Africa in Our Lives: Dave Bresnahan

Africa in Our Lives: Dave Bresnahan

i Sep 14th No Comments by
PhD candidate Dave Bresnahan’s first taste of African Studies was through the work of Philip Curtin, one of the founders of the African Studies Program at UW-Madison. Since then, Dave has never looked back. He has traversed the kaya forests of Kenya’s coast, studied Mijikenda-speaking communities’ entanglements with the Indian Ocean, and even served as outreach coordinator at the African Studies Program. He shares his favorite parts of Madison and his post-dissertation plans.

Field of study: History
Hometown: Cinnaminson, NJ

Dave conducting an interview on hunting vocabulary near Kwale, Kenya in 2013. (Submitted photo)

What brought you to Madison?

The African history program, fried cheese curds, pond hockey. In that order.

What sparked your interest in Africa?

I went to small college without an Africanist historian so I did not have any opportunity to study African history as an undergrad. Luckily, my advisor assigned some of Philip Curtin’s work on the Atlantic world in an American historiography class. Curtin, as many know, was one of the founders of the African Studies Program at UW-Madison. That led me to start reading African history books (and a lot of African literature as well) on my own. It was not long before I started thinking about going to graduate school to study African history.

How did you first hear about/get involved with the African Studies Program on campus?

My first year in Madison Jan Vansina gave the Africa at Noon lecture of the year—as he did for decades. That has a way of drawing people into the room. Initially, I attended the usual ASP programs, weekly Africa at Noon lectures, the annual spring conference, etc. In the more recent past, I became considerably more involved with ASP when I started working as the outreach coordinator, which I did until the end of May this year.

Tell us about your current research.

I study the coast of East Africa and the Indian Ocean world, but I am most interested contexts where East Africans turned away from or rejected the cosmopolitan cultures of the Indian Ocean. I am currently writing about Mijikenda-speaking communities in the hinterlands of Mombasa, Kenya. Mombasa is a global port city and has been a nexus in Indian Ocean exchange networks for the last millennium. But the historical decisions of communities immediately adjacent to Mombasa defy the neo-evolutionary logic that characterizes most studies of the region. Mijikenda communities intentionally shrunk the size of their settlements at the same moments their Swahili neighbors urbanized, they pioneered important long-distance trade routes in eastern Africa, but participated very selectively in maritime commerce, and they were very receptive to the ritual knowledge of outsiders, but completely rejected Islam. All despite living just kilometers from a global port city. It is a history of global dissonance if you will.

What is one of your most vivid memories from your fieldwork in Kenya?

My very first time in Kenya, back in 2009, I had the chance to accompany the National Museums of Kenya’s forest conservation unit to put up signs to designate a brand-new UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was an ecological heritage site, patches of indigenous coastal forest called kayas, which are considered “sacred grove” forests. The kayas also happened to be the topic of the MA thesis research I was conducting at the time. At one of the kayas (Kaya Kambe) the elder men in charge of the forest tried to use the UNESCO sign to solve a local land dispute. They attempted to convince the National Museums that the sign should go next to a farm plot, rather than the kaya forest itself, thereby placing the field under their jurisdiction. It turned into a huge argument and by the end a few hundred people had gathered around us to witness the people from the National Museums and kaya elders argue about land rights. It was a big “aha” moment in my thesis research, which was about the political invocations of the kaya forests. I have traveled back to that same area a number of times in the years since and people still talk about the incident.

What advice would you give students who are interested in studying Africa?

Study an African language and then go and study or visit the place where that language is spoken. There is probably no better university in the U.S. to study an African language than UW-Madison.

What would you like to do after you finish your dissertation?

After I finish my dissertation and hit “submit” (to send it off to rest in Memorial Library’s electronic dissertation database) I would like to throw on some running shoes and head into my backyard mountains in Missoula, Montana.

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Africa in Our Lives: Kweku Brewoo

i May 25th No Comments by
Kweku Brewoo is a recipient of a 2017 University Staff Award. As part of the University Staff Congress, Brewoo contributes to improving campus climate for all members of the UW-Madison community. These efforts come to life through events and programming like Africa Liberation Day, scheduled for May 30, 2017.

Field of study: Environmental Sociology

Hometown: Accra, Ghana

What brought you to Madison?

I came to Madison at a young age. My father was pursuing his PhD degree here at UW-Madison. I have grown up in this wonderful city since then.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I enjoy staying active and busy whenever possible; and I’m a big fan of Anime.

What has been a highlight of your time at UW-Madison?

A highlight of my time at UW-Madison was graduation. To have graduated from a prestigious university such as UW-Madison is an amazing feat. However, sharing my achievements with classmates, friends, and my mentors across campus was the icing on the cake.

Kweku Brewoo, financial specialist in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is pictured in his office in the Education Building on April 4, 2017. Brewoo is a recipient of a 2017 University Staff Award. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Tell us about your role in the University Staff Congress.

I served as representative of district 104. My goal was to better understand the workings of the university and help make the voices of my constituents heard on issues that were important to them.

What are some initiatives you have worked in the University Staff Congress?

Discrimination in the workplace was a big topic tackled by congress. Representatives voiced the concerns of their district and worked to find resources and effective processes to address the problem. I was happy to be a part of these discussions because I believe every member of the university should feel safe no matter where they are at.

What should the campus look forward to during the Africa Liberation Day celebration this month?

