Institute of Social Anthropology

Institute of Social Anthropology


"Perlitas" by Paul Reade, PhD

Mai 2020

Perlitas” (little pearls) refer to the string of bubbles that form around the rim of the glass when mezcal is poured. Perlitas are a sign of quality, the more the better. Mezcal is related to tequila and is particular to the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. Ricky, also known as “el chino” or “Mr Miyagi” (right), thinks of mezcal as his medicine, and after a couple of biscuits for breakfast to build up his defences he is ready to start drinking. Adán (left) is more of a connoisseur who knows everything about mezcal from beginning to end, including its preventative and curative qualities – basically it a cure for everything. They tend to come together every second or third day to reminisce about their youth and all the women they loved, watch the tourists pass by, and indulge in the pure pleasure of mezcal and its perlitas. A few mezcals at the end of the day just about cures any and all of their problems. Sometimes, especially for Ricky, it creates some new problems, for example when the next day he can’t find his keys or sunglasses, or when he finds the stinking fish in his backpack that he bought two days earlier and forgot to put in the fridge. 

Ricky and Adán live on the coast of Oaxaca in a town called Puerto Escondido, which literally translates as “hidden port.” They have witnessed its transformation over the last decades from a remote and tiny port into a thriving tourist town, a tropical paradise. Originally Adán comes from the valley of Oaxaca, the home of mezcal, and he found himself here for work, driving supplies over the mountains in his truck. Ricky comes from the Philippines, although he spent much of his life in the USA, and he found himself here after escaping problems north of the border. Adán has a small income from renting out rooms to construction workers, and Ricky receives just enough to get by from his son in California.

I got to know both of them doing fieldwork here and trying to understand how people get by in a tourist town. It was quite clear to me early on that there were aspects of the place that really were like paradise, and other aspects that were quite the opposite. It was also a place that seemed to attract an odd assortment of people, and it was often described to me affectionately as a bit of a “mental hospital”. Tourism seems to create these hard to grasp places. On the one hand, you can find all the worst aspects of a global industry that extracts and exploits value from nature and people’s daily lives and culture; and on the other hand, moments of joy, escape, pleasure, hope, novel encounter and celebration. 

You could spend forever writing up the positives and negatives of tourism (does it do good or does it do bad?), but there is clearly a staging to it – with a frontstage or what we are meant to see and do, and a backstage with everything else. Think of the hotel cleaners that scurry in and out of rooms to create a pristine room. In Puerto the frontstage is clearly defined around the beach, bars and restaurants, and populated by the young, sexy and wealthy. Ricky and Adán are backstage due to their age and economic means, although they are always peeping their heads around the curtain to get a glimpse of the young girls parading up and down the street. Although they haven’t benefited in any great way from tourism they are not bitter. They have enough memories and adventures to reflect on and keep them satisfied. 

What I find interesting in a tourist town is the type of care that emerges in what should be a “care-free” place. When on holiday you are meant to leave all your cares behind and escape from work and daily concerns. While promoting this idyllic image, the industry has also embraced concerns around the ethics of travel and designed packages so that you can do “good” while away. In Puerto, for example, there are hostels where you can stay that offer surf lessons, that offer the chance to protect sea turtles and help orphans – then you are free in the evening to hit the bars and clubs. So these care-free places are in fact full of care, but it is a commoditised care that takes place on the front stage, where it is photographed and blogged and fed back into the marketing of the place. 

I guess what I am therefore interested in is the kind of care that takes place backstage, and how that interacts with more marketable forms of care. It is the care that sees Ricky shuffle over to Adán’s place for a few drinks, where Adán’s wife Mercedes always makes sure that Ricky has something to eat. Of course she disapproves of all the drinking but she knows it is also part of a shared gesture of care between the two. The perlitas offer a moment of promise and a daily cure in a mad world.   


Former Blog postings

February 2020

Have you ever heard that crows can live for 200 years? I always find them very mysterious with their dark feathers. But I’ve never seen so many of them until I went to Kars, a city located in northeast Turkey near the Armenian border. With its controversial past engraved on its distinctive urban facade, Kars was so beautiful that it captured me quickly. Reflecting on the dark times crows might have witnessed in this magical space, I wholeheartedly fell for the rumour.

I took this photo from a dull dorm room in Kars where I have stayed during the first weeks of my fieldwork in Autumn 2009. Back then, residents of the city were very much occupied with the normalisation protocols signed between the governments of Armenia and Turkey, which might have resulted in the opening of the Doğukapı/Akhourian border crossing that was closed since 1993. Although the crossing had long remained closed, people and goods have found imaginative ways to travel between the two countries—airspace, and through Georgia or Iran and Nakhichevan. The sealed border had negatively impacted the border provinces, Gyumri and Kars in Armenia and Turkey respectively, which are only 80 km away from each other. A Kurdish man from Kars I encountered once was so furious about the situation caused by the unquestionable power of central governments on communities living by the border and even his sarcastic tone could not hide it:

 “There are problems with all borders. But we don’t have any with ours - because it is closed! And it was not us who closed it. Some people, who don’t even live here, decided to open it and then decided to close it again. How great, isn't it? We don’t have any saying on how to regulate relationships with our neighbours in our daily lives!”

During intense negotiations on the border crossing, a group of people working for the local television station from Gyumri visited Kars. Their task was to report on Kars and Karsians, a city and its peoples mostly unknown to their audience and I was to accompany them as the curious young researcher. As soon as the journalists appeared on the streets with their cameras, a couple of curious people surrounded us, welcoming the guests and posing questions. The journalists explained that they wanted to know more about their 'neighbours' and what they thought of the protocols, which somehow promised the opening of the borders in the near future. Conversations were casual and yet careful. They exchanged jokes and good wishes but also shared concerns about the burning issue, the Armenian genocide.

All of a sudden, however, an old man appeared and loudly addressed the Armenian group, accusing them of ‘murdering’ his ancestors. Due to his exaggerated gestures and loud voice, I expected a dispute between the groups. And yet, there was no tension at all. Karsians laughed at the old man and told the Armenian visitors that he was “deli (insane)”. Afterwards, journalists recorded some street interviews with the same people and returned to Gyumri. Two months later, a number of journalists from a local TV station of Kars went to Gyumri for the same purpose. They produced a documentary emphasising the similarity in architecture and lifestyle between two cities.

Years later, in Yerevan, I told about this story during a public conference. As I finished my talk, though, an old man in the audience stood up and shouted at me in Armenian. He was angry because, for him, it was nonsense to talk about a border within so-called Eastern Armenia. He said, it was all Armenian land before the genocide, and he could not care less what Turks in Kars said about the border today. How dared I to talk about it in such casual ways in Yerevan? I heard this much until the translator stopped. Some people in the room intervened by laughter and suppressed the voice of the old man, while others were visibly upset and empathised with him. Meanwhile, the moderator told him that his response was not different than the man in my example. This statement was the only possible answer that I could also think of at that moment.

A comparative ethnographic study on the closed Armenia-Turkey border and the people living in neighbour cities Gyumri and Kars would be illuminating to understand how they interpret the past, the present and the future. Clearly, neither of the two old men nor the incidents involving them I witnessed are the same. But the narratives they hold on to are. It does not matter whether the lifespan of a crow is at most a couple of decades. Their crows live for centuries and still fly in their sky. And - ten years after I completed my research in the region, a comparative ethnography of this kind is still waiting to be done.

(The project’s blog is still online:

January 2020

«Deshalb haben wir uns als Familie dazu entschieden, weiterzuziehen.» Als eines der drei Paare der Lebensgemeinschaft, mit der wir nun seit einigen Tagen zusammenlebten, diese Entscheidung beim gemeinsamen Mittagessen verkündete, waren wir alle drei überrascht. Unser bisheriger Eindruck des Zusammenlebens war offensichtlich ganz anders, als dies die Bewohner*innen selbst erlebten. Vor drei Jahren gegründet, hatte die Gemeinschaft bisher zusammen die Vision verfolgt, ein selbstbestimmtes Leben im Einklang mit dem Rhythmus der Natur zu führen. Inspiriert wurden die sechs Gründungsmitglieder unter anderem auch von den Prinzipien der Permakultur. «Permakultur als gelebte Kultur» war daher auch der Themenbereich, den wir für unseren ersten Feldaufenthalt im Rahmen der Forschungsübung ausgesucht hatten.

Die Forschungsübung, die von den Studierenden jeweils im vierten und fünften Semester des Bachelorstudiums besucht wird, verfolgt das Ziel, die grundlegenden Methoden und die kontextualisierende Analyse der sozialanthropologischen Disziplin während eines etwa zweiwöchigen Feldaufenthaltes ein erstes Mal praktisch anzuwenden. Unsere Gruppe entschied sich im Rahmen dieser Übung für das Forschungsgebiet Nachhaltigkeit, wobei wir den Fokus nach einigen Recherchen auf das Thema Permakultur legten. Wir freuten uns sehr, als wir nach mehreren Anfragen bei Permakultur betreibenden Höfen schliesslich die Zusage für einen zweiwöchigen Aufenthalt bei der bereits erwähnten Lebensgemeinschaft erhielten.

Etwas unsicher, was uns erwarten würde, waren wir Anfang August schliesslich auf dem Hof der Lebensgemeinschaft angekommen. Mit der Ankündigung des Wegzuges einer Familie hatten wir jedoch als Letztes gerechnet: Wie konnte es sein, dass wir in den ersten Tagen unseres Zusammenlebens so wenig von dem vorhandenen Konflikt mitbekommen hatten?
Kurz nach unserer Ankunft fand das alljährliche Sommerfest statt. Während zwei Tagen herrschte ein reges Kommen und Gehen: Es wurde gegessen, getanzt und am Feuer geplaudert. Die Stimmung während des Festes nahmen wir als sehr harmonisch wahr und mehr-mals kam der Gedanke auf, dass dieser Ort wie ein eigenes kleines Universum wirkt, da man von den Geschehnissen ausserhalb der Gemeinschaft nur wenig mitbekommt. Auch die Gäste des Festes betonten immer wieder, dass sich die Gemeinschaft hier etwas einzigartig Schönes aufgebaut habe.

Als Beispiel für die wahrgenommene Harmonie ist uns besonders die Eröffnung des Festes in Erinnerung geblieben: Als alle ums Feuer sassen, ergriff eine Bewohnerin das Wort, um «den Raum zu eröffnen». Zuerst wurden wir alle mit rauchenden Kräuterwedeln «gereinigt und gesegnet». Anschliessend wurde ein Muschelhorn in die vier Himmelsrichtungen sowie zum Himmel und zur Erde gespielt. Auf uns wirkte diese Eröffnung als vertrauter Moment, welcher den Zusammenhalt der Gemeinschaft aufzeigte. Umso erstaunter waren wir deshalb, als wir am Ende der Woche in einem Gespräch erfuhren, dass sich nicht alle Bewohner*innen an-gemessen in diese Situation eingebunden gefühlt hatten.

Einzelgespräche und Interviews waren für uns enorm hilfreich, um die verschiedenen Ansichten der Personen zu verstehen und die Situation aus diversen Perspektiven zu beleuchten. Gerade in Hinsicht auf die Festeröffnung haben wir erst im Nachhinein erfahren, dass diese als gemeinsamer Beitrag gedacht war. Aufgrund fehlender Kommunikation konnten sich jedoch nicht alle wie gewünscht einbringen. Durch die Gespräche veränderte sich somit unsere Wahrnehmung der Erlebnisse am Sommerfest sowie der grundlegenden Stimmung in der Gemeinschaft. So erfuhren wir beispielsweise, dass unterschiedliche Vorstellungen der Kindererziehung schon seit längerem für Konflikte zwischen den Familien sorgten. Der Methodenmix von teilnehmender Beobachtung und semistrukturierten Interviews hat sich deshalb für unsere Forschung als sehr wertvoll erwiesen.

Um nochmals den in der Lebensgemeinschaft zentralen Aspekt der Natur aufzugreifen, möchten wir die gewonnene Erkenntnis mit dem Bild des Blumenhangs im Gemeinschafts-garten vergleichen. Dort haben wir während unseres Feldaufenthaltes immer wieder Zeit verbracht, um zu jäten. Bei dieser Tätigkeit waren wir auf die Instruktionen der Gemeinschaftsmitglieder angewiesen, um überhaupt einen Überblick über die Unmenge an Pflanzen zu er-halten. Eine ähnliche Herausforderung stellte die Verarbeitung der vielen Eindrücke während des Sommerfestes dar. Die Offenlegung des Konfliktes nach dem Fest ermöglichte es uns daraufhin aber unverhofft, Einblicke in die Verwundbarkeit der Gemeinschaftskonstruktion zu erhalten. Durch die Interviews erfuhren wir nach und nach die vielseitigen Wahrnehmungen der Situation und konnten so die Geschehnisse besser in den Gesamtkontext einordnen.

Rückblickend waren für uns also sowohl die teilnehmende Beobachtung über einen längeren Zeitraum als auch die intensiven Gespräche mit den Bewohner*innen notwendig, um festzustellen, dass sich der Themenbereich der Gemeinschaftskonstruktion anstelle jenes der Permakultur besser als Gegenstand unserer Forschung eignet. Der Methodenmix war zudem notwendig, die tiefgreifende Entscheidung des Weggangs einer Familie aus der Gemeinschaft besser nachvollziehen zu können.

Dezember 2019

Im Vorfeld unserer Feldforschungsexkursion nach Palermo vereinbarten wir ein Treffen mit der Schuldirektorin der Schule A. Gabelli in Zisa, einem Stadtteil nordwestlich des Zentrums. Als wir dort auftauchten und die Lehrerinnen von unserem Anliegen erfuhren, starteten sie gleich eine “Telefonkette”. Vizerektorin Patrizia rief Projektleiterin Alessandra an. Diese wiederum Rosa, welche schon lange an der Schule arbeitet und vieles erlebt hat. So ging das weiter, bis sie ihrer Meinung nach alle für uns spannenden und hilfreichen Personen erreicht hatten. Die Offenheit der Menschen gegenüber uns war sehr beachtenswert. Ohne uns wirklich zu kennen erzählten sie uns Geschichten aus ihrem Leben. Aus den zwei Begrüssungsküsschen wurden schnell ein Küsschen und eine Umarmung. Die Freude an unserem Forschungsvorhaben war riesig und bei jeder Rückkehr fragten sie uns, wie es mit der Forschung läuft und ob alles passt. So erkundigten sie sich beim Abschied auch bei uns, ob und wann wir wieder kommen.

«Siamo tutti palermitani!» -  Will man als Ethnografin auf Feldforschung etwas wissen, dann muss man danach fragen. Meistens. Selten sind Menschen so zuvorkommend, dass sie bedeutungsvolle Informationen teilen, ohne dass explizit danach gefragt wurde. Die Forschungsexkurison nach Palermo im Rahmen der Übung «Urban Citizenship» lehrte uns das Gegenteil. Wir erlebten viele spannende Begegnungen und wurden immer wieder überrascht von der Offenheit der Palermitanerinnen. Nie hätten wir geglaubt, in nur einer Woche so viele Kontakte zu knüpfen: Eine Begegnung mit einer Person führte immer zu weiteren Begegnungen. Man wurde für gewisse Fragen immer an Menschen weitergeleitet, die diese mit Sicherheit beantworten konnten. Es schien, als wollte man uns bei jeder Frage die bestmögliche Antwort geben. So kam es oftmals dazu, dass bei einem geplanten Treffen mit einer Person plötzlich mehrere Leute am Tisch sassen und versuchten, unsere teilweise komplizierten Fragen zu beantworten.

Neben der Schule und anderen Organisationen und Behörden, machten wir viele alltägliche Begegnungen in den Gassen Palermos. Besonders Sammy und Achraf, zwei junge Männer, die als 12-Jährige von Casablanca nach Palermo gekommen waren, liessen uns ohne zu zögern an ihrem Alltag teilhaben.  Bei den ausgedehnten Streifzügen auf die uns die beiden täglich mitnahmen, lernten wir die Stadt mit einem ganz neuen Blick zu sehen.

Besonders augenfällig waren die zahlreichen Graffitis und Wandgemälde. Nachdem normannisch-arabisch-byzantinische Einflüsse das Gesicht Palermos so grundlegend geprägt haben, sind es heute in gewissem Sinne die Strassenkünstler*innen, zu denen sich auch Sammy und Achraf und ihre Freunde zählen. Sie drücken dem Stadtbild ihren Stempel auf. So manche der Wandgemälde sind politischer Natur und spiegeln die Aushandlungsprozesse des Zusammenlebens in dieser vielfältigen Stadt wider.

Sammy fühlt sich in dieser dynamischen urbanen Landschaft zuhause und kennt halb Palermo: Ladenverkäufer*innen, Barkeeper*innen, Cafébesitzer*innen, Strassenmusiker*innen, Aktivist*innen in den verschiedenen Gruppierungen in Ballarò und die vielen jungen Menschen, die durch die Strassen schlenderten. Er traf an jeder Ecke auf bekannte Gesichter, blieb stehen und tauschte ein paar Worte aus oder setzte sich kurzerhand dazu und stellte uns der Runde vor. Sammy war die ideale Person um uns die gelebten Räume der Stadtlandschaft zu zeigen. Dies lag vielleicht auch daran, dass er immer in giro (Italienisch für „herumhängen“) war, ein Umstand, welcher die Prekarität der Lebensverhältnisse deutlich machte.

«Palermo is magic» hörten wir immer wieder. Der oberflächliche «touristische» Blick auf die Stadt verlockt tatsächlich dazu, sich vom pulsierenden Leben dieser Stadt verzaubern zu lassen. Er verschleiert jedoch den Blick auf die Probleme, mit denen die Menschen tagtäglich konfrontiert wurden. Auf den Touren mit Sammy entwickelten wir immer mehr den anderen Blick auf die Stadt: Viele unserer Gesprächspartner*innen berichteten von Perspektivlosigkeit und Frustration. Arbeitsplätze im formellen Sektor sind in Palermo rar. Die Jugendarbeitslosigkeit in Sizilien liegt bei 57,2%, was zu einer Abwanderung der Menschen mit Schulabschluss oder einem höheren Diplom in den Norden oder gar ins Ausland führt.

Durch die offene, herzliche Art vieler Palermitanerinnen fühlten wir uns nicht nur stets willkommen, sondern erhielten rasch auch einen differenzierteren Blick auf diese vielseitige Stadt.

September 2019

Matondoni, Lamu Island, Kenya: A few fishing boats surrounded by tropical mangrove forests and white beaches. It slowly dawns and after a long day at sea, the fishermen set up the camp for the night. They sleep either on the traditional dhows (wooden-hulled ships) or at the beach. That’s a very idyllic picture that shows these fishermen on their way home of our sailing trip around Lamu Island. But appearances are deceptive. Only about 10km further north the large scale Lamu Port has been under construction for seven years as part of the LAPSSET project (Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor). While this huge port is being promoted as part of this mega infrastructure project that is compatible with the Sustainable Development Goals (especially goal 9 “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”), it is destroying a sustainable fishery and undermining a local common property system.

Since the launch of the project, great development promises were made, also for local people. Thus, hopes and expectations were raised. But now seven years later fishermen and inhabitants of Lamu are disappointed and afraid for their future as promises of compensations for the loss of their fishery commons by the new port do not materialize. In my research in Lamu during January till February this year, it turned out that the current discussions in the fishing community mostly focus on the promised compensation payments. Apparently, such payments have been promised before construction started, but so far nothing has happened. Instead the negotiations have been resumed several times. There are many rumours about these compensation payments as well. Everyone has somehow heard about them, but nobody really knows how high the amount should be and who gets these payments and when. On the other hand, the impact of the new Lamu port for the fishermen is drastic: The biggest problems at the moment, but also in the future, are occurring during the rainy season. In this time of the year it is not possible to fish in the open sea, because the big waves are too dangerous for the small vessels or un-motorized sailing boats of the fishermen. Until now it was possible to fish in the canals during these months. But the construction of the port led to the destruction and pollution of a large area of these canals that had formerly sustained the fishermen during these times. In addition, there are also many fishermen who are specialized in prawn, lobster and crab fishing. These are often found in the mangroves and have to be partly caught with the diving method. But since a large part of the mangroves around the port have been cleared the water is dirty in most of the previous fishing areas. As a consequence, these fishermen are unable to see anything when diving. The pollution of the water also leads to a reduction in stocks and their disappearance. Therefore, local people in Lamu are disappointed and angry. The community is now looking for ways to defend itself and to enforce its rights to their common fisheries but negotiations about compensation for water and fisheries, which are now considered to be state property, are very difficult as water cannot be calculated in the same way as land. Fish stocks are not visible and also not static. Apparently the Malindi High Court ordered the national government one year ago to compensate the fishermen with $ 16.8 Mio after deciding that the project did not meet the basic constitutional and legal requirements. The construction of the port project violated the cultural rights of the community and the right to a clean and healthy environment. However, representatives of the fishing community believe that the Ksh1.76 billion is not enough. That’s why the fishermen are asking now the government to increase the compensation payment from $ 16.8 Mio. to $ 28.6 Mio. But the negotiations are still pending. At the moment they have no choice but to continue to insist on their rights and to wait.

When I enjoyed the evening atmosphere in our dhow on the day the picture was taken and watched the fishermen sailing by while they were cooking and preparing themselves for the night, all the challenges that the fishermen were already confronted with or will be confronted during the construction of the Lamu port came to my mind. Therefore, a bad feeling developed in me. Because at that time I was already aware of many of the fishermen's concerns. For example, most of them did not have any education opportunities and therefore almost only fishing was a possibility for them. But especially the older generation will not get a chance to find another job without education. One interview partner mentioned that "if you have no education and you are not able to speak English, you can work as a fisherman. But that won't work now anymore". However, it is very unclear, if good education will guarantee a job as a replacement for the grabbed fisheries. For me as a social anthropologist it is important to know and show the fears and hopes of the fishermen and to deal with these stories. But as a friend and tourist it became more and more difficult for me to experience the same hopelessness and anxiety over and over again and still not be able to help.


On further processes of commons grabbing see the special issue in the journal LAND by Tobias Haller, Mariah Ngutu and Fabian Käser (Eds) Does Commons Grabbing lead to Resilience Grabbing? The Anti-Politics Machine of Neo-Liberal Agrarian Development and Local Responses

in which several members of the Institute of Social Anthropology have published.

August 2019

«Ihr habt das Grenzabkommen unterzeichnet, also haltet euch auch daran». Sprecher auf Sprecher insistiert auf dem selben Punkt. Manche halten zur Verstärkung noch eine Kopie des Abkommens in die Höhe. Die Versammlung findet im Schulzimmer eines 200-Seelen-Dorfes der indigenen Wampis statt, am Rio Morona im Peruanischen Amazonas, auf halber Strecke zur Grenze von Ecuador. Doch hier geht es um eine andere Grenze. Vorne sitzen die wichtigsten Vertreter der Wampis und Chapra, auf zu kleinen Kinderstühlen (Frauen sind nicht dabei). Einer davon vertritt die Föderation der angrenzenden Chapra-Gemeinden. Er lässt sich nicht beirren und bezweifelt die Legitimität des Abkommens, unterzeichnet im Jahr 2008 von einem anderen Chef, der längst nicht mehr im Amt ist. Die Stimmung im Saal wird zunehmend gereizt. Die anderen Chefs appellieren an den Dialog, das Schlüsselwort «friedliche Lösung» fällt immer wieder. Weil die Sprachen der Wampis und Chapra untereinander nicht verständlich sind, wird meist Spanisch gesprochen, aber in den emotionaleren Wortmeldungen fallen die Leute auf ihre Muttersprache zurück, ein Lehrer übersetzt. In der Pause erklärt mir ein Wampis, ihre Chapra-Nachbarn seien ungebildet und gewalttätig – «unzivilisiert, so wie wir es früher waren». Es sei deshalb zu befürchten, dass es dereinst zu Konfrontationen kommen könnte.Tatsächlich ist die Chapra-Delegation mit ihren Schrotflinten angereist, «ohne die sie nie aus dem Haus gehen». Die Versammlung endet nach fünf Stunden ergebnislos. Man einigt sich zumindest darauf, das Problem an einer Versammlung in der Provinzhauptstadt nochmals zu besprechen. Dort, abseits des Drucks seiner Leute, so hofft der Präsident der Wampis-Regierung, liesse sich der Chapra-Chef einfacher überzeugen.

Als ‘technischer Mitarbeiter’ der autonomen Wampis-Regierung habe ich meinen Laptop aufgebaut und bin bereit, Kartenmaterial an die Wand zu projizieren. Dies erweist sich als unnötig, oder eher, unerwünscht. Die Wampis-Seite insistiert auf dem geschriebenen Wort. Scheinbar ist allen klar, wie der Grenzverlauf im Feld aussehen soll. Nur der Chapra-Chef schlägt mehrmals vor, die Karten der ‘integralen Territorien’ der Wampis und Chapra zu vergleichen. Diese wurden in einem mehrjährigen Prozess selbst definiert, koordiniert von der regionalen indigenen Föderation CORPI (Coordinarora Regional de Pueblos Indigenas – San Lorenzo). Aufgrund eines Fehlers entsprechen die Karten für den umstrittenen Grenzabschnitt nicht dem Abkommen von 2008 – was ich erst im Verlauf der Verhandlung zu ahnen beginne. Am Schluss bin ich heilfroh, dass mein gut gemeinter Versuch, mich nützlich zu machen, abgeblockt wurde. Trotzdem, meine Rolle geht hier weit über ein vermeintlich unschuldiges Beobachten hinaus. Mein Status als weisser Anthropologe und ‘Berater’ verleiht der Wampis-Regierung und ihrem Präsidenten symbolisches Gewicht. Im Gegenzug erhalte ich Zugang zu solchen Versammlungen und darf gratis mit dem Motorboot mitfahren. Vor allem aber verleiht mir diese Position Schutz und Legitimation, um auf regionaler Ebene forschen zu können, und nicht auf einzelne Gemeinden beschränkt zu sein.

Als ‘engagierter Forscher’ muss ich auch meine eigenen Grenzen immer wieder neu aushandeln. Wie weit lasse ich mich vereinnahmen? Wann darf ich meine eigenen Überzeugungen ins Spiel bringen, wann nicht? Eigentlich wäre ich ja für eine Welt ohne Grenzen und Nationen. Und nun bin ich an einem Prozess der indigenen Nationenbildung beteiligt, der sich stark am vorherrschenden Modell des Nationalstaates ausrichtet – wenn es auch ‘nur’ um Autonomie innerhalb des Peruanischen Staates geht. Die Gründe, wieso die Wampis sich als Nation mit einem fixen Territorium organisieren wollen, sind nachvollziehbar. Einerseits geht es wie im genannten Beispiel darum, klare Verhältnisse zu schaffen in einem Terrain, welches nicht mehr wie bis in die 1960er-Jahre von halb-nomadischen Kriegergruppen ‘fliessend’ besiedelt werden kann. Doch der Hauptgrund ist ein anderer: Die Wampis-Nation praktiziert das Selbstbestimmungsrecht, welches in der 2007 verabschiedeten UNO-Deklaration über die Rechte der indigenen Völker anerkannt wurde. Mit einer Nation, die wie im Politologie-Lehrbuch aus einer klar definierten Regierung, Volk und Territorium zusammengesetzt ist, so die Hoffnung, wird man dem Peruanischen Staat irgendwann auf Augenhöhe begegnen können.

«Richtet euren Blick auf und schaut in die Ferne!», appelliert der Wampis-Präsident an die Versammlung am Morona. Grenzstreitereien wie diese gefährden das langfristige Ziel der Autonomie, weil damit ihren Gegnern Argumente geliefert werden – zugunsten von kurzfristigen wirtschaftlichen Interessen: Sobald klar ist, wem sie gehören, lassen sich die Bäume im umstrittenen Abschnitt für teures Geld verkaufen.


