Meet a Fieldworker: Martine Bruil

Last month, I chatted with Dr. Martine Bruil from Leiden University about what it’s like to conduct fieldwork with indigenous people and pursue a career in academia as a linguist and a new mother. We talked about the very real dangers that are present when conducting fieldwork in the Amazonian jungle of Ecuador, such as swimming with piranhas, anacondas and caimans, a type of crocodile, transporting expensive recording equipment between villages in an area which is known to be frequented by guerrilla forces as well as dealing with thieves. After covering the basics of working in this type of location, we talked about what it’s like to bring a child into the mix and how that can affect working relationships with speakers of indigenous languages, comparing attitudes towards children in the workplace between European and Ecuadorian contexts. Women who work are often faced with the question of motherhood and whether or not it should affect their professional life. In the interview below, Martine speaks candidly about her experiences as a linguist and a mother so far, and how important it is for women to talk to each other and share their experiences. Thus, we invite you to join us in the celebration of women on International Women’s Day by taking the time to read about the work and experiences of one of the amazing 3.5 bn women we share this planet with. Happy International Women’s Day!

For more information about Dr. Martine Bruil visit her profile on the Leiden University website.  

To hear examples of Amazonian Kichwa being spoken click here.
To hear examples of some of the languages spoken in Ecuador click here.



ED: Could start by telling me your name and explaining a bit about where you do research and what you’ve done research on?

MB: Ok, so my name is Martine Bruil, and I am an Ecuadorianist. I’ve done all of my research in Ecuador. I’ve worked in more communities, but I now have an ongoing research connection with three groups of people. So, I work with the Sionas in Ecuador who are on the eastern slopes of the Andes, so more of the jungle area, and I work with the Kichwas who are on the hills, or rather mountains I should say, and then I work with the Awa, also in the mountains on both slopes. They are mostly in the western slopes of the Andes, less so in the Eastern slopes, and also in the north of Ecuador and a little bit south of Colombia. They’re extending their communities. I began working with the Kichwa in 2007, so that’s the longest working relationship that I have. I haven’t done anything actively for the last years. I did something in 2011 but I have an on-going working relationship and we’re planning to go back and work with them this summer (2019) because of a field school with students. And then we have an ongoing working relationship with the Siona, and I started in 2010 with them. The ongoing relationship I have with the Awa I started in 2016.

ED: And when was the last time you went and did fieldwork?

MB: I got back in January 2019, but it was partially a personal visit partially fieldwork so I worked a little bit on Spanish-Kichwa contact. I did some interviews and did a two day workshop with the Awa. I didn’t work with the Siona this time, but I hope to work next time when I go over next summer.

ED: What does the fieldwork you do look like? What does that imply?

MB: So it’s very different from community to community, also because the surroundings are so different. The traveling is different. When I go to the Sionas, I usually go somewhere between a few days to a few weeks. From where I usually stay in Ecuador it’s about between 6-17 hours travel to get there depending on whether I fly or take a bus, depending on whether I take a cheap route. It is in a dangerous area. It’s on the border with Colombia and I have seen people from the FARC. When I’m in the community I feel very safe, but on the road I feel very unsafe and exposed. I’ve heard of a lot of things that happen. I’ve had a bag stolen but otherwise I’ve been pretty lucky in the area. It’s not very pleasant to travel there, but then at the fieldsite it’s very nice and it depends a bit on which community I go to. So there’s one community where I’ve started working where there are not a lot of speakers of the language, but it is more touristic so it’s easier to get in contact with speakers in that respect. I work with a very good speaker there and I work with her whenever she’s available. Depending on when she’s available, I might start out at 8am, work until lunch and then after lunch until 4pm we go bathing in the river. I always have to say, that even though I swim between the piranhas, anacondas and caimans, they are not dangerous animals if you know what you’re doing. I’ve seen someone being stung by a stingray, so yeah it can be dangerous, but you have to know where to swim. Locals know, for example, that on the other side of the river there is a little beach, and that’s where the stingray lives so you shouldn’t swim there. The side where I live there are no animals like that. The community members know the dangers very well and they make sure that nothing happens to me.

ED: It’s good to know that there are very real dangers around fieldwork. Fieldwork can be anything from walking around in the city and actually going into the jungle and swimming between piranhas, caimans, anacondas and sting rays. It’s good to provide this kind of context.

MB: Yeah, definitely. So piranhas are not dangerous. They only eat dead meat. Anacondas, they can be dangerous, but if there are a lot of people they don’t want to come out.

ED: They’re shy as well.