I am most excited to hear from Fabu Phillips. I have had the opportunity to listen to Fabu on several occasions, and it is always a delight to hear this poet laureate. Moreover, I am excited to see University members of all backgrounds come together in community and learn about one another.

Why is the celebration of freedom in Africa important?

The celebration of freedom is important everywhere. But specifically to the continent of Africa, it’s important because it commemorates the perseverance of the African nations, and their will to overcome hardships and move forward. As the former President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah once said, “freedom is not something that one people can bestow on another as a gift. They claim it as their own and none can keep it from them.” I think this is especially important when celebrating this day, and understand that it is through our will and perseverance that we all become free.

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Africa in Our Lives: AliBaba Sanchi

i May 24th No Comments by
Field of study: English language and Linguistics.

Hometown: Sokoto, Nigeria

What brought you to Madison?

I am here as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant and a Cultural Ambassador to share the language and culture of the Hausa people here at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

What is your favorite activity to do in Madison?

Well, I guess it would have been more fun if I had had students to teach. But all the same I enjoyed the outreach programs I engaged in because it afforded me the opportunity of meeting people/students and talking to them about Hausa language and culture. Each time I gave presentations, I pretended not to understand English so as to teach my audience how to greet and introduce themselves in Hausa and only after they had introduced themselves would I speak English. The expression I got from them each time was just priceless.

International Night at Hamilton Middle School

What inspired you to apply to be a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA)?

There are only few English language teachers in north-west Nigeria, and most of them are not interested in traveling this distance or to another part of the world. In July 2014, a student I taught at the undergraduate level returned to Sokoto after he had completed the Fulbright FLTA program at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. When I met him, he told me about the program and encouraged me to apply, telling me how important it was to tell the world about Hausa language and culture. That meeting prompted my application for the Fulbright FLTA program and I got selected, after a rigorous screening, to participate in the program in the year 2016.

Why do you think students should study Hausa?

Hausa is the third most widely spoken language in Africa, after Arabic and Swahili. This is because the language is spoken in more than 10 countries in Africa with a significant number of speakers in each country. Learning the language is thus gaining access to the culture of the many people who use the language on the continent. Also, our world today is multilingual, multicultural in nature and having the knowledge or speaking more than one or two languages brings opportunities to the present competitive job market.

Furthermore, research over the years has shown that people who speak more languages have more competence in their native languages. This is because, the ability of learning a second language and its cultural values and traditions opens up the mind of the learner to the power of language, enriching and exposing them to various cultural background, traditions, tribes and race found in various regions across the world.

How has speaking multiple languages impacted your life?

Obviously, I would not have had the opportunity of participating in the Fulbright program if all I knew was to speak, write and read only Hausa. Learning the English language has opened to me this great opportunity, I must admit that I have learned a lot from this experience: I have interacted with more than 400 other Fulbrighters from all over the world; I have attended classes with American students and have made some friends that I will always cherish; I have been taught by American professors who are some of the best in their fields. Even more, I have had the opportunity to enhance my use of English, and I am sure my community in Nigeria will be the better for all these I have gained.

AliBaba talking to students on World Thinking Day

What have you learned about yourself or about Nigeria from teaching to an American audience?

For me, I have come to understand my strength and weakness in the teaching profession. In terms of teaching, I have learnt an entirely different approach to language teaching. At first, it was difficult for me because I was taught by a different method, the same method I had been using for the past 13 years. Here, I have learned what I would deem a more effective approach to language teaching.

What would you like to do next year after finishing your Fulbright FLTA?

I plan to continue to search for knowledge. I love building young minds, and that is why I took to teaching immediately after my undergraduate studies, and to continue to fit well in such a career, you need to continuously learn new teaching trends.

What activities, foods, or places would like to experience before the end of the school year?

I have helped myself to some delicious American foods, although they are mostly too sweet. And who would come to the United States and not visit Hollywood, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York? Not me, definitely.

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Africa in Our Lives: Sam Landes

i May 22nd No Comments by

“Morocco” by Victor via Flickr

Sam Landes is recent UW-Madison graduate. He has a certificate in African Studies and studied abroad in Morocco during the 2015-2016 academic year. 

Major: History

Field of Study: 20th Century History

Hometown: Pittsfield, Massachusetts

What brought you to Madison?

I wanted to leave the east coast, and go somewhere where I wouldn’t know anyone. I had toured several schools in the midwest, but loved Madison almost immediately upon arrival. To be honest, it was the city much more than the university that captivated me. I wanted to be somewhere with good music, good food, and a reasonable amount of nature around me, and Madison delivered those things.

Were you interested in Africa before coming to UW-Madison?

Indirectly. One of my interests at that time I graduated high school had been studying the histories of countries that had suffered from European colonization, a list which obviously includes many African nations.

How did you decide to study Arabic?

Having grown up around people who believed in varying degrees of Zionism, I had been presented an image of the Arab World that often times was ill informed, simplistic, or offensive. I wanted to learn Arabic so that I could talk to people from that world directly, and no longer rely on outsider perspectives and misinformation to paint a picture of Arabs and Arab culture.

Have you studied abroad? If so, where? Would you recommend it to other students? What was your favorite part of your study abroad experience?

