by Marta Morgado
Beginning fieldwork in west African countries
My experience with fieldwork in Africa began in 2004 with visiting Guinea-Bissau, a Portuguese speaking country in West Africa. In that year, the president of the Guinean Association of the Blind visited the Portuguese Deaf Association. They were asking for expertise on how to educate deaf students arriving at their school for the blind. As a teacher in the largest deaf school in Portugal I was immediately captivated to go there voluntarily. In 2005, I went to Guinea-Bissau with Mariana Martins, a hearing linguist working for the Portuguese Deaf Association.
We gave training on bilingual education, the importance of using local sign languages and involving local deaf communities to educate deaf children, and assisted with the establishment of a new school for the deaf (Escola Nacional de Surdos) and a deaf association (Associação de Surdos da Guiné-Bissau). While we were there, we were lucky to witness the emergence of an autochthonous sign language: Língua Gestual Guineense – LGG, a language that quickly developed in regular meetings of large groups of deaf children and youngsters, especially in school. Later, we also collaborated with schools for the deaf in two other Portuguese-speaking African countries: the islands of Cape Verde and São Tomé and Principe.
Several years later, in 2018, I applied for the PhD project I am currently working on, at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, under the supervision of Victoria Nyst. The study involves two village sign languages (SLs) in West Africa, one in Adamorobe (Adamarobe Sign Language – AdaSL), in Ghana, and one in Bouakako (Langue des Signes de Bouakako – LaSiBo), in Côte d’Ivoire. That first PhD school year, I did the fieldwork in both villages and accompanied Mariana Martins’ fieldwork in Guinea-Bissau.
In Guinea-Bissau, we were frequently accompanied by the hearing school headmaster and a deaf leader when we did our work. When I went to Ghana for my PhD in 2018, I had a deaf collaborator in the project to help me with the initial introductions in Adamorobe. Even though he was not from Adamorobe (he is a Ghanaian Sign Language teacher at the school for the deaf in Mampong and an assistant at the University of Legon, in Accra) he is very well known by the local deaf community. In Hiré, the closest town from the village of Bouakako, I had some support in getting round from the family of a hearing researcher that, being home-grown in Hiré, had previously worked with the deaf group from Bouakako.
Doing fieldwork with deaf villagers
Because both Victoria Nyst (hearing), since 2000, and Annelies Kusters (deaf), since 2008, had already done fieldwork in Adamorobe, I benefited from their previous experiences. With their reports in mind, I was able to prepare myself in relation to the local culture, communication, ways of life and social dynamics. I was warmly welcomed by the deaf community in the village, even though, at first, I felt like invading their space. As an outsider arriving with an agenda focused on them, I inevitably interrupted their daily routine. Deaf villagers had to find a balance between the attention I was asking and their regular activities. In the beginning, the villagers would leave their chores to talk to me or teach me their language. Little by little, community members realised that they didn’t have to give me a lot of special attention, and that I would also adapt to their daily rhythm and ways. They understood I would drink water from 500 ml plastic bags, rather than from bottles that “white folks prefer”, as they used to say. The adaptation period took about two weeks out of the two and a half-month field work. I got involved in as many activities of the deaf community as possible in order to get integrated, gain people´s trust and learn the language. The deaf villagers could do their chores, like washing clothes, bathing their children or preparing food, and still have me around to chat and help them when needed. I would help with laundry, with peeling cassava, plantain and corn, with grinding and cooking fufu, with putting the corn to dry or entertaining children when their mother was busy. Deaf people appreciated the fact that I was also deaf, as they did with Annelies Kusters. Similarly, in Bouakako, deaf people welcomed me warmly and were surprised to learn that I was deaf as well. On top of that, they had never been visited by a white person before.
Those who were filmed were paid in money right after the filming session. After the data collection, I continued to meet with the villagers daily for more than a month, in Adamorobe, and they started to ask me for money, food or medicine. Being a white foreigner, it is inevitable to be perceived as someone who has money or access to money. I was often asked by them to give money. I provided them with goods every two weeks, and paid for medical aid. I always told them that in the end, before leaving, I would give them a present. The farewell gift included soap, oil, rice and broth cubes.
Visiting West Africa as a gay couple with children
Mariana and I were working in different institutions of the Portuguese deaf community. Nevertheless, our professional paths crossed frequently, especially in what concerns collaboration with African deaf communities. Besides being a colleague on several occasions, Mariana came also to be my partner, in 2005. We are now married and have two children who accompany us everywhere.
While I was admitted to the village sign languages project for my PhD, Mariana got a scholarship by the Portuguese government to study the emergence of LGG at the same university as I (University of Leiden in the Netherlands). Because the timeline for our PhDs was similar, we decided to do the field trips together, with the children, in the beginning of our PhD studies. Thus, in 2018 we left for Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea-Bissau for a period of 6 months, before moving to the Netherlands.
This decision had to be well thought out since our youngest was only two years old and the eldest was six. Because he was supposed to start his first school year, we chose to homeschool him. To do so, Mariana stayed with them in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and then they stayed with me in Guinea-Bissau.
