11 June 2010

Ready, Set, ... GO!

*Closes HyperResearch and ELAN and exhales with relief*

A hellish job it was: translating 20 hours of filmed interviews and stories from Adamorobe sign language, and coding about 1500 pages of field notes and interview translations.

Originally, it took me ages to merely translate 2 minutes of a video which I played at 70% of the realtime speed (you’d be baffled to know how much one can say in 2 minutes!), but towards the end it went smoothly on normal speed and I even almost didn’t have to rewind any more. I set a rule for myself: translating 15 minutes of film data every day – and I couldn’t even bring myself to doing a measly 10 seconds extra.

What that consisted of – a method perfected for and by myself during the months I spent doing it – was: staring at my screen completely fixated for two minutes and pressing the space bar (start-stop-start-stop), scribbling down every sentence in a hand writing only decipherable by myself on a A4 sheet folded in the length, and per piece of 2 minutes, typing everything in a window in ELAN (a sign language analysis programme) of which it took me a full 2 months to discover I could enlarge it to something bigger than 5 by 5 centimetres.

In the meantime, my mind is constantly and neurotically trying to ‘breathe’ (as in: escape) and I click towards e-mails, the website of ‘De Standaard’ (Belgian newspaper) and Facebook. My three big pals and at the same time my enemies in these days. It was a challenge, for my willpower, discipline and patience, as much as the challenge I faced by staying in Adamorobe. And this yet again, and again, and again. For five whole months. I scribbled through a pile of (draft-)A4 sheets of about 10 to 20 centimetres high. I cannot bear to see any more draft paper. I cannot bear to see any more of ELAN. I cannot bear to see any more of the green (film-)background of my bedroom in Adamorobe.

And then, when after 3 hours I had struggled through about 15 minutes of film and could finally, contented, place aside my draft paper, the ‘clicking work’ began, as I started calling it after a while. In the programme HyperResearch there’s a window with your text (field notes) and there’s a window with a list of 500 terms: codes. A list which I built up myself, along the way. You read some sentences from field notes and with a few mouse clicks, you assign to them one or more codes (themes), for example: ‘marry rules’, ‘police does not take deaf’, ‘white visitors: deaf stories and refs’, or ‘church: role, meaning’, or ‘traditional religion: deaf roles+participation’. So later, when I want to write about a theme or a group of themes, I just have to click on the code and my screen will show everything that has been linked to that theme between 15th October 2008 and 15th October 2009 – everything that has been said, that happened, has been signed or written. One thousand five hundred pages. Five hundred codes. Five thousand marked text fragments.

A routine job without many challenges (except for the challenge my capricious character had to face).

But what I noticed, thought and felt every day is: “WOW!” Innumerable ‘Aha-erlebnises’. Innumerable palpitations of my heart and innumerable shots for my enthusiasm. The data I gathered in Adamorobe is extremely rich, multi-faceted and thorough. Fantastic! I can do SO much with it! I have tons of ideas of how to bring it all together, how to link and connect it all! And during coding, how many times have I thought: “Oh!! I forgot that part! That should be in it, in my PhD! And thàt and thàt and thattt…” I almost bursted at the seams of sheer ‘lust’ and enthusiasm to get it started.

And now, I’m finally there, after 5 months of scribbling and clicking: that mountain is in front of me, that mountain of data which was intricately intertwined at first, chaotic, dark and huge; is now arranged, structured, deciphered and mapped. I wish my PhD could contain a million words. Only eighty thousand words I get to put it together. “Is loads, isn’t it”, you think? Think again! It’s only about 200 pages with double line spacing. And that also has to include methodology, literature review,… And I don’t want to butcher my great data. And, and, and… A new stream of brain twists is being formed. But err… I’m ready. I’m set. Let’s GO!

