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The Contested Fruits of Research in War-Torn Countries: My Insider Experience in Northern Uganda

  • Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI)


I first set foot in Gulu town in northern Uganda on a chilly March evening in the year 2000. It felt strange to be coming, for the first time in my life, to a region that was my fatherland. Indeed, I had spent all the years of my life in central and southern Uganda, where my father had moved with his family because of the conflict.1 All I had heard of northern Uganda involved conflict, war, rebels, child abduction and a host of other horrifying tales. The atmosphere in Gulu town at the height of the conflict was so tense that no one dared to venture from the centre of town after dusk. The streets were deserted early in the evening as many people strived to respect the curfew that had been imposed by the Ugandan army. Gulu was congested to such an extent that up to five families were sharing a single apartment meant for a family of four. In order to avoid abduction, children — and even some adults — flocked to the town from outlying areas every night to sleep in public places such as hospital compounds, schools, municipal offices or even on the verandas of closed shops. In rural areas, the army forced the civilian population into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. This was an attempt by the Ugandan government to cut off support to rebel soldiers.2
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... segregation of refugees. These and other characteristics of camps influence data generation in ways that are similar to research in closed contexts (Koch, 2013), other iterations of carceral and obscured spaces (Maillet, Mountz, & Williams, 2016), highly politicized settings (Jessee, 2011; S. Thomson, 2010), conflict settings (Shesterinina, 2018), and include research with survivors of war, genocide, and other traumatic events (Carter-White & Minca, 2020;Drozdzewski, 2015;Ogora, 2013). Situating research on/in camps may shape the choice of research methods and topics (Hagan, 2021;Vermylen, 2016), what voices are heard, and what information may or may not be shared (Simon Turner, 2016a;Williams, 2012), as well as how data generated may be interpreted (Minca, 2021). ...
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“Return home” was the joint message by the Burundian and Tanzanian presidents in 2017, just two years after hundreds of thousands Burundians were recognized as refugees in neighbouring countries, and as more continued to seek refuge or asylum each month. In Tanzania, where refugees are subject to strict encampment, the vast majority of Burundian refugees had previously been refugees at least once before. Many returned to Tanzania less than three years after their prior return to Burundi, which, as camps were closed, had been framed as a “durable solution” to their displacement. This thesis explores the interrelated dynamics of enduring displacement, encampment, and closure, by drawing on life history research with Burundian refugees in two camps in Tanzania (2017-8), as well as semi-structured interviews with government and humanitarian staff, and ethnographic methods. Empirically, this dissertation contributes to knowledge by tracing the diverse prior trajectories of current Burundian refugees, both within and beyond camp boundaries, challenging there-and-back-again geographical imaginary of refuge management. It highlights an understudied but constitutive aspect of camps—their ultimate closures—by recounting refugees’ memories of the violent closure of Mtabila camp, as well as its fearful afterlives and present-presence. The violence of past camp closure is part of the violence of current encampment due to its evocation as a a disciplinary dispositif to “encourage” return, threatening and anticipating future violence. State and humanitarian practices “close” and harden space for those deemed “undesirable,” through forced encampment, camp closures, and coerced or forced return. In so doing, they produce and prolong displacement, in which varied spatio-temporalities of violence endure. Burundian refugees’ life histories thus trace the ways displacement endures, and is endured.
... Since some years now, there is a term circulating within Gulu, 'research fatigue', referring to the feeling of people being tired of all the researchers coming in, asking them the same questions, without things ever being changed. Already five years ago, Ogora (2013) has written a chapter about this. It is a reality that is increasingly recognised by researchers in the area. ...
... Since some years now, there is a term circulating within Gulu, 'research fatigue', referring to the feeling of people being tired of all the researchers coming in, asking them the same questions, without things ever being changed. Already five years ago, Ogora (2013) has written a chapter about this. It is a reality that is increasingly recognised by researchers in the area. ...
... In VRI's most foreigners present have ties to humanitarian organisations, and decision making power or influence with regards to aid distribution or development programming. Researchers are often presumed to be affiliated with such organisations (Ogora, 2013). There were several international and local humanitarian organisations that operated programs in and around the VRI. ...
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Autoethnography—a methodology that foregrounds personal experience both during research and in writing about it—is a useful keyword for scholars working in Africa and the diaspora. Mara and Thompson argue that by exploring new forms of writing and engaging in critical self-reflexivity regarding (shifting) positionalities, autoethnography—particularly collaborative approaches—is vital to ongoing efforts to decolonize African Studies. Mara and Thompson propose changes necessary for the development of Africanist autoethnography as a Keyword, and some hopeful indicators that these changes are already underway, including a small but growing body of Africanist autoethnographic work.
In this chapter, Josh Pritchard tells the story of his attempts to secure a research permit to conduct historical research in the National Archives of Zimbabwe. This process, like that in many African states, involves gaining affiliation with a national partner, often in the business of research, such as a university or a think tank. Pritchard’s often frustrating journey pitted the official narrative of the Zimbabwean government, which advises all applicants to make their application remotely, against the advice from those who had experience with the application process first-hand to go to Zimbabwe and make his presence known. Pritchard never was successful in gaining the official permit, but he offers some valuable advice for novice researchers facing similar situations.