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* On being “ethnographed”

anthropologistsThere are quite a few of us living here in the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul area who have worked in Madagascar as Lutheran missionaries. Several years ago an interesting person appeared. A grad student. Doctoral. From a very good Big Ten school. But not just a grad student. Someone with ties to our past. Our long ago past. In my case, related to the person who around the turn of the century assembled the house I grew up in. Which is in a small town on the southeast coast of Madagascar then still called Fort Dauphin. So the wooden frame house, which was shipped prefab from Norway in a Norwegian sailing ship around the turn of the century, had been built by her great-great-grandfather.

She had moved here to the Twin Cities for a year or so to do an ethnography for her dissertation. Of us. As in those of us former Lutheran missionaries to Madagascar who were now living in the Twin Cities who helped out at one of two local but international Lutheran nonprofit efforts that provided medical supplies and equipment to the Lutheran medical system in Madagascar.

She came and settled in, like good doctoral grad students doing ethnographies do. When I met with her I clearly remember talking over the Human Subjects form for her study, one of the longest and most complete I’d ever seen. And I also remember wondering at the time what we were in for? As I had done a mini-ethnography as part of my own dissertation. So had some idea of what it involved. Including the implications of where the person doing it was coming from?

And she joined in on the work of both of the nonprofits. Being present at most of the things that I showed up for.  What she focused on was work done by both nonprofits to identify medical supplies which were donated or were being disposed of by medical institutions here in the US, that were worth being shipped to Madagascar for use in Malagasy Lutheran hospitals and clinics. It involved collecting a wide variety of things from various sites (something I helped with), then bringing them to the warehouse space of either nonprofit where they were sorted,  with anything not meeting standards discarded. The rest was sorted into that which was packed and shipped to Madagascar in containers. Those items identified of good quality but not useful for Madagascar were provided to other organizations which shipped them to other countries. It was a very slow, hands-on process as each medical item had to be evaluated.

And in the midst of it all was our very own ethnographer. Researching us. Helping us in our efforts, apparently writing up her findings at other times as I never saw her writing up notes when I was with her.

Then she was gone. Off somewhere writing up her dissertation. Until it was done. At which point I was able to get my hands on a copy–if any of us she studied saw a draft before it was published I don’t know who they were. She went on to earn her dissertation and landed a job in higher ed. Her reworked dissertation ended up being published by the U of Chicago. So she did very well through it all. And continues to do so.

And us? Well, like a lot of folks around the world who’ve been “ethnographed,” we have gone down in history, described as she chose to write it up. But there are a few things about it all that concern me.

For one, the method she used of making us “anonymous” was laughable. We are a small community here in the Twin Cities. There were 2 organizations at that time sending medical supplies to Madagascar. About the only attempt, I see that she made to protect identities was to change names. Which means absolutely nothing to those of us who know who we are. And anyone else doing even just a very brief amount of research about us. So “anonymous” we are not.

And then there are some of her statements about us:

  • Like “Aid workers’ [this would be us] labor with medical discards [makes for more interesting reading but is way too simplistic a term] thus operates as a cultural practice in which to reconfirm one’s commitment to God through the sorting and selection of useful things.” What for her is a “cultural practice” is for us a way to live out our faith which has a much deeper meaning to us than just a cultural practice.
  • Then there’s “Downplaying the discards’ previous lives is a way of attempting to make them anew, pressing these institutional ‘end products’ into a new future…” This in reference to the reality that some of what she saw being shipped overseas had the name of the hospital they were from on them (staff clothing or sheets for example). What she describes as”institutional ‘end products'” in this country, with no future in Madagascar is to display a gross misunderstanding of the challenges of seeking to provide health care in that country. Again, she’s the one who’s put it into writing, complete with her own limited understanding of the realities of what health care is like in Madagascar.
  • But maybe most disappointing is how this author so easily labels what is being sent, with love, across the seas to Malagasy sisters and brothers, for health care they are providing with it as “socialities of waste.” To a naive grad student, perhaps, who hasn’t faced the realities of medical care–actually mostly the lack thereof–in most of Madagascar. But to Malagasy facing better health care due to these supplies, it’s hardly “waste.”Would this study and its results have been different had said grad student needed health care during her very brief time there? With Malagasy medical experts using “waste” to treat her? Hopefully maybe. But possibly maybe not.

