Anthropology Field Notes

University of Delaware Anthropology Fieldwork by students and faculty

“Stop shaking hands”: On Witchcraft, Rumours, and Surviving an ‘International Emergency’ Declaration in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

People do not generally ‘hug’ each other as a way of greeting in the DRC. There are few air kisses on both cheeks, either. The proper way to greet someone, even if you know them well, is to shake their hand, or grip the top of the forearm. Typically, you smile and laugh as you do so, asking them, “habari, mama/papa/dada/kaka?” [how are you, mother/father/sister/brother]. Doing so shows attention to that person. It is respectful. In the past few weeks, I have conducted this ritual over and over again—complete with handshakes. I must have physically touched at least 70 different mamas, papas, dadas, and kakas.

Hand shaking was far away from my mind at 8pm on the 17th of July, as I was preparing to go to sleep. My immediate plan to stumble exhaustedly into bed was nonetheless foiled by knocking. In my doorway stood a friend who works at a UN agency. Usually this friend is somewhat, shall I say, cavalier about safety: they have a self-described reckless streak and work on DDR—disarmament, demobilization, reintegration—which means that they spend a lot of their time negotiating with rebel militias in the most remote parts of the country. Not exactly the most secure of jobs. So when this friend stood at my doorway that night, and told me, “I just came to see if you are still working with the [x] community. You need to stop shaking hands.” My stomach dropped. All desire for sleep was immediately excised from my mind. My friend did not need to say it explicitly. Ebola. Apparently, one of the most recently diagnosed ‘cases’—that is, the person diagnosed with the virus—had been from Bukavu, and had worked in the community I worked in. I thought, immediately, to all of the many hands and arms I had touched in greeting and comradery, the physical touch that had connected me to others was kaleidoscopically rearranged as hazardous, dangerous, tainted. “Just wait,” my friend continued, “This is going to blow up, big time.” Less than half an hour later, the World Health Organization [WHO] announced that the Ebola epidemic in the DRC, which has been going on for almost a year with little attention from the West, warrants a “public health emergency of international concern.” To put this into context, there have only been four public health emergencies declarations from the WHO since 2005—the decision to declare an emergency in these kinds of situations is not made lightly. Moments later, the texts and emails from concerned family members and friends—who I am so thoroughly lucky to have caring about me—began flooding in. I also began reaching out to people, to colleagues, feeling scared and alone, trapped in a catastrophizing mind of worst-case-scenarios. Thoughts of sleeping were pushed aside.

Despite the emergency declaration and my sleepless night, the sun rose on Bukavu the next morning as it always does. The people of the city began their day, seemingly untouched by the impending peril. The only change to the rhythm of everyday life, at least for me, was the new requirement of a mandatory chlorine handwash at the entry points of the building I worked in. Haunted by the gentle (and sometime less gentle) urgings of many of my loving family and friends that it is, perhaps, in my best interest to leave the country since there has been a declaration of a public health emergency in the DRC, the contrast between the banality of the unfolding day in the DRC and the sensational panic of the emergency declaration that was circulating in the fears of my relations—and the West, more generally—felt paralyzing. This feeling of being at once detached from the problem and my ability to escape it if I so chose: I realized that this was perhaps the most pronounced embodiment of privilege I have ever consciously occupied. And that, I am sad to say, was paralyzing, too.

Let me be transparent. The Ebola epidemic in the DRC is deadly serious, and although health workers—local and foreign—have clearly done excellent work in attempting to contain it (in particular, through the tracing of contacts and ring vaccinations), the rising number of cases and isolated cases that have been diagnosed in large cities or border regions are extremely concerning. As the new emergency declaration suggests, there is a high likelihood that the outbreak will spread, not only to the region in the DRC where I am living, but to other countries. The effort to quell the epidemic does require external support, namely funding, in order to succeed. If an emergency declaration is necessary to gain attention and press for support, then so be it. The volatility of the epidemic is such that I may indeed use my privilege to leave the DRC earlier than planned, especially depending on the likelihood of borders remaining open. In staying, even if only for now, I am also fielding accusations that I am somewhat stupid by otherwise well-meaning relations abroad. And while that may be true, the reality is that I take a minuscule risk compared to other people in the DRC who are more likely to contract the virus due to proximity, and they, due to the many constraints of structural violence, do not have a choice but to pray that it does not spread. And that, it seems, is how people here manage to get on with their days, and not succumb to panic. I spoke to many people today who told me that yes, they are scared, but they are only praying that the virus does not come to Bukavu.

Meanwhile, the daily life of the city continues largely unchanged, and I wrestle with questions of belief, rationality, and rumours.

