My recent article on conducting field research in Rwanda (“The price of admission”, 28 November) generated two critical responses in these pages – an article by Erin Jessee (“Subtle as foxes for prey”, Opinion, 19/26 December 2013) and a letter signed by 10 academics and a journalist (“Truly hostile environment”, Letters, 19/26 December).
On Twitter on 28 November, one of the authors of the letter, Boston University scholar Timothy Longman, described my article as “thoughtful” and defended it against the sort of denigration that is now reflected in the missive he co-authored.
According to the letter, I argued that all “researchers who have fallen out with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the country’s ruling party, have exaggerated the intimidation and interference that they have experienced” and set out “a false dichotomy between those who can no longer conduct research in Rwanda and those who can”.
Both claims misrepresent my argument. Acknowledging the “inevitable tensions, divisions and trauma” associated with researching in the country, I argued that some foreign academics exaggerate the difficulties they face in the field (some do so to protect their own patch). Most importantly, a large number of critical commentators on Rwanda (including some well known to the letter’s authors) continue to research there, adopting a wide range of creative, time-honed techniques. It is a pity that the letter writers chose to respond in such a defensive and barbed manner rather than engaging with the issues raised in “The price of admission”.
Jessee’s article is a more thoughtful contribution, highlighting the Rwandan government’s use of bureaucratic measures (particularly the Rwanda National Ethics Committee) to hamstring research. However, her own account of dealing with this system – which is common in many East African countries, including Uganda, where the red tape is much more extensive (and expensive) – highlights that, despite the challenges at hand, it is possible to research in Rwanda.
Depressingly, Jessee also defends those senior scholars who try to dissuade their students from conducting research in Rwanda. Since the publication of my article, I have received numerous emails from postgraduates lamenting this tendency among their elders. The more productive approach is to counsel students about the challenges involved while emboldening them to find ways around or through them – as Jessee and countless others have done.
SOAS, University of London