This guest blog comes from Emma Brunton, a first-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her thesis is titled: ‘Transformations in women’s spiritual power from precolonial to early colonial Rwanda’. Here, she discusses her experience conducting fieldwork from May to June of 2019.
When I started my PhD about eight months ago, I knew I would need to travel. My PhD looks at Rwandan female spiritual leaders, and how their position changed from the precolonial to colonial eras, so it’s pretty obvious that my work hinges around my ability to travel to and access foreign archives. Fieldwork was always something I had hoped for, so when in April 2019 I had received confirmation of SGSAH Student Development Funding and booked 5 weeks of archival research in Italy and Belgium it finally felt as though my project was coming together.
Rome was my first stop. I set off to find out the attitudes of missionaries from the Society of Missionaries of Africa – the White Fathers – and their sister organisation, the Missionary Sisters of our Lady of Africa – the White Sisters – towards Rwandan religion, and the women who practiced it. When I left Glasgow, I was not prepared for the sheer amount of information I would have at my fingertips. I arrived bright and early on my first day and, as I waited in reception to meet the archivist I was hit by the all-too-familiar panic of feeling like I had no idea what I was doing. Despite the archivist’s kind words of advice and sunny, kind demeanour, once I sat down in their library with a pile of missionary diaries in front of me that panicky feeling had hit a crescendo. There were approximately 34 mission stations in Rwanda, each producing diaries which documented daily life until well into the 1960s. Not only that, there were letters, magazine-like chronicles, annual reports, minutes from chapter meetings… the list goes on. It was information overload!
While, on reflection, part of me doesn’t really know what I was expecting – of course there would be an abundance of information! – I think the panic really set in from being in unfamiliar surroundings, away from home, and having to make decisions alone, without my usual support system there to bounce my ideas off of. So, when lunchtime came and the archive closed for two and a half hours, I left feeling utterly paralysed. I had come to Rome to look at missionary diaries, thinking these would be the most likely source of information – but what if there was some letter, somewhere in the many, many files that was my ‘smoking gun’, or key piece of evidence that would revolutionise my thesis. While I embarked on a search for food, I realised I had wasted the first morning of a short three-week trip sitting staring at pages of diaries, trying to plan my time, while taking nothing in and simultaneously having no strategy to resolve it.
I think the most important skill that Student Development Funding gave me was the ability to overcome these kinds of intrusive, paralysing thoughts which made me doubt my abilities – even if it was just for those three weeks! If my conversations with my peers at SGSAH and the PhD cohort as a whole are anything to go by, we all struggle on one level or other with similar anxieties surrounding the research process: for some imposter syndrome niggles away at us; for others, generalised anxieties about how to ‘do’ research best make it hard to complete any kind of work. Sometimes it’s just as ‘basic’ a question of what to actually do next. For me, being in a situation which forced me to go with the flow, adapt, and be flexible about my approach to archival work, and research in general, was an infinitely valuable learning experience. In the end, I decided to photograph as much as possible, and set cut-off points (temporal, usually) on what was essential data, and what was bonus or supplementary information. This will be further filtered – and potentially changed! – by oral history interviews in Rwanda later this year. I came away with about 4000-5000 photographs from diaries, chronicles, and some letters, which will be fundamental for my thesis, and more importantly a sense of pride in having conducted my first session of independent fieldwork.
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