A friend, collaborator, and local Bukavu man, somewhat derisively laughed off the fears of my relations, and the panic being provoked in Western media. “It is one case in Goma,” he said, “If there were 10 cases there, the West would declare it a weapon of war,” implying that the significance of the emergency declaration is overblown and, perhaps, serves an international rather than local agenda. It is clear that he finds the fears surrounding Ebola from the Western perspective, at least as they played out in the prior 24 hours, to be somewhat sensationalist. And given the routineness of everyday life around us, it is not hard to see why he is dismissive.

But later, after walking around a local neighbourhood and talking with people who live there, we come across the story of kabanga. The kabanga is a type of occult murder practice that involves a person using a garrote to strange a victim, and the garrote cord is then sold as a kind of talisman that can be used for witchcraft. Interestingly, the market for the garrote is muzungus—white people. There are many recorded murders that have been based on this practice. My friend asks me why muzungus would want such an occult item, and whether it is common for us to believe in such things. I answer something along the lines of, “no, it’s not very rational to us,” and say that I can’t explain why someone like me would want to purchase such an item, which apparently fetches quite a lot of money. “It sounds like a bit of a rumour,” I say: not dismissing that such garrote murders do happen, but perhaps being dismissive of the idea that white people buy the cords from such murders. “But,” my collaborator went on, “you and your friends abroad believe rumours about the spread of a virus to here, even if it is only one case?” And it is, in a way, true—my initial fear had been literally whispered to me as a rumour at 8pm at night by a concerned friend passing on a message based on information I myself don’t have access to. I had believed that person, and easily absorbed the panic about ‘my situation’—that being that simply standing in the DRC right now exposes me to a deadly virus. Why? Because I was basing my evaluation on the perceived rationality of a figure from a source—the UN—that I considered to be inherently authoritative? Or because the phenomenon at hand is a medically documented virus, with scientific evidence of epidemic levels of infection? Or, more frighteningly, because of narratives about Africa being inherently dangerous that are all too easy to resort to in the face of an actual hazard?

Through this conversation, both my friend and I were curiously questioning the rationality of the other’s belief systems, both of us invested in the rumours that brought us to our eventual judgement on the situation at hand. Neither of us may grasp the reality of the situations we are discussing, but what is clear is that such phenomenon—whether the spread of a virus or witchcraft—are not wholly reducible to logic and rationality.

Perhaps it this perceived unpredictability and very volatility of such situations from which we derive our fears. Unfortunately, those fears are nonetheless rooted in realities of violence and the possibility of death.

Grâce de Dieu: Fieldwork in the DRC

“We live in paradise,” one of my new friends told me, a day or so after I arrived in Bukavu in early July. He was right, in a way. The sprawling city–home to an estimated 1 million people–hugs the gentle shoreline of Lake Kivu, and is tucked high into the mountain regions of eastern Congo. The high elevation of the city means that the weather never strays much beyond the mid-60s-70s. It is not hard to see why the Belgians selected this spot as a kind of holiday outpost during the early and mid-twentieth century, displacing local people from paradise and setting up the infrastructures of unequal power that would eventually plunge the city into “darkness”–or so some of my friends here describe the wars and conflicts–from the mid-90s, up to today.

[Above: Lake Kivu]

Today, Bukavu gets along “par la grâce de Dieu”–by the grace of God. That saying can be heard across the city, spoken by traders setting up their wares on the side of the road for the day, hoping for a sale; or painted onto the windows of the ubiquitous taxi-vans that transport people around the city for a few Congolese francs. For the past two decades (and even longer), this part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been surviving–“enduring”–without the support of government institutions, at least not in an obvious or meaningful way. Most of the roads, once paved, have long since disintegrated into uneven (and that is being generous) dirt tracks; there are not enough medical institutions to serve the population, and those that do generally charge too much for people to pay; there are schools, but the government wage provided to teachers is not enough to live on, and so students must either pay an exorbitant amount to attend (and, in turn, teachers must extort them); police officers, also on an inadequate government wage, are in short supply. Large white landrovers are the only vehicles–apart from the ubiquitous taxi-vans and moto-bikes–that pass with any predictable regularity on the roads, and always they are emblazoned with the logo of one or another international humanitarian institution–the UN, MSF, IRC, NRC, and so on, and on. Young people long to marry, but cannot afford to do so. Older people long to rest, but the impoverishment of their family makes it impossible to do so. “Insécurité” is a way of life here; corruption is a livelihoods strategy.

Yet, when I speak to Congolese people themselves, the story is–of course–more nuanced. How do people get by, materially and existentially, in such circumstances of indefinite insecurity? What are their hopes and dreams for the future? Why do so many of my interviews erupt into giggling, and thinly veiled crassness?  Is it normal for 50 year old women to gather together at 11am on a Sunday morning, after church, with large bottles of Prima beer?

