Reflective blog by Sarah Lagot (MA Humanitarianism and Conflict Response student), on her experience as a novice researcher in post-conflict Northern Uganda.
People have critical junctures that shape their lives (Teruya & Hser 2010; Capoccia & Kelemen 2007). Mine happened at seven years old when my mother converted our home in Bar Dege, Kitgum into a transit point for war victims. Women with disabilities, women who had been raped, little boys bleeding from their backsides; they came in droves before they were moved to rehabilitation centres. There was Akello, the disabled woman. Polio rendered her left leg limp. Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels impaled her further by severing her lips and raping her. And there was Otim, a gangly teenager of sixteen who lay still like a log on a papyrus mat in the visitors’ room for days on end. None of the house guests left me transfixed like Akello and Otim. I do not know if it is because the neighbours gossiped in hushed tones about tic aram (vile things) that had been done to Otim by male rebels. Or because they mocked Akello for her double curses (her disability, mutilation and rape by the rebels).
Akello and Otim gave a face to the realities of violence meted against women and men in Northern Uganda. They sparked my keen interest in investigating Gender Based Violence (GBV) experiences of survivors of conflict. GBV is “any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed differences between males and females” (Sengupta & Calo 2016: 286). Sexual, psychological and physical abuse, rape, early marriage, domestic violence, forced trafficking are some of the types of GBV (IFRC 2018). As part of the module Humanitarianism and Displacement: Researching the Legacies of War, a field trip to Northern Uganda was designed to avail students like myself with little or no prior research experience in humanitarian settings the opportunity to develop vital research skills. Armed with a journal to record my daily experiences, I undertook the research visit from 8th– 17th January, 2019 with two lecturers and 16 other classmates. During the course of fieldwork, I faced two major impediments; my positionality and emotional triggers.
My multifaceted positionality tainted my ability to participate holistically in research. Positionality introduces inherent subjectivity into research (Louis & Barton 2002). There are many layers to my experience as a novice researcher in post-conflict Northern Uganda. On the one hand, I assume an insider banner. I am a survivor of the LRA war with a lived experience of conflict. Yet, I am never completely able to wear the hat of insider. On the other hand, I am an “outsider” looking in, as a postgraduate student researcher from the University of Manchester. This duality posed problems in my interactions with interviewees. Some interviewees were initially hesitant to share information as they assumed I was just a chaperone for the research group. They only divulged information upon confirmation of my student status through repeated showcase of my student identity card. Some also treated me with suspicion especially when I asked questions about male survivors of wartime sexual violence.
One in particular mentioned as an aside during a conversation in the local Luo dialect that by studying abroad, I had become “too westernised” and was asking “difficult questions encouraging homosexuality, a cultural taboo.” My identity as a Black, Acholi, and Ugandan woman augmented the difficulty of research. I was aware that by virtue of my belonging to this ethnic grouping, patriarchal cultural dynamics in Northern Uganda dictated that in certain interview situations, I lacked authority to ask the research questions. I relied on the male lecturer and other male staff of Venture Uganda with agency in that cultural context. This underscored to me the roadblocks that can be placed on our research process by factors beyond our control such as gender, race, and class (Wood 2006). It is important for a researcher to have self-awareness because who and what they are can be a stumbling block to carrying out effective ethical research (Corlett & Mavin 2018).
The other challenge I faced was emotional distress. I was triggered by the massacre memorial at Lukodi. Whereas the memorial site instituted by Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives is a noble venture, it resurfaced suppressed past traumas. Memories of gunshots being fired came flooding back. I relived the numbing fear and the smells of gunpowder. For those few minutes, I could not breathe inside the memorial room. I walked out to have a good cry and to calm down. It is important for a field researcher to anticipate emotional distress and secondary trauma accruing from witnessing the effects of violence (Wood 2006). A good field researcher should find helpful coping mechanisms for example engaging in a fun hobby during the research process to divert negative thoughts and feelings or confiding in colleagues within a similar field in academia to commiserate with you (Porter et al. 2005). Through getting a handle on emotional centeredness, the novice researcher is in a better position to identify the gaps in the research (Peredaryenko & Krauss 2013).
Despite the challenges, the fieldwork exploit was life changing. During the excursion, the lecturers instigated a nightly debrief session where we shared our daily experiences and observations. On 10th January 2019, my journal entry read;
“Rectal prolapses and raptured vaginas
Medical stitches to put them back in shape
Flight from their homelands brought shame
But like phoenixes, they rise from their shame and pain.”
These lines reminded me why I am studying this program in the first place. My life and my purpose have become bigger than me. I am no longer the timid child peeking from behind dirty green curtains at a hapless Akello and Otim. The trip equipped me with research skills, professional networks and confidence to illuminate GBV experiences of men and boys and women with disabilities. Even though I do not know where the tides of life have taken them, for Akello and Otim’s sake, I cannot stay silent. I must not stay silent.
Capoccia, G., & Kelemen, R. (2007). The Study of Critical Junctures: Theory, Narrative, and Counterfactuals in Historical Institutionalism. World Politics, 59(3), pp.341-369.
Corlett, S., & Mavin, S. (2018). Reflexivity and researcher positionality. In Cassell, C., Cunliffe, A. L., & Grandy, G. The sage handbook of qualitative business and management research methods (pp. 377-398). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (2018). Preventing and responding to gender-based violence (GBV) in disasters, [Online], Available: http://www.ifrc.org/en/what-we-do/principles-and-values/gender1/preventing-and-responding-to-gender-based-violence-gbv-in-disasters/ [Accessed 17 November 2018]
Louis, K.S., & Barton, A.C. (2002). Tales from the science education crypt: A critical reflection of positionality, subjectivity, and reflexivity in research. In Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3(3).
Peredaryenko, M.S., & Krauss, S.E. (2013). Calibrating the human instrument: Understanding the interviewing experience of novice qualitative researchers. The qualitative report, 18(43), pp.1-17.
Porter, E.J., Robinson, G., Smyth, M., Osaghae, E. & Schnabel, A. (2005). Researching conflict in Africa: Insights and experiences. United Nations University Press.
Sengupta, A., & Calo, M. (2016). Shifting gender roles: an analysis of violence against women in post-conflict Uganda. Development in Practice, 26(3), pp.285-297.
Teruya, C., & Hser, Y. I. (2010). Turning points in the life course: current findings and future directions in drug use research. Current drug abuse reviews, 3(3), pp.189-95.
Wood, E.J. (2006). The ethical challenges of field research in conflict zones. Qualitative sociology, 29(3), pp.373-386.