Niederberger, Thomas (2016, Sept. 23). Aufruhr im Land der Wampis. Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Webseite der autonomen Wampis-Regierung:

Juli 2019

Ich habe dieses Bild letzten August am Ciliwung in Jakarta kurz vor der Dämmerung aufgenommen. Eine Frau schiebt ihr Floss im knietiefen Wasser vor sich hin. Sie quert die neu entstehende Brücke des Nahverkehrssystems Light Rail Transit (LRT) und geht dabei vermutlich ihrer Arbeit, dem Sammeln von wiederverwertbaren Materialien im abfallübersäten Fluss nach. Die Strömung ist schwach, da das Flussbett für die Baustelle künstlich verbreitert wurde. An dieser Stelle treffen Perspektiven aufeinander. Der Fluss als vergessenes Beförderungssystem und das LRT als Teil einer modernen städtischen Verkehrspolitik. Mittendrin die Frau, die das Flössen an dieser Baustelle für ihren Lebensunterhalt wiedererfunden hat. Wer ist diese Frau, wo wohnt sie, wie kam sie zu ihrer Arbeit?
Das Thema Arbeit beschäftigte mich zu dem Zeitpunkt nicht nur als Gegenstand meiner Forschung sondern auch in Bezug auf meine eigene Zukunft. Ich hatte ein halbes Jahr zuvor meinen Master-Abschluss gemacht, mit einer Forschung über die Siedlung Kampung Pulo am Ciliwung, einer sogenannten "informalen Siedlung", die von Stadterneuerungsprojekten bedroht wurde. Was würde als nächstes kommen? Das fragte auch mein soziales Umfeld, dessen Erwartungen an den ehemaligen Studenten mit Jahrgang 1984 eindeutig ein geregeltes Einkommen einschlossen. Ich begann nach Arbeit Ausschau zu halten. Aber der Kampf der Bewohner Kampung Pulos um ihre Siedlung hatte mich beeindruckt – ich wollte ihn weiter dokumentieren und eine Dissertation darüber schreiben.
Ich wurde Teil eines Teams, das einen SNF-Projektantrag ausarbeitete. Um mich auf den neusten Stand zu bringen war ich auch wieder nach Jakarta gereist. Ich entschied mich zusammen mit meinen Professoren (ETHZ, UniBe), das Risiko einzugehen, dass die Arbeit am Antrag schliesslich keine Früchte tragen könnte. In dem Fall würde ich auf eine vollumfänglich finanzierte Dissertation verzichten, Teilfinanzierungen prüfen und eine nicht-akademische Arbeit suchen.
Ohne eine Festanstellung in Aussicht, ohne Zusage für finanzielle Unterstützung einer Institution, doch mit dem Gefühl das Richtige zu tun, wohnte ich einige Wochen in Kampung Pulo. Dort lernte ich Yin und ihre Familie auch neben ihrer Arbeit kennen und konnte bei ihnen am Fluss leben. Sie gab mir Einblicke in ihre Vergangenheit als Schuldsklavin und gab mir zu verstehen, dass ihre Arbeit im Ciliwung vergleichsweise lukrativ und würdevoll war.
Nach der Rückkehr und nach der Eingabe des Projektes setzte ich alles daran, eine Arbeit zu finden – für alle Fälle. Ich machte Profile auf Linked-In und Xing, schrieb Blindbewerbungen und hatte schliesslich Glück. Anfang des Jahres fand ich eine Festanstellung in leitender Position im Bereich Intergration. Mein soziales Umfeld war beruhigt. Wenig später wurde das Projekt abgelehnt.
Eigentlich hätte die Geschichte des Bildes der Frau am Ciliwung hier enden können. Aber meine Leidenschaft für die Ethnographie Kampung Pulos ist ungestillt. Die Diskussionen während des Schreibens des Projektantrags und jene nach der Ablehnung haben mich bestärkt, dass eine Dissertation das Richtige für mich ist. Nun schreibe ich diese im Teilpensum als Freie Promotion.


Juni 2019

The auditorium of the Ajtté museum on Sami culture and the Swedish Fjäll region is packed to the last seat. I find Ellen here, the charismatic protagonist of my film ‘Älven min Vän, My Friend the River’. She is wearing a traditional Sami costume and her hair is curled up, she wears a pair of red glasses and carries a length of cloth upon her shoulders held by a silver brooch. The protagonist Eva Stina is here, too, with her husband Gunnar, who made the most beautiful gloves for me during my fieldwork. And so is Mandy, the singer whose song about the Lule river featured as my film’s main theme.

I am nervous, because I’m screening my film for the first time in the area where it was made, in the context of the 416th ‘Jokkmokks Marknad’ Sami culture festival. The film’s protagonists are present, as well as locals who know about the situation here—in other words, the local experts. How will they react to the film? Or to me, as a researcher from the outside world?

I had already had these questions on my mind while I sat on the 36-hour train journey from Bern to Jokkmokk. Every hour brought me closer to the Arctic Circle, the snow cover growing deeper even as the shadows lengthened and temperatures plummeted. It is -30 degrees in Jokkmokk when I arrive in a town that, on this occasion, is no longer merely a hamlet of 2000 inhabitants. 40,000 visitors come here to the culture festival over the course of three days, and I am one of them.

I go to the Ajtté museum on the final day of the festival, for the screening of my film. I’m surprised by the fact that the show is sold out. One of my friends was unable to obtain a ticket and said, ‘I’m just not used to something being sold out in Jokkmokk.’

Following a short introduction, we settle in to watch the film. The events that follow are difficult for me to formulate here: the audience get to their feet and start clapping. A man with tears in his eyes says, ‘Thank you so much for this movie. I understand why the young woman spoke. It is fantastic that you have been able to get the older women to speak and tell their story.’

Two things were foremost in my mind while I conducted my research: the fact that I worked on an indigenous topic, and my responsibility to the cast. To this day science has worked by telling indigenous people their own stories, rather than permitting them to tell the stories themselves. Those who write the texts or edit the movies are the ones who have power over content. Nobody in Jokkmokk had been waiting for me as an ‘outsider’ to come and research them. By doing so, aren’t I simply perpetuating a colonial relationship?

Another thing that was on my mind was that I, as a researcher, was picking up knowledge and that I wanted to return it in a different format. My cast is supposed to see the point in participating in the film project. I didn’t want to simply extract knowledge from them to then give it back to them as a ‘gift’. My intention had been to return a part of the research results to the cast when we watched the movie together, yet the effect that the movie has had changes my mind and makes me wonder who, precisely, was returning something, and to whom. One spectator said: ‘The fact that somebody makes the effort to learn the language and how to make a film, and then becomes acquainted with the topics as well as taking a train to watch the film with us, shows us our importance and the value of our story.’ Christine’s words also touch me when she says, ‘I thank you so much that you decided to make this film. It’s fantastic that you wanted to make the women’s voices and thoughts audible. And I am very happy that I chose to be a part of all of this.’

Maybe it is less about returning something to people than about sharing something with them; in my case, this refers to influential encounters, shared stories, warmth and respect. I am left with great appreciation and deepest gratitude to the four women whose lives and river I was allowed to portray.

This project has also served to emphasise my belief that science should pay more attention to the medium of film, because it represents a form of knowledge that is accessible, easily applied and popular.

When I return to Bern I find a thick envelope on my desk. The ‘Post Nord’ stamp is visible from a distance; the letter is clasped with a familiar brooch:

‘Thank you for the recent evening in Jokkmokk. It was nice to see you again and I had the feeling that ‘two souls’ were meeting each other again. Hannah, to remind you of me, I want to give you the silver brooch that has accompanied me on all of my journeys as well as all of my festive but also sorrowful moments. We will continue to be in contact, won’t we? Many hugs from Ellen.’

April 2019

During a walk through Kalamoti I am greeted by many open front doors, although this is no warm welcome, for the houses have been abandoned. An icy wind blows through the roads; trash is piled amongst the ruins and there are dead sparrows, mice and even a desiccated cat, mouth gaping and eyes gone. It is morbid yet fascinating scenery. The uninhabited rooms and their colourful walls tell of livelier times, and they inspire me. Entering abandoned houses means entering the ‘world of imagination’ described by Yael Navaro-Yashin (2009: 2). Abandoned objects such as the kitchen stove, the mouldy couch or rotten shelves in a cupboard prove that this is no museum, and it is easy to picture how people once lived in these houses.

I step back into the street and surprise a half-dozen cats that were hiding from the wind in the lee of the doorway. A stray hunting-dog passes by, its collar still attached. I try to photograph the animals, but fail because they flee from my camera before I can snap them. Instead, I try with my camera to capture the veil of melancholy draped across this village.

Many of the houses and shops are up for sale. Sometimes this is announced by way of a piece of paper recently stuck in a dusty window, and sometimes it was painted on the wall by the door decades ago. Many of Kalamoti’s former inhabitants left long ago, and some of the houses have been derelict for more than a century. They left when the Greek island of Chios was struck by an earthquake; still more left following the financial crisis of 2008. Recently even the butcher moved to a larger town in search of more prosperity. Those who remain live amongst the ruins.

Once in a while a door is opened and one hears Jassas, or Kalimera. An elderly couple leave their house and limp around the next corner—they have put their restaurant up for sale even as they wait for customers every evening before they turn off the lights at midnight. Their names are Despina, Janis, Thomas, Vangelis, and they linger in Kalamoti, waiting for summer to come.

‘In summer all of my school friends return from Athens, Germany or the US. Then we remember the times when our village lived off the mastic trees. The mastic resin defined village life over the cycle of a year, from the cutting of the bark and collecting of the resin to its sorting by size and quality.’ That is what Despina tells us while we sit in her tavern, where we are her only guests.

The tears of Chios, as the sap of the mastic tree is called, have been collected on this Greek island for over 2500 years and formed the basis of the island’s former wealth. During the Ottoman occupation, mastic was worth its weight in gold. Mastic villages like Kalamoti still exist, but these days their economic survival depends on far more than the legendary resin.

I came to Chios to find out about the mastic, not in the interest of conducting field research but to gather some fresh air and find inspiration for my research project during a short break. Kalamoti, however, captivated me, in particular the way life here has clung on beside and between the ruins. The melancholy of the place, but also of those who live in the ruins, wouldn’t let go of me.

The things I see here are uninfluenced by scientific intention, yet my consciousness connects and orders snapshots into a chain of cause and effect. My innocent encounter with Kalamoti has provoked a reflective process in me that is influenced by two elements: the intuitive feeling to be standing in a research field that is concrete, tangible, characterisable; and the implicit knowledge of being able to place this in a larger and more general context. The methods of social anthropology permit me to process the things I find here, and my encounter begins to provoke questions in my mind: What are the effects of the ruins on the people of the village and on their social relationships? Which reflexes or reactions do the ruins provoke in locals? From inspiration to research question, from description to induction and abstraction: this is precisely how research can find its inception—even before you notice it yourself.
Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2009: Affective Spaces, Melancholic Objects: Ruination and the Production of Anthropological Knowledge. In: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15(1), S. 1–18.


March 2019

The fascist symbolism that infuses the collection of wine bottles in this picture tends to evoke discomfort or disgust—but not in the collectors themselves. I took this picture of a shelf of wine bottles that had been collected over many years in a meeting room in Predappio in April 2014, in the context of my research into the Italian neo-fascist milieu. Predappio is the small town in northern Italy where Benito Mussolini was born and where his body is interred. It is a site of pilgrimage for hundreds of people from the fascist milieu, who go there to pay homage to Mussolini as a martyr for the fascist cause. In 2014 I accompanied a group of neo-fascists from Rome who visited the site on the anniversary of Mussolini’s death. Following the commemoration service it was in this meeting room that a communal lunch was organised. The reason why the picture contains only wine bottles rather than people is due to the exceedingly difficult nature of the research setting: taking photos of people gave my informants the impression that I was a potential spy, for example for the secret services—an accusation that drastically complicated my access to the research field.

In 2012-2013 I conducted research on the neo-fascist scene in Rome, and this was followed by several short visits until 2015. As a German researcher raised in an anti-fascist environment, such research amongst Italian neo-fascists was never going to be easy; over the course of many months, only few people would speak with me and most evaded me or accused me of espionage. It was a long process for me to be able to move freely within my research field and gain acceptance as a researcher from a different political background. At the outset I was threatened and told not to photograph any of the neo-fascist meetings I attended. It was only towards the end of my research trip that I was able to take pictures of any of the members for my personal use, albeit rarely and only of people with whom I had established a trusting relationship. Instead, I had to limit myself to taking pictures of objects (such as, for example, the collection of bottles in Predappio)—nostalgia-inducing kitsch of great importance to many within the milieu. All of these photos have their own story for me, specifically a story about people I was not allowed to photograph and who I would precisely describe every evening in my field journal, in the interest of recording my encounters with them and thereby recording an image of them for myself.

Since Italy became an EU core country governed by a populist rightwing coalition in June 2018, the neo-fascist scene of the country has come under increased public scrutiny again. The government consists of comedian Beppe Grillo’s populist, euro-sceptic Movimento Cinque Stelle party and the Lega, which in a national context has shown itself to be an extremist, rightwing, racist party and is connected to neo-fascist parties. Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini belongs to the Lega and is staunchly anti-immigration, making for headlines throughout Europe for closing Italian ports to ships that carry migrants from the Mediterranean. Ever since the recent successes in regional elections of rightwing, neo-fascist political parties that explicitly relate themselves to historical fascism, as well as since the racist incidents of 2017 and early 2018 and the victories of the Lega at the national level, journalists and politicians have been speaking of an onda nera, a ‘black wave’ (‘black’ denoting ‘fascism’ in Italy). The rise of the right provokes questions over the genesis of such political phenomena.

The journey to Predappio and the people I met in that meeting room and whose stories I heard are an important element in the answer to this question. Alongside members of the neo-fascist scene of all ages, I also encountered a Catholic priest, who was a member of a traditionally-minded Catholic order that has contacts to the neo-fascist political scene. He was one of those who regularly attended Mussolini’s commemoration services as well as one of the people in charge of the meeting room. He was also a member of a group founded in the early 1990s which regarded itself as the successor to the Cult of Madonna established in the 1930s by the fascist regime. Both the martyr cult surrounding Mussolini (which includes such commemorations on the anniversary of his death as I witnessed in Predappio’s meeting room), as well as especially this Catholic priest’s tales of the Cult of Madonna made me aware of the importance of the religious dimension of post-war fascism which, since 1945, has established itself as a counter-culture to the predominant anti-fascism of mainstream society. Both of these cults belong within this religious dimension and are to be found on a spectrum that stretches from Catholicism to pagan rituals. Family and social networks developed since 1945 are an important characteristic of Italian post-war fascism; neo-fascism’s religious dimension crucially strengthens the integrity of these structures, which underlie the political scene. It is in this context that we can understand the stabilising factor inherent in the support provided by a number of deeply conservative Catholic orders.

Seen from this perspective, the current political situation in Italy is not only a reaction to the immigration crisis or other contemporary challenges. Post-war fascism’s networks still exist, just as do the old meeting rooms and private collections of fascist kitsch—and they have become more visible in today’s political situation. Post-war fascism has reclaimed centre-stage and reveals a network that no longer needs to struggle to organise itself: the Lega has shown itself to be a party able to mobilise the political scene of rightwing populists as well as neo-fascists and bring them together, thereby pushing the entire country to the right.


