Episode 21: Community-Based Documentation with Sheena Shah

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2020/06/19/ep-21-community-based-documentation-with-sheena-shah/

[introduction music]

Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Sheena Shah. Sheena is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Hamburg in Germany. She is currently working on a 2-year project documenting siPhuthi. Sheena holds a PhD in Linguistics from Georgetown University in the US and an MA in Modern and Medieval Languages from the University of Cambridge in the UK. After completing her PhD, she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and a Lecturer in Linguistics at SOAS University of London. Sheena has conducted linguistic fieldwork on a number of languages in Africa, with her regional focus being Southern Africa. She has worked on several indigenous click languages spoken in Southern Africa, including the endangered N/uu, spoken today by only two speakers. Sheena’s mother tongue is Gujarati, and for her PhD, she worked with the Gujarati diaspora communities in London, Johannesburg, and Singapore. She has also worked on German varieties spoken in Namibia and South Africa.

Today’s episode is one that I’m really excited to share. Sheena is someone who I’ve known for a while. I met her when we were both at SOAS when she was a lecturer there, and I think her focus on community-based research and prioritizing the needs of the community in the projects that she works on really came through in this interview. She’s someone who has done a lot of fieldwork in a lot of varied contexts and varied communities. She’s worked with diaspora speakers, and she’s also worked with quite rural communities, especially during her current project. She’s also someone who was recently in the field but had to cut her fieldwork short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in this episode, she also shares what that was like and how she navigated that situation.


MTB: I’m so glad to talk to you, Sheena. This is so exciting.

Sheena Shah: For me, too. Thanks so much, Marti.

MTB: Oh, you’re welcome. To start, can you share with us how you started doing linguistic fieldwork?

Sheena Shah: So, it was while I was doing my BA degree in England, I was studying French and German at the time, and part of my degree involved spending a year abroad in a country where the language you’re studying is spoken. So for me, that meant either a French-speaking country or a German-speaking country. And I was eager to go outside of Europe, and I was especially keen to go to Africa. And for this year abroad, I really wanted to go to a German-speaking country, but this also meant that my options were somewhat limited. I knew of countries outside of Germany where German was spoken, but they were all in Europe, and I remember telling one of my professors, Theresa Biberauer (and I should mention that she’s from South Africa), and she immediately said to me, “Why not Namibia?” Namibia is a former German colony in Southern Africa where German is still spoken as a mother tongue by about 20,000 people, so that’s about approximately 2% of the country’s population. And at the time when she mentioned Namibia to me, I knew nothing about the country, but I was intrigued, and I started reading up about it, and I guess at that moment, I knew this is really where I wanted to go.

And during this year abroad, we were required to write a BA dissertation, 10,000 words, and I decided that I wanted to write my dissertation about the German spoken in Namibia, and especially on how contact with English and Afrikaans had had an impact on the language. But since very little had been published on Namibian German at the time, it meant that I had to collect my own data, but I had zero training in linguistic fieldwork or even in collecting any primary linguistic data, so of course it was all rather daunting. But I think what really helped a lot was that I was in Namibia for a long time. I was there for 14 months in total, and this gave me enough time to get to know the community well, to build close relationships with the Germans there, and to really feel part of the community. Some of my closest friends to this day are friends I met in Namibia, and this obviously made recording and collecting data much easier, as I was essentially collecting data from people I knew very well. And I think another thing that helped a lot was that I was working on a language which I spoke and where I also spoke, or at least I understood the main contact languages, English and Afrikaans, and this was very different to projects I worked on after this. And I think this year had a huge impact on me. It shaped a lot of my future work, my future kind of research interests, ideas I had, and I continued to work in Southern Africa after this, and also on minority languages. And I’m pretty certain that, had it not been for this year, I might never have thought about doing what I’m doing now.

MTB: Wow. That’s really interesting. You don’t hear so often about people doing fieldwork while they’re working on their BAs. Did you find the specific community through your supervisor, or how did you make contact?

Sheena Shah: So it was very much, when I got there, I just was kind of trying to meet people. I took a long time, I think, just trying to get to know people before I did any recording, and I think that was really important, because I was able to gain their trust. They got to know me as kind of a friend, and obviously when I then started recording, it was very much like talking to a friend, so it made things, in a way, quite easy.

MTB: Less awkward.