I spent my junior year studying in Fez, Morocco, an experience I would suggest to anyone, especially those studying Arabic. The best part about my experience was the constant stream of challenges to my worldview and lifestyle living in Morocco. Where do I go to get vegetables? Who do I talk to on the street if I need help? How do I navigate these social cues I have no experience with? What does it mean to be a conscious consumer in a foreign country, and moreover, am I conducting myself with respect for the people, culture, and spaces of that country? Learning to ask these questions and answer them honestly probably was the most valuable thing studying abroad taught me.

What is your most vivid memory from the time you spent in Africa?

My most vivid memory of being in Africa is of a train ride my friend and I took along the northern coast of Morocco on the way to Tangier. As we moved farther north, the land got greener, and grassier, and we got occasional glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean out of the train window. After spending so much time in Fez, which is surrounded by brown, rugged, rock strewn hills, seeing that green was such a relief.

What is the most interesting thing you learned while you were abroad?

The most interesting thing I learned abroad is undoubtedly Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. It gets a lot of flack for being very far from its parent language, but is fascinating in so many ways. It draws linguistic elements from European languages like Spanish, French, and English, but also from the dozens of languages spoken by the Amazighi peoples, who lived in North Africa long before the Arabs invaded from the east. It is beautiful, fun to speak, and dynamic.

What are you reading now?

Right now I am reading The Kaiser’s Holocaust, a book about the German colonization efforts in Namibia, which resulted in the mass slaughter of the Herero and Nama peoples. It also discusses how many of the tactics used by the Germans in Namibia would later influence the men who perpetrated the Holocaust.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Consider other possibilities. This advice was given to me by Wyl Schuth, my TA from one of the classes in my Freshman Interest Group, Rock, Soul, and the Sixties. Put another way? Don’t accept the reality you’ve been given– fight for a better tomorrow for yourself, and for everyone around you.

If you could give potential freshman one piece of advice before going to Madison, what would it be?

Take classes that you think will be interesting! Don’t limit yourself to your requirements! Learn about the subjects that speak to you!

What was the most surprising part about college?

The thing that surprised me the most about college was the discovery that I can handle myself in times of intense stress. When the time came to write ridiculous amounts of pages, or to keep my cool when my travel plans went horribly wrong, or to cram for tests in subjects I knew little about, I was able to step up and do what had to be done. It was not an easy road, and there were certainly times when everything very nearly blew up in my face, but I made it through, and am a much more confident person because of it.

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Africa in Our Lives: Brad Paul

i Apr 17th No Comments by
Brad Paul’s field diaries have taken him across Mozambique and Ethiopia to study working life and the on-the-ground impacts of international development projects. He shares his favorite travel experiences and advice to students in this AFRICA IN OUR LIVES.

Field of Study: History
Hometown: Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; grew up mostly in Maitland, Florida

“Most projects rely heavily on collecting quantitative data… I believe one-on-one interviews, group discussions, personal journaling, community photo documentation and other forms of ‘on the ground’ chronicling can tell us an equally important story.” -B. Paul (Submitted photo)

What brought you to Madison?

My family and I moved here two years ago after spending the previous eight years in Maputo, Mozambique. It was a very difficult decision to leave Maputo, but we decided it was time to be closer to family and my wife has roots here. She is from Fond du Lac, WI, and is also a UW-Madison graduate.

What inspired your interest in Africa?

For as long as I can remember I have been interested in Africa. The reasons may have changed over the years, but it has been a constant since childhood. Africa always seemed to attract less popular attention, so I wanted to find out why. In some respects, my academic research and professional work has been organized around this question. I am interested in comparative history; for example, industrialization and the emergence of segregation in South Africa and the American South at roughly simultaneous junctures. For the most part, however, I am mainly interested in everyday life and what we share as people regardless of where we come from. My colleagues and friends, whether from Mozambique, Malawi, or Madison, like to watch sports, spend time with their family, or enjoy a beer. Whatever is on the passport, we are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends. Yet, we have complex and different histories. Discovering these commonalities and differences is exciting and worth the time to understand and pull together.

Tell us about your favorite travel experience.

Tough one. So many. Visiting the village (Sergoit, Kenya) my wife, Tina Lloren, lived in during the Peace Corps was pretty powerful. The mayor, the school headmaster, the faculty, and the entire student body welcomed us and showed us their new chemistry lab, which they named after Tina!; Traveling throughout the “cashew triangle” of Mozambique; Visiting Robben Island; watching a giraffe just casually cross our path while on my first safari in Kruger National Park; Outside of Africa, living in Greece for a year as a kid and later, as an adult, traveling to Cuba and the former Yugoslavia were pretty remarkable.

An image of “Brad’s bar” in Mozambique, named for his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts. (Submitted photo)

What led you to study work culture in Mozambique?

My academic background is in labor history, so I have long been interested in issues of workplace organization, trade unions, and economic and social life. And, my work in Mozambique presented a good opportunity to pursue some of these themes in a variety of settings, including cashew factories, community maize mills, among soy farmers, chili growers, and in coconut and tree nurseries. I was the research director of an NGO that provided services to smallholder farmers and rural wage earners. The NGO had a very gifted group of agricultural and business advisors, but often struggled when it came to understanding a particular project’s influence on everyday life. There were consequences- mostly positive, but some negative- that often escaped the balance sheet. My emphasis on looking at work- something most everyone is engaged in at some level- hopefully gave us a fuller understanding of the communities in which we were operating.

Tell us a bit about your current research.

