Monday, March 21, 2016

Connecting with place

My research focus in Sri Lanka during this Fulbright is cultural landscape ecology. Part of that is looking at the way people perceive their landscape. What are the boundaries and landmarks, the stories and narratives they derive from and assign to their physical space? How do they perform in their space and how do they use their space? 

In a setting where I don't speak the language I have had to build modalities of communication that are at once innovative and productive, even as they appear to be less than optimal. What can substitute for fluency? Yet around me I see people communicating like this all the time. Boys who are deaf and mute are given orders by their masters and they do the work. They in turn communicate with their superiors to clarify, ask questions, and report. Here the servers and others who are involved in hospitality take broken English for granted among the European guests. And they communicate as best they can making contact and fulfilling requests. 

"Broken" language, a misnomer, is better than no language. But language and its usage, as valuable as they are, are not the only way to communicate. Words can deliver lies with great accuracy, as I've learned here in Sri Lanka. It's also a fact that my questions to someone may lead their narrative in particular direction. I may get what I want but it's at the expense of the truth they want to tell. It's their story I'm after--to see things somehow through their eyes. I have to adjust my search to accommodate what my informants provide. This is a bitter pill to swallow in our "search" era. But I think it's the best way to get the story. And while it's not any single "truth" I'm after I can find many streams of storytelling worth listening to. Given that I am immersed in this world there's no source of information more valuable than the next. The goal is to be receptive to as many of them as possible. And to do with them what you can. 

So I began a little experiment. I had wanted to do map work with people, to have them show me their perceived landscape with its borders, boundaries, and zones of safety, zones of danger, zones of permeability and impermeability. For this project I had hoped to use 1:20,000 topo maps recently published by the Sri Lankan government. Since there's a large surveyor's office here in Batticaloa, and since surveyor's' offices are authorized outlets for government-printed map sales this should have been possible to accomplish. If you've been to Sri Lanka you know that things that "should" be doable often are impossible to do. This is especially true I've found with government and universities. And this phenomenon of withholding, hiding, obfuscating, and refusing is in itself information. 

With the impossibility of getting maps in front of me I needed to rethink my problem. Then it occurred to me to open my laptop and look with informants at the google map for target regions. This posed a problem that quickly obviates my need for topo maps. They would have been useless. People can't read maps. They can, however read Google satellite maps because they are essentially pictures. And these became our focus. 

"Where do you live?"

"In Sammanthurai, Sir." As if that were a place. But this teaches me this is a place. It's not Batticaloa. It's not Kalmunai. It's a distinct place and it's perceived as one. It carries identity and it confers identity on the people who live there. 

"Show me your house." Five minutes of searching, finding landmarks, going "up" on the map and "down" on the map. Focusing and refocusing, taking a wider view and a closer view. Finding landmarks and putting them in a spatial perspective with the informant. Giving the informant minutes to develop a vocabulary of place. This is a time that requires patience and silence and a bit of active participation on my part. I point out landmarks I think might be valuable, gas stations, churches, and schools. It may be helpful that I can read the English letters the maps are labeled in. Hadn't thought to change to Tamil!

Always with the young men (servers at my guesthouse) I talk to, home is oriented by finding the nearest playing field, called "grounds."

"Here. Beside the grounds, Sir." 

"You live there with your mother and sister?"


"This is close to Kalmunai." 


"In the war, was this place controlled by the government forces?" It may be unfair to bring in this question at this point. It introduces my intent. Who controlled this? Who did it belong to? This is a directed question but it's still open ended. 

"No Sir. The LTTE. Many Tamils used to live here. Many of them were killed. Many went away. Now Tamils (Christians) live in two parts of my village. 

"Show me."

"Here, (points to the southeast corner of town where he lives and here, in Weeramunai (northwest corner). I wonder where the dead or missing people lived and whether their community was contiguous in the past. 

"Can you go anywhere in town?"

"Of course sir. And here is the road we take to go to church." (In the next, much smaller town, Sorikalmunai). That church is very old. More than 2000, I mean 200 years old. We walk there on this road (points to zzz Road) for big holy days. Like Pascha."

We sit in silence for a few minutes. 

He volunteers, "Most of my town is Muslim now."

"Who owns these fields?" I ask, pointing to rice fields just to the east. The town is a sort of island in the middle of paddy. The statement that the fields are owned by Muslims contrasts with what Muslim informants have been telling Kim, that they are traders, not farmers. The narrative they report to Kim is heavily supported in the Kattankudy Heritage Museum I saw today. In the narrative of "traders" they count themselves as deeply embedded in Sri Lankan society and providers of invaluable service to the ancient rulers of the Island. A simple look at a map suggests another reality that could potentially be corroborated by looking at government records or such. But if you can't buy a simple map...

"Muslim people own those fields, Sir." I am silent. Waiting for what else he may offer. "Muslim people opening new private hospital in my village."

"All people can use the Muslim hospital?" I ask, thinking of the teaching hospital in Batticaloa with so many Muslim patients and their visiting families and the buses idling outside just before one, when visiting hours are over, to take people back to their villages.

"Yes, Sir. All people can use the Muslim hospital. But they don't need it. The Muslim people are sick more, Sir. They are less healthy and they need the hospital."

"Why are they less healthy?"

"Diabetes Sir. And other illnesses."

"Why these diseases?"

"I think diet sir. I think they eat beef."

"Do you have Muslim neighbors?"

"Yes. We are brothers there."

The informant has revealed perceptions of his neighbors and place with the help of a concrete picture of the physical place. He revealed the perceived importance here of ethnicity and religion  and he went further than my question, "who controlled this area?" by making an accounting of changes in the population. People moved away or were killed. Potentially these could provide me with many more lines of questioning. How? Where? By whom? But my informant is in his early twenties. How does he know how the dynamics here played out? I could ask anyway. I could ask what his mother told him. I've been trying to ask questions not about "what did you think" but "what did your parents say?" Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't. 

In this exercise I'm trying to connect people and their words to the physical map of their place. By feeling connected, by understanding the context of a problem or a space, and by participating in analysis of the problem, we come to understand the process of our understanding. This, I think, is the essence of metacognition. We apply metacognition to knowledge of place by understanding the context of where we live. The roads in a map become living places with a present, a past, and a future. They are routes for movement and they are static places for being. We find things along them. They act as connectors or barriers. The person showing them to me or better, finding his way down and along them, is participating in personal archeology of his place. He is building the place for me, his listener, by drawing information from and about it, communicating that information to me. He is connecting to his place and he is connecting me to it. 

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