Who is ‘The Other’?

Critical reflexions on conducting fieldwork in a costal slum in Sierra Leone

The research on women, secrecy, violence against women and girls, female genital cutting and women’s everyday struggles was first prompted by Bondo Society members, who approached me, while I was living in Susan’s Bay, carrying out fieldwork on indigenous perceptions of development, asking me to study them. Soon I learned that upon agreeing, the often perceived power dynamic between researcher and interlocutors was turned on its head. As soon as secret society elders lifted the veil of secrecy which silences initiates, many woman started to share their most horrific experiences with me. They shared their life stories. Stories of war and displacement, of violence, suffering and insecurity, but also stories of resilience and hope; dominated by rumour and gossip, tormented by personal experiences, but silenced by the confinement of secrecy due to fear of stigma and punishment.

In this paper, I want to discuss the consequences of doing research in such a precarious and violent environment both for researchers and respondents. How do we deal with the responsibilities such research bestows upon us? How do we manage the roles we are made to embody? How do we come to terms with the gendered dynamic of fieldwork? What do we do with the data and how do we deal with incidences of trauma or secondary trauma on both sides? In my opinion, fieldwork is greatly needed to develop in-depth, holistic, socio-culturally sensitive research, helping with the understanding of the reasons behind beliefs and practices, and contributing to beneficial ways of interaction. Through this paper I want to share my data and experience and encourage a constructive and critical dialogue on development research.

About Luisa

Luisa Schneider is former student of International Development and Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Vienna. She now undertakes her DPhil at the University of Oxford. Luisa’s past research focused on poro and bondo secret society members in Freetown, especially on female genital cutting, violence against women and girls and women’s everyday struggles. She has also worked on indigenous perceptions of development. Her dissertation highlights ways of organizing, adapting and making a life through secrecy. She studies witch-trials and their influence on mechanisms of settlement exclusion and inclusion, dispute resolution, and ongoing anti-violence and gang recruitment.

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