I have just completed a study of three malt barley grower cooperatives in Ethiopia. Then idea was to better understand what happens when small farmers’ embrace commercialization. In this case, the cooperatives have contracts with a multi-national liquor company that is sourcing its barley from Ethiopia. My work is less concerned with the specific economic indicators, although these are terribly important, and more with how daily life is adjusted to accommodate the time and material demands of market-based agriculture. I have also been working with the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) here on campus to develop some qualitative research and oral history projects centered on the issue of land tenure in Wisconsin farm communities.

How did you come up with the idea for your Field Diaries project?

In my experience, within the world of international development there is a tendency to minimize the value of qualitative research in measuring a program’s effectiveness. Instead, most projects rely heavily on collecting quantitative data as measured against a set of pre-determined indicators. I’m interested in promoting a different evaluation approach. I believe one-on-one interviews, group discussions, personal journaling, community photo documentation and other forms of “on the ground” chronicling can tell us an equally important story. Field Diaries are one way to do this. They are simply daily journals, recorded by project participants, which provide useful information about habits, customs, recreation, work and social life of farmers, workers, managers, and community members alike. Field Diaries can be read and interpreted in multiple ways. For me, the interest is on working life. But in the hands of another writer, from another discipline, the final product might look quite different with respect to key themes and findings. I’ve always loved the oral histories of Studs Terkel and the kind of field research done by someone like the anthropologist James Scott, so I think Field Diaries in just another form of pulling these ideas together. The approach has always been there, but perhaps the application to international development work makes them somewhat unique.

What are the most-thumbed books on your bookshelf?

Walter Rodney, History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905; Charles Van Onselen, The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kais Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985; C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South; Studs Terkel, Working; Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men; E.P. Thompson, History of the English Working Class; Currently, John Higginson, Collective Violence and the Agrarian Origins of South African Apartheid, 1900-1948.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in studying Africa?

Do it! After Asia, Africa is home to the largest percentage of the world’s population; the continent has shown positive economic growth in recent years; it is urbanizing at a rapid rate, but remains an important bread basket; and the history, literature, music, and popular culture is incredibly rich, and for most westerners, at least, largely unknown. If you are not from Africa, time to learn. If you are African, learn more!

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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Africa in Our Lives: Karin Barber

i Apr 7th No Comments by
Karin Barber knew she wanted to study Africa when she first set foot in Uganda as a recent high school graduate. Since then, her study of African popular culture, religion, and verbal arts has spanned the continent, most recently focusing on Nigeria for a project on early Yoruba print culture. We look forward to hearing her keynote address this weekend at PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

“Creativity, imagination and invention are pleasurable – and these are the hallmarks of African life on the ground, no matter how dire the circumstances.” -K. Barber (submitted photo)

Field of study: African Cultural Anthropology
Hometown: I don’t really have a hometown as my parents were abroad when I was born and I grew up in several places (Sweden, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire). But I have lived in Birmingham UK for the last 30 years so I guess that’s the nearest thing.

What sparked your interest in Africa?

After finishing high school, I did Voluntary Service Overseas (the UK counterpart to Peace Corps) and was posted to Uganda. From the moment I set foot on the tarmac of Entebbe Airport I knew my future was sealed.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I’m a secret playwright. During the years that I taught Yoruba language and culture at the University of Birmingham I wrote and directed 11 or 12 plays in Yoruba – performed by my language students each year. Some years we were invited to take the play on tour to African Cultural Associations and schools and colleges around the country. The plays usually featured the trickster character Tortoise (ijapa) – the tortoise-shell costume was made by my late mother, who was an even bigger theatre enthusiast than I am – and also a Skeleton, a Snake, a Babalawo, several Chiefs, and one year we even had an Ostrich in pink tights who entered to the sound of bagpipes. It was amazing fun.

What is your most vivid memory from the time you spent in Nigeria?

I was there for 11 years, so the memories relate to a big chunk of my life. In Okuku, where I spent three years doing my first fieldwork: on a tranquil early evening after a rainstorm, threading my way through the golden laterite paths between compounds, with woodsmoke rising and the sound of pestle and mortar. On my first trip with the Oyin Adejobi Theatre Company, terrified half to death as I stepped onto the stage in front of an incredibly exuberant crowd. At the University of Ife, where I taught in the Department of African Languages and Literatures: eager, attentive, responsive students with vast repertoires of Yoruba orature at their disposal (one student, a poet, wrote his essays entirely in proverbs). Getting to know wonderful, creative people: among them the writers Akinwumi Isola and Oladejo Okediji, the artists Muraina Oyelami and Agbo Folarin, media poets Tunbosun Oladapo and Lanrewaju Adepoju, actor, playwright, poet and satirist Jimi Solanke… and many, many more. It was a privilege to be in that environment.

Tell us a little bit about your current research.

I have just completed a short history of African popular culture, which will be published by Cambridge University Press. This is an attempt to trace transformations in popular creativity across the continent, from as early as the seventeenth century up to the present day, and to understand how popular genres were created in response to changing social, political and economic circumstances. Now that I have finally managed to let this project go, I’m turning back to an archival project I’ve been working on for some years: a study of early Yoruba print culture, looking at Yoruba-language newspapers, pamphlets and books from around 1880 to around 1930. It’s deeply absorbing and reminds me every day how huge the field of Yoruba textuality is, and what a great pleasure it is to add a little more to the very little that I already know.

