Lessons Learned

IMG_20170531_151122To kick off the epilogue to this record of one of the most educational, enjoyable and hopefully pivotal periods of my life, I’ll go back to where I started over four months ago by quoting the late, great Hunter S. Thompson.

After a friend had written to him asking for advice on what to do with his life, Thompson stated that “all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be like the blind leading the blind.”

Even after a lifetime of experiences, I don’t think I will be as well equipped as was a 22-year-old Thompson to dispense life advice to anyone that might be desperate enough to turn to me for it. That said, I do feel I have learned some lessons since February that might be of benefit to other researchers and wanderers alike. Here are a few of the ones that stick with me the most as I settle back into life in Limerick again.


Travel Alone

Although I’ve gone on my fair share of excursions abroad, this research trip represented the first time I had travelled alone and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Nothing could have motivated me more to make friends in my new home than the reality of having (almost) none there to begin with. Even the most outgoing person in the world is going to be somewhat restricted in building a network of contacts and buddies in a new place if construction has to take into account an existing member of that network.

Without someone to sit in with for the night, I had to go to the effort of ensuring my evenings in Joburg were accounted for. This meant going to book launches, art exhibitions, soccer games, debates, musicals and dinner with a wide selection of newly acquired acquaintances.

Aside from all the social benefits, being on my own also allowed for a laser focus on my research when I required it. I was on nobody’s clock but my own for three and a half glorious months, devoting all my energy to obtaining useful data, and securing and conducting interviews. The pleasure of being able to focus on the job with no distractions for so long was as strong a reassurance as I could have gotten that I may have finally stumbled upon the correct career choice.

Finally, being on your own also helps you realise the many benefits of silence and, in time, the enjoyment of having a chat with yourself. Every evening, I would potter about the cottage, offering a running commentary of what was going on in my house and my head. On more than one occasion, I cracked myself up with a joke. I’m still talking to myself regularly now that I’m home and thankfully we rarely argue.


Utilise Banter

‘Banter’ has been hijacked by some in Ireland as code for acting like an asshole that can’t handle a drink but that’s not the sense in which I’m using it here. Before I left for Nigeria, I had a very useful conversation with an official at the Irish Embassy in Abuja about what things to expect and how to handle them when they occurred. One thing that was to the forefront of my mind was how to cope with being asked for a bribe, which I had been told was as strong a certainty as the sun rising in the morning in Nigeria.

“Banter is the solution to almost everything” was the wiser-than-it-sounds response of the diplomat offering me the education. He said that while it was quite likely that I would be asked for a bribe, making a joke (and not just paying out) was the solution in most cases. Sure enough, I got asked for a bribe twice when going through airport security in Lagos and making a joke about being a poverty-stricken Irishman did the trick on both occasions.

Taking the piss out of myself over my inability to handle the heat almost everywhere I went also proved to be a nice icebreaker with interviewees, students, Uber drivers and almost every other erstwhile stranger I encountered.


Cast Aside Expectations

One of my favourite writers and the creator of The Wire, David Simon, said the mark of a good journalist is being able to convince people that you are the dumbest person in the room, since it makes others more likely to open up to you. One of the baddies in the truly dreadful Under Siege 2, Marcus Penn, said: “Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups”. They were both right and I think the last few months in Africa serve as evidence.

Before I left on the trip, I worried about looking stupid in front of interviewees because of my comparatively meagre knowledge of the local political environment or even of my topic of research. No matter how much preparation I did, my expertise when it came to the subjects of our conversations was always going to be paltry relative to those to whom I was talking.

After one or two interviews where I felt that I had feigned understanding so as to not seem naïve, however, I realised it was ridiculous to potentially miss out on valuable information just because I was afraid of coming across as a dope. From that point on, I decided to always ask questions when topics were raised about which I had a poor understanding.

As it turned out, interviewees didn’t bite my head off for having the temerity to ask for clarification. One or two of them did throw their eyes up to heaven but nobody declared the interview was over and flung my recorder off the wall. With that hurdle cleared, I resolved to question things even further, even those topics on which my knowledge was somewhat decent. Assumptions were cast aside and the only issues on which I didn’t request elucidation were those on which my knowledge was rock solid. I already know that taking this approach resulted in much more valuable data collection.

