Guest blog: CSU student Dick Powis reports from Senegal
Dick Powis, a Cleveland State University senior majoring in anthropology, is a Radiance scholar and president of the CSU Student Anthropology Association. He spent the past two summers in Senegal, studying and conducting research. In this guest blog for ENGAGED, Powis tells us what took him to West Africa and what he did when he got there:
How I ended up in Senegal doing what I do is the result of a confluence of events.
When I started at CSU, I was interested in archaeology as a foundation for getting into cultural property law. I started taking French courses so that I could work for UNESCO, as one must be fluent in both English and French to work for the United Nations. Eventually, my academic interests shifted to evolutionary anthropology, then paleodemography, then again to epidemiology. This opened the door to medical anthropology – the study of how human societies conceptualize the body and health.
In 2012, with support from a Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Senegal. I have little interest in visiting France (or much of Europe, for that matter), so it was amazing to me that there would be a French program in West Africa, a place that I’ve always wanted to visit. I studied traditional medicine while I was there, and I fell in love with the country. After I returned to Cleveland, it dawned on me: If I want to pursue research in the anthropology of reproduction, I can just talk to the men – no one ever talks to the men, save for a few big names in anthropology who are spearheading a relatively new focus on men’s health as an often overlooked component of reproductive health.
This summer, I decided to go back to Senegal with a clear research goal in mind, and with the support of the provost’s undergraduate research initiative (and a lot of generous family members), I did just that. I was able to immerse myself by living with a family in Medina (not to be confused with the Cleveland suburb), a vibrant, working-class neighborhood in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. (It should be noted that last year, I lived with six American students in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood, which does not lend itself well to immersion.)
After about a week there, but before I starting interviewing people, one friend asked, “When will you start your research?”
“This,” I said, putting my hands on the table, “is my research: listening, talking, and drinking tea with you. I started as soon as we met.”
A lot of my time was spent listening to men in their late 20s and early 30s having what we would call “locker room talk,” which is exactly what I was there to study. How do these men perceive the women in their lives? What do they think of contraception and abortion? What is virginity and how important is it to them or to society? Which sexual behaviors are acceptable and which are taboo? What does Islam have to say about these topics?
I also used a lot of these conversations as a launching pad when I conducted semi-structured interviews. I couldn’t have picked a better group of guys with whom to associate while I was there. The day after I arrived, one new friend was impressed that it was my second visit to Dakar.
“You are a real Senegalese man now!” he said.
Perfect, I thought. What is a “Senegalese man?” I’ll ask later.
I was there for five weeks, learning more French, picking up some of the local language (Wolof), and ultimately trying to define “The Senegalese Man.”
This semester is my last at CSU, and I will use it to write up a thesis on what I learned.
It’s worth mentioning that my faculty mentor, Dr. Barbara Hoffman in CSU’s Department of Anthropology, has been critical to my development as an anthropology student with the intent of pursuing a Ph.D. We had a great system while I was in Dakar: I would write up some notes or record an interview with my iPad, upload it to Dropbox, and send her the link. Moments later (and 4,000 miles away), she could begin reviewing my work and respond accordingly. I believe that this kind of – dare I say – engaged mentorship, involvement, and care are instrumental to undergraduate research, and it goes to show that we don’t have to wait until graduate school to start pursuing bigger and better things.
For more from Dick Powis, check out his Anthropology Attacks! blog.