Sheena Shah: Absolutely, yeah.

MTB: So you’ve done fieldwork in several communities. Can you give a brief overview of your fieldwork biography?

Sheena Shah: Absolutely. I’d be very happy to. After my time in Namibia, I knew that I wanted to do more of this kind of work, so I decided after my undergraduate degree to enrol in a grad school program in the US, and I ended up spending the next six years in Washington, DC. And during this time, I was part of several projects that involved fieldwork. The first project that I was involved in during my time as a grad student was on an indigenous click language spoken in Namibia. I knew after my year abroad that I really wanted to go back to Namibia, so I was looking for any possible opportunity to do so.

And since I was living in Washington, DC, at the time, which is close to the NSF, the National Science Foundation, I approached a program officer there, Doug Whalen, and I told him about my interests. And he put me in touch with two professors, Amanda Miller and Bonny Sands, and they had an NSF-funded project on a Namibian language. And as luck would have it, they were looking for a research assistant for their project, so I ended up spending my first summer as a grad student in Northern Namibia with them collecting phonetic data on an endangered underdescribed indigenous click language called ǃXun.

And I should probably mention at this point that I’d only had one semester of phonetics and phonology before our trip to Namibia, and although clicks had been mentioned in the course, we obviously hadn’t gone into much detail. So in many ways, finding myself now about to go to Namibia to work on this click language, it was all very new to me, and it was a rather steep learning curve, so I was pretty terrified. And I think… I mean, this trip, we were in the field for three months, and for the most part, we were in pretty rural areas, so in small villages, farms, and townships. So one of the things that we were doing, we were using ultrasound technology to look at how rare click sounds are produced and to see and track the tongue as it moves in real time. And this was all very new to me, and I found it really exciting to be doing this kind of work, to be part of the team, and after this trip, I knew that I would love to do more of this kind of work.

And then the time came for me to start thinking about my PhD topic. At one point, someone suggested to me that I could think about working on my own language, Gujarati. So Gujarati is an Indian language spoken in the state of Gujarat, but there are many diaspora communities around the world. I’d never really thought about working on Gujarati, and to be honest, at first I wasn’t even sure if I really liked the idea. It seemed in a way too familiar, not as exciting.

MTB: Like it would have been too easy or…

Sheena Shah: Exactly. I think I was thinking, “It’s too easy. It’s…”

MTB: You want to learn new things.

Sheena Shah: Exactly. “I want to learn new things. I want to learn a new language. I want to meet new people,” but then the more I was reflecting on my experiences of growing up as a second-generation Gujarati in the UK, having Gujarati as my first language, but now being more proficient in English than in Gujarati, the more I was interested in talking to others about this, too. And I ended up, for my PhD, focusing on factors affecting proficiency among heritage learners of Gujarati, and for that, I collected data from Gujarati speakers in three countries. So this was in Singapore, South Africa, and England.

MTB: Oh, wow. That’s really interesting. That’s so cool.

Sheena Shah: Yeah. It was, I mean, something very unexpected, but it’s something that I really actually, in the end, enjoyed doing. And then I was close to finishing up my PhD at Georgetown, and then the perfect postdoc opportunity came up in South Africa, and I found myself moving to Cape Town after my PhD, and I spent the next three years working with speakers of N/uu. N/uu is an indigenous click language which is spoken in the Northern Cape Province in South Africa, and at the start of my project there in 2013, there were only five speakers of the language, and today, there are only two speakers left, so it’s a highly endangered language. And I was working with the remaining speakers, and specifically with one of them, Katrina Esau, to document her language for the purposes of revitalization. And then more recently, since 2016 — well, actually, since 2018 — when I started my postdoc here in Hamburg, I’ve been working on siPhuthi, which is a Bantu language spoken predominantly in Lesotho.

MTB: That’s so cool. That’s really interesting. I feel like you have worked with so many different communities, you have a really well-rounded experience of like diaspora communities, working with heritage speakers, and it’s really, really interesting.

Sheena Shah: I think, I mean, with many of these projects, it sounds quite different, but there were some central themes I think in terms of also research interests. I worked on quite a number of like sociolinguistic topics, and also I guess my regional focus has, for many of these projects, been Southern Africa.

MTB: Can you talk more about how your role as a member of the Gujarati project had an impact on your research?

