Africa in Our Lives: Carmen McCain

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.

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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 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

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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Africa in Our Lives: Meagan Doll

i Feb 24th No Comments by
Meagan Doll, a recent graduate from the UW-Madison School of Journalism and beloved staff member at the African Studies Program, spent a summer interning with Save the Mothers in Uganda. She shares a day in the life of a Save the Mothers intern and tells students why they should hurry to get their applications in before the March 5th deadline.

Field of study: Journalism & Mass Communication
Hometown: Osceola, Wisconsin

“Even if you have never envisioned yourself working in Uganda or internationally, this type of internship does so much to show you are curious, flexible, and ambitious—all qualities that your future dream job employer will be looking for.” -M. Doll (Submitted photo)

What inspired your interest in Africa?

I visited Rwanda for the first time in 2013 as part of an academic field study. Prior to that, I had only spent time in Honduras. I enjoyed Honduras, but was excited to visit a new part of the world and get around a bit with my French (I have nearly zero Spanish, so my trip to Honduras was interesting).

As you probably have already guessed, I really loved my experience in Rwanda, and I have been visiting East Africa since!

What’s one interesting fact about you?

I grew up three miles from a ski resort in northwestern Wisconsin. It’s unclear to me whether people would peg me as a snowboarder, but I had a season pass for more than five years in a row and totally was. An even more interesting fact: I can still shred the gnarr, as of Christmas 2016!

How did studying Africa at UW-Madison shape your career goals?

I think realizing the breadth and depth of African studies at UW-Madison really showed me how my interest in Africa could be married with nearly any other professional interest I had. I was able to tailor my training in journalism to African media and western media about Africa, and doing so actually made me enjoy my communication training that much more. Similarly, my interest in Africa sort of inspired my interest in global health and in securing a Global Health certificate, which has made me a much more dynamic and marketable journalist and communicator that I would have otherwise been.

Why did you decide to intern with Save the Mothers in Uganda?

Well, the tactical reasoning was that I needed a field experience for my Global Health certificate. However, I was really serious about choosing an experience that would not only fulfill the certificate requirement, but also move my journalism career forward. Since an opportunity of this nature was not readily available via the organized and pre-approved list of field experiences, I hastily began developing my own field experience (not a task for the faint of heart).

A clinic midwife prepares paperwork in the post-natal building at Mukono Health Centre IV, located in Mukono, Uganda. (Photo by Meagan Doll)

I chose Save the Mothers after doing a lot of research and several informational interviews with organizations operating in East Africa. Save the Mothers emerged as an organization that interested me and could support an intern for a few summer months. I was also attracted to the Save the Mother’s flexibility and mutual desire to make the internship a productive and personalized addition to my professional portfolio.

After dozens of meetings and proposals, I eventually got the trip approved for the certificate, approved for School of Journalism and Mass Communication summer internship funding, and approved for credit through SJMC.

Tell us about a typical day as a Save the Mothers intern.

Part of what I loved about my internship was there was not much for a “typical day” – every day seemed to be at least a little different from the one before.

For this exercise, though, most mornings I got up around 8 a.m. and had some combination of fresh fruit (passion fruit and mango are always favorites) and toast for breakfast. By 9 a.m., I had usually made my way down the campus road, equipped with my laptop, camera and notepad, to the Save the Mothers office where I would spend an hour or two transcribing interviews from the day before, working on writing projects or researching new story ideas. Before heading out for the afternoon, I would cross the road to a strip of canteens where I often purchased lunch or a quick samosa before interviews.

From there, I would take public transportation to local clinics where nurses and midwives typically gave me a tour and walked me through administrative challenges and successes. After, I often had the opportunity to meet with doctors, mothers, fathers and other individuals who are touched by Save the Mothers work to learn about their experiences. The day usually wrapped up with a trip back to the office to connect with Save the Mothers staff during which time they would occasionally have new writing assignments for me or local contact suggestions for new interviews.

What were some of the most important things you learned during your internship?

