This week, the African Centre for Migration and Society held orientation for its new masters students. All nine of us are foreigners: one American, two Congolese, two Ugandans, three Zimbabweans, one French woman. (I’ve already enlisted the Francophones to help me with my French and the Zimbabweans to help me with my Shona.) Most of us have more experience working with refugees than we do studying social science, and the professors reminded us over the course of the week that we are here for research – not necessarily to solve problems but to give unbiased information to inform those who might bring about change. Again and again, my classmates would present their interests as “I want help migrants with this issue,” but now as academics we are looking to answer the why’s and how’s. Some of our reading addressed the hard reality that despite our attempts to be neutral, we are researching emotionally and politically charged topics. And many of us have humanitarian backgrounds. Going into underprivileged communities as a researcher instead of a humanitarian promises to be challenging.
Even class discussions on migration issues are likely to be passionate but also rich with diversity. We all come from very different backgrounds and some of my classmates live in the communities that we’re talking about and know firsthand some of the challenges refugees face; others have worked in refugee camps.
In one session, we talked about tradition and culture related to gender in migrant communities. The conversation spilled into the break. One Congolese man said that he couldn’t sleep with South African women because a woman had to sleep on the wall-side of the bed, or at least on the far side from the door. “For protection,” he said. Congolese women know this, but South African women don’t. Serious and silly, the talk progressed to gender roles in all of our respective countries.
The program is already keeping me very busy. Even the orientation reading was overwhelming and had me up late and early in order to finish it all. With a background in literature and creative writing, I must take copious notes, trying to learn the specific language of social scientists. As I read, I noticed how many of the texts referred to “we,” meaning Americans, and used cultural and historical references specific to Americans. The rest of the world grows up with this, forced to know obscure facts about a country where people know next to nothing about theirs.
The ACMS master’s program is centered around a research report that is due February 15, 2013. For the first few months, I will be taking two courses – Logics and Methods of Forced Migration Research and Introduction to Forced Migration – as well as a weekly tutorial. Now is the time for me to decide on a research question. Orientation ended with a chance to discuss research ideas with the professors and lecturers.
While I want to work with Zimbabwean women in Johannesburg, I am not sure about my exact focus and will have to do considerable research before I begin my research. Storytelling and narratives are important to me, and I am interested in learning how Zimbabwean women migrants recreate their own narratives, how they are represented, and how we understand their stories. David Turton wrote that we tend to speak of forced migration in terms of liquid: “We speak of flows, streams, waves and trickles of migrants…We speak of dams and sluice gates, we speak of being flooded, inundated and swamped” (Turton, David. 2003. ‘Conceptualising Forced Migrants’ Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper). I’m curious if the ways we talk about women migrants, specifically about their vulnerability, affect them or even become a tool for them to use. In the next few weeks, I must narrow down my ideas into a research question that I will try to answer over the course of this year.