technique: “I would always walk away from these discourses with a thousand thoughts on ways in which I would change aspects of my life, and how applicable and useful Vipassana is to my everyday life. I realized that my grandfather’s words of wisdom, ‘this too shall pass,’ were in fact brilliant. He unknowingly summarized the foundation of Vipassana, which while a meditation technique, is more accurately an art of living. Anitcha, or ‘change’ in the ancient language of India, encapsulates the idea of impermanence, in which every emotion, sensation, pleasure, abhorrence rises only to pass away. As such, there is no need to crave, to avoid, to react to anger or latch onto sadness. Instead, one should remain equanimous, observing such sensations because they are impermanent.”
While Grier says she began to experience some benefits while at the mediation center, it wasn’t until her return to Williamstown and her “normal” world that she began to witness true change. She noticed herself able to focus more on the present, for one thing, and less distracted by worries about post-college life. And she felt more balanced; the pressures of academic success, she says, now seemed less stressful.
“I have never been as calm as I am now,” she wrote.
Two years later, Grier recalls the trip with gratitude—and while the intensity of the experience has faded somewhat, some important effects remain.
“It is still one of the most memorable and impactful experiences I've had,” she says. “It was by far the most physically painful, mentally trying, and emotionally strenuous experiences. Yet, it taught me how to deal with stress. Today, I can take a step back from academic work, job-interview pressure, and the like, and take it in stride because of the meditation practices and art of living I learned through Vipassana meditation. I haven't meditated since, but it was the techniques and the philosophy I learned while there that have directly impacted me back in the States.”
Refugees in Berlin
Of her 2017 Winter Study Gaudino Fellowship in Berlin, Juliet Kelso ’18—who this spring completed her thesis under the guidance of former Gaudino Scholar Professor Robert Jackall—wrote, “Thanks to the Gaudino Fellowship, I was able to carry out a project in January examining the ways that people who work with refugees describe and represent the refugee experience, as well as the ways they and others living in Berlin consider and interact with refugees in daily life. The core site for this project was a Notunterkunft (emergency shelter) in the Lichtenberg neighborhood of Berlin. I helped out weekly at Reinigung Gesellschaft organization’s ‘Atelier Global,’ a volunteer-run open art workshop for children as well as adults living in the shelter. I also volunteered twice a week at Kreuzberg Hilft, a neighborhood organization that collects and sorts donations and sends specific items to shelters so they can distribute exactly what they need. Otherwise, I visited exhibits, attended community information sessions, conducted interviews, and read news articles on the topic—noting observations both on site and in the city as I conducted the project every day.”
Although the initial goal of the project was to “examine how others describe and represent refugees,” Kelso says she also came to question her own assumptions and expectations, “the ideas I take for granted that stem out of my own upbringing and education,” an experience she connects with Gaudino’s pedagogical legacy.
“The Gaudino Fellowship also helped me decide upon a senior thesis project,” Kelso says. Her thesis research focused on multiple art workshops in Berlin providing aid to refugees, examining the philosophical lenses through which the organizations approach their missions. As she started her senior thesis project, Kelso noted that she hoped to do so “in a way that embraces moments of confusion and discomfort, as well as moments of closeness and familiarity,” an approach that deliberately echoed Gaudino’s theory of uncomfortable learning. Having now come to the end of that project, Kelso says such learning was an essential part of its success.
“I chose not to write about refugees themselves," she says. "If I were to do more with it I would address that. It’s the heart of what’s going on. But the scope was to examine these workshops themselves. But I do get a lot of questions about, why not? A lot of people are more interested in reading about that. There’sPreview Changes (opens in a new tab) the discomfort on the level of, ‘Am I doing this in the right way?’ And also kind of pushing back on people who know a lot more than me. It’s like, ‘I know you want to read about this, but I don’t think that is the heart of this project.’”
Another way Gaudino’s ideas guided Kelso's approach was in the way she approached her subjects. She says that to really get to know them as people, she sometimes had to resist the conventional academic habit of maintaining intellectual distance.
