(Whatever a quasi-autoethnography is, I just made it up. An autoethnography is actually a qualitative research method wherein the researcher undergoes a self-reflective process to explain a broader social, cultural, and political phenomenon. However, this entry is not entirely an autoethnography despite seemingly to be one. Thus, I called it a quasi-autoethnography. Bare with this entry because it has to be long. It is a personal account reflective of my experiences in a supposedly development training in a public service university.)
My favorite professor, who happens to be the wisest person I know, constantly challenges us to question our own discipline. In our communication theory class, she posed the question: who are we to speak in their behalf?
This is not to debunk our field of study or discredit it as a social science but to better identify its role in shaping our society and helping the marginalized communities. As a devcom student, it is imperative to determine my role so that I can better fulfill my duty to the country which is to contribute to the overall development of the human potential.
I spent my weekend (April 22-24, 2016) in Victoria, Oriental Mindoro for a fieldwork in one of my electives. We visited different communities primarily to learn about their natural ecosystems and their conservation practices.
In this field work, I was able to deeply reflect on our role in community development through the degree program we are currently taking. Our visit in the Mangyan community in Villa Cerveza has struck me the most. I pondered: What is our role in the development of our local communities particularly among the marginalized sector of the rural areas?
Furthermore, I would like to ask the following questions:
- What relationship exists between development practitioners and their stakeholders?
- What are the manifestations of this relationship?
The ‘subject-object’ relationship in Mangyan community visit
Today, I felt like a complete lowlander Tagalog – an outsider, a foreigner, and an alien. We went to a Mangyan community as part of our fieldwork. Our professor told us that we can talk to the people, interact with them, and take pictures of them and with them. I felt that we were a bomb suddenly dropped from the sky. We were not there, then we were. We were taking numerous snaps of the people using our SLR and smartphone cameras. We even tried different angles to get good photos. We were bombarding them with questions asking one after another just so we can surface a potential community issue.
“How do you feel whenever lowlanders visit your community?” I asked one of the leaders of the Mangyan tribe.
“Of course, we are happy…” he trailed off hesitant to reveal his honest thoughts. He knew that being truthful could offend the outsider or hurt her feelings, after all the outsiders do not mean to do them any harm.
He broke our eye contact. His eyes seemed to search for the right words to say without offending the foreign element before him.
“But we have mixed doubts and fears,” he added apologetically.
For a moment, I was taken aback yet I understood his sentiments. In fact, I have long been anticipating that they are uncomfortable with the presence of outsiders in their community.
We were there as development practitioners in training who are all in pursuit of unmasking the adversaries of the Mangyan community. We were there wanting to use our knowledge to help the people better their lives. However, as I took photos and asked questions, I realized that our heroic aspirations are unintentionally tangled to the notion that we are aliens with our own personal and/or institutional motives.
Upon pondering on the interactions and activities between us (the faculty and students) and the indigenous people, I have discovered the persistence of a subject-object relationship. This relationship manifested in two interactions and activities which are the interview and the taking of photographs. Us, being the subject, and the Mangyan community, being the object.
Before zooming in to the manifestations of the subject-object relationship between us and the Mangyans, I would like to draw the difference between a subject and an object. The subject is the active participant who manipulates the discourse. A person who acts as a subject has the ‘power’ to start, continue, revive, and stop a discourse depending on his or her desire. The subject also has the ‘power’ to manipulate what and what not to talk about in a discourse. The subject has the potential of becoming the oppressor either intentionally or unintentionally. Whereas, the object is the passive participant who is manipulated in the discourse. The person who is the object do not have the ‘power’ to start, continue, revive, and stop a discourse unlike the subject. The object merely follows the discourse depending on how the subject manipulated its flow. Moreover, the object does not hold power over what and what not to talk about in a discourse. The object has the potential of succumbing to oppression whether consciously or unconsciously, thus the potential of becoming the oppressed.
Us, the subject, and Mangyan, the object, through taking photographs as the activity: As I entered the nipa where some Mangyans assembled, I was attracted by two Mangyan children who both looked innocent of the world and curious of the foreigners alighting the van. I was holding my SLR ready for any photo opportunity. The hint of innocence and curiosity in the faces of these Mangyan children compelled me to take a snap of them. I took one photo that was followed by another shot and then another one and then another one and then I lost count. I showed them the photos and their faces seemed to wonder who they were looking at. It was as if they have not even seen their reflection.