Sheena Shah: So this is something that I thought about a lot. So when I was working with the Gujarati diaspora community, I was, of course, in many ways, an insider, and I tried to be mindful of what that all entailed. So for example, in England, I was a member of the community that I was conducting research on, and there were, of course, advantages to this, but there’s also disadvantages that come with this. So I was well known to the participants. I mean, many of them were my friends. I was well known to their parents, to the community, and on the one hand, this encouraged participation. And also, I think the fact that I knew Gujarati meant that participants could freely code-switch and use Gujarati terminology during the interview without having to explicitly say, “Oh, this word means this,” or, “This word means that.” But on the other hand, I think my insider status might have also prevented participants from always being open and honest with me, because they might have thought, “Okay, I need to observe some expected group norms and values when I’m interacting with someone like me because I’m an in-group member,” especially with regards to certain somewhat more taboo topics in Indian culture which came up sometimes in interviews. I think for the most part that participants did give pretty frank responses and that they were eager rather than afraid to talk to and open up to someone they knew, and I think in some cases, they also felt, “Okay, Sheena, she can perhaps also relate to what we’re saying because she’s grown up like we have.”

I think in the other two sites, my position was, of course, somewhat different. So in Singapore and South Africa, I was also there working with the Gujarati community, and I was considered there, I would say, both an insider and an outsider. So I was an insider in terms of ethnicity, in terms of language. I was also roughly the same age as many of the people I was interviewing. But I was an outsider in terms of nationality and sometimes also in terms of religion. And in Singapore, the Gujarati community is really small, and I think the fact that I wasn’t from there had a huge advantage. So I remember one student telling me that he was curious that someone from England was interested in interviewing him, and that’s why he took part in the study. But I think one disadvantage when you’re not part of the community is that it takes a much longer time to gain access to the community, to establish contacts, to establish the trust among members of the community and also potential participants, and I think you have to be very careful of this and very mindful of this, and to allocate enough time for this so that… I mean, I think the way you deal with this can really negatively or positively influence how your project progresses. So for me, I had help with the recruitment process through a well-known and respected teacher in both Singapore and South Africa, and I think that made it easier and faster to recruit participants, but it also reduced the number of potential participants who declined to participate.

MTB: Yeah. That’s an interesting dynamic of like you’re an insider in some ways, but you’re an outsider in others. That sounds like a very interesting role to navigate.

Sheena Shah: I think so, and I think it’s something, you know, you should just kind of critically think about and be mindful of when you’re conducting the research. I think your role in general, whether you’re an insider or an outsider or somewhere in between, I think this is something we should be thinking about when we’re doing fieldwork.

MTB: Yeah. Absolutely. Definitely. Can we talk more about the community you’re currently working with, this siPhuthi, right?

Sheena Shah: Yeah. Sure. The community I’m currently working with, they’re the baPhuthi, and the language they speak is siPhuthi. So siPhuthi is a Bantu language, and for the most part, siPhuthi speakers live in Lesotho, and I say “for the most part” because there’s also a very small community of siPhuthi speakers in South Africa. It’s not completely clear how many speakers there are of siPhuthi, so the figure that’s kind of been in circulation over the last few decades is 20,000 speakers in Lesotho, but that’s not based on any census or any survey. And I guess, based on the fieldwork I’ve done so far, that this figure is too high.

And as with many other minority communities elsewhere, the baPhuthi and their language are marginalized. They’re widely ignored in the national context of Lesotho. The two official languages of Lesotho are English and Sesotho. Sesotho is also one of the official languages of South Africa. And siPhuthi, it has no official or national status in the country. It’s not used, for example, for teaching. It doesn’t receive any governmental support. There are no materials in the language, so no teaching and learning materials, no grammars, no dictionaries. It’s also not used in national radio or TV broadcasting. And in terms of culture, so much of the unique culture of the baPhuthi has been lost, so they’ve assimilated very much to Sotho culture, so to the dominant culture. And even though their language is still spoken, it’s under heavy threat of being replaced by Sesotho, so only some families still speak siPhuthi in the homes, and this means, obviously, that only a few children are still acquiring the language.