“Sometimes by sitting around and writing a lot and analyzing and critiquing—which is very important in many ways, I’m a college student, obviously I do believe in that—but you can lose some of the human elements to learning about a place,” she says. “Sometimes it feels wrong to not be doing intellectual analysis at every moment. But sometimes [not doing so] is the heart of the project. Sometimes that’s the exact work.”
Next year, Kelso will be teaching on a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany. There, she says, she’ll have the opportunity to “further challenge these questions that Gaudino helped me start asking, which are, what can I gain in an academic framework, but also, what kinds of things do I think are missing there that can be found in moments of individual connection, in casual conversation, and in collaboration? In moments of sharing that give rise to new questions and ideas.”
Estonian Internships and Experiences
Following on their immersion in the experience of the Baltic people through former Gaudino Scholar Lois Banta's 2016 “Documenting Stories of Escape and Survival” Winter Study course, Williams seniors Emma McAvoy '17 and Alexandra Mendez '17 (a Gaudino Student Trustee), interned for two months in the summer of 2017 at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory in Tallinn, Estonia. Emma presented their project as part of a panel at the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies conference, hosted by Stanford, in June 2018. During their internships, Emma and Alex worked on developing an exhibit for the Museum of the Occupations in Tallinn, and helped organized a major conference. They also analyzed the oral histories collected by the students in the Winter Study 2016 course and developed educational materials based on those interviews.
As McAvoy wrote in a reflection on her experience, “Before I spent time in Estonia I thought I understood what was meant by uncomfortable learning. Naively, I thought that I could imagine what would be uncomfortable about my time there, outline it in my proposal, and then experience and learn what I had predicted. I knew my experience would be uncomfortable. Discomfort is an inherent part of the unfamiliar. I would be immersed: interacting with Estonia and Estonians through a cultural and language barrier while working on a very sensitive part of their national history. Estonia’s recent history is a history of occupation. It is an uncomfortable history not only because it is a history of mass deportations and murders, but because it is a history that has been suppressed and is just now being revealed.
What I have learned is that I only had an abstract idea of what Professor Gaudino meant; I only truly understood what uncomfortable learning is towards the end of my time in Estonia. Uncomfortable learning was not an experience, it was a change in perspective. It was, above all, committing oneself to learning. Throughout these two months I found myself stuck between being too sympathetic and then overly critical. To me, uncomfortable learning was finding the balance between these two. It was learning to understand where a certain opinion and history comes from, but then having enough perspective and knowledge to stand against those beliefs when necessary. It is a commitment to challenge and question: to not shy away from hard topics even when they might be uncomfortable. Above all, uncomfortable learning requires adapting and connecting an outsider’s perspective with an insider's understanding.”
The broader campus community had the opportunity to learn about the experience of Estonians under 50 years of Soviet occupation during a week-long visit to Williams by two master's students, Jüri Käosaar and Brigit Rae, from Tallinn University in Estonia. Käosaar and Rae had dinner with students from Banta's Winter Study course, sat in on three courses (Oral History, Intro to Comparative Politics, Documentary Fictions), met Professors Bill Wagner (Russian History) and Olga Shevchenko (Sociology of Post-Soviet culture), and gave a presentation in the Global Studies colloquium: "A View from the Baltics: Russian Relations, Nonviolent Revolution, and Historical Memory.” Their home-stay was hosted by a senior College administrator and his wife. With Banta, Jüri and Brigit also visited the annual meeting of the Boston Estonian Society to recruit future interviewees. With the next pair of Williams students set to intern this coming summer in Tallinn, Banta hopes these connections will foster a longer-term exchange between the two cohorts of students.
Fleeing Soviet Oppression
As a 2016 article in Williams Magazine put it, “Some of the students in Gaudino Scholar Lois Banta’s 'Documenting Stories of Escape and Survival' took the Winter Study course to hone their filmmaking skills. Others wanted to learn more about conducting oral histories. Still others wanted to better understand the World War II era. They got all that and something they weren’t expecting: a deep connection to the small Baltic nation of Estonia.”
The course consisted of a project to collect oral histories from 10 members of the Estonian diaspora whose families fled Stalin’s second occupation of Estonia in 1944. This project represented the start of an ongoing collaboration with the Estonian-based Unitas Foundation (now merged with the Estonian Institute for Historical Memory), which is dedicated to documenting human-rights abuses under totalitarian regimes.
After two weeks of immersion in the history of Estonia through documentary films, gaining some background in oral history and video editing, and practice interviews, the seven students and Banta traveled to New York City and to Washington, D.C., to carry out their interviews. They were hosted for dinner and rich, thought-provoking discussion by Gaudino alum Ken Kessel ’74 in New York, and by Gaudino Board member Barbara Bradley Hagerty ’81 in Washington. They also had a wide-ranging discussion with the Estonian Ambassador over lunch at the Estonian Embassy.
The final two weeks of the course were devoted to editing their 90-minute interviews (filmed by a professional cameraman sent by Unitas) down to 15-minute clips that are available by clicking on each interviewee’s name below and in an online database that is being used in educational settings across the Baltics. There is also an Estonian Facebook page featuring clickable photos of each student in the course that link to students' statements about why they took the course.
The course, co-sponsored by Gaudino and the WWII Fund, was co-taught by Banta and husband-and-wife team James and Maureen Tusty, documentary filmmakers who in 2007 produced The Singing Revolution, a film about Estonia’s successful nonviolent movement to end decades of Soviet occupation. Two students from the course shared their reflections on the project and some of the video clips at a Global Studies Colloquium in March of 2016. The course is now being replicated for media studies and oral history students at Tallinn University in Estonia.
The Most Effective Model for Medical Treatment in Korah, Ethiopia.
How does healthcare work in conjunction with religion and culture to prevent and treat leprosy? How do Ethiopians use religion as a frame for understanding and managing disease? During my two weeks spent in ALERT leprosy hospital in Korah village of the capital city Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, questions of this variety helped me to reflect on the hypothesis I developed prior to my arrival in Eastern Africa: the most effective model for medical treatment is one that combines allopathic medicine with local culture and religion. I wondered that if such a statement were true than would I find that ALERT offered a concrete example of such a model? Can methods that include effective treatment, but are cognizant of the effects of local beliefs, be used to reverse the progression of leprosy and prevent further development of multidrug-resistant mycobacterium leprae strains? What kind of immediate steps can we take to improve quality of life and what long-term techniques might best address their medical needs?
Observing dermatologist and leprosy specialist, Dr. Elizabeth Bizuneh, over the course of two weeks elucidated a plethora of variables I needed to take into account in reflecting on my hypothesis meaningfully. It was quickly evident to me that treatment of any sort administered at ALERT could be deemed ineffective unless other, basic needs of this incredibly impoverished community were met like nutritious meals and clean water. For example, how could fine-tuning medical treatment be effective when a community lacking shoes continued to succumb to a disease that is primarily acquired through feet? More unanticipated variables that caused me to adjust the way I initially approached my inquiry was ALERT’s role as an international hospital characterized by a diverse patient base making any specific models of healthcare reliant upon culture complicated. Though I didn’t observe any overt religious traditions utilized at ALERT, I did witness a pronounced negotiation between doctors and patients that certainly has contributed towards a positive and sustaining treatment for patients. Perhaps clinics serving smaller, divisible communities could utilize concrete techniques incorporating local religious practices, however, at ALERT I witnessed how a paradigm of this fusion between culture and medicine is currently manifesting itself through subtle doctor-patient interactions.
From the night I first arrived until the evening I flew out, my time spent in Ethiopia was almost always characterized by some degree of feeling uncomfortable. I wasn’t surprised by the fact that my appearance as a young, blonde girl from the States would cause me to stick out in most crowds or even that nearly all of my endeavors would have to be carried out with a translator or trustworthy male nearby. As expected my trip was a string of extremely uncomfortable situations, but what I couldn’t have prepared for and didn’t anticipate was a deeper discomfort with the way I had been living my life before I traveled to Africa. As someone who bases my life of the teachings of Jesus Christ, when I read passages in the Bible directing me towards helping the poor, the oppressed, the widow, I often felt momentarily convicted but rarely was catalyzed into authentic action. Ethiopia gave me a new angle on life that has cultivated a new passion in me to seek the good of others and thereby more fully embrace what it means to be a Christian.
The first day I arrived in Addis, we drove around Korah and I looked upon hundreds of people living on the side of the road, mired in the stubbornness of poverty. That night I felt frustrated with myself. Why didn’t I feel more for these people? How come tears weren’t rolling down my face at the hopelessness I had seen and touched? However, as the trip wore on, my frustration turned to understanding as I became personally involved. I remembered names and revisited people day after day. As I became invested in their plight, it became personal, and that’s when the tears came. In my own discomfort I empathized with these acquaintances and experienced the odds they were fighting, but even more remarkably, I saw their great gratitude despite such circumstances. I realized that I hadn’t merely been choosing the parts of my Christianity I wanted to put into action and the parts I wanted to leave behind, but rather, I had never before been forced to consider how involving myself in deeply impoverished circumstances might be another integral part of my faith. I had never personally grappled with the poverty some of my friends in Ethiopia deal with every moment of their lives, but now that I have experienced it firsthand it has and will continue to shape the way I think and act. When I think of the friendships I have developed it’s impossible for me to walk away ignoring the incredible resources I have been blessed with and the ability I have to reach out to those who have less. From East Africa to Williamstown to rural Montana, I now know that helping those who need it the most is a calling on my life as a Christian and as a human being.
The Stigma of Mental Disability in Ghana
For Winter Study, I went to Ghana to research the stigma of mental disability there and how, if at all, people with mental disabilities are treated differently from people with physical disabilities. I am very interested in the education and enrichment programs for the mentally disabled, and since I only had experience in my home-town, I wanted to see what the situation was like in a completely different setting. I went with Nana Taylor, another sophomore here who is from Ghana, and I stayed at her house for three weeks. During that time, we conducted lots of interviews and visits at a school for the mentally disabled, the physically disabled homeless, and a visually impaired newsreader.
We discovered that there is significantly more stigma for the mentally disabled, and it is driven by traditional culture. Currently, however, there is a burst of education and enlightenment that is reaching many Ghanaians. Many people we talked to were open-minded and acknowledged the heavy stigma placed on the disabled. I am fairly confident in predicting that in the next generation, the stigma will be minimized - although it is not reasonable to expect total equality for the disabled, since there are stigmas on the disabled in every country.
As a (very clearly) white person in Ghana, it goes without saying that I stood out. I did not usually mind being called after and joked with, but one consequence of my appearance was that many people felt no shame in assuming that I was rich and able to share my wealth with everyone. While in Ghana, I met up with my family friends' grandmother's caretaker's family, who lived in Nima, the poorest slum of Accra. The family was incredibly hospitable and I had a wonderful time staying at their place overnight - upon my arrival, they even brought over the seamstress and arranged for a dress to be made for me. Between my stay and my departure, however, they kept in contact with me and I felt as if they were trying to guilt-trip me into giving them money - they insisted that I should not pay for the dress, while they could not pay the modest transportation fees to get their 15 year-old son to school.
I met up with the son two more times before I left - he seemed to be the messenger for the family - and every time I talked to him and met with him, he would bring up how he wasn't doing anything all day and he couldn't go to school. I was split between listening to him as a worried teenager or listening to him as a teenager told by his mother to wheedle money out of me. I felt terrible questioning his motives because I knew that he and his family really were nice and modest people. In the end, I gave him a modest amount of money for the dress as well my worn-out sneakers, and he gave me a package to bring back to his aunt - something I had to wiggle through customs and almost missed my connecting flight for - and I left feeling like we had parted somewhat even.
From interacting with this family and with the many people who approached me to talk, I realized that intentions, just like everything else, are not black and white; yes, people on the streets saw me as a source of money, but yes, they also saw me as someone new and exciting to talk to with interesting information from abroad. I learned to expect these people to want some change or a future visit, but I also learned that they also just wanted my company for a minute to share some stories about how our lives are different and what that all means. I came back from Ghana more open-minded and with a more multi-faceted view of human motivation and personality.
The picture: Breakfast during my overnight stay with the family in Nima. I was served separately. Their house consisted of this open kitchen/eating area and a few rooms where the mother and children slept.