3 October 2009


Eleven things I’m going to miss

1. The daily view on many palm trees, the beautiful jungle around the village and the view of the hills around Adamorobe.
2. Never being cold
3. Sitting outside in the cool evening air underneath a starry sky without light pollution
4. Fufu, banku, kenkey, ampesi and ‘red-red’: the local dishes
5. The absolute mixture of all ages: the eldest until the smallest shrimps, all mingled together, in every corner of this village
6. The goats, cats, sheep, dogs and chickens scratching around everywhere, performing ‘the deed’ and, unfortunately, leave behind their droppings
7. Not seeing my budget shrink that fast
8. Fooling around with the Adamorobe deaf
9. The written conversations about Adamorobe’s history and culture with my hearing research assistant
10. Dedicating my full attention to my research and not being aware of what’s happening in the rest of the world
11. The kick I still fell every day during interesting conversations or interesting situations, basically every piece of the puzzle that will contribute to my PhD-thesis

Eleven things I’m not going to miss

1. Being ripped off, getting no (!) or not enough change because I’m white and am seen as a walking wallet for everything ranging from food, education, medical expenses, a car up until a flight; while there are people in this village – with car and/or big house – who are definitely more wealthy than I am.
2. That people try to pry all my personal belongings from me, going from my clothes up until my backpack, my flashlight and my cell phone, and the argument that I can’t go and walk around naked in the UK does not matter, because at home I have – in their eyes – heaps of cell phones, clothes, back packs and flashlights, don’t I?
3. That the deaf keep wanting more and more in exchange for my research: getting a finger and taking a hand, but really wanting an arm
4. Being seen as potential partner in marriage or just a freaky bed partner by men of all ages who are offended when I turn them down and don’t agree with my argument of not being single, because “he can’t see what you’re doing here, anyway” and carry on thinking that I don’t want black men and hence I’m actually a racist
5. The fact that in a village where everyone lives outside, every movement you make is closely monitored, and without exception is surely commented on and criticized behind your back
6. The constant – and I truly mean constant – gossiping and putting each other down in the village life slowly tends to disgust – ‘that one is bad’, ‘that one is a hypocrite’ and ‘that one is stingy’ seem like frequently used expressions, embedded in their vocabulary
7. Straightforward Africa: the burning sun that sometimes tends to lower your energy levels while you’re conducting your research for about 12 to 14 hours a day
8. The dust that gets on, under and in everything
9. Mice, spiders, ants and cockroaches that ALSO get on and under everything, crap and munch on everything and even have the guts to come and pay me visits in my bed
10. Always seeing the same people
11. Forcing myself every day to get up and at finishing my field notes, which takes me about 2 to 3 hours

Eleven things I look forward to

1. Anonymity
2. Privacy
3. Going to a pub or a restaurant with my friends
4. Going through my research results – of which I am very pleased I might add – with my promoter
5. Seeing HIM again in November
6. Using a different sign language than AdaSL
7. The amount of choice in the supermarket
8. Wearing something with long sleeves and sleeping under a cozy, comfy thick blanket
9. Easy internet access and being able to send e-mails all day long
10. Getting behind the stove and cooking myself, being able to choose from more ingredients than tomatoes, fish and rice
11. And ESPECIALLY: having something else on my mind than Adamorobe and my research

7 September 2009

Lost: the research edition

On moments I want to wrap my mind around something else, like before going to bed, I put a DVD into my laptop. These days I’m watching the episodes of the series ‘Lost’ for the second time. Watching Lost while you know that a couple of meters from your bed are similar palm trees, hills, woods and waterfalls is quite something.

But what’s more… it has crossed my mind several times that my research is quite similar to the way ‘Lost’ is constructed. No, no polar bears jump out of the forest here, I haven’t found secret hatches in the woods and I’m not chased by ‘the Others’.

And still. Here, you’re immediately submerged into local life, like you’re ‘crashing’ into a foreign culture, in a special village, and then are forced to make sense of it all. And doing that one step at a time, is not quite possible. One of the weirdest things in ‘Lost’ were the polar bear and the monster-like thing in the woods. These are things which are initially ‘the big puzzle’, but which slowly move to the background after the first episodes (or, regarding my research: after the first few weeks), even though they do not get solved right away.