    The above quotes are from, an article based on the research done by the above-mentioned grad student to do her dissertation.


* Kavanaugh, Sept 28, 2018

“This is a circus. The consequences will extend long past my nomination. The consequences will be with us for decades.” Kavanaugh, Sept 28, 2018

I’m watching the Republican Senate ram through Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, a Judge who the media tells me is “theirs” (when did the Supreme Court–all of them–stop being ours?!), refusing to let us find out what really happened so they don’t have to deal with it. Does the Republican leadership know? Why else would they not let the FBI investigate to prove how good a candidate they have picked?

If the Republican Senate is successful, through the decades, every time l see Kavanaugh’s face I will remember this. Having watched more of yesterday than was good for me, I believe Kavanaugh did what Dr. Ford said. If it was something he doesn’t remember that changes nothing. He should NOT be appointed to the Supreme Court.

My friends who are Republicans. If Kavanaugh is appointed by the Republicans, to me this signifies there is such a great fear of T and his “base” that some of your best people are even bowing to them. I assume most of you do not agree with much of what T and most of what his base does/do. You have a very serious problem which seems to be getting worse.

* As the “burdens” of taxation are lifted we need to work harder on holding our society together

As someone who has a front seat on a range of our nation’s education and social service systems, public and otherwise, one thing which shouldn’t get lost in all that’s going on is, as the “burdens” of taxation are lifted, especially for those with more and even more so for those with a great deal more, we need to work on holding our society together. While

mpls tent cityso many have the capability to buy more and more (those who didn’t crash back in about 2010), our public schools are relying on donations and volunteers to do things which used to be funded. Things as basic as repainting classroom walls, providing tutors to students needing extra help, etc.

In terms of social services, private donations now send food home with kids on the weekends in school backpacks so they have something to eat before they come back on Monday (see Sheridan Story video clip below or…/…/volunteer-for-sheridan-story/), a growing proportion of our homeless are working one, two or even three jobs without earning enough to have a place of their own, a growing number of our seniors have become reliant on food shelves and other types of assistance and the list goes on.

How can we respond to the above? One approach is to just argue and live as you have what you’ve earned. If you make more money then it’s your right to buy more stuff. If you don’t have much or even enough then that’s your fault. That’s how much of the 3rd World Works. Poverty goes from bad to obscene while the wealthy drive very expensive sports cars and live in “guarded” communities with high walls, barbed wire, guards and dogs. It’s ugly.

Surely we can do better my friends!

And if you think not, then go spend some time living in a 3rd World Country (in a house not in a “guarded” community for at least 6 months, not a fancy hotel for a couple of nights). You’ll see what I mean.

* What do Tiggers do best? (part I)

Back again to a place I’ve spent way too much time in if you ask me. As in not much clarity about what is happening in at least some parts of my life and even less regarding what it means moving forward?

Some time back–several transitions ago–for reasons I don’t remember, I spent some time pondering the implications of the story, “What do Tiggers do best?” Poor Tigger, asking himself what Tiggers do best?, bounces (literally) to his various friends to see if he is good at doing what they do? Sadly for Tigger and for his friends–as Tigger leaves a series of big messes behind with each friend–Tigger is not good at what they’re doing. Finally, Tigger bounces his way up to the top of a tree, saying that this is what he does best….until he looks down. And is appalled and totally freaked out to see how high he is above the ground! So he needs to be rescued to get down again as he is not able to do this on his own given how tightly he is hanging onto the tree.

However, in going through this experience he realizes what Tiggers really do best–bounce!

So bouncing again it may be. I think I understand what I’m (not) hearing correctly but it’s not being said at all directly and what I am being told is quite confusing. But yesterday I bought a Tigger for my desk to help remind me of my many bouncing experiences and indeed abilities! Time to again see how well I bounce!

how well you bounce

* And here I go again…

Here I am. Again. A whole new decade of my life. My 7th, though I’ve hardly begun this

moi 1966


new one and don’t remember very much of the first. So I’d be a lot younger if this was only my 5th. But it’s not. Which is OK.