Study of the Consequences of Rwandese Women’s Empowerment
My project aimed at studying the consequences of Rwandese women’s empowerment through the case studies of women’s soaring employment opportunities in the beading and weaving industries. I wanted to explore the social, economic and cultural impacts subsequent to this trend, focusing on the challenges that such changes had
brought not only for women but also in their relationship with men and their community. I hoped to answer questions such as: What was the relationship between taking up handicraft jobs and taking up leadership roles? Did such employment opportunities contributed in fuelling tension between genders in this patriarchal society? What were the changes on men’s views about women’ traditional roles? Once on the ground, my findings led me to discover that women’s employment in Rwanda had been made a top priority at the wake of the genocide of 1994. The Rwandan constitution of 2003 laid the ground for an unprecedented wave of a men-supported women’s empowerment movement across all private and public domains of the Rwandan society. My research led
me to find that in general men agree on the fact that Rwandan women are better leaders than men. It seemed to be of a general consensus that women were better equipped to handle the country’s affairs. By the end of my research I had found that employment didn’t only serve as an effective way to empower women, but it was part of a bigger agenda that aimed at enabling women to be the backbone of Rwanda.
A particular uncomfortable experience I came across was my first meeting with the co-founder of Gahaya Link, Joy Ndunguste. Within the first minutes of our conversation, she bluntly announced me that I couldn’t use her company anymore as a study case for my research. Among the reasons she gave, the main one related to an
unsustainable influx of visitors and researchers in the company’s locals following the excess media coverage that Gahaya Link had generated. Pass my shock and disappointment, I got curious to know more about the reasons of her discontentment at the media and at the waves of researchers who were showing an interest in Gahaya Link.
She resented the media coverage that Gahaya link was having for two reasons: not only it was detrimental to her business but it was also misrepresenting the company as the sole reference of entrepreneurship in Rwanda, and that at the expense of other handicraft cooperatives.
She explained that most researchers coming to do work on Gahaya Link already had a preconceived idea of what they wanted to find and to write about. Mentioning their methodology, she said they would waste her time and workers’ by only addressing common questions that were already covered all over the news. “Nearly all the Muzungus are looking for already cooked success stories,” she said. “I would like to see more researchers start from scratch instead of just scrapping the surface of the subject they research on.” Subsequently to our meeting, she recommended that I try to do research on grassroots cooperatives whose impact in women’s life and communities were according to her more significant and tangible.
Our discussion was really eye opening for me because it gave me a totally different perspective on the role that researchers play in the understanding of matters they seek to address. Through my conversation with Joy, I learned how to be flexible so that although the change of my research’s methodology took me into a different path, my project still nonetheless had addressed the issues of women’s empowerment and gender dynamics. Finally, because of Joy I learned how researchers themselves could be more of a nuisance rather than a help to the matter they seek to address.
Mathir Ghaan (Music of the Earth): A Critical Exploration of the Social Functions of Baul Songs in Rural Sylhet, Bangladesh
During my Gaudino month, I set out to explore the social functions of Baul music, Bengali folk music, in the rural communities of Sylhet, Bangladesh. Specifically, I had a two-fold objective: 1) to recover Sylhet’s rich Baul tradition; and 2) examine in what ways, and to what extent, Baul music, and the radical philosophies that inform it, structure the social life of the rural poor. Through gathering oral histories, visiting the mausoleums of prominent Sylheti Baul musicians, and participating in many Baul performances, I attempted to realize my aforementioned objectives. In the end, I was left with more questions than answers. However, I have come to realize that Baul music serves as a site of solidarity for Sylhetis despite differences in religion, ethnicity, or class. It is deeply instrumental in propagating, and preserving, the folk history of Sylhet. In a sense, Baul music composes the “pulse of Sylhet” for it permeates, and speaks to, almost every aspect of life in the region.
