Poking the wound – research, stories and process – thinking through the complexities

Since February 2017 myself and a colleague have been working with a small group of migrant women who live in inner-city Johannesburg. Referred to us via a local psychosocial NGO, the women all agreed to be participants in our arts-based research project exploring the experiences of women who are migrants and mothers in Johannesburg. All of the participants are asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi. They all arrived in South Africa over the past ten years having had to flee war and poverty in their home countries and crossing many borders in the hope of finally finding safety and more secure lives in South Africa. All of the women are mothers to young children. They are also all parenting alone – their husbands have either been killed, gone into hiding or are simply absent.

The group meets every Friday morning for three hours at a residential house called “The house of dreams”(owned by the NGO) in a suburb of the inner-city. The house is spacious and light. It is a place that is separate from where the women reside and away from the NGO where they attend counselling sessions. All of the women are currently receiving counselling, and many of their children do too. The traumas of living through and witnessing war, loosing loved ones again and again and, negotiating everyday life in South Africa run deep. In many ways the challenges and forms of violence faced in Johannesburg trigger and revive these traumas of the past. Life as a non-national in the inner-city is precarious and can be frightening: “We hid from the rebels…now we hide from the tsotis who want to kill us because we are foreigners” Mary told me.

By working at a separate location, we hoped that we could separate out the space of the art group and the space of the counselling sessions. We needed to do this, we felt, in order to ensure that we were not seen as therapists and that we didn’t blur the boundaries between the research process and therapy sessions that the women engaged in. But we knew – and have been finding out more and more– that such separation is extremely complex and, not always possible. Every Friday morning the women arrive tired and often tearful. They are all negotiating and struggling to cope with daily life. They face the immediate challenges of trying to find work to earn enough to pay the rent; the monthly threat of eviction when rent isn’t paid; the struggle to feed children, to access schools and healthcare and, as non-national migrants the fear created by the daily forms of xenophobia that are embedded and woven throughout the structures and encounters of the city. These immediate challenges mean that the women are often in crisis and sometimes it is hard to know how to shape and occupy that space on a Friday morning.

It’s important to acknowledge the challenges of not knowing or not being sure of the process and the responsibility that comes with that. Often as researchers we don’t stop long enough to think about the process of what we are doing – leaving the reflections to the methods section of our peer-reviewed papers. And yet groups like these are far more than simply research – or maybe to put it another way, research of this kind is far more than simply finding out stories. There is something very intense about sharing a space in which both the participants and the researchers are invested. The participants come with their expectations and their hopes that these researchers may be able to change something in their lives – whether it’s a job, or a room to rent or food for the children for the day. Such expectations are unsurprising and it’s important to acknowledge that participants, like researchers come with the intention of taking something away. As researchers we take this further – we probe at the person, at the experiences, at the layers. Most of all we look for stories – and unpack and deconstruct them to fit our own needs.

We also use privilege and power to create spaces that can destabilise what is known and what works. In asking participants to stop, to reflect and to share – we change their gear. We expect that ‘survival-in-the-inner-city’ mode to shift as we take time to ask questions and take apart words and their meaning. But to what end? What does it mean when we interrupt through research, when we ask people to stop – and then to pick up and carry on again? We interrupt everyday life to explore everyday life.

Yet, it isn’t all negative and critical – interruptions don’t have to be bad. Sometimes they can be a much needed break, a chance to sit for a second, to drink tea, to get away from children. And that space that is created and shaped – whether intentional or not – can offer more than input for research. It can become important to the participant, it can be owned and directed by them, and it can (re)create relationships and connections – whether it is to people, to pasts, or to ways of telling stories. But overall, we do need to acknowledge the process of interruption, of asking for stories – and of listening to them too – and what this can mean in terms of vulnerability for participants and for researchers. As Precious, one of the participants in our group stated, “Stories can be like when you show people a wound and ask them not to touch it and then they poke it”

And that poking is painful. In our group these are harrowing stories of witnessing genocide at the age of nine, of being gang raped in the city, of family members being hacked to death. In our second meeting with the group two of the participants sat and sobbed. They sobbed for almost two hours – shifting between swallowed words and stories of loss and violence. They cried and they talked – and then they left and came back the next week, and the next.

And from these stories we as researchers also carry stuff – the listening and engaging can mean pain that may not be our own but can still hurt. And it is rarely just felt. We package it into academic phrases, we write it into papers and do everything to avoid acknowledging our own discomfort and uncertainty. Even with writing this blog I have hesitated for a long time as I was worried about writing so openly about the group, the struggles of it and, the challenges faced. I worried about how to write without framing myself as some kind of saviour, or as a careless researcher re-traumatising participants, or of someone probing at the wounds that I was asked not to touch. I am, after all a researcher, not a therapist.

So this leaves us with the challenge of the process of research and of what goes on in these spaces. These are challenges that are ongoing and which pose many crucial ethical, moral and practical questions about research and, about the researcher. Who gets to ask for stories? Who gets to tell them and how? Who gets to represent participants and how are the entanglements of power, privilege, responsibility and representation acknowledged and negotiated?

Questions that for now I do not have the answers, and I may never do so. But as long as I remain aware of the need to keep asking, to stay cognisant of the risk of probing wounds, and to listen to what I am being told – in the words, art and the silences – then I think this group and this research can move forward.


The research for the group is funded through MaHp, SeaM and a “Life in the City’ postdoc with the Wits School of Governance and hosted by The ACMS.IMG_4811

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