Episode 7: Community Collaboration for Language Documentation in the Tanzanian Rift Valley with Andrew Harvey

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Martha Tsutsui Billins host – Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins and today’s interview is with Andrew Harvey, who is a junior fellow at the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He completed a Bachelor’s Degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, a Master’s Degree at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and a PhD at SOAS, University of London. He has conducted work on both the Gorwaa and Ihanzu languages and has received funding for projects through the Endangered Languages Documentation Program, as well as the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research. The title of his currently funded research is, “An initial description of Ihanzu: a Bantu language of the Tanzanian Rift Valley Area.” His interests include the languages of the Tanzanian Rift, their documentation and description, their formal morphosyntax and the histories and cultures of their speaker communities.


MTB : I’d like to welcome Andrew onto the podcast. Thank you for making time, Andrew.

Andrew Harvey: Well, thank you for having me.

MTB: Oh, you’re welcome. So to start, how did you start working in the Tanzanian Rift Valley?

AH: So, I guess probably the best place to start is in 2011 when I was doing a master’s degree in Linguistics at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. As a bit of background, Tanzania is home to around 120 languages and many of my classmates, my Tanzanian classmates, could not only speak English and Swahili but one or more of what they would call the local languages. So during that year, we spent lots of our time working with and thinking about these languages. How they were structured, how they were similar, how they were different. So, when the time came to go off on fieldwork for our dissertations, most of my classmates went back to their home communities and worked with their grandparents or their aunts and uncles. I’m Canadian, so for me there was no Tanzanian home community to go back to. Though I knew I wanted to do something documentation and description focused, I didn’t have any connection to a local language or language community. So I sat down with one of my mentors, named Dr. Josephat Rugemalira, and he gave me a bibliography of Tanzanian languages and told me to make a list of the ones that had nothing written about them. This actually produced a relatively long list because of the 120 languages spoken, most are either undescribed or under-described, so I came back to Dr. Rugemalira with this list and he told me that he thought I should do Gorwaa. The problem was at that time, nobody we knew had any connections in that part of the country, so the best I could do was get on a bus in Dar es Salaam at around five in the morning, travel up country for about 13 hours and get off in a town called Babati. I remember being advised by my seatmate to get a guesthouse before it got too dark because Babati wasn’t, in his opinion, a good place to be outside during the night. You know, he was right. So, after getting to Babati and finding a guesthouse, I proceeded to get ill for about ten days. I was in this small guesthouse in Babati and because Babati is up country and I guess just the time of year that it was, it gets very very cold at night and I remember being in this room with no glass on the windows, just these bars. The floor was made out of concrete and these blankets that were probably a little bit too thin, and I remember being kind of miserable and thinking you know, my friends are already out there getting great data with their bibis, their grandmothers, and their babus, their grandparents. Here I am in Babati, I’m ill, I can’t get out, I still don’t know anybody and I don’t even know what the language sounds like. So it’s like, where do I go? At the end of ten days, I started to feel better, I was eating a little better, so I emerged from my room. I was kind of pale and not looking that great, but luckily it was the day of the cattle auction when everybody around gets together and they all go to this big sort of open area that once a month is filled with people selling plastic shoes, rubber boots and spades, and blankets and pots and things. And of course, auctioning off the cattle, so lots of different animals and goats and sheep and cows. So, I went and I was probably the only white person there and so of course, I drew a little bit of a crowd out of curiosity, I suppose. People were saying, “well, what are you doing here?” And I said “well, I’m a linguist and I’m doing research on this language”. They said “well, you should go over there and speak to those guys.” So I kind of walked across the auction ground and met a guy called Andrea, who is still my good friend. He took me around for probably the following two weeks; all around the Gorwaa-speaking area. You know, did some of my first interviews, all out of the goodness of his heart. It was all sort of charity on his part, but he clearly wanted to help me. He is a Gorwaa speaker and he thought that it was worthwhile work, or that at least it was interesting; it was something to do. Sort of at the end of those two weeks, he introduced me to the people that I would end up living with basically any time I am in the field now. I still live with them; an older couple. Yeah, that’s basically step-by-step. It was all sort of serendipitous how I got involved. 

MTB: Yeah, that is so essential. I feel like you just need to meet one person and if they’re the right person, they can completely open the community up to you and vouch for you if they have the connections to speakers.

AH: Mhmm.

MTB: I have a couple speakers like that. They’re both retired but they’re just interested in taking me around to other people’s houses. They tell me, “ok, today we are going to go to this person’s house and listen to them. Then after that you have a meeting with this other grandma over here.” I would be lost without them.

AH: Yeah, it’s a community and that’s how they’re put together, right? You kind of start at one point and you know, you eventually get around, spend time with people and kind of get a rough idea. You kind of have to leave it to community members themselves because they know the lay of the land, they know who would be useful to work with. They would know people who have time, they would know the things that you can talk about. Not everything, but you know I think you have to use your own intuition as a field linguist for certain things but in a lot of cases these people are sensitive to things that we wouldn’t be. They can point out the things that they would find interesting, the things that we probably would find interesting as well if we looked at them enough.

MTB: Yeah, definitely. So when you were with your host family, you paid for your room and board by helping out around the house, right? 

AH: Yeah, yeah.

MTB: I saw your daily schedule and I thought, oh man that’s quite tight. Did you feel like it was a lot to be doing all those chores but also on top of that you have the job of doing your project?

AH: Yeah, I think my style of field linguistics, I’ve been told, is very intense and all encompassing. That doesn’t make it better or worse than anybody else’s way of doing fieldwork or field linguistics. I think it’s a question of, what do you feel comfortable doing? What’s the balance that’s healthy for you? And what feels right and what feels appropriate in the place you are working? You know, you can read hundreds of books about this stuff, but really what it comes down to is sitting down as a person and saying, ok what can I do? What works? For me, I like the diversity. I like the ability of getting up in the morning, sort of going out and taking the cows out a little bit into the yard. You just stand up and the sun was coming up and you just listen to them. Afterwards, you sort of go back once the solar panel was doing its thing…

MTB: Charged up?

Andrew Harvey: Yeah, charged up. You know, you’d be able to use your computer inside and then you could sit down in the shadow for a little while and work on your recordings. Then, in the evening you could just sit down and listen with your recording device and ask questions. So, there was a lot of variety to it and I think that kept me refreshed. At the same time, I understand and I respect this wisdom that it’s important to give yourself you time as well. I think that’s healthy. In some cases, you can’t do that or in some cases you just feel like you want to really go into it head first. Take this ‘just do it’ perspective. But I think that you have to be reflexive about it. You have to sort of be attuned with how you’re feeling. How do I feel about this? Do I feel like this is a sustainable pace? I’m feeling this way or I’m feeling run down or I’m feeling really energized. Where does that come from? You know, we need to pay attention to ourselves because that’s your most important piece of field equipment.

MTB: Yeah, that’s so true. I have such a hard time saying ‘no’ to people when I’m on field work. I feel really really bad and really guilty if somebody asks me to do something or go to something and I can’t do it. This last field trip, I did kind of try to set boundaries a bit more but yeah, that’s really good advice to try and check in with yourself and not burn yourself out too much.

AH: Yeah, because I think now and especially for people who are sort of just starting off, I think they feel like they have a lot to prove. They feel like to get funding they need to be this elicitation or data collection machine and go out and collect thousands of words or hundreds of hours of material. I can understand where that feeling comes from and I can sympathize with that. But really nobody knows the intricacies and excentricities or idiosyncrasies of your field situation. So, you really need to assess how much material can you realistically and healthily get.

MTB: Yeah, that’s so true. Can you talk about your main research interests in Gorwaa? And now you’re working in Ihanzu?

AH: So, basically I’m interested in the languages of the Tanzanian Rift. It’s an area of around, say 13 different languages, varieties of languages. I’m interested in their documentation, description, their formal morphosyntax and the histories and cultures of their speaker communities, especially that we can observe through things like linguistic arts and language context. So, in practice that means a lot of my work and methods are eclectic. So one day I may be using software to analyze Ihanzu nominal tonology, the next day I might be drawing phrase structure trees to account for Gorwaa word order. The next day I might be curating an archive of recordings and videos I’ve made of songs, stories, rituals. Things like that. So there’s a lot of different stuff and it’s very rich and that keeps it interesting and really stimulating. There’s a lot there to unpack.

MTB: And it’s very community-based as well, right? You’re heavily collaborating with the community for them to be the ones who are collecting the data and deciding what’s important and what should be gathered, right?

AH: Yeah, so I think I like to see my involvement with the communities in which I work as ideally this gradual transfer of the research agenda from the linguist to the speaker community. So, for example, when I began work with speakers of Gorwaa, the research agenda was virtually entirely in my hands. I decided what the research questions were, I decided how I was going to explore the language and discover the answers. I decided how I wanted to communicate the results. Several years back and fairly early into research for my doctoral dissertation, I came back to the field working with Gorwaa again and by virtue of the requirements of the academic degree, I had the research questions and the medium in which these answers would be communicated for this dissertation. But there was a lot more flexibility regarding answering these questions. So for this part of the research I took some time to talk with community members, and conversations commonly went something like, “you know I have these questions and I want to write a book about the results, how would you like me to go about looking for the answers?” Out of this came the idea of this community steering committee. So we met once a month and listened to the kind of recordings I had been making, and they suggested further things I could record and people I could speak with. This resulted in a collection of recordings from around 150 different Gorwaa speakers from different villages and different ages and different walks of life. We had genres including songs and divining rituals and dance. In short, a vastly richer and more interesting corpus than what would have been possible with my own personal knowledge, creativity and ability alone. Today, eight years from when the project started, we are coming to the end of a 12 month project in which four Gorwaa local researchers under the direction of the steering committee have collected over 200 hours of Gorwaa audio visual material, ranging from stories, local histories and discussions of traditional justice systems. Basically, what I did was I went back to the field site and worked with four young Gorwaa speakers and we kind of worked together learning how to use handicams and learning how to use audio recording devices, setting up tripods, recording metadata. After maybe two months of a lot of practical training, going and showing them how I would do it, and seeing what the results were and showing them how to put all the material together into the computer, they went out and became the researchers. Not only now has it produced recordings and videos of a quality that is essentially indistinguishable from mine, more importantly, the content of the recordings is more in depth and rooted in the local culture than anything I could have produced. They’re more attuned to these cultural cues. When somebody mentions a name, they can ask follow up questions, right?

MTB: Yeah.

AH: It probably makes more sense to have Gorwaa people asking these questions and conducting these interviews because they’ll understand much more about what is going on and the dynamics of the conversation. 

MTB: Mhmm.

AH: But there’s a lot more subtle stuff going on there.

MTB: Like you said, it’s good to have the community members interview the community members if you can, and if you have people who are interested. I have a terrible habit of just saying yes when I don’t know what is happening.

AH: I would generally just smile sort of stupidly. Now my Gorwaa is much better and much more fluent, so I can basically follow along a conversation. You know, I can speak a little bit and ask some questions and things but yeah, I think it just makes sense to rely on the skills of other people. And I mean they’re interested in their own culture so a lot of this part of the research was not really giving much direction just kind of being like, I know each of you have your different interests and different networks so why don’t we follow those as far as we possibly can? So the four local Gorwaa researchers have their own research interests and they come together once a week or so and they talk about what they recorded, the differences and how they can improve on it. So it’s become a real little community practice, right? That’s great I think.

MTB: Can you talk a little bit about how the goals of the community or the agenda of the community might be different from yours? I think you said something really relevant about how we need to check our biases when we go into a community where we’re an outsider. What we might think is important might not necessarily be the same dreams and aspirations of the community members and that’s something we should check at the door.

AH: I would have my goals. I’m interested in description and things like morphosyntax but these interests are, I would say, almost completely divorced from the interests of the Gorwaa community. Building these relationships with your community members, you need to understand that they probably have very different goals and desires from you. Really, the only way to mitigate that is to take the time and have those open and sincere discussions with the people close to you in the community. For example, and this is probably familiar to other linguists working on the African continent, are your community champions really viscerally interested in spearheading an activist campaign to revitalize their endangered language? Or are they really more interested in learning how to use a computer so they can one day start a business editing photos and creating music playlists? Only once we understand and respect each other’s motivations, can we really start to work with each other rather than one person working for the other.

