The mango trees blossom with fruits

Sverker Finnstrom has won the Margaret Mead Award for Living with Bad Surroundings, a monograph on the war in northern Uganda that taught me firsthand the insight afforded by careful anthropology.

…it can sometimes be quite unreal to conduct anthropological fieldwork in a setting where memories and experiences of war are vividly and continuously reactivated in everyday life. For me, when I first came to northern Uganda in 1997, as an external observer, stories and narratives of lived experiences could appear fictitious against the background of the nice breeze under the shade of a mango tree, where I sometimes sat, listening to my new-found friends. A helicopter gunship bombing a rebel hideout in a forest some kilometers away added to the strange experience.

Of course, it became crucial for me to recognize that my job as an anthropologist is not to absorb the stories of my informants as mine, or to impose uncritically my stories upon them. It is about their familiarity with the world, not mine.

Perhaps the contrasting feeling of the friendly breeze under the mango tree assisted me in acknowledging this important feature of the anthropological encounter as I have chosen to practice it.

See the full interview with Sverker.

On first reading, I thought his book naïve and false. I was mistaken. With each further reading and each further year, I found him more insightful and correct that almost any other scholar in Uganda.

Sverker dedicates the book to journalist Caroline Lamwaka, to whom I spoke many times, but sadly never met in person before her untimely death. Sverker recounts her hopeful poem, only now seeing fruition:

Yes, indeed it is better
To return to the ruins of the old homestead
Than never to return at all
Soon all the people will return,
And the neighbourhood will be filled with laughter and joy
The laughter of children, running and playing
The giggles and laughter of the girls and women
As they joke and cut grass
Huts will be rebuilt, and compounds cleared
And the mango trees will blossom with fruits.