Convergences: A first workshop in Mbarara in Uganda  in March 2022

Sung-Joon Park

Our research project consists of two research teams in Uganda and in Eastern DRC. In both countries, the research teams hold regular online meetings to coordinate their research activities. The possibilities to meet have increased enormously through online communication with a number of advantages. Irrespective of the many advantages, our zoom conferences with researchers in Uganda, the DRC and in Germany seem to depend on the unpredictable ‘mood’ of the internet. Our online meetings, similar to many other online meetings, often start like this:

‚Hello?‘ – [Silence] — ‚You are muted!‘ ‚Are you still there?‘ ‚Let’s switch of the cameras to hear our voices.’ [all screens turn black].

Disruptions happen:

‘Why is he gone now?’ – ‘He went out of airtime, let’s wait‘ – Until when?’ – ‘Until the boda driver (mototaxi driver) brings new data’ – laughter – ‘How long does it take a boda driver to go and fetch data?’ ‘Perhaps, the boda driver is in a traffic jam‘ – more laughter.

Indeed, online conferences can be quite amusing. In the past, a meeting of a research group required to organize a whole workshop for which people had to travel from one place to another. Physical meetings were less frequent and more expensive, time consuming, and leaving an enormous carbon footprint behind. And perhaps, there might be a viable solution to the economic and technical limitations of zoom conferences on the African continent.

Online conferences can reduce physical meetings but not replace them. Interestingly they might help us to reflect on the purpose of physical meetings and rediscover the purpose of spending time together. The weekly online meetings are extremely important to update each other. But the more we were updating each other, the more we felt that we have to ‘see’ each other, engage each other, and have an open discussion about the direction our work is taking.


Convergences and divergences

We remembered that travels for a physical meeting can be exhausting. To participate at our midterm workshop in Mbarara, for example, Kennedy had to travel a day from Butembo to Goma, where he met the rest of the DRC team. The DRC team passed through Rwanda to reach Uganda for reasons of road safety. In fact military activities had increased the violence in the border zone. Others travelled from Gulu to Kampala. Again, others left Germany via Berlin to join the Ugandan researchers at a small junction outside of Kampala before leaving together for Mbarara. These travels cannot be done in one day. However, most of us met along the way to share a bus or jeep such that we might conceive our travels as a convergence gravitating around Mbarara.

The decision to meet in Mbarara was pragmatic. Everyone had a similar distance to travel. The choice to stay at the Igongo Cultural Center was random. After our arrival we found out that the center offered a guided excursion to the Eclipse memorial. This memorial is devoted to the precolonial wars between the Bunyoro and Buganda kingdoms, before the colonial territorialization of the Great Lake regions. Eugene found it surprising that the history of the migration of the Bakonjo people to today’s Congo was remembered at this site in Uganda. The memorial told the story of a precolonial divergence of people into various directions. Even the mythical stories had been diverging, told in slightly different ways in the DRC and in Uganda.


The historical divergences are today most acutely seen at the border, where the DRC team has been studying the use of Covid-19 tests. The border between Uganda and the DRC reflects the geography of colonial and postcolonial state building. It is governed by regimes of trade, regimes of Covid-19 testing and regimes of war, which compete with each other. A few months ago, the Ugandan army crossed the border to DRC not far from Mbarara with the aim of carrying out a ‘special operation’ against the ADF in the forests or Eastern DRC. In the DRC, people asked ‘Did the Ugandan soldiers test before coming to the DRC?’ By contrast, commuters at the DRC-Uganda border had been angered by the expensive PCR tests requires to cross the border to Uganda. In fact, the border regimes of testing, war, and trade, underline that people’s capacity to be mobile are shaped by the history and politics of extraversion in the region.

In this context, the terms convergence and divergence capture more aptly the difficulties of determining differences and similarities in an anthropological comparison. A convergence is in a way a more anthropological take of what the world of donor-funded projects call ‘harmonization.’ Speaking about the convergence of field research encompasses a broader realm of comparison. It invites to ask how much data has been collected on one or the other aspect in both countries that we as team find worth comparing. Convergence moreover invites to dwell on the variety of perspectives defining what counts as a difference or a similarity. What one person may consider as a difference may be a similarity from another perspective. Clearly a comparison should define, which perspective is to be applied. However, in the case of our anthropological research project on a Covid-19 testing in the DRC and in Uganda this perspective is yet to emerge. We are looking for a perspective that goes beyond the simplified comparison of what worked and what didn’t work in both countries, but situates the obvious similarities and the less visible differences in the global context of the Covid-19 pandemic. That is, we want to understand what these differences and similarities in the Great Lakes Region tell us about the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This entails exploring the histories of infectious disease outbreaks in these countries and how they shape people’s view of the Covid-19 responses. These histories may converge around a specific moment in the history of global health interventions on the African continent. Such a perspective invites us to explore the crossroads, where the uses of Covid-19 testing in the DRC and Uganda have been converging and diverging. Convergences describe what happens when researchers get inspired by what the teams in the neighboring country have been finding out. It does not mean to adopt the other perspective but to change one’s own perspective on Covid-19 testing, as Kibwota pointed out.


