Shea butter is warming up in my hands. I rub my palms together in order to dissolve the waxy texture into a soft and glowing substance. Akosua, 3 years old, is sitting still on the bed. I start applying the cream over her tiny body. First come the shoulders, neck and back. She raises her hands so that I can rub the armpits and stands up to let me work on the belly, buttocks, tights, legs, feet and toes. Lastly, I gently rub her cheeks and forehead.
Fieldwork could be compared with what Virginia Woolf calls balancing between “moments of being” and “moments of non-being”.Moments of being are temporal fragments of time when we are perfectly conscious of our surroundings. This moment could also be described as an experience of the world as a genuinely meaningful entity beyond seemingly trivial details. Moments of being are memorable – we can recall the exact same situation accurately even after a long time has passed.
Rubbing Akosua’s skin on that Sunday morning was probably one of such “moments of being” during my fieldwork on the Ghanaian beauty culture in Accra. I can remember the smell of the shea butter as vividly as if it were right now, at the moment of writing, on my hands. I remember the smoothness of her skin, the kind of velvety surface that using those rich, dense, oily creams brings about. I remember her mother’s smile when she came to the room and said: “Anna, you are trying, looks good. Now hurry up, we are late for church.”
Woolf opposes moments of being to “cotton-wool”, the flow of time consisting of routine actions, events and details that are easily forgotten, such as walking and eating. Sometimes I felt the need for more cotton-wool. Exhausted of the noteworthy details in every conversation, public sign, smell, advertisement, dress, hairstyle, way of walking and painted nail, I would escape to an air-conditioned cafeteria that appeared as the most “meaningless” place to be. There would certainly be nothing special to see, hear, feel, taste or smell.
How wrong. That cool, luminous, pastel-colored space occupied by Ghanaian corporates and foreign diplomats was far from cotton-wool. Now, different meanings would emerge. It seemed that the “temperature of globalization” never exceeded +23, according to the digital numbers on the air conditioner placed in a visible place beside the counter. When it showed +25, the clients would complain. In this temperature, it was easy to be “beautiful”: no sweat, no dust, no loose hair, no oily faces.
Interestingly, fieldwork experience seems to cultivate the skill of noticing details in “cotton-wool”, even in spaces and instances that could be regarded as the most familiar. At least all the five senses tune into a more receptive mode, which does not necessarily “switch off” at home. Can we sense “the field” in our backyards, bathrooms, grocery stores, jogging routes and favorite cafés? Is cycling a means of transport, or a journey? Ultimately, are we “in the field”, or is the field in us?
Anna-Rika Kauppinen is a Master’s student in Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam.