Development Research Day: Inclusions / exclusions? Communities, identities and value systems reconsidered.
I am here today to reflect on being the other, on othering. I am not here as a PhD student from this University but as an activist, a blogger and as your research object.
The previous presenter raised a very important point that activism does not put bread on your table. I concur with her.
In fact, I want to expound further on that point by arguing that one cannot be paid and be an activist at the same time. By that I mean, if I was receiving funding from an entity that is unethical, could I be an activist? Would I have the freedom, the backbone to question their unethical practices knowing the repercussions? What if they claimed to work on equality but never hired minorities? If they claimed to fight racism while having a white board? Could I be involved in these institutions and claim to be an activist? Can a colonialist be an anti-colonialist while still in the colonialist establishment? My answer is no.
I came to Finland, as a fleeing refugee, with a battered suitcase and a chunk of halwa in my kiondo in 1990. While I slept soundlessly in a motel called Matkakoti in Helsinki, dreaming of cardamom tea in Xamar, the Finnish press was busy selling mass hysteria. A man saw the opportunities the newcomers brought with them and quickly sat down to write. As a result, the first descriptive text on Somalis, or rather their invasion of Finland, was penned. That text was aptly titled “Somali Shock”. I stumbled upon it years after I’d arrived, dazed from all the racist slurs but still desperate to belong. I sought answers, comprehension but never got any.
Somalis became an interesting phenomenon to study. Why would all these young, mostly good-looking young men want to come to Finland? Why were they all coming through Russia? Why were they not malnourished, with flies buzzing over their runny noses? Why come to Finland when thousands are migrating elsewhere? These questions woke a few hibernating researchers who then devoted their time to their new pets. After all, the Somalis looked, smelled and acted differently. They mistreated their women, neglected their children, ran away from fighting in Somali, were loud and had a fetish for Finnish women. In addition, they also had a liking for extravagance, shiny stuff, perky breasts, driving in BMWs, and all at the expense of the generous welfare system. This was a phenomenon worthy of a study. I never had the pleasure of meeting these researchers personally but followed their activities through the grapevine.
Fast forward to 1995, a Finnish woman married to a Somali man is in our house, asking questions about death and studying how we deal with grief. She is doing a PhD on Somalis, is dressed as a Somali, henna on her hands, gold bangles jiggling. She is more Somali than I am. You see, this is very important. A researcher must resemble the natives, must eat as they do, must be part of them and must behave like them. After all, this is an ethnographic research. But does that mean she knows what I am feeling? What it is to be me? What it is to be a Somali woman, a Muslim from Africa? No. She is a privileged white woman. The power dynamics are skewed in her favor. No amount of dressing, mannerisms, is going to change that reality.
She shoots her Finnish questions relentlessly, her tongue darting in and out of her mouth. I don’t hear her, my mind is on my mother, the only solid foundation in my life, crumpling under my feet. My mother who is slowly dying in her sterile hospital room. My mother who has always been by my side, is going on a long journey, alone. The persistent chatter from the researcher never ceases. It floats above the community din, overwhelming my dulled senses.
As death went about his business, I tried to negotiate for a few days, hours, minutes. He shook his head, stood above her, and coaxed her soul to depart. I kissed her face, wiping away her sweat and my tears. Death, the only certainty in life, had accomplished his mission. The researcher hovered about, notebook in hand. She asked me something, pink mouth moving silently. I looked away, ear cocked, head turned to the side, listening for any sounds from my mother. I heard someone explaining something to her. No, you cannot take pictures. No, you cannot go to the grave. No, because women are not allowed to.
The next day, she stayed with us at home, observing our grief. As my brother was putting my mother’s head in the grave, kilometers away, her husband came out with his camera and started snapping away. The camera was wrestled from his grip and taken away.
Years later, I read her PhD research and could not place myself in her writings. That is not what happened on that day, at that hour, I fumed. I should know, that is when my mother died. We were never presented with the findings and were never involved with her research in any way. However, her research, her participatory research, claims otherwise.
Now fast forward to 1999, the start of the research avalanche. The Somali communities had research commandos crushing through their front doors, back doors, windows and even through their roofs. You could hire a Somali to open their community for you, rush in and pick your research objects. If you were a feminist, you’d pick the Somali woman with her pregnant forehead. If you were a youth activist, you’d pick her adolescents with their protruding teeth. If you were a social worker, you’d pick her children with their swollen bellies. For some strange reason, the Somali man, the lucky bastard, was never picked on as a study subject. As a researcher, you’d work your way up from a novice researcher to an expert, then to a specialist on Somalis. This was the golden era in Somali research.
Now fast forward to 2002, the research specialists linked up with associations/NGOs and put their drinking straws into the blood of the Somalis. The trend was to publish your research, then set up an EU-funded project and call it a name like “half-an ass”, your momma”, “save a skinny Somali” or something like that. To gain legitimacy, you’d scrawl Somalis on your cover page and disregard any ethical considerations. It did not matter that you did not interview all the Somalis; that you only interviewed a handful. It did not matter whether you consulted your target group, what they thought of the labels attached to them, of your findings. All that mattered was gaining recognition and making a livelihood. Once you had that project which allowed you to overnight in Mogadishu, dine in Nairobi and drink in New York, you were set for at least four years or more.
Now fast forward to 2006, I am a development expert and planning a project for a certain country. I fled Finland as a refugee, fled from xenophobia, to faraway sunny places. Obsessed with doing good deeds, I spent endless hours working on plans, calling meetings the next day and getting signatures from the parties involved by that evening. The plan was given to them for implementation, along with funding. When the reporting time neared, the implementing party sat and churned out a report to my liking. Instead of teaching them how to fish, I taught them how to rely on donors. I bought the ingredients, cooked the food, invited them over, offered it to them and even told them how to eat it. And so life went on. My point here is that I know what it feels like to plan for people, to take away their agency instead of planning with them. I know how it feels to operate from a privileged position.
Now fast forward to 2014, I am a PhD researcher. As I embark on my research, I am mindful of my two roles, of being a researcher as well as the researched. I sit with you, not as an object but as an equal being and challenge you to think outside of the box. As I stand here, I know that there are some here who think that I don’t belong. You’d rather exclude me. Perhaps you believe that exclusion and inclusion are only concepts? You would rather continue seeing me as the other, the exotic, the victim. You want to silence me so that you can continue to speak for me, speak over me. Do you think you can tell my story better than me?
I also know that there are some here who are offended by what I am saying. But as you’re stewing in your indignation, please remember that it is not about you. It isn’t and has never been about you. It is about the other, the communities that have been researched to death. It is about producing the same bull year in and year out.
Then there are those from these communities who cry wolf, who blame others for entering and researching these communities. I understand their views. Like them, I want the researchers to stop focusing on producing disempowering narratives on Somalis. I want them to stop generalizing their findings to all the Somalis: to the Farah and Farhiyo eating peanuts peacefully in Puijonlaakso. However, my response to them has been that as long as there are people among us who let in these researchers, then they should also be blamed. It takes two to tango. The reasons for letting in these researchers are various. Some of us let in these researchers, hoping to get something out of it. But when that does not materialize beyond consultancy fees, salary, acknowledgement or a career as a used fiddle in the hands of your fiddler, what then?
If your research has nothing new to add, then please don’t do it. It does not help that you recruit assistants from these communities, that the gates have been opened to you, that your team has people from these communities. If the end result is the same as your findings in 2001, then it is time to call it quits. Or is it?