Monday, February 05, 2007

Another rocky interview in the campo

Dear Readers,

I have been going back and forth in my mind about whether to tell the
story I am about to tell. There are a couple of reasons why I am
ambivalent. First, I don't want to give you a bad impression of the
people I work with or of Nicaraguans in general. And second, I don't
want anybody to be worried about my personal safety. But I would like
to emphasize ahead of time that I am not, nor was I at the time, in
danger. The matter seemed to have been caused by a long-term and
personal grudge, it was not random. Also, people have this sort of
problem everywhere, not just in Nicaragua. I am especially aware of
this having lived in New York City for five years. The big difference
that I see is the way people react, and the resources that are
available to them to deal with the problems. And that is why I've
decided to tell the story. That plus it's funny.

Have I got your interest yet? Well, first I want to describe the work
I've been doing lately. I took a list which the mayor's office gave
me of all the households in the community… there are about 200. I
picked 50 of these households and am currently engaged in trying to
make contact with every one of the 50 households to do rather lengthy
(sometimes 2 plus hours) ethnographic interviews. Of course,
household is a slightly complicated term. In rural Matagalpa, as soon
as a couple officially starts living together, or as soon as a woman
has a baby, the ideal is that they will live in their own house away
from either one's parents. However, poverty being what it is, this
ideal is seldom immediately realized. Sometimes a couple or a
mother-and-child will build a small house in the yard of their
parents' houses. Sometimes a couple will travel around working in
temporary jobs. And sometimes they will all crowd into one house, the
separation between the newly-created families marked only by cooking
arrangements. For example, they might use the kitchen fire in shifts,
cooking their own food, gathering their own firewood, and bringing
their own water from the well. So under these circumstances, it is
complicated for a researcher to try to pick a unit of analysis which
is "a household" for economic analysis. However, I've been doing my
best, focusing on either couples or women (men almost never live
without a woman—I've seen a couple of instances of single men who live
with their children, but also with their mother until a daughter is
old enough to cook.)

In these interviews I draw time-lines with people of their lives and
the economic changes they have lived. This is pretty complicated and
requires a ton of concentration from me. Just as an example, many
people, especially older people, don't know how old they are and we
have to calculate it based on a number of markers ("I was about
eighteen when my first child was born, and that child was born the
year of the earthquake that destroyed Managua"). This is even more
delicate when people don't really know but insist that they do,
despite some inconsistencies ("I was born in 1972. My first child was
born when I was 15, and was just a little baby during the war" [the
war was in 1979]). My policy is not to confront and embarrass people,
but to do my own calculations in the middle of the conversation while
still trying to listen and respond.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of one of these interviews
when a man rushed into the house and launched himself on top of the
man I was interviewing. He didn't succeed in knocking my participant
to the ground, and they started wrestling. The man who had entered
was yelling about money, and was paying attention to absolutely nobody
but my participant. I just sat with my interview materials in my lap
for several seconds, surprised but not yet alarmed, until the
daughters of my participant beckoned to me to move away into the
kitchen. The attacker was evidently quite drunk and weakened as a
consequence, and my participant had no trouble in defending himself
once over his initial surprise. We watched around the corner as my
participant grappled with the drunk man, working him out of the house
again. He gave him a push and told him to leave. When the drunk man
continued to shout, my participant slashed at him with a horse whip,
and he ran stumbling away up the path to the road.

The house we were in is near the road, but down a steep slope from it,
so the tin roof is pretty much on a level with the road surface.
After this exciting interlude, we resumed the interview (at my
participant's suggestion—I was ready to call it a day). But at
intervals throughout the rest of my time there, the drunk man would
hurl a rock onto the roof. I would be in the middle of a question
("so can you tell me if you have any debt with any microcredit
organization…") when KABOOM a rock would make a sound like a cannon on
the metal over our heads. Not the best conditions for maintaining

The family of my participant was concerned that the rocks would do
damage to the roof, and of course the racket was annoying. My
expectation was that they would try to summon police and have the man
arrested. However, this was not suggested, and thinking about it
later I realized there were a couple of obstacles: first, that there
are no telephones or other ways of getting word out to any
authorities. Someone would have to go into the city, perhaps on a
horse or perhaps by paying someone to drive a pick-up truck. Either
way, it would be several hours at a minimum before the earliest time
in which the police could come in a car. And I have never seen a
police car outside of the city. During the coffee harvest (now), some
larger haciendas hire private security guards, or perhaps off-duty
army or police officers, to patrol, but they are always on foot. (And
I have never seen a car in the community, and I doubt one would make
it over the roads. It's always only pick-up trucks, motorcycles, or
large trucks.) So police assistance was out of the question, and
wasn't brought up.

The suggestion that was made was for the brother of the drunk man to
be summoned and asked to tie him up until he calmed down. I was a
little shocked by this, at first. Tied up?? It sounded a little
inhumane. But what else could have been suggested? If a person is
violent, and door don't have locks, how else could they be restrained?

The next week, I was at a religious celebration in the home of the
drunk man's brother. I had heard that the drunk man had sobered up
after having been on a bender for almost a month. But I was still a
little startled to see him show up for the singing and prayer. I
watched him closely to make sure he wasn't going to make any sudden
moves. But everyone else treated him normally. Nobody seemed nervous
or uneasy in his presence (except for me), and he sang along with

I guess there are two morals to this story, and they both have to do
with how a community (or at least THIS community) governs itself when
there aren't functioning law-enforcement structures. First, that in
the absence of formal authority, people appeal to less-formal
hierarchies. People are responsible for their family members. And
second, forgiveness is practiced far more often than in, for example,
cities in the U.S. If you have a little spat with someone, or you
think their behavior has been inappropriate, you don't really have the
option to avoid them. Ostracism, or running someone out of the
community, is a very drastic, permanent step. And so on the surface,
everybody gets along with everybody else, to a degree that almost
looks like passivity and placidity… until you get tapped into the
gossip and ill-will that simmers just below the surface.

As I've written before on this blog, this avoidance of open conflict
vastly complicates the operation of democracy in the town-hall meeting
format that many NGO workers feel so comfortable with. But that is
another story for another day.


P.S. About my personal safety: the man has since fallen off the
wagon again and even was drunk in church this Sunday, making loud
comments and talking back to the preacher during the sermon, much to
the embarassment of his family. However, having observed him drunk in
several contexts, I conclude that he seems to have particular enemies
towards whom he can be violent, and that he also has particular
friends towards whom he is always amiable. My friends agree with my
observation. He seems to like me—he shakes my hand warmly and tells
me he is my friend, without even asking me for money. So although I
am always very alert when he is around, I would like to assure
everyone that I am in no personal danger from him.

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