Erasing The Disconnect - MaryBeth Chrostowsky

 

By Krystal Delfino

As Americans, we have been born privileged. Many people fail to appreciate this, and they take for granted the little things that make everyday life so comfortable. MaryBeth Chrostowsky is a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky who never fully comprehended the extent of her advantages until she spent three years in the Peace Corps.

“As a child in the United States, when I went to school I had a chair, desk, books… The kids I saw in Chad had nothing. Their desire for education was so great they would walk to distant villages in 100 degrees to attend school where there was nothing but stones to sit on.”

We live in a global community, and it’s important to care for our neighbors. MaryBeth’s experience in Peace Corps Africa helped her realize that she took for granted the many privileges she had by virtue of living in a rich nation - privileges, like education, that people in other parts of the world only dream of. It was with this in mind that she decided she wanted to you use her privileges to assist those who had come into this world under less fortunate circumstances.

“I can use my privilege to assist them. But I don’t want to do it my way, I want to do it their way.”

At this point, MaryBeth discovered the underappreciated field of anthropology. Before joining the Peace Corps in 1996, she completed her bachelor’s degree in Psychology. The coursework was fascinating, but she knew it wasn’t her passion. What really interested MaryBeth was the way in which culture drives behavior. After meeting some anthropologists in Chad and Cameroon, she knew this was the path she wanted to pursue. 

“I had never heard of anthropology. But what I was looking for in Psychology was actually anthropology.”

Now MaryBeth is focusing her research on the effects of forced migration on gender in a group of people called the Dinka, who live in South Sudan. It is an intriguing population to look at because people were forced to migrate to different areas, and now they have returned to their homeland. Her main interest lies in the impact these different flight experiences will have on the lives of the people who came back to the region, specifically females. The reason MaryBeth chose to narrow her studies to the women’s experiences is the inequality of access to power among the sexes. She is looking to see how much this has changed based on the different asylum locations the women fled to. Not all women return empowered.

“In the West, we have our understanding of what will empower a woman, for example, education or employment. But in other cultures, there are things that we don’t necessarily value but they do, and that provides a woman with a lot of empowerment. Sometimes we inadvertently take power away.”

This type of research is very valuable to the global community, not only in terms of dollars and cents, but also (and more importantly) on the human level. The biggest problem MaryBeth saw working in the field was the huge disconnect between the Non-Governmental Organizations, the donors, and the people they were trying to help. The policies that were being constructed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for the returned migrants were based on the assumption that life goes back to normal once a person comes back. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

“What I’m finding in my research is that forced migrants don’t always return to the same way of life they had before they fled.  During asylum, identities, needs, and wants change. Some migrants no longer aspire to be pastoralists or agriculturists. Those who fled when they were young or those who were born in asylum don’t know how. They never learned how to be a pastoralist.”

If the organizations trying to help people do not understand the culture and people they work with, a lot of time and money will be wasted attempting projects that simply don’t stand a chance of success. For example, MaryBeth told a story of a group of Western donors introduced the Dinka to ox driven plows, based on the idea that this technology will ease their workload and allow them to plant faster and diversify. The goal was to use plowing to improve the agricultural practices of the Dinka people, thereby improving their food intake and economic stability. But the donors failed to realize that the Dinka do not see themselves as agriculturalists, but as pastoralists.

“It sounds great, it sounds logical, but the Dinka say, ‘We don’t want to use our cattle that way.’ Cattle play a very special role in Dinka culture, and because of this they could never use their cattle as beasts of burden.”

It is crucial to be able to think outside of the realms of one’s normal thought. By looking at a problem through many different lenses, a more rounded solution is possible. That’s where the idea of social theory comes into play. MaryBeth will be the Research Assistant for UK’s Committee on Social Theory this spring. Though it’s hard to define, you can think of social theory in this case as looking at how the world works in academics from all fields.

“There are many theories of migration based on research from academics in various fields. My research, which used anthropological methods and viewpoints, supports some theories and counters others. In either case I am strengthening migration theory. My work is also filling a need for research on the post-repatriation experience of forced migrants.”

In working with the Committee, MaryBeth will be able to discuss her ideas with people from various areas of academic interest. Keeping an open mind about the diversity of opinions is as important as remembering to keep sight of the culture and desires of the communities we want to help. We are privileged people and we should appreciate our advantages and use them to help others, like MaryBeth.

“I feel very lucky that I found my passion, I feel very lucky that I’m excited every day about my research, about what I’ll be doing in the future. I’m happy as can be.”

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