By Malaika Yanou, PhD candidate, University of Amsterdam
During these final nights in the Zambian capital Lusaka before my fieldwork begins, I don’t sleep well. I wake before 7 a.m., staring up at the ceiling of my room at the guest lodge. I feel unsettled, though after a two-year absence due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, it feels natural somehow to return to Kalomo district.
Time is tight. David, our driver, will be waiting for us tomorrow morning at 9. Before we leave the city, I need to print informed-consent forms to use during field interviews and purchase food at Shoprite to take to the field where I will be working for three months alongside Alida, my Canadian PhD colleague in the COLANDS initiative.
After more than a five hours drive over 357 kilometers, Alida and I arrive in Kalomo, in southern Zambia. Claire, Rob, and their four dogs that will be our companions (especially during electricity cuts) welcome us to their beautiful farm, where we have rented a cottage for our stay. The cottage is cozy, and it quickly feels like home.
Meetings and introductions for field preparation are part of a long to-do list that is exciting and scary at the same time. We have a lot to do: rent a car and find a driver for field visits, meet our field assistants, then introduce ourselves to the powerful local chiefs. During our initial visit, one of the chiefs asks Alida, “Tell me, do you know how to farm?” Shyly and respectfully, we all laugh with him.
It is already early May 20222 when we finally start our work – scoping trips to select the villages where we will be conducting our research across the three chiefdoms and six different villages of Kalomo district. Headmen and people from the communities welcome us warmly, but at the same time, we can read some suspicion and caution on some faces. The first village was the most challenging for me – as I started to introduce my research to local smallholders, I immediately felt a huge weight of responsibility for what I was doing.
I wondered, is my project and are my words worthy of these people, who are giving me their time? Yet, in every village and with everyone we meet, people pay attention and are interested. Each time, my fear of saying the wrong thing is eased when people ask me if we can help them, and they share their frustrations.
We have selected three villages located in or near the Kalomo Hills Forest Reserve for our research. I am beyond excited. I feel the time is flying by, and already I wish I could stay longer.
Interviews, photo activities involving local communities, and focus group discussions begin. Often, people ask the same question: What will be the benefits for us in sharing our knowledge and our stories? I can’t make any promises, but, aside from acknowledging their frustration, I explain that I am going to listen to their stories and their knowledge, and report all of this to those who can perhaps make changes.
They all look at me, hesitantly. But finally, the air becomes less tense, and their faces relax into smiles. I believe that when strangers are sincere with each other, despite how much the truth can be unpleasant, it is there that a connection begins. And this is how my first focus group discussion starts: people open up to talk about how their local practices are used to deal with landscape changes and to share their concerns that local practices and traditional landscapes could disappear.
For my research, I combine photovoice activity and walking interviews. These, to me, are even more exciting than focus group discussions, as there is an element of intimacy. Asking smallholders to take photographs of their local practices to manage natural resources lead us, inevitably, to walk with them throughout their landscape.
Shine Nakwenda – my 32-year-old field assistant who’s a Kalomo resident and aspiring filmmaker – and I carefully follow people walking across fields, through trees, among herds of cattle and skirting water pools. Each camera click offers a new story, providing me with some of the knowledge these people hold that can help them to have a good harvest season, cure their cattle, or make the best use of tree leaves to maintain soil fertility.
The more I listen to Kalomo peoples’ stories and access their knowledge, the more I appreciate this time I share with them. It is my turn to listen, and especially, it is time for me to learn.
As I write this, I am back in Amsterdam and university, sitting in a cafe and feeling very nostalgic for Zambia. I randomly open my field dairy to a page where I had written, “Headwoman Theresa is very welcoming. We say goodbye with singing and dances. Ready to move on to the next village. Each navigation is always… new.” I look through the cafe window. And, indeed, a new navigation has already started.
Malaika Yanou is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam at the Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR). Her research focus is on the contribution of local knowledge to implement an integrated landscape approach in Zambia. She holds a MA in International relations and diplomatic affairs at the University of Bologna (Italy) and an MSc in food security and development at the University of Reading (UK). She is interested in decoloniality studies and visual anthropology.
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