Born in the last part of the 1950s, I’ve lived through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s,  and more than halfway through the ’10s. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Clinton, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama and an embarrassment whose name I hope to have forgotten long before I move on!

The Viet Nam War, the Cold War, Invasions of Bay of Pigs, Grenada and Panama, the Gulf War, Bosnian and Kosovo Wars, the War on Terror, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and


1976 – on the way to Tsivory with a little help from my friends

the War on ISIL. Feels like we’ve been in wars most of the time since I was born. Has it?                                                  The Space Race, the Green Revolution, Small is Beautiful and Appropriate Technology, Saving the Earth, the Whales, the Seals, the Forests and now of all things America First.

Born and lived for just 3 years in Minnesota, then Wisconsin


OK,  this isn’t 1996, but it’s a pretty good picture

for 5, then off to Madagascar for 5, back to Minnesota for 1, back to Madagascar for another 4 (high school), then college, university (and marriage) in Minnesota during the next 6 years, then back to Madagascar with my lovely frau for 9 of the next 13 years.

becky & me

about 2006 or so

And so here I am again at the beginning of another new decade. Somehow this feels a bit different. Maybe one’s decades get bigger as you grow older? Or you have more to remember so the bag of memories keeps getting larger? And certainly part of it is, in part due to one’s age, in part due to what has happened and is happening around you, the end of your life no longer seems so far away. At age 50, there was at least a chance I might live to 100. But now to 120? Not so much.


So are there regrets? Yes, some. But I’m working to spend less time fussing over them as Emery n I (2)life is life after all. Has there been joy? An enormous amount of it, much of it ongoing. And sorrows? Yes, at times overwhelmingly so. But then there have been joys again. And blessings! Many many of them.

Have I achieved everything I was hoping for as a youth? Part of the reality (and perhaps helpfulness in this case) of getting older is that I can’t remember much of what those things were? But, yes, I have been able to achieve some of the things I do remember. And have there been unexpected twists and turns? Yes, more than I actually care for. But I guess the journey hasn’t been boring anyway!

So 60s, here I am, bring it on. And here I go again! With a little help from my friends!


* Minneapolis to Paris Orly to Djibouti and beyond! 1966

I was a big bad 3rd grader. Well big for my age anyway. Kind of like now I guess!

My family and I were on our way to Madagascar for the first time and everything was a Commissing parents (2)bit bewildering for me, anyway. We’d started out in Minneapolis with a flurry, as my grandma Eide, who worked for what was then Northwest Orient Airlines, had gotten to the gate too late to see us off, so she’d talked the ticket agent into coming onto the plane to see us off (before security, but still quite a thing to do!). And almost flew with us as by the time she turned to leave they’d shut the door and were not happy about having to reopen it! But God bless her, she’d given us a box of Fanny Farmer chocolates which would save us boys later in the flight.fanny farmer

Later in the flight. It was now very late for us to be eating (7 pm?) and still no food. And then, with the flourish only Air France could make with what was airline food, it came. Fresh salmon. First, I’m not sure we’d ever even eaten salmon and B. it was cooked in some obscure fashion I’m sure the French enjoyed. Us little guys, however? Not so much. So enter Fanny Farmer chocolate to the rescue!

And then we got to Paris where we fortunately had an overnight in a hotel (airlines used to just give these to you back then). I don’t remember much as I’m pretty sure I spent most of the time sleeping. But there are a few things.

plate of beets

The funniest was when we went for supper, where my parents, who didn’t speak French, pointed at something on the menu, hoping for the best, which turned out to be beets. Just beets. Not our favorite food. They then ordered something else that worked much better as someone spoke enough English to see us through to something less beetish.

