A Glimpse at my Folklore Fieldwork

I have done folklore fieldwork since the mid seventies, mostly in Tanzania, Kenya and the USA, with special emphasis on narratives, songs, and other forms of verbal folklore. From 1993 to 1996, with funding from Earthwatch, I conducted field research on Tanzania's epic folklore, in Mwanza, Shinyanga, and Arusha regions.

We recorded narratives, songs, and interviews. The collection consists of hundreds of cassette tapes, photographs, and slides; about two dozen video tapes, and many pages of field notes and other writings. Elias Songoyi of the University of Dar es Salaam and I have been transcribing and translating these materials, as well as writing about them. Although we gave copies of tapes and photographs to the people we recorded, it would be best, indeed necessary, to also deposit copies in institutions in every region from where we obtained the materials, so that they are accessible to the people there. This goal, however, is rife with challenges. It can only be achieved after the necessary groundwork has been laid; the materials need to be professionally prepared, and secure archival facilities need to be established in those locations. Then, it may also be necessary to secure the permission of the informants. Researchers need to pay attention to the fact that not all materials gathered during fieldwork are for public consumption. Unfortunately, certain researchers have violated these principles, and some continue to do so.

In the process of doing research, one needs to write about the activities of each day. One needs to write about every interview situation, about such things as how the informant was found and contacted, how the interview was arranged, where the interview was done, when and under what conditions. We need to record information about the informant and the audience, as well as things that happened during the interview. Some of this information can be written without any difficulty; some requires the willingness and cooperation of the people with whom one is interacting, whether performers or members of the audience. To obtain such information, just as in the entire fieldwork process itself, the researcher should never pressurize people, but must always be courteous and diplomatic.

Why do we need all the contextual and seemingly peripheral information I have mentioned? We need to make the record as comprehensive as possible. When somone goes into the folklore archive and sees a photograph, for example, that person needs to understand the story about the photograph, including when and where it was taken. Together with that photograph there should be information about other material that was recorded or obtained on the same occasion, such as cassette tapes, videos, manuscripts, and field notes.

This documentation creates a context for the photograph, rendering the photograph more intelligible than would otherwise be the case. On its own, a photograph is a static and lifeless image. It does not have a voice; having a tape recording alongside the photograph brings the person or persons in the photograph to life, so to speak. Though it reveals much visual evidence, the photograph conceals a wealth of information that can only be recorded and recovered by other means and media. Good field notes might explain, for example, why people look the way they look in a photograph.

Each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. Consider, for example, a tape recording. Rich as it is, a tape recording cannot capture visual images; photographs fill the gap. Sometimes, as happened to me again and again, something interrupts the interview. Once, for example, while I was interviewing an old man at Murutanga, on Ukerewe Island, a chicken rushed by and was chased away. Then, a drunkard approached and was also shooed away. Someone listening to the tape will get to those spots on the tape and just hear sudden noises, without knowing what happened. In my field notes I clarify such mysteries, stating clearly that at that moment a chicken rushed by and was chased away, and at the other moment a drunkard approached and was shooed away.

During my visit to Ukara island, to see and hear about the famous dancing rock, I recorded such a variety of materials. I have cassette tapes, photographs, and field notes. Here I reproduce an extract from my field notes. You will see how complex the research experience can be, as an interaction between the researcher and the people among whom the researcher is operating. I have copied the notes exactly as they appear in my notebook. I have not corrected any mistakes; the dotted lines indicate some words I have left out. I hope that these notes illustrate the ideas I have expressed above, about documenting the research experience:

 

4 August, 1996

We went to Ukara, leaving by boat from the Picknic Villa (Nansio). There were four of us: Mr. Lubasa, Mr. Shayo, Mr. Buhemo Jockson both of Picnic Villa, and Joseph Mbele.

We left at 2.40. We arrived at Bwisa (Ukara) at around 6 pm. We were received by the Division Secretary ("Katibu Tarafa") Mr. Tuyu, whom I had met last year on the Nansio-Mwanza boat.

Fortunately, that evening we were introduced to several people, such as Mzee Ndege, who sounded very knowledgeable on cultural and related matters.

The local people told us the plan for tomorrow, which included visiting the place where the famous dancing rock is, and also interviewing some old men.

Mr. Ndege told us about many things, including the stories of Chief Mataba who is clearly an Ukara folk hero. He also told us about Ukara customs such as the custom of killing twins.

Let me note that before we travelled to Ukara we visited, that morning (August 4) Mr. Tungaraza and gave him some presents. He had questions to ask us, about "nahau" (sayings) of the Kerewe, and how to present them in a scholarly manner. I told him what to do: present the original then a Swahili translation, then a discussion of the meanings, context and usage of the item (whether saying, proverb or whatever) then if possible contextualize the item more broadly, to see, for example if it is used elsewhere in Kerewe folklore e.g. tale, song et cetera) or even in published form.

 

August 5 1996

We visited the old man who makes the famous Ukara rock dance. We left Bwisya at about 9 am and when we arrived at the school next to the old man's village we stopped at an office of the local authorities. The relevant people had been notified, thanks to the Katibu Tarafa, Mr. Tuyu. Then we went to the old man's house. He was there....So, he wanted the money up-front; 6,000 shillings. He explained that there was a tradition of giving offerings at the rock, as well as prayers (matambiko).... [T]hen we gave him the money he had requested. He specified that he needed 5,000 right there and the 1,000 would be given at the rock.

We set off, a walk of over 30 minutes down to the shore, at Butimba, where the rock is.

Before climbing up the rock that supports the dancing rock we took off our shoes.

Then we sat down beside, but almost under the dancing rock, as shown in the photographs we took. The old man told us about the rock, his work as the man who makes it dance, ceremonies, offerings and so forth. All this is on tape. The old man complains about changes in people's attitudes, bureaucratic interference in the traditions (e.g. a decision taken that the rock belongs to the village and should be used for the benefit of the village).

In the late afternoon we went back to our hotel (Bwisya) and interviewed Mzee Ndege. It was an extensive interview, which ended in his singing some songs together with a friend of his. We have them in photos.

 

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