Tag Archives: research

Kusamira: the Book is Available NOW!

At long last, the project at the center of my ethnographic research focus since 2006 is finally published. Get your copy now, stay tuned for multimedia components to come (beyond the film), and get in touch if you’re interested in discussing this work with colleagues and students!

Need a little teaser? Head over to the University of Illinois Press Blog for an interview about the project.


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Back Together in Nakifuma

Seasoned ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl famously titled a chapter in his concept/method book, “Come Back Tomorrow.” Days like the one I had yesterday in Nakifuma remind me why, despite distractions, frustrations, and roadblocks, I keep doing exactly that.

Having already reunited with my dear friend Ssematimba, yesterday was to be a work day for us wherein we could talk through some of the issues and opportunities presented by the possibility of archiving some of his recordings. Given his generous nature and our good relationship in the past, I fully anticipated that he would be cooperative. The response I got yesterday went well beyond cooperation, though. Not only did he gather most of the people involved in those recordings at his office in Nakifuma, he also set up my explanation of this work in ideal fashion. Once I explained to people how much I wanted them to have access–here in Uganda–to their own recordings, they practically threw a party! Not only did they respond favorably to archiving old materials, they also insisted that I record new songs. We began yesterday, but they want me to come for an event this coming weekend and videotape it.

This rather business-like matter out of the way, it was very important to this group that I hang around and socialize with them. I spent a good deal of time with many of these folks in 2010, and we were all happy to be back together for a relaxing afternoon. From Ssema’s place, we went to Jjajja Bbali’s compound, a place that has many shrines for different Kiganda spirits. Between these two locations, some in the group introduced me to new spouses, others to new children, and all to new friends.

I have spent more time than I care to admit trying to capture the essence of convivial interactions that make ritual events so inviting for spirits in my writing. What struck me about yesterday was that this jovial atmosphere is not part of some rarefied break from everyday banalities. It is a cornerstone of daily living, something people actively pursue and often achieve in the company of family and close friends.


One can never capture these moments, of course: they are as fleeting as this blurry image. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll be glad when my nicer camera is fixed. That’s John Kyobinga on the left, Mwalimu Ssenogga in the middle, and his wife Nakayima on the right.

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Music and Method

The proposal for my current research, “Music is the Method,” draws upon years of previous research to strongly suggest that musicking, spending time with musicians, and getting to know their repertories is a good way to understand how they live and what matters to them. It is also, in the context of this project, a good way to understand how people think about what it means to be ill and what it means to live well.

This part of the project seeks to return some of my field recordings to Uganda on a permanent basis. There the people who made them should be able to access them, and others will hopefully be able to use them for further research. It never ceases to amaze me how much time and energy it takes just to get and stay organized with this much material in hand (it’s not only my daily chore now, but sometimes I rope my wife into it as well). I’ve got audio, photographs, and video to contend with, much of which I’ve  annotated through fieldnotes, coding, and blogging. This project breathes new life into my efforts at collating these materials and making sense of them beyond the life of my now-finished dissertation.

My hope, bolstered by an encouraging first couple of weeks of this work, is that I can continue to connect these materials, get them to talk to each other, and organize an ever increasing series of cross-references. The contours of a kusamira repertory emerged well before I ever finished the dissertation. If I am to understand it well enough to comment on its relationship to creation stories and other folklore of this region in my book, this new archival effort will be a crucial step in that process.

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Federal Research Dollars: Bailed Out By Philanthropy?!

In the wake of highly controversial bailouts aimed at bolstering our struggling economy over the past few years, I found it bitterly ironic that news of this year’s cancelled Fulbright-Hays DDRA funding precipitated this move by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Now some of the world’s most heavyweight philanthropists are bailing out the federal government? Strange days indeed. It’s been a week since I heard this, and still I’m not sure what to think. Is it yet another move toward the privatization of virtually everything? Can it be as temporary as Mellon and IIE claim it is?

One thing’s for sure: I couldn’t agree more with the Mellon Foundation that international language and area studies funding constitutes “an important investment in the nation’s intellectual infrastructure.” With that in mind, let me put forth some unabashedly partisan encouragement on this matter. I hope with these benevolent grant makers for wiser decisions in coming years, I urge readers to contact their relevant representatives urging them toward the restoration of Fulbright-Hays programs, and I applaud the Mellon Foundation’s efforts to mitigate the devastation that these cuts foist upon doctoral candidates whose research promises a brighter future for the nation and the world. Given the federal government’s recent heavy investment in “critical languages,” this about-face for grant funding comes as a shock. Here’s hoping the cuts can be perceived as a senseless deviation from smart policy and swiftly corrected for the 2012-2013 funding and subsequent cycles.


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Change of Pace: Archival Research in Jinja

Most of the time I’m out in the “field,” somewhere in a village, finding shrines, attending rituals, and playing and singing with field collaborators. My recent work has given me opportunities to transcribe recordings from those outings and interpret their meanings. Even more recently though, I have been digging through an archive in Jinja that holds many materials written by others who have done work similar to mine.

Welcome to the Diocese of Jinja’s Cultural Research Centre.

The lion’s share of the relevant materials I am finding in this archive are undergraduate or masters’ theses by students at various seminaries around Uganda. Because these students were interested in religion, I have found a wealth of materials on traditional religion or comparing traditional religion and Christianity. Over the last couple of weeks, the staff has graciously allowed me to take over 1500 photographs of these documents, which I have subsequently compiled into pdfs for later reading.

The variety of materials is fascinating: they have everything from hand-written final essays for undergraduate courses to sophisticated theses complete with photographs. There’s quite a bit of overlap in the subject matter, but not in the precise locations of study. This gives me all kinds of ways to compare what I’m seeing with what others are seeing now and have seen in the past.

I also secured permission to get inside one of the display cases to take pictures. Most of these are things I’ve seen elsewhere, but they’re nicely labeled and displayed here.

It was some kind of sign that these are the things I saw when I walked into the front lobby of the CRC! Moreover, the staff is wonderful, and I have been so productive in this place. Thanks to the Diocese of Jinja for one of the best-organized library/archive facilities in the country.

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Back to Busoga

One of the challenges of doing work in two regions is that I’m constantly torn between where and how to spend my time. It’s not just about how much time; it’s also about the quality of the time and the nature of the work done and the people I do it with. Well, last year I had some extraordinarily productive weeks in Busoga, the eastern region of Uganda. I wasn’t there for that long, and at the time things seemed to move slowly. However, I got some of the most intriguing footage, the most informative interviews, and most importantly, some great opportunities to step outside Buganda in order to better understand what I was seeing. Therein lies one of my best reasons for continuing to work in two regions: I gain valuable perspective from seeing cultural and ritual similarities and differences.

I had been anticipating this return to Busoga for some time. I had important follow-up questions after reflection on the materials from last year’s trip. I also really wanted to see my friends. Sadly, my first visit was already overshadowed with bad news. A dear friend, the first muswezi healer I met in Busoga, had lost his wife several months ago. When I got to his place, he added that he hasn’t been able to work outside his compound much lately because his legs have been bothering him (presumably arthritis–he’s 85). Nevertheless, Kabindi greeted me warmly and was happy to talk follow-up to the rituals he took me to last year.

Following our reunion, Kabindi asked me a favor. He had left a bag behind at the compound of a drum-maker whom we visited last year. Although he’d acquired a car in the last year, he hadn’t been able to make it over there, or use it much at all for that matter, because of his legs. I couldn’t have been happier to have some way to help him after nearly four years of really instructive interactions with him. I brought the bag back and even got to replace a damaged piece from my drum collection while I was at it!

My next trip took me to another group of friends in Nawandyo who really took me places last year. Kyambu and his family showed me amazing hospitality, complete with milk tea fresh from the cow, and weeks of fascinating ritual last year. Naturally, I had some follow-up questions after having been home to try to understand my materials and present them to a couple of different audiences. Mzee Kyambu invited me to take a seat next to him in the small shade of his eissabo (shrine).

There he and his son, Andrew, gave me a ninety minute interview of extraordinary value. Two days later, they followed it up with another, shorter session. I’ve been so grateful to meet with hospitable kindness in Busoga, and those who have shown it to me have become truly valuable teachers. This latest body of work helps me to clarify some lingering questions and more effectively compare Soga ritual with what I’m seeing in Buganda. Now it’s about continued access to really solid language experts who can help me analyze and interpret these materials!