Foto: „Grüsse aus dem Bunker“ - Luis

February 2019

“La Paz” is Spain’s best hospital, and possibly one of the best in Europe, according to a communiqué from the Comunidad de Madrid which, in March 2018, announced a complete refurbishment of the dilapidated university hospital. To this day, La Paz symbolises the epitome of Spanish medicine. Established in 1964 by Dictator Francisco Franco, 25 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, its name means ‘peace’. At the time La Paz was Spain’s most modern public hospital, and it was to provide Spain’s population with sophisticated medical services. This dream of efficient medical care for everybody is embodied by the architecture of a by-gone future, as well as by the fact that it treats almost 300,000 patients annually. The hospital is no longer new, and it is not only the physical facade of the medical dream that has begun to crumble.

On a cold morning in winter I am waiting in front of La Paz for Luis, a member of the union who works there. In the deep blue skies above Madrid I can see the four skyscrapers that have encircled La Paz for ten years. The ‘Quatro Torres Business Area’ was completed right before the Spanish real-estate crisis of 2008. Ten years later, the fifth tower is finally going to be built. ‘The private model is in the process of gobbling up the public model,’ Luis says, smiling ironically and pointing at the skyscrapers. The fifth tower is designed to contain a large, brand-new, private hospital. ‘From up there we must look like a slum, like dirt. We need to leave. They don’t want us here.’ Luis is an orderly and has worked at La Paz’s emergency ward since 1997. We had been planning this interview for some time already, in the wake of my research on austerity medicine and the resistance movements against the cutting of public funds in the health sector.

On our way to the union offices we pass the emergency ward. Luis takes me to the rear entrance, where mountains of laundry and trash from the hospital are collected every day. ‘Now you get to see the guts of the hospital,’ he jokes before we descend to the clinical underworld. We make our way along corridors marked by chipped plaster, through a labyrinth of stairwells, elevators and thick pipes that are always being patched up; we pass the staff cafeteria and squeeze against the walls so as to make room for carts of laundry, and arrive at the union’s quarters. The faded ochre of the walls is hidden by countless posters that call for resistance to precarious work contracts, the patriarchy, and cuts: “Los recortes matan”—the cuts kill—is printed on a sheet of paper. In the union’s office, which is a couple of square metres in size and has a single window, Luis describes the work routines of carers, kitchen staff, cleaners and orderlies. He talks about their fear of the ‘void’ of unemployment in times of ‘generalised crisis’, when work contracts are becoming shorter and ever more precarious; he tells of constant pressure during work due to the fact that colleagues on sick leave are no longer replaced; the creeping reduction of chores and sense in work, provoked by outsourcing and automation in the laundry rooms and kitchens.

Luis talks about the situation of those who often work invisibly in La Paz’s clinical underground. This is the place that enables the functioning of treatment upstairs in the hospital’s wards; and it is where the effects of cuts and privatisation are most palpable. The clinical underground is the ‘base’ of medicine, in terms of Marxist terminology, and the site where, in Luis’s words, ‘the introduction of a factory’s methods of production’ become tangible in contemporary economical conditions and medical organisation. ‘Since the crisis struck, this has increased massively. What they’re looking for here is profitability, but that is difficult to achieve when you’re dealing with people.’

I had hoped for Luis’s help in gaining access to everyday hospital life in La Paz, so that I could observe how sickness and treatment were lived at a time of such generalised economisation. I planned to be guided through my field research by the point of view of doctors, nurses, patients and orderlies, in order to examine the small and unspectacular spread of the effects of austerity on hospital life and hospital infrastructure, ethnographically and beyond a predetermined medical framework. In La Paz, however, access to clinical everyday life both above and below ground was denied to me. Possibly, my research interest was not sufficiently medical for La Paz, or possibly it was too political. ‘There is a general atmosphere of distrust and fear here,’ Luis kept on saying. ‘The hospital is a bunker.’

For medical anthropologists who examine the political, social and economic conditions of sickness, medicine and healing, access to the highly controlled world of hospitals is far from straightforward. This is even more true if their ethnography is not guided by a medically informed research question. In terms of ethics and politics, hospitals are strictly regulated spaces that frequently resist the gaze of outsiders. In his “Ways of Seeing”, John Berger says of such gazing: ‘We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach.’ I chose to observe not only medicine and sickness in hospitals, but also to gaze at the economics and politics of everyday medical life in hospitals. I was able to see some things, even while other elements remained hidden. Despite the difficulties of gaining insight, I did learn much about La Paz as well as other hospitals. More than mere medical institutions, they are enigmatic, symbolically charged sites that combine decay, dirt and fragility with illusions, hope and crude everyday work. Yet, they are indeed also bunkers that can often resist curious gazes that aim to illuminate their inner life.

When he sent me the picture above on WhatsApp during one of his night shifts, Luis captioned it with ‘Greetings from the Bunker’ and added a smiley. He’s also a photographer, and together we entertain dreams of an illustrated volume on the bowels of this fascinating bunker. Maybe this will become reality one day.

January 2019

I took this picture on the last day of my fieldwork on Saturday the 28th of July 2012. The previous months were shaped by the same routine. Every Wednesday and Saturday I would get up at 8:30 am. Twenty minutes for breakfast and another ten to get to the prison. Whilst standing in the slow-moving visitor’s queue, I often sought to picture the last day of fieldwork, particularly when I was not in the mood for spending another day in the bare cement building of Chorrillos maximum-security prison for women located in the south of Lima. In summer this place was boiling hot and in winter it was freezing cold. Before entering prison, I am stamped four times – not on a piece of paper, but on my flesh. The stamps are there to remind me of the modes and modalities of prison and who is in charge. The green number indicates the compartment in which my ID card is stored for the duration of the visit; the letter indicates the pavilion I am visiting; and each search officer has a personal stamp to mark that I entered during their shift (for one, a picture of a toddler). At times I felt so tired of the weight this place was capable of laying on me – a heaviness made of social frustrations, fears, and disgust that society hides away with barbed wire and walls that reach the sky. But unlike the prisoners, it was my choice to spend time here and most significantly, at the end of the day I would be able to leave again. I had come to see Lucero, Mili and Ana. The three of them were forced to a life in prison for their militancy in the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary movement, which is one of two insurgent groups that declared war against the Peruvian state during the internal armed conflict (1980-2000). Together, we had made a research-led film that would become integral part of my doctoral project.  The purpose of the film was to look closely at the ways in which the conflict is remembered by different actors: insurgents, members of the armed forces and victim-survivors. But unlike my engagement with former soldiers and human rights activists, the stories told by my informants in prison were constantly subject to adaptations, mutilations, or silences. During the filmmaking process Lucero, Mili and Ana were mainly concerned with protecting themselves, their families and me. Most questions evolved around what could be said publicly and how, in order to avoid upsetting the authorities and their official narratives in which the government, the state and its executive authority are celebrated not only as victors, but as national heroes. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation commission and much of the research that followed clearly challenged and still challenges these official narratives by locating the responsibility for the violence inflicted on civilians on all sides and by tracing the causes within the socio-political landscape at the time. Yet, until today Lucero and Ana remain in prison (Mili was released in 2016).
The price for upsetting prison authorities at the time were shorter visiting times for family and friends, additional restrictions on food and cash deliveries, on yard time, educational or recreational activities as well as fewer courtesies. In the worst of all cases new proceedings would have been opened with the possible outcome of longer prison sentences. For me, it could have meant a complete ban from prison and the end of my research, but also, I could have been accused of ‘defending terrorism’, which since 2017 and the modification of law N° 30610 of the penal code (with the addition of article 316-A), is a punishable crime with prison sentences of up to eight years. There was no question about it – we had to adapt our methodology to suit these circumstances. The camera never passed the prison walls and only their voice-over narrations were recorded over the phone. Interviews were forbidden, so we designed their narrations as inner dialogues: intimate, personal, subjective. No politics, no historical descriptions, only their individual narrations juxtaposed with sounds and images from the outside world. Our collaboration became a journey into the world of visual analogies and metaphors. For the women it was the aesthetic and poetic possibilities that in these circumstances could best express their notions of past, present and future.
The list of shots they wanted to accompany their voice-overs was long: people doing mundane things like laughing, walking, shopping, kissing, and hugging should express their isolation from the social world outside. Short scenes of couples, mothers with their children, or pregnant women rambling around could serve as visual fragments to reference the times they had missed. Wide shots of shantytowns could represent the supremacy of the upper classes, busy streets could evoke loneliness, and walking barefoot on a plot of grass could signify the absence of the natural world in prison. My body and camera became a vehicle to express their visions and at the same time I could experience the sensations that they could only imagine. I was becoming an apprentice to the experience of imprisonment, but only through the privilege of being able to move between spaces freely. I went to visit their birthplaces, family homes, sites of political formation and detention, and places they longed to see after all these years in prison, like the seaside or the top of a mountain.
The prison and its institutional mechanisms defined our ethnographic engagement, but it also revealed current memory regimes (Dietrich 2015) that underpin public discourses about the conflict as well as the silences and resistances these discourses create.
It is my last day of fieldwork, the one I had longed for recurrently. A warm breeze blows through the entrance hall. The place is still hostile, but it ceased to be bare. I am full of excitement to see Lucero, Mili and Ana, who are already peeking through the fence to receive me on the other side. We watch parts of the final film on a small DVD player in black and white. Lucero cries and with calm determination she whispers: “Good that at least we know that all that is personal is political.”


 i Martha-Cecilia Dietrich, Entre Memorias (UK: The Royal Anthropological Institute, 2015),

Foto: After the transplant (Copyright: Sarah Hildebrand)

Dezember 2018

In early April of 2015, I knocked on the door of room A204, waited for a couple of seconds, opened it and entered. In the bed closest to the door was the woman who was expecting me. Erika Schneider’s back was supported by pillows to keep her as comfortable as possible for the medical procedure that was taking place, and which continued throughout our meeting. Erika was diagnosed with NASH, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis that had partly progressed to liver cirrhosis.

Because of her liver’s limited function, water retention, or ascites, was repeatedly building up in her body, fluid that her body was unable to release by itself, and which got stuck in her legs, arms and abdomen. Due to her ascites, she regularly had to come to the clinic, to get this excessive fluid released. It was this ‘draining’ procedure’ that Erika was going through during our first encounter. Erika’s belly was punctured by drains to release litres of fluid from her abdomen that had piled up inside her.

After introducing myself and telling her about my research on the waiting time for a liver transplant, I cautiously approached the bed – carefully, to not step on a hose or pull unintentionally some plug. I recall the bulging bags on the floor, and my concern that they might burst – litres of the yellowish abdominal water spread over the floor. I remember my discomfort touching those bags, as she had asked me to move them a little to the side, to change slightly their position, because the flow of liquid seemed somehow blocked. Sitting next to her bed, I was distracted by the hoses appearing from under her bed sheet and the constant flow of liquid through these drains into the bulging bags on the floor.

Eight weeks later, I visited Erika again – in another room, at another ward in the hospital as she had received a transplant two weeks earlier. She told me how stunned she was by the possibilities of modern medicine. There was a ‘new’ organ inside her body –  an organ that had belonged to another person, who was not alive anymore. In an eight-hour long surgery, the transplant surgeon had sewn blood vessels together, had stitched this formerly ‘foreign’ liver into Erika's body. This liver was now working and fulfilling its many vital tasks. Thanks to this liver, she was alive.

Eager to share her excitement about the surgical skills and the potential of medical treatment, Erika suddenly pulled up her hospital gown. There it was, a big Mercedes star across her abdomen. I had seen pictures before, I was told about it, but this was the first scar of a liver transplant that I saw in real life, on the body of a person I knew. I recall that scar as well as I remember my discomfort when she lifted her hospital gown, exposing her belly and the surgical wounds running across it.

At the beginning of fieldwork, I was not familiar with clinical settings. I was not used to the continuous use and smell of disinfectants, the monotone of hospital beds rolling through corridors, the sound of automatic doors opening and closing. I was unfamiliar with the smart pace of authorized staff making their ways through doors and corridors, busily passing by those sitting in the waiting room who were in anticipation of appointments, test results, prescriptions or loved ones. I was inexperienced in seeing people’s scars, their afflicted bodies, tubes and drains piercing through their bodies, liquids flowing in and out of artificial openings. It challenged me not only being told about incisions and scars but actually seeing broken skin and wounds. Encountering vulnerable and wounded people – strangers, informants but also friends and family members – was emotionally challenging to me, and caused time and again discomfort and anxiety. And as they were accompanied by unquestionable bodily reactions like an increased heart rate or restricted breath, these uncomfortable feelings were hard to ignore.

Discomfort, or the lack thereof, in situations which had caused it in the past point to the impermanence of the unfamiliar and of the affective and emotional response it might cause. Over the course of my fieldwork and my time in clinics and hospitals, these feelings of discomfort, unease, and hesitation decreased gradually while clinical worlds, their temporary inhabitants, and the issues at stake became increasingly familiar. Making the familiar strange and the strange familiar lies at the heart of anthropology, and so, with time and routine, these uncomfortable feelings faded as situations and encounters that had caused them before became part of a new everyday.

The book "hope" approaches ambivalences of hope with literary texts and photographs, and deals with the topics of liver transplantation in Germany, surrogacy in Russia, and migration and death on the border between Spain and Morocco. "Hope" is a publication at the intersection of art and science, and the result of many years of collaboration between photographer Sarah Hildebrand and social anthropologists Gerhild Perl, Julia Rehsmann and Veronika Siegl. It was published by Christoph Merian Verlag in March 2018.

November 2018

‘Angelita! I have a task for you!’ Milton was grinning broadly as he returned from the meeting with the lawyer who would be representing him at court the following day. Milton is the leader of a grassroots organisation in Celendin, a small town in the Peruvian highlands, that struggles against the expansion of the Yanacocha goldmine. Due to his role as leader of the protests, the state prosecutor initiated court proceedings against him and 15 others. They stand accused of holding captive two representatives of the national government and supporters of the mining project for two hours. The state prosecutor in charge of this case claimed this to be an act of ‘abduction’ and demanded a prison sentence of 32 years. Milton’s defence argued for acquittal, and his lawyer believed that the trial was an attempt by the mine’s supporters to criminalise the members of her client’s social movement. The following day was to be the first day in court.

In Peru’s mining areas criminal law is used in such conflicts by both sides as a strategy to achieve one’s goals. While charges against the state or corporations rarely result in opening criminal investigations, social movements are far more easily taken to court. Often such charges result in years of proceedings, which cost defendants much time and money as well as emotional stress. Nevertheless, until recently it was exceptional for such cases to result in actual court trials, with most such proceedings coming to an end at an early phase due to lack of evidence. In Milton’s case, however, five years of investigations did culminate in a trial; and both his lawyer as well as the accused were deeply concerned about this development.