MB: Yeah, I don’t really get to see a lot of anacondas. I’ve seen the caimans. I don’t think they will attack a person. I mean, I think it’s more the other way around. They’re very tasty. So poor caimans. The stingrays are the most dangerous animals, and of course the mosquitoes. They’re pretty horrible especially after bathing. Also sand flies, which are there during the day and are very itchy.
So, after 4pm in that community we tell stories and then we think about which one we should record and want to pay a lot of attention to. After that we won’t do much more work because it’s better to make recordings during the day because you have light.

In the other community it starts out very early because there are so many people who speak the language who are involved so sometimes I work from 7am to 11pm because I want to fit everyone in. Mostly I have appointments from hour to hour so it really feels like a very European schedule. It doesn’t feel like fieldwork because it’s so full and I always have to go to the next person. There are a lot of people involved in transcribing. They are very motivated, but not necessarily because they feel language endangerment is a real threat. The language is very vital in the community and they don’t feel the threat. Yes, they want products in the language, but revitalization is not their main goal for working. I think for some people it might be, but for other people it has become a source of income so that’s why people want to be involved. At some point I start feeling like a bank because of the whole financial part. Traveling in a dangerous area with so much money is so scary as well.

ED: Are all the transactions in cash?

MB: I do try to pay in cash as much as possible, but if people have bank accounts, I try to pay them a little bit in cash and then the rest via transfer, but even then it’s not an electronic transfer like here in Europe. You still have to go to the bank and stand in these huge lines with your little piles of money in order to pay them into different people’s accounts. But since people don’t always have bank accounts I sometimes try to travel with up to $1,000 which is quite a lot of money and that is quite scary to me. So at first I would travel by bus –

ED: With all the equipment?

MB: Yeah, with all the instruments. And then when my bag got stolen, I thought, “I can’t do this anymore. I need to think of safer ways of traveling.” And the bag wasn’t stolen because I was traveling by bus. I had asked the hotel where I was staying to look after my bag and someone came and took it away with my laptop in it. So even though it wasn’t because of my travel arrangements, I did feel insecure about travel because I’ve seen thieves boarding the bus to steal cell phones. I felt very uncomfortable having those thieves right next to me. I’ve had people help me in those situations. There was a lady that came because a man had sat next to me. She came over and said, “this man is a thief, please stay with me”. She was really good to me and saved me from him. So yeah, I thought, I’m traveling here with $3,000 equipment, I don’t want to risk it anymore. So I decided to take planes, and after the plane, stay in a hotel, and from the hotel a car picks me up and takes me to the community. That’s what I do when I travel alone. And the car goes with me when I go shopping so I don’t travel alone when I go places because I feel too unsafe.

ED: Yeah, and for example, before you were talking about your daughter traveling with you. How does that affect the travel aspect?

MB: So last year, it was the first time I was going to the Siona community after having her, and my husband and I talked about taking her to the community. I have this friend in Leiden who took her daughter to Indonesia with her to the fieldwork community so she knows about malaria, and all the things you need to think about if you’re planning on taking a child to a tropical fieldwork site. She gave me a lot of tips and clothes which are suitable for the environment. When we went to Ecuador, we first had a conference and then we had a field school in the community. It turned into a four week thing. The conference and the summer school were so difficult for her that we decided not to take her in the end. It’s a dangerous area, and traveling was going to be difficult because we were traveling by bus. So she was going to have to be on that bus for at least 10 hours in a little bus that we had rented. In the end I think it was for the best because she doesn’t like the heat, and if she had come it would have been very uncomfortable for her. She was still very small as well and not even walking. That would have been hard to participate with her there, and I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on the work. The community was very sad because they were very excited to see her but we decided against taking her. I think it was good even though it was hard. It was the first time I had been away from her, and it was for two weeks. I thought I would be crying myself to sleep every night but it was actually very good. Of course I missed her but it was very good because I got a lot of work done. I got very concentrated and I could really focus on the thing I was doing. Like mostly when I work here (in Leiden) I’m constantly in two places because I’m constantly thinking and planning for her like when do I have to pick her up and feed her etc. Whereas without her with me during fieldwork, all I had to do was focus on the students. It was really good, I could really be there.

ED: How old was she at the time?

MB: She was a year and three or four months. The sad thing is that I was still breast feeding before I left, and because I left I had to stop breast feeding because the production just went down and completely stopped. I was really sad about it because I had planned to continue but I think it’s part of being a working mom anyways. If you’re not around your child, pumping is just not the same as breast feeding live so production goes down a lot. I hear from a lot of friends as well. Some people are lucky, they just have milk until their kid is 18 [laugh]. I mean, obviously not 18 but you know.

