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Ampersand / Ampersand - Past Issues / Ampersand - Spring 2019 / Letters from the Field: Remembering Elizabeth Adelski

Letters from the Field: Remembering Elizabeth Adelski

This story, a first person account written by an alumna of the Anthropology Department, highlights the deep friendships formed in the College of Arts & Sciences that, in many instances, transcend location and time.


By Barbara Rylko-Bauer (’80 M.A., ’85 Ph.D.)

When I received a copy of the Anthropology Department’s newsletter last summer, one item announcing the recipients of the Adelski Dissertation Research Award brought back memories of my graduate school experience at UK and the special relationships forged during those formative years. 
Elizabeth Adelski arrived in Lexington in 1977, the year after I started graduate studies in anthropology. She had a crazy sense of humor, an infectious joie de vivre and an appreciation for good food—so it was not surprising that we became fast friends, finishing our dissertations within a couple years of each other. We went our separate ways but continued to stay in touch—it was a friendship that time and distance never diminished and it lasted until Elizabeth’s unexpected death from a sudden heart attack on May 29, 2011. 
I was not surprised to learn that Elizabeth remembered the Department in her will. In later years, we would talk about the camaraderie among our fellow students lasting well past graduate school. We appreciated the support we received from various faculty and the well-rounded training that helped to prepare us for the "real world," both inside and outside of academia. Last, but not least, we’d remember the great parties. The departmental tradition of passing around a bottle of mezcal and having to "eat the worm" as the final act on the Ph.D. journey—this began when we were students at UK. I was six weeks pregnant at my defense, so I passed on the mezcal, but I did eat the worm.
Elizabeth was a great letter writer. When she began her first post-dissertation job, working for CARE in Chad, she sent me a five-page letter soon after her arrival: "My attempt at describing Chad, which I feel is largely indescribable!" It read like part fieldnotes, part travelogue, as did the second letter, written three weeks later—in which she even included some sand from the desert! I still have these and subsequent letters, the majority from her period of longer-term development work in Chad (1987–88) and Burundi (1989–1993), and they bring Elizabeth back to life.
The road north of N’djamena to the Kanem is pot-holed pavement for an hour, and then turns to tracks across the sand. We passed a few convoys of French military trucks, full of soldiers with faces turbaned against the flying sand . . . Three hours of heat and lurching til we reached Massakory, an old French colonial outpost and market town. The local dive was full of Arabs in turbans and wailing music but they did not seem at all surprised to see two Nazaras sit down to eat.
Thus starts Elizabeth’s first letter, dated April 7, 1987. She was on her way to Nokou, Chad, a town of 1,000 souls perched on the edge of the desert, the end of the world. 
This is home for the next month. The wadis are . . . palmy, shady, and patchy green in the midst of the desert, but they aren’t paradise. The stagnant water stinks, salt encrusts the earth, the dirt looks like sand. The [farming] parcels are almost pathetic, 10 by 20 meters of scraggly tomatoes, manioc, onions. The chadoufs are everywhere, with people hauling up buckets of water, pouring it down an earthen channel to let it soak into the ground. Women bend over in the sun, chopping out a space to plant grain. Kids chase the burros away from the crops, loading them up with firewood and marching them home. Everything is hot, dusty, painful; the peoples’ feet and hands are large and calloused at the end of long thin limbs. Is it possible that people survive like this? Looking at the fierce desert frightens me; how can they live here? It is my turn to come to understand their knowledge. 
These early letters reveal a common theme found in doing fieldwork in unfamiliar places, as Elizabeth acknowledges in another letter sent four months later: 
I realize now that my 1st 3 months here were a shock—culture shock and to my health—and now that I’m used to the scene I feel better. I also boil and filter my water, or I get sick. The desert and heat and isolation and Arabs with their daggers no longer make me feel on edge; familiarity is a great advantage.
And a half-year later, she admits:
Chad has a hold on me now: my French is good and I can understand most of the Arabic I hear though my speaking is limited. I have a great time holding fractured conversations; the Chadians I work with crack up and say they have to be careful what they say about the honkies now, and the peasants laugh in delight. . . I really enjoy it and regret that I don’t have the time to study it formally. . . Plus there’s so many things here that fascinate me, that I’ll regret the day I leave. 
Of course, such familiarity did not eliminate the challenges of living with extreme heat, the ever-present sand, dirt, scorpions and flies, and the loneliness that sets in when one is away for long periods of time from family and friends. Elizabeth would repeatedly urge me to write more often and to send reading material—books, magazines, the National Enquirer, news of the outside world, ending one letter with the exhortation: "Eat ice cream for me!!! And frozen yoghurt and salads and watch TV (I miss it!) and enjoy all the Consumer Goods!" I, in turn, would send her care packages with items she yearned for, like underwear, chapstick, Flair pens, mint tea and jelly beans.
In rereading the letters, I was struck by Elizabeth’s sensitivity to both the beauty and the suffering of those she was privileged to work with and learn from:
The women here are incredible. They have such endurance; their work is like slave labor. They have such beautiful faces—rings in their noses, huge earrings, amulets/jewelry. In the south, some still wear big lip-plugs. . . I am interviewing the women about agricultural work and food use/preparation. I can tell you—it’s backbreaking—in addition to domestic chores (day-long searches for firewood on foot, 2 x/week, pounding grain, hauling water) and I have pictures of women in the fields, hoeing.
Elizabeth would often mention wanting to photograph the people but hesitated to intrude. With time and familiarity, this changed and I understand that she was an excellent photographer. I only have a few of such photos from the field. At other times she wrote about the hospitality of the local people—despite their poverty:
They brew tea—green with TONS of sugar, thick like syrup, and pass it around in small tumblers. They send me home with piles of yams, a squawking chicken, some eggs. . . I cannot refuse their hospitality, but it is hard to be gracious when I know that these people are eating only 2 times/day . . . living on ground sorghum mixed with powdered milk and water and unripe dates and jujubes, a wild fruit that is mostly pit. And after taking their time and food, I have to tell them that this is just a study; I cannot promise them anything. I find it hard to do, although they never ask for anything but always are glad to say hello and talk.
In some of her letters, Elizabeth expressed frustrations with unrealistic project deadlines, long working hours, endless paperwork and the dilemmas of gathering data from local people while realizing that their problems and the forces at play in shaping their lives were much more complex and harder to impact. Writing again from Chad, this time in 1989, she complains about the unrealistic questions she is expected to ask:
[They] want to know what the farmers think of the project, where they expect to be in 5 years (!), what their aspirations in life are—all those American, unanswerable-except-in-hypothetical-terms questions that, at this point in my fieldwork, I find so trying and useless to ask. How ridiculous, to ask a struggling subsistence farmer where he ‘sees himself’ 5 yrs. hence. When I pull myself together and pose the question, they look at me like I’m a naïve imbecile and answer, ‘Right here, struggling along.’. . . This development game is so frustrating. 
And yet from personal conversations, I know that Elizabeth believed it was important to try to make this work more relevant to the needs, issues and concerns of local communities. As she saw it, an anthropological perspective had potential for shaping international development, and without this input, things could be a lot worse. And she was good at doing this work. 
Reading these letters brought back many memories of Elizabeth—as friend and anthropologist. The Adelski Dissertation Research Award offers another way of remembering a unique colleague. &

Barbara Rylko-Bauer (M.A. 1980, Ph.D. 1985) is a medical anthropologist, adjunct Associate Professor at Michigan State University and author of "A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps" and co-editor of "Global Health in Times of Violence." She also serves on the Society for Applied Anthropology Oral History Project, whose collection is located at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the UK Libraries.

To support graduate students in Anthropology or any department in the College of Arts & Sciences, please contact the Arts & Sciences Office of Philanthropy at or (859) 323-7068.