Since the beginning of our experience in Africa, Mariana and I kept our relationship private because we knew that laws in some African countries, such as Ghana, incriminated LGBT+ people. Initially, in Guinea-Bissau, we were perceived as two colleagues and friends, happy to sleep over wherever as long as we were together. Of course, when the children came along it became harder to explain the lack of a father or a husband. Though, for deaf people, especially in Guinea-Bissau, where people knew us since a long time, this was more easily accepted, when comparing their reaction with that of hearing people not familiar with us. Both in Adamorobe in Ghana and Bouakako in Côte d’Ivoire, I was constantly asked about the whereabouts of “my husband”, to which I answered evasively. Having met my family, closer collaborators would simply avoid the subject.
On one occasion, when I was going to Accra (Ghana’s capital) with my family by trotro, a man gave a Christian sermon in English to the passengers. Mariana translated it to me. He was saying that gay people should be burned alive and ‘our’ deafness would be on his prayers (he must have thought that Mariana was also deaf since she was signing). Fortunately, my (hearing) children didn’t know enough English at the time to understand what he was talking about, nor were they paying attention to our own signing.
With two very small children, our family would not pass unnoticed in a country where being gay is illegal. Therefore, we had to choose a place to stay that would not be so exposed to curious eyes. When looking for a house to stay in, located as close as possible to Adamorobe, we had to consider a place suitable for the children, safe to keep all the field work equipment and with access to a kitchen. We came to choose a chalet at an eco-lodge in Aburi, up in the mountains of the Akwapim ridge. In the beginning of my fieldwork, I used the moto-taxi, which took about 15 minutes to get to Adamorobe. However, after a minor accident in the middle of the mountains, I started going by trotro (a minibus). I had to take three different trotros, going around the mountain to get to the village, which took about two hours. I was lucky to be able to leave the equipment in one of the houses (with electricity for charging) in Adamorobe, so I didn’t have to carry it around.
In Côte d’Ivoire, we stayed at the nearest village from Bouakako, Hiré, at the only local hotel. When we arrived there, we were not allowed to stay in the same room, being two women with small children. We were clearly perceived as a family. Under threats of arrest (even though there were no laws incriminating LGBT+ people), we were obliged to pay for the largest room for the price of two. From Hiré, where we stayed, to Bouakako there were only moto-taxis, but not all would accept the ride because of their fear of police controls. Moreover, since I was not able to leave any equipment at Bouakako, I had to take the camera, laptop, tripod, etc. with me, on the motorbike, every time I went there.
Being a vegetarian in West Africa
Unfortunately, as a vegetarian, I could never join the villagers in Adamorobe or Bouakako for meals. Community members in both villages were disappointed with me for not eating meat, fish or snails with them; because hospitality by offering meals is very important in West Africa, at least. Some of them were so offended that, in order to avoid any cultural conflict, I said that I could get “stomach sick”. With this simple distortion of truth, I regained their trust. In this way, they seemed to understand it better and stopped insisting. I usually had a big breakfast to hold the whole day and, in the village, I would keep them company at the morning meal without eating, just for talking. I was happy, however, to accept their cassava and plantain. Having access to a kitchen was an essential condition for choosing a lodging place for our family. We had plenty of options in the market (fruit, vegetable, beans, grains…) and we always cooked at home.
Some other observations
In general, in all three west African countries – Guinea-Bissau, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire – hearing people naturally recur to gestures turning daily communication easier. In fact, hearing people frequently reacted to my being deaf by readily changing the communication modality. As a deaf person, this made my life much easier when getting around by myself. For instance, in Ghana, trotros have always someone at the door telling the destination with specific gestures at the stops. Thus, getting on the right trotro was not a problem for me.
Another aspect that struck me was the fact that, in Guinea-Bissau, the fast-growing deaf community was totally free of medical interventions to treat deafness and rehabilitate hearing. Moreover, deaf people have developed an immense pride of their autochthonous SL. On our last trip to Bissau, in 2018, we decided, on one night, to get together to socialize among deaf people. Because there were many of us, it was not easy to find a space where we could all fit in. After choosing a bar, one of us went in to ask the manager for sitting places. He answered that there was enough space in the back, but deaf people refused, they wanted to sit where people passing by on the street could see them signing. They feel that they gain more social respect if they make themselves more visible. On their weekly gatherings, on Sundays, deaf people meet in large groups in different neighbourhoods, so that more and more people in Bissau may be aware of deaf people and their SL.
In Adamorobe, the older deaf people are also very proud of their language, AdaSL, which is entirely different from Ghanaian SL, which is influenced by American SL. They also feel proud of being deaf, they believe that God has given them their deafness and that they have a mission in life.
Doing fieldwork in understudied deaf communities has been a privilege and has deeply changed me as a person and as a researcher. Of course, enjoying quality time with deaf people is one major requirement. However, when time spent with the community has to be longer, it becomes harder to leave the family behind. Even if sometimes children do not make our work any easier, I believe that sharing these unique experiences as a family binds us tighter together.
Marta Morgado is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Linguistics at Leiden University. She is from Portugal and currently lives in the Netherlands. Her PhD study is part of a larger research project ‘From Gesture to Language’, focusing on size and shape signs of two village sign languages in western Africa (Adamorobe in Ghana, and Bouakako in Côte d’Ivoire). She has been collaborating with deaf communities in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (West Africa) since 2005. She runs before starting the day, always travels with her drawing material, and loves the smell of books. She’s on Twitter as @marta_morgado