You never know what you will find when you sit down to interview someone. Where have they lived? Who have they worked for? What challenges have they overcome? Who have they lost? After explaining that I am a history graduate student conducting research about gender change and the role of the church in Tanzanian society, I usual start by asking the most basic question. What is your name? It turns out that the answer isn’t always simple.
Most women here in rural Tanzania are called by the name of their first child: Mama ###. Once I get their given name we still sometimes struggle with the last name. Do I want the name of their father? Their husband? Just asking about what could be one of the most simple markers of identity - a name - raises a host of questions about identity, belonging, and ascribing value.
From name we go to birth year, home town, and level of education. And then the “normal” trajectory usually breaks down. Really there is no normal interview. It all depends on what the person in question wants to talk about, who else is around, or what happens to be more on my mind at a given moment. It may not be the most scientifically-sound admission to make. But I love it. When I interview someone, I’m not just there to get what I need to write a dissertation. I hope to facilitate a fun, sympathetic, and encouraging encounter for them. After all, they are generously giving me their time and stories without anything in return but a listening ear and piece of paper with my name and contact information.
The best interviews end in laughter, which I like to think comes in large part from our mutual surprise at how much we have come to appreciate and connect to each other across our differences in age, language, skin color, nationality, wealth, and work.
Beth Ann Williams is a fourth year African History graduate student. She is currently living near Arusha, Tanzania conducting research for her (tentatively titled) dissertation, Women We Must Learn: Christianity and Gender Change in Post-Independence East Africa." While not reading or conducting interviews, you can most often find her at a coffee shop, running, or playing with whatever children happen to be in the vicinity.
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