A mother and infant wait patiently for an appointment. (Photo by Meagan Doll)

One of the biggest things I learned was definitely how tangibly my academic work could pay off. I can’t count how many times I referenced things I had learned in my journalism, African studies and global health courses. My ability to critically think through ethics and socioeconomic determinants of well-being was paramount to thoroughly understanding the stories I was trying to magnify, and I’m confident that my work was that much better because of it.

I also learned how to be resourceful. Did you know that if your voice recorder dies, you can simply turn on your DSLR camera, put it in video mode and capture the sound that way? Who would have guessed!

Finally, it reinforced how much I still have to learn. I so enjoyed the work I was doing, and if you are hungry for something, you will find a way to keep learning about how to do it better.

What is one of your favorite memories from your time in Uganda?

One of the first mornings I was there, I woke up to crazy pounding on the roof. With the way it rains in Uganda, it’s not an entirely unfamiliar noise, but it was clear skies and sunny that morning. When I walked outside, the noise had stopped and I was met with a handful of wide-eyed, frozen vervet monkeys. They were exceptionally less interested in me than I was in them, but it was an experience that I will never forget (still trying to forget the other zillion times they woke me up after that day).

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Over the last few years, I have gotten more interested in U.S. foreign policy and human rights. I suspect in ten years I will at least have a master’s degree in a field related to the aforementioned interests. The dream job end goal would probably be writing about foreign policy and Africa on a well-respected editorial team or serving in a communications or project manager position with an atrocity prevention org.

Why should undergraduate students consider a summer internship at Save the Mothers?

Especially in the world of communications, my internship in Uganda is so different than the professional experiences of my peers. Even if you have never envisioned yourself working in Uganda or internationally, this type of internship does so much to show you are curious, flexible, and ambitious—all qualities that your future dream job employer will be looking for.

More broadly, the opportunity to live and work with Ugandans should not be underestimated. I hesitate to speak for any group of people at large, but I will say that my conversations with Ugandans were some of the most kind, welcoming and – to use a cliché – inspiring conversations I have had as a reporter. The work is challenging, rewarding, fun and you would be privileged to do it. Get an application in, and don’t hesitate to email me with questions, concerns or your first Save the Mothers byline.

To apply for an internship at Save the Mothers, visit our Undergraduate Internship Awards page. All accepted applicants will automatically receive an award totaling $1250 from the African Studies Program and the International Internship Program (IIP). Applications are due Sunday, March 5.

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Africa in Our Lives: Kevin Gibbons

i Feb 13th No Comments by
This summer, the African Studies Program is offering several Undergraduate Internship Awards for students completing a summer internship at one of four approved programs in Africa. We spoke to Kevin Gibbons, the executive director at one of our internship programs in Uganda, about his vision for his organization Health Access Connect and why students should consider a summer internship there.

Field of Study: Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development, Geography
Hometown: Tampa, Florida

“It’s important to me that we do [our work] in a way that puts the needs of communities front and center, and also that helps to strengthen the Ugandan health system.” -K. Gibbons (Submitted photo)

What brought you to Madison?

I was looking for a graduate program in environmental studies after serving in that US Peace Corps Philippines (2004-07), and UW was a great fit!

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

I like running and baking (not at the same time). Running is meditative for me, and I always feel better about life after a nice run outside. Baking is tactile and tangible — and difficult! I like making big loaves of sourdough bread with a thick crust. They don’t always turn out well, but I always eat them!

What made you decide to study Africa?

After living in the Philippines, I knew that I wanted to research and work in rural areas of the Global South, and I wanted to go some place different to build on my experience. Based on advice from a Peace Corps supervisor, I decided to take Swahili and look into East Africa, and that’s where I looked for research topics.

Tell us a bit about your past research.

I did research in Ugandan Lake Victoria fishing communities on fisheries management and the migratory lifestyles of fisherfolk. I was interested in how fisheries management took local livelihoods into account and how the need to migrate to find fish affected people’s everyday lives.

Why did you decide to start Health Access Connect?

In the interviews for my research, I asked about people’s quality of life. Were they happy? Did they enjoy living in the fishing villages? By and large, people said that life is difficult in these villages, and, though I didn’t ask questions about health, many people talked about the difficulty of getting healthcare. There are high prevalence rates of HIV in these areas, and interviewees told me that many people were still dying of HIV/AIDS even though anti-retroviral medication was available for free just a few miles away. So, I just kept talking to local people, health officials, and friends about this problem of access: there is healthcare available in towns and cities, but people in the rural villages can’t afford the transportation to reach there. So what can we do?

Gibbons with a motorcycle taxi driver in Uganda. (Submitted photo)

Tell us about your vision or goals for the organization.

Our mission is to link Ugandans living in remote areas with healthcare resources.

We use motorcycle taxis to set up monthly, 1-day comprehensive health clinics in remote villages. If the health center doesn’t have transportation, then we microfinance a motorcycle taxi or boat. That vehicle helps to bring Ugandan health workers to the villages, and our partner community groups collect money (~$0.55) from each patient to cover the transportation costs of the 1-day clinic (~$23).

It’s important to me that we do it in a way that puts the needs of communities front and center, and also that helps to strengthen the Ugandan health system. I get annoyed seeing foreign aid money spent on projects that waste money, fail to engage with stakeholders, and don’t help to improve local institutions. So, we try to avoid that stuff!

What is one of the favorite parts of your job?

I love that my work feels meaningful and exciting. I think what we’re doing is cool! And our way of working seems to help address an important issue in fighting global inequality (access to healthcare) while improving the ability of the Ugandan health system to serve its people.

On a personal level, I like that my job mixes field work with office work. I spend about 1 week per month in the villages and then spend the rest of the month trying to figure out how to run and grow a nonprofit organization. It’s difficult! There’s a lot of uncertainty. But I believe I’m pursuing exactly what I should be, and for that I feel fortunate!

Why should undergraduate students consider a summer internship at Health Access Connect?

Since we’re still a small, growing organization, there are a lot of places where a deducted person can help out and make a meaningful contribution. And we spend a lot of time working in remote villages, so people who work with us gain experience working on a wide variety of environments. Plus it’s fun!

To apply for an internship at Health Access Connect or one of our other approved organizations, visit our Undergraduate Internship Awards page. Applications are due Sunday, February 19.

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Africa in Our Lives with Tess Kolker

i Nov 11th No Comments by
Tess Kolker is a current UW Junior studying for the year in Morocco.

Field of Study: International Studies, Political Studies
Hometown: Chatham, NJ


Tess riding a camel with friends.

What brought you to UW- Madison?

I visited Madison for the first time in January of my senior year of high school and was surprised to find such a bustling town with great spirit and so much to do. I was looking for a large school and a break from the East Coast and was decided that Madison was the place to be. I am so happy that I did.

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

I can touch my nose with my tongue! I guess that is fun? Kind of?

How did you make the decision to study Arabic?

I am incredibly fascinated with the political atmosphere throughout the Middle East and North Africa and wanted to study a language that would help me understand not only the people partaking in the politics, but also the culture and religion that sway the politics in more ways than one. I also studied both Spanish and Chinese in high school, and came to college looking to learn a different language that would also help me communicate with a large population of people all over the world.

What have been some of your most memorable moments while studying in Morocco so far?

Probably the most memorable moment of my time in Fes thus far was when I was walking through the medina to buy myself some malawi (a delicious greasy pancake-like bread) when I stumbled upon a huge parade celebrating Ashera, an Islamic holiday on the 10th day of the Islamic year. Hundreds of people were crammed into the alleyway I had been so many times, various bands were playing music on horses, people were dancing in large circles, and smiles were on everyone’s face. You could look up and see people perched on top of every roof – whether it was a terrace or not. It was the first time I felt a collective sense of joy and togetherness in Fes and I remember having not loved the city more than I had in that moment.

 What, if anything, has surprised you the most about Morocco?

