Research planning: an adventure
The Comoros are an archipelago composed of 3 islands (formerly 4, but since 1975 one of them, Mayotte, is part of France) in the Indian Ocean, just above Madagascar and facing Mozambique. Despite their very diverse and rich culture – usually referred to as ‘islamo-bantu’, that is, a traditional Islamic society, yet very tolerant, but which speaks a language from the family of swahili, the most widely spread language of Africa – they have received very little academic attention. The oral literature of the Comoros reflects these different influences from Africa and the Islamic World but is also characteristic of the Indian Ocean traditional folklore. During the French colonisation, the Comoros have been exposed to other genres of literature, especially written ones. The first Comorian novel was published in 1985, and my research examines how novels written in French by Comorian writers are used as means to reinvest traditional oral narratives and especially folktales. Very little has been written about the Comoros so far, and I knew from the start that my research would involve a lot of planning in order to share the work between the two summers of my research and to go there by myself.
I didn’t expect the extent to which planning the trip would be an adventure. There is almost no internet in the Comoros, and when there is, people hardly ever look at their e-mails – including hostels, so that 2 weeks before the date of my flight to the other side of the world my accommodation was still not sorted out. Most of the story-tellers, scholars and specialists I contacted never answered to my e-mails, which was quite depressing. Fortunately, the ones who replied – sometimes a month later – were quite helpful.
Finding appropriate secondary literature was also a challenge: even the Inter-Library Loans service of the University failed to locate and get hold of the little number of related books that I had identified. This is where my treasure hunt began – I was this week in Paris trying to find where the books I was looking for were. It was quite funny: many librarians were surprised by my unusual research topic and I now have a lot of library cards! Next week, I will try to establish a full bibliography of works related to my research, which will include their location, and link the different versions of the same tale together.
What I surely had not expected was the amount of paperwork I would need to do before undertaking my research. My initial plan was to interview people, and any research that involves exterior participants needs ethical approval. The ‘Ethics Form’, which became my best friend, was quite difficult to fill in, even with the help of my supervisor. The risk assessment form and travel fund application also took me a while, just like the numerous e-mails I sent to Comorian people that remained unanswered. Similarly, I needed to submit a full application to access ‘rare’ books in Paris. My advice to prospective Laidlaw scholars would definitely be: focus on the paperwork first and try to get hold of your resources as soon as you can – you will be really relieved once it is done.
I am flying to the Comoros on the 15th and I am really looking forward to it. So far, this internship has strengthened my desire to do a career in research. I would like to thank once again Lord Laidlaw for this incredible opportunity and the Laidlaw team at St Andrews and my supervisor, Professor Nicki Hitchcott, for their advice and support.