Building rapport in a street ethnography on men’s sexual health in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Promoting sexual health is a challenging enterprise in Bangladesh and even more so when official health systems do not recognise existing community resources that might help address some of those challenges. In my doctoral research I set out to understand how majmawalas, street healers, provide a service to heterosexual men who have anxiety about sexual performance and sexual health, and how they might assist in promoting sexual health among men in Bangladesh. I took up this question based on the observation that majmawalas were already providing sexual health information and support to men in Bangladesh (Anam 2010). Together, their skills and their sociocultural positioning enabled them to talk with men about sexual health in a relatively straightforward, nonstigmatising manner, in street spaces that men could access easily both geographically and economically.
Following the street ethnographies of Duneier (2001) and Radice (2011), I knew that developing an open and trusting relationship with the majmawalas would be critically important. My previous research experience and Bangladeshi background were useful in establishing strong relationships, but it didn’t make the task easy. Still, I knew that in the Bangladeshi context, becoming aponjon (the dearest one), someone who is not necessarily kin but a trusted friend, would smooth the way to such a relationship. This essay is about my journey to establish that kind of relationship with my interlocutors during my fieldwork in 2014–15.
Initially, none of the majmawalas were truly convinced about me and my research. I identified myself as a PhD student at an Australian university and as an academic staff member at one of the public universities in Bangladesh. But these roles positioned me as someone to be suspicious of, as none of the majmawalas had had previous experience with academics nor had any taken part in research. The whole idea of me and my study was a new phenomenon for them.
The majmawalas’ businesses were on the street. Like other street vendors, they had no permanency, no certainty of their ability to occupy a space, and so they had to compete with many other vendors for both space and the attention of passers-by. Their everyday practices were thus a precarious undertaking, and a sometimes-stigmatised one, as well, which made them vulnerable to extortion from a variety of people. Police officers, local gangsters, and even journalists came to them regularly for money. The journalists demanded money in exchange for not publishing negative articles, such as columns questioning the efficacy of street medicine or suggesting that the government disallow street medicine. Not surprisingly, when I introduced my research to them, the majmawalas suspected that I was probably a ‘journalist’ only pretending to be a researcher, who would eventually ask for money. At that stage, they did not trust me, but they did allow me to observe their healing sessions and answered my questions.
One particular incident contributed to breaking the ice and helped me to receive a true welcome from the majmawalas. At one session, I was taking notes of a speech by a majmawala who I’ll call Didar. Suddenly, a ‘journalist’ and his assistant came, and started filming the session without obtaining permission. When they had completed their filming, they approached Didar’s assistant, and I drew close as well. They asked for money, and Didar’s assistant suggested they wait until the end of the session and said he was not able to pay them anything. The journalist was angry and kept demanding money.
I intervened. First, I gave my identity and described the reason why I was staying in the area. Then, I asked for their identities, their reason for filming the session, and why they were demanding money. Initially, they did not believe me and thought I was a majma man; they even started asking me for money, too. I showed them my identity card and they realised that I was actually a university academic who was there for legitimate research purposes. They did not confirm any association with a particular newspaper or television channel, nor did they explain their reason for filming the session or for asking for money. When I started talking about the potential of majma street healing and requested that they consider covering the positive aspects of majmawalas in their news, they left. It was clear that their only purpose was extortion.
Didar’s assistant and a few other people of the area observed this encounter, and Didar also saw the end of our interaction. This helped convince Didar that I was truly there for research purposes, and that I would not do any harm to them or their reputations. If necessary, in fact, I would raise my voice on their behalf. Didar told the story to other majmawalas in his circle, and good number of them started trusting me and my plan for research. This incident made me the majmawalas’ aponjon, their dearest one. It opened the door for me to gain entry with a proper welcome into the majmawalas’ community and made things much easier for me in the field.
My experience suggests that ‘becoming aponjon’ can establish a relationship that allows for the kind of trust necessary in sensitive research, such as researching precarious street healers and men’s sexual health. ‘Taking sides’ (Armbruster and Laerke 2008) – raising my voice in support of the majmawalas – was crucial to gain their trust. This was not simply a ‘strategic’ decision to facilitate my fieldwork, but an ethical decision in line with my research goal of advocating for majmawalas to be included in the promotion of men’s health services, particularly those related to sexual health.
About the author
Md Mujibul Anam is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh. Mujibul’s area of interest is public health anthropology, social justice, and environment. He completed his PhD at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. The title of his PhD research is ‘Majmawalas and Sexual Health Promotion in Bangladesh: An Ethnography of Street Healers in Dhaka City’. He is coauthor of ‘Sex, Pornography, and Medicines in the Markets of Dhaka’, in Technologies of Sexuality, Identity and Sexual Health, edited by Lenore Manderson (Routledge, 2012).
Anam, Mujibul. 2010. ‘Masculinity in Majma: An Ethnography of Street Healing in Bangladesh’. MA thesis, Heidelberg University.
Duneier, Mitchell. 2001. Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Armbruster, Heidi, and Anna Laerke. 2008. Taking Sides: Ethics, Politics and Fieldwork in Anthropology. New York: Berghahn Books.
Radice, Martha. 2011. ‘Ethnography of the Street: When Is a Place Not a Place?’ Anthropology News 52 (3): 13–13. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1556-3502.2011.52313.x.