Sunday, 21 April 2013

From inside the Bubble

Before coming to Gulu, I had already begun to form a few impressions.  Colleagues and friends and pre-field reading had informed me that this was definitely not an untouched corner of the world.  Local researchers seemed wary about my intentions.  Others asked if maybe I didn't want to go to another region where there weren't already so many projects.  Sometimes the inundation of westerners was offered as a comfort to me, "See you won't be alone up there. There are lots of mzungu even more than in Kampala."  Before I came to Gulu, it was clear that it was a town with a reputation. 
There are many 'bubble towns' in this world.  Places where you feel like you've entered a Disney production.  Where happiness is enforced.  Some towns in Sweden feel this way.  Herds of healthy wealthy people on bicycles is just weird.  Or the Midwestern homogeneity of Madison, Wisconsin.  The nuvo-hippie utopia that has inspired films.  Gulu town, Uganda is another type of manufactured experience.  The post-LRA peace in Museveni’s Uganda, where he promotes quiet streets and getting on with life in an orderly fashion, has brought an onslaught of NGOs and researchers to the most conflict-affected region in the northeast of the country.  And now, is seems as though the economy is completely driven by the do-gooder spirit.  

Arriving in town, the street is lined not with small businesses but with the headquarters of not-for-profit after not-for-profit. Even though I was prepared for this, I wasn't prepared for the mall of charitable foundations and UN/EU/USAID partnerships... anchored on every corner by banks.  With the influx of international aid, the wider district of around 150,000 people surrounding the small town, now has ten major financial institutions.  And unlike other cities of similar or even larger size in Uganda, many businesses accept VISA. 

What are these for-profit businesses?  Cafe's with wifi, hotels with conference space for the NGO's staff, and stalls of second-hand goods that look like a camping or sports store in the US full of backpacks and luggage (I think I saw mine) and hiking shoes and hats.  Cruising around are big new trucks labeled with charity logos about saving children, planning for the community, and bringing peace.  Many people are wearing shirts or carrying umbrellas that display a wealth of humanitarian organizations' logos and creeds, perhaps connected to their jobs or perhaps a second-hand selection making there appear to be a kind of de facto Gulu style, the ‘Aid-worker Aesthetic.’  An industry of peace and reconstruction. 

Part of this industry is research.  There are hordes of researchers who come to do deep and probing interviews about gender and violence, about how it felt to be a victim of Kony’s army, or unearth the inner life of the internally displaced. The same respondent may be interviewed again and again by several different research projects.  Answers become rehearsed.  Bubble town answers.  Disney produced answers.  Well, if Disney did war atrocity films, but you get the idea.  

How does a town like this dissolve the bubble?  As the NGOs and researchers get pulled toward a new crisis, what will take their place?  Beneath the veneer of reconstruction, Gulu has the appeal of a sleepy small town with small farms, friendly neighbors, a peaceful main street you can walk down with big shady trees… several schools and a growing university.  Museveni just released another ambitious plan to move Uganda toward 2040.  What do people in Gulu plan for their town and their future?

Yes, as a researcher I am one of the descending horde.  But I won’t ask a single question about how anyone feels or how the conflict affected them.   I am interested in the debris of crisis management, ICT, and its limited adaptation to indigenous use.  I’m considering how information and communication technology could better capture Acholi concepts so software designers here could develop tools for the next generation.  I don’t mind what people talk about with me, so long as it’s in Acholi. 

One of the best books*  I read before beginning to learn Acholi and coming to Uganda was about the history of the Luo, Acholi and related tribes.  Long ago, when these groups made their way down the Nile valley, they were challenged by rivalries and territory skirmishes.  They won victories because of their ability to keep secrets,  their quiet, their patience.  These qualities are still evident.  I can only imagine what it’s like for them to be confronted by strangers and asked to share, to confess, to spill out their inner private lives.  Perhaps building a bubble suits everyone.   Assigned roles.  Prescribed emotions.  And the truth can stay neatly out of sight.

I will spend two months here, and I look forward to being mistaken, being surprised, and simply taking in what I can in this short period of time.

