A faculty member looks to Angola to learn how a nation recovers from years at war.
How do young generations find normalcy when all they know is two decades of war? How can exhuming the dead bring peace of mind to surviving relatives?
Nanette Barkey’s research in the war-ravaged nation of Angola explored those questions during the summer of 2007, primarily through interviews and observations she used to create a questionnaire geared toward discerning Angolans’ present health concerns and levels of wellness.
“How does a society pick up where things left off during the war?” asks Barkey, assistant professor of anthropology and community and behavioral health. “That process of culture change caught my attention when I first worked in Kuito in the mid-1990s.”
Barkey’s research, recently published in the journal Human Organization, took her to the city of Kuito, which was under siege for 18 months in 1993–94. All buildings sustained structural damage, and the city’s utility infrastructure was destroyed. Nearly 20 percent of the city’s population died during this period.
War erupted again in Angola in 1998. Peace was achieved in 2002, yet the price of war was evident: the dead were buried in graves scattered around the town. Today, hypertension and distress are prevalent among survivors. Stroke, blindness, kidney failure, and diabetes—all related to hypertension—occur in great incidence.
But Barkey found that many Kuito residents are putting the past behind them. Bodies have been exhumed from backyard graves and given proper burial in a special cemetery. Churches are preaching forgiveness, which many younger Angolans find appealing.
“Many Angolans in their 20s and 30s are not dwelling on hatred, and they are going back to religion,” Barkey says. “What’s past is past—they see a time of being reborn.”
Local government and international organizations have brought expertise in health, agriculture, and education, and new businesses are starting.
“They feel connected to the rest of the country, a part of the world,” Barkey says. “At many points in the last 15 years they felt isolated and that they had been forgotten.”
Not only are Angolans feeling connected, but they are also able to tell their life stories through another aspect of Barkey’s research. Her “photovoice” project involved giving eight women and four men disposable cameras and asking them to take pictures that represent their lives in present-day Kuito.
The photographs capture family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers taking part in a wide array of activities. Scenes at home, work, and church are prominent. People are shown participating in recreational activities or congregating in the streets. The photos don’t shy away from capturing the effects of the war, but their emphasis on rebuilding, growth, and daily life depict a society in recovery.
The participants each picked six photos to be used in an exposition that will be presented in Kuito; Washington, D.C.; and Iowa City. The photographers shared with Barkey the problems and successes they encountered during the project, along with context and meaning behind the photographs they selected.
“Their pictures show lives that are returning to normal,” Barkey says. “Rather than just being victims of war the participants were able to tell the rest of their story. They shared their perspective on the post-war recovery process.”
Story by Christopher Clair; Photo by Tim Schoon
Sept. 1, 2008