What subjects or topics do you most enjoy teaching and why?

I always enjoyed teaching Yoruba language and culture because it was intensive and because at the end of each lesson the students were conscious of knowing more than when they came in. They had to overcome their inhibitions and be willing to risk plunging into the unknown. This released incredible energies. The classes were punctuated by gales of laughter and the students bonded with each other, sometimes permanently so that they continued to call each other by their Yoruba names years after graduation. I also enjoyed teaching a course on African popular culture, especially at graduate level, because the material is so fascinating and so many genres have been brilliantly documented and analysed by scholars.

What would you tell students who are debating whether or not to study Africa?

“Out of Africa, new things are always appearing”. This is a highly diverse continent, constantly producing the unexpected, a place of originality, and a place where there is just so much to be studied and understood. People will also be very kind to you. Go there once and you will debate no longer.

Why is the study of pleasure in Africa and the African diaspora important?

Because creativity, imagination and invention are pleasurable – and these are the hallmarks of African life on the ground, no matter how dire the circumstances. External views of Africa, especially by media and policy makers, tend to emphasise crisis, disease, dysfunction, destitution on the one hand, and the fragility of “remote” and “exotic” cultures on the other. These are undoubtedly serious challenges that need action. But people’s lives are more than the crises they live through. The resilience and creativity of everyday life might be a good starting point for understanding what is involved in dealing with adversity and building a fulfilling life.

Give us a teaser for your presentation at PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

There’s an infallible source of pleasure which is available everywhere in Africa and the diaspora. It’s absorbing, participatory, can be indulged in anywhere, and is free of charge! What is it? It’s language.

Visit the conference website to learn more about PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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Africa in Our Lives: Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́

i Mar 31st No Comments by
PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora presenter Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́ is no stranger to African literature. From exploring the verbiage of spell casting to the role of orature in slave rebellions, Dr. Adéẹ̀kọ́ shares his expertise on the study of pleasure in Africa.

“It’s about time that Africana Studies owns up to pleasure.” -A. Adéẹ̀kọ́ (Submitted photo)

Field of study: Literatures (Anglophone African, Yorùbá, African American, post-1900 Lit Theory)
Hometown: Pickerington (Ohio, USA); Ìjẹ̀bú-Imuṣin (Nigeria)

How did you first become involved in the study of African literature?

I had the fortune of being introduced to serious literary studies at Nigeria’s University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) by teachers who insisted that literatures bear social responsibilities that the critic is duty bound to unravel and disseminate.

What is the most-thumbed book on your bookshelf?

It’s a toss up between D. O. Fagunwa’s Ògbójú Ọdẹ Nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀ and Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa.

What has been the most exciting moment in your academic career so far?

When my daughter came home after her first day in middle school and said her Language Arts teacher said she was my former student.

Tell us a little bit about your current research.

Reading up heavily on animism and language for the purpose of writing a book on speech acts in poetry. I hope to be able to correlate earnest written poems about social insurgency and verbal elements of incantations, spell casting, divination, panegyrics, and other ordinarily “magical” uses of words.

What subjects or topics do you most enjoy teaching and why?

At the present time, that will be topics in Afropolitanism. Conceiving and teaching this literary slogan as an aspect of contemporary World Literature enables me to teach how Africans inhabit the world and the world exists for Africans.

What would you tell students who are debating whether or not to study Africa?

What are you waiting for? You cannot have a better standpoint for understanding the world.

Why is the study of pleasure in Africa and the African Diaspora important?

It’s about time that Africana Studies owns up to pleasure. Need I say more?

Give us a teaser for your presentation at PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

If death’s sting hurts so much, why do the living find so much pleasure and purpose in funerals!

Registration is now open for PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora! Visit the conference website to learn more and register.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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Africa in Our Lives: Carmen McCain

i Mar 27th No Comments by
The second of our featured PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora presenters, Carmen McCain has been back and forth between Nigeria and the U.S. since age 11. Drawing on a decade of research on Hausa language films, she shares why the study of pleasure is fundamental to a well-rounded understanding of the African continent.

Field of study: African Languages and Literature/African Cultural Studies/Film
Hometown: The places I “go home” to are Jos, Nigeria and Atlanta, Georgia. I currently live and work in Santa Barbara, California.

“Public perceptions of Africa so often seem to deal with war, disease, and suffering. There is certainly plenty of that, yet people also live their lives and enjoy laughter and love and music and dancing and other pleasures, even in the midst of hardship.” -Carmen McCain (Submitted photo)

How did you first become involved in the study of Africa?

I moved to Nigeria with my parents at age 11, so you could say that my study began as a child observing life around me, writing in my diary, and trying to adapt. At age 14 or 15, initially on the insistence of my parents, I began studying Hausa and reading African literature, and, after finishing college in the U.S. and a couple of years of working, I returned to Jos, Nigeria on the Fulbright IIE to begin my first formal research project in Nigeria.

I then started graduate school in the Department of African Languages and Literature (now African Cultural Studies) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I initially planned to study contemporary Nigerian literature in English, but when I returned to Nigeria on a FLAS in 2005 to study Hausa, my encounter with Hausa-language literature and film completely changed the course of my research. So many of our discussions about African literature both in the American academy and the African academy focus on English or French language literature, yet in northern Nigeria there are hundreds of novels being published in Hausa every year. Even in Nigeria, scholars are more likely to study English-language literature or, if they look at Hausa literature, the first Hausa novels written in the 1930s than the literary movement going on today. Similarly, although Nollywood Studies has become a major field of study in the last few years, very few scholars, at least at that time that I started my research, were studying Hausa language films, which make up 25-30% of the Nigerian film industry. Realizing this as I did pre-dissertation research in 2005 and 2006, I felt a certain urgency in my research.