What has surprised me the most is the wide spectrum of ways Muslim women dress. Prior to coming to Morocco I was asked by many people, mostly those who have never been to or studied Morocco, if I would have to cover my head. I knew that I would not have to, and that the most respectful thing I could do was cover as much skin as possible, mainly my shoulders and knees, will still being comfortable. When I arrived however, I saw Moroccan women without head scarves, and in fact in outfits that did not cover much skin at all. At the same time, there were women wearing veils that covered everything but their eyes. While this difference felt drastic to me upon arrival, neither woman was less Moroccan or less Muslim. This was just the first of many lessons about Morocco, and Islam, that I have learned on this trip.

What advice would you give students considering study abroad?

Study abroad, because it is a decision that you will never ever regret. Studying abroad in Fes has not been the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but the things I have learned about Morocco, the Muslim world, and myself have outweighed any doubt I may have had while here, and I’m only in month 2 out of 9! The most valuable lessons about the world come from traveling and experiencing new places and things first hand. Don’t set expectations and let the world surprise you.

What would you like to do after you graduate?

As a Political Science and International Studies, my career path is far from a given. However, as of now I would like to pursue a career with the US State Department, or perhaps at an intergovernmental organization. I am relying, maybe too heavily, on my internship this summer to steer me in the right direction in terms of specific sectors of international work I would like to do.

If you could bring one piece of your life in Morocco back to Wisconsin, what would it be?

In Morocco, people sit at coffee shops together, for hours upon hours sipping on coffee, talking, and enjoying each other’s presence. While these people are all on “Moroccan time”, one much slower than the concept of time we have in the States, this tradition is one that holds much value. There is something to be said about pausing our busy lives and simply being with our friends and neighbors to catch up and be present in each other’s lives. I think it would be beneficial to slow down every once in a while and take a few hours to just sit, away from obligations, and be present with those we care about.


Tess with friends overlooking the old medina of Fes

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Africa in Our Lives: Abigail Cook

i Oct 21st No Comments by
Abigail Cook is a Masters student in the Water Resources Management Program and also the new Peace Corps Recruiter at UW-Madison. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal for nearly four years.

Field of Study: Water Resources Management
Union Springs, NY

What brought you to UW- Madison?

I moved to Madison for the Water Resources Management Program MS degree. I knew I really wanted to be a part of this program, and was sold on the school after I visited the campus and city!

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

Kyra Fox with host family in Uganda (Photo by Kyra Fox) I started playing the ukulele in the Peace Corps as an easy-to-carry and durable instrument. This has evolved in my obsession of playing and singing with the banjulele, a ukulele and banjo hybrid instrument.

How did you make the decision to join the Peace Corps?

I somehow heard about the Peace Corps when I was in Middle School, and from then on it was always on my mind. Studying International Politics and Environmental Science as an undergraduate, I wanted to further my education in the field, gaining hands-on, practical experience. The Peace Corps was a way to accomplish those goals, to collaborate with local populations to create successful improvement projects, and develop long-lasting professional and personal relationships.

What did you learn during your Peace Corps experience that still shapes you today?

One main thing I learned from my service with the Peace Corps is that I can successfully navigate difficult, new, or unknown situations. Peace Corps has taught me how to be resourceful and manage both personal and professional relationships in sometimes stressful environments. I learned patience, empathy, and an enhanced openness from my host family and community that I hope to never forget.

Tell us a little more about your role now.

I am currently the campus-based Peace Corps Recruiter. I facilitate and participate in events which educate the community about Peace Corps as an organization, promotes open positions, and working and living abroad. I advise students interested in joining the Peace Corps in deciding potential programs and countries for service. I also assist students and community members through the application process. 

What are a few tips you have for students if they are considering Peace Corps?

Do your research! Spend time carefully looking at the different Peace Corps positions, their descriptions, and requirements. Make sure to choose potential programs that will reflect and help to continue your field of studies, previous work and volunteer experience. Also keep in mind that Peace Corps is a two-year commitment where you are living and working in a community that has requested volunteers with a certain skill set. With an acceptance rate of just over ten percent, the Peace Corps is a competitive professional opportunity and a profoundly life-changing experience.

What would you like to do after graduate school?

I would like to have a career where I can bridge the gap between science and community, extending, and assisting to implement water resources policy and public health. I would like to work within the public sector both domestically and abroad.

Where in Africa would you still like to travel?

