Crystal Biruk on her book, Cooking Data

Interview by Sheng Long

Sheng Long: In your book, you quoted a Chichewa phrase “kuphika madata” (cooking data) to analyze the global health’s quantification projects in Malawi. Can you briefly unpack what it means by cooking data? How does your ethnography of cooking data give rise to a new theorization of data?

Crystal Biruk: In the opening pages of my book, I discuss how I often heard Malawian fieldworkers use this vernacular phrase to playfully, mostly jokingly, comment on their colleagues’ job performance, invoking it to accuse them of collecting data in a sloppy or lazy way, or of outright ‘faking’ data by writing down numbers into blank spaces on the questionnaire without bothering to ask the questions of research participants. For example, fieldworkers would make this accusation if someone finished an interview more quickly than expected (which signaled, perhaps, that they skipped some questions or made up answers for expediency). In Chichewa, kuphika means to cook or cooking (as in the kitchen); a cooking pot is called mphika. The connotations of –phika signal the practices and processes of cooking food: food, not unlike data, must be prepared in a specific way and under specific conditions in order to be good or edible. We can take this analogy further by thinking of the questionnaire—with its boxes waiting to be filled in and empty household rosters yet unpopulated by names—as a kind of ‘recipe’, a means toward an effective end or desired outcome (whether a perfect key lime pie or pristine dataset!). Before collecting any data from rural households, fieldworkers attended intensive trainings, led by American or European demographers, that spanned 7-10 days and aimed to inculcate good habits (writing neatly, not missing any questions, probing for answers if respondents said, “I don’t know”, double checking the internal consistency of a completed questionnaire, etc). But most of all, fieldworkers were cautioned against “cooking data.” The Malawian fieldworkers thus appropriated this phrase from their employers (demographers), which I read as a commentary on how often and forcefully they were told “Never cook data in the field”: to accuse someone of cooking data was funny precisely because ‘cooked data’ was so feared by their bosses.

From the colonial period to the present, African fieldworkers involved in knowledge production projects ranging from censuses to global health projects have been suspected of fabricating data, and cast as a threat to data quality—these anxieties, of course, embed racist assumptions and stereotypes. Yet, this fear of human error or deliberate mucking up of data in the field relies on a taken-for-granted fundamental difference between raw and cooked data, a binary that my book (building on work by others, such as Lisa Gitelman’s important edited volume “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron) destabilizes. Demographers use the term ‘cooked data’ in two main ways. In the first sense, cooked data are raw data (say, numbers, codes, or other information written onto questionnaires by fieldworkers) that have been processed, ‘cleaned,’ and analyzed according to demographic standards and norms; this kind of cooking is necessary to ensure that data are high quality. In the second moralized sense of “cooking”, however, raw data are deformed, dirty, or made useless as a result of bad data practices, fabrication, or human error. My book contributes to conversations in critical data studies and STS by drawing on long-term ethnographic experiences within survey research projects in Malawi to closely track the social lives of data, in the process illuminating how fieldworkers improvise, reinvent and improve upon top-down standards (a form of ‘cooking’) for data collection as they implement them in the field. From some of the ethnographic vignettes and scenes in the book, I hope readers glean that making good data requires creativity, tinkering, and improvisation as much as it does harmonization and consistency. I hope that my book prompts readers to step away for a moment from arbitrating whether any given data set is good or bad, weak or strong, and toward thinking about how data are constituted by their everyday processes of production and circulation, including social and political contexts. Field research may appear to be simply the systematic collection of information from respondents, but in reality it necessitates a complex and flexible infrastructure of people, equipment, technical and logistical know-how, and so on. Seeing this firsthand can denaturalize the assumptions that data are neutral, objective, or ‘clean’.

Sheng Long: As you say in the book, you are a fieldworker among fieldworkers. Doing research about researchers and fieldworkers, how did you handle your relationship with them? Were there any conflicting moments that led to a compromise of each other?

Crystal Biruk: I am grateful to the demographers and Malawian fieldworkers who were kind enough to let an anthropologist tag along in the field (notably, ‘the field’ carries many of the same connotations for them as it does for anthropologists). I knew that in order to understand the particular cultures of science that make up projects like those I spent time with, it would be important to be part of the everyday and repetitive work of fieldwork. Most days, we woke up very early, got into minibuses or SUVs (approximately 6 fieldworkers per vehicle) and headed to rural areas of a given district in Malawi. Once we arrived to a central point near the households from which we would be collecting data that day, a Malawian field supervisor would hand out questionnaires and give each fieldworker a hand-drawn map—crafted by a fieldworker in a prior iteration of the survey—to help them find their assigned household. At the household, the fieldworker would identify their respondent and engage in the interview/questionnaire for anywhere from 1-3 hours. When finished, they would check the questionnaire for completion or internal inconsistencies and submit it to their supervisor for another check. I helped with these checks (and with other tasks in the office and the field) and, thus, became familiar with the kind of ‘assembly line’ on which statistics are manufactured. Some of the statistical claims—the numbers and percentages—that now appear in published papers in demography journals are made up of data points (say, a number written in pencil on a questionnaire page by a fieldworker) that I myself may have checked! This experience helped me come to see statistics not as abstract, free-floating numbers, but, rather, as social artifacts born of hundreds of relations and exchanges. A lot of my fieldwork involved trying my best to ‘touch’ data, to make the abstract tangible, so as to better see and understand them. The Malawian fieldworkers saw me as a novice fieldworker—I hadn’t, in the beginning, accumulated the many years of expertise and knowledge they had, as most of them spend much of the year working for projects like the ones I describe in the book. This made it harder for me, for example, to ‘check’ questionnaires (e.g., to know whether a response about how many kgs of a crop a household had grown last year was viable or not) rapidly and efficiently earlier on. I was, at the time, of a similar age to the fieldworkers, and because I was helping out in small but useful ways, it was quite easy to build rapport and trust.

