SUMMER STORIES: Field Research with A Toddler

Summer Stories from Africa is a series of fresh reflections from our students, faculty, and alumni researching and studying on the continent.

Bethany Wilinski shares her experiences conducting field research for the first time with her family in Moshi, Tanzania. Wilinski received her Ph.D in Educational Policy Studies and Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2014, and is currently an assistant professor at Michigan State University. During her time at UW-Madison, Wilinski served as the African Studies Program Publications Assistant and Outreach Assistant.

Thoughts on Field Research with A Toddler

Wilinski stands her with 18-month-old son Danny in Moshi, Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Bethany Wilinski.

Each morning, as I unlock the front door of the house in Moshi, Tanzania, that is home for five weeks, a little voice cries out excitedly, “Meena!” It is my 18-month-old son, Danny, anticipating the arrival of Mama Amina, who cares for him while I’m out doing fieldwork. From time to time we hear passersby calling to Danny from our front gate—Mama Amina tells us there are some primary school children and students at the nearby business college who come by to say hello and touch his hair, which feels so different from their own. Every night at dinner, Danny asks about everyone who has featured prominently in his Moshi experience, and we assure him that Mama Amina, Mama Lea, the babies, the cat, and the chicken are all at their homes, too, eating dinner.

I knew that being in Tanzania would be different with Danny, but I did not anticipate how differently I would come to see familiar places and scenes, or how motherhood would shape my interactions and my fieldwork. Now, as I observe the activities of a preschool classroom, I think about the choices I am making about childcare and early education for my son. Watching preschool-aged children run after the car as we drive down a dusty road causes me to wonder about their mothers; how do they reconcile their concerns about having their children walk such long distances alone just to get to school? As I walk through the market with Danny on my back in a baby carrier, I feel a kinship with the other mothers and I remind myself that here I am not Bethany but “Mama Danny”; Tanzanian women are referred to by their first child’s name. I learn about child-rearing from the two mothers who spend their days caring for our home and for Danny, and I marvel at how quickly our small community has coalesced around this child.

Fieldwork with a toddler is not without its challenges, of course. None of us slept well for at least three weeks while Danny was getting over jet lag, and even now a good night’s sleep is rare, thanks to the new environment and the new nighttime noises that come along with it. We stay in an area where malaria is a concern, so we have to be vigilant about bed nets, bug spray in the evening, and a daily dose of Malarone. Danny has taken a liking to beans and rice, which are a staple here, but we still worry that he’s getting all the nutrients he needs. One of our suitcases was filled to the brim with diapers for our stay because we didn’t know whether we’d be able to get diapers in Danny’s size if we needed them. Road travel now makes me nervous in a way it never did before; we decided not to bring a car seat because we would be using taxis, which almost never have seatbelts. Now I feel like we’re tempting fate every time we leave the house in a vehicle.

Wilinski’s son happily joins a preschool classroom in Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Bethany Wilinski.

On top of health and safety concerns, fieldwork is tiring! Unlike when I was doing my dissertation research, I no longer have the luxury of coming home after a long day and relaxing as I process what I saw and heard that day. The minute he hears the clink of our front gate, Danny appears, crying out “Mommy, mommy!” and the next part of my day begins. Evenings, after bedtime, are when additional work gets done.

In spite of the challenges, I wouldn’t trade this experience. Coming to Tanzania as a mom, with my child, has connected me to the place and the people I encounter in a new way. I love that Danny now regularly sings the songs—in Swahili—that Mama Amina taught him and that he says “Mambo?” to everyone we meet. When Danny twisted his ankle I was humbled by the experience of going to a Tanzanian hospital to seek treatment—standing around, waiting with a squirming child who desperately wanted to leave, wondering when a doctor might appear. For every moment of worry or concern, there is an equally joyful moment, like when Danny looks up at me with his big blue eyes, tilts his head, and says “happy.” So am I.