My classmates, just like me, took photos of the other Mangyans. My professor even had a photo where she was carrying a baby Mangyan. For us, tourists, having finally reached the Mangyan community is both an achievement and an opportunity. After long hours of travel crossing the sea, we were finally in the Mangyan community getting to know them and their lifestyle.
Of course, we had to document this moment and so we took their photos. However, I got to my senses upon realizing that we have turned into subjects and the Mangyans into mere objects. We acted as the subjects who feasted on the presence of Mangyans. We took their photos as if they were tourist attraction or a souvenir as memory and as proof of our visit. The way we posed and angled our cameras showed how we gained dominance over the Mangyans. For example, our professor posed carrying a baby Mangyan. This act and its image, intentional or not, showed the dependence of the inferior Mangyans to the superior Tagalogs. Another example of showing the subject’s dominance over the object is the angling of the camera. A lot of us, including me, have taken photos of Mangyans using high angle. Although unintended, the photos showed how the subject was being looked up to by the object.
In the same way, the Mangyans have become objects intended for tourist attraction and consumption. The Mangyans, just like the other indigenous people’s groups, have become commodities consumed in the rapidly booming tourism industry. What was worse is that they have become tourist attraction because they are regarded as marginalized. The way that they were captured in the photographs emphasized their inferiority as object to the superior subject. As what have been previously said, the Tagalog’s visualization of Mangyans showed their dependence as object to us, the subject. Also, the camera angles highlighted how the object looked up to the subject. Despite the academic purposes of our field work, the Mangyans still have fell on the inescapable misfortune of becoming objects for tourist attraction and sight-seeing.
This act clearly showed how the subject manipulated discourse through visualization. An image, may it be in any form, is a discourse that speaks in its own language. Taking photographs of Mangyans showed how we, the subject, have further marginalized the Mangyans, the object.
Us, the subject, and Mangyans, the object through interview as the interaction: The moment we stepped on the grounds of the Mangyans, we spread like a wildfire. All of a sudden, we were dispersed in the area taking photos and talking to people. For me, it was a spur of a moment. I was rooted on the ground while everyone seemed to be in rush to ask questions. It was deafening. I could imagine myself in the position of the Mangyan community’s spokesperson and all I could think of is collapsing amidst the competing voices and intruding questions.
The vice president of the tribe served as the spokesperson of the Mangyan community. He stood before us addressing each of our questions as if he was a culprit in a court hearing.
“What are your sources of livelihood? How is the educational system in your community? Where is the closest health facility in your community? What do you know about the National Greening Program? What is the highest educational attainment of the youth in your community? What problems do you perceive to persist in your community? How are the different Mangyan tribes united? What assistance do you get from the government?”
It was one question after another followed by another. Everyone has his own set of questions. Everyone wants to get an answer. Never mind if we bombard the spokesperson with questions. Never mind if we make the Mangyans feel uncomfortable. Never mind if we make them feel intimidated. Never mind them. What matters is what’s beneficial to us. What matters is we get what we want.
Basically, we were there extracting every possible answer that could make the Mangyans seem oppressed, innocent, and marginalized.
As we go on with our conquest to conduct development efforts, we have been equipped with the will and desire to empower and uplift the lives of the so-called marginalized. Little did we realize that, at times, in the conduct of our development interventions we end up dominating the people rather than actually empowering them.
Upon pondering on the whole fieldwork experience, I have come up with some arbitrary reminders for a fieldworker:
- Respect the community members. It is always necessary to treat the community members especially the national minority groups as humans and not as souvenirs merely designed for photo opportunities.
- Encourage participation and not imposition. In engaging discussions with community members, learn to hear them out. Listen to and understand what they had to say so that they may feel that you value their knowledge. Avoid imposing your own belief system to their community but you can suggest ideas.
- Treat the people as your equals. Do not make the people inferior to you. Encourage that they are capable of sharing their ideas as much as you are. A college degree is not an excuse to act superior to others.
- Remember that you view their community through an outsider’s lenses. You may think that you have crafted a superior development intervention, innovation, or initiative but its lack of community involvement may hamper its success or worse, drive it to failure.
- Community involvement is the key. In line with the previous point I have raised, it is essential to always encourage the participation of the locals in the planning, designing, implementation, management, and evaluation of any development effort.
This fieldwork has been an activity where the intent of the interventionist did not come in congruence with the effect to the beneficiaries. Thus, it is imperative to think through the methods of conducting even the simplest fieldwork in order to elicit a more involving interaction with the community members. Nonetheless, this fieldwork served as an avenue for me to rethink our conduct and methods as development interventionist at the course of development work.