As a kind of honorary fieldworker, I was privy to many things that happened in our long days in the field—the kinds of deviations from schedules or set plans that occur in all workplaces—but my allegiance was primarily with the fieldworkers. I think in the beginning they were a bit surprised that I kept coming back every day, and over time, they shared with me their grievances and concerns and gripes about what they called ‘living project to project,’ about the lack of employment in Malawi (most fieldworkers had skills and educational credentials that exceeded those needed to do the kind of data collection work they were engaged in), and about the difficulties of being ‘middle-men’ between foreign projects and rural Malawians. Demographers would sometimes inquire with me why the field teams hadn’t visited as many households as required in a given day, and I would have to navigate these encounters carefully. However, as a kind of ‘middle-person’ myself (between project management and the fieldworkers), I also brought suggestions or critiques from the fieldworkers—say, about the wording of a question on the questionnaire that was not working, for example—to the demographers. I reported back to them some of the challenges faced by fieldworkers, especially pertaining to their struggles in dealing with complicated situations or reluctant participants. Fieldworkers were typically too busy and exhausted from the work of fieldwork to make these suggestions or reports themselves. I thought a lot about reciprocity in doing this work, and did my best to not be ‘dead weight’ by contributing to the labor of data collection. As I built meaningful relationships with the fieldworkers around me, of course, we also became entangled in relations of mutual support and drew on our respective knowledge, networks, and resources to help each other achieve our diverse interests.

Sheng Long: Instead of being mere “respondents” in surveys, you have found that Malawians actively participated in the HIV/AIDS research. On the one hand, their cultural practices were interwoven with the research (such as the gift); On the other, they showed great comprehension of these projects, beyond the mystification of indigenous notions (such as the taboo of blood). How do anthropological methods contribute to a different understanding of the Malawians’ agency in these research projects?

Crystal Biruk: For generations, development and global health’s dominant discourse and practices have presumed African lack, neediness, backwardness, or ignorance. Jemima Pierre (2020) discusses this in great detail in her analysis of the racial vernaculars of development in Ghana. In global health worlds, when Africans refuse to participate in research or other projects, dominant explanations always rest on cultural misunderstandings. When frictions arise between health or development projects and participants, it is often assumed that they can be fixed or ameliorated by implementing more culturally sensitive protocols, translating project materials into local languages, or interfacing with locally influential figures. If researchers properly and thoroughly explain a project’s intent and secure truly informed consent, so the story goes, Africans will willingly and enthusiastically participate. In fact, informed consent is often the gold standard for arbitrating whether research is ethical or not. Yet, I found that in Malawi, even when informed consent was secured in proper fashion—that is, rural Malawians were well-informed of the particulars of participating in the survey project and heartily agreed to do so—tensions and conflicts still arose, primarily around the question of reciprocity between research projects and respondents.

In Chapter 3, I discuss how the bars of soap given by research projects to research participants as a token of thanks for their time and energy became a site of contestation and debate in the field (I also consider the historical resonances of ‘soap’ as quintessential colonial commodity). Even those who gratefully received the soap would comment on the ‘smallness’ of this gift, or suggest they deserved more for the work (using the Chichewa word for labor) they did answering questions. Many suggested they should receive money instead of soap. Further, in commenting on what they saw as lopsided and uneven relations between themselves and researchers, they sometimes accused researchers of being bloodsuckers, or sucking their blood. This accusation fits into a larger transhistorical genre that demonizes dangerous others (colonial officials, researchers, politicians, doctors) who are said to steal or accumulate blood for nefarious ends or to ‘do business.’ These accusations that researchers are something akin to vampires are easily dismissible as conspiracy theories, and often explained by reference to culture, as in “Malawians believe the strangest things” or “Rural Malawians do not understand the value or intent of research”. For me, the potential of ethnography in global health and development worlds is its ability to reveal moments of friction or conflict such as these, and to analyze them outside the narrow frame of a single encounter between one project and a population. In documenting and analyzing critiques of the soap-gift made by those who received it, I observed that participants situated present day projects in historical experiences and legacies of the extraction of data and other resources, pointing out that the benefits that researchers accrue are far greater than those they receive. At first glance, the fraught soap-for-information exchange might seem to highlight cultural tensions between ‘African’ and ‘western’ codes of giving. But upon closer examination, it becomes clear that participants conceive of research as a realm of negotiations over proper distributions of past, present, and future benefits. Rather than cultural misunderstanding or unfounded conspiracy theory, the accusation that researchers are sucking blood or the complaint that a bar of soap is a too small gift are historically informed critiques of a social and political order where some people are always giving and others are always taking. Anthropology of/in global health projects demonstrates that the dynamics that play out in any given project cannot be understood without attending to broader histories wherein data, labor, land, and other resources have been stolen amid broken promises of future gain or benefit.

Sheng Long: Following international demographic research projects, you have traced the traveling of numbers among multiple actors in hierarchical relationships. What are different forms of labor, visible or invisible, involved in the data collection, analyses, and dissemination?