What is the most-thumbed book on your bookshelf?

The theorist I most often turn to in my research and teaching is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but I also depend heavily on other scholars working on Hausa language literature and film and cultural production in other African languages: Abdalla Uba Adamu, Graham Furniss, Brian Larkin, Karin Barber, Evan Mwangi. Working between two continents, I’ve had to depend a lot on PDFs and scans, but always seem to travel back and forth across the Atlantic with the 10 pound Bargery Hausa-English dictionary.

How has the time you spent in Africa shaped your interests and career?

I have been back and forth between Nigeria and the U.S. for much of my life. During the two years before graduate school, I become involved with the Association of Nigerian authors, which gave me a lot of the contacts I have now with English-language writers and artists living and working in Nigeria. It was not until I started seriously learning Hausa, because of the requirement in the department in Madison, that I became interested in Hausa-language cultural production. The five years I spent doing dissertation research and writing my dissertation in northern Nigeria shifted my interests from English-language literature to cultural productions happening in African languages more easily accessible to the large majority of people living in Africa.  I think that my friendships with artists and writers living in Nigeria has encouraged me to prioritize research on “grass roots” cultural production and the kinds of choices made about theme, genre, and style made by artists who write and perform for audiences in Nigeria and Africa, over my interests in more cosmopolitan writers and filmmakers who are more well known in the American academy.

Tell us a bit about your field research.

After first realizing the existence of Hausa literature and film during the three months on the FLAS studying Hausa in Sokoto, Nigeria (sadly, I had never heard of any of this as I was growing up in Jos near the beginning of the renaissance in Hausa literature and film), I returned to Nigeria the next year on a West Africa Research Association grant in 2006 to begin pre-dissertation research in the metropolis of Kano, where the Hausa publishing and film industries are centered. I went back to Kano in 2008 to begin dissertation research and did not come back to Madison finish my PhD until nearly five years later.

In 2006, I had met filmmakers and had spent time on film sets, but between the time I did my pre-dissertation research and the time I came back, there had been a scandal involving a phone video of a Hausa actress and her boyfriend having sex that had largely shut down the shooting of films in Kano. The Kano State Censorship Board had been formed after the proclamation of shari’a law in Kano to negotiate between religious conservatives and creative artists, and the next four years following the sex scandal, from 2007 to 2011, became a kind of war between the government-authorized censors board and the filmmakers and writers. I arrived in the middle of this censorship crisis, so my field research ended up being a lot of hanging out in studios with filmmakers, going to literary events, and sometimes reporting for my research blog and local newspapers on court cases and occasional visits to filmmakers being held in prison. Although the censorship restrictions had effectively shut down most film sets in Kano, the editing still largely took place there, and I was also able to travel out of state to visit film sets in Jigawa, Kaduna, Jos and elsewhere, occasionally acting bit parts.

To be honest—and this seems relevant to thinking about research on “pleasure”—part of the reason I spent so long back in Nigeria rather than finishing up my PhD, was because I was enjoying myself—taking great pleasure in living life and being a part of the film and literary communities. In my current research, I am exploring creative responses to Boko Haram in Hausa language music and film.  I am particularly interested in pursuing research with the small Christian Hausa-language film and music video industry based in Jos and how it interacts with the more hegemonic Hausa Muslim entertainment industries.

What do you enjoy about teaching?

In both Nigeria and America, I love those moments when the students stay after class discussing what they are learning, when they go out and do research on their own to contribute to the discussion, the sense that they have caught some of the fire of research, that their minds have been expanded, that they have been able to grasp tools that help them better understand the world around them. I’m also excited by those moments when the students teach me, through their knowledge of popular culture and their insights from encountering materials with fresh eyes.

At Bayero University, it was great fun to teach media and gender and feminist theory to a class that was predominantly populated by men, and at Kwara State University getting to design a seminar where my students brought in and presented on contemporary Nigerian films, teaching me more about what was going on in recent filmmaking than I could teach them. In America, the satisfaction comes in seeing the students move beyond their stereotypes about Africa to be able to speak about the details of specific countries and authors, the displacement of a kind of closed American culture and the realization of how discussions about colonialism, imperialism are connected to our American context as well. Considering the current state of politics in the U.S., I think that teaching history, culture, and politics and encouraging students to think beyond the narrow confines of the place they’ve been brought up are some of the most important things we can do in this country.

What would you tell students who are debating whether or not to study Africa?

In the next 30 years, Africa is projected to account for a quarter of the world’s population.  You cannot hope to understand the world or even your own country without having some understanding of the role Africa has played and continues to play in it. I have often been part amused, part offended when I have heard from both students and (sadly) occasionally even faculty their surprise at my “narrow focus” when, as a “world literature” professor, I teach a class on African literature. You do not hear similar surprise on anyone’s “narrow focus” on medieval or Early Modern British literature, yet a class focusing on the literature of the entire continent of Africa strikes people as “narrow.” This is exactly why we need more people studying the dozens of countries and hundreds of languages and cultures that currently make up Africa.

