These past few weeks have given me enough food for thought to last for a very long time. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of valuable conversations with inspiring women in academia, on a variety of topics from voice to women’s role in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) to trauma. I’ve had my basic assumptions challenged and my worldview shaken up and greatly enriched.
I have started thinking about traumatic experiences and the long-lasting trauma that such experiences can bring. This issue wasn’t at the forefront of the training workshop for researchers working on women and artisanal mining held in Kampala from June 29th to July 3rd, but it did come up, particularly in discussions around research on sexual and gender-based violence. Part of the workshop involved asking the researchers to do a test run of the draft survey instrument. Several of the questions on the draft survey dealt directly with sexual violence, asking respondents if they had been victims of sexual violence in the past.
The survey sessions generated a great deal of feedback from participants on a variety of issues. One of the main comments was the overly personal nature of certain questions – including the questions on sexual violence. A colleague of mine commented to me that this is an important topic to understand when researching women in artisanal mining, but that there are ways to obtain this information that may be more appropriate than through a survey. But the bigger concern, and the reason that the decision was finally made to drop those questions from the survey, was the fact that recounting those experiences might result in the resurfacing of past trauma, which the researcher would not be properly equipped to deal with.
As we’ve gotten into the research, too, the issue of trauma – or, at least, the traumatic experiences that may cause trauma in the longer term – has manifested itself in more subtle fashion. It is in the story that the woman who owns the hotel told me about how her sister went into the hospital for the treatment of an ectopic pregnancy, and was diagnosed there with a brain clot. The day that her sister died, she did not even have the opportunity to see her before her death. I could see the emotion in her eyes as she talked about how she felt had closer to her sister than even her own children

‘The Dangers of the Pit.’ Photo Credit: Sarah Katz-Lavigne

The echo of trauma was in the story I was told by a woman in an artisanal miners’ cooperative about her five children, two of whom have passed away. It was in the tales we were told by several people about the dangers of the pits, where carbon monoxide poisoning or shaft collapse have killed a number of people throughout the years. Women and men alike have expressed concern to us about the dangers of going down in the pit, and the risks to the men for whom the lack of other employment opportunities means that this is their best economic option. This situation was even described to us as the “biggest killer in Migori”. These stories are incredibly sad: when the carbon monoxide builds up in the pit due to the use of a small pumping machine, it is difficult to detect until it is too late. Then, when other people go down into the pit in an attempt to rescue their colleagues, they may die too.
All of these stories have really driven home to me the fact that those of us working in development or international affairs should not overlook the issue of trauma or traumatic experiences as something that may have a real impact on how we approach our work. In fact, this is something that it’s important to reflect on as we think about how we fit into the world in which we’re conducting research. Our difficult experiences, or even our own experiences of trauma, are not simply something to turn off or shut down out of fear that they could interfere with our work or the quality of our research. On the contrary – our traumatic experiences and vulnerabilities can make us more empathetic and more likely to really listen to the people who are sharing with us, rather than to whatever it is we think we’re hearing from them.
You may think that you’ve heard it all before, or that you already know what the person is going to say. This research on artisanal mining, however, has really made it clear to me just how different people’s individual perspectives are. Each person I have spoken to me has offered me a new and unique perspective on some aspect – no matter how small – of gender relations within artisanal mining. I have been surprised in some cases when I expected certain people – for example, government officials – to just regurgitate a common viewpoint on issues surrounding ASM. I have found, on the contrary, that their role and background has led them to a sophisticated analysis of the issues at hand – even if we don’t see eye to eye on possible solutions. This trip has really highlighted the importance of triangulation in research. It’s not just a buzzword; it’s at the core of good research on international affairs and development.
This work was carried out with financial support under the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) initiative. GrOW is a multi-funder partnership with the UK Government’s Department for International Development, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the International Development Research Centre, Canada. This research is also taking place as part of the Women’s Livelihoods in Artisanal Mining Sectors: Rethinking State-Building in Conflict-Affected Africa project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Two of the lead researchers on this project, Blair Rutherford and Doris Buss, are with the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University.
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Sarah Katz-Lavigne is entering her third year as a PhD candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Sarah’s research focuses on large-scale mining and property rights enforcement in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Sarah is also a research assistant at Carleton’s Institute of African Studies. She is currently conducting research in Migori, Kenya, on gender dynamics in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

Featured Photo From Flickr Creative Commons.


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