Crystal Biruk:  Indeed, my book tries very much to answer the deceptively simple question, What’s in a number? In so doing, I tried to think at every turn about the materiality and relationality of data, that is, about how any given data point (say, a respondent’s response to the question “How frequently do you use condoms in sexual encounters?”) only comes to exist through nested and complex relations between people, things, and ways of knowing. This is why I arranged the book roughly around what I call the life course of data, from survey design to the circulation of polished statistics in policy forums or published work. Part of my project as I wrote the book was to emphasize the invisible labor of Malawian fieldworkers, whose expertise, as discussed above, was crucial to the smooth running of research projects, yet is rarely credited or acknowledged in publications or policy that result from the data they so painstakingly collect. Since the earliest surveys and research endeavors carried out in Africa, fieldworkers have appeared in archived accounts and discourse as individuals whose ‘menial’ and ‘unskilled’ labor is necessary to field research. Yet, they are framed as instrumentalized as cogs in a larger machinery and homogenized or mentioned offhand as “native assistants” or “data collectors”. I hope my book challenges such depictions and prompts all of us, including anthropologists, to think deeply about how we know what we know, and about how to ‘cite’ and acknowledge all the labor that goes into producing knowledge.

Sheng Long: Citing James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, you similarly frame the medical projects as “seeing like a research project.” What do you observe as the major consequences of “seeing like a research project” in global heath? How do you envision your research as academic and public interventions to these issues and limitations?

Crystal Biruk: Demography, or the quantitative study of human populations, is generally a positivist science rooted in the assumption that reality can be observed, measured, and counted. The questionnaires discussed in my book are tools that aim to do just that. Whereas anthropologists are number averse and harbor suspicions of quantification as a mode of knowing and governance, demographers fetishize numbers. For Scott, seeing like a state means aspiring to make something yet unseen or unknown legible and visible: this transformation from illegible to legible always involves standardization, reduction, and abstraction. The methods used to calculate or organize or map a population or a terrain or a phenomenon always bake in assumptions about who or what is important, about who or what counts, about who or what is valuable (according to Scott, 19th century German foresters’ conception of ‘the forest’ reduced forests—as complex and diverse ecologies and relations—to metricized concepts like revenue yield). In a similar way, demographers build into the design of survey questionnaires assumptions about what is worth knowing, assumptions about what constitutes even the basic units of analysis that underlie the validity of surveys (such as ‘the household’ or ‘poverty’, concepts that, of course, may be defined or imagined differently by, say, an anthropologist!), and assumptions about what good data are. All of these determine, then, what is ‘seen’ or what it is possible to know from the tools, technologies, and epistemologies that constitute quantitative/demographic data. This is why what is seen by an anthropologist may differ from what is seen by a demographic survey project, even if they are looking at the same thing. Yet, the point of my book is not necessarily to elevate anthropological ways of knowing or seeing above other disciplinary modes of knowing. Rather, I hope that my book, in attending closely to the micro-interactions and tacit assumptions and value judgments baked into demographic datasets, might prompt all of us who make, consume, or think about data of diverse kinds to understand them as contingent and partial artifacts of social processes and normalization (‘disciplines discipline us’, as I tell my students!)

As for the consequences of seeing like a research project for global health in particular: as anthropologists and others working in critical global health studies have shown, global health (as assemblage of actors, resources, geographies, and priorities) very much prizes and desires quantitative data such as the numbers discussed in my book. Numbers travel and translate easily and carry an aura of objectivity and self-evident truth that make them a convincing stand in for reality. Yet, when we identify a problem with or through numbers, say high rates of malnutrition, it narrows our imagination of solutions or interventions for that problem. In my current work on the Global Fund’s efforts to ‘end AIDS’ in Africa, for example, I have observed that donors are interested in counting vulnerable populations (such as men who have sex with men, MSM) so as to have a denominator of ‘people at highest risk of HIV’ against which their efforts and interventions can operate. This denominator is the starting point for measuring how many vulnerable people are ‘reached,’ ‘tested,’ or ‘treated.’ Achieving impressive numbers in this regard stand in as proof of success or efficacy, yet, such metrics overlook or exclude from measurement the forms of vulnerability that impinge on, say, an LGBTI-identified person’s life in Malawi. These genres of vulnerability far exceed the viral load or HIV status of that individual. Global health is successful at demonstrating success in targeting narrow, easily quantifiable problems, but, of course, less successful at ‘seeing’ health or other problems as hopelessly entangled in complex contexts and as a product of structural or political failings. In my book, I try to move beyond the anthropological impulse to show, using ethnographic methods, what numbers get wrong or what they overlook. To do so, I examine not so much the finished numbers themselves and what they elide, but rather the criteria and metrics that underscore and determine data’s production and consumption, and measure whether or not they come to ‘count’ as data in the first place. A granular analysis of research worlds in a particular place at a particular time encourages us to more critically engage with the kinds of evidence we too often take for granted, whether inside or outside our discipline or training.


Gitelman, Lisa, ed. 2013. “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron. Boston:MIT Press.

Pierre, Jemima. 2020. “The racial vernaculars of development: A view from West Africa.” American Anthropologist 122(1):86-98.

Naomi Haynes on her new book, Moving by the Spirit

Interview by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki: The center of your ethnography is about the Prosperity Gospel’s economy of faith and social ambition in the Copperbelt. The prosperity gospel and the Copperbelt have certain reputations, both in anthropology and the wider popular culture; and I think that one of the surprising things about your book is how you challenge the commonly held stereotypes about both of these social forms. What was it about the state of the literatures that made you feel that interventions were necessary?

Naomi Haynes: When I set out to do my fieldwork on the Copperbelt, anthropology had a pretty clear view of both this region and of the prosperity gospel churches that had become very popular there.  In terms of the latter, both the prosperity gospel and Pentecostalism more generally had largely been interpreted in terms of what Joel Robbins calls “compensatory promises”: people converted to Pentecostalism because it promised things that they were (increasingly) unable to access elsewhere as the welfare state retreated and the global economy changed.  In this narrative, the Copperbelt seemed like an especially compelling case in point.  The influence of James Ferguson’s Expectations of Modernity meant this region had been fixed in the minds of many anthropologists as the paradigmatic site of neoliberal abjection, a once-thriving extraction economy that had been swiftly cut off from the promises of globalization – in other words, just the kind of place where people might be hoping for an economic miracle in the form of divine prosperity. While it was not difficult to see why people would find the promises of Pentecostalism so compelling, I didn’t feel that the hope of riches or health by itself explained this religion’s staying power; it’s one thing to sign up to a program that promises wealth, but it’s another to continue to give it time, energy, and money without getting much in return.  I was therefore sure there was more to the prosperity gospel story than just the hope of getting rich, and my fieldwork revealed this to be the case.  It turned out that Pentecostalism wasn’t so much about getting access to wealth that was otherwise unavailable, but rather about creating other modes of realizing value through personal spiritual advancement.  So, Pentecostalism wasn’t a second-best option, but a point at which people were working to produce a good life for themselves.  Similarly, life on the Copperbelt wasn’t all abjection and despair, but action, innovation, and creativity.

Jon Bialecki: Your book in large part focuses on ‘moving’ as a Zambian concept; ‘moving’ in fact is so important that it gives your book its title. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about what ‘moving’ is, and also about how it relates to the way that the Prosperity Gospel works in the Copperbelt?

Naomi Haynes: Moving (ukusela in Bemba) is a term that people on the Copperbelt use all the time to describe the way that their lives and those of others are changing positively. They say things have moved when a child completes school, when someone gets married, or when a family moves into a bigger house or purchases a used Toyota. But moving isn’t just an idiomatic way of talking about progress. On the Copperbelt, moving is a value, by which I mean it is an animating idea that structures social life. Most social relationships on the Copperbelt, including those that form in Pentecostal churches, are organized to make moving happen. Looking at moving therefore helps us understand how social life on the Copperbelt works, and perhaps especially the social life of Pentecostal churches, which have become key sites for a new religious form of moving “by the Spirit.” Pentecostal believers move by the Spirit both by realizing traditional forms of moving (houses and husbands), as well as uniquely Pentecostal forms of moving such as spiritual development or advancement in the church hierarchy.

Jon Bialecki: One of the things that struck me in reading your book is the relation between this long-running Copperbelt value of moving, and the relatively recently introduced form of prosperity-gospel Christianity. As you know, there’s been a lot of back and forth in the anthropology of Christianity about ‘rupture’ and ‘continuity,’ with scholars like Joel Robbins and Birgit Meyer emphasizing how the adoption of Pentecostal Christianity often results in a historical sense of conversion as a radical transformation, while other scholars (such as Matthew Engelke,  Liana Chua, and Mark Mosko) seeing much more social continuity, both marked and unmarked, in recently Christianized societies. I was wondering if we could read the importance of ‘moving’ here as telling us something about this debate? I suspect that this is a case that can’t be boiled down to a simple ‘nothing changes’/‘everything changes’ dichotomy.

Naomi Haynes: I get asked about rupture all the time – it’s easily the concept that people working outside of the anthropology of Christianity associate most with the anthropology of Christianity.  And there’s no question that rupture has done important analytical work, not only for the subfield, but also for the discipline as a whole.  The model of conversion as rupture has given us a new way to talk about cultural change more generally, and the most sophisticated work on rupture has always kept this larger question in view.  However, as time has gone on I think that the emphasis on rupture has sometimes given way to something more mathematical than analytical; the question has moved from how change happens to a simple accounting of what has and has not changed – whether there are more elements in the “change” or “continuity” column, in other words.  Against this latter interpretation, what I hope my work on moving demonstrates is that Christian adherence affords all kinds of creative cultural responses that structure and are structured by external forces like economics or politics.  Rather than describe Christianity in terms of rupture or continuity, then, I have found it more productive to think of Christianity as a means of “making life possible,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Achille Mbembe.  In the Copperbelt case, this means finding new ways of realizing an existing value, but in other contexts making life possible will necessarily take other forms.  The question isn’t so much whether or to what extent this represents a rupture as much as what Christian adherence does in the places where it is taken up.

Jon Bialecki: Let me follow up on your of idea of shifting from some kind of binary up-or-down judgement of ‘order/rupture,’ to instead thinking about what novel local potentialities Pentecostalism as an imported form opens up. I want to do this by asking some questions about media and performance (this is, after all, CaMP). One of the things that really caught my attention when reading your book was the aesthetics of Copperbelt Pentecostalism, and how it seemed to be at once very ordered and extremely chaotic. On one hand, especially during celebrations involving gift exchange, there seemed to be a strong emphasis on decorum and consistency, down to asking women to wearing matching dresses (a request that was even directed to the anthropologist!). On the other hand, there also seemed to be an importance in indecipherability and chaos; in this case I’m referencing the uncanny sonic anarchy that occurs during what you called ‘collective-personal prayer.’ In what ways is this in continuity with the aesthetics or communicative ideology of the Copperbelt, and in what ways is this a new situation in which Pentecostalism has allowed for some mutation, reimagination, or replacement of Copperbelt sensibilities?

Naomi Haynes: I’ve always been struck by the uniformity of the Copperbelt aesthetic as well, which I think connects to the aspirational quality of display in urban Zambia.  Every Copperbelt sitting room that I’ve ever entered, whether in a mud brick house in a shanty compound or the spacious home of a banker, is decorated according to a common template.  There’s a suite of matching sofas (however broken down), a television (which may not work), and a cabinet or set of shelves for curios.  The differences among homes are therefore differences of degree rather than kind, and this makes domestic display a key site at which moving is realized.  By comparing like with like, everyone knows where they stand relative to everyone else, and everyone can measure how well they are moving. Pentecostalism produces similar types of metrics, and indeed, one way that moving by the Spirit can be measured is in the same sorts of consumer displays that structure moving more generally.  But other religious metrics of moving are similarly organized by rank-able displays.  Those who are moving by the Spirit excel in prayer, prophecy, preaching, and singing, all gifts that presuppose an audience.  This is true even when the specificity of one’s gift is drowned out by the cacophony of collective-personal prayer that you mention. Skill in this type of prayer depends much more on facility with the form rather than on its content, and insofar as this is the case, it is a performance for others at least as much as it is a semi-private dialogue with God.  Charismatic displays like this are perhaps an especially good example of how Pentecostal characteristics like spontaneity and surprise, which have been so important in your own work, get mobilized in service of larger social projects in the Copperbelt context.  In other words, the loud, effervescent and even ecstatic prayer that always characterizes Pentecostal worship actually facilitates something that’s extremely uniform, and therefore easily measured.

Jon Bialecki: Finally, one last performance and media question! As we have discussed all through this interview, at the local level the prosperity gospel is a chance for people to solve old problems in new ways, which explains at once how in your field site it was very much Zambian, while still recognizably an iteration of global forms. We’ve also stressed how this allows for various forms of local production of social ties. But at the same time, the sort of Pan-African or internationalized large scale Prosperity Gospel events are also present in the Copperbelt – or at least present in the mediated form of video. And it seems at times that some of your informants have strong opinions about the latter instances of the prosperity gospel. I was wondering if you could give us a sense of how your informants evaluated and consumed (or perhaps didn’t consume!) these other video instantiations of the prosperity gospel, and how important the differences in mediation and performance were in their assessment.

Naomi Haynes: The Pentecostal media landscape, especially television, has grown increasingly complex in the fifteen years that I have worked in Zambia.  At last count, there were a dozen free-to-air Pentecostal television stations available on the Copperbelt.  In addition to sermons and gospel music, these channels also broadcast miracles – lots of exorcisms, as well as healings and other wondrous signs, including a famous example of a pastor who appeared to walk on air.  Of course, not all these displays are accepted as genuine, and there is a great deal of debate as to which global pastors are true servants of God and which are actually in league with Satan.  But what I think is especially interesting about Pentecostal media consumption on the Copperbelt is the way that those pastors and prophets who are regarded as authentic get worked into familiar local practices.  One thing we haven’t touched on so much in our discussion is the extent to which moving is about patronage.  Mega-pastors in places like Nigeria or South Africa, who people on the Copperbelt encounter only through television, are often appealed to as potential super-patrons.  For example, several years ago there was a rumor that Prophet T.B. Joshua of Nigeria would be appearing at a stadium in Lusaka.  Many hundreds of people turned up on the day to find the reports were untrue, and they were understandably angry.  The national news that evening featured a woman who was interviewed on the scene calling on the president to bring T.B. Joshua to Zambia; people needed him to come and bring healing and “deliverance” (the Pentecostal term for exorcism).  What struck me in this interview, apart from the request for state intervention in the matter (another interesting aspect!) was how this woman envisioned T.B. Joshua’s presence in Zambia, were he to come.  She was asking him to do the same things that all pastors do, and in this way, she was inviting him to be part of a very local provision of religious services, a provision that facilitates moving by the Spirit for my informants.  So, while believers on the Copperbelt are connected to transnational religious networks, and recognize that they are part of a global religious movement, their engagement with that is always slotted into very local concerns.


Julie Archambault on her new book, Mobile Secrets

Mobile Secrets

Interview by Anna Eisenstein

Mobile Secrets is an ethnography of youth, of mobile phone usage, and of uncertainty in a suburban neighborhood in southern Mozambique. What were your primary goals in writing this book? 

When I first set out to conduct research in Inhambane, I was interested first and foremost in youth—I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be a young person growing up in postwar postsocialist Mozambique. I hadn’t originally planned to explore this question though the study of mobile phone practices but once in the field it soon became evident to me that in order to understand young people’s realities at that particular juncture, I would have to do so through their engagement with the phone. At the time, there was much hype around the spread of mobile phones across Africa, much enthusiasm about all the ‘useful information’ that would suddenly become available to a rapidly growing number of people. I didn’t want to write a book that would directly challenge this wishful thinking with ethnographic exceptions. I wanted to write a book about the spread of mobile phones in an African context, but I also wanted to write a book that was ultimately about young people’s struggles. In the end, the question of information—though not quite the kind of useful information that these observers were excited about—proved a major concern for my young interlocutors, and became central to my analysis. Continue reading

Perry Gilmore on her new book, Kisisi

Kisisi Cover

Press link:,subjectCd-AN43.html

Kisisi was published in cloth, paperback, and e-editions by Wiley Blackwell in 2016

Interview by Alma Gottlieb

reposted from her website:

Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki chronicles a charming and, indeed, remarkable friendship that developed between two five-year-old boys—one (Sadiki), the son of a traditionally pastoralist Samburu family in Kenya working as a wage laborer for wealthy British landowners; the other (Colin), the son of a white American couple of means, both students, living in Kenya for 15 months of graduate research.

When they first met, the age-mate boys found themselves drawn to one another . . . but frustrated by their lack of a common language. Slowly, they developed their own language (dubbed “Kisisi” by Colin’s mother, Perry Gilmore), combining bits and pieces of Swahili and English into a constantly-evolving pidgin that they, alone, understood. Narrating the development of this unique pidgin, the book combines the engagingly personal voice of a proud and loving mom with the sharp observer’s eye of a trained anthropological linguist.

Renowned linguist, Deborah Tannen, has this to say about the book:

It’s part linguistic analysis, part gripping story of culture contact, part deeply moving memorial to a life tragically cut short. This book will fascinate anyone interested in language, children, or human experience.

The 136-page book has five chapters, and Gilmore writes like a dream. Once you start it, I dare you to put it down.

You can find a link to a sample chapter here (“Uweryumachini!: A Language Discovered”):

If you’d like to request an exam copy for a course you teach, follow this link.

You can find Perry Gilmore’s contact information here.

I recently interviewed Perry Gilmore online about the book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PG = Perry Gilmore):

PG portrait

Perry Gilmore


AG: In the Prologue, you write of Colin and Sadiki:

[T]heir invented language helped them construct new identities and resist, transgress, and transform the marked postcolonial borders and harsh inequities of economics, race and culture that engulfed them and dominated the social power relationships and language ideologies that engaged all aspects of their daily lives (xvi).

As such, you call the book

a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and the politics of language and oppression . . . an ethnographic exploration of young children’s critical and resilient discursive agency in their innocent yet effective quest for language equality and a place for their friendship on the rigid borders of their vastly different language and cultural worlds (p. xix).

Similarly, in the final chapter, you write:

“the children’s language . . . [created] opportunities for them to cross deeply entrenched colonial borders as effective change agents and as an official effective language policy makers” (p. 95).

Those are impressive claims. How would you respond to skeptics who might doubt the ability of five-year-old children to disrupt the intertwined and entrenched legacies of colonial domination and racism in East Africa?

Colin and Sadiki Planning a Pretend Hunt

Sadiki (left) and Colin (right) planning a pretend-hunt

PG: I agree that these are impressive claims! But I am convinced that they are reasonable and accurate insights about the social dynamics that Colin and Sadiki’s border-crossing friendship generated – for them and for those around them.

In the early pages of my book, I express the hope Colin and Sadiki’s story will be able to amaze the reader. The boys’ story urges us to look more closely and see all children with a little more awe, wonder, and respect.

I, myself, was almost incredulous when I first discovered that, before two months, the children were communicating non-stop and with great facility in a Swahili- sounding language that only the two of them understood. My own shock, disbelief, and curiosity prompted me to record their language carefully and document the full range of their social interactions. In 1975, when these events occurred, I, myself, was doubtful that Colin and Sadiki – at only five years of age – could actually be displaying such creative linguistic virtuosity, strong agentive social roles, and active resistance to the existing language ideologies and conventions that surrounded them.

Having been an elementary school teacher for six years, a language and literacy curriculum developer for school-age children, and a graduate student in developmental psychology with a focus on language acquisition, I had a strong background in child development and behavior. All that I had ever read about children and about language at that time completely defied what I was witnessing.

In Kisisi, I present what I hope is a range of convincing contextualized behavioral evidence to demonstrate not only the children’s language virtuosity but also their effective and impactful social agency. No doubt, some might be skeptical about the ability of two five-year-olds to interrupt an entrenched and oppressive colonial order. I, myself, initially struggled with these more speculative ethnographic insights. For example, I could answer questions about “what” they were speaking with empirical linguistic descriptions that identified specific lexical innovations and new syntactic constructions. I could answer questions about “how” they constructed meaning and negotiated shared information in an empirically detailed discourse analysis that, line-by-line, examined their turn-taking utterances. However, to answer questions about “why” they chose to invent and continue to use their own private pidgin language instead of the Up-Country Swahili that they were expected to use, I used an ethnographic analysis that is necessarily more exploratory in nature and more interpretive in identifying underlying meanings.

A skeptic – or any reader, for that matter – could, and probably should, question my ethnographic interpretations about the children’s resilient and transformative agency. It was my task in the book to provide enough of their story to convincingly demonstrate their effective resistance in a rich description. I hope I accomplished that. As with all ethnographic work, however, I did not and cannot “prove” my analysis; instead, I explore its underlying meanings.

The case of the boys’ friendship, and the ephemeral invented language that helped create and sustain it, presents a provocative extreme along a continuum of possibilities in examining language choices and behaviors in social practice. The example also provides a lens for understanding how young members of language communities use and think about language – how they clearly exercise language choice, change, and possibility.

It is only in recent years, especially in the new and growing field of the anthropology of childhood, that children’s agentive behavior and early language ideologies have been recognized and explored. In earlier anthropological studies, children had generally been seen as the recipients of generational cultural transmission, rather than seen as contributors toand co-constructors of their own worlds. The role of children as language innovators and de facto language policy makers has been largely understudied, undocumented, and even ignored. This case of language invention provides documentation of children’s language creativity; gives insight into the agentive roles of children as language innovators in multilingual contact situations; and sheds new light on questions of language genesis, change, shift, and maintenance.

Even two-year-olds make their own decisions about language choice in multilingual settings. For example, in my Indigenous language work in Alaska, I saw young Yu’pik mothers in tears when their two-year-olds could understand everything their mothers said to them in Yu’pik, but would only answer in English. Somehow, much to the pain of their families, these very young language learners had made their own decision to choose the dominant English language over their Alaska Native heritage language. Examples like these are widespread and clearly demonstrate that very young children can and do resist existing language ideologies and exercise their own language choices.

Colin and Sadiki’s isolated and remote rural situation contributed to their more extreme language innovation, collaborative language choices, and social practices. I have argued that the children, by choosing to sustain, expand, and develop their own private language, resisted the dominant language ideologies that represented the hegemonic, racialized, post-colonial order of newly independent Kenya. Their public uses of their private language made a symbolic statement about what I describe as their “cultural critique” of an oppressive regime in which their own cross-racial friendship was considered by many as a violation of social norms. The boys refused to docilely participate in the existing colonial order and rejected the Up-Country Swahili language that was designated to keep that order in place. They resisted being socialized into a language ideology they rejected, and instead created a new language ideology that allowed a safe and celebrated space for their friendship. Sadiki and Colin used their language to deconstruct a colonial culture of fear and silence and reconstructed their own counter-culture of courage and voice.

