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Pregnancies, high-school drop-outs and personal struggles: The joys of anthropological fieldwork

DSC_0327By Laetitia Simorangkir     Now that I completed my thesis (on care arrangements in South African communities), I can really say that I love anthropology and do research. But there were times I did not like my work at all. In this blog I will explain why.

“Naoko told me that Salma had come to tell her that she was pregnant. Although the women were not related, Naoko seemed to take a parental-role towards Salma.” A fellow student, who reviewed the draft of my thesis, commented on this statement saying that I should explain more about the parent-child relationship: “Don’t leave it end so flatly. I want to hear what happens between them!”. When rereading my field diary, looking for more notes on these women, I realized I did not have that much information about them. And soon I remembered why.

Salma was a girl that had been taking care of her mother for a couple of years when she was ill. When her mother passed away, Salma’s younger siblings were taken into fostercare at a place-of-safety, but since Salma was eighteen at the time, she could not come with them. At the time I interviewed her, she was twenty years old, living on her own in her mother’s house and in her Matric-year (the year in which South African high school-students take the graduation exam. On average, students are eighteen years old when they ‘finish Matric’). Naoko was the principal of the Afterschool Care that Salma attended to get help with homework, get a meal or just to chat with the people there. Naoko had told me her personal story as well.DSC_0375

During our interview, Naoko had already explained that she had become a mother on a very young age, when she was 15 years old. Only later, when sitting outside her office on the dusty ground, waiting for the children to come out of school, she told me that she had become pregnant because she was raped by a friend of the family. After having her child, life was difficult for her. She had to finish her school, which did not work out great: after failing Matric twice, she decided that “maybe Matric wasn’t for her”, and she dropped out. She was very proud to tell me that she went back to school a couple of years ago, to do the subjects she had failed in Matric. In 2011, she passed them and hence got her Matric. Interesting were the comparisons between Naoko’s story and that of other women in the community. Marcella (now thirty-five years old), for example, had become pregnant of the boyfriend who helped her pay her school fees when she was eighteen and still in high school as well. Both Naoko and Marcella had had a child at a very young age, which made it difficult for them to finish high school and to start working. In both cases, their pregnancies did not happen intentionally – one was raped, the other ‘necessarily’ had a boyfriend.


Naoko had explained to me that many people in the community struggle, due to the high unemployment. Fact is that this discourages parents and often has as a consequence that parents are not really trying to motivate their children for school, but sometimes also that parents completely ‘opt out’ by leaving their children home alone to see friends or lovers, and/or getting addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling. This makes that children often do less good in school, and thereby lose interest as well. Very often, this has as a consequence that children drop out of school, especially when the parents are not stimulating the child to persevere. There are a couple of ‘ways’ to go for children who dropped out, but it was common knowledge in the community that these children will have difficulties finding a job and establishing a full, stable income. Especially for boys, this might lead to hanging around on the streets, not having anything to do, and maybe ending up in crime. They will also start hanging out with friends in the same situation, and sometimes find temporary jobs or small jobs that will get them some money for a little while. And money attracts, even if it is temporary. When having money, they can find more ‘friends’ to hang out with and, even more important, girls. Especially girls like Salma, or Marcella when she was young: girls that (whether they are in school or not) need money and maybe some company as well. In Naoko’s words: “in exchange for the money, boys require that the girl sleeps with them. And these girls are often young, they don’t know. They think ‘maybe it is normal that I sleep with him, because he gave me money’, but they will not always use contraceptives. If you tell a boy to use a condom, he will say ‘I don’t eat a sweetie with the package on, I take it off. Don’t be silly’. And then when you get pregnant they will just send you away and say ‘why didn’t you use contraceptives??’”.

Recalling these stories, I remember why I did not write more on the relationship between Salma and Naoko. When I tried to write about the patterns I saw in the stories of girls and women in the community, I, at some point, had to write about Salma’s pregnancy, and something inside me snapped. I closed my laptop, walked to the back of the farm where rarely any people come, and just started walking up and down the road. Being confronted with another example – the situation of a girl not so much younger than me, only pregnant while still in high school and living on her own – was quite painful to me. On the one hand, Salma’s situation confirmed the patterns I thought I was discovering, which could be considered a ‘breakthrough’ in terms of research. However, what it mostly did to me, was affirming the vicious circles I actually feared to find. Putting together the pieces of this research-puzzle did, in this case, not feel victorious at all. Rather, it saddened, frustrated and angered me to such an extent, that I decided not to look into it further, and hence not to write about it. In the meantime, I finished my thesis, without mentioning my personal struggles described above. Now I hold a master’s degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology, but I am not done with discussing these struggles. Maybe I will have the opportunity to elaborate on it later. And maybe this blog was a good first step.

Laetitia Simorangkir finished the Master in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit, where she also received her Bachelor’s Degree.


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