Negotiating Entry to the Field

During the research process, researchers can assume that the desires and objectives of the participants are in line with the aims and objectives of the study. Initial meetings are spent introducing the researcher and their ideas to the interlocutors with the intention of showing them where and how they “fit into the research”. 

My research proposal, written in Amsterdam, outlined my research goals and how I’d go about obtaining data. I communicated the importance of my study convincingly to myself, my supervision team, my project, as well as my university’s ethics board. Arriving in Gatyani (Willowvale) in Eastern Cape South Africa, it became clear that true collaboration- whatever that looks like- would come at some cost.

My key participant, a black Xhosa woman in her late 50s, opens her home for a workshop where she teaches youth how to make brooms and placemats out of reeds she collected from a river near the village. The day before, we were at the river, cutting reeds to prepare for this workshop and I transported them to her home for drying. On the day of the workshop, I am at the back of the row of young women carrying food and supplies into her rondavel, and not seeing me, she ask “uphi (where is) uMama wekhaya?” Ngqula (2022:209) describes uMama wekhaya as a social category which relates to the gendered subjectivity of being the “mother figure” in the household who takes care of everyone. This figure in Ngqula’s (2022) fieldwork in another town in the Eastern Cape was a woman named Mamike who demonstrated care by collecting water for her family every morning. In Gatyani, I have earned this categorisation by collecting materials and bringing food for the workshops. This is a direct display of not only my social positionality in the study site, but also an accurate depiction of my positionality as a researcher in South Africa with foreign (Dutch) funding. 

My participant calls me uMama wekhaya even though she is old enough to be my mother because she recognises the power differential between us as engineered by class. This categorisation also reveals some kind of nurturing qualities and sense of responsibility she sees in me. In choosing to bestow this title on me, she commits me to fulfil my duties as uMama wekhaya by invoking her power in our interactions as an older black woman; a figure that I, as a young black woman, have unconditional and innate respect and reverence for. In pedestaling me as uMama wekhaya, she has counted on my tacit knowledge of respectability politics which she would probably not name in these terms. Fully aware of the position older women hold in many black African societies, she was counting on my cooperation as a child who was raised in an African home constantly being acquiescent to the authority of older black women to ‘play along.’ Without uttering the words, her objectives were clear; she wanted me to commit to keep the provisions coming to keep the project alive. 

I see this exchange as an example of how the politics of race, age, and ethnicity can topple the politics of class when doing research “at home”.

By Amanda Mokoena 

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