At the time I had already been in Celendin for a while and become well acquainted with the members of Milton’s organisation. I was by no means the only researcher in Cajamarca—the activists were visited by a steady stream of researchers from all over the world. Discussions ensued within the organisation, with some arguing that academic research contributed little to such social movements. They believed that researchers took people’s stories away with them and never gave anything in return. Whatever researchers did send back after years would arrive too late and be incomprehensible. For my part, I had been warmly welcomed and succeeded in making friends over time; however, I still hadn’t discovered an answer to the question of what I could give back to people by way of my research.

And now Milton had found a task for me: I was to tell the judge at the trial that I was conducting research on this concrete case. My presence as a foreigner at court was to suggest that the progression of the case was being observed internationally. ‘Take your camera along!’ Milton said, ‘because it will further impress the judges.’

The next day at court, I did as I’d been told. Cameras weren’t actually permitted in the courtroom unless official permission was granted—which it was, in this case. This is how the picture was taken that, on the left, shows the three judges, the secretary, one of the defendants, and the state prosecutors, and, on the right, the defence team. After overcoming their initial surprise at the presence of a foreigner at their regional court, the judges acquiesced to my presence, even if they were not permitted to speak with me about the case. Instead, I found myself chatting with them about Roger Federer’s tennis career, and I seriously began to doubt the efficiency of our strategy to impress the judges through my sheer presence.

Three weeks later, and after several visits to court, the acquittal we’d hoped for came about. I shared the activists’ joy over their victory, even if I had not overcome my doubts about whether my presence at court had in any way influenced the judges. I also had not yet found an answer to the question of what social anthropologists could give back to informants who often sacrifice so much of their time for us. How can we ensure the return of their stories within in an acceptable amount of time? What is the nature of our fieldwork, especially in cases where we feel a sense of solidarity as, for example, with social movements? And what precisely does our research contribute to the world outside academia?

October 2018

„You should also measure the ‘little monks’, just like you’ve been measuring the big ones: with scales and a measuring tape“, Jampa Tsultim said to me. I agreed to doing so, even if I did not really need this particular data and went to get my measuring utensils. 13 boys dressed in monks’ robes stood in a row in front of me while I recorded their names, age, weight and height. One could easily picture this as part of an absurd play. But the “little monks” seemed to be enjoying themselves and kept informing me of their weight throughout and after our meal.

It hadn’t really been my idea to go and measure monks from the Diskit monastery in the Nubra valley. Dr. Norden Otzer had suggested it when I went to visit him in his office in mid-July. I had been on holiday in the North Indian region of Ladakh and had decided to use my free time by having a go at social anthropological research. I had read about LEDeG, an NGO based in Leh in the book Ancient Futures. Learning from Ladakh written by Helena Norberg-Hodge (1991) and had decided to pay the NGO’s director a visit. Dr. Otzer was pleased to see me and already during our second meeting suggested that I go and measure monks in the Diskit monastery. He told me that several monks had come to him complaining about health issues. Thus, he wanted to encourage them to change their eating and exercise habits. He himself had grown up in the Nubra region and cared deeply about the monastery. He told me I could go there under one condition: that I came back and didn’t become a monk.

I spent the following three weeks developing a questionnaire on nutrition and calculating the number of calories in the different Ladakhi dishes. I also did a test run of the questionnaire with some of the guests in the hostel I was staying in. Then, in mid-August – even though I wasn’t really feeling up to the task yet – I applied for (and was granted) a residence permit for the region where the monastery is located, which is of high military importance. By bus I travelled to Nubra across the Kardung-La pass 5350 meters above sea-level. Nubra is a barren valley high up in the mountains, close to the borders to Pakistan and China. At 3000 meters above sea-level I saw sand dunes and camels. However, having done some research on the area before setting off, this didn’t come as such a surprise to me. For the last part of the journey to the top of the hill on which the monastery thrones, I travelled on the backseat of a motorbike. I arrived there as a tourist: one amongst many others.

Dr. Otzer’s cousin, Nawang Thinley, who is a monk there, was my person of contact. Straight away he let me know that he was a “very, very busy” person indeed. He told me that he had got up at three o’clock in the morning that day to sweep all the stairs and entrances. He had been assigned the job as janitor for a year and was in charge of opening and locking up the entrances. Right now, he told me, he was busy with tourists and said that I should come back later in the evening, or even better, the next day. He suggested that I go to the monastery school and eat with the “little monks”. He pointed to a building far below on the old monastery grounds and to a small red dot. That was the person he was going to inform of my arrival, he told me, reaching for his mobile phone. In the monastery school, there was Wi-Fi.

The next days I was confronted with several challenges. For instance, with the fact that my research subjects weren’t really present. Thus, only four old monks assisted the morning Puja on the second day. Again, Nawang Thinley could only point to monks far away, looking like little red dots, getting into their cars to drive to a neighbouring village for prayer. Furthermore, I would have needed more time to adapt to life in the monastery. And I could have done with the help of an interpreter, since most monks didn’t speak much English. Thus, my endeavour to have the monks fill in the questionnaires failed. Moreover, I began to doubt the sense of the whole operation, to question my own views and to critically reflect on the morality of such measurements. I mean, I also don’t go around Bern measuring random passers-by or church-goers.

After a couple of days, I basically gave up on my task. But many other things started to interest me. Nevertheless, I decided to collect the data on the monks’ body mass index. Nawang Thinley seemed to thoroughly enjoy this and once even greeted me with the words: “Let’s catch some monks!”. He pointed to buildings and explained how to get to places he thought I might be able to find monks and I set off with my scales and measuring tape to look for them. All the monks willingly got on the scales. Not one of them asked me what I was doing this for – maybe also out of courtesy. I should point out that two thirds of the monks in the Diskit monastery are overweight.

On the last day, I took these two pictures of Tsewang. At the time, the monastery had a prominent guest: Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, an important figure in one of the Darjeeling monasteries. Very soon, Rinpoche had finished with the ceremonial formalities and turned to the extensive breakfast buffet that was being served in his honour. It was at that point that I spotted Tsewang under the table holding the donation box. He had found himself a comfortable place to enjoy his dessert made out of rice, almonds and raisins. Tsewang was the youngest, smallest and lightest of all the “little monks”, whose ages ranged from 6 to 13 years. To be exact, he weighed 17.6 kilos and was 1.08 meters tall. He laughed a lot and sometimes hugged his teacher Jampa Tsultim.


September 2018

In July this year, I went to Ecuador to plan my new fieldwork. I want to work on the legal struggles against a copper mine which is being developed in the valley of Íntag. As part of my fieldwork preparation, I travelled to two of the villages most affected by the mining project: Junín and Chalguayaco. Every month, locals from those villages, always together with a volunteer from France and a driver from the municipality of Cotacachi, set out to take water measurements in streams flowing through the mining concession. They measure the water’s PH-value, conductivity and temperature. The measurements form part of the monitoreo comunitario that was set up by scientists in Quito together with locals from Chalguayaco and Junín. The aim of the measurements is to show how mining activity contaminates the water. They should allow changes in the water to be traced over a longer time in order to dismantle the argument often brought forward by mining companies and ministries that certain water compositions just occur “naturally” or are caused by other, non-mining related activities.

The few days I spent in Junín coincided with such a monthly measurement outing, which I was allowed to participate in. And I was not the only one “tagging along” that day. In addition to Jorge, a farmer from one of the villages, Lucille, a French agronomy student and volunteer in Chalguayaco, and the driver, that day our group also consisted of Emily, a human geographer from Baltimore, who has been working on and in Junín for a while now, an undergraduate student of hers, a tourist from France who had been staying in the eco cabañas in Junín and myself. Thus, at 9 o’clock in the morning in mid-July, a rather large group of people set off to take the measurements, much of which is done on foot. The driver took us up to the fenced off entrance of the mining concession in his pickup truck. In order to enter the concession territory, we all had to register with our names and passport numbers. For the whole time we spent within the concession area, we were accompanied by a company worker, who I will call Raúl. Raúl is from a village close by and, in July, had been working for “the company” (as the operating consortium is called by locals) for six months. He and Jorge referred to each other as friends. They have known each other for a long time. Raúl came equipped with a camera, presumably given to him by the superior, who had sent him to accompany us. Every time our group stopped to take measurements and sometimes some pictures of miscoloured rocks or what to me (the non-scientist) appeared to be algae, he took pictures of us. And, this one time, I took a picture of him doing so.

The picture nicely symbolises the different nuances “observation” took on during the measurement trip and, in general, often does so in our ethnographic fieldwork. What we as social anthropologists do is participant observation. Hence, rather than remaining an outside, uninvolved observer, we take part in the activities we are studying. We attempt to experience and understand them from within.

On the hike, all of us were observers. Lucille and Jorge were attentively taking in our surroundings; looking out for potential signs of environmental damage. Raúl had a clear duty to observe and document what we were doing (and, possibly, to report this back to his superiors). The rest of us were curious to understand what was happening. Hence, during the trip I was trying to observe many different things at the same time. I, too, was actively taking in my surroundings, looking out for signs of mining activity and trying to remember what it had looked like nine years ago, when, as a tourist, I had taken the same route on the way to some waterfalls. I observed what Lucille and Jorge were doing while they were taking the measurements – and sometimes helped them out. What were the things they were looking out for? What caught their attention as being a potential sign of environmental damage? I observed Raúl carrying out his duty to document our activities. What, to him, seemed like important moments to take pictures of? And, I observed the interactions between my fellow companions. I was particularly interested in the conversations between Raúl and Jorge. What things did they choose to talk about? And, how, if at all, did their different positions with regard to mining (Raúl works for “the company”, Jorge is against mining) play into their conversations? Furthermore, I observed the interactions between Emily and the others. For me, it was the first time being in the field with another researcher and I was very curious to see how she went about doing fieldwork.

In the picture, I am behind the camera; a somewhat distant observer, seeing, but not (yet) really understanding what is going on. I wonder what the outcomes of these measurements will be. I wonder what role they are going to play in the fight against mining. I wonder if they are going to play a role in possible future legal actions and, if so, what this role might be. I wonder what Raúl’s superiors do with the pictures they get from the employees they send off with a camera. These are a few of the many questions I have. Hopefully, in the course of my fieldwork, I’ll find some answers to them.  

Arbeiter auf einer Rohrzuckerplantage in Sambia

August 2018

After several hours of bumpy bus ride in the dark we reach Mazabuka, a small town southwest of Lusaka, in Zambia. Only the next morning, the wide sugar cane fields around the city can be seen. Within the framework of the excursion of the Institute of Social Anthropology, we try to gain an insight into different cultivation models of sugar cane and try to understand the associated living situation of the local population.

Today we visit the plantation of Zambia Sugar, one of the largest sugar cane plantations in Africa. At the entrance to the sugar refinery, where high chimney pipes spit out thick black clouds of smoke, is a large signpost:

Zambia Sugar.

Our vision: A diversified world class market leading business contributing to the economic growth and prosperity of its shareholders, employees and communities. Diversified; worldclass; market leading; shareholders; employees; communities.

Our values: empowering our people, working collaboratively, upholding our values, delivery focused, enhancing diversity, environmentally aware.

After having presented our invitation letter at the entrance, we wait for an hour at the reception. Advertising posters for sugar syrup and powdered sugar, as well as two framed versions of Zambia Sugar's business guidelines are hanging at the yellowish, slightly crackled walls. Unfortunately, the doors of the refinery finally remain closed to us, because of a problem with the power generator, for which we cannot visit the factory, for safety reasons. Nevertheless, we may visit the plantation. In the factory's agricultural management office we meet the recruiter. "I am here to teach the people, that they are here to work and not just for spending time.", she explains. After the obligatory group photo, a guard in military uniform opens the gate for us, to leave the factory area. We pass various sectors of the plantation, which covers a total of 15,000 hectares. The area manager of one of the extension sections welcomes us in front of his office, a house with a well-kept, small front yard. All around us, only sugar cane, as far as we can see. The area manager shows us around the plantation and explains how the business model of Zambia Sugar is structured. "Growing beautiful crops is our job" he starts his speech in a trained, performing tone. The Zambia Sugar Company wants to move away from traditional patterns of agriculture, towards an efficient agricultural industry, as global competition in food production is fierce and Zambia's agriculture needs to become more professionalized. The aim is to design the surrounding areas, where farmers (still) grow sugar cane independently, according to this same 'efficiency model', as the company has had great success in terms of yield with this model of extensive monoculture. The area manager shows us the guidelines and objectives of the business: 112 tons of sugar cane per hectare are currently being harvested. The goal is to extract 125 tonnes of sugar cane per hectare from the soil by 2020. We are also told that time management and worker coordination play a particularly important role in this management system. Organizing, guiding and training the employees is essential for a successful implementation of the plan, therefore the workers must also be involved in production planning. This'participatory' working system works as follows: Workers arrive punctually at 6 a.m. (usually by bicycle), whereby the journey to work can take up to two hours. From 6.00 to 6.15 a briefing takes place, where obstacles or complications in the production are discussed. During this timeframe, employees have the opportunity to contribute their own ideas and solutions for a problem. Fifteen minutes, that's it. By involving the workers (yes, this 800-second-briefing is considered as such), the company has allegedly experienced a production boom, since the workers, as he describes it, "feel involved at their level". He seems very proud of that. However, if the daily goal of the worker cannot be reached, the person in charge must report to the sector manager and explain why it was not achieved. All figures, goals and implementations achieved can be seen on the wall of the sector office. Not achieved targets will be highlighted in red. The sector manager describes these bulletin boards as follows: Everything is presented as simply as possible, so that the workers can understand it aswell. With different colors, pins and a tensioned thread over the maxima of the illustrated curves, one sees at first glance which day is today and on which production level the team finds itself in this moment. While explaining, the area manager is plucking on the taut red thread as if it were a guitar string that needs tuning. Each team looks after its own field and the division of tasks within the team is always the same: a sowing team, an irrigation team, a fertilizer team, a pesticide team, a harvesting team. The tables show how much work has been done and how this relates to the daily goal. Employees are particularly interested in seeing the individually achieved goals, that are posted on the office wall after every workday. Because in addition to the salary, a bonus system rewards the section team that has produced the highest yield at the end of a season.