Other things appear much later and once they have, it’s never the same again. Like the discovery of the hatch, and in particular the opening of it, or the contacts with ‘the Others’. Conducting a research, there’s potentially a period in which you are unaware – for a humongous period of time – of things that are vitally important, like here: the much talked about reputation Adamorobe carries outside the village, or the fact that the deaf used to be very active in the (military) defense of the village. Or… it comes to you before you know that the theme is potentially very important , but it takes a long while before you are able to investigate it in more depth. An example: the opinions of the hearing concerning the deaf. You start to wonder which elements are still out there, that can make your thesis look completely different; if all those important hatches have already been opened, if the ‘terra incognita’ (‘unknown grounds’) have been revealed.

Sometimes, ‘Lost’ drops a story line to only pick it up again a full season after that. A lot of viewers get impatient: some things finally get meaning after a very long time, but in the meantime, a lot of new non-understandable elements are stacked up and the whole picture seems like an incoherent mess. You sometimes start to wonder if the writers are pulling your leg. But still, ‘Lost’ remains addictive to many: it’s fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Once again, bingo: that’s exactly what it’s like conducting research here in this village, in this culture.

Sometimes you lose track and you have a hard time for a while. You see things you wish you hadn’t, people suffering, people dying. You stumble upon conflicts and fights which can escalate. Sometimes I do not have the mental energy to get out of my room, fearing that I’ll get faced with another gossip litany, round of compaints or argument report for the umpteenth time. However, now and again there are unexpected interesting encounters or surprising bits of information which make my day.

And take the people for example. Adamorobe has 41 deaf. ‘Lost’ initially tells the story of a bit more than 40 people who have crashed. It’s not possible to focus on each of these individuals without getting superficial. The series portrays the stories of a subgroup of 10-15 people, the frontrunners. My research, as well, contains such ‘lead players’ with very diverse backgrounds and ages. However, this does not mean that the other people are as ‘faceless’ as in ‘Lost’. Because don’t you ever wonder how the other 30 survivors experience their stay on the island?

In ‘Lost’, new actors are gradually added: the French woman, ‘the Others’, Desmond, the second group of survivors. Once again, a match. The first months, I solely focussed on the deaf people: they were my starting point, my point of departing, the core of my research. Because and through them, I learned the language, the ‘who is who' and ‘what is what’. Until various hearing started to also take the stage. One of them is currently a very important informant regarding Adamorobe’s culture and history and interviews hearing in the local language of Twi, following my request. He also notes down the answers in English. To open the hatch ‘hearing opinions on the deaf’, this person is and was therefore indispensable.

At the end of the third season, the people leave the island, without all mysteries being solved. Probably – hopefully – it will become a bit more clear to me and be a bit more satisfying. But I’m not left with too much time: the clock is ticking and my lists of to-do an to-double-check, to-dig-in-to-deeper, still-to-ask, still-to-interview and still-to-observe-a-bit-more-indepth are still long…

13 July 2009

“Coming out”, or not?

In Ghana, deafness is often seen as a punishment of a god or something that’s done to you by a witch. It’s mainstream to mock deaf people or to compare them to leaf-eating animals like goats: a leaf is put into the mouth and you pretend to chew on it. Or people point and say in ‘gestures’, insulting or mean, “you cannot hear”.

2nd July 2009. I’m witness of a slightly dramatic village argument in Adamorobe. A hearing woman enters into a conflict with a deaf woman (Adwoa) and goes on to mock her deafness behind her back. The hearing daughter of Adwoa hears the fighting and stands up for her mother. More and more people gather from every corner of the village and about 4-5 women get entangled in a fight: pulling hair, each other, hitting and scratching. The hearing woman really gets it good.

Several deaf told me about similar fights. People of Adamorobe are well-known for certainly starting a fight (or a heated argument) when they are mocked. They don’t just let it slide by, and the hearing are aware of that, so they’re usually quite careful. Also, the hearing here in Adamorobe do not generally seem to have quite the negative attitude towards deaf people. Thus, fights like the one mentioned above are not a daily reality.

