Tuesday, December 1, 2015

When we don’t relate, we don’t act by Jessica Kenny

Housing conditions for highly-mobile workers at a coffee plantation.
SAN VITO, COTO BRUS – “Mira, vivimos como chanchos,” said the forty-ish year old father, shorter than me, standing outside in the rain and pointing at his family inside a wooden shack with dirt floors, a leaky roof, and lots of smoke from a cooking fire. Many curious little faces popped their heads out the door to watch me and Cindy as we rolled out the measuring tape to mark down the dimensions of the house: six by eight meters. We were at the La Bruja coffee plantation collecting data on crowding conditions as a potential risk factor for Tuberculosis among the highly mobile indigenous workers that traveled from Panama to Costa Rica for the harvest season. This Ngöbe-Buglé family of twelve had been returning to work at the same finca for nine years, yet, as the father told me, the boss had not moved one finger to improve their falling apart house.
I didn’t know what to say to him. What could I say? I was there with three other students, our teacher Nico, our driver Carlos, and the two Ngöbe cultural advisors Don Valentín and Doña Nelly, who were helping us interview indigenous workers for our independent project. We were stationed at La Bruja that night for at most two hours, while the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (aka ‘la Caja’) conducted their yearly primary health consultation for plantation residents. After that, we’d be gone, off to another finca the next night, and eventually we’d be gone from Coto Brus completely after wrapping up our investigation. That father and his family would be reduced to a category and a number – respiratory symptomatic or not – and I would go on living my life at university in the United States. Despite all of the precautions we took to meet the standards of ethical research – obtaining written consent, going with cultural advisors and health personnel that could assist anyone who had TB symptoms, and “doing no harm” – something still felt unfair. Sure, we were seeking to “maximize the potential benefits” for our human subjects: our pilot research would hopefully provide quantitative data to put TB on the Caja’s radar for this particular population. But in this moment, it just seemed that we were interviewing people for five minutes about a serious respiratory condition, saying: “ok, thanks for your participation,” and leaving.

Our independent project research team. From left to right: Nicolás, Doña Nelly, Don Valentín, Sarah, Masha, me & Cindy (not shown).

It was a powerful experience to collect this data, analyze and write about it in a way that would hopefully serve a purpose to the local health authorities; and, I certainly walked away with a huge appreciation for the privileged life I lead. But this sort of “hit and run” quantitative research made me wish I could get to know these people better as complex human beings, not numbers. It made me reflect on the importance of qualitative, ethnographic research to contextualize numbers: how would an anthropologist view the whole picture? What do these workers and families do for fun? What keeps them going? And, it is not to shake off that family’s suffering from my conscience, but because, as the facts stood, it was impossible to relate to them.  When we don’t relate, we quarantine others into a category of almost morally acceptable suffering: “them” not “us.” When we don’t relate, we don’t act.

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