MTB: Yeah, well said. Quickly veering off and going back to research methods, Kate Lindsey on Twitter brought up a question about indigenous data collection methods. She gave the example of training 12 year-olds in the community on how to use the video camera and take it out on their own to collect a corpus of jokes. Do you have any training methods like that where you were able to get some interesting data by utilizing the skills of the community or anything else like that?

AH: Yeah, I think that’s a good example. I think in the case of Lindsey it seems to have resulted in a very specific sort of data. I think that making sure that you are paying attention to the different elements that exist within a community, and focusing on that diversity of the people that you trained to go out and collect the data, makes a big difference to the types of material that you collect and that eventually makes its way into your corpus. I trained a woman researcher which was, and still is, sort of out of the norm. In Gorwaa society, women are the ones that look after the home, which is already a massive task and it takes an awful lot of energy and awful lot of skill and ability to look after a home. I asked a woman that I had known if she would like to go and do some research and be a part of the research team and be employed for a year or so collecting material. We welcomed her to the team and gave her the training and gave her a salary for around a year or so, and some of the material that she collected is entirely different from the guys or that I would have been able to collect. While we were out getting stories from men she was often going to her neighbors and asking, “you know that time so and so was sick, how did you look after them?” Or “do you remember when I was born? Do you remember how that delivery went?” Or “how do you cook this leaf from this species of tree when there’s a drought and all of your other crops fail? How do you harvest it?” “How do you turn this that we wouldn’t think of food into food?” So you’re getting a whole other side to a lot of the commonly accepted stories and histories. You’re also getting a whole other set of skills and knowledge and ways of looking at the world. Yeah, so I think that’s just one example of how building diversity into your team could really go a long way. I think one of my big regrets is I’ve still failed to engage Muslim Gorwaa speakers. There is a small minority of Muslim Gorwaa, the majority are Christian. I just feel like if I could eventually get to the point where I could work with a Gorwaa local researcher that was Muslim, I think again we would see so much interesting stuff coming out of there for a whole other sphere of the culture, and a whole other network of connections and individuals that as of right now, I haven’t been able to access.

MTB: Mhmm. What advice would you give to someone about to go into the field for the first time?

AH: So, I’ve said this everywhere and I hope it doesn’t come across as trite but when it all comes down to it, I think that the most important thing to remember is that our role as a linguist has to come second to our role as a human being. So, as much as successful field linguists is about formulating the perfect elicitation questions, finding the ideal consultants, keeping tabs on all the research data, the whole enterprise is meaningless if we have come away without having felt something. We have this amazing privilege of being given this access to a community, it might be our own, if you’re a local researcher going out, or it might be one that is very different from the one in which you grew up. We have that privilege of sitting down and talking to other people about it and learning about it. Learning about this conduit for culture and history and self expression, which is language, right? So, even if the budget is tight and you’re expected to do a lot, your timelines are compressed, the expectations for your corpus word counts are high, you know really nothing is more important than developing with our communities these relationships of trust and friendship and genuinely shared humanity. That’s the advice that I give somebody.

MTB: Yeah. Lastly, Andrew, can you tell our listeners where they can learn more about your work? If they want to read things about Gorwaa or Ihanzu, where can they do that?

AH: Probably the best place right now is my personal website. So, I guess you can just list that in the show notes, which is fine.

MTB: Yeah, i’ll link that.

AH: And I’ve just started off on Twitter and I always want to meet new friends, especially ones that can teach me things. So, I would love to get some recommendations of people that I can learn from. So I am on Twitter and yeah, people can just send me an email as well. I love to chat with people.

MTB: Cool, what’s your Twitter handle?

Andrew Harvey: It’s @andrewdtharvey

MTB: Ok, and I’ll link that as well and your email. Shall l link your email as well?

Andrew Harvey: Yeah sure, link my email, that’s no problem.

MTB: Ok, I’ll link everything

Andrew Harvey: Ok, link it. Link it all! [laughs]

MTB: Awesome, thank you so much Andrew!

Andrew Harvey: No worries, thank you.


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!

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