[Above: a shopfront that sells “pombe” — beer/alcohol]



Before the flies arrive…

This week was our last time working on the Coleman Farm. But before we headed to the field we presented our findings at the Coleman Farm. We spent the whole week meeting for this day preparing and discussing with each other how and what we were going say. Even after spending all that time preparing we were still somewhat nervous. The first challenge was making sure we got to Odessa on time, today was not a day we could afford to be late. So with my stead fast driving we were able to make it promptly on time at 9am.

Once we arrived we took the time to rehearse the presentation one more time to make sure everything would flow smoothly. The guests began to arrive and Professor De Cunzo led us off with introductions and speaking about our experience. Then Claire started off the presentation talking about the history of archaeology along the Appoquinimink and within the region. Michelle showed our sampling methods and how we surveyed the area.  I discussed our findings on the Coleman Farm such as ceramics, nails, and different forms of redware just to name a few things. Matt used images to show the density of our metal detection hits , surface collection, and nails found. Alexandra and Dan discussed what comes next after our work is done and how we can work with the community in the future. Finally Molly closed our presentation with a discussion period to take suggestions from the audience what they think should be done in the future and how we can work together again with the Odessa community. We’re all encouraged from what we heard.

After finishing our presentation we had snacks and cake while chatting with everyone in the lobby of the Odessa Bank. We were happy the presentation went well and all our preparation paid off. Then we changed clothes and headed to the field one last time. At the field Matt, Molly, and Alexandra continue to excavate a larger unit at the south end of the site (photo below). Claire, Michelle and I closed out our excavation unit and helped clean up.  We left one excavation unit on the hill open for Professor De Cunzo and some of the volunteers to come back and look at. Lastly we all gathered up for one last group photo to commemorate our time here at the Coleman Farm.

Jay Arnold

A Beautiful Day For Fieldwork: May 11, 2019

On May 11th, students and ASD members met on-site, and continued to carefully excavate test units. The weather, for once, was not too windy, too cold, or too bug-friendly; leading to happy archaeologists who could get right to work! Lots of dirt was moved during the morning hours before lunch. After lunch, however, was when students and ASD members had the opportunity to walk around the site and “take tours” of the other units being excavated that they were not assigned to work on.

These tours were exciting! Up on the higher ground, there are several plow scars, emphasizing how much this landscape has been cultivated and worked over time. Additionally, there are some interesting stone formations popping up in the same test unit. Is it a foundation? a very small portion of a stone fence or wall? a place-marker? or just stones tossed around from the plow we know was being used right next to these stones, missing it by inches? Is it simply too soon to know? Right now your guess are as good as ours! Hopefully more excavation on the high land will lead to a better understanding of these stones.

While there were interesting plow scars and stone formations found in one test unit on the high land, one test unit at the bottom of the slope closer to the water was also finding stone features. In the wall of one test unit at the bottom of the slope was a large water-rounded cobble. A slightly rougher-looking stone can be seen peaking out from the next layer to the excavated in this same unit. Is this evidence of rocks washed down the slope with erosion? or is is possible evidence of some sort of old path or drain? or is it, once again, simply too soon to know? Although hypothesizing is part of the fun, in order to know for sure, and to better understand the significance of these stones, more digging must be done.

Overall, the artifacts being discovered on this site, both on the high land and down the slope, appear to be similar in type – there are a lot of small brick fragments, wrought nails, flakes and other lithic affiliated with Native American tool-making processes, red lead-glazed earthenwares, delftware or tin-glazed earthenware, and tobacco pipe stems.

May showers

On Saturday May 4 the team finished the STPs and started new, larger units, planned the week prior. We finished the STPs on the southern slope of the grid, although not finding many artifacts. Then we started on four units. One was placed right in the center of the highest concentration of ceramics and metals, as shown on our GIS maps.

Another unit laid out over one of the GPR anomalies contained tobacco pipe stems, nails, red kitchen ceramic ware, brick fragments, and lithics. As we continued to dig a feature began to appear. One 3’x3’ unit expands an STP with a potential buried archaeological feature. Although not many artifacts were found the first day, the stratigraphy of the soil is helping us interpret the unit. Overall the day was very successful. Except for some rain in the morning, the team accomplished a lot and is beginning to understand the layout of the land and prepare to present our artifacts and findings to the community.

Dan Ricigliano

Learning Beyond the Field: 20 April 2019

While some students were taking a tour facilitated by one of the members of the Odessa Historic Foundation, others gathered at the IEC lab at the University of Delaware alongside professional archaeologists to continue washing and drying artifacts found with metal detectors as well as the ones found on the surface of the field.

Students that were discovering historic Odessa learned more about the time period we are hoping to identify at the Colemans Farm. Some of them highlighted certain characteristics of the changes through time at the town and the importance of the Appoquinimink creek during the 1700-1800 time period.