* Ogutu, G.E.M., 2001. K E R In the 21st Century Luo Social System. Kisumu: Sundowner Institute Press.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Without a Map

In Acholi, the language spoken in Northern Uganda where Kony’s LRA was recently driven out, as well as the new nation of South Sudan, they have no word for map.  Why then do most conflict prevention ICT applications organize information around maps?  There are over 40 languages spoken in the region, and none have a word for map.  The disconnect is deeper than language.  It extends to the way in which cultures conceptualize information—what is deemed worth capturing and how it should be organized.  For example, most applications organize information around a linear concept of time.  Some cultures have a circular concept of time, or even a combination of the linear and circular.  If you find this hard to imagine, then you have begun to understand how someone from those perspectives must adapt to share information in the current format.  Beyond changing the language users see on the interface, ICTs have not adapted to other cultural concepts of knowledge management.  This has profound implications for whether or not local users have access to the information or if they feel it’s relevant for their own policy implementation. 

A recent War of Ideas post profiled the conflict early warning initiative called Hatebase which collects hate speech via a Wikipedia-like interface and correlates the entries with reports of violence.  The assumption being that the Rwandan genocide was preventable and monitoring local language patterns could play a part.  However, the feeling of being caught by surprise and failing to prevent the conflict are the feelings of an outsider, not those of a Rwandan.  So it must be asked, who is this tool for?  Individuals in conflict-affected areas are perpetually simplified into victims waiting to be given a voice.  Rwandans had the information, it just wasn’t in written form accessible to the West.  The oral nature of information in other cultures has so far been discounted in ICT design; only when information takes written form is it cemented as fact, as actionable, as ready for analysis.

Among the nearly 6800 languages, only around 100 developed a literature, the rest remain oral to some extent.  Orality in a culture does not imply underdevelopment or opposition to literacy, simply a preference for that mode of expression.  There is enormous potential to re-imagine the visual interface, to respond to cognitive cues and communication norms from the cultures crowding into the digital space... Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, China.  This is an unexplored avenue for ICT design.

How would Hatebase contend with the Acholi word gwok?  It can be pronounced six different ways in order to mean either: dog, shoulder, incapable, misfortune, do not, or protect.  You have to hear it.  Information is something you hear, collect and pass on.  Gam means both to receive answers from someone (and pass them on) and collect people in a taxi and drive them off.  So it is with information here. It moves. It defies conventional categories.  Hatebase may have research value, but without integrating more culture-specific concepts of how to collect and organize communication data, it will never gain a predictive capacity or relevance within conflict areas.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Top of the Ant Hill

Acholi refer to politicians with a figurative term wibye meaning 'top of the ant hill' because like this precarious point on the hill, politicians and their elevated seats of power may crumble and slide down at any moment.   Even if ant hills are not part of your typical landscape, the lack of confidence or lack of trust in leaders that this image relates has relevance for many cultures.

So what can words, phrases, grammatical constructions tell us about a culture?  Not always a lot on their own.  Sometimes they are vestigial, reminders of the roots of a language.  There are many of these for English connecting it back to French or German.  For some American vernaculars, elements of West African languages such as Wolof can still be heard which were blended in centuries ago.

It is important to go slowly when learning a new language.  Remain skeptical, never assuming when something is familiar that you have recognized a true similarity because, to borrow roughly from Magritte, a chair isn't always a chair.  For me, the best evidence that complex concepts cannot be translated with equivalency is that even concrete objects such as 'bottle' or 'chair' which one might assume have direct translations are not always equivalent between languages.  A chair is not always a chair from one language to the next.  It depends on what your language considers chair-ness to be.  It depends on how we conceptualize categories or how we understand membership for those categories.  (I will be writing much more about categories because they are an important cognitive activity.) 

An example from basic the greetings in Acholi illustrates an overlap between an instance where simple translation equivalency might be assumed, but complex cultural concepts are also at work.  (It is these more complex concepts, attitudes and values that interest me, and where I believe linguistic investigation offers a glimpse of insight.) So the simple example: among family or close acquaintances in the morning you might greet each other with:
You slept well?
I slept well.
This seems very natural.  Many languages use this pattern.  However, the Acholi region where it is used has just emerged from several years of war.  The sentiment is in fact literal as in, 'was your sleep disturbed,' and also implying without asking the more sinister, the unsaid. 'Did anyone break into your home and was anyone hurt or killed?  In this way, 'you slept well,' is not a direct translation from the English or any other language.  It has an experiential weight carried in the tone, amassed over years.  This description was given to me by someone young, so I wonder if his grandparents knew another meaning.  These early impressions are the threads I will follow with further study and research.  How prevalent is this attitude?  What is the speed of language change in the highly oral culture here in LuoLand?  How can my methodology capture and convey these dimensions?