ED: [laugh] yeah. So you were saying she was around when you were doing the summer school. How was that? How was the experience of being a mom while also being at the summer school? Did people interact with you differently because you had a child with you?

MB: So she was at a day care nearby, so she was never physically at the summer school. It was good. I really liked that the day care she went to was one of the better ones in Ecuador. It was expensive, but they were really good. So that wasn’t really different. I’ve taken her to the Kichwas recently, but also because they’re close personal friends. They met her when she was two months I think. When I went to the Sionas when she was a year and three or four months, I felt like I had other things to talk about. I could understand their stories about children better. They also gave me this drink that you normally get when you’ve just had a baby. It’s against anaemia. Even though it had been over a year since I gave birth, they gave me the drink. Normally mothers are given this drink straight after they have given birth. So I saw that it wasn’t just a health thing, it was also a social thing and a ritual.

ED: It’s also taking care of you and wanting to look after you because you are part of the community in a way.

MB: Yeah yeah! Yes, and they welcome you as a mom. And really, they were acknowledging the fact that something major had happened to my life and it felt really special that they did that. And the funny thing, it’s not like they did a big ceremony. One of my Siona moms she just said, “I made this for you, drink this”, and I knew what it was. So it’s not like there were people around or anything, it was just given to me, and it felt so normal. It felt like it was really special. The taste was not really special. It was not bad. I mean I’ve had bad things, but it tasted like water with a glue type of taste.

ED: Like the texture?

MB: No the texture was like wooden, I don’t know how to describe it, but it wasn’t the special part. It was nice that she offered it to me.

ED: Yeah, it’s the thinking about you and what you must be going through.

MB: Yeah, she was really sad that she didn’t get to meet my daughter. The summer school also included some of the Sionas so they participated in the activities and met my daughter then. I think they thought it was very special for them to see me as a mom and to meet her. It was weird because normally when I’m with them I have to think about being with them, but then I had to think about two sides. I received them when they arrived to Quito so I suddenly had these two things coming together. It was only for a few hours but they were really excited to meet her. My daughter was just like, “who are these people?”, but it was nice. They spoke a bit of Siona to her which was also nice. I would love her to hear more. When she was just born and I got out of pregnancy leave, I was in Ecuador doing more fieldwork, because I had been there for the previous months. One of the Awa ladies who I worked with, I asked her to take care of my daughter so we could be at home, so that was also very special. She knows my daughter well from when she was very little. She always said that my daughter would start crying when she spoke Awa Pit. Also, family helps out. My brother-in-law, for example, was taking care of my daughter during the workshop, and at one point he had to start leading the workshop but I couldn’t take her so he started leading the workshop with her in a carrier. That must have been interesting. Well, for them, they are very used to having kids with them. I think the weird part is that we try to separate it so much. In Europe it’s seen as being really unprofessional to have your kid around. It’s really not done to work with your children around.

ED: But really it makes you more relatable because they see you with a child, getting on with your day, and they know what you’re going through.

MB: And the stories. We had trouble getting funding for day care because of our personal situation, and I talked to them about day care, and it is a concept that simply doesn’t exist. So even for the people who live in the city and have jobs outside of their home, they have to take the kids to their jobs and the kids just have to shut up, because if not, they can’t do their jobs. So for me, I had so much admiration for these people because we often worry about are we stimulating our kids enough, do we do enough, do they have good education, but these are really luxury worries that we have. Especially people from the country side living in the big cities, they don’t have the same support networks they would have living back home. They just have to make it work. Even if you have a bad deal here in Europe, it’s still pretty good because I can go to work without having my daughter in the office, and I have other people taking care of her. So if you think about it, day care isn’t great even in the cities, because the day care we took her to in Quito was only until 4pm when the majority of jobs are until 5pm. What do you do? It’s not like the whole day care situation is seen as school, it’s not, it’s something that helps moms work. It’s crazy expensive here in Europe, but in Ecuador it’s not there to actually help mothers go to work and do their jobs.

ED: So in fact you’re relying more on the people within your community rather than a system.

MB: Exactly. But then as I said, when you are someone from the country side going to the city, then you don’t come with your whole extended family and you don’t have that same luxury. So you’ll see a lot of the women from the country side working as maids and they have to take their child to the job. It’s a working condition that has become very difficult and employers don’t really see it as their job to provide good day care. I think the society doesn’t really the importance of having good day care. It’s really hard for working moms there.

