In September last year I was in Tanzania where I did a third semester of my MA at Centre for African Studies as a field study. During field work I went with a translator to do an interview. When we were offered lunch the translator started quizzing me. I instantly felt as if he crossed a border in regards of my perception of intimacy. My reaction was irritation which I tried to control by taking notes of the conversation as it unfolded:
'Is that a real tattoo?'
The man sitting in the sofa next to me shoots a question across the room while he bends over my bag and me with such an eagerness that I first fear my shirt is unbuttoned.
It happens so fast. He grabs my right arm and looks at the tattoo before all of his words have left his mouth. I ask him to please stop whatever he's doing, that he shouldn't grab my arm like this. That it makes me feel as if I am nothing but a goat on the market.
Then he giggles. It is a kind of giggle which takes me a while to place. I feel like as if it expresses everything from insecurity, surprise and pure innocence. But it is also a kind of giggle which makes me feel like a matter out of place. I feel like he is turning his problem with trying to place me in a box into my problem.
We are waiting to be served food. He asks me: ‘Are you sure (you can eat it)?!’
The question appears on level with a grander existential choice.
'I believe so' I say.
‘So, you are not married?!’ he asks though he has already asked me that question the other day.
‘No’ I repeat.
‘Why not?!’ he asks.
‘To be honest, I don’t know. Why should I be married?!’ I counteract.
‘But what about the children?’
‘Yes, what about those?!’ I reply.
Even though I am wearing long trousers and a shirt with long sleeves, he makes me feel as if I'm inappropiate. He makes me feel as if he's never sat so close to a woman who does not share his colour. I may be making it up, but this is how it feels. He doesn't make me feel outstanding, he makes me feel as if I stand out. Excluded.
When the food is served, he observes how I take the ugali (staple food), form a lump in my right hand and uses it to scoop up the dagaa (fried sardines) on the plate. I look back at him. He looks at me, the visitor from the other galaxy.
‘I am his Other’ I think, and make a note on how convenient this experience is for my field study report. This will contribute extravagantly to pages of academic meandering. Right now, I wonder though how I practically will find a way to bridge this massive gap of understanding of colour, culture, gender and age.
I feel my own resentment bubble. I try to beat it back. Focus. I try not to take it personal, but I do. It goes right under my skin.
Later, I realised that I wanted so badly to control the situation of interviewing and observation, during and after. Alas, this is real life, and this is not realistic. Then I contemplated that if I actually looked into his mirrored observations of me, if I tried to see how he saw me instead of rejecting it, I may learn something new. I realised I had made too hasty conclusions: ‘that put research participants in an unfavourable light (questioning their moral status’) (Ryen, 2008: 15). He called me three weeks later inviting me to his wedding. It made me wonder about why my own instinctive conclusion was that he was judging me as a less worthy person. Maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was just curious about me?
People take time.