We hadn’t expected our project to entail trekking barefoot in the swampy wetlands deep inside Zanzibar’s national forest. There were no “water shoes” in our budget. But if there had been, they might now be neon beacons stuck in the suctioning mud leading to where the subcontractors had drilled and blasted for seismic testing for fossil fuels, bulldozing through the only global habitat of an endangered species of colobus monkey. We had reached this far, after sitting packed in threes on motorcycles careening through the high-fiving branches of jungle trees, holding onto each other tightly. We would arrive together, shoes or no shoes.“Scholarship on reflexivity and positionality has long charted in-roads for navigating the ‘I’ in qualitative research methods—but what about the ‘we’?”
We were exploring the relationships between coastal livelihoods, climate change, and Islamic ethical orientations toward the environment. But at the same time, we were exploring our own relationships as a team. This essay is an autoethnographic account of a transnational research team’s experience conducting collaborative research in Zanzibar. Scholarship on reflexivity and positionality has long charted in-roads for navigating the “I” in qualitative research methods—but what about the “we”? And how can we reflexively navigate collaborative research when that “we”—a team of two Zanzibaris and an American—is a recipe that has so often yielded a bitter taste, given the exploitative legacy of many North-South research relationships?
Such relationships constitute a flash point for the ethical tensions of qualitative social science research. For one, the employment of local research assistants has often constituted a “hidden colonialism”1Roger Sanjek, “Anthropology’s Hidden Colonialism: Assistants and Their Ethnographers,” Anthropology Today 9, no. 2 (1993): 13–18. that denies authorship or recognition of their intellectual contributions.2Akhil Gupta, “Authorship, Research Assistants and the Ethnographic Field,” Ethnography 15, no. 3 (2014): 394–400. The contemporary political economy of grant funding further exacerbates this issue, where Northern researchers subcontract data collection to local scholars who they direct from afar.3Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock, “Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry,” Antipode 51, no. 2 (2019): 664–680. This serves to decontextualize data, as the principal investigator’s only connection with research subjects is (often translated) transcripts.4Natasha S. Mauthner and Andrea Doucet, “‘Knowledge Once Divided Can Be Hard to Put Together Again’: An Epistemological Critique of Collaborative and Team-Based Research Practices,” Sociology 42, no. 5 (2008): 971–985. Furthermore, when Southern researchers are named as full collaborators on grants, they at times feel like “glorified data collectors.”5Duncan Omanga and Patricia C. Mainye, “North-South Collaborations as a Way of ‘Not Knowing Africa’: Researching Digital Technologies in Kenya,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 31, no. 3 (2019): 273–275. Often, their collaboration is limited by structural inequalities such as those related to gender,6Caroline Mose, “Towards a (More) Gender-responsive Model of Collaboration,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 31, no. 3 (2019): 283–286. the dominance of English,7Carli Coetzee, “Ethical?! Collaboration?! Keywords for Our Contradictory Times,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 31, no. 3 (2019): 257–264. or the particular questions seen as relevant in the Western academy.“Deep collaborative relationships, we argue, are a vital corrective to the structurally short-term features of much collaborative research: narrow funding timelines, brief research trips, and relationships that last only for the duration of a grant.”
Our team represents different positionalities: We are led by one of the most prominent scholars of Islam in Zanzibar—Issa Ziddy, a male Zanzibari senior scholar in religious education—alongside, Mary Khatib, a female Zanzibari junior scholar in geography, and Caitlyn Bolton, a female American doctoral student in anthropology. How could we balance the individual “I”s with the “we,” when that “we” was punctuated by differences and inequalities in seniority, race, gender, training, and language skills? As we navigated this swampy terrain, we were buoyed by the long-term nature of our relationships. Deep collaborative relationships, we argue, are a vital corrective to the structurally short-term features of much collaborative research: narrow funding timelines, brief research trips, and relationships that last only for the duration of a grant. No matter how good the intentions of the individuals involved, such features cohere into extractive modes that inevitably replicate neocolonial legacies. When our first, and primary, point of contact is our thick, enduring relationships with each other, we are better able to resist the structural pull toward extraction, grounded first and foremost by the Swahili phrase tuko Pamoja—“we are together.” Here we each offer a reflection in our respective voices on the “togetherness” of North-South collaborative research, including the temporality of research, long-term relationships of mutual support, and the collective generation of knowledge that can occur within and between laughter.
