Sonn naa – On Being a Transnational Researcher

Today was one of those “researcher days.”
I am tired. My feet definitely hurt. I did not eat enough food today (my teeth hurt too much to chew) or drink enough water (I’m sick of the taste). I still do not have regular access to the internet without being at the Baobab Center or Le Mermoz.
And I also found a connection to Younouss Seye. I have an appointment to meet her next week.
When people talk about the process of conducting transnational research, we don’t always share the personal part of the experience, the daily processes of mental, physical, and emotional labor that go into doing this type of work.
Being a transnational researcher carries several privileges, but those privileges do not mean that things go well during fieldwork. You miss important moments and small moments like: laughing over dinner and helping put a roof on your brother’s house and baking cinnamon rolls for your uncle who has cancer and painting walls in your friend’s new house and lying around on the dock at the lake with people you love. I balance the fact that I miss people back home with my identity as a researcher and count it as part of the trade-offs because nothing worthwhile is ever easy 100% of the time.  
This is my second time in Senegal; I am far from being an expert on how to live here. But there are several stressors I did not account for when preparing to come here. For example, I forgot how much extra energy it takes to walk 10 – 20 minutes for every errand, necessity, trip to the research center, etc. I also had no idea how stressful it would be to live with total strangers while communicating almost exclusively in my third language and having less than one hour a day to dedicate to myself.
Today was a tough physical day. I had a migraine. We had extended Wolof class today to make up for a missed class day last week due to our teacher’s illness. And during the afternoon portion of our lesson, my teacher Amdou says to me, “My friend who knows about Younouss Seye will take a meeting with you today after our class. Meet him, and he will help you.”
Of course, when someone in Senegal offers to help you with something, that help can come in 2 hours… or five days… or RIGHT NOW.
People in the U.S. have such tight schedules and a “get it done yesterday” mentality that just doesn’t work here. Conducting research in Senegal requires flexibility. So when Amdou asked if it was convenient for me to meet with his friend at 5pm, I said “Yes.”
I did not have my printed interview questions with me, and though I could have snagged an electronic copy (hindsight – I was not thinking clearly after 5 hours of Wolof lessons), I left class early to walk back across two neighborhoods to grab my research notebook and interview question sheets from my homestay.
When I returned to the Center, one of the security people escorted me to the neighborhood gathering place where I was supposed to meet this “arts and culture person” to learn more about Younouss Seye and possibly connect with her directly. I sometimes forget when I set up a meeting with someone in Senegal how obvious I look when walking into establishments. This time was no different.
The man’s name is Mama, and we relocated to a table in the corner to chat. In a mix of Wolof, French, and English, we talked for about an hour about Younouss Seye, people who know about her, etc. As I am having this conversation, I have a migraine. I am exhausted. I am hot and my feet hurt. My language skills are barely keeping up.
But I smile and buy us both a cold drink because it’s hot and I am lucky to even have a snowball’s chance in Senegal to find Younouss Seye and interview her.
Because I am lucky to be here for research.
Because I am doing work that matters.
Because no one thought to take her oral history and preserve it.
Because not every day during fieldwork ends with an accomplishment, but it can end with some sort of progress.
And now I’m telling everyone about today’s inconveniences and imperfections in my research process.
Because the research process is inherently mystified.
Because if I ever publish an article or book about Younouss Seye, today’s extra walk back and forth 25 minutes each way for research questions and a notebook probably won’t cross my mind during conference Q&A sessions. (That, and no one ever asks about that part)
Because I want people to know what the daily grind of research is like outside of the wonderful opportunities and beautiful photos.
Because the “personal growth” part of the research process is filling toilets with buckets and fasting with your host family during Ramadan and running across a city at a moment’s notice in 90 degree heat for the chance to make a breakthrough for a project.
And now I have the chance to interview Younouss Seye and take a portion of her oral history.
I also have her personal phone number and contact information for three other people to expand the project.
All because I didn’t give up today when I had a migraine because I might not have another chance.

Because there’s no day but today and I cannot throw away my shot. (Love to everyone who got the dual musical theatre references there)

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