Purely meeting

Besides of the infrastructural instabilities of online communication between Germany, the DRC, and Uganda, we all cherish the advantages of saving time, fuel and costs by avoiding travels. Moreover, the number of workshops to attend physically have been extraordinary before the Covid-19 pandemic. Respectively the number of travels had increased too, which we realize now has been straining ourselves and more importantly planet Earth. But the more we cherish the advantages of online conferences, we miss the space to discuss freely without time constraints. Apparently, online conferences are more organized than physical workshops. A workshop is certainly structured.  However, it seems that that we can do more online meetings a day, such that one online conference chases the other, which requires a stricter time management by all participants.

There is little time for every conference participant to effectively bring out his or her point of actions to be debated by all. Meeting in one place, like Mbarara, provides the space to think freely by 'relaxing, reflecting, and interacting with one another; by sharing experiences from the field from each country', as Adison said. As Grace summarized it, online conferences tend to be rigidly organized around objectives, such that ‘once the meeting is done, everyone says bye-bye; and leaves.’

After years of rushing from one physical workshop to the next, and after more than two years of a switching from one online conference to the next, after years of being pressured to think about new formats to improve virtual interactions—we felt we had to do our first meeting differently if the major aim was to meet and get to know each other better. Hence, we decided to plan as little as possible. We did not to draft a workshop program. We all arrived in Mbarara without knowing what we would do the next days. But we all were extremely curious what the others might be interested to do. The first day we sat a whole afternoon together and discussed what we wanted to do and made suggestions how we might achieve what we want to achieve. At the end of day we had agreed on a program — better our aims converged into a program— that took us through the next days and moreover laid out the next months of research.


A working atmosphere

The following days were governed by a distinct working atmosphere. In an atmosphere, a question is not just posed and answered. Questions literally occupy the room addressing everyone in the room. They spark off a discussion, raise more questions and answers, which emerge naturally and yet in such a unique manner that one feels the urge to capture this atmosphere — ‘hey did anyone take notes? We need to have this discussio.’ 

As Kennedy pointed out a working atmosphere is shaped by our characters and less by our roles. Roles reduce us to tasks and responsibilities in a project and in a workshop. By contrast our characters make a workshop unique. If Stephen Hilgartner is right that a workshop is a stage on which science is performed (Hilgartner 2000), then the participants of our workshop, us, are the performers of this science. ‘The Ugandans’ felt that ‘the Congolese’ were hard working and funny. The ‘Congolese team’ interestingly thought that the Ugandans are engaged and ‘surtout amusant.’ An atmosphere of work unsurprisingly is not exhaustively described in terms of outputs. A good workshop is one that people enjoy. There is probably a more philosophical point to be made about the work atmosphere that governed our workshop. It often seems that we conduct research projects in order to keep us going. According to Harry Frankfurt the idea that the purpose of having projects—he speaks more generally of life projects—is to keep us going, is quite pessimistic. In this view there is no reason to achieve anything other than keep on going (Frankfurt 2006). Frankfurt suggests we have to see it the other way around:

Our interest in living does not commonly depend upon our having projects that we desire to pursue. It’s the other way around: we are interested in having worthwhile projects because we do intend to go on living, and we would prefer not to be bored (Frankfurt 2006: 36-7; my emphasis)

According to Frankfurt’s reflections, in living and in going on living, we start many projects and subprojects. For researchers, conducting research might be such a subproject. A working atmosphere tells us that we are not having these projects to keep us going. It would be equally mistaken to assume that we have a research project, because we want to keep something else going, like a scientific collaboration. It is the other way around. We have a collaboration because we prefer not to be bored. And clearly, we prefer collaborations that do not bore us. Certainly, we can carry out a project that may not fascinate us all the time and that does not genuinely interest us. That can happen. But without a genuine interest, the writing of articles becomes extremely tedious and cumbersome. We cannot easily overcome a lack of passion for something we have to write about.

How do we find out what genuinely interests us and how the interests of unique human beings might converge around a shared matter of concern! In our workshop we devoted significant time to find out what genuinely interests us and what we feel we want to work on. We then exercised writing practically to find the topics that we find exciting and not boring.  We walked, sat down, and scribbled our ideas and thoughts in notebooks, which Erik had made for all of us.


We gradually converged around titles and questions that we want to work on in the form of joint publication projects. We discussed and refined these joint publication projects until we felt they had become worthwhile writing projects on testing and the Covid-19 responses in the DRC and in Uganda.


Frankfurt, Harry G. 2006. Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting it Right. Stanford University Press.

Hilgartner, Stephen. 2000. Science on Stage : Expert Advice as Public Drama. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.