While it was an invaluable experience, my stay in Sylhet was, nevertheless, a very lonely one. From the outset, several markers indicated my “otherness.” My accent, in particular, was an especially salient marker. While I am relatively fluent in Bengali, the overtones of an American accent in my speaking patterns are hard to miss. As such, my speech immediately indexed my “foreign” identity to everyone that I engaged in conversation. I came to learn that my perceived “foreignness” was conflated with financial wealth. Thus, many a time, I found myself in a situation where someone was attempting to solicit money for me. From malnourished children to fixing holes in a tin roof, the reasons people presented to me were varied and vast. But in no way could I oblige these monetary request, for I simply did not have the resources to do so. Consequently, I had to turn down many people. Sadly, this adversely affected my relationships with quite a few individuals that I felt were integral to the robustness of my stay. Although no one ever explicitly expressed their disappointment, I could sense, from my interaction with them, the sentiments concealed within. This disconcerted me greatly, but it was a reality that I could not change.
A central lesson that I took away from my experience in Sylhet was that self-interest appears to especially pervasive in nations that do not have the infrastructure, or resources, to provide its citizens the ability to pursue stable livelihoods. Many of the individuals that asked me for financial assistance did so because they had no other choice. In a way, I was perceived as a potential lifeline, and an especially attractive one considering that there were no viable alternatives around. As dismal as this may seem, it is a reality that beckons us to muster courage and empathy, especially if we are to face it, and through out collective efforts, eventually redress it. While my keen sense of “otherness” was uncomfortable, and at times even hurtful, it nevertheless reinvigorated my desire to confront the manifold social inequalities that structure our world. It is my hope, that in a more equitable world, perhaps I will find the sense of belonging that has eluded me for so long.
Studying Spanish in a Guatemalan School
This winter study I was fortunate enough to be named a Gaudino Fellow. As a Gaudino Fellow I went to study Spanish in a Guatemalan school. As part of my Spanish Immersion Program at the Pop Wuj Spanish School, I did community service and lived with a host family. Not only did my Spanish exponentially improve but I was also taught by and lived with the most amazing people. During one community service project, I, along with other volunteers, helped to build stoves in Guatemalan homes where the families used wood and fire to cook their food. We made a direct impact on a family’s ability to survive and activities like these constantly filled my stay in this beautiful country. My experience during this past January was life altering. It was so special that I plan to relive it during the spring break of my junior year when I return to Guatemala.
As January 2nd approached, my reality set in. I was going to another country without anyone I knew and I would be living with people whom I had never met, much less spoken to. What was I thinking? The only saving grace was I knew the language and at least I would not starve. After I arrived safely at the school, a little of my trepidation lifted. It all came rushing back once I realized my host family did not have electricity. Now I was really in for it. Here I was, Desiree the World Traveler, in a situation where I was most uncomfortable. Was this how it was going to be every night? I had no idea. Suddenly the lights came on. Whew! We all blew out the candles that were illuminating the living room and we continued our introductions.
Just as we began playing singing games to make me feel at home, the power went out AGAIN. Is this going to be an every night thing? My Guatemalan family seemed unnerved by these recent events. I was trying to remain calm but inside I was a “basket-case.” Uninterested in the singing games but maintaining my smile, I was surprised when the daughters suddenly said they were going out to see their sister play basketball. Everyone else stayed home and then my Guatemalan mom told me it was time for bed. 8:30 PM!!! I politely went to my room, wondering how in the world I was going to adapt to this way of life. In my room, I could no longer contain what I was trying to hide. The floodgates were open and then I had to stop crying so I could ask to borrow my family’s telephone. Speaking to my mom in New York, I tried to sound all grown up but she heard the sorrow in my voice. After I assured her I was fine, I returned to my room, but not before my Guatemalan mom gave me a hug, reassuring me I would be fine. Behind the comfort of my bedroom door, I changed into my pajamas, and cried myself to sleep. Homesickness took over. I felt alone in a very strange place.
