MHHA: Who are you?
JA: My name is Jess Auerbach. I grew up near Durban but have recently returned to SA after a decade away.
MHHA: In what part of the world do you work?
JA: My research projects have largely taken place in Angola, Mozambique, Mauritius and Brazil. I’m also doing some new work at home which I am really enjoying.
MHHA: What is your area of interest or expertise?
JA: I’m somewhere between an economic and a medical anthropologist with a strong interest in applied pedagogy and sensory ethnography! My first book is about beauty in Angola, and I am working on a second one about peace in Mauritius.
MHHA: Do you have research/practitioner partners?
JA: At the moment I am working with Dharmagiri, a Buddhist NGO in the Drakensberg, as well as with Jonathan Jansen on his Politics of Knowledge Project at Stellenbosch University.
MHHA: Please tell us about your recent project…
JA: As well as ongoing work mentioned above, I’ve recently started an ‘Archive of Kindness’ project which is capturing the public imagination in SA in really lovely ways. It’s a record of everyday micro kindnesses that are holding the country together right now, and all kinds of stories are being recorded and shared. I hope to work more on it in the future.
MHHA: What about your work makes your smile?
JA: At the moment I’m not teaching, and I really miss that. Thinking through the complexities of the world with students gives me a lot of joy, and it’s great following people as they grow from nervous first years to intellectual peers. I still mentor a lot, and every time I get a message from a former student I smile. They do drive me nuts sometimes but it’s totally worth it. I love pretty much all aspects of scholarly life though, so feel very lucky to have a job that gets me out of bed with such enthusiasm.
MHHA: What are the challenges of your work?
JA: At the moment I’m in that precarious post-doc space. I think a lack of job security can be psychologically quite draining, and it means I feel I am less focused as I try to be everything for everyone to keep my options open.
MHHA: What are three positive things you/your team has achieved in the last year?
JA: I’ve been in three teams in the last year so I’ll share one of each. When I was at the Open University of Mauritius, it was great to see a research culture really begin to take off there, and I felt the growth in my colleagues was very inspiring. The Buddhist NGO I’m partnering with has been incredibly successful at getting a more representative group of people to work with them, and so feeling that deeper transformation in the country working – even when it’s not easy all the time – is fantastic. And then at Stellenbosch, I think building bridges between groups who don’t usually talk to each other is very important, so I like that.
MHHA: What advice would you give to a mentee aspiring to join your field?
JA: Do your readings. All of them. And more 🙂
MHHA: What do you hope to be doing in 5 years? Where will you be?
JA: I hope to have a permanent job at an SA university, at least one more book out (actually, two would be great if I have the time to write them) and also in a position to be able to be fully present with my family in the evenings.
MHHA: Remember to checkout Auerbach’s recent book: From Water to Wine: Becoming Middle Class in Angola”. From the website: “From Water to Wine explores how Angola has changed since the end of its civil war in 2002. Its focus is on the middle class—defined as those with a house, a car, and an education—and their consumption, aspirations, and hopes for their families. It takes as its starting point “what is working in Angola?” rather than “what is going wrong?” and makes a deliberate, political choice to give attention to beauty and happiness in everyday life in a country that has had an unusually troubled history. Each chapter focuses on one of the five senses, with the introduction and conclusion provoking reflection on proprioception (or kinesthesia) and curiosity. Various media are employed—poetry, recipes, photos, comics, and other textual experiments—to engage readers and their senses. Written for a broad audience, this text is an excellent addition to the study of Africa, the lusophone world, international development, sensory ethnography, and ethnographic writing.”
Thank you for inspiring us