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A Day in the Field: Jean Rohleder

Today on the ELAR blog, Jean Rohleder who does fieldwork in New Caledonia talks about his research and his field trip he took late last year.

  1. Please tell us a bit about where you are doing your fieldwork.

New Caledonia, the “Island of Eternal Spring”, is home to about 270,000 people, on 18,000 km² (roughly half of Switzerland). Rainy in the East, dry in the West, never colder than 18 °C and rarely hotter than 30°C, it is a beautiful, warm, and incredibly diverse island, with 75% endemic flora, a huge lagoon teeming with corals and fish, fruit bats in the mango trees and parrots chirping everywhere. A third of the population is Kanak, and there are 22-37 heritage languages (this number varies depending on the definition of “language”) and lives mostly on the east coast, the islands, and in the Deep South. Other Caledonians are descendants of European settlers, South East Asians, and Polynesians. This translates into amazing culinary and cultural diversity as well as severe political divisions. The area where I work harbours 5 languages (French, Cèmuhî, Vamale, Pije, Nemi, Fwâi) and is squeezed between the mountains, the lagoon, mighty rivers, secret jungle-covered valleys, a very blue sea and red soil.

Road to Wanaa
  1. When did you arrive and when will you be leaving?

I arrived in October and left in early December 2016, but the next trips will span the dry seasons as much as possible (June/July-December) to protect the equipment and avoid steel sheet roofing (aka “rain drum”) ruining the recordings too often. Unfortunately, I will miss the yam harvest festival and January’s cyclones, but that is a price I must pay to be able to teach in Bern, Switzerland.

Dui telling me about yam planting
  1. Can you describe a typical day in the field is like for you?

The day usually started early (“break of day” is the period before “sunrise” in Vamale). In Kanak country, waking a sleeping person might leave their soul stranded in the world of dreams! Breakfast tends to be instant coffee and biscuits. In 2016, most of the work (data management) happened before noon, before it gets too hot. A meal consisting of yam, bananas, manioc, chicken or fish, and some fruit (best grapefruit on the planet) is usually followed by a siesta. Normally, I recorded in the afternoon till sundown. In the evening, for those who indulge, a relaxing sel of kava sets the mood for the way home to dinner. The sight of a fruit bat flying through dusk to a fruit tree is a beautiful last sight, embedded by the sound of breaking waves and poachers’ gunshots.

My hammock in Téganpaik

4. What will you most look forward to doing after returning from fieldwork?

Trains! Switzerland’s public transportation system is a gift from the gods. I also missed bread, and chocolate, and my friends and family. Another big one is being fluent in the local cultural codes and etiquette. I’m always on the lookout for graves to be respected. A life without mosquitoes and flatulent pigs is also a privilege I used to value too little.

Mountain range near Pòmbéi

5. Contrastly, what will you miss most after completing your fieldwork?

Tribal Kanak life is the most relaxing thing that ever happened to me. People are hospitable and positive-minded with a great sense of humour, the flora and fauna obscenely beautiful and the going is slow. The humidity does great things to my hair, and I walk more in a week than I do in a year. But, of course, the thrill of understanding something new about the language, seeing someone’s face light up when I use it, or the pleasure people take at recording their heritage, those are the things that make me want to go back.

Bark-covered hut in Poya

Thank you, Jean, for the insight on your fieldwork! Jean will be starting an ELDP project this year, you can find his deposit page, here

Blog post by Jean Rohleder

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