3rd July 2009. I’m in Accra. I have to take a trotro and I write the destination on a piece of paper for the ‘organizer’ of the buses. This hearing man, who noticed darn well that I’m deaf, starts talking to me, in God knows which language. I don’t understand him and communicate several times that I do not hear. He looks at me, says something to a few other men who are stood with him. They start to laugh. I start to get goose bumps and I give him a mistrustful look, because it’s definitely about me. He looks at me again, pretends to be an animal who’s chewing something – with a retarded expression on his face – and laughs mockingly. It feels horribly demeaning and it infuriates me, so I treat him to my most destructive look, making a stressing hand sign meaning something like “what’s your problem?” and openly ignore the laughing man with a wave of the hand. What I really wanted to do at that point was attack him brutally.

12th December 2008. A large funeral is being held in the center of the village, and here, the evening part of a funeral still bears most resemblance to an exuberant open air rave. I walk into the compound of Ama and ask her if she and Afua will be attending. She answers that she’s not in the mood and explains that there will be too many people of outside the village. In that case, the deaf tend to go have a look, but also signing there is something else. “When you use AdaSL and for example a Ga (another ethnical group) sees it, he will say something to the person sitting next to him. They laugh and that person puts a leaf in his mouth and mocks: ‘he/she-doesn’t-hear’. And that leads to fights”, Ama concludes.

14th June 2009. I’m in a little house on a point where different paths cross each other, together with two deaf women. We’re having a conversation. A few hearing people come walked up after each other on one of the paths. Afua, who’s speaking at that moment, is seated with her back in that direction, but she sees me looking in that direction. She looks behind her and stops in the middle of her sentence. She waits until the people have walked by. When they were gone, I ask her why she silenced so abruptly and she reasons: “They will go an spread the word in other places that there are a lot of deaf people here and that thus, this is a bad place!”. Another woman passes by and we exchange greetings. Afua tells me: “You see, I know Adamorobe’s people, I greet them warmly, that’s all alright”.

So even though the situation here is not always without conflict, there’s a balance between small scale fights and teasing, everyday conversation or just saying hello and asking how things are. Outsiders of Adamorobe make the deaf here realize that it’s not all that bad here. There’s communication between the hearing and the deaf and the hearing do not generally seem to have negative prejudices about the deaf.

So, what about when people go ‘outside’? Well, in Madina or Accra they will just negotiate and take the buss like the hearing do. I also explained in former blog posts that the average hearing is able to communicate much better than in the West. The hearing are generally not taken aback when they notice that someone’s deaf: they smoothly switch to ‘gestures’. I have never seen deaf pretend to be hearing. And still, and still: having a more elaborate conversation in sign language with another deaf person; outside of the normal interactions and transactions, is not something every Adamorobe deaf people seems to be comfortable with every time.

2nd of January 2009. The end of my first research period. A few deaf people accompany me to the airport to say their goodbyes there. I treat them to a drink before I go inside. Everybody is very quiet and I wonder why. Kofi answers that it’s wrong for people to see AdaSL. I answer that in my eyes, it’s not wrong, but Kofi explains that de doesn’t want the hearing staring at our signs and slandering.

5th December 208. We’re in the bus to Madina: Ama, Afua and I. Ama and I are talking, but Afua does not want us to sign in the van. When we’re walking in the city and are constantly moving, all of a sudden she’s fine with it.

In our society it’s generally perceived as valuable to ‘show who you really are’: sign language user, homosexual,… Some people tend to reason that you’re not yourself when you systematically go hiding things for the outside world, and that it’s good to make large and plenty variations between people public.

The Adamorobe deaf will strategically hide or lessen their sign language once in a while. It it because of shame? I have the impression that maybe I could rather call it pride. They’re very clearly proud of their sign language, and the most deaf of Adamorobe would not want to be hearing. Or is it simply ‘self preservation’: preventing humiliation, confrontations and fights? Is ‘coming out’ a luxury for them who live in a (more) free society where they are not mocked or condemned? Who knows?

9 July 2009

Survival of the fittest language?

A while ago I already wrote about the difference between Adamorobe sign language (AdaSL), Ghanaian sign language (GSL) and the general Ghanaian ‘gestures’. That post (Sign scala in Ghana) was more about Ghana in general. But what about Adamorobe specifically? How and when are the different sign languages present?