So the communities are also scattered. They live in pretty remote mountainous areas in two districts in southern Lesotho. Most of them live in quite modest conditions, so without access to electricity or running water. There’s also poor infrastructure in terms of roads, in terms of transport, also in terms of housing. And the children there, they have to walk very long distances to go to school, so this obviously has a huge effect on enrolment and retention rates. They’re often extremely low in this part of the country. And this is especially the case among the boys, so the boys there traditionally herd cattle and sheep and goats, and they tend to then spend several months away from the settlements. They’re grazing the animals in the high mountain pastures. So there’s two main valleys where siPhuthi is spoken: Daliwe and Sinxondo. Daliwe is considered to be the heartland of the siPhuthi language, so anytime you ask any siPhuthi speaker from anywhere in the country, “Where can you find siPhuthi speakers?” they’ll all tell you, “Go to Daliwe. That’s where the ‘real’,” and I’m saying “real”, obviously…

MTB: “Real”. Yeah.

Sheena Shah: … in scare quotes, and that’s where the “real” speakers of siPhuthi are. So, I mean, of course it’s clear that siPhuthi is endangered. It’s in risk of being replaced by Sesotho, but what’s very encouraging is that in more recent times, some community members have initiated language maintenance efforts, so there’s an association called Libadla le Baphuthi, and this literally means “Association of the baPhuthi”. And this was formed, among other things, to promote the use and the revitalization of siPhuthi, and the members are very active in the activities. And this is a group I collaborate with very closely, and I can talk more about that later if you’d like.

MTB: Yeah. Okay. Cool. Okay, so you’ve gone through some of the communities you work with and your fieldwork biography. Can you say more about your main research interests?

Sheena Shah: Sure. So I’m really interested in language contact, so for example, what happens when two or more languages are in contact with one another, what happens to people’s languages in bilingual settings — or actually, what’s more often the case, multilingual settings. How do languages change, and why do they change, or why don’t they change? So my initial interest in language contact began, of course, when I was working on German in Namibia, and German in Namibia is in contact with English and Afrikaans. And language contact as a topic has been a part of most of my projects since then in one way or another. So for example, in my current project on siPhuthi, language contact is an important component of the project. siPhuthi’s a Bantu language, as I mentioned before, and it’s been classified as an Nguni language, but it’s in heavy contact with the country’s national language, Sesotho, which is from the Sotho-Tswana branch. So I’m interested in how this contact is having an impact on siPhuthi, on the language’s morphosyntax, but also on its lexicon. And I’m also interested in kind of more sociolinguistic topics, so for example language maintenance and shift, language policy, language and education. So why do people choose, or don’t they choose, to maintain their language? What influences their choice? And, for example, what role can education play in language maintenance efforts or in language revitalization efforts, and what about language policy?

MTB: Can we talk more about that, about language education and language policy and how that relates to your work?

Sheena Shah: So one thing that I found in several of my projects is that communities might not necessarily be interested in the same things that we linguists are interested in. So they might, for example, want their language to have some sort of status, national status or official status. They might want textbooks in their language, or they might want, for example, that their language is on the local radio.

And this was very much the case with my last project on N/uu. So there have been a number of linguists from various countries who’ve worked on this language over the last two decades, and thanks to their great efforts and their great work, we know so much more about the language, about its sound system, about its grammar, but how do we turn all of what we know and what we’ve documented into products that are useful and can be used by the community? And if we do do this kind of thing, if we make products that can be used by the community, it’s often something we do on the side, because these are things that funding bodies don’t necessarily fund, although I think this is changing somewhat, and quite rightly so.

For N/uu, Ouma Geelmeid, who’s one of the last speakers of the language — and in fact, she’s the only speaker who’s actively teaching N/uu — she approached a linguist based in South Africa, Matthias Brenzinger, and asked him if he could help her develop teaching and learning materials in her language. Ouma Geelmeid had been teaching her language to children in the neighbourhood for a number of years, and she was running after-school classes basically on a voluntary basis, and she saw that the kids were coming to her, and they’d gone in the morning to their school, and they had textbooks in English. They had textbooks in Afrikaans. They had textbooks in maths. They had textbooks in all the subjects they were studying, but then when they came to her in the afternoon to learn N/uu, they had nothing, and she wanted that to change.

