Sharing the results of one’s research with the field
When I received the message from the Wenner-Gren Foundation notifying me about the success of my Engaged Anthropology application I stopped breathing for a second. Was it out of joy or because of the slight panic that suddenly took hold of me?
I made research on polio-affected communities in Sierra Leone between 2008 and 2015 spending altogether 18 months in the field, I became familiar with most of the polio related structures in the country, made friends in the self-managed disabled homes of the capital – these extra-ordinary places which are half squats, half disabled people organisations (DPOs). For many months I enjoyed the hospitality of Handicap International, probably the most influential disability-related international NGO working in the country and through them I also acquired some insight in the life of NGO workers.
Although before the research I had not had any background in disability studies, today I can say that I have a pretty solid knowledge of the Sierra Leonean disability field, including its internal and external networks, its institutions, its politics and strategies, its rituals, its people and organisations. After seven years there are not many things that can intimidate me in Sierra Leone. But bringing the summary of a 400 page doctoral thesis back „to the field” appeared decidedly as one of those.
The thesis investigates the nature of power and that of every day resistance in post war Sierra Leone from the perspective of the polio-disabled communities and their members. Most of the people I worked with are disabled. At the same time they are also street beggars, squatters, often recent rural migrants and first of all dominantly poor. I followed them, jotting down meticulously their stories during several years. These years corresponded to the UN-oriented post war transformation, which can safely be categorized as a particular instance of the “liberal peace-making” – a certain form of UN interventionism that became a dominant model from the 1990s. The model comprised promoting formal democracy and the celebration of civil society – leading to an unprecedented boom of private voluntary organisations – as well as elements of an older approach: liberation of the markets and privatisation of public services and public assets. In this way, my work does not only talk to disability, it is embedded in the tradition of research on African political cultures and that of anthropology of development.
I decided that sharing the conclusions of this research meant going back to all the groups having contributed to it: NGO workers, officials and office holders of the disability movement, leaders of the polio-houses and the ordinary members of these, showing them a mirror which – I hope – is enlightening, but which is also possibly distorting and in which they do not necessarily recognise themselves. It is a perilous enterprise for an author. It is notwithstanding an exciting and pleasant challenge. First of all, this mini-project allows me publically voicing my gratitude to all the people and organisations that have facilitated the research. Secondly, sharing ideas is a logical consequence of the process. Contributors have the right to access to what is written concerning them and it is my duty to facilitate this access. Last but not least, it is my hope that by selecting critically from my conclusions, by reflecting on some of the dilemmas they highlight, by entering into debate with them, the Sierra Leonean disability movement can be further strengthened, giving disabled people a chance to have a word in what democracy should look like in Sierra Leone, not only for people with disabilities but more broadly, for all those suffering from economical marginalisation and from structural violence.