Taratibu ndiyo mwendo/Slowly is the way to go (Khatib)
While completing my doctorate in geography at the University of Dar Es Salaam, many foreign researchers hired me as their local research assistant. Once, I was hired as lead data collector by a European group conducting anthropological research on the cultural change happening with the introduction of electricity. They paid well, which I appreciated as both a mother and a graduate student at the time. But I also did the vast majority of the data collection—the “principal investigators” did not speak Swahili and only visited Zanzibar for a few weeks. When they left, they took the data and wrote their reports, not asking for my input or including my name except in the acknowledgments. They had trusted me to coordinate and collect data, so why didn’t they trust me to contribute to the report or share ideas? Now that I lecture at the university, I have been invited onto collaborative research teams. In a recent one, I was invited after the project had already been formed when they needed a local on the team, and I did not get to contribute to the project proposal as a full team member. The European researchers consulted me on a few questions, then submitted the research plan. When we received reviewer comments, it was clear that the weaknesses of the proposal were areas that I was strong in: experience in applied gender research, ability to bridge the social and natural sciences, and my connections with private and public sectors as potential project partners. They had not effectively communicated my strengths.
My experience with foreign researchers reflects what Sukarieh and Tannock describe as the “alienation” of local research assistants from their intellectual labor—in some cases, when asking for authorship credit they were told that they had already been paid for their work.8Sukarieh and Tannock, “Subcontracting Academia.” Sukarieh and Tannock understand this within the political economy of contemporary research grants that promotes a shift from individual researcher-driven projects toward larger interdisciplinary grants, whose priorities are determined by state-funding agencies.9Sukarieh and Tannock, “Subcontracting Academia,” 667. Principal investigators are often themselves effectively subcontracted, while they in turn subcontract local collaborators.“When grants have a narrow timeframe in which funding must be used, when Northern researchers are limited to only a short period on-site, when the relationships are confined to the duration of the project…North-South research relationships are more likely to resemble an employment contract than a collaboration.”
Yet one further constraint within this political economy of research funding is the issue of temporality. When grants have a narrow timeframe in which funding must be used, when Northern researchers are limited to only a short period on-site, when the relationships are confined to the duration of the project—in sum, when the temporal frame is narrow—North-South research relationships are more likely to resemble an employment contract than a collaboration. Perhaps, in the electricity project, there were particular skills or knowledge of certain literatures that I would have needed to effectively contribute to the final report. But to help me build those skills would take time and a commitment to meaningful collaboration. Beyond any individual’s participation, it would take even longer to collaboratively develop the project so that the research priorities and frameworks are responsive to local knowledge and epistemologies, rather than simply fitting them within an agenda already set abroad.
With Ziddy and Bolton, we each own this project, starting with the proposal. This dynamic stems from the fact that, while our funding was indeed limited temporally, our relationships are not. Ziddy was Bolton’s local advisor during her dissertation fieldwork, and they also worked collaboratively together on a training manual and workshop for madrasa (Islamic school) teachers in Zanzibar. Ziddy and I have collaborated not only in research, but also marriage. This meant that while the pandemic delayed Bolton’s travel to Zanzibar until the availability of vaccines, our digital communications were grounded in long-standing relationships. And even beyond the timelines of our grant, we will continue to work together. Our long-term temporal commitment to one another outlasts any one grant, and creates radically different team dynamics: No one of us is a token contributor because they need a woman, a native speaker, local contacts, or affiliation with my university. I share my resources and connections. I also analyze and contribute my ideas.
Vitanga vya mikono hunawishana/The palms of hands wash one another (Ziddy)
In the village, the sheha (regional leader) and the imams from local mosques spoke directly to me as a man and a recognized authority in Islam. In some government offices, officials spoke to Bolton, as did those working in tourism who are accustomed to speaking with foreigners. In our focus groups, the seaweed farmers and fishermen often spoke directly to Khatib, especially the women. We noticed that while we conducted our research as a group, our respective positionalities connected us differently to those with whom we were in conversation. Further, our different disciplines brought different insights and expertise that shaped our conversations and observations: I brought a more scriptural knowledge of Islam, Khatib brought a scientific understanding of environmental change, and Bolton, an ethnographic observation within and around what was explicitly said.
Differences in language emerged as a central challenge, but also a resource, for our group. We communicate in Swahili, our most fluent common language. With thorny vocabulary, Bolton and I fall back on Arabic—our common third language. But English sometimes poses a problem. Bolton is the most junior in our group, but also the most fluent in a language of power: academic English. My graduate education was in Arabic in Sudan. Khatib has reflected that, while most of her professors studied abroad and are fluent in English, they did not effectively teach her to write in academic English.“There is a need for balance in these partnerships, where everyone has their say.”
Many African universities are still poor and dependent on foreign universities, especially in the United States and Europe. Their budgets are not sufficient. That is why, while publications may be enough elsewhere to get tenure, here we can only advance in our career if we contribute tens of thousands of US dollars in grant money to the university—essentially, buying our position. One avenue for this is North-South research collaborations, but often the local scholars who get these opportunities are those who already did their degrees in the United States or Europe, are fluent in academic English, or whose universities already have strong ties with the Western academy. There is a need for balance in these partnerships, where everyone has their say. But more often, given this financial dependency, the flow is only one-way from the Global North to Africa where the research agendas are led by Western colleagues.