ED: When is your next trip?

MB: I’m going at the end of May if everything goes well.

ED: What are some of the things that you have learned from taking your daughter with you? And what are some of the things you’ve learned that you want to do in the next trip?

MB: It is hard to say because when they’re just born it’s so different. The stages are so different from one to the next. Like now, I don’t even have to think about whether I have to take her because I’m not going for a long time and breast feeding is no longer on the table so I can more easily let her stay. The one thing that I did learn is that I don’t want her moving around from one place to the next. It’s too much for her. She has to adapt to every environment again. She stops eating and it’s better to have her adapt to one environment and to be there. So I wouldn’t even think about taking her to the field anymore. I would do that for a one day trip from Quito for example, but otherwise no. I’ve learned she needs more consistency and not do crazy things. I would adapt my schedule more to hers because it’s hard on her having to travel constantly. Me being away is hard on her as well, but I think she has a very good time with my husband, her dad. She doesn’t always get to spend time with him so she’s always excited to see him. I think it’s a good opportunity to actually spend time together. Once I got over the fact that we could be away from each other for a few days, that’s when it got easier to plan things. If I would take her to the field, then I would try to make traveling as short as possible because I think the traveling is really unpleasant. We would take a plane and a car, and make it as safe as I can. Those are the things I would take into account, but for now it’s better not to take her.

ED: But also, one last question, because we were talking about a network of mother or new mothers and the sharing of new experiences.

MB: Not just new mothers. For example Colette Grinevald is not a new mother. She is a grandparent, but she was one of the first people I heard talk about taking kids to the field and that really made me feel like it’s possible to take your children into the field. It also made me feel like you don’t have to put your personal or professional life completely on the line if you want to continue in this line of research. There are a lot of moms that have showed me the way. It is great to continue to be involved, and even in the workspace it’s great to talk about it. I just had lunch with a colleague who just had a baby. Her son is a year and a half younger than my daughter, but it’s so good to talk about the challenges you’re facing. When you’ve just had a baby and it’s been three months and you have to start working. You’re not ready. No one is ready. Some people have to start working earlier. I think if it’s more organic like it is in the indigenous communities, it’s still a challenge but it’s better. Here it’s a huge change from being 100% of my time with the baby. People expect you to be 100% back when you come back from having a baby but your mindset is different. Even hormonally you’re not yourself. You just had this huge change happen to you. You might have planned it and wanted it for so long but it’s still going to be very uncertain, especially because of the hormones going through you. Just talking to other people who have gone through the same thing, you can recognise the things you’ve gone through and discuss it. I think not being judgemental, and simply listening is really helpful. Sometimes it’s personality differences. There are babies who only fall asleep on their parents so their parents don’t get any sleep. Not everyone goes through that same situation. I’m lucky in a sense that my daughter wants me to be there but she’s happy to do her own thing. She’ll sleep next to me. But just to hear those differences, if you’re having difficulties, it’s gratifying to have that validation from other people and realise that yes, it is as hard as you think. It’s also helpful because you validate your own feelings. My colleague for example when I was trying to make up my mind about taking my daughter to the field, my colleague helped me make up my mind about what to do. It is helpful to have a network of people to discuss these things with. It would be great to be able to write to someone to discuss these issues or doubts, particularly for women. We shouldn’t have to lose these talented women just because they’re becoming mothers. They should continue their work. It’s great to talk about experiences, and when I was pregnant, I listened to a lot of stories. I was talking to Stephanie Farmer, she was PhD student. She was finishing her PhD when I was a post-doc a Berkeley. She had a baby after she graduated and started her job at another school. We were talking about this and how we need to talk about motherhood more, but of course you get into your own life and it’s so busy. You don’t get a lot of time to talk about it. When we do see each other we talk about these things though. Like at the same conference I was talking about, she also came along . It was the first time she was leaving her daughter for going to such a conference, and these things are hard. It feels good to be able to talk to someone else. Another fieldworker, I met her at a conference when I was pregnant, and she was still breastfeeding. It was great to see how she set things up. She was actually staying in the hotel where the conference was so she could just go up and pump and come back down. It was the best way to do it, and it was great to see how other mothers do it and set things up to look after their children. It can help you plan your own conference visit. That’s why I think a network would be really good.

ED: It certainly sounds like it would be, and maybe it’s something that can be done in the future. I’m going to leave it there for now. Thank you very much.

MB: You’re very welcome.



Anaconda – A type of snake, a boa constrictor which can grow to be very large
Caiman – A type of freshwater crocodile
Piranha – Flesh eating fish

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