Sharing community life: what to bring? What to share? What to leave behind?

By Mélanie Congretel

Most economic botanists whose research is associated with fieldwork will probably have to share, at some point, community life. For a day, for a week, sometimes more, you will get there, sit at someone’s table to chat, visit gardens, plantations, bunches of wild forest. You may stay there for a while, sleep in someone’s house, and have lunch and dinner with them. In one way or another, you will share community life. This is why I thought of this little contribution for those who will have to do it soon: what should you bring with you to a community? What can you offer? What should you leave behind?

It might seem quite easy but it’s made me think and hesitate many times! For the need of my Ph.D project focusing on guarana in Brazil, I work with five different communities, both indigenous and mestizo, where I stay for several weeks at a time. Most of these communities are separated from the closest towns by hours if not days of boat, which means that when I go there, I need to bring with me everything that I will need to work, but also to share the community’s and the families’ daily life. In my case, it means food, gifts, and other small things that revealed useful over time! Of course, the things you will take with you (I’m not talking about fieldwork gear, someone’s done it already, check out the post!) depend on the conditions in which youwill be hosted and fed, the season, the environmental and social context, the weight and volume you will be able to carry… and your budget. It’s not the same if you rent a room and do your own cooking, or if you eat with the family and share a room with five young kids! As well as it’s not the same to spend days with an indigenous tribe of the Amazon, or a Japanese family leaving in Central Kyoto (yes, ethnobotanists also get there!), if you’re going there on your own savings or if you have research funds. Anyway, let’s talk about my experience: staying and eating with a family for several weeks on the banks of the Amazon river.

Food

The most obvious thing you can bring is food. You will then have to find a balance between what the family usually eats and uses, what she would love you to bring, what you want to eat, and what you would love them to eat. Not so simple! I always go with a good deal of the “local” (or not, unfortunately) staples that people don’t make themselves (i.e. I don’t bring manioc flour, that would offend them!). In my case I bring rice, beans, spaghetti. I bring what I know will make me happy after a long day of fieldwork, and will make the people happy because they can’t afford it: good bread, some chocolate biscuits, some greens and fruits – tomatoes and other stuff that they strangely don’t grow-, sweets, maybe soda. This is when it gets tricky: bringing industrial food to people who happen to love it, at the expense of their own traditional drinks and foods. I try to find the good balance: I want to thank them for kindly hosting me, but don’t want to contribute to an accelerated acculturation. This is why I usually bring fishing nets, harpoons,or munitions, instead of frozen industrial chicken or water-loaded ham. Let’s make it sustainable!

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Cooking/fishing/hunting/washing material – get help!

Along with this comes oil, sugar, salt, maybe butter, spices if needed, powder milk, soap, sponges, matches, candles, toilet paper etc. Tip: bring a brush to wash your clothes, a small basket to bring your soap with you if you’re to wash in the river. I’ve lost so many soaps, unbalanced and slipping from wooden logs or giant tree leaves!

Of course, it’s best if someone from the community or someone who has been there before you can help: you won’t bring the same fishing nets if it’s the dry or the rainy season, and the type of nets will even depend on the fish species. You need to know what kind of rifle they use to hunt. Or what kind of bean they like to eat. Do what you can! Once there, try to make your presence as discrete as possible, as far as using the house’s facilities and commodities are concerned. Oh, and be careful with the conditions of food preservation: not every household has a fridge, so if you decide to bring meat, bring along a polystyrene box and some ice!

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Daily working life

Apart from food, you should not forget equipment that will allow you to sleep comfortably: blanket or sleeping bag, hammock and rope to hang it, towels etc. You may not need them in the end, but you can’t take the risk of waking up freezing cold every morning. Good sleep is an important parameter of a successful field mission.

Another important feature you need to think about is how youwill travel between the areas you will visit. Will you be walking? Riding a boat? A horse? A motorcycle? In my case, most of the transport was done by motorized canoe, which is why I always go with gas supply – or give money to the person who will guide me to compensate him or help him buy some more.

Finally, think about tools you might need to work in/travel to the field or participate to daily life tasks, not directly related to your fieldwork gear (see “gifts” below): a good knife, a machete, a lamp, boots…

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Gifts

More interesting is what you can bring as gifts. You can think of small objects characteristics of your home country, things your hosts would like but can’t buy too often, or working tools for example. On my first field mission, I really had no idea what to bring, because I didn’t know what to expect, and who were these people I was about to live with. This first fieldtrip was the opportunity to listen and observe. Experience made it easier. On my second mission, here’s what I brought:

  • Machetes: some for them, and one for me (that I left behind) so that I could actually help them in the field and not just watch them, hands in my pocket, feeling dumb
  • Storing boxes (Tupperware etc), forks, spoons, cups – again, if they use/need it!
  • Arts and craft material and wooden games for the children (domino, memory games)
  • Extra torches
  • Writing supplies: paper, pens, colours
  • Watch
  • Pocket knives and lighters with Eiffel tower carved on the handle – big success!
  • Nail polish for the ladies (I’m always ashamed when I go there for their nails are always impeccable, even if they collected manioc all day).
  • Chocolate and fruit paste (goyabada)
  • Earrings and necklaces with French symbols (oh yes by the way I’m French!)

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What is your own world like?

On the first trip, I found myself a little taken aback by the curiosity “my families” displayed, the interest they showed for my world, my family, my country. This is why I now always go with pictures from home, of my family and friends, from the French countryside… and with a map of the world. The idea came some time ago when a woman asked me if I traveled by train from France to Brazil. A map of the world will always prove useful trust me!

What to leave behind?

The answer all depends on if you intend to come back or not. What I’ve done so far has been to find a way to leave photos of the people, and of myself working with them. I also let them with an idea of when I’ll come back, my contact information and whereabouts.And I tell them about some of the goods I brought (like the machetes, all food leftovers). If possible, I leave copies of any work we did together – collective mappings for example (Ideally, I leave one copy per family, may it be of an individual or of a collective work). If not, I’ll bring them the next time, or find a way to have it sent.

Finally, research ethics will send me back there to share results with the people who participated in my study, so it is not too dangerous to promise them that we’ll see each other again. But don’t promise anything you won’t be able to fulfill – they don’t forget. Anyway, the best thing you can leave is not material: it is good memories, smiles, respect and commitment to your research and to their own preoccupations.

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This post might be a million miles away from other community life-sharing experiences, as I’ve only ever worked in Latin America. Also, I haven’t commented on the possible monetary retributions for the families who host you or the persons who help and contribute to the research, as I’m not familiar with it. So, please share comments, thoughts, disagreements and ideas.

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