Sunday, 2 February 2014

Laying some foundations

Which way forward?
Early on in fieldwork, one thing socio-cultural anthropologists hope for, but can elude us, are opportunities to introduce ourselves to a number of people. In "Notes on a Balinese Cockfight", Geertz describes how he and his wife were initially held at a distance: “everyone ignored us in the way only a Balinese can do”. However, they had the good fortune to attend a cockfight. These are illegal in Indonesia and the police raided:
People raced down the road, disappeared head first over walls, scrambled under platforms, folded themselves behind wicker screens, scuttled up coconut trees... Everything was dust and panic. 
Husband and wife scurried way, following “another fugitive” who “ducked suddenly into a compound....and we...followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard”. Long story short: “The next morning the village was a completely different world for us”. Local residents were surprised that “we had...demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our covillagers”. Geertz’s essay is most important as an analysis of human culture, but the fieldwork anecdote is so good that we often remember that better. The Geertzs built rapport very quickly and by accident. It’s not always as simple as that.
Two cement mixers
The challenge of building appropriate relations is immediate and continuing, crucial and mostly beyond the fieldworker’s control. Of course, not everyone is going to like me at my university, in my apartment block, in my social circles, but I am at least accepted. Typically, we humans permanently ostracise people in only extreme situations. As fieldworkers, however, gaining acceptance can be elusive. Well-meaning attempts go awry for a variety of reasons. And so it was with a touch of apprehension I headed out of the house on the first morning (Saturday Feb 1, 2014). 

One of my children took this photo from over the road.

I went out early and noticed a lot of activity; two cement mixers pattering away and plenty of men working. It must have been around 7am. This was a community effort to lay the foundations for an extension for a house. A lot of guys were volunteering to help.

I asked if I could join in and was given a shovel and starting loading sand (from the beach) into one of the mixers. There was a team of four shovellers. Wet with perspiration I returned home to change tops, smear on sunscreen and return. 
Foundations (left background) and white tent (right background)

This time, I worked on the other mixer with a young man from Seychelles, who had married a local girl and has two kids. A man with a fishing shirt on was directing us. An older chap always had to check that I had put the required 11 shovels of sand to the one bag of cement mix and 3 buckets of water. Nek Wan (the father of the owner of the house) was working the mixer. Four guys manned wheelbarrows. Once the mix was good, Nek Wan tipped the mixer so the wet concrete tipped into their wheelbarrows. They pushed the wheelbarrows over to the foundations area and tipped the cement in. Then the guys working their flattened out the concrete. Meanwhile the concrete mix guys took turns at emptying the one bag of mix into the mixer. Other guys were carting the cement mix bags from the piles to the mixer. Others were bringing around drinks. Some were just resting, taking turns at the work. The other mixer had the same system.

At the same time, a few women were bringing out plates and dishes which, going by the names on the lids, were from a variety of local women. These were placed under a white tent. It's probably too obvious to say it; but the cooperation requires strong community bonds.

By about 10am, the foundations were laid for about a quarter of the extension. The mixers were washed and turned off, my ringing ears thirstily drank the ensuing quiet. All the men took plastic plates. I ate a little bit of rice, sambal, side of a small fried fish, a fried chicken wing, and cucumber. There was much more to chose from, but this is the kind of food I had eaten, and grown tired of, during fieldwork in Indonesia, but how much I have missed it--it actually tastes like 'real food'. The other guys were chatting amongst themselves, and occasionally encouraging each other to eat more. There were a few laughs but I couldn’t quite catch the jokes—beyond my language abilities unfortunately. Others announced their departure, so I followed suit saying “OK I’m heading home now, balek rumah [heading home]”. An older man, the guy who owns the house, I guess, said “banyak, banyak terima kasih [thanks so, so much]. He seemed genuine, but seeing as I had enjoyed the experience so much on many levels (feeling constructive, building rapport, getting a good sweat and workout as well as a burst blister on the side of my right thumb) I said “no, thank you for the experience”. It had been very satisfying watching cement gradually filing the allotted space, knowing that the sand I was shovelling was contributing to that. I’m sure this experience was not enough to ‘cement’ my position in the community, nor would I expect it to be. Nevertheless, this was a much better introduction to fieldwork than I had hoped for.

ps. On February 8, work resumed on the foundations around 6am. It seems Saturday morning is the best time for doing this work as the 'working week' is over and Sunday is devoted to relaxing. This time we had bigger cement mixers (one from the co-op and another privately owned).

Guys working around mixer (including me, in white shirt). Women and children in shade to the right.

Scrutinizing the work.

Spreading the concrete.

A moment of discussion.

Initially reticent, the men then came up to get their food.

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