Why is the study of pleasure in Africa and the African Diaspora important?

At least in America, public perceptions of Africa so often seem to deal with war, disease, and suffering. There is certainly plenty of that, yet people also live their lives and enjoy laughter and love and music and dancing and other pleasures, even in the midst of hardship. This is something that became particularly real to me while living in northern Nigeria during the early days of Boko Haram, as bombs were going off all around us, and observing the jokes and cartoons and music, the wry sardonic humour, that came out in response to Boko Haram. It’s not either/or but both/and. I think that the sort of “Afropolitan” response to push aside and ignore stories of atrocities because Western stereotypes about Africa exist is wrong-headed, but so is sensationalizing suffering or a dwelling on suffering without the full context of how people live.

Focusing on pleasure in Africa can help us contextualize for Western audiences the larger picture of life in Africa, as well as encouraging more study of those things that are often seen as “frivolous” and “unserious” in African universities. I began my own study of Hausa literature and film in part because of the pleasure I took in the stories of love and romance in the novels and the joy of the song and dance that filled the films, and I think communicating the joy of research and the pleasures people take in cultural expression can do a lot to inspire students to push further and engage in their own research.

Give us a teaser for your presentation at PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

I am still working on the exact boundaries of the presentation! But in brief, I am thinking about how the censorship crisis and its continuing reverberations in northern Nigeria so often have to do with the disciplining of a kind of illicit pleasure in singing and dancing and sexuality.

And yet to merely make this a contest between dour censors and fun-loving artists, as I sometimes tried to do at the beginning of my field work, is too simplistic. There have long been tensions between those who would discipline celebrations of illicit pleasures in order to place more emphasis on the righteous pleasures of the peaceful home and the spiritual pleasures of seeking God. The 19th century poet, scholar and translator Nana Asma’a preaches against “worldly” drumming and dancing, but she also writes passionate verse on the almost incomprehensible pleasure of communion with the Almighty that make even the “inhabitants of Paradise” forget the pleasures around them. Likewise, writers and filmmakers often frame their artistic endeavors in these familiar terms: how husbands and wives can find pleasure in godly relationships, and the spiritual ecstasy that comes with seeking God. There is a constant tension between the pleasures of the world and the pleasures of following and seeking God, and this is something that contemporary artists are constantly grappling with.

Registration is now open for PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora! Visit the conference website to learn more and register.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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Africa in Our Lives: Akin Ogundiran

i Mar 17th No Comments by
Over the next few weeks, the African Studies Program will profile several presenters for our upcoming conference, PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora. The first of these profiles features Professor Akin Ogundiran of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Growing up in Ibadan, Nigeria, Dr. Ogundiran learned at an early age how history could be used to solve everyday  problems. He shares how his historical approach has impacted his research, and some of his favorite parts about teaching African history and archaeology.

Field of Study: Archaeology and History
Hometown: Ibadan, Nigeria

“Pleasure as a category of humanness drove the tempo of creativity, innovation, trade, and empire formation. It still powers what we do today.” -Akin Ogundiran (submitted photo)

What led you to study social complexity in Yorubaland, Atlantic Africa and the African Diaspora?

I grew up in the “traditional” part of a big city, one of the largest three cities in Africa. It was a cosmopolitan environment, with diversity of interests – Muslims, Christians, Orisa devotees, etc. Very early on, I realized that the elders around me paid attention to history, stories, things, and places in the way they solved problems, negotiated difference, managed conflicts, and organized towards a common goal. This was the background that shaped my unconscious orientation. Maybe, my interest in the study of history began with immersion into that kind of environment. When I became much self-aware, I wanted to double major in history and literature in college (University of Ife, Nigeria). Then I discovered archaeology. I was fortunate to realize that I could develop my interest in history and literature while also becoming an archaeologist. In archaeology, I saw the opportunity to broaden the deep-time history of the Yoruba people. I was not content with the tribal model of African history and the static model of African culture that tend to be implied in the popular imagination and even academic studies. I started my scholarly career asking questions about the history of cultures and local communities. I began to take interest in how the vast regional and global networks of economic, political, cultural interactions shaped the history of local communities. It was eye-opening when I realized that the Yoruba cultural presence reached far away to the Americas. I became curious to understand how they got there. My understanding improved when I moved to Boston University where I earned my doctoral degree. This also made me to realize the gaps that we need to fill. Filling some of those gaps have preoccupied my research labor. In a way, my scholarly interests have always followed the path of my own travels. My location and travels have shaped the questions that I ask. By travel, I mean both physical movement and the mobility of the mind (call it imagination). My coming to Madison, Wisconsin is one leg of that travel. On this journey, it would be a pleasure to ask and answer new questions about Pleasure.

Tell us one surprising fact about you.

I am ordinary, with ordinary experiences. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the US space exploration program. I read all about it in the newspaper and from radio broadcast (sorry, no TV for me). I dreamt of becoming an astronaut and landing on the moon. That was in the early 1970s. Since then, I’ve occasionally made it above the clouds during my travels but not beyond that. I didn’t make it to the moon but it’s gratifying that I’ve spent my explorative curiosity digging the earth for human-material footprints. There is as much to learn digging down here as in traveling up there. But maybe one day I will get to dig on the moon.

What has been the most exciting moment in your academic career so far?