Their resistance and language ideologies may not have been articulated with theoretical vocabulary, but they were boldly enacted. The boys did not resist through anger or aggression. Instead their effective, border-crossing agency was accomplished through loving verbal art and play. Their joy-filled language practices challenged the oppressive colonial culture that surrounded them, identifying them as a distinct and separate speech community that valorized its own social justice values and allowed a space for their treasured border-crossing friendship.

Colin & Sadiki-Proud Pretend Hunters

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right)–proud pretend-hunters

AG: What a persuasive response! I dare a reader to remain unconvinced. . .

In the book, you point out that, until recently, scholars of language overlooked children’s linguistic experiences as unimportant. How does your book contribute to developing scholarship about children’s language practices? Does what you observed about the development of Kisisi suggest anything about the origins of our species’ linguistic abilities?

PG: For centuries, speculations about the origins of human language and the genesis of new languages have presented daunting questions for philosophers, language experts, historians, and scientists. These questions had always fascinated me. My primary reason for being in Kenya in the first place was to study baboon communication. This type of ethological fieldwork was in part driven by a fascination for primate studies and its potential for illuminating the origin of language in the human species. The study of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat was a relatively new research practice at that time. Naturalistic, long-term primate studies promised to be a valuable source of information concerning possible models of early hominid behavior and communication. I had no way of predicting that it would be my son’s unplanned and serendipitous close friendship with his Samburu neighbor that would offer me an even more provocative language origin story!

Ethnographic studies of young children’s language socialization were just beginning to emerge as an area of interest and significance. In striking contrast to earlier widespread Piagetian language studies, which characterized children as developmentally egocentric and incapable of modifying their speech for an interlocutor, newer observational studies showed strong socio-centric abilities of very young children and even babies. For example, Elinor Ochs (1977) demonstrated that her infant twins were able to take conversational turns and repeat each other’s pre-linguistic babbling utterances. These findings in the late ‘70s defied the long-held Piagetian claims of egocentrism. Of course, Ochs’ work had not yet been written or published when I witnessed Colin and Sadiki’s socio-centric language invention.

The infamous “forbidden experiments” recounted by Herodotus and others, the failed and poignant attempts to teach feral children to speak (e.g., Itard’s Wild Child, and the case of Genie), questionable research proposals designed to create a new pidgin language by isolating speakers of different languages on a small island (e.g., Derek Bickerton), the study of a new sign language created by deaf children in Nicaraguatwin languages – all these cases were seen to hold the promise of finding the secrets of language origins and genesis. The study of pidgin and creole languages has similarly been seen as a fascinating place to see language develop and change over time.

The study of Colin and Sadiki’s language adds to this literature in captivating ways. It is a rare, first-hand account of an emerging language-in-the-making. Most of the examples of “new languages” are anecdotal and discovered after the fact. I was in an unusual situation whereby I could document the boys’ language practices as they occurred over time. Invaluable also was the benefit of seeing all of their behavior in social context. The ethnographic details of their situated everyday language practices were unique compared to other studies. These ethnographic data allowed for a more “emic” interpretation of the functions, uses, and meanings of their communication in context. This “ethnography of communication” approach enabled me to describe the children as members of a vibrant (if tiny) “speech community” who used their new language for specific purposes and in specific situations. I did not simply provide a structural description of their “language” in a vacuum but in the context of their complex, multilingual social life.

What can Colin and Sadiki teach us all about human language and about children’s language? One reviewer, a linguist and pidgin/creole scholar, has commented that Kisisi “shows that two five-six year old children can create a new grammatical system” and it “can happen fast.” I suggest that the boys can teach us many things about children and language. What seemed to me at first to be a small and simple story of two children inventing a language turned out to be a story that was complex, nuanced, and multilayered. Their experiences raise many profound questions causing us to rethink common assumptions about children and about language. Their “not-so-simple” story provides provocative insights about some very big ideas concerning language origins, children’s innovative language competencies, and the significant role of play and verbal art in language genesis. Their experience provides compelling evidence concerning the agentive roles that very young children can exercise in language and culture resistance, choice, and change.

Sadiki and Colin’s language began in response to a pragmatic need to understand each other in order to be playmates and friends. Their early genesis of an original, simplified Swahili pidgin served that immediate function, facilitating their play and budding friendship. As time went on and their close bonds deepened – even as they had learned and used other local languages – they continued to use and expand Kisisi, its linguistic form and structure, and its semiotic functions. It was fun. It was secret. It was theirs. It was an artistic verbal spectacle that surprised and captivated unsuspecting audiences. Their new language bonded them as much as it reflected their bonds. They created a secret language with a public function. Through their language use, they carved a new, exclusive, and symbolically resonant space, a separate universe for their controversial friendship.

Their experience taught me that we scholars of childhood need to view all children’s language, in its many complex forms, as inevitably intertwined with the lives and meanings of the children who use it.

Colin & Sadiki Closing the Paddock Gate

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right) closing the paddock gate

AG: You lived in Kenya, where the events described in this book occurred, some 40+ years ago. Some people might think that the data are too old to be relevant; others might think you’ve forgotten too much by now to write accurately about the events. Can you talk about the advantages of waiting so long to write about past events?

PG: Producing what Johannes Fabian would describe as a “late ethnography” that (re)presents and interprets historically situated events and practices, I have written this account forty years after I experienced it. I had deliberately accumulated a substantial archive during my time on Kekopey Ranch in Gilgil, Kenya. Like so many who had come before me, I intended to write a book about my time in Africa–although I originally thought my book might be about my life with the baboons I was studying. With that in mind, I was very meticulous about keeping lengthy journals and records. I also kept carbon copies of all the letters I wrote to friends and family back home. And I kept copies of the audio cassette voice letters we regularly sent back and forth to the States. Those voice letters included rich descriptions of our activities and environment, as well as many instances where Sadiki and Colin told jokes, recounted events, and sang songs for Colin’s grandmother, other relatives, and close friends. Because I was fascinated with their new language, I made regular tape recordings of Sadiki and Colin’s language interactions in a range of contexts and kept detailed notes about and translations of their developing language.

