Armed Guides and Otherness: Vignettes from the Field

September 6, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Two short pieces give us the next flavour of on the ground research in the DRC, reposted from the Bukavu Series. First, Eric Batumike Banyanga on ‘When an Armed Guide is Imposed on You: Navigating Research in a Conflict Zone’. Introduction to the Bukavu series here. Search on ‘Bukavu’ for the other posts in the series or see list at end of this piece. Original post here.

‘In 2018, when I was doing a study in Mukungwe in South Kivu, the parties to a local conflict each wanted me to show them what the other had said about them. I personally considered this impossible, as it would have exposed the people who had provided me with information. But then my refusal to disclose my sources and the contents of our earlier conversations led to a situation in which I was entrusted to an armed guide the following day.

The semi-official line from the non-state authority (the influential leader of a family of mine operators) who assigned me my escort was that I would need a guide who could orient me in the local setting while also ensuring my security so that nothing bad would happen to me. However, on his first day with me, my guide wouldn’t leave me alone to speak with the artisanal miners I was interviewing – which meant that my interlocutors didn’t want to comment on certain questions.

This reticence was due to a fear of reprisals, which could ensue after my departure. It was therefore necessary to change my mode of operation. I approached my guide and asked if he could leave me alone to talk with the miners so that they could speak to me objectively. He agreed to this after a long negotiation. Actually, he agreed after being promised a monetary incentive. During subsequent interviews he agreed to withdraw at the start of each conversation. Only then did my respondents start revealing important information to me.

In this situation, I was lucky enough to be able to negotiate an “elegant” solution. I was able to respect the local authority’s wish to control some of my movements in the area by respecting the presence of my “spy-guide”. And at times his presence was even useful in directing me to the right places. At the same time, I was able to negotiate his withdrawal during the actual interviews.

Not paying ransom

There’s no doubt that the fact that I was accompanied affected the way the miners spoke to me; at the same time, though the contents of our conversations nevertheless allowed me to conclude that they still felt relatively free to express themselves. And, of course, the situation could have turned out much worse. I could have gotten a categorical refusal from my “guide” and been obliged to terminate my research activities; or I could have continued my research in his presence but failed to collect any useful data.

Doing research in conflict zones presents many challenges and ethical dilemmas. And as a researcher, one must regularly face these completely alone. Often we confront these challenges without any framework in which to seek advice from our peers. Nevertheless, the researcher’s responsibilities are complex. It’s therefore imperative that they find a forum in which to tackle such vital issues for their research. Through an open exchange, one could first of all seek out support for one’s own problems and dilemmas, and furthermore exchange ideas with others about the challenges they face. But above all we should try to create a network through which researchers can find moral support in the event of difficult situations.’

Next, ‘The Egocentricity of Field Ethics: Questioning Otherness, Decency, and Responsibility; by Anuarite Bashizi. Original post here.

‘One day, while doing an interview with a woman in a village, I saw her dabbing her cheeks with a cloth to dry her tears. I understood right away that my interview had touched upon a subject that was sensitive for her. I wanted to ask for more details, but I didn’t dare bring up another question. Without saying a word, she got up and went into her house. Alone, outside in the courtyard, I began to blame myself for the effects that my research was having on the emotional state of my interviewees.

After about ten minutes, the woman came back from her house, her face still sad, and sat down next to me. She revealed to me what our discussion had released in her. Her story was marked by deep misery and poverty. After her last sentence, the woman sighed, raised her head, and, while looking aside, said, “Only the Lord can help us.” I could feel her suffering, but I couldn’t find any words to comfort her. I wanted to offer her some money, but I remembered that within the ethics guidelines, that risked being seen as buying data. And even if I intervened, what was I to do about the enormous needs and demands of the other interviewees whom I was meeting in the field every day? People who were just as poor as she was? Couldn’t my helping some and not others easily raise frustrations amongst them? And wouldn’t my conduct then put future researchers in a difficult position? The only thing I finally said was, “Keep strong, mama, the Lord will take care of it, indeed.”

After we parted, I felt a lot of guilt. This woman had shared information with me that would help me to write my thesis. But, in the name of field research ethics, I hadn’t given anything in return that would help her. She was in need and I had done nothing. A year later, I went back. I looked for her family but couldn’t find it. Two years later, I found out that this woman’s husband had died of tuberculosis.

I collected my data in the midst of misery.’

Eric Batumike Banyanga is a researcher at the Groupe d’Etudes sur les Conflits et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH), Bukavu.

Anuarite Bashizi is a post-doc researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain and researcher at CEGEMI (Catholic University of Bukavu)

Previous Bukavu Series posts:

Invisible Voices in the Production of Knowledge: Introducing the Bukavu series

When You Become Pombe Yangu (“My Beer”): Dealing with the Financial Expectations of Research Participants

Epistemological Rupture, Detachment, and Decentring: Requirements When Doing Research “At Home”

“Donor-Researchers” and “Recipient-Researchers”: Bridging the Gap between Researchers from the Global North and Global South

When Focus Groups Fail: The Argument in Favour of Involving Local Researchers in Project Design

How Researchers Navigate in Armed Conflict Zones: Some Do’s and Don’ts

September 6, 2021
Duncan Green