And this is what my postdoc project in South Africa was all about, so documenting for the purposes of revitalization of the N/uu language. And the first phase of the project involved a lot of classroom observation to see how Ouma Geelmeid was already teaching N/uu, so to make sure, for example, that the teaching materials that we were going to collaboratively make were tailored to her way of teaching, to her teaching style. We also had a lot of discussions with all those involved in teaching or learning N/uu. We wanted to collectively decide the best way forward, and these discussions, they were very time-consuming, lasting months, and sometimes it took a long time before decisions were made, but I think they were very important to have. And the scholars who had previously worked on N/uu, they’d established a sound inventory, they’d published a grammar. They’d also suggested orthographies. And their research formed the basis for our project on the development of N/uu educational materials. So we worked with the community for the following three years, and in consultation with them, we discussed things like the N/uu orthography, the development of educational materials, so posters, alphabet charts, and also the production of a N/uu reader, which is a textbook that we together made. And with the orthography, we discussed the previously suggested N/uu orthographies with the community members who then decided on their preferred writing options for the language. And I think here, it’s important to emphasize that practical orthographies are established and owned by communities, and our role as linguists is to facilitate the orthography development process and to provide information to the community to allow them to make the informed decisions.

And one of the outcomes of this project was, as I mentioned earlier, a N/uu reader. So this is a 160-page trilingual N/uu-Afrikaans-English reader. It’s illustrated — everything in the reader comes from the community, so the photos of the children, photos of the area where they’re being taught. And the school received 300 free copies of this reader, and it’s also freely available online.

I think what helped was that from the very beginning with this project, it was the community that approached the linguist rather than the other way around, and the product that came out of this project was one that was asked for by the community, so it wasn’t the linguist initiating. It was more the community initiating. And I think more and more of these projects need to happen that it’s the community going to the linguist rather than the other way around.

MTB: Yeah. That’s true. I saw a tweet on Diversity in Academia. Do you follow them? They’re really good value. I really recommend them. They retweeted someone saying how a lot of the communities, this tweet was about the North American context, but a lot of the communities are exhausted from researchers just showing up and saying like, “I want to do this research. I have the money, and I want to study like the exact same thing that Dr. John Doe studied last year,” but all these people are just like flooding these communities with their own questions and their own research problems, but the communities do have actual things that they want researched, and we should be trying to address those issues rather than thinking like we know best and we can just show up on the doorstep, get our PhD out of it.

Sheena Shah: Absolutely, and I think this has to happen from the very beginning. So these kind of discussions with the community, I think actually in fact when you’re shaping the project, it should be very much a discussion with the community. It should be a collaboration from the beginning. If you really want the project to succeed, if you really want the results that you’re hoping for, it has to be done like this.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Can you share some of the challenges you’ve experienced at your various field sites?

Sheena Shah: So there have been a number of challenges, and I’m not even really sure where to start. So one of the biggest challenge I have, and this is in my current project, is just in terms of logistics. So I’m working in a very remote, it’s often hard-to-reach settlements, and getting there is always a challenge. So the roads are really bad, if indeed there are roads. Otherwise, I’m finding that I’m hiking long distances in the mountains and I’m, of course, schlepping all my stuff as well, and this can be quite heavy. And it can get really hot in Lesotho, so when you’re high up in the mountains, you really, really feel it. And in the winter, it snows, so right now, it’s winter there. It’s snowing, and it can be really cold and icy, so it’s really important to plan to be there around the right time, because otherwise, everything can be even more challenging than it normally is.

There’s also very basic infrastructure in many of the settlements where I stay, so there’s no electricity, and things like housing, roads, transport, it can all be quite basic. In the settlements, you end up living in very modest ways. I generally camp when I’m in the villages, although I’ve also stayed with families that I’ve worked with. Another thing that’s really tricky is the water situation, so I usually either bring my own water, or I use water purifying tablets, but I have to also walk quite long distances to get the water, so just preparing all these logistical aspects of the project takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience, and that’s before you’ve actually done any of the linguistic work.

MTB: Wow. That’s so interesting. I went on my first pack-in, with everything I’m going to need for the weekend on my back, hike last weekend, and my backpack was probably only like 15 or 20 pounds, but after like the third or fourth mile, it felt like I was carrying my house on my back, and that was only for two days.

Sheena Shah: Completely. And exactly. I mean, I think the first time I definitely… I mean, I’ve definitely reduced what I need now, and I’ve really thought, “Okay, do I really need three T-shirts? Maybe not. I’m going to just do a T…” I mean, it’s these things. They don’t weigh a lot, but it all adds up.

