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when people ask what my thesis is about

Carrie Karsgaard

JK Marah and Nyima at home

JK Marah and Nyima at home

There’s a competition at the university called “Three Minute Thesis (TMT).”  It’s where grad students summarize months of work in three minutes, wowing the (also academic and verbose) crowd with their ability to summarize complex and precise information into something digestible. Something is lost, I’m sure, in the process – those hours of research and abundance of knowledge about a single subject – but something is certainly gained. More than anything, a pithy response for every drink-in-hand or coffee-lineup question about research progress: my thesis? Oh yes. Coming along, coming along. It discusses…

Now that I’m getting closer to wrapping up my own work, I realize how few people actually know what it is I’ve been doing. They know about The Thesis, the Thing that takes me away from Nordic ski weekends and Saturday afternoon coffees. But what do they really know about it? When asked, I typically say it’s about something like global education, because it sounds relevant, contemporary and understandable enough that people can respond, oh yes, of course, and move on.

But there is a story.

Back in my teaching days, I traveled to Kabala, Sierra Leone, with a few of my grade 12 students to spend time at a sister school in order to foster friendships between our communities. Before we left, I read (and viewed) everything I could find about Sierra Leone, which was pretty much limited to a few online reports about the country’s abysmal place on the Human Development Index, a couple of memoirs sharing children’s experiences with the war, such as Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone and Mariatu Kamara’s Bite of the Mango, and last but not least, the blockbuster film, Blood Diamond.  I was prepped for the need for development - lack of infrastructure, bombed out buildings, and missing limbs - I’d see around me. 

Which I did.

But I also spent a few days with a man named JK Marah and his family. Every evening, after the sun went down in the early evening, the children would study their lessons aloud in the dark – and JK Marah would tell me stories over games of Scrabble, which he got a kick out of playing with a native English speaker.  His stories were different from those online or in the memoirs. Not to say there weren’t similarities – he told of fleeing his village during the war, being separated from his children, and watching people close to him die. But they weren’t the organized tales told by Beah and Kamara. Sometimes I struggled to track with his narrative, which followed timelines that seemed out of alignment to me, were shared in English punctuated with Krio and Kuranko, and were often interwoven with current stories of his family and his work with the local school and church. While he narrated, he also seemed keen to school me on the Kuranko, Limba and Fulu people who live in the area around Kabala, the business and agriculture of the region, and in Scrabble – expecting me to put the pieces of his tales together.

Over my weeks in Kabala, JK Marah’s stories were both reinforced and challenged by other people I met. Some said the violence of the war still ran deep below people’s superficial interactions, bubbling up late at night in streetfights after a few beers at the disco. Others shrugged off the war, saying people had done what they had done in order to survive – so there was no point seeking either retribution or forgiveness; rather, it was better to simply move on.

The diversity of the stories, along with my growing misapprehension of what had happened and what I had to do with any of it made me question what I’d read and experienced prior to visiting. I felt displaced. I hadn't come to Sierra Leone to help rebuild after the war – I was only there to form relationships, to build connections between a school in Kabala and my own. It wasn’t my work, therefore, that was challenged – the relationships were building by the day. It was my identity, which was at least in part shaped by my understanding of the identities of those in Sierra Leone. An identity that said I was here to help people who needed my help, even though my Official Business in this country called for no such thing.

Through the stories I heard, I began a process (still going!) of confronting who I thought I was, what I thought my responsibilities were to these people – and where I’d got these ideas from in the first place. Something was up with the stories I’d read before flying, ferrying and bussing out to Kabala – and I wanted to figure out what it was.

In less than three minutes, my thesis:

It looks at stories, as well as how we teach and read stories – especially those unexpected ones (like those told over Scrabble by dark, which only partially make sense and therefore make us wonder) – and how they can transform our understandings of ourselves and our relations to other people. Bam.  Not sure why it took a hundred pages to say that.

The whole household

The whole household