The most exciting moment is the momentous process of the everyday: (1) teaching about Africa and its place in world history; (2) discovering new chapters in Yoruba history through my archaeological and historical research; (3) seeing my students moving on to become industry leaders, professors, entrepreneurs, policy makers, teachers, and many more.

Tell us a little bit about your current research.

I am currently finishing a book on Yoruba cultural history from about 300 BC to AD 1830. I am basically trying to figure out how the ancestral Yoruba experienced time for about two thousand years and the practices that they created as a result of those experiences. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first work that will locate aspects of the Yoruba cultural formation in specific social temporalities (experiences of time).

What subjects or topics do you most enjoy teaching and why?

I greatly enjoy teaching African Civilizations, Yoruba Culture, and African Diaspora Cultures. These courses allow my students to explore alternative theories of knowledge and the ways of being that are different from the ones they are familiar with. Through these courses, my students discover the plurality that make up human universalism as well as the global forces that have shaped African experiences.

What would you tell students who are debating whether or not to study Africa?

Africa is central to the understanding of our common humanity. It does not matter which discipline you pursue, Africa challenges what we know and how we know what we know. Africa is a product of time. So, never assume that what you see today in Africa is the way Africa has always been. In fact, ancestral Africans confronted and answered some of the social questions we are struggling with today in the West. We have something to learn from Africa as much as we have something to share with Africa. The same thing applies to the field of science. Not a few of the innovations in tropical medicine that are patented in the West, for example, originated in Africa. For a just world, we need a fair collaboration with Africa. This begins with learning, understanding, and appreciating African knowledge systems.

Why is the study of pleasure in Africa and the African Diaspora important?

The quest for pleasure has been the driving agent of human civilization from the very time our hominid ancestors started their journey in Africa. Pleasure as a category of humanness drove the tempo of creativity, innovation, trade, and empire formation. It still powers what we do today. When we study the African and African Diaspora experience through the everyday pleasure, we are on the path of discovering the logic of African cultural creativity and how pleasure has been mobilized as a strategy of resilience in Africa’s long historical journey.

Give us a teaser for your presentation at PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

I hope to talk about the relationship between power and pleasure in the process of cultural formation.

Registration is now open for PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora! Visit the conference website to learn more and register.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

Click here to view more “Africa in Our Lives” profiles.

 

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Africa In Our Lives: Caitlin Tyler-Richards

i Mar 3rd No Comments by
When she’s not writing her dissertation on Nigerian literature, Caitlin Tyler-Richards can probably be found working on Africacartoons.com or dreaming of escaping Wisconsin winters. She shares how she first became enthralled by African literature, and how students can engage with Africa beyond “a field of study.”

Field of Study: African History
Hometown: Rockville, Maryland

Tyler-Richards with Dr. Jimoh Ganiyu, a political cartoonist whom goes by the name Jimga, at the University of Lagos. (Submitted photo)

What brought you to Madison?

Not the weather.

What is your favorite winter activity?

Watching my corgi bound through the snow like a furry gazelle.

What inspired your studies of Africa?

During undergrad, I became fascinated with the intersection of literature and history: how both authors and historians explore the past and use many of the same literary devices to make it accessible to others. And the more history and literature classes I took, there more I found that there was no field or genre in which this idea seems more prescient than in African literature and African history. Also, honestly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told me my senior thesis on Nigerian novels sounded interesting and so I kept going.

Tell us a bit about your current research.

I’m currently in Nigeria working on my dissertation, which explores how Nigerians have produced, circulated and consumed Nigerian Anglophone and vernacular fiction since 1945. By studying this history, I hope to better understand how and why Nigerians continue to attach value to fiction — especially considering the persistent refrain that Nigeria doesn’t have a reading culture. I spend a lot of time browsing in bookstores and talking to people about why they love books — it’s great.

I ultimately aim to demonstrate that Nigerian literary history is a global history; and, therefore, Nigeria (and Africa more generally) should be approached as part of, not peripheral to or a victim of, world literary trends.

A copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin 2003) published by Farafina (an imprint of Kachifo Ltd) that Tyler-Richards purchased in Lagos, Nigeria. (Submitted photo)

What has been the most interesting aspect of working on Africacartoons.com?

All of it: coding in WordPress; working on a team; wondering, “How can I make this more pretty?” It’s all so different from historical research, where it’s just you, the archives and that dissertation looming in your future.

Have you found intersections between your research and your work with Africacartoons?

Oh definitely. Since my dissertation will be in part an online exhibition on Nigerian literary history, working on AfricaCartoons has helped me to think through how to design and execute a digital project. Relatedly, because the site has become not only an educational tool, but also a platform for cartoonists to share their work, it has also pushed me to think about how to make my work accessible and useful to the people whose history I study.

What advice would you give students who are interested in studying Africa?

I suppose I’d ask, “What else are you interested in?” Because no matter what the answer is — health, dance, literature, urban planning, etc — studying it in an African context will allow you to think about it in a new and exciting way. #AfricanStudiesDoesItBetter

I would also encourage them to follow Twitter, Instagram and/or other media accounts run by Africans (e.g. @DynamicAfrica, @brittlepaper, @okayafrica) to engage with the continent in a way beyond “a field of study.”

What is your dream job?

Ideally, someday soon (but not before I finish my dissertation), Cassava Press or some other African publishing company will open a US office and hire me as part of their acquisitions or marketing team.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Done with my dissertation, some place warm.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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