At the time, I was a professional writer for a nationally funded educational laboratory, Research for Better Schools, Inc. (RBS). I was on leave to do the baboon research but was able to do freelance writing for RBS drawing on my Kenya experiences. I mostly wrote children’s poetry and short stories for an anthology for a reading and literature curriculum we had been developing. (I had a wonderful supervisor at RBS who arranged for me to continue as a long distance writer on our project. This was amazing since it was long before fax machines, e-mails, Skype and scans! The international packages took six to eight weeks to arrive at their destinations.) I did this writing for the entire time I was in the field. The poetry and stories I wrote were largely focused on the boys and necessarily captured many subtle details and evocative descriptions of their daily life events.

The letters, journals, notes, recordings, and RBS writings all provided an extremely rich archive for me to draw on, decades later. Even forty years on, the accounts seem vibrant and vivid, and the now-digitized recordings bring the children’s giggling voices right into the room. I also maintained a growing library of local books, newspapers, documents, and articles that captured the local colonial life of the period. Furthermore, I drew on the parallel memories of many colleagues, friends, and Sadiki and his family, who lived with us in Kenya at the time. Many of them were kind enough to read early drafts of the book and/or talk with me about these past times and events.

You ask about the advantages of waiting to write about past events. One of the most exciting advantages of writing the book now is that over these decades, the field has grown so rich theoretically, and that has allowed me a range of theories, concepts, and language to work with that did not exist before. When I was first examining their behaviors, we didn’t really have the theoretical frameworks or the critical language to fully describe or understand what the boys were doing. Post-colonial studies, critical ethnography, language socialization, power and hegemony, decolonizing methodologies, agency, resistance and language ideologies didn’t yet exist as areas of study. I was better able to capture all aspects of their profound and complex story by relying more heavily on more recently developed ideas as central issues in telling their story. It was as if the field finally caught up to the boys!

AG: Ha, yes. We sometimes talk about scholars being “ahead of their time.” In this case, two five-year-olds proved “ahead of the scholars’ time”!

In that regard, in the Epilogue, you suggest that Kisisi offers pedagogical implications for language learning (including bilingual education) that could prove useful to teachers of students at various levels and in various contexts. Can you share some specific ideas you might have along those lines?

PG: Ethnographic inquiry about children’s language practices can inform and often enlighten educators. Ethnography can expose children’s language competencies that hide in plain sight, often unnoticed and unimagined. Kisisi can provide one ethnographic account of young children’s competencies that might help teachers look at their own students differently. Teachers might be encouraged to use an ethnographic lens in their own daily pedagogy. An ethnographic eye can reveal otherwise unseen or unrecognized competencies. Ethnographies like Kisisi can present strong counter-narratives to a dominant, destructive, deficit discourse that unfortunately persists in many educational settings. In a time when deficit arguments continue to hang heavy in US educational circles – fueled, for example, by the so-called “30 million word gap” research (Hart and Risley 1995, 2003), which falsely argues that low-income children in the U.S. at three years of age have been exposed to millions of fewer words than have been their wealthy counterparts – it’s a good time for teachers to use an ethnographic eye to confront the unequal power arrangements that obscure the potential linguistic talent, virtuosity, and strength we need to recognize and nurture in all children. By paying close attention and documenting children’s everyday talk, teachers can identify competencies and start to work from from a resource-rich stance rather than a deficit bias. All students come to schools with naturally creative and flexible multilingual and translanguaging capabilities. Colin and Sadiki are not unique. They demonstrate the fluid language abilities that all children are capable of. What is needed is a safe and respectful space to use language(s) in ways that enhance rather than threaten children’s identities and ideologies. When teachers create those meaningful contexts, language learning and use will flourish.

AG: Speaking of which . . . President Trump began his presidency with an executive order founded in deep suspicion of immigrants and refugees. Your book seems founded in the opposite aim: the urge to find the common humanity linking young children from radically different cultural traditions, historical contexts, economic resources, and life options. Have you had any reactions to your book from readers who might have approached it from something closer to Pres. Trump’s position of skepticism? More broadly, do you think your book, and others like it, can make inroads among those who hold deep convictions about the unbridgeable divides separating people via discourses of “otherness”?

PG: In an era of division, I have had very positive responses to Colin and Sadiki’s story. I believe the boys touch a place of hope and optimism in the hearts of those who have read the book. In this Trump era, Sadiki and Colin’s story reinforces a vision of building bridges, not walls. I think it sparks a yearning for deeper human connections with the “other.”
Colin and Sadiki Running in the Tall Grass w Perry Gilmore

Perry Gilmore, Colin and Sadiki walking through tall grasses

AG: Who do you hope will read this book—among scholars/students, policy makers/politicians, and the general public? What’s your fantasy for the impact that this book could have, if it were read by the right people?

PG: I hope a wide array of people will read the book. The two boys offer us a beautiful lesson in humanity. Love and play are at the heart of their creative language virtuosity and their healing, social justice transformations. I hope those who read the book will forever after watch all children with more awe and wonder! Linguists, anthropologist, educators, policy makers, and the general public can all find something in the book for them. The boys have left us a unique gift – a rare language legacy; and a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and resilience in challenging the politics of language and oppression.

And, finally, I wrote this book as a memorial tribute to my son, Colin Gilmore, whose life was cut short by a drunk driver when he was only 18 years old. One clear hope of mine is that readers will remember Colin and the courageous and loving lessons he and his dear friend, Sadiki, left us.