That same approach worked outside of interview scenarios also. Having done most of my travelling in Europe and North America, I had always assumed that most people knew about Ireland and even naively assumed that most people liked us just by virtue of being Irish. Most of the Uber drivers hadn’t even heard of Ireland (although they all knew Bono), so couldn’t possibly have held an ill-founded fondness for us. What they did like though was having someone say they were a newcomer to their country with, by comparison to the driver, little knowledge of their history or culture but a desire to soak up both.


Be Willing to Believe in the Decency of Strangers

Obviously this one comes with caveats. One shouldn’t universally presume good intentions on the part of absolutely everyone they come across on their travels. That said, from my recent experiences, there is great benefit to be found in remaining open to the possibility that the world is predominantly made up of decent people with the potential to enrich your experience of their home.

I’ve already written in an earlier post about meeting Kusimo and Wemi, the two Nigerians who took me on a tour of Abeokuta. Some might say – and they might be right – that it was foolhardy to leave the safety of my accommodation with two complete strangers that wanted nothing but to show me around their home city. But had I presumed ill intent on their part, I would have denied myself one of the most memorable days of my entire time in Africa.

Early in March, I did something I had never done before and went out to a bar on my own, in the hope that Joburg might provide people who shared my passion for debating and solving the problems of the world while getting a little sozzled. Joburg more than provided. That night, I came across a group of fellow Wits students who, although a decade younger than me, are some of the best company I’ve ever encountered. Luke, Dan, Mark, Alexi, Dom, Sophie (and I know I’m forgetting names here so please forgive me), thank you so much for allowing the old Irishman into your group for a couple of months. The invite to Ireland remains open to you all.

Those are only two instances of erstwhile strangers adding so much to my time in Africa. To that I could add Haruna, the former UL student who drove two hours to Abeokuta to welcome me to Nigeria, help me buy a sim card and insisted on paying for all our food and drink on the one evening that we spent together. What about Hamilton Wessels? Certainly not a stranger but a friend who I hadn’t seen since we lived in Canada several years ago but who still treated me with the kindness of a family member in South Africa. Also, I couldn’t finish this without mentioning Chris Williams, an American PhD student in Wits who gave me the wise advice that it was simply not feasible to go on a research trip of two weeks to South Africa and hope to get all my desired interviews (it took me almost a month of trying there to get my first one). Chris was a constant source of support and advice, and continues to be since I returned, and I place him high on the long list of friends I made over the last number of months.

There’s many more instances and people I could list, too many for a blog post, but all this is to say that there’s more good eggs than bad ones out there.


Allow Yourself a Visitor

This final lesson rows back a little on the first one, which suggested travelling alone. By the time I had done all the work I could do, a very dear friend came to visit me. Lauren and I were housemates a few years ago but she now lives in the UK and our meetings are all too irregular. On a whim, shortly after my departure in February and after not too much convincing from me, she booked a flight to South Africa to coincide with my final week there. Knowing of her impending arrival, and having plenty of work to keep me busy in the meantime, I had put off the vast majority of touristy pursuits so that we could do them together.

I don’t necessarily think that an enjoyable pursuit shared is always better than one pursued solo. However, the spectacular sights of Pilanesberg National Park, the horror and hope of the Apartheid Museum, the educational experience of cycling through the Soweto Township and the pleasure of eating Joburg cuisine were definitely best done with a companion, and certainly with one as superb as Lauren. It was also wonderful to get to show someone from home where I had been spending most of my time these past few months on a tour of the Wits campus.


With some valuable lessons learned, hours upon hours of hopefully valuable interviews done and several encyclopaedias’ worth of archival records collected, now begins the still long but ultimately final straight of the journey. It’s time to see if there’s a PhD dissertation somewhere in all that data.

My goal is to finish and submit within a year, which is toeing the line between ambitious and quixotic but time will tell what side I’ll land on. Had I known in advance the amount of good fortune and obstacle-clearing that would be required in order to undertake a worthwhile research trip, the reality of the situation might have stopped me at the first hurdle a few years ago. Sometimes, it can be best to let idealism (even foolhardiness) override practicality in pursuit of the dream. Let that be the final lesson.

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