We make a short tour of the plantation and pass various stages of the sugar cultivation. The workers have 1-1.5 hectares per person, depending on their activity, which they work on every day. The fields must be treated like small children: they need food, drink and protection. In other words water, soil, fertilizers and pesticides. About seven percent of the yield depends on adequate irrigation, but fertilizer and pest control play a much greater role. Therefore, as a 'method of control', the fields are sprayed with pesticide once a week, no matter whether the plants are actually infested with pests or not. "We use a cocktail, a mixture of chemicals such that it will fight all kinds of weeds and grasses, and the fields remain clean". The aim is to use only chemicals in the future and not to weed any more as labour is more expensive and inefficient than the chemicals. However, the latter are also very expensive, so a supervisor accompanies the workers for spraying the fields. "If you make a mistake in this step, the whole process is messed up!", emphasizes the area manager. From a distance we see people in a row, marching in our direction in regular steps forward. The man on the far left wears a blue work uniform with yellow light stripes, the remaining five wear colorful, protective clothing out of thick plastic, gas masks cover their faces, all of them with a container tied on their backs. The uniformed man indicates the rhythm of the march speed, observing the „sprayers“ very closely, as they pour the soil with a neon yellow liquid. As soon as the row arrives in front of us, at the other end of the field, its members turn around on the heel and march back, a row width shifted. And that's how it works, all day, for the whole season, during eight months. The lucky ones can sign a new seasonal employment contract the next year, for the same function. The workers and the supervisor disappear back in the direction where they came from and we go back to the car. Through the car window, on some fields, men can be seen harvesting and stacking the high sugar cane with full physical effort using machetes. We drive away from the plantation.

When leaving the city of Mazabkua there is a sign on the opposite lane that says: Welcome to Mazabuka, the Sweetest Town of Zambia.

painting of a mother and it's little child to wipe away her tears (Screenshot)

July 2018

First was the recognition of a song. As I was accompanying a group of unaccompanied refugee youth from Eritrea in their everyday pathways in Bern and Zürich, I could not but notice it. Whether blaring through the hallways of the homes where the young people were placed, silently hummed to during work, or sung collectively while watching music videos on their smartphones, the song appeared again and again. For a long time I did not pay much attention to the particularity of this song. Music generally played an important role in the young people’s daily lives, with new and old music clips incessantly being circulated via Facebook or WhatsApp. It therefore did not occur to me to look at these songs as more than a past-time activity or a means of feeling connected to home.

I had known the young people for about half a year and was struggling to gain a deeper understanding of the role kinship played in their decisions to embark on the dangerous journeys to Switzerland without parents or adult guardians. While I had built up trustful relationships with the young people, it was very difficult for them to talk about the people they had left behind. How to put into words the deeply felt pain of displacement - of being separated from the meaningful others without whom a place can feel empty and intimidating? The young people I worked with had shown a great degree of autonomy at a very young age and talking about family also meant talking about the emotional costs of this autonomy. It was therefore an unspoken rule amongst the young people not to poke around the lives they had led before coming to Switzerland.

But then I bumped into an image shared by one of the youth on Facebook. The image showed a small child, drying its mother’s tears. I was struck by the sense of sadness and loss the drawing conveyed. What struck me even more, however, was how strongly it resonated within the group of young Eritreans who vividly commented on this image. While most of them were careful to guard their self-representation as strong and independently minded young men and women, often by mimicking “cool” public figures such as rappers and pop stars, I was surprised how strongly they identified with the young person depicted in the image, which resembled an infant rather than a self-determined youth. When I asked Abel, the young man who had posted the image on Facebook to explain the story behind the image, he laughed. “But you already know it!” he suggested. Noticing my puzzled look, he pulled out his phone and played the song we had already listened to so many times before. As we watched the song’s video clip, the image of the crying mother appeared in the background. “It is about our mothers”, he said. After a pause he added. “We barely know them anymore and they cry for us all the time.”
As I started to investigate into the song, I came to understand that the young people had been talking about the role of kinship ties all along – through the realms of poetry and music. In the song entitled “Adey” (Tigrinya for “mother”) the musician Sami Berhane sings about the deep incision on families the mass exodus of young people from Eritrea has created. “When will we meet again, my mother, when will I be in your arms again?” the song goes*. Pondering about the distance migratory acts create between those who left and those who stay behind, the song talks about the impossibility of bridging this distance through the phone: “You said nothing while minutes passed by on the telephone, and you said that you missed me a lot, my mum. ‘God may be with you, be strong’.”

Provoked by the song the young people came to discuss the insurmountable social and emotional chasms their decision to leave conflict-ridden Eritrea had created. For many of them this sense of displacement from loved ones was most strongly symbolised in the impossibility to talk about it on the phone. Like in the song, this impossibility had nothing to do with bad phone connections or the lack of opportunity to call. Rather, it related to the sheer impossibility of conveying to the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters in Eritrea the hardships they had been through on their journeys to Europe – hardships that had dramatically changed the ways they looked at the world. It also related to the impossibility of explaining to family members who were faced with the reality of a country where poverty, political persecution, incarceration and torture were part of the everyday, the many hurdles they encountered in trying to build up a future in Switzerland, one of the safest and wealthiest countries in the world. As we talked about the song, the young people said that they often avoided calling their families back home in order not to be confronted with the many unspeakable experiences making up this distance. Yet it was a vicious cycle: If they called home they felt heartbroken about the impossibility of conveying the reality of their lives in Switzerland, but if they did not call they had to carry around with them a deep sense of guilt of having abandoned their loved ones.  

The seemingly banal song thus flung open a window to the complex social, emotional and political processes underlying the young people’s lived experiences of displacement. It enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of the precariously balanced webs of relationships their migratory projects were based on. As I came to see in the months that followed, these relationships continued to inform their perceptions of self and future projects in Switzerland to a great degree. This small example with the song thus demonstrates the importance of ethnographic fieldwork as a relational and dialogical activity. As a means of being-with-others, anthropological research does not just take into account the things that are being said (for example in interviews), but the manifold forms of expression human beings use to make sense of the world they are thrown into.

[The song can be listened to here: ]
* I would like to thank Haileb Gebremeskel for translating the song into English for me.


Ernesto de Martino ha rovinato il Salento!”—Ernesto de Martino has ruined the Salento! Giovanna is very angry as soon as I even mention the name. I’m afraid she will cancel the interview immediately, even before it’s begun. But she’s actually just getting started.

He exploited the people, she says, and stole their stories and music. He presented the people here in Nardò and Galatina as gypsies and prostitutes, and it was he who achieved fame rather than the musicians. ‘Antropologo!’ she hisses with so much disdain, as if the entire profession was filled with charlatans.

In order to understand Giovanna’s disgust it is important to know that she is the daughter of Luigi Stifani, who was an exceptional violinist, an autodidact and music therapist. In the 1950s he introduced the Italian anthropologist and historian of religion Ernesto de Martino to the phenomenon of Salentine Tarantism; later he himself collected ethnographic reports on the so-called tarantati, those possessed by tarantulas.

Known as Maestro Gigi (Mesciu Gigi in the local Salentine dialect), Luigi Stifani was always the man who was called in whenever a woman (and, occasionally, a man) in Nardò or nearby villages began to behave strangely. When a woman was lethargic and wouldn’t leave her bed for days, or when she screamed and struck out at random, experienced headaches and vomited, sweated profusely, behaved like an animal and/or made obscene gestures and sounds, people would say she’d been bitten by a tarantula during the tobacco harvest.

At such times the violinist (who was actually a hair-dresser by profession) would visit such houses in the company of a group of other musicians—a guitar player, an accordion player, and a tambourine player—and play music for days on end, until the symptoms improved or vanished. The pizzico, that is, the ‘pinching’ of the violin strings, symbolised the pinching bite of the spider. The music was intended to provoke the victim into flushes and make her dance to the rhythms until she supposedly sweated out the venom. Everybody knew that Luigi Stifani was the best at doing this—he truly was Maestro Gigi. He designed a unique notational system for his form of music, which consists of syllables and digits (see Figure).

Ernesto de Martino came to the Salento region from Rome in the company of interdisciplinary scientists to study the phenomenon of Tarantism, and he profited from Maestro Gigi’s knowledge and his unique access to victims. For the anthropologist, joining the violinist meant gaining access to victims’ private spaces and being able to observe the ‘house therapies’ in action and directly questioning ‘those possessed by tarantulas’. His book La Terra del Rimorso (Land of Remorse) became a classic work; for decades anthropologists followed in his footsteps to visit the Salento region and interview Maestro Gigi and the victims—at least until the moment when locals had had enough of the researchers and stopped answering their questions.

The reason why Ernesto de Martino has such a bad reputation in the Salento today is most likely due to the more recent rivisitazioni: the ‘new interpretations’ of the phenomenon and the ‘renewed visits’ to the Salento region. However, amongst researchers and intellectuals de Martino is still regarded as an era-defining scientist and his works are presently being republished and translated for an international audience.

The locals, too, feel de Martino’s fame. Every summer visitors inquire about the ‘possessed women’ and ask to see Maestro Gigi’s instruments. Since his death in 2000, his heir Giovanna has left her parents’ home unchanged; she nowadays lives there herself, and she guides us through the rooms as if it was a museum.

In 2000 the volume Io In Santo Ci Credo (I Believe in the Saint) was published, containing excerpts from Maestro Gigi’s hand-written diary as well as other material. But Giovanna is not satisfied and wants a museum to be opened in honour of her father, for she wants his name rather than that of the anthropologist to be linked with the pizziche tarantate, the therapeutic tarantula dances.

The commoditisation of this music and dance irritates Giovanna even more than the doings of the researchers since the 1950s. Worst of all is the La Notte della Taranta (Night of the Tarantula) festival that takes place annually in late August in the village of Melpignano, and which attracts tens of thousands of spectators. In Giovanna’s eyes the festival is the cheap sell-out of a traditional form of musical therapy converted into a popular mass spectacle. For its numerous fans from across the globe it represents a rediscovery and revitalisation of local musical tradition. As an anthropologist I observe and describe this conflict over intangible cultural heritage, which was made into heritage due to the attention paid to it by an anthropologist. Locals’ sceptical attitude towards it serves to remind me constantly of the ethical implications of our work as anthropologists, and of my own responsibilities.

Teebeutel in einer Schale

May 2018

Taste is something that is very difficult to put into words and, anyway, one should not talk during a tea tasting session, I was told by Nadine. Talking would act as a distraction and then the tea wouldn’t taste as nice anymore. I should ask her again after work.

I had accompanied Nadine to her lab where she was now carrying out quality control on the previously harvested lime blossom tea. Was there a difference in taste between this year’s harvest and the one from the previous year, I wanted to know. After Nadine’s loud slurping of the tea, which marked her tasting of it, had stopped, she informed me that this year’s lime blossoms weren’t so aromatic. She explained that it hadn’t rained much in spring and, therefore, the blossoms didn’t have much of a honey flavour. Hence, in this vintage she couldn’t really taste the sun in the cup. Similar to what we know from wine labels, Nadine tried to explain to me with analogies and metaphors how the organic lime blossom tea, produced by the self-administered workers’ collective SCOP_TI in Buis-les-Barronnies in the Provencal Drôme region, tasted.

Taste and social struggles are closely entwined in this unconventional factory not far from Marseille, where I have now been conducting research and shooting a documentary on self-administration and hope for 18 months. The still photo from my film Taste of Hope (Le gout de l’espoir) shows mousseline teabags on a tiny assembly line shortly before being packaged. On it we can clearly recognise the label with the collective’s own brand name “1336”. The brand takes its name from the, to present, 1336 days lasting squat, resulting from workers taking over the factory from the former Unilever subsidiary Fralib in May 2014. Graffiti from the time of the squat, now slightly faded by the Provencal sun, still adorn the factory’s and its adjacent buildings’ walls. Visitors to the factory find themselves not just looking at slogans such as “Boycott Lipton” or “Fraib vivra”, but also at three stylized portraits of Ernesto Che Guevara.
But the factory visit is not only an experience for the eyes, it is also one for the nose. Even before entering the production hall, visitors are welcomed by the rich scent of a variety of different herbs. At SCOP-TI, pop-icons meet herbal farms and European labour struggles encounter regional environmental commitment. In the meantime, the Fralib logo has been replaced by the cooperative’s logo, enhanced with the slogan “Engagée sur l’humain, engage sur le gout”. The brand 1336’s slogan is equally forceful, reading “Eveille les consciences, réveille les papilles”. Hence, taste and papillae are mentioned in the same breath as humanity and consciousness. This combination raises hope, often producing blissfully romantic perceptions amongst producers and consumers alike. But does anti-capitalist tea really taste different?

In “Distinction” Bourdieu claims that taste is a matter of class. If we follow his distinction of three types of taste, this would mean that industrially packaged tea from a factory should taste “barbaric”. And, having drunk Lipton tea for lack of other tea alternatives, for instance, in hotels or on trains, I am tempted to partially agree with him. Depending on the variety, our taste buds are sometimes maltreated with artificial mint flavours or black tea dust. Nevertheless, I do not fully follow Bourdieu, since subtle (taste) distinctions may also evolve within a social class as well as within a cup. It is particularly this that we should attempt to observe as anthropologists and fully grasp with all our senses.

After having drunk countless cups of 1336 tea and having participated in the harvest of lime blossom tea in Baronnies, I can affirm that it makes a difference – taste-wise, socially and politically – if the tea was produced by the factory workers on the basis of a capitalist logic (violent pursuit of profit and production increase through exploitation) or when local and social needs are put first. The working class’ taste is not homogenous. While for years the SCOP-TI workers put synthetic flavouring substances in the Lipton tea they produced for Unilever, they don’t do this with their own tea brand anymore. Here a mint leaf is really a mint leaf. It’s not an aromatic bomb that explodes as soon as you dip it into water, and leaves a stale taste of old chewing gum on your tongue once you have drunk it. Hope tastes different. Depending on the climate, it might sometimes taste more like honey and sun and sometimes less.

But taste is volatile. Similarly, workers’ councils and self-administrative companies have, up to now, never lasted long. In this neoliberal time, self-administration through workers poses a dilemma. Everyday SCOP-TI struggles to compete with other national and international companies in the capitalist market, while at the same time trying not to abandon their humanitarian values. How is it possible to overcome a capitalist logic within a capitalist system? The past has shown us that this is incredibly difficult if not impossible to achieve. However, as we all know, hope is usually the last thing we lose.
This year, SCOP-TI will celebrate the 1336 days of its existence and so far, there is no end in sight. And, because ethnography also tends to be a never-ending endeavour, what else is there left for me as an anthropologist to do other than to stay and drink tea. A 1336, of course!

For more information on the film TASTE OF HOPE, see:


"Foto: AltraVita IVF-Klinik Moskau (Copyright: Sarah Hildebrand)“

April 2018

Es würde nicht funktionieren, Spuren ihrer Person auf den Fotos festzuhalten. Ihre Seele (‚dusha‘) sei nämlich nicht hier, nicht in dieser Wohnung, es sei ja nicht ihre Wohnung. Aber ja, sie sei einverstanden, wir dürften sie besuchen.

