Her Royal Highness Senior Chieftainess Nkomeshya Mukamambo II. She has been a chief in Zambia for 42 years, and is one of the most influential women in the country today. She was also one of the few female members of the Central Committee when Zambia was a socialist state in the 1980s.
My temporary home in Zambia.
I have just spent the last two days doing interviews with Mama Chibesa Kankasa, a heroine of the Zambian Independence Movement and the Minister for Women’s Affairs in the 1970s and 1980s. The Zambians had close contact with the Eastern Bloc countries, and there were a lot of exchanges between their women’s organizations.
Tomorrow I head into the National Archives of Zambia.
I am sitting in the airport in Nairobi, Kenya drinking a Tusker beer after a seven-hour flight from Amsterdam. I spent almost three hours in the Amsterdam airport after a six and a half hour flight from Boston. Before that, I spent two hours in Boston Logan airport after a two-hour bus ride from Maine to Massachusetts. My flight to Lusaka leaves in under an hour, but I need a cold beer. I have come from snow-covered Portland, with temperatures in the single digits (Fahrenheit) to Nairobi, where the air is thick with heat and humidity. My body is confused.
The Delta flight from Boston to Amsterdam was comfortable enough, but the KLM flight from Amsterdam was awful. The rows of seats in economy class were so close together that it was almost impossible to get out of your row when the person in front of you pushed their seat back. But I have made it to Kenya. I am in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time since the New Year’s Eve of 1997-1998 when I found myself in Buenos Aires licking the wounds of a broken heart in a bar off the Avenida de Julio.
No broken heart this time, just the desire to do some interviews with Zambian women who helped to fight for their country’s independence from British colonial oppression in the 1960s. Specifically, I am hoping to meet Mama Chibesa Kankasa who was the Secretary of the UNIP Women’s League during the 1980s and who visited Bulgaria before 1989 as part of a cohort of progressive African women working together with women in the Eastern Bloc. I am working on a new book and this trip is part of the research that I need to do to get it written.
I am now writing this on the plane from Nairobi to Lusaka, which doesn’t arrive until 11:30pm at the airport in Zambia. By the time I go through immigration and collect my luggage, it will be after midnight and I am hoping that a driver named Daniel will be there to pick me up. If he isn’t there, I am still not sure what I will do. I don’t know anyone in Lusaka. I don’t even have a working mobile phone. I don’t have any Kwacha and have to hope that the ATM machines in the airport are working. It is an adventure; something that is far beyond the contours of my comfort zone. It is exciting to be learning the culture and history of country outside of Eastern Europe.
On the other hand, I could be back home in Maine with my daughter, helping her with her homework, doing a jigsaw puzzle or ice skating on the Twombly Pond. I know she appreciates the time I spend doing things with her. My research goals and my desire to be a “good” mother often find themselves in tension. No matter what I do, I feel guilty. Either I am guilty that I am not spending time with my daughter or I am guilty for not putting in the time I need to work on my scholarship. For a moment, this situation makes me long to be an unencumbered graduate student again. But then I think back on all of the uncertainties and struggles and anxieties between Buenos Aires in 1997 and Lusaka 2013. I am grateful to be where I am right now.
The flight attendants are bringing food and drink. I see Tusker beer on the cart. I am here now. I might as well enjoy it. I’m crossing my fingers that Mr. Daniel will be waiting for me at the other end.
I am taking a bus from Portland, Maine to Boston to get on a plane from Boston to Amsterdam. From Amsterdam if will fly to Nairobi and then change planes once more to go to Lusaka, Zambia. More than 24 hours of traveling, but all in the service of ethnography. I am going to be interviewing some incredible Zambian women in the next weeks and will hopefully come home with some wonderful stories to tell.
A new interview on the Cold War and women’s movements under communism in Bulgaria.
Seminar on Women and Socialism in Bulgaria, 1958-1989
This last Saturday, I was invited to attend a seminar with seven other Bulgarian women in their 50s and 60s, women who had their education and their early professional development under communism. The seminar was organized by the Center for Women’s Studies and Policies in Sofia, and most of the participants were academic women in the social sciences. I was the only non-Bulgarian, and I was among the youngest although there were two younger Bulgarian women who also took part. The question that we had to focus on was how to write the history of women in Bulgaria during the communist period.
This proved a vexing query for most of the participants because they had mixed memories of the era. Mostly they agreed that it wasn’t as bad as most people want to believe it was, but they also recognized the plurality of possible experiences. They were deeply concerned about the possibility of writing an objective account of life under communism given their own personal recollections and memories. But at the same time they agreed that this history should not be written by younger scholars who had not lived in that era, nor should it be written by Westerners who might fall into Cold War stereotypes. One woman passionately recalled reading something written by a British scholar about how grey life was under communism. She disagreed, saying: “my life was full of color.” Another woman explained that she had been young and had gone to university and had borne her children during that time. “How could I not look back on those years and feel happy?”
