Graduate Student Summer: Academic Exploration in Senegal and Kenya

By Paulina Barrios

Being a rising third year graduate student is a stressful moment for many of us; we are transitioning from coursework to thinking about our research project more seriously. The process of defining something has always been a daunting task to me, it is riddled with choice, with the pressure of truly understanding whatever it is you must define. When defining our research we must read or engage with all previous definitions, balance our interests with what is in our capacity to actually do, and so on and so on. This involves also preliminary research, which may vary from reading a gazillion texts to field work or archival research. All this can become extremely overwhelming, particularly when one is strained for resources.

Two moments were particularly challenging in my case: obtaining sufficient funds to do all the field work I ambitiously wanted to cover this past summer; and performing the interviews and participant observation once I was there (particularly because I am mostly trained in the humanities). I was able to respond to the first challenge through mobilizing resources within Rutgers University with the support of my program and my professors’ letters of recommendation when necessary. The second is a challenge that continues as I plan for longer field work in my fourth or fifth year, but the methods and tips obtained through qualitative methods classes and informal conversations with my friends trained in social sciences were there to guide me and will continue to frame my work.

In Nairobi National Park June 2019

Thus, my work this past summer was framed under the goal of granting more clarity to my project and stemming this tide of anxiety. Thanks to the Comparative Literature Program, the Center for African Studies, and the Off-Campus Dissertation Development Award through the School of Graduate Studies at Rutgers, I was able to fund an ambitious 5-week stay in Dakar, Senegal and Nairobi, Kenya. These funds were crucial for me to perform this much needed field work. Summer research funds for graduate students are central to developing research questions, collecting material for analysis, and broadening our networks.

As such, my time was divided between Nairobi and Dakar with a focus on reaching out to activists, scholars, and writers. For the first two weeks and a half I stayed in Nairobi where I took intensive private Swahili lessons to improve my knowledge of the language, volunteered at a non-profit advocacy organization, interviewed scholars in African arts and literatures, spoke with feminist and queer activists, as well as attended a spoken word performance. My stay in Dakar began with the 5th International Conference of the Dakar Institute of African Studies where I met a diverse group of graduate students and professors based in Senegal for their own research. Additionally, I was able to meet with professors working in Postcolonial African literature at Cheikh Anta Diop University and interview activists. During my last days in Dakar I was able to attend a slam poetry performance and meet with local artists. In both cases part of my goal in visiting these cities was to buy local publications, in Kenya I bought texts in Swahili to continue studying the language and in Dakar I bought local children’s literature and a novel by Calixthe Beyala, a Cameroonian writer, in French. These materials are often difficult and expensive to obtain in the United States, if not outright impossible to find.

Gorée Island June 2019

Therefore, my short time in both cities, although insufficient, was highly productive. It helped me obtain materials, both written and oral, that may become part of what I engage with directly in my dissertation. It also pushed me to improve my interview praxis and integrate the sociological methods I learned from courses in Sociology, both during my Masters in Mexico and my PhD here at Rutgers, as well as feminist knowledge production practices I learned in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at Rutgers. It forced me to reflect on what it implies to combine social science and humanities methodologies in a research project centered under Comparative Literature. Speaking with such a varying group of people helped me broaden my network of contacts, whom I aim to remain in contact with. This summer was a first exploration of how I might engage Latin American and African feminist literatures and I am now excited to further frame and develop my research.

This brief and quick summary would be incomplete without recognizing the invaluable support from Prof. Ousseina Alidou in helping me plan my stays and sharing her networks with me; Prof. Fred Mbogo based in Nairobi and Prof. Saliou Dione based in Dakar who were both extremely kind and helpful by presenting me to colleagues and activists, as well as offering bibliographic references; Ms Gacirah Diagne, President of Association Kaay Fecc, who made invaluable suggestions on who to contact in the world of dance, hip hop, and theater in Dakar; and Ms. Catherine Nyambura, Gender Advocacy Lead at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Kenya Forum, with whom I collaborated during my stay in Nairobi and was extremely helpful in opening up Nairobi’s activist networks to me.

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