I have been reading ethnographic work for a full year now. I have written my own grounded theory research and taken notes in “the field” but I was not ready for what was to come in Phoenix. Being in the home of a family that has lived in America for two months after seeking refuge from east Africa and asking them questions while also observing how they live day to day is much closer to the anthropological “field work” that I had read about than sitting in a lecture hall listening to a sorority hold a chapter meeting like I had for my own research a year ago.
My excitement for face-to-face interaction with Somalian, CAR and South Sudanese refugees was real and being able to listen to their experiences was something I had previously only envisioned in class reading discussions. What I was not ready for was the emotional endurance that comes with truly learning about genocide and the lives it rips apart. Obviously, any sort of hardship I know is not even comparable to the unthinkable hardships of the amazing individuals that I met last week but with that being said, listening to these gut-wrenching stories can make your heart extremely heavy. Hearing these stories and understanding their importance is essential. It is work that I am excited to continue but I do not want to waste a minute of my time with these heroes by crying or being distracted by the weight that their knowledge carries. This is where Jay Z and Beyonce come in.
It may sound comical but after hearing a particularly violent and hard to grasp story on our second day in Phoenix, for some reason my mind demanded ***Flawless to be played on the van radio or I was going to break into hysterics. I have always been told before caring for others, self-care is important to consider. I wanted to hear and record every story I heard last week so I could share them in the future but, in order to do that, listening to an explicit rap song or a conceited pop diva was the best way I knew how to avoid wasting time crying and then reapplying make-up while at the same time re-energizing myself to be to be happy and present with our next family we visited. It sounds silly but my own coping mechanisms helped me do the task at hand and leave getting caught in the deep emotions my work was carrying for the evenings.
To give my self a little more credibility, I was not the only one on the trip that had a coping mechanism when it came to advocacy. Jany Deng, the Program Director at The Lost Boys Center for Leadership Development, had a coping mechanism of his own. One of the major spokesmen for the organization, Jany’s personality is infectious and his happiness is so radiant that you would find it hard to fathom the suffering that he has known. While spending time with him and hearing about his journey to America as well as the amazing things he has done since his arrival, it was not hard for us to pick up that many things, to him, were “really funny”. While telling gruesome stories of life in Sudan, he is quick to follow up disaster with comedy. A great portion of his job is to tell others what he has seen and mentally relive some of his toughest days so that soon his home will know peace. After spending a couple of days with him, we gathered that comedy and laughter is how he counter-balances the lows that his stories withhold.
I am not making a controversial statement when I say nothing about genocide is easy to talk about but the conversation continuing is the only way that the world will see an end to it. Being responsible for keeping the conversation going is a difficult and potentially depressing task but, identifying various ways to self-care in order to get through a hard story or collect yourself to better serve others is very important.
After a couple of classes that center on ethnographic writing and learning the stories of others, this point of “what happens when the weight of the situation gets too heavy” was missed in my instruction. I hope to have an experience like I did in Phoenix again and be able to share the stories of those who have overcome incredible obstacles and now I know I can look to Shawn Carter in other contexts than just at the gym.