MTB: Wow. I didn’t know that you do that. Mad respect. Can we talk more about how your fieldwork has been collaborative?

Sheena Shah: Sure. So many of my fieldwork projects have been done together with others. One thing is collaborating with other researchers. I think also for me, what’s very important is building close collaborative relationships with the speaker community, and it’s something I like to build enough time for. So collaboration can, of course, take different forms, so for example, it could mean that you involve speakers directly in your project in all decisions, or for example, even better still, that you train them to do the data collection. And for siPhuthi, right now we’re a very small team, and so far that’s worked pretty well. So all of us are involved in project activities, in all decision-making processes. Right now, there are just two community members, Letzadzo and Nzuzo, and both of them are extremely dedicated. They’re enthusiastic community members. They’re also well respected within the community, which is important, and we’ve, together, identified three others to join the team in the second stage of the project. So the idea is to train Letzadzo and Nzuzo in language documentation, which I’ve started doing now, and then to have them train others. My one big regret right now is that we don’t really have gender balance, so both community members are male. And for me, when we were talking about who we can have to join the team, so identifying others, one important factor that I was kind of very strongly kind of pressing was gender balance, and actually two of the three others that we’ve identified are female.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. That’s really important. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do fieldwork in the regions that you’ve worked in?

Sheena Shah: I think it’s really important to try and find out as much as you can about the country you’re working in and also the community you’re working with, and here I don’t just mean language-related topics, but also, and just as important, read up about the political situation, the educational system. Be up to date with the news from their country. What are the people talking about? What are the main issues which are being discussed? I think the more you know about a country, and its different groups of people, and the current affairs, the richer your understanding will also be of the community you’re working with.

One other thing I would suggest is trying to really learn the language you’re working on, so go beyond just the greetings and basic phrases, but use every opportunity you can to speak and to use the language, whether this means, for example, me using now siPhuthi when I’m about to send an email or a voice note on WhatsApp to my language consultants, I think this really changes the way your project runs. It changes also your relationship with the community, and I think they’re really happy to see this. So I definitely have noticed this now when I’m trying to use the language that their reaction is much different with me, and I think this is something that can kind of really strengthen the relationships and also strengthen the work you’re doing. And also, of course, it helps with analysis.

And another thing, think about giving back. And of course, we all know there’s many ways to do that. So it might mean, for example, driving someone somewhere or lending them your, I don’t know, portable solar panel, helping them to fix their car or, I don’t know, cooking a meal for them. I mean, it takes various forms. What I found in Lesotho is that printed photos are really valued, so I always make it a point when I’m there to take a lot of photos and then to bring back copies each time I go there, so I’ve had people who I gave a photo to two years ago show me the same photo two years later, and these are really treasured, and they’re kept safe, and they’re proudly shown to others.

MTB: Yeah. Alice Mitchell mentioned one of the ways that she gives back when she’s in the field is, she kind of becomes like a cell phone charging station with her solar panel.

Sheena Shah: Okay. So that’s what I’m doing as well. So one of the places where I often stay in Daliwe, so kind of the heartland of siPhuthi, there’s a school very nearby, and the children come from various parts of the mountains, and they always have to pass kind of my tent, and they hand their cell phones to me in the morning, and then they collect it on their way back when they’re going home, so I’ve become a cell phone charging station as well, but it makes you kind of very popular with the community. You get a lot of contact, and it’s actually fun. I mean, the kids are great. It’s… Yeah.

MTB: Yeah, no, that’s great, because you’re providing like a very practical service. Right?

Sheena Shah: Exactly, and they’re so happy. I mean, they’re really, really happy. Actually, they don’t often… Some of them don’t have phone reception or data, but they use their phone to play music, so having a charged phone is quite important, and so I feel, yeah, okay, if I can make them happy with this very, in a way — for me, it’s a very small thing to do — then that’s great.

I think another thing, what I feel is really important, is, just as it’s important to involve the speaker community in your project, I think it’s also very important to connect with local researchers. Find a way to involve them in your project. I think your project will be all the richer because of that, because they have many insights that you will never have or gain, and I think it’s also important to go beyond that. So identify and foster relationships with others. So for example, maybe local organizations, educational agencies. Learn about each other’s needs and skills. Develop shared goals and outcomes. These are really central to finding sustainable solutions for language documentation and conservation.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really good advice. Can we talk about… Wow. Can you share how the COVID-19 crisis has affected your fieldwork, and how are you continuing to work on your project from a distance?