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To the Village!

Today I’m off to Masaka for a wedding of two spirit mediums. This is a truly rare event, so it’s really exciting from a research perspective. But if you need other reasons to get excited about leaving Kampala…

But for something much more exciting than Kampala congestion, see Sean Cooke’s other gorgeous photos. The wildlife stuff is particularly good. He’s captured some of the most popular reasons for people to visit Uganda. Enjoy!

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Okay, okay, I’ll try harder…

It’s been almost two months since my last post, and that one was recycled.  I wouldn’t have given a second thought to this, but then people approached me at two separate conferences to inform me that they either follow me on Twitter, read this blog, or both.  Thank you, then, to the few faithful readers who abide long absences and the strange stories that punctuate them.  Despite my best efforts, this blog in both of its forms has been primarily a travel blog that keeps family and friends informed of my activities.

C’est la vie!

Alas, I am about to embark upon the final phase of my dissertation field research.  So thanks as well to the American taxpayers, who will underwrite this most recent portion of the project.  So, as usual, I will undertake this portion of field reflections as a less formal form of fieldnote.  I leave in a little less than a month.  Enjoy the ride!

Until then, it’s Christmas photos, hopefully those featuring my dog in various ridiculous costumery…

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New Directions in Research

Okay, so I’ve been teasing along with this for months now, dropping hints about a return trip to Uganda.  At first it was simply hopeful (as in someday), but it’s been more than that for weeks now.  The truth is, two weeks after I got back from the last trip, I received a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) Fellowship.  I haven’t exactly kept this a secret or anything.  It’s just that this is a windfall that I had written off as so unlikely it would never happen.  It’s humbling to know how many more deserving applicants could be out there.

One of those applicants comes from FSU’s beleaguered Anthropology Department.  I claim Anthropology as a kind of disciplinary home away from home on campus, and I have great respect for their students and faculty.  So it is with bittersweet admiration that I congratulate  Bryan Rill.  Bryan works on issues that are very close to home for me, and I can think of no more deserving candidate for this fellowship.  Congratulations, Bryan.  While we’re at it, congrats to your colleagues on three NSF Dissertation Improvement Grants.  Maybe FSU will see fit to reconsider some if the more unfortunate budgetary decisions of the past few years in light of your achievements and those of the distinguished anthropology faculty.  Maybe.

FSU has done well in the past few years with national and international fellowships at the undergraduate level, thanks in no small part to the Office of National Fellowships (ONF).  There are, however, strong graduate students at FSU winning other awards.  Jason Hobratschk in the College of Music and Victoria Penziner in the History Department both snagged Fulbright IIE grants this year.  Kimberly Leahy is among 22 others to do the same since 1985, but it’s interesting to note that a disproportionately large number of those have come since the ONF opened.  BTW, I’ve had the privilege of knowing both Jason and Vicky for a few years, and I know both of their projects will yield fascinating results.

These accomplishments and others across campus in the past few years have started to make FSU look more like a Carnegie Doctoral Research Institution, and it seems the university is starting to take that role seriously.  After a tremendous success rate with the pilot of the ONF,  The Graduate School announced the opening of a new Office for Graduate Fellowships and Awards (OGFA)  this semester.  It’s about time.  ONF was really gracious about helping graduate students with fellowship applications (my own included), but even their staff recognized a major gap between their own undergraduate focus and the faculty-only nature of the Office of Research.  I applaud FSU’s efforts to help more graduate students secure outside funding through the new OGFA.  In fact, its sole staff member has already been very supportive as she administrates these new Fulbright-Hays and NSF awards.  Having watched similar programs help generate thousands of research dollars for students at other institutions, I am confident that the OGFA will be a successful project for FSU.

I offer a few critiques here even as I champion FSU’s recent efforts to make graduate research a priority, and I do so at the risk of soiling the extraordinary sense of gratitude I feel for having been selected as a Fulbright-Hays Fellow.  This is the most honest brand of school spirit: ONF is great, but OGFA is proof that we can do better at the graduate level.  The next step must be to support the academic programs and professors that foster bright students and award-winning ideas! (Ahem: ‘Noles Need Anthropology)

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