The daily language in the village is – for the deaf amongst each other, and the deaf with the hearing – AdaSL. A few of the hearing who don’t master it well, use the general gestures. The deaf priest from Accra who comes to do services for the deaf, however, uses GSL. Signing songs in GSL seems to be enjoyed by most and I’m persistently pushed to join them, even though it often does not quite resemble the original. But the (for them non-understandable) sermon in GSL is found very boring and a lot of the deaf start falling asleep, which leads to sneering of their neighbour, whom him- or herself falls asleep 5 minutes later. I often suggested the priest to use the deaf’s own language, but he’s struggling with the conversion, even though he knows quite a bit of AdaSL.

The influence of GSL has been around for tens of years. The current priest visits since 10 years, but before that another deaf man gave the deaf religious education and some reading and writing lessons. As a result of that, the deaf adults know some GSL-signs and (as a consequence?) borrowed GSL-signs appear once in a while, like the one for ‘name’. The most clear examples of ‘borrowing’ from GSL are the name signs, based on finger spelling, of which the hand forms are often made wrongly, because the deaf are illiterate which makes them poor finger spellers. It’s a fact that name signs in AdaSL are considered as being teasing and even demeaning, because they’re quite explicitly based on how the person looks or moves; while those based on GSL are considered to be more neutral. Both versions of the name signs are in used.

These two sign languages do not seem to be related in any way and are tremendously different. GSL generally gives a quite ‘calm’ impression, it’s a language with few mouth movements and barely any facial expressions, a lot of initialized signs, and seems a lot less visually motivated than AdaSL in my eyes. It’s derived from American sign language; thus imported and altered within Ghana. AdaSL, on the other hand, uses a very vast sign space (sometimes even down to the toes), and is a language with huge hand and arm rotations; mouthings in Twi, sometimes English, and also other mouth gestures: growling, clicking etc.; and very strong facial expressions. Like I already explained in the mentioned earlier blog post, AdaSL incorporated a lot of gestures which West African hearing also use and is fully developed from the culture and life here.

A young man who finished school, told me that a teacher of his school, granted AdaSL a lower status than GSL; but he himself though that it came down the same thing: communicating effectively. The deaf of Adamorobe generally seem to have a neutral feeling towards the difference between the two languages. Some of them use GSL at me, but I’ve understood that the reason for that is merely because they just feel like doing that sometimes or – which is the case more often – because they think I’m very familiar with American signs. They have had white Americans here (using ASL, very similar to GSL) and they seem to think that ‘the country of white people’ is homogeneous to the point of culture ànd sign. To prove them wrong, I showed some of them some movies in BSL and VGT.

GSL doesn’t only seep in through the church. It’s the national sign language in Ghana and is therefore used in the schools for the deaf. The eight school children of Adamorobe, thus ‘completely’ use GSL, which looks very different than the ‘basic GSL with heavy to very heavy AdaSL accent’ of the deaf adults. These youngsters have job opportunities outside the village, because their schooling opens doors from them; but in Adamorobe some amongst them are struggling because they don’t all master AdaSL. You see, the school children are in a boarding school and are only in the village for a couple of weeks. In august they’ll be here and I’ll focus specifically on them, their language use, their attitudes, plans for the future etc. There you go: to be continued.

20 June 2009

To the land, again and again

Practically all the deaf of Adamorobe are farmers, in heart and soul. Every morning you see them, machete under their arm, a barrel of drinking water on their head and in their old clothes, leaving for their piece of land where they cultivate corn, cassava and yam. The land of the Adamorobe farmers is located on the surrounding hills, which makes the journey go uphill, often through low but dense jungle which has to be mastered with the humongous knife. They use a stick to pound on the ground to chase snakes and scorpions off the trail. Behind them, Adamorobe gets smaller and smaller, like the picture at the top of this blog.

At the edge of the village stands an old, tiny building. That building was a little school for the deaf in the seventies. It was closed after just a few months, however, following an escalated conflict between the students and their teacher. For the deaf, this school – in which hearing children now take classes – is a vivid reminder of their limitations today. “To the land, again and again, every single day”, is a complaint you here quite a lot here. It is also the most common job for the hearing, but there are also a few of them with food, sewing, carpentry shops etc. This leaves the deaf feeling limited because they haven’t learned a trade at school.