Can I say everywhere?! I still have about 49 countries to check off the list. I would love to visit Central Africa, where there are some of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world.



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Africa in Our Lives: Kyra Fox

i Oct 17th No Comments by
Kyra Fox

Kyra on Mount Napoleon in Lake Kivu on an excursion to Rwanda (Photo by Joy Weisel)

Kyra Fox is a UW Junior studying International Studies and Psychology with an African Studies Certificate. She is currently studying in Gulu, Uganda on a program focused on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict in Northern Uganda.

Field of Study: International Studies and Psychology
Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin

What brought you to UW- Madison?

The orange chocolate chip Babcock ice cream. I’m not kidding; it was actually a factor in my decision. But more so than the endless Babcock flavors, what drew me to UW-Madison was the endless options here. I looked around and saw a million paths I could take, and although that terrified me, it also convinced me that this was the right place to be.

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

I was a competitive Irish dancer for 12 years. Curly hair and fast feet and all. Look it up on YouTube for instant entertainment/procrastination.

Why did you decide to pursue an African Studies certificate?

I had always known I was interested in working with Africa, but for some reason I always filed the interest away as silly or unrealistic. But it kept nagging at me – so much so that when I was picking my first semester classes, I decided to try Swahili. And the rest is history. I loved my Swahili class, and my teachers inspired me to pursue more Africa-related courses. Before I knew it, I had completed my certificate and was on a plane to study abroad in Uganda.

How did you make the decision to study in Uganda?

Kyra and host family

Kyra with her host family in Gulu, Uganda (Photo courtesy of Kyra Fox)

Not easily. I was completely overwhelmed by the many programs offered by the study abroad office, so I started off with a few must-haves. 1) I was interested in human rights and conflict, and 2) I wanted to go to sub-Saharan Africa. I did some poking around and stumbled across the School for International Training’s program in Gulu, Uganda. The program focused on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict in Northern Uganda. I knew a bit about the conflict from Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” campaign – a viral YouTube video that publicized a narrative of the crazed Joseph Kony abducting children to form the terrorist group known as the LRA. But I had a feeling that I wasn’t getting the whole story, so I decided to go to Uganda and find out for myself.

What have been some of your most memorable moments so far?

I have definitely had some classic “memorable study abroad moments.” A monkey jumping on our van to steal our pineapple. My four-year-old host sister jamming to “Thrift Shop.” Finding a goat in the pit latrine at two in the morning.

But the moments that will stick with me forever are the most uncomfortable ones, the ones that challenged the values I carried with me to Uganda. A Q&A session with a former LRA leader, where my opinion of his guilt was turned upside down when I learned that he had been abducted as a child. A bridal shower, where I had to swallow my tongue as the bride’s friends advised her to submit to her husband at all times. A conversation with a mother of a child killed in the LRA conflict, where despite all that she had endured, she favored forgiveness over jail sentences for the perpetrators. It is these moments – the ones that have made my head spin and my morals collide – that have made my time abroad one of growth and gratification.

What advice would you give students considering studying abroad in Africa?

Don’t toss it aside as unrealistic. There is no reason not to do something wildly out of your comfort zone – what better time than now? Drop your inhibitions and expectations, and encourage your concerned family and friends to do the same.

You will likely receive many unsolicited comments when people hear where you plan to study abroad. “Why would you want to go there?” and “Isn’t it dangerous?” were some common ones I received. The narratives we hear of African countries only tell one side of the story. Don’t let other people tell you what kind of experience you will have. Open your mind and go find out for yourself.

What would you like to do after you graduate?

If you asked me today, I’d say I’d like to work in international law. If you asked me tomorrow, I’d tell you something different. I want a career that does not just look at the aftermath of conflict and try to pick up the pieces, but rather, one that examines the systemic political and psychological motivations of conflict and actively addresses them. How do global politics support conflict? How can the international community make things better instead of worse? These are the questions that keep me awake and the ones I know will drive my career. Whether that means working on the ground or behind a desk I do not yet know. Right now, I’m trying to take it it one step at a time.

Where in Africa would you still like to travel?