Ich hatte Raja von meiner Zusammenarbeit mit der Fotografin Sarah Hildebrand erzählt. Sarah würde in einer Woche nach Moskau kommen, um Bilder für den Foto- und Textband „hope“ zu machen – ein Buch, das von Menschen erzählen sollte, die emotionale, körperliche und geographische Grenzen überschreiten, in der Hoffnung auf ein besseres Leben. Es war eben diese Hoffnung, die Raja aus der Ukraine nach Moskau geführt hatte, wo sie für ein ihr unbekanntes Paar ein Kind austrug. Sie war nun bereits im letzten Schwangerschaftsmonat und würde für diese Dienstleistung eine Million Rubel verdienen; ein Betrag, mit dem sie sich eine Existenz im Süden Russlands aufbauen wollte. Die Moskauer Wohnung war nur eine Zwischenstation für neun Monate. Ein Zuhause, das nie wirklich ein Zuhause wurde; ohne „Seele“, wie Raja meinte. Immer wieder bekam sie von Seiten der Fertilitätsklinik zu spüren, dass es nicht ihre Wohnung war. Diese Besitzverhältnisse zeigten sich nicht nur in den spontanen Kontrollbesuchen der Klinik-Mitarbeiterinnen; vor wenigen Monaten wurden auch Überwachungskameras in den Eingangsbereichen installiert. Über die Kontrolle der Wohnungen erhoffte sich die Klinik eine Kontrolle über die Körper der Leihmütter, die sie als ihren Besitz zu sehen schienen.  

Besitzverhältnisse spiegelten sich auch in einem Gespräch mit zwei Klinik-Mitarbeiterinnen wider, in dem sie mehrfach betonten, Sarah Hildebrand dürfe „ihre“ Leihmütter auf keinen Fall fotografieren. Um das zu verhindern, sollte uns die sogenannte „Wohnungsmanagerin“ begleiten. An dem einzigen Tag, an dem diese Zeit hatte, musste Raja zu einer Untersuchung außer Haus. Genau dieses Thema der Abwesenheit interessierte Sarah: In ihren Fotos hält sie die Spuren von Menschen fest, die auf den Fotos nicht zu sehen sind – die Präsenz der Absenz. Ein Abdruck auf dem Sofa, ein Teller mit Essen in der Küche, eine geöffnete Tablettenschachtel im Regal. Dennoch lehnten wir die Möglichkeit ab, in Rajas Wohnung zu fotografieren. Es schien uns unangebracht, mit einer Kamera durch die Wohnung einer Person zu gehen, die zu den Motiven nicht ihr Einverständnis geben konnte. Ein Gedanke, der bei den Mitarbeiterinnen auf Unverständnis stiess: Es sei egal, ob Raja da sei oder nicht, denn es sei ja nicht ihre Wohnung, sondern die der Klinik. Die „Wohnungsmanagerin“ könne uns sicher alle Fragen beantworten, auch die über Rajas privaten Gegenstände.

Ich konnte nicht umhin, die Widersprüchlichkeit zu bemerken, mit der im Feld der Leihmutterschaft mit Privatsphäre umgegangen wurde. Zum einen wurde mir der Forschungszugang oft mit dem Argument verwehrt, es sei unethisch, in so ein privates Thema „einzudringen“; zum anderen mussten sich viele Leihmütter einer Form von Kontrolle unterziehen, die erheblich ins Private eingreift. So auch Daria, in deren Wohnung – das war der Kompromiss – wir letztendlich fotografierten. Daria wusste, dass wir vorbeikommen würden, explizit gefragt wurde sie jedoch nicht, wie sie mir später verriet.
An diesem Nachmittag machte Sarah das Foto von einem in matte Plastikfolie verpackten Ventilator, der unbenutzt in einer Ecke des Zimmers stand, das als Wohn- und Schlafzimmer diente. Die Wohnungsmanagerin und Daria standen daneben, fasziniert von der Hasselblad-Kamera und amüsiert über die „langweiligen“ Motive, die Sarah wählte. Aber für Sarah, wie auch für mich, als Anthropologin, sind es die alltäglichen und unspektakulären Dinge, die Interesse wecken, die Geschichten erzählen.
Der verpackte Ventilator erzählt von der Standardisierung und Anonymität der Wohnungen. Wohnungen, die alle ähnlich ausgestattet waren, deren Möbel und Objekte nichts mit den Bewohnerinnen zu tun hatten, keinen Zweck für sie hatten. Ob wohl in jeder Wohnung der gleiche unbenutzte Ventilator stand. Man merkte, dass diese Räume kein „Zuhause“ waren. Die wenigen Habseligkeiten, mit denen die Leihmütter nach Moskau kamen, füllten die Räume nicht aus. Bis auf ein paar wenige Zettel mit Anweisungen, die im Eingang und in der Küche hängten, waren die tapezierten Wände kahl. Raja hatte Recht, dachte ich –  die Wohnungen spiegeln nicht die „Seele“ ihrer Bewohnerinnen wider.
Spinnt man diesen Gedanken weiter, könnte man sagen, der verpackte Ventilator erzählt auch von der Standardisierung und Anonymität des Leihmutterschaftsprogramms an sich. Wie Raja, kennen viele andere Leihmütter in Moskau nicht die Paare, deren Kinder sie austragen. Die Stigmatisierung von Unfruchtbarkeit und assistierter Fortpflanzung sowie das Verständnis von Leihmutterschaft als ökonomischer Beziehung fördern anonyme all-inclusive-Programme, die von Agenturen vermittelt werden. Somit symbolisiert der verpackte Ventilator letztendlich auch die versteckten Realitäten und Geheimnisse, die nicht ans Licht kommen sollen – nur dass die Schutzhülle dieser Geheimnisse meist nicht transparent, sondern blickdicht ist.

Am Endes des Tages schien die Wohnungsmanagerin verstanden zu haben, was wir in den Wohnungen suchten. Nachdem wir uns von Daria verabschiedet hatten, bot sie uns an, noch eine weitere Wohnung zu besichtigen. Dort sei heute erst eine Leihmutter ausgezogen – eventuell spüre man in der Absenz noch ihre Präsenz.


Der Foto- und Textband „hope“ ist im März 2018 beim Christoph Merian Verlag erschienen. Die drei Kapitel der Publikation setzen sich mit den Themen Leihmutterschaft in Russland, Lebertransplantation in Deutschland sowie Flucht und Tod an der Mittelmeergrenze zwischen Spanien und Marokko auseinander. Das Buch ist Resultat einer langjährigen Zusammenarbeit zwischen der Fotografin Sarah Hildebrand und den Sozialanthropologinnen Gerhild Perl, Julia Rehsmann und Veronika Siegl.

Die Buchpräsentation in Bern findet am 23. April 2018 im Rahmen des Science Talk in der Sattelkammer ( statt.


strahlend blauer Himmel mit Seifenblasen


Do you remember what made soap bubbles so special? Was it the fact that there were so many of them, flying away? Was it the innate desire of wanting to catch and pop them right before they escaped? Was it the fragile little wall that kept us from it? Who knows. Today I shall tell you about everything but a soap bubble on a sunny spring day. Being part of the CREOLE MA programme, my anthropological way has led me way up north. First to Stockholm, and now to Oslo: places where there are more bubbles flying around than you would ever expect.

Julien Bourrelle, a Canadian illustrator and writer, does exactly what I have been dreaming about for a while: he has made it his job to help international newcomers understand Norwegian, or more generally Scandinavian culture by illustrating important cultural moments in compact and easily understandable drawings. I was delighted by his book, as I happen to be researching in this exact Nordic part of the world where people tend to gather only with a good reason to do so. In order to think about this, I urge you to reconsider the bubble’s qualities. It has thin, yet clear boundaries. Still, its transparent wall seems so easily penetrable. According to Bourelle (The Social Guidebook to Norway), social life in Nordic countries happens in bubbles: each bubble having a perfect reason for being a social unit, a common purpose so to speak. Living in bubbles means you can have dinner with your neighbor after you both cleaned up the yard together but it would be nearly impossible to ask one of your football friends to join. I come across these bubbles daily in my fieldwork with young students at a secondary school. When talking to teachers and students I constantly sense the need for clear social purposes: students ask to be assigned to certain groups in order to socialize with others they especially like, because who would just go up and talk to another person without a good reason? Scary. Big events are elaborately organized for students to socialize around a purpose and gradually develop sustainable social connections. A teacher who runs a project at the school that helps students of all backgrounds to socialize and make new friends once mentioned an example to me where a student had said the project was great because she “had always wanted to talk to a refugee”. Thinking in bubbles, living in bubbles.

Living in round entities, this how it seems to work up here. As anthropologists, we gain great pleasure by observing and deciphering social systems, finding out how things roll. But guess what? More and more, I try to understand my own role in the picture. In my field, I can see lots of social bubbles flying, so what does my behavior and research need in order to grasp their meaning? How do I adapt my work in order to allow my informants to make sense of it in what I believe is their world view? Or, in other words: what does my bubble look like? In my field, everyone knows about the project I’m trying to put together. So really, being the anthropologist is the only reason I have to present for my ever-nagging questions. But is that really all? Is being an anthropologist enough to socialize with people in a society where socialization always needs a clear purpose? Is anthropology that purpose, that bubble, our own little bubble? As the days go by, I have been wondering how I can incorporate this question in my research in order to understand the situation even better. As anthropologists in Scandinavia (and probably elsewhere too), we have to ask people to enter our bubble, as we will never be a real part of theirs. We have to reach out. But, to our advantage, there is a common purpose, also known as my research interest. The bubble does not only offer a safe frame called “anthropological research”, it also offers a safe person, an anthropologist. So, in a sense, my bubble flies around in my field daily. But it’s one of those lucky ones that can invite and merge with another one. Just like when we were children, and the coolest thing that could happen were the triple bubbles that came out when we blew out the air as hard as we possibly could.

leere Sessel in einer Empfangshalle eines Hotels

February 2018

I was waiting on one of these empty chairs for my interview partner at the JW Marriott in Washington DC, 1331 Pennsylvannia Ave. Just around the corner from the White House and the Treasury Department. The comfortable leather chair and the soft music in the background made me think that this was going to be a conducive place for an expert interview.

I am studying the negotiation of international tax norms with a focus on the G20 OECD BEPS “Base Erosion Profit Shifting” initiative. I am interested in describing “who is in charge” of this major reform project in practice (since the old rules have been criticized by various publics as being unfair, because they facilitate aggressive tax avoidance of large Multi-national corporations).

My field is the community of international tax lawmakers. They come together to address common problems and to come up with workable rules and model solutions in the area of international tax. They work at the OECD in Paris, at Treasuries, Finance Ministries, and Tax administrations in G20 and OECD countries. For private international law firms, the big 4 accountancy firms, universities and large multinational corporations. Most people I speak to have an hour to spare. Then I will not see them again for many months.

I have been preparing for this interview for weeks. The first time I have spoken to this man—a former high level official from the US Treasury—was at an international tax conference in Washington DC. The US, amongst the experts I study, is admired for its competence and sophisticated technical tax expertise, which it contributes to the over-all clarification of international tax law. But, the US is also accused for doing what they want - irrespective of what they demand from other countries. My contact is very down-to-earth. He encouraged me—despite his busy schedule—to contact him again to continue talking. He is patient with me—a “non-tax person”, as many of my interview partners refer to lay-people.

But he does not arrive. I am stressing out. It was just yesterday at the Georgetown University Law Centre (also in D.C) that someone had cancelled an interview the minute we were supposed to start. While I am aware that the experts I talk to often do not know how their day will plan out—as a result they constantly need to re-schedule— I am nevertheless in this moment frustrated with the methods of my discipline.

The making of international tax law is a trans-local and multi-local phenomenon. Over the last few months I have been travelling extensively to speak to international tax experts and to observe them at work. The geographical dispersion of the field sites I am studying is a serious constraint for anthropological research, “given ethnography’s focus on local places, on small scale, more or less observable social units and the cultural meanings and practices that constitute them” as Sally Engle Merry stated (2006:980). Especially if we do not reside in these places for extended periods of time as we used to do.

Where the hell is he? My plane to Switzerland will not allow for much re-scheduling. At 1.50 pm I receive an email – which he had sent 50 Minutes earlier – that he had “a 1pm pop up” and that he can offer me 2pm, at his office, around the corner from the hotel. Slightly out of breath, I jumped right in there and I made the best use of “my” hour. We talked about how he learned to speak, in Paris, as the monolithic entity “the US”, what responsibilities and what constituencies constrained his actions as a top negotiator and about the general relationship between the regulators and the regulated.

The picture of the empty chair is for me a reminder that as an anthropologist you need to be incredibly patient. Especially when you study a phenomenon like global trans-governmental and professional networks, which forces you to give up a clear regional focus. These networks are on the one hand feared due to their exclusivity and lack of transparency, but are also needed in an increasingly economically globalized world. As an anthropologist, I have the privilege of time and I should use it to make the complex decision-making processes of these private and official experts more legible to a wider audience. I should not worry about waiting. That is a waste of time.


January 2018

This picture shows Christina (pseudonym). She’s a tea plantation worker in Assam, a region in Northeast India. In the picture, Christina has folded her hands together in front of her – a common gesture of greeting in India. She has draped a colourful flowered Sari over her right shoulder. Underneath, we can see a white Sari blouse peeking out. But what really attracts one’s attention in this picture is Christina’s laughter. It is partly hidden behind her hands, but somehow manages to capture the whole photo: A smile, which is so broad, that it spreads across her whole face, making small wrinkles appear on her nose. But what is hidden behind Christina’s laughter?

Between 2014 and 2017, I conducted fieldwork on tea plantations in Assam as part of my doctoral research. Time and again I experienced people answering my questions with long silences, performances, songs or laughter. Mostly, this seemed to occur when they were unable to put their feelings into words. In the following, I describe such a moment with Christina.

On a Sunday morning in November 2015, Christina invited me to her home. It was the day on which I took the above picture of her. In search of a secure livelihood, Christina had migrated to Assam from a drought-, poverty-, and famine-stricken region in central India – just like many others had. Most tea plantation workers migrated to Assam in search of a better life. Just over half of the migrant workers on the tea plantations belong to India’s indigenous population. They are called Adivasis. When I asked Christina that day what it meant for her to be indigenous, I was answered with a long silence. Then, after a while, she turned to me and said: ‘We are the poorest of the poor and the lowest. We are the ones who do all the hard and dirty work’. And then, suddenly, Christina leapt to her feet and began to sing a song in her mother tongue. She was laughing so hard that she had to start singing the song several times anew. Later I asked Christina to share the lyrics with me. Roughly, the song can be translated into English as follows: ‘When we cut the tea bushes, the skin on our hands bursts and our blood flows everywhere – We Adivasis are brothers and sisters’. I asked Christina what the song meant to her and again she burst out laughing, burying her face in her hands. Then, finally, she explained: ‘Actually, it’s a sad song. It’s a song about our suffering…’.