It’s partly because of that, they conceive themselves as better farmers than the hearing. An observation of Kwame, a deaf man of 60, is as follows: “The hearing are lazy… while the deaf are hard and strong labourers”. The roots of these convictions, however, are deeper than the link with the lack of schooling. In a text of 1973, written by a Ghanesian researcher, I found a story about the cause of deafness in Adamorobe. A deaf man was invited to marry one of the hearing women of the first people who settled into this valley. The presumption was that deaf people are stronger and work harder and their goal was therefore to have as many deaf as possible on the land.

This is merely one of the various stories which explains the origin of the deafness in Adamorobe. It’s in accordance with what a hearing person here told me: it is assumed that the deaf are involved more seriously with what they do. Moreover, he mentioned that it’s believed that the ancestors trained the deaf as farmers.

All’s well that ends well, but farming only provides you with a very small amount of money. This brings forward the complaints about the failure of the education. Throughout the years there have been several attempts to offer the deaf more opportunities. A number of the deaf were brought to the city for longer amounts of time, to learn to carpenter or sew or work as a baker. They didn’t last long because of different reasons. More recently, an American mission donated a corn mill, a developmental project aimed at deaf which was not successful until then. The deal here is, that I – in exchange for their cooperation in my research – support them in setting up little businesses like selling fish, spraying weeds or baking bread; next to their farming, that is.

So this is what I’m going to try, and I collected a budget in Europe of which I will be using a part for this goal. If it will work, is another thing. Are their complaints a way of complaining about, situating and/or processing their situation in life; or are they real aspirations? After a lot of observations and conversations, it appears to me that it’s a bit of both. But one thing’s for sure: farming is in their blood.

31 May 2009

Back in the valley

I’m back. Back in the field. And immediately, it felt as if I never left. I arrived, made a little tour around the village, said ‘hi’ to everyone, caught up a little and it felt just as it did last year. In the first hours I already ate fufu twice, got two baby pee pees on my floor and declined two marriage proposals. I’m glad I hadn't been away for too long, it enabled me (and them) to easily pick up where I left.

However, some things have changed, of course. My room, for example, has gotten another color: fluorescent green (with, in the meantime, fresh brown smears from dusty kiddy hands). The biggest surprise when I entered, however, was an actual bed! I also had two tables made by a carpenter a few houses away. A rather small table to do my work at and a larger one for putting all my stuff, so my evening visitors the mice and cockroaches cannot (or cannot too easily) freely go around sticking their noses in my stuff and so I do not have to bend over for every little thing I need. I did not expect the furniture to make such a big difference, but the brick space I’m in, suddenly feels much more like ‘my room’ than ‘camping in Africa’.

This is quite agreeable seen I’m here for 5 months now, double the time of my last two stays in Ghana. “Five months is a long time!”, a lot of people uttered. But come on, what's five months? To thoroughly learn to use and understand a language takes time, to get to know people and their village life and their mutual relationships takes time. So it’s necessary, for being able to write a PhD on being deaf in Adamorobe.

In the meantime, I looked trough the 500 pages of notes from my last research period again, and sorted out the information in them: I put pieces of information in different ‘sections’ with a computer program. I passed my upgrade exam and I have a humongous list of things I want to get a deeper look into (like stories about deaf gods and dwarfs), things I want to understand better (like interindividual differences amongst the deaf) and situations I want to observe more closely (like the contact between the deaf and the hearing).

But yeah, I’ll admit: at the same time is does quite feel a little bit long, yes, because working in the field isn’t a piece of cake: it’s arduous and demanding mentally/intellectually, there are the constant ethical and methodological considerations which are needed to be made and having a quick peek on the internet or meeting up with my friends in the evening aren’t options I have. But if I want to escape now and again, there’s always my fresh supply of tea and candy from Europe, a stack of about 75 DVDs (with thanks to my friends!), a few fun pictures against the wall and about 10 books on Ghanese culture. And last but not least, Belgian chocolate ;-).