How much of my role in Liberia is to change cultural norms? I’m an anthropologist, right? But I believe there is a role of an outsider to ask why certain things are done and if there is no good answer, to continue asking why. For instance, women do the rice farming here (the staple food is rice, so that means women do 90% of the farming), if I were to say, why don’t men help women with the rice farming? Would I be a cultural imperialist? The trainers at DEN-L encourage men to help their wives and daughters in the rice fields but I don’t know if I can. And whenever there is a dispute about why something is done, it’s brought back to “tradition.” I had a professor once who gave a farewell speech about how there comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to decide if they will continue eating the food of their parents or change what they eat to fit what they want, understand, and experience in life. He was much more eloquent and I wish I could be quoting him right now instead of butchering his words, but basically, do we continue traditions in our culture just because we’ve always done it? Or do we change how we think to fit a changing world? And if we change how we think, then what’s the role of me, in this context, as an outsider.
Another example. We were driving back from Jorwa (a small town near the Guinean border) and B stopped to buy a goat. The driver proceeded to tie the goat to the roof of the truck and drive over what is indeed the worst road I’ve been on in Liberia (here’s a picture!). I was convinced that this goat, who was tied by his neck to the roof of the car would be hanging off the side and spreading blood all over the windows in no time. I mentioned this. As we drove, and I heard the goat screaming help, remarkably goats sound like their saying help when they’re really upset, and mentioned it again. I did not put my foot down. I did not insist that the goat sit in the front with me so that it would arrive at its destination in one piece with little damage. I felt bad for the goat, but after a time I realized that they were right, the goat wasn’t going to die on the journey. He didn’t even break a leg. He found a way to sit and while I’m sure it was not a comfortable experience and he likely had some bruises, he survived without any broken skin. So I expressed my displeasure without being a pain and I admitted after halfway through the journey that the goat was stronger than I expected. What about PETA? What would Brian Boitano do? (How do you spell his name?).
3 thoughts on “Which leads me to another rant.”
I often wondered this very thing. What was my role. Should I be telling them to change things or simply just observe if I saw something that I disagreed with. Usually i kept quiet. However, there were many occasions, abuse, education, stereotypes, that I could not keep quiet and had to step in.
Never an easy decision to make.
on your professor's quote:
unfortunately, and frustratingly, until we are exposed to 100% of the food in the entire world there will always some food we eat just because of tradition.
assuming a culture must taste something before it changes it that direction, it can only approach an asymptote, itself blind to that which it approaches. there's just too much out there.
your role, or your goal, as an outsider, is to influence culture towards that asymptote, towards what you perceive as right. its kind of selfish and altruistic at the same time.
i think we do have to change how think to fit a changing world, and things like FGM, and in the US, climate change, evolution… are examples of traditions that haven't changed. so your current role as an anthropologist seems to me to be to change how people think to fit a changing world. isn't that what conflict resolution is, when you break it down?
I don't want to ruin what is unique about Liberia's many cultural groups. I don't want these ways of life, these traditions to disappear entirely. And I most definitely do not want everyone to act and think the same all over the world.
That would be boring.