Ethnography of a Parasite
(Experimentos, estoy finalizando mi tesis de Ph.D. y voy a escribir aca la introduccion. se agradecen ediciones, comentarios y sugerencias. Todavia no se si me acepten algo como esto.)
6 months after beginning field work exploring the factors of human ecology affecting the transmission of malaria in the Northen Amazon Basin, Ramiro, one of the local field assistants that was a crucial part of this research endeavor, shows up tipsy and with a hale of alcohol in his breath.
-- Alejandro, worry no longer! --he says, without realizing that the lack of context for his clarification makes me even more anxious.
-- What should I be worried about, Ramiro?
-- Not a thing, I tell you. I have spoken with everyone.
-- Who is everyone?
After some discussion, he conveys that he was drinking with the commanders of armed forces present in the region (probably by an invitation he could not refuse). The names of such organizations are subject of political and journalist debate, but their chain of command is clear. Guaviare, once one of the most violent regions of Colombia, has vivid memories of the legacy that drug trade and war stamp on a region.
The commanders of whichever groups Ramiro spoke to approved our research, he said, and granted us permission to continue. A permission that I never requested, and for which I gave no explanation or interview. In his book about paramilitary forces in Colombia, anthropologist Aldo Civico says that the true power is exercised by paramilitary leaders in regions by being a latent presence without the need to hide from the population.
The power of armed groups, from all across the political spectrum, granted us permission to conduct our research on malaria because they deemed it important. Malaria is a Vector Borne Disease that affects thousands of people in the Americas each year, and is particularly acute among populations that live in the forest. Plasmodium parasites affect human populations living in the jungle without regard of political affiliation. As I was to confirm during my field work, medical commissions are among the most free moving professionals in a war zone.
During the data collection phase of this project, I was accompanied by two research assistants (Ariel Dombrowski and Alison Maasen), who contributed tremendously to the materialization of this effort. I was particularly concerned with the continuation of the project, and avoiding conflict with any form of force in the region, for which I instructed them to avoid all discussions about drugs, politics or violence. During this stage of field work, I realized that political opinion, at least in some regions of the world, is a privilege reserved for elites. When I asked about security of the place when I first arrived to San Jose, I was told by most of my local confidants that as long as I did not interfere with busynesses that were not my own, I would be safe.
Perhaps it was this lack of political vocation, or journalistic interest. Perhaps it was the nature of a project conceived to bring awareness and knowledge of a disease to the people who contract it. Whichever was the reason, I was free to operate and conduct my observations about malaria in two indigenous reserves, and it was probably because I did not have a political agenda.
Or did I have a political agenda? I grew up in an "emerging" country, as part of a privileged population that is able to finish a college degree and learn a foreign language. I was given an opportunity to study a topic of my choosing (provided that a committee would approve of my elaborations), in one of the leading research institutions in the world. When I compare myself to my local peers, most indulge in lifestyles that I cannot afford. My local peers in the university program, most a few years younger than me, stress about the state of the job market in our field, in an era that has been mostly marked by increased competition with little adjustment in demand by universities. During my days at Stanford, the department of Anthropological Sciences ceased to exist, and became one unit in combination with a program of Cultural and Social Studies in Anthropology, which became the dominant field in the new department. When I was among the Nukak, the hunter-gatherer society where I conducted my research, they often were amazed by my bachelorhood at such late stage in life.
During the 6 years of enrollment in the doctoral program, I have been paid to study. This is by international standards a privilege, since in many countries in both developed and developing countries, it is common to get loans for graduate education. In the US, it is deemed as an activity paid at rates lower than the minimum wage.
Do I have a political agenda? I have to finish this dissertation! This is my motto, but often I feel like a one man army. With no arms.