September 11, 2003 - University of Vermont: Michael Sheridan served in the town of Wundanyi, in the Taita Hills of southeastern Kenya

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kenya: The Peace Corps in Kenya: September 11, 2003 - University of Vermont: Michael Sheridan served in the town of Wundanyi, in the Taita Hills of southeastern Kenya

By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, September 12, 2003 - 11:04 pm: Edit Post

Michael Sheridan served in the town of Wundanyi, in the Taita Hills of southeastern Kenya

Michael Sheridan served in the town of Wundanyi, in the Taita Hills of southeastern Kenya


Assistant Professor

514 Williams Hall, (802) 656-2973

My interest in anthropology began at Harvard in 1985. I decided to major in anthropology with an archaeological focus because it was about as far as I could get from the suburban lifestyle I had known until then. I did a lot of work on the reconstruction of symbolic systems from the archaeological record of mute stones and bones. After I graduated in 1988, I joined the Peace Corps as a water technician (based largely on my experiences in student theatre as a set designer). Just three weeks after commencement, a Peace Corps jeep dropped me and a backpack at my homestay in the village of Kinungi, Kenya. I adjusted to my new home with the Macharia family over that first weekend by learning to cook chapattis and to milk a cow without getting the Vaseline on my hands into the milk. I didn't speak any Swahili yet, and my family didn't speak much English. It was a pretty steep learning curve for all of us.

Peace Corps posted me to the town of Wundanyi, in the Taita Hills of southeastern Kenya. It was a beautiful place - 8000' high rocky peaks with shrouds of cloud and rainforest, waterfalls everywhere, and miles of dirt roads that I got to know very well. My job was helping village water project committees to design and get funding for water pipelines. I taught myself enough hydraulics and survey techniques to do my job, and by the time I left in 1990 I had 11 designs finished and 2 projects funded and built. Peace Corps was an amazing experience that didn't fit easily into the dichotomy of good and bad. All of the high points were exhilarating; all of the low points were devastating. It made me more intensely alive than I had ever been, and it thoroughly transformed me. But there was a problem - the two pipelines I had finished fell apart within a year after I left, because too many people installed illegal taps in the main pipeline. Water pressure fell, and the management committee fell apart. After I received letters about this from my friends in Taita, my innate stubbornness pushed me to understand why. What is 'environmental management,' anyway? How do African ideas of management differ from those of development planners? These questions sent me to grad school to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology. I started working toward my degree in 1992, got married and moved to Vermont in 1995, and began field research in Tanzania in 1997.

My interest in resource management expanded into a theoretical interest in how localized relationships between the cultural and biophysical worlds become transformed by their incorporation into the global economic and political system. This topic requires interdisciplinary approaches because environmental change lies at the intersection of symbolic and material processes. African agriculture, for example, often merges mundane issues like soil moisture and crop yields with metaphysical concerns about gender relations and cosmology. Understanding the causes and consequences of environmental change therefore demands a methodological holism that can draw on perspectives from the social and the natural sciences. When combined, sociocultural anthropology, environmental history, biogeography, and political ecology can bridge the artificial dichotomy of nature and culture to reveal the instability of human-land relationships. By conceptualizing human ecology as a historical process characterized more by change than equilibrium, this perspective on global environmental change can explore international relations, regional political economies, and local understandings of land use in the same intellectual framework. All of these levels of analysis are linked by nested social relations of power, so this kind of interdisciplinary synthesis reveals how inequalities in environmental entitlements shape the course of environmental change over time.

I have engaged these issues through fieldwork on agriculture, community development, and land management in the North Pare Mountains of Tanzania in 1997-1998. My work focused on changing cropping and land tenure systems and their intersection with indigenous irrigation and forest conservation. I was drawn to this area by its history of pre-colonial agricultural intensification and its contemporary environmental degradation. I wanted to understand how and why indigenous conservation practices and institutions had declined over the 20th century. By using landscape features (such as irrigation intakes and sacred forests) as the units of study, I maintained a focus on environmental issues while exploring the political process and cultural context of management in domains such as kinship and the division of labor by gender. I gathered historical data on common property management regimes and conducted surveys of contemporary agricultural repertoires, women's land tenure, and young men's attitudes towards agriculture. I also attended meetings of the land use planning committees that had been established by the local government and several European development agencies. Overall, my goal has been the comparison of indigenous processes of land use with contemporary efforts to create new management structures. One of my major findings is that farmers resist eco-development interventions because these technical programs are undercut by the political and moral problems they create. Many of these problems revolve around cultural ideas about gender and fertility. I believe that my work will contribute to better land use in East Africa because it explores policy innovations that can break down the categories of "traditional" and "modern." Agricultural policy and practices will benefit from a hybrid form of natural resource management that combines the strengths of indigenous knowledge and ecological science. I also intend to publish a short version of my dissertation in Swahili to maximize its benefit for the people of North Pare.

My wife Kristina and I welcomed our daughter Gaia in 2000 while I was writing up my dissertation and teaching part-time at UVM. In 2001 I defended my dissertation, received my degree at last, and began teaching at Middlebury College. I taught courses in human ecology, archaeology, African studies, Swahili, and anthropological theory. In November 2002 our second child, Kieran, was born (a real do-it-yourself homebirth - ask me for the full story). I joined the UVM Anthro Department faculty in August 2003. I like hiking, cross-country skiing, baking bread, brewing beer, reading in a hammock, and flying kites.

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Story Source: University of Vermont

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kenya; Antropology



By Yaacov Iland on Wednesday, October 01, 2003 - 3:27 pm: Edit Post

Wundanyi, and indeed most of the Taita Hills, now have piped, treated water, though it's still largely only at the institutions.

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