This sentiment was a one-time feeling. The next night I went out with my school friends and the following night, I ate a luxurious dinner to celebrate the birthday of my basketball-playing sister. We all talked and talked and talked. The language barrier seemed nonexistent and sooner than later I was right at home. I became some comfortable with my family and my entire experience in Guatemala that I cried both when I left my teacher at my school and my family on the morning I returned to the United States. When I left I did not say “Adios” but “Hasta Luego” because we will all meet again. =)
An Analysis of Religious and Secular Rituals
At the secular American University in Beirut in Lebanon and in the Coptic Christian community of Garbage City in Egypt, I undertook an analysis of religious and secular rituals. My intention was to provide a theory for the way in which means of recognizability can be traced to particular religious and secular rituals. Thus, in juxtaposing the burgeoning secular AUB community with the unchanging religious community of Garbage City, I offer a portrait of the latter community's rituals as they provide extensive recognizability, and a portrait of the former community's rituals as they allow only ephemeral recognizability.
The research trip coincided with revolutionary political and religious unrest. While I was in Beirut, all members of the oppositional political party resigned, the Lebanese national unity government collapsed, and violent demonstrations took place, in line with demonstrations across the Middle East. My trip in Cairo came at a time of extreme religious tension, as a result of a church bombing, and the murder of a Christian citizen. It also coincided with the self-immolation of five Egyptian citizens protesting the oppressive Egyptian regime, and unprecedented civil unrest, which culminated in the January 25th “Day of Anger”, during which hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested the government, calling for the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
As a Sunni Muslim, I was restricted from visiting a number of otherwise accessible buildings, as new security measures placed policemen at the gates of most, if not all, Christian youth centers, churches and predominantly Christian commercial buildings. This was the case in both Cairo and Beirut, although the former city employed much more stringent security measures. In both the Christian structures and spaces I accessed, I didn’t announce the intention of my study, per the advice of relatives familiar with both cities and religious traditions, as well as professors at AUC and AUB. My status as an outsider was solidified primarily through two factors: 1. I was a Sunni Muslim in the midst of a Coptic Christian community, and 2. My purpose was to observe and record the rituals and life practices of those around me.
Because of these two factors, as I engaged the inhabitants of Garbage City, I felt like more of an outsider than I had ever before in the Middle East. For the first time, I began internalizing the view of the Muslim from the Christian perspective, that is, a simplistically drawn portrait that misunderstands the "other's" humanity. This struck me, as it allowed me to reflect on the way in which I am myself misconstruing, mis-recognizing another's humanness. The disconnect that appeared to me, that between how we view an "other" and how an "other" views itself, was further accentuated, and taken to a different more striking level, as I began attempting to articulate the disconnect in theoretical terms. This was due to the fact that language, as I had employed it, was a means of explaining that which I felt and experienced. But language - made of the words, vocabularies, structures that had been set in place by the philosophers and sociologists I had studied - were not able to describe properly the kinds of things I was feeling. In fact, thinking about language seemed to violently rework the feelings I had, to try to pit them against, and then fit them into, a language structure. Thus, while the physical experience of occupying an "other's" space was grueling and often uncomfortable, what left me most uncomfortable was thinking about the way in which two cultures, each employing a different a language, clash into each other, and are unable to fully comprehend the other. Put briefly, these reflections taught me to understand my limited ability to acknowledge an "other" and consequently, to allow myself space to understand
Emigration and Family Dynamics in Laos
My project is a case study of the effects of open adoptions on family dynamics. My host family, which happens to be the subject of my study, lives in Laos, and has placed their three eldest children up for adoption. The majority of the month was spent getting to know my family. Near the end of the month, I conducted separate interviews with each member, which went quite smoothly. They were willing to share their thoughts with me. From their answers, I discovered that the relationship between the adopted children and the rest of the family is not as intimate as it could have been.
During my first interview, I realized that some of my questions were formed with an American framework of mind. The questions revolved around expectations for the future and the differences between their hopes and actuality. Rather than be universal human concepts, hopes and dreams are culturally bounded. I hypothesized that the Buddhist notion of impermanence influenced the way the family members think about life. Life is constantly in flux and it is no use to have specific hopes for the future. One can only wish that life will be comfortable.
The parents did not have specific desires for their own life or their children’s futures, and the children did not have any for their own future either. After interviewing the parents, I decided to change my questions for the children and to focus on how they talk and think about the adopted children. The changes were effective because the children talked for longer lengths of time. Therefore, I was given more material. My initial questions and their inability to respond made me recognize that my American ideals affect my perception of others and the questions that I pose.
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