I’d love to trek my way across West Africa, starting with Nigeria and along the coast all the way to Senegal. My childhood dreams of being an Egyptologist demand a trip to the Sahara. And of course, I want to return to Uganda with my family someday.

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Africa in Our Lives: Amy Stambach

i Sep 8th No Comments by
Amy Stambach is a cultural anthropologist whose interests vary from China-Africa relations to environmental sustainability in Tanzania. She shares travel memories, new research and three new courses in this AFRICA IN OUR LIVES.


“I like to bring examples from my own research to class and to show students how they can combine theory with facts to address complex social problems.” – A. Stambach (Submitted photo)

Field of Study: Cultural Anthropology
Hometown: York, Pennsylvania

What brought you to Madison?

UW-Madison is a Tier 1 Research University with highly ranked arts and sciences plus professional schools. Our faculty and students are amazing. That’s what brought me to Madison!

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

UW-Madison Professor Magdalena Hauner was my Kiswahili teacher when I was a grad student at Chicago. I studied with her on a Fulbright Group Project Abroad program to Morogoro and Zanzibar. I am forever grateful to Professor Hauner and other teachers who taught me on that trip–Professor Tom Hinnebusch, Professor Euphrase Kezilahabi, and their many students and tutors in Tanzania.

What is your most vivid travel memory to or from Africa?

My most vivid recent memory–one that still makes me think twice, then laugh–is boarding a Kenya Airways flight in Nairobi and noticing that the guy sitting next to me was including me in his selfie. I protested but soon learned that we had tons of friends in common, including people from western Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), where he was born and where I have lived and return frequently. He included me in his photo to “prove” to his business partner that he was on an international trip and not just boarding a regional bus. Was he representing me in his world the way I represent Africa in mine? We laughed about his cleverness and had a good time going down memory lane. He was traveling to China for business; I was returning to the UK where I was working.

What led you to study the relationship between China and Africa?

Scenes like the one described above–of urban traders from Africa traveling to China for business–were part of a new economic landscape a few years ago. I was interested in learning whether these East African professionals shared the official China-Africa discourses of friendship that feature in state policies. Look for publications from that project in forthcoming issues of the Journal of Southern African Studies and in Social Dynamics.

Tell us a bit about your current research.

In addition to finishing up the “Africa and China” project, I am developing a new study on environmental sustainability. In this work, I ask: When and how are sustainability and economic development compatible? How do–or can–people expand capital markets while also preserving the environment? I draw on field research I have conducted across two-decades on Mount Kilimanjaro. Two of Kilimanjaro’s six ice caps have disappeared completely and, by all accounts, the ecosystem is changing. Despite these changes, people adapt. This project brings me back to core questions in anthropology: How do people organize themselves to manage finite resources? What lessons can we learn from one another to live together more purposefully and prosperously?

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

I enjoy teaching social theory and anthropology, especially to undergraduates. Theory sometimes seems irrelevant to students who are just starting out in college. But once they see that theory is a framework that they, too, can build and create, the world opens up for them. I like to bring examples from my own research to class and to show students how they can combine theory with facts to address complex social problems.  For most of my courses, I have developed a short list of opportunities that relate to the topics I am teaching and that students may be interested in pursuing.

This year I am teaching three new courses–Anthropology, Environment, and Development (Anthro 477), Kinship and Family in Anthropological Perspective (Anthro 345), and Economic Anthropology (Anthro 348).  I am also teaching a graduate class, History of Anthropology (Anthro 860), which is open to graduate students.

Why study Africa?

Africa is everywhere. Geographically, the continent touches Europe; it connects with the Middle East. Africa has a rich and varied history with Asia and the American continents.  My own interest in East African life and culture takes me to Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. But even there, social life is too diverse to generalize. People connect in many ways–through material and social institutions, through education, religion, and the environment, to name a few. If you look at the world as a whole, how can you not study Africa?

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Africa in Our Lives: Kate Hamoonga

i Aug 29th No Comments by
From Zambia to Tanzania to South Africa, Study Abroad Advisor Kate Hamoonga has had diverse experiences in sub-Saharan Africa and now helps UW-Madison students do the same.


