A brief reflection on the value of researching the mundane. [1,000 words]
The adage that advises, if there is nothing else to talk about, to talk about the weather applied in Northern Ghana, where discussions about the weather and the seasons (wet & humid and hot & dry) resulted in interesting conversations and good ethnographic insights. I would sometimes bring up the characteristics, benefits, and difficulties associated with each season. Insightful debates about seasonal preference ensued.
I declared myself to favor the dry season and proclaimed it superior to the wet, despite the hot temperatures that averaged above 40 Celsius (104 F). How could anyone argue against me? The lack of humidity, fewer winged pests and the diseases they transmit, better road conditions, and beyond repairing or building new rooms, one had less work to do, were among its better aspects. The festivals, funerals, and social events occur during the dry season. We all love a good time.
Everyone disagreed. The rainy season was ideal they said, with its humidity and “cooler” conditions, averaging 30 Celsius (86 F). In these discussions, what stood out were people’s reasons for this preference and the characteristics they attributed to each season.
“We have a long dry season,” Asingiya said. “And you people, all the time, are experiencing a rainy season.” Asingiya was an elder I would visit to talk about life and the weather.[i] He was referring to how the ecological differences between the savanna and America affected how people develop. “It means that at your place you can care for your children very well.” Building on an earlier discussion we had about race, he continued, “We are all the same, we have the same blood. We are all supposed to be grown by 21 years of age, however, when you people are 18 years old, you are grown. It’s because your food, the weather at your place, and the rain is not as it is here. The Harmattan does not get you.[ii] After the rainy season here, the whole time is very hot. It’s because of that, that our growth differs from the way you grow.”
The link between seasons and human growth made sense. Asingiya often framed human development to depend on ecological conditions in a manner similar to plant development. The tremendous emergence of life during the wet season, and what people perceive as the discomfort and withering experienced during the dry season, reinforces this embodied knowledge. Differences in the weather also served as an explanation for inequality.
The onset of the dry season brings about many concerns. The shift between seasons is abrupt. Within the first few weeks of passing through its veil, the leaves fall from the baobab, the earth browns, and upper respiratory infections become more frequent. Mornings become cool enough that one man, when he learned that I awoke early to run, exclaimed as he clenched his fists and stiffened his body, “You have to be a real man to endure such cold!” Local understandings attribute the increase in sickness to the dry air, cool mornings, and Harmattan winds, which people believe to carry disease. Later in the season, as the temperature climbs, meningitis becomes a concern, as do the dwindling food supplies rationed from the previous harvest. With good reason people refer to the dry season, particularly its latter half, as the “famine season.”
I recognized that my preference for the dry season was due to being in a position of privilege and wealth. I was not dependent upon or concerned about crops or stretching a limited food supply. During the dry season, families await the rains and an opportunity to “get seed in the ground.” Although I enjoyed the lazy afternoons sitting in the shade and chatting, people were concerned with more pressing issues: Will my food last? Will the rains be enough this year? Who will get sick? Men looked forward to farming, saying it was better to work the land and labor toward a successful harvest than to just sit and wait. “When you are working,” someone told me, “you know you will soon have food.”
As soon as families thank their ancestors for a fruitful harvest, it is never too late to think about the impending year. While the Nankani reference the notions of fate and destiny, in practice they are pragmatic realists. There is a limit to how often one can predict the coming weather, and a limit to the number of visits one can make to the diviner to inquire about the future. Acting is more gratifying.[iii] While we might differ in how we understand the seasons, the need to do something ensure one’s success—or the human desire to act over being acted upon and to choose and transform what is given rather than being thrown into the world—is a shared existential predicament. It makes sense why so many people migrate to the south to find work during the dry season. They are trying to shape “one’s choices”[iv] and challenge the haunting scarcity and other forces that imperil their lives.
For me, these encounters show the value of unstructured interviews and “deep hanging out.” It is valuable to talk about the mundane and what we take for granted because it is too easy to assume that everyone shares your view. By bringing up something as ordinary as the weather, I learned that I should probe the links between the seasons and human development. I also recognized the need to attend to the emotional nuances that suffuse the stillness of the dry season. We should make time to allow the things we don’t know we don’t know to percolate to the surface. You can start with the weather, but you will rarely find it is your final destination.
[i] See: Levy, Robert I. and Douglas Hollan (1998) “Person-Centered Interviewing and Observation in Anthropology.” pp. 333–364 in Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology, edited by H. R. Bernard. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.
[ii] The Harmattan is a wind that blows dust from the Sahara Desert over West Africa from December through March (although in Ghana it most often occurs from mid-January to March). At times it can render the landscape in what appears to be a fog that actually consists of dust.
[iii] Although going to the diviner is viewed as taking action (and can reduce or raise anxiety), the ancestors will not seed the field for you.
[iv] I found that “choices,” rather than “chances,” are often the preferred English term when framing the future.