Africa in Our Lives: Kevin Gibbons

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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Africa in Our Lives: Sam England

i Aug 19th No Comments by
Assistant Professor of Arabic Sam England spent part of his childhood in Egypt, but it wasn’t until college that he jumped headfirst into the study of Arabic. He shares the lessons  from ancient poetry and prose and why students should take risks when it comes to learning a language.


Photo courtesy of Sam England.

Field of Study: Arabic Literature and Language

Hometown: Technically, Madison (born here but left only a year afterward). I have two hometowns: Urbana, IL and Ann Arbor, MI.

What inspired you to learn Arabic?

I lived for two years in Egypt when I was little. It was a lot of fun but I didn’t learn any Arabic, and felt a sense of loss when I got older, especially when I was in the middle of my college studies. Luckily, I was at a school that offered Arabic classes of all levels—much as we do here—and I found it the most worthwhile challenge of anything I’d experienced as a student. I went back to Egypt with a sense of purpose the second time around.

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

I love teaching about the connections between Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and our modern era. The more I research medieval literature and history—and I try to research that as much as I can—the more of that era seems to be at work in the 21st century.

Lyric, too, is thrilling to teach. You say it in the singular and many people think of it as abstract, confusing, maybe boring. You say it in the plural and it’s something we can relate to—who doesn’t listen to music with words? Who’s not tempted to sing once in the while, even if in the shower or under their breath? Those moments are vital. And so is recognizing how lyric poetry has developed to its current form.  I know a decent amount about lyric in Arabic as well as in Western European languages, but last year, I was looking for Sub-Saharan poetry to teach. I came upon the Senegalese piece “She Who Destroys her Harp,” in the Wolof language. The imagery is fantastic: destroying one’s own means of making music, either because you can’t stand the idea of celebrating events that way anymore or because you play it so intensely that you ruin it. A lot of musicians we hear and see in videos and on stage now will wreck their instruments or make a show of overloading the sound system until it can’t keep projecting sound. I invite students to consider what they think is going on in that kind of performance. Is it self-aggrandizing, or nihilist, or just a way of saying enough is enough, or trying to wake up the audience from just nodding through the fun part of the performance?

What has been the most exciting moment of your career thus far?

There’s a job in Egyptian cities where all you do is help people park their cars in really tight spots (seems like they’re all tight spots in Egyptian cities). The employees wear brass badges and everything. They have a certain way of guiding you in and out, racing from one side of your car to another to catch your eye and shout out “crank it!” or “back up!” or whatever. Then they sidle up to your window so you can hand them a little cash.

So one day, this classic star of Egyptian movies and TV was visiting Middlebury College, where I was working on my Arabic in their intensive summer program. He came and spoke with the students, slaying the audience by quoting an Arabic version of Hamlet at length, and when we broke for lunch I saw him getting into the minivan driven by the school’s director, also Egyptian. I realized I’d only have one chance in my life to ever do this, so I leapt out to the curb and started doing what those parking guys do. Then I stood a little too close to Nour el-Sherif’s window, saluting him and smiling painfully wide, in the way that people do when they’re waiting for a tip. He and the director just laughed at me. But, as they pulled out, Nour el-Sherif gave me a thumbs-up as they left. I’m sure it didn’t mean that much to him but I was flying high for weeks after. He died last year—I remember him fondly and still enjoy watching his old shows.

Tell us a bit about your current research.

Last year I finished my book manuscript, on contests among authors (and, sometimes, their patrons or the characters in the literature itself) in medieval Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Spain, and Italy. I’m hoping it’ll come out in 2017, titled Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition: Literary Duels at Islamic and Christian Courts. Obviously, if it does, everyone reading this owes it to me to buy at least one copy. I also recently finished an article on al-Andalus (sometimes called Muslim Spain) and the performance of short improvised poems there.

These days I’m reading a good deal of material from Egypt during the latter Crusades, which was also when the Mongols had taken over Iraq and many people fled to countries throughout the Mediterranean. I’m finishing an essay on their nostalgic refugee literature, planned for an edited volume coming out next year. This fall I want to start writing about al-Qadisiya, a settlement in the Arabian Peninsula that was the site of a major battle between Arabs and Persians at the very beginning of Islam. Al-Qadisiya continues to be a topic of conversation, in literature, music, theatre, and film. I guess that brings me right back to what I had to say about teaching—it’s a medieval-modern connection that I think we have to inspect more closely to understand contemporary culture, politics, Islamic history, etc.

What’s the most-thumbed book on your shelf?

The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (edited and published by neighbors of mine, the Cowan family). Of the more fun-type books, probably Bayn al-Qasrayn by Naguib Mahfouz, translated as Palace Walk. I learn a little more about the Arabic language and Egyptian culture every time I read it.

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

Especially here at UW, Africa matters in what we do—and that goes for everyone on this campus, not just African Studies folks. The relationship between the continent and this school is one of the great distinctions that we claim as an intellectual community. I’d encourage students to resist the pressure to become an expert right away, and spend at least a year or two taking classes that they didn’t foresee taking when entering college. A good teacher, and a good relationship between teacher and student, is more important than the subject matter. That’s why some of my department’s introductory classes are also some of the most dynamic—it’s there that students recognize the wealth to be gained from the general topic of Africa, and they start to recognize themselves as researchers.

I want to say, “Go to Africa!” And that’s a great experience, but going to our office hours is in many respects more important.

What can we learn from Arabic poetry and prose?

To be humble as students, teachers, writers, and speakers. It’s a huge field, the language has longevity and a continuum of development that we don’t find in just about any widely studied European language, and I think very few people inside and outside academia are aware of that.