During colonial times Odessa was a grain shipping port called Cantwell’s Bridge. Now, houses from the 18th and 19th century remain almost intact at Odessa. Students also had the opportunity to visit the Corbit-Sharp house which is a good example of a Philadelphia-Georgian style. They visited the Wilson Warner House and walked inside smoke rooms or spaces that were used for smoking activity in the past. Furthermore, they visited the Collins-Sharp House and learned about different cooking recipes as well as earthenware ceramics from the 18th and 19th century. Finally, students walked twice through the main street and observed from the outside the bank as well as the Brick Hotel where most merchants and ship captains stayed through the busy days of the Cantwell’s Bridge.

Back at the IEC lab, students had another opportunity to look at the artifacts more closely and better identify their physical characteristics, the possible origins and time periods of objects found.

Most of  the artifacts consisted on nails, brick and earthenware.

During the afternoon session at the lab, students discussed what were going to be the next steps for opening test units. Some suggested we should open both of the anomalies located by the GPR just to make sure we are not skipping any important data that might be relevant. Other students suggested opening STPs with features located at (N0, W125 and N0 W50) because they are located within the high nail/brick concentration areas and were already identified as potentially interesting.

It is interesting how the collection of blogs from people working on the field helps broaden the knowledge gathered by the experience of exploring an archeological site.

Michelle Ramirez



Spring along the Appoquinimink: 30 March and 13 April 2019

While our students languished on the beach (or somewhere) during spring break, the intrepid Archaeological Society of Delaware team returned to the farm. We were delighted to be joined by Dan Griffith, former Director of the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs and Director of the Avery’s Rest Archaeology project for the ASD, the most extensive excavation of a 17th-century site in Delaware, in Sussex County near Rehoboth. We completed the 1.5’ diameter shovel test pits placed every 25’ on the flat upper terrace and down slope to the west and began slowly working our way from the east down the south slope toward the Appoquinimink. The soil deposits are deeper, and consist of eroded soils washed down the slope by water and wind.

After a week of break for all of us, we returned to the site in mid-April. By day’s end, we’d finally tested all of the 270+ metal detecting hits and mapped them and the 200 artifacts we’d found visible on the surface. About 80% of the metal finds are nails; those not too corroded to identify are of types made in the 1600 and 1700s. What building(s) are they from, you ask? We are asking ourselves the same question, with no answers to offer yet. We dug 8 more STPs, continuing to work our way west. They are yielding small artifacts, consistent in type: mostly brick, nails, stone shatter and waste from stone toolmaking, red earthenware kitchen ceramics, and tobacco pipe stems.

The Next Two Weeks in the Field: March 16th and 23rd

On the  16th of  March, one half of the students on the team went to Odessa to take a tour of the old historical houses and sites with John Bansch, to learn more about the  context behind our dig and the types of preservation that have occurred in the past.

Over the next two weeks, the team continued to map the area and record the locations of surface collections and  metal detector hits, as well as continuing Shovel Test Pits (STPs). We’ve slowly been moving toward the marshlands on the “south” side of our site (the cardinal directions are arbitrary, and based on where we set up the Total Station as the origin). So far, we have found that the area’s soil mostly consists of sandy clay loam, and the untouched-by-humans soil starts a foot or two down, depending on the location of the pit. In one instance, the team found an anomaly, right near the edge of the marsh. It was a collection of cobble stones, possibly indicating the existence of a pier on the shore of the river/marshland. We are moving our way down along the shoreline with STPs, so if we find any more collection of cobble stones, that could imply that there was some  sort of road along the bank of the river.

STPs are not only good for discovering the layers of soil and the makeup of each layer, but they also help us locate small nonmetal artifacts that the metal detector wouldn’t pick up. While one person digs the hole and discerns the levels of soil, the other sifts the soil through a ¼ inch screen into a wheelbarrow. This  allows us to locate pieces of brick (which can also show up on the surface), pieces of old pipes, pieces of pottery, and more. The pottery is very difficult to tell the origins of, even for our team members with specific experience in that area of study.

In addition to STPs, the team worked diligently to continue truthing every metal detector hit. As we mentioned in the first blogpost, we found a combination of relevant and irrelevant artifacts. These  ranged from old rusty nails (relevant) to soda cans (not relevant). In some cases,  the team found strange pieces of metal that were difficult to identify: possibly a part of allow or some  other farming tool. Some of the pieces are long and flat, while some are more like giant  nails or stakes. Once, we even found two links of a chain still connected, but it was difficult to tell what it might have come from. Whenever there is any inkling of doubt, the team bags the artifact, writes the data on the bag and on the data sheet, and sends it in to the lab to be cleaned and analyzed.

With the locations of the bricks (from surface collections and STPs) and nails (from metal detector hits), Curtis created a map showing the locations of each find, and also a density map to see where everything is concentrated. Once we  get more data, we should be able to make educated guesses the location of a building or other anomaly in the soil.

Matt Waverczak

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