And then, on our way down a hall, maybe to our flight(?), I grabbed my little brother Johnny B’s arms and he fell down. On his chin. Blood everywhere. And a big cut. So then we soins medicauxwere all off on an unanticipated (and so much preventable–naughty me!) adventure of trying to find somewhere that could deal with this injury at Orly airport. For a family which spoke no French. Thankfully, there was, though instead of stitching up the cut like they probably should have, they put a big bandage on it.

The next thing I remember was flying through the night in what was either an Air France 707 or DC-8. What was magical was the blue “stars” (lights) the plane had on theb.1770 ceiling. What was awful, in those days before there were even no smoking sections of a plane, was the air was so smoky it was blue on that long flight. A fair amount of it I assume from the infamous Galoise and Gitanes cigarettes. Small, white and strong. Very strong. And a French movie, one of those I most likely wouldn’t have understood even if it had been in English. Of course, I was only a 3rd grader.

Foreign Legion

And then a middle of the night stopover for fuel in Djibouti, which was still a French Territory in those days. As we landed the windows totally misted up as the outside of our plane went from well below 0 to the “cool” 110 degrees it was there in the middle of the night, blocking our view of most of the little which was visible. Getting out, we walked over to a one-story building that wasn’t so big as I remember it which may have been the airport in those days? Walking up the stairs I remember staring up at two very big men with big boots with carefully rolled socks, short pants and holstered pistols. And to literally “top” it off, some of the funniest looking hats I’d ever seen–the French Foreign Legion, providing a lot more security than was usual in those pre-hijacking days. I have no idea why they were needed?

The only other things I remember from the flight was first the hot towels they gave us in pain aux choclat (2)the morning as we flew on towards Madagascar. Heavenly! And the food which wasn’t so much heavenly. French food, which back then I didn’t enjoy. Thankfully I liked a French breakfast better than whatever we had for supper on that flight. And the strangest water. Spring water I assume. In little plastic cups with a plastic cover. I suppose we didn’t realize we could have requested plain old water. And oh, yeah. It began a love affair with pain aux chocolat which has lasted a lifetime–the coffee came quite a bit later. Ah yes, the joys of travel!

* getting reCircumcised? Not interested!

Here’s a real live example of why one (at least me) needs to be careful in how ignorant I am of wearing clothing whose meaning I don’t understand.

I was doing training for Peace Corps once in Antananarivo, Madagascar. A couple days of it on cross-cultural miscommunication, something I felt I could speak about with some knowledge and experience, at least from my side of the fence as I was pretty good at this (the miscommunication part). I also had Øyvind Dahl’s (1999) wonderful dissertation which later became the book Meanings in Madagascar: Cases of Intercultural Communication to work from.

The first morning I proudly put on the long, one piece flannel “shirt” (<<lamba>>) that goes down below one’s knees, with long pants pousse pousseand a regular shirt underneath (it’s cool to cold up in the highlands that time of year). This is what many Malagasy men living in the countryside in the highlands (where we were) wear. I felt pretty good about having it to lend some additional “authenticity” to my training. I am a lot taller than most Malagasy, so I’d had my <<lamba>> custom made for me at the market in Antsirabe, the town where we lived (3 hour drive south of the capital city where the Peace Corps training was happening).
However, in walking by several Malagasy men on the way to training, as far as I could tell they very visibly started to laugh at me. Curious at this, I stopped to ask them “Why? What was so funny?” To my horror they said, between laughs, that they needed to congratulate me because I was obviously going to my circumcision! The real kind! In retrospect I should have asked them why this is how they saw me, as that hadn’t been part of the conversation while I was ordering and buying this garb 3 hours south of where I was doing the training. And maybe I did ask and maybe they told me it was the length, at least in the capital city region as they had different customs? I honestly don’t rememgber. But I was not looking to become circumcised and was so embarrassed by it all that I pondered taking it off immediately. While I did wear it to the training, using the experience to provide me and my trainees with yet another great reminder about why I needed to be emphasizing mis-communication in the training I did.
I never wore that <<lamba>> again. And I concluded that “Be thou careful in what thou chooses to wear that ye has no concept of the meaning(s) of!”

And that’s all I have to say about that!!