Maybe Christina was referring to the tough labour conditions on the plantations. Or maybe the song for her was about the low salaries on the plantations, causing  workers to be malnourished and die prematurely. Or perhaps Christina wanted to express her personal suffering, such as having to start working on the plantation when she was only 10 years old and having to raise her five children alone after her husband’s early death. It is also possible that for her the song stood for the continuity of her suffering, extending back into her childhood when she was still living in her home state with her family. She told me that her family was forced to migrate, because they were dying of hunger and thirst. Probably it is a bit of all this that causes Christina to suffer, like so many other workers who came to the tea plantations in Assam in hope of a better future.

But why was Christina laughing when she shared her deep sorrow with me? How can we, as social anthropologists, interpret such non-verbal expressions and put them into words? Did Christina maybe want to share her suffering with me without making me sad, as my research assistant suspected at the time? Or, as I then spontaneously thought, did she maybe have to laugh, so she herself could endure the severity of her suffering? Christina was not the only worker who laughed out loud while telling me about her suffering. I still do not know for sure what lies behind Christina’s laughter. And I still lack the words – which (apart from in visual anthropology) constitute the main medium in our scientific work – to describe it. But maybe, in the end, a song, a performance or a picture is worth a thousand words.


December 2017

What do the Christmas dinner at your friend’s grandma’s house, a party evening and the round of introduction in your new hockey team have in common? Exactly. It’s the look on the face of the person who simply wanted to ask an innocent small-talk question. When you answer “I study social anthropology” maybe you’re lucky and the girlfriend of the person’s cousin “studies exactly the same”. Otherwise: “Well… What? Social… err… what is that exactly?”
What is social anthropology? Even in the fifth semester I have a hard time answering this question shortly. In the summer weeks between the fourth and the fifth semester, as part of a course, we had the opportunity to conduct a first short field study to try out our discipline’s methods “in the wild”. Ever since I spent some time on an alp for this purpose I’d like to show this photograph to the asking person and respond: “Social anthropology? That’s hard to outline that quickly, but the whole thing smells more of cow pat than I ever thought!”

A., help me for my text. Tell me, what does social anthropology smell like in the first semester? For me, anthropology has the smell of many new things. It smells like perceiving and understanding the diverse behaviour of humans. Alright! What about the smell of freshly printed texts? Of course, we have to read a lot! A lot in English, too!

Social anthropology, that’s visiting a place, full of questions about the people living there but also willing to contribute something.
Social anthropology, that’s our professor’s advice: “Ah, you’re going to an alp? Maybe you should learn to milk a cow before, so that you can make yourselves useful.”
And what smell reminds you of social anthropology? Since you’re in the seventh semester you dealt with it for a while now. Well that’s a hard question! Spontaneously? Cumin!

Back to the photograph. Our research interest wasn’t focused primarily on cow dung. My colleague and I wanted to learn more about the common management of the alp and about different perceptions of identity. The herder on the other hand didn’t really care about the interesting theories in our books and refused rigorously to be interviewed. No problem! Because anthropology, that’s grabbing a shovel and starting to walk with the herder, to pile up manure and at the same time getting to know him. Through these conversations we begin to understand what subjects are relevant to him and how many factors play together to keep this alp system working.
Furthermore we learn important things that we would’ve never asked about. Especially this “Tour de Cow Pat”. The small piles of manure shape the scenery of the alp pastures of Appenzell. That’s something typical, as the herder explains proudly. If the manure is just laying around everywhere the pasture would be harmed, because underneath only weed can grow, instead of grass. That is the reason behind the daily tour around the alp: collecting the dung to pile it up. The good land is rare in Appenzell, that’s why this daily hassle is
undertaken. “You people in Bern, you don’t do that.” Interesting, we say and take a short note on the piece of paper in our pockets. In the evening we understand the herder’s lifeworld not only out of theoretical considerations. Our whole body is tired, we wash the smell of manure from our hands and are delighted by the scent of freshly cooked “Älplermakronen”.
See, that is social anthropology for me, I’d like to tell the asking person. To switch now and then book for dung shovel and to dive into a reality that might be unfamiliar and exhausting but certainly enriching. Anthropology is as multifaceted, colourful and of variable odours as the people it studies. And this is why the student cherishes her discipline so much that neither dung shovel nor conversations about cumin nor tricky rounds of introduction really throw her out of balance.

November 2017

In 1999, after two years of Chinese language studies in China, I decided to return home to Poland overland via northwest China and Kazakhstan. After Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, a bi-weekly train connection had temporarily been established between Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, and Berlin to facilitate the ‘return’ of the Germans in Kazakhstan to Germany. On the way to Astana, where I would board the train, I wanted to travel along some of the ancient caravan routes that crossed the region divided today administratively into provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang in northwest China. I scheduled nearly three weeks for this 3500 km bus journey, after which my student visa would irrevocably expire.
However, the pace of my travel turned out slower than expected. Many roads which existed as bold lines on my maps were, in fact, hardly-visible dirt tracks through the stone and sand deserts of the arid northwest. On the increasingly decelerating journey, I finally got stuck for good at the Qinghai-Xinjiang border, in a small village which grew around one of China’s largest asbestos mines. Summer landslides blocked the road through the mountains on the Xinjiang side. After strolling through the moon-like landscape for a day, waiting for something to happen, I gave up the idea of moving forward and turned back to embark on a roundabout journey via western Qinghai and Gansu which added some extra 1500 km to what I had originally planned. This journey, for a change, brought me into massive sandstorms which further delayed the travel, making me seriously worry that the visa would expire before I reached China’s western border.
My trip coincided with the last year before the launching of China’s Open up the West program in 2000. While the agenda of the program has been very complex, it is safe to say that increasing China’s territorial integration through infrastructure construction has been one of its main targets. Regions along China’s extensive land borders, all of them rich in natural resources but some, like Xinjiang where I have conducted my research since 2011, also volatile and restive, have since been at the receiving end of massive state investment in roads, railways, and airports. Over the past fifteen years, this investment has diametrically changed local and translocal geographies of mobility.
Last year, when I returned to the road that I was unable to take in 1999, I was able to observe the changes with my own eyes. There, where the bus had driven through a road-less steppe and desert in 1999, there was a brand-new tarmac highway. Interestingly, however, though the materiality of the road changed diametrically, when the wind swirled up the sand the tarmac road ‘disappeared’ from view exactly as the dirt track had done seventeen years earlier. Moreover, in summer months the tarmac heats up to 70 degrees Celsius, making it a place to avoid for both truck drivers and the traffic police. In winter, when sandstorms and dust weather set in, the travelling conditions further deteriorate. Tarmac, which unavoidably disintegrates under the influence of the overweight traffic, sand, sun and salt is symptomatic of a larger issue, namely, that of establishing and maintaining the material presence of the state in this vast border landscape. While currently maintained at extremely high financial and ecological costs, the future of the road is, at best, uncertain.
Things have changed so much since 1999, people say. There is a road to every corner of Xinjiang today, people say. Indeed, ‘things’ have changed. What exactly has changed, and for whom, is an ever complex question. While some individuals and communities profit from new infrastructures, these infrastructures also create new inequalities by excluding others from participating in the new world of cement and speed. Hence, representations of roads on maps as continuous, apparently available-to-all and non-valorized lines can be, variously, a claim, a fantasy, a desire, or a trick. In the practice of traveling, ethnicity, gender, class and other social categorizations influence mobility in powerful ways. On the other hand, ‘things’ have perhaps changed less than is often assumed. Roads are still complex bundles of social relations between human and non-human agents like terrain and climate, whose mutual entanglements in world regions like the Sino-Central Asian borderlands remain as challenging to discipline and control as ever.


October 2017


I was coming from an interview with a return migration consultant somewhere in Switzerland. In the entrance hall, a pile of bags and suitcases caught my attention. While I had been conducting the interview, someone had apparently put the luggage there, just under the yellow poster advertising for the so-called assisted voluntary return migration programme. An hour earlier, when I had entered the building, the luggage had not been there yet. 

Whose luggage could that be? I looked around. The hall was empty. I waited for some time. But no one appeared. Are these the belongings of someone who is about to leave Switzerland “voluntarily”, as the official language of the return migration programme describes it euphemistically? This was my first and immediate intuition. 

In the absence of my real camera, I took a grainy, underexposed picture with my smartphone. Then I left the building. 

On the train ride back home, my thoughts kept wandering back to the pile of luggage. I realised that, of course, it was not even certain that the pile of bags and suitcases had anything to do with the return migration office. Maybe those were the belongings of someone who just had an appointment with the social welfare office which is located in the same building. If so, this would mean that my speculations had been going in a completely wrong direction and that, in fact, the luggage had nothing to do with my research on so-called voluntary return.

Despite the lacking context, the picture can figure as a symbol for precarious mobility at the margins of society. The building that accommodates the social welfare office and the return migration office is frequented by those who have not found their place in society, or whose place in society is questioned and systematically denied. They are not welcomed, but rather governed and administered by the state bureaucracy. This luggage does not resemble the shiny suitcases of business travellers or tourists in any way. Definitively, here we are not dealing with someone preparing for a holiday. And the sheer amount of material that is packed in these bags gives the impression that someone has stuffed his or her entire life into these bags—ready for relocation. 

But maybe this interpretation is all too pessimistic. The owner of the belongings might be quite happy with the prospect that his odyssey will soon come to an end. During my research in Tunisia, I encountered several return migrants who were quite happy that they were able to return to their home town. While they felt stuck during their asylum procedure in Switzerland, the so-called voluntary return migration programme opened up a new perspective for them; that their life was going somewhere again. Being able to make plans for one’s own life is a very existential condition of humanity. However, for these young Tunisian migrants, who are wandering around Europe in search for a better future, the European border regime only allows them to imagine their own future under the very specific conditions of a so-called voluntary return. 

Hence, we should not forget that even in this more positive interpretation, it is still the state that governs the conditions of the possibilities of mobility and sets the direction. And it is still the state that has brought forward the conditions that made their lives come to a halt. This kind of governed “voluntary” mobility is the dysfunctional version of a transnational freedom of movement. 

The grainy, underexposed picture of this pile of bags and suitcases does not reveal much of these reflections in itself. It is nothing more than an invitation to think about the conditions of the possibilities of mobility in contemporary society. 

July 2017


The picture I am writing about here has acquired more and more meaning for me over time, because I only belatedly understood what is visible in it, and because I had deceived myself about it for such a long time. It exemplifies, as it were, that an ethnography never ends.

I took this picture because I had been fascinated by the idiosyncratic combination of clothes and decorations, in which the three young women celebrated their graduation from religious school. This was in 1996, after the end of the Ramadan, when the great yearly festivals take place in Sungai Tenang in the central Sumatran highlands. The three young women wore the white prayer scarf as it is common for Muslim women in Indonesia. With it, they wore headrings (agal), a male prerogative in their Arab region of origin. Together with the sunglasses and the lipstick the three girls looked coquettish to me, not quite congruent with the occasion. Did they take their religious graduation more lightly than their age-mates in the background? Or was their outfit an instance of creative gender-bending motivated by the structural contradiction of their Muslim and at the same time matrilinear society?

The explanations of a former secretary of the colonial administration soon threw some light on the enigmatic vestiary syncretism. The old man told me about a period in the 1920s and 1930s when many young men from the highlands had gone on the Hajj to Mekka and upon their return had brought with them Arab clothings. They would wear them for their own weddings but afterwards had no use for them anymore. Arab men use the headrings to fix the kufiya, the chequered headscarf. As Indonesian men wear a fez instead of a headscarf, on festive occasions, the decorative as well as practical headrings were up to grabs for the women, so to speak. Eventually it became a habit for women to wear the agal over their headscarfs during religious festivals. This peculiar appropriation of a customary Arab piece of clothing by the “wrong” gender exemplifies the creative and self-confident way the society of Sungai Tenang for a long time re-interpreted Islam and related cultural imports. Today, merely twenty years later, women don’t decorate themselves with the agal anymore.

But there are still occasions when young women wear sunglasses. Two years ago, during an excursion with a number of students to Sungai Tenang, this part of the puzzle finally unravelled for me as well. In daily life neither men nor women wear sunglasses. It would be deemed arrogant if somebody evaded eye-contact in this way. The only occasions when young women, and more rarely, young men, wear sunglasses, are festivals when they have to present themselves to the whole village – such as graduation ceremonies and weddings. As our excursion took place during the festival season, we got invited to many weddings. At each wedding, a master of ceremony explained the programme and the rules. The youth were reminded to behave properly. And remarkably, all those who might secretly object to the outcome of the wedding arrangements were asked to renounce on sorcery.

People said that it frequently happened that brides sitting on the pedestal besides their grooms were suddenly possessed by a spirit a begrudging shaman had sent. To protect themselves they wear sunglasses. It is believed that the evil spirits recognize their victims by their fearful gaze. The sunglasses deceive the spirits. Indeed, on one evening I witnessed myself how in short sequence a bride and her groom, whom their alarmed kin had put on sunglasses only minutes before, twisted and fainted and were quickly carried out of the village hall. A shaman was called to exorcise the spirits that had possessed them.

Finally, the riddle of the picture I had taken 20 years earlier dissolved. The religious graduation had taken place a few weeks before the yearly group wedding in the village. The three young women apparently were brides, for whom their mothers had already arranged marriage partners. That they wear lipstick is another indication of their status. Only unmarried but eligible young women may wear lipstick in public. At the graduation the young women were presented to the whole village. This was a first occasion for a sorcerer to call on a spirit to possess a young bride who was going to marry a rival of his or her son or nephew. The young women in the background in the picture were no brides, and their male age-mates were not yet eligible. Young women who didn’t go on to a higher school married at 14 at the time, young men at about 20.

Are the three women on the picture coquettish? Maybe on other occasions – but on the picture they tensly anticipate the supernatural challenges of the approaching wedding and the unknown and therefore scary events of their married lives.

Note: Kathrin Oester’s Film „I Love You – Hope for the Year 2000“ tells the story of the hopes and fears of young women and men during the wedding season of 1996 in Sungai Tenang.