Sheena Shah: So I guess like many of us now, I’m trying to find ways to continue with the project from a distance. I should probably mention that I was in Lesotho until quite recently, as I ended up being blocked there while on a field trip. So in March this year, I was conducting fieldwork in Lesotho, and I was in a remote, rural area far from any town or city, and this was around the time when the coronavirus outbreak started here in Europe, but I had very little access to information, and there weren’t any coronavirus cases in Southern Africa yet, so I felt pretty safe. But then I started getting worried messages from my husband and my friends, and they were telling me, “You should come home.” So I decided to interrupt my field trip and go home. But at that point, it was already too late, so flights were cancelled, and Lesotho was about to impose a nationwide lockdown. So I found myself blocked in Maseru, which is the capital of Lesotho, and this is a city I don’t know very well, and it’s very far from my field site. So it was all a very uncertain situation. It was really unclear whether it would be a matter of days before I could leave or maybe weeks or even perhaps months. I ended up spending just over a month stuck in Lesotho in Maseru, and I managed to get on the last repatriation flight organized by the German government. And in hindsight, this kind of unexpected extra time turned out to also have some positive outcomes. So for the most part, it allowed me to put a lot of structures in place in case I couldn’t go back to the field for some time, so I organized, for example, the necessary computer equipment for my main language consultants, and we together made plans for the way forward for the project. How should we continue with things? What should we prioritize? And another thing I started doing, and I should kind of add that this was the first time I did this, is, I started developing contacts with local NGOs and UN organizations. So these were based either in Maseru or elsewhere in Lesotho, and I was in touch with them to see, how could we work together, especially in terms of this COVID-19.

And now that I’m back in Germany, I’m working on the data we collected, and I communicate pretty much on a daily basis with my two main language consultants, so we use things like Facebook Messenger. Actually, it’s great, because that can be used for free in Lesotho, but also we communicate by other means like WhatsApp. And I’ve made arrangements that my language consultants could get phone credits every week for the next months so that we could discuss the data and exchange and share work.

And one of the other things that I’m really glad that we’re doing is, we’re producing information related to COVID-19 in siPhuthi. So all the information related to COVID-19 in Lesotho, it’s either in Sesotho or in English, but this doesn’t necessarily reach the siPhuthi speakers, so thanks to some of these local contacts I made in April, so with these organizations, UN, etc., and they’re doing some really incredible work on the ground, and also together with my language consultants, what we’ve started doing is translating materials produced in Lesotho into siPhuthi, so we’re using local materials which are in English or in Sesotho, translating them into siPhuthi, and then they’re disseminating them via social media, but also in print.

And I guess I would end with just some kind of reflections I’ve had about this pandemic and what it means for us who do fieldwork. It goes without saying that this pandemic is a real challenge for many of us, so we’re finding ourselves trying to be innovative in how we continue our projects. We’re trying new things out. Some of them might work, and others might not work, but I think it will be a real chance for us to really rethink how we do fieldwork. So we’re now in a situation where we’re far away, and as things currently stand, where it’s not clear when we can go back, or even when we should think about going back to our field sites and the communities we work with. So we’re now really in this situation where we have no other choice but to really, truly support and foster documentation not just with the community, but by the community.

MTB: Yeah. That’s really true. I really like how you put that, and I think that this is such a great opportunity for us to reconceptualize the way we run our projects and how the work gets done, and who is this work for anyways? Well, thank you, Sheena. This was so, so nice. Where can our listeners learn more about your work and what you’re doing?

Sheena Shah: So I guess the best place would be my personal website. So there I have information on my research projects, also copies of my publications, and I can send you a URL of that which you could link to the show notes, if you want.

MTB: Yep.

Sheena Shah: I’m also very happy to talk to people, so if anyone wants to email, I’ll be very happy to hear from them. If they want to have more details or just want to share kind of their experiences, I would love for them to get in touch with me.

MTB: Awesome. Thank you, Sheena.

Sheena Shah: Thank you so much, Marti. This was really enjoyable, and I love your podcast. Thank you.

MTB: Aw, that means so much. Thank you so much.

You’ve been listening to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco, and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!

[Outro music]