Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cultural Misunderstandings and Theft

I am in Tunisia right now making my way gradually down to Algeria, and back into Niger. Part of the reason why I ended up here has to do with modest means for transport. I don’t mean to be cryptic, this is just a polite way of saying I am doing my best to budget and stretch out my finances.

Whenever I have the chance to meet up with a family of herders, though, I do my best to visit and communicate with them. They are, after all, the subjects of my study and I am always interested in hearing what they have to say about their lives and other information they wish to share. I met up with a family just outside of Gaafour, Tunisia. And at first, I did not even know that they were herders but the son and the father who talked to me first were very welcoming and invited me to stay at their tent for the night, the night before Ramadan started. I figured why not?

They were nice but I had noticed one of the sons was a little too nice. When I left the camp the next morning, he followed me to the road and was playing with things on my sack, like a map I had tacked away in a pocket and my 5-liter water container that was hanging on a belt clip (empty, but as I go farther south, it will be filled and used). This experience would haunt me later.

I made it to this town called El Aroussa. There, I was befriended by three Tunisians by the names of Mohammed, Brahim and Hassan. They are a little more older than I, but Brahim lived and worked in France for 5 years and Hassan is well-educated so this gave me a chance to learn more about Tunisia. It was the first night of Ramadan so they insisted that I stay and break it with them. I couldn’t refuse and why would I? The food was phenomenal!

The next day, I had plans to move on but when I prepared I noticed my GPS was missing. I thought, where did I leave it? I retraced all my actions from Gaafour to here. And this is when I thought of the son of the pastoral family. Could he really have taken it? I remember when I shook his hand before he left me to continue my walk, he wouldn’t even look me in the face. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, he took it.

So I went back to the camp. He had left with his father to Tunis, but the mother and sisters explained that they were going to return the next day. I gave the kid the benefit of the doubt at first, looking around the trail where I was walking the day before and telling the family, it is likely, it dropped from my sack. The mother and girls of the camp said they did not know if their brother had found anything and the other brother said he did not know either. I wasn’t ready to give up.

When I went back, I explained things to Mohammed, Brahim and Hassan. They were very, very suspicious and Mohammed told me to wait another day so we could go back and investigate. The next day, Hassan drove Mohammed and I to the camp. We arrived there right when the father and son had returned, though I did not see the younger son, the one who was playing with my sack a couple of days before. Mohammed talked to the father and when we went back the paved road, Mohammed saw someone he knew driving the way towards El Aroussa and asked that he drive me back there while Mohammed continued ‘the investigation.’ I went back and waited. A couple of hours later, Mohammed shows up with my GPS unit in his hand, the batteries drained, but in good shape. He had to call on the police as the family was denying having it but once police show up at the tent, the device became ‘found.’

I am not angry at the events that passed because it has only made more cautious of my possessions but there is a cultural misunderstanding between both the family and I. They, for the most part, saw me as a tourist without the time to wait and retrieve my device and hence denied having possession of it. I like to believe that I can simply walk into a camp of pastoralists, explain my mission and walk out with the information I am inquiring about. But that is not reality. Even if I only walked into the camp with some pens and paper that is more than what they posses and some, by temptation, will try to beg, borrow or steal that possession from me. I offer a word of warning to those doing research in developing nations. Even though they know it is wrong, the temptation to take what you carry into their tent is there and must be discouraged in a diplomatic fashion or in cases such as this one, met with force.