I am a mzee—an elder, already with a long career behind me. This is why I wanted to connect Khatib and Bolton with each other as two young scholars who can support one another throughout their careers. As we say in Swahili, mwari ni lazima atolewe nje (maturity must be brought out by others). I had my mentors, including a European scholar who I had assisted on his research and who then helped with my first conference presentation and funneled opportunities to me. Bolton has a mentor in Khatib, who is just ahead of her in her career. And likewise, Khatib has been significantly advancing her academic English within this long-term partnership. Despite the tenure requirements at our university, it is not grants that advance our careers. It is relationships.
Uliyonayo ndiyo hutumia kucheka/What you have is what you use in laughing (Bolton)
“We have gender equality,” Ziddy commented on our group. “Well, maybe not equality,” he revised, outnumbered by women. “Yea,” Khatib quipped, “we have to give him tasks so that he feels useful!”
Our conversations are punctuated by laughter. Our long car rides between interviews and village visits were, as Ziddy calls them, our “indirect workshops” as we reflected on the conversations we had just had, shared our observations, and collectively built insights. But they were also, inevitably, funny. We teased Khatib about how she had shrunk down to the floor of the speedboat to Tumbatu Island, afraid of the rolling waves. They joked that I looked just like “an Arab” from the Gulf when I wore hijab and sunglasses. Ziddy asked us to fill out a quality control survey on his driving.
Our experience underscores the importance of friendship as a research method, or rather, the collective generation of knowledge that can only occur within the context of closeness. Early social scientists prided themselves on “objective” analysis that sees from afar. Feminist scholars have noted that all knowledge is “situated,”10Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–599. relational, and socially made.11Lisa Wedeen, “Reflections on Ethnographic Work in Political Science,” Annual Review of Political Science 13 (2010): 255–272. As such, they advocate for writing in the first person, for preserving the “I” in scholarship so as to not erase the self who knows and narrates.12Laura J. Shepherd, “Research as Gendered Intervention: Feminist Research Ethics and the Self in the Research Encounter,” Crítica Contemporánea. Revista de Teoría Política no. 6 (2016): 1–15. But what about the “we”?
When we were considering working on this project together, I was cautioned by some mentors against it: collaborative projects are a mess of egos and agendas, and as the most junior scholar I would likely be trampled. Besides, “I” need to publish. But if all knowledge is situated and relational, then we ought to recognize that there is a particular kind of knowledge that can only be situated in relationships—that resists the grasp of the individual researcher alone. As we drove between interviews and visits, our conversations yielded collective insights within and between the laughter, insights that by the time we arrived were no longer easily attributable to any one of us individually.“What emerged was the insight that, as women shifted from primarily subsistence farming to cultivating seaweed for export, access to cash prompted changing consumption patterns.”
For example, in a village on Tumbatu island I noticed bags of cement stacked high where the motorized boats docked. This sparked a conversation in our next car ride on changing consumption habits that rely on access to cash, in this case, building homes with cement rather than materials available on the island. This led to similar questions about diet: As women farmed less for subsistence to cultivate seaweed for export, they began to consume more purchased rice rather than locally grown starches like cassava. Ziddy noted that consuming rice has a higher class connotation, being a food for holidays. During the colonial period, rice was only in wartime rations for Arabs, who were deemed of higher class. In our next interviews Khatib asked the women seaweed farmers about their rice consumption and continued subsistence farming, yielding more data on their embeddedness in the cash economy. What emerged was the insight that, as women shifted from primarily subsistence farming to cultivating seaweed for export, access to cash prompted changing consumption patterns. Now that seaweed farming has become less profitable due to diseases from warming waters, they no longer have the same ability to purchase rice, yet no longer have the safety net of subsistence farming.
This collective process of knowledge generation was knitted together by laughter. The laughter, and the friendship that held and produced it, helped us navigate our different histories, training, and positionalities. Our “we” does not presume a singularity, glossing over difference. What it represents is our commitment to our relationships, to polishing each other, to thinking together. This laughter can only emerge within the long-term temporality of thick relationships, a temporality that extends beyond the narrow time frame of much collaborative research funding. It helps us to navigate the inevitable slippages and breakdowns—also, literally, the slippery mud on our swampy trek and other unexpected adventures. Our “we” is that of long-term friendship, laughter, and mutual support. It is the “we” of tuko pamoja—“we are together.”
Banner photo: Photo credit: Mary Khatib.