So the question remained one of “objectivity,” and its achievement. A professor of history stated that there was no objectivity in history, and that historians had come to accept the subjective nature of most historical accounts. Another historian disagreed and said that there was historical truth and that there were ways of finding it if you looked in the right places. Another woman complained that all of the statistics under communism were manipulated by the government, and the second historian retorted that the statistics today are still manipulated. She argued that statistics are just as subjective as historiography, because subjective positions inform the questions that are asked. On this last point, every woman in the room agreed.
The problem remained. How can we write about something that we lived? The organizer marveled at that fact that something she had experienced in her own lifetime was now considered “history.” It made her feel old. One of the younger Bulgarian women explained that she was only a child when communism ended, but that she has wonderful memories of that time. I know from a different conversation that this young woman is deeply nostalgic for the communist era, despite only having lived in it as a small girl. She told me that everyone was happier then; they had a purpose. She explained to our group on Saturday that she was in 8th grade when the changes happened and she had no one to advise her on how to get on in a market economy. She thinks that things were simpler before.
There were great stories. There was never a moment when I could set my pen down. One was about the unavailability of feminine hygiene products under communism. Another one was about being a divorced mother of two children before 1989. One woman admitted that she had been a strident anti-communist for most of the 1990s and 2000s, but was only now beginning to see what communism was able to do for women and for ordinary Bulgarians.
The whole point of the seminar was a potential grant that might help fund research on this period. There were resources involved, and the vast majority of Bulgarian academics are underpaid and underappreciated for the work that they do. Not all of the women in the room were friends. There were professional and personal rivalries. So there was inevitably going to be competition and posturing.
And then there was me, the spoiled American, desperately trying to understand the experience of communism for women who lived in that era. My interests were scholarly for sure, but they were also personal. I wanted to believe that global unregulated carnivorous capitalism was not invincible. I needed to believe that there can be a more just way of organizing human society. And for better or worse, the only contender global capitalism had ever really had was state socialism.
Of course, twentieth century totalitarian communism was an unmitigated disaster in political and economic terms. Of that, there is no doubt. But in societal terms, the jury is still adjudicating. There were good things about the system, but the historiography of that last 22 years had ejected every bit of baby with the proverbial bathwater. This is not right. This is the residual of Cold War politics. It must be corrected.
But by whom? That was the question that the Center for Women’s Studies and Policies had convened this seminar to discuss. And who was I to be there in this intimate discussion: an interloper. An idealist in an age of realism? An optimist in a society of pessimists? I am not sure what was accomplished that day, but perhaps this was only the first step in the discussion. What I did learn was that scholarship on this period by women who lived during the communism is fraught with political minefields. It is hard to talk about a past that is not so far gone and that still has the potential of resurrecting itself in some new form.
No one wants totalitarianism back, but these women were wise to the fact that so-called democracy has its own serious downsides. Thus, positively reflecting on the past is often perceived as a critique of the present. This means that those in power: those who have accumulated enormous wealth (whether legally or illegally) are inevitably going to be threatened. With their ample resources they can influence the media and thereby control the terms of public debate. People who say that there were some positive aspects about communism will be shouted down by constant references to the labor camps and political purges. It is only the sudden availability of monies from Western foundations that can challenge this status quo. And maybe loud-mouthed Americans with an axe to grind against intellectual imperialism.
This all brings me back to the question of literary ethnography. Since I am now writing this book, I face so many difficult questions. What is the point of writing if there is no objectivity, and subjectivity is reduced to an individual point of view? Why bother telling these stories at all? How can I honestly represent the “ethno” in the “graphy”?
These questions are complex and have no easy answer. Human life is messy and not always easy to make sense of. I keep thinking of the communist women without feminine hygiene products and how embarrassing and humiliating it must have been for these professors to try to teach university classes with massive wads of unrefined cotton between their legs. But I also know what it is like to be an American Ph.D. student on the job market, trying desperately to hide the fact that I just had a baby. I remember the relentless day of interviews that ended with my breasts springing a leak in an interview with the deans and soaking through my brand new interview suit. My colleagues living under communism in Bulgaria would never have had to hide the fact that they were new mothers for fear of not getting a job. Indeed, they never really had to fear not having a job. They take these things for granted, just like I take for granted the availability of feminine hygiene products.
And perhaps that is where the “truth” lies, in the messy and complicated weighing of relative deprivations. That is where literary ethnography comes into the picture. The one thing I learned from this seminar is that there can be no science in writing about communism. In some ways, it has to be art. But it can be an art infused with the experience of those who lived through it, those whose own ideas and emotional attachments to the period are dynamic and conflicted. I want to try to capture this confusion somehow: the insecurity and the self doubt that accompanies the remembrance of happiness under a totalitarian regime. Sure, there was a lot of bad, but there was some good, too.
It is in finding the balance that a literary approach to ethnography can be our greatest ally.