“Be flexible. Be open-minded. Sometimes the most meaningful achievements were never a part of the list in the first place.” – K. Hamoonga (Submitted photo)

Field of study: Education
Hometown: Madison, WI

What brought you to Madison?

I moved to Madison from the UK with my family when I was 5. I grew up here. I moved away to attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA for my Bachelors of Fine Arts, and afterwards joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in South Africa. I’ve been back in Madison now for 11 years. There’s no place like home.

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

I spooned with a warthog. When I was camping in the Maasai Mara in Tanzania, my friends and I pitched our two tents next to each other. In the middle of the night I felt a rubbing against me from outside the tent and I assumed it was my friend in the tent next to mine, moving around in her sleep. When I woke up, I planned to joke with her about it. I stepped out of my tent and noticed that there was actually a good 3 feet of space between our tents. After swallowing a lump in my throat, I asked the rangers if there were any animals in the campsite overnight. He mentioned that a warthog had spent some time between our tents. Thankfully, he was a good big spoon!

How did you make the decision to join the Peace Corps?

Right after completing my undergraduate degree I joined a small non-profit organization that was looking for volunteers to work on health and sanitation projects in rural Zambia. I signed up and spent six months in Southern Province, Zambia working with local communities on building hand wash systems and sharing preventable disease campaigns. Six months flew by and I couldn’t bear to leave. Once I returned home, I knew I didn’t have my fill of Sub-Saharan Africa and I submitted my Peace Corps application with a preference for Africa.

Zambia - 2001

Hamoonga poses with feathered friends in Zambia. (Submitted photo)

What did you learn during your Peace Corps experience that still shapes you today?

During my time in South Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer as well as my time in Zambia, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how each of us, as individuals, are just one small piece of this huge diverse planet. I soaked up language, culture, and personal friendships like a sponge. I learned to appreciate a sweet potato fresh off the coals, the feel of a bucket bath with one gallon of boiling water added to it rather than ice-cold, and I even learned to love the smell of human bodies without the added unnatural smells of deodorants and perfumes. I knew I wanted to pursue a career that allowed me to continue to feel the excitement and newness of exploring and learning from new cultures.

What is one of the favorite parts of your job?

As a Study Abroad Advisor I have the pleasure of working with a portfolio of study abroad programs, many of them in Africa. While I don’t spend my time jet-setting, I really enjoying working with students who are considering study abroad options, who are eager to learn about the program and the cultures they will visit, and who begin to reflect on the way their international experience can enhance their future personal, academic and career goals. It’s exciting to develop relationships with students, as well as with host country colleagues. I like the broad goal of preparing students to have meaningful international experiences, and also like the individual relationships I am fortunate to form through the process.

What tips do you have for students when they talk with their families about studying abroad?

I think families can be nervous about sending their students far away, and rightfully so. I’m a parent of three young children myself, and as a parent you want your children to be safe and cared for. When I talk with students who have concerned family members, I always suggest that they learn as much as they can about their program, so that they can answer questions confidently. Selecting a program that clearly meets their goals makes it easier to explain why a study abroad program is a natural fit into their Wisconsin experience. Know who to contact in case of an emergency and share this information with loved ones. The more you know and can explain, the more confidence your family will instill in you to prepare for this unique and challenging experience.

What advice do you have for students who are exploring volunteer or study abroad opportunities in Africa?

Africa is an incredibly diverse continent, and the types of programs and opportunities available on the continent are equally as diverse. I would encourage students to form some goals for their experience and then see which programs or opportunities might meet those goals. After a program has been selected, make an effort to leave some wiggle room in the list of goals. Be flexible. Be open-minded. Sometimes the most meaningful achievements were never a part of the list in the first place.

Where in Africa would you still like to travel?

I’d love to go to the world renowned jazz festival in Senegal, and explore the West African coast. I’d also like to go back to Southern Africa with my three children. I want them to experience life in the rural villages that I did, pitch a tent on the Lake Malawi ferry, and taste the spices in Zanzibar. I hope they might also have the opportunity to spoon with a warthog!

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