With that being said, probably the most important advice I got from a colleague about learning and teaching Arabic is that we non-native speakers have just as much claim to it as anyone. It’s not, and shouldn’t be, an exclusive club for people who grew up using it. That’s true of any language but, unfortunately, some Arabic teachers still try to establish a hierarchy of who is and isn’t licensed to fully live in Arabic. I appreciate when my students take risks with it, set aside their nervousness that they might make a mistake, and I encourage my colleagues to do the same.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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Africa in Our Lives: Farha Tahir

i Apr 29th No Comments by
Originally a European History major, Farha Tahir never expected to pursue a career in Africa. After taking an African history class as an undergraduate at UW-Madison, however, she never looked back. Today, she works for the National Democratic Institute in Southern and Eastern Africa to improve governance and empower civil society.


“I find my best thinking happens on planes and during my travels. It’s a great time for introspection and reflection, and, in my experience, decision-making.” -Farha Tahir (Photo courtesy of Farha Tahir)

Field of study: Bachelor of Arts 2009: Political Science, History (certificates in African Studies and Leadership); Master of International Public Affairs 2010

Hometown: Shorewood, Wisconsin

What originally brought you to UW-Madison?

I’m originally from Wisconsin, so I think UW was always a likely contender. I had been to Madison with my family and friends, and of course on field trips as a child, and thought I knew what I was getting myself into by choosing to go there. My five years on campus exceeded anything I could ever have expected. I feel so fortunate to have gone to such a tremendous institution. There’s really nothing I felt like I couldn’t do, and I owe a lot of who I am today to my experiences at UW.

What inspired your interest in Africa?

I was actually a Political Science and European History major when I first came to UW, and thought I would go to law school. But, one of the requirements of the history major (at the time) was to take a “Non-Western” history class. I took Neil Kodesh’s pre-colonial African history class, fell in love, and never looked back. I was sold. I had always had an interest in Africa, but the idea never even occurred to me to turn it into a career path. That’s where fate and timing played their roles.

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

I’ve never felt as passionate or motivated about anything as I do about Africa. I find the histories and political developments of all the countries I’ve studied truly fascinating…and often vexing. I think what I love most is that I’ve never studied any region or topic where I’ve felt so fully consumed (but still have just barely scratched the surface). There’s always so much more to learn. And, each country is so distinct that it really requires your most creative self. Though I never thought my passion for studying Africa would turn into a career, it did get me interested in more international affairs-oriented jobs like development and foreign policy, both of which I have worked in.


Farha poses with friends during her trip to Nigeria. (Photo courtesy of Farha Tahir)

Tell us about your favorite travel experience.

That’s tough. There are so many. As cliché as it may sound, I think one of my favorites was actually my first trip to the continent, to Nigeria. I was there to conduct interviews on a maternal health program in Ondo State, in the southwestern part of the country. As guests of the governor, I assumed people would dote on us a bit, but nothing like what actually happened.

We spent the first two days of our trip (I went with my boss at the time) interviewing folks in Abuja (the capital). The governor offered to send a driver to pick us up for our travel to Akure, the state capital. Not only did he send us a driver, but an assistant (I don’t know what we could have possibly needed on a six hour car ride) and two armed police officers wielding AK-47s. Once we arrived, there was a camera crew and a gaggle of local journalists following us at every step, recording as we took notes in meetings, asking us for comments following each place we visited. But perhaps the most unexpected was a ceremony they held for us where they made us honorary citizens of the state, pinned us (think fraternity pinning ceremony) with the state emblem, and then bequeathed us with ceremonial swords. As unexpected as all of that was, it reinforced tremendous African hospitality that I’ve found in every country I’ve been to and left me hooked. How could I not want to continue this work?

What are your go-to sources for Africa-related news and information?

Again, so many. I’m a total Africa Confidential junkie. I binge on it before any new trip to get caught up on political developments. As an author of the Freedom in the World reports, those have also been a go-to for me. I don’t think there’s any better primer. And Twitter. It’s like an Africanist’s dream: an influx of information and analysis from the best minds in the world with just the right amount of snark.

Bring Back our Girls Rally

Farha speaks at a rally for “Bring Back Our Girls,” an organization dedicated to bringing home the 270+ girls kidnapped from Chibok Government Secondary School by Boko Haram Terrorists in Nigeria.

Tell us about your work with the National Democratic Institute.

NDI works on improving governance throughout the world. We work in 65 different countries to ensure that government officials understand their roles and responsibilities, and are being responsive to citizens’ needs. We also work with civil society to help them advocate for what they want. We work in a lot of different areas, including on enhancing women’s participation, strengthening political parties, and supporting election processes. I work for NDI’s Southern and East Africa team. I started off covering our Horn of Africa portfolio, which primarily included work on Somalia and the African Union, but recently moved over to our Southern Africa portfolio. Our work varies in different countries, based on their unique political systems and needs. I do everything from helping design programs to supporting their implementation in-country.  It has provided me a lot of unique insight into the political systems in various countries as well as into the strengths and weaknesses of the development regime.

What has the most defining moment of your career thus far?

I was traveling by bus from Jimma, Ethiopia, back to Addis (about 350 km). The rainy season had just ended and everything was green and spectacularly beautiful. Though I was only driving past, I felt like I got to see so many different ways in which people lived, and I just kind of lost it. I was so struck by my good fortune and how removed my reality was from the things I was seeing through my window. It really forced me to think deeply about why I do what I do, what I’m trying to contribute, and how it fits into my broader worldview. I will never forget that moment. I can’t think of an experience more profound.

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

Get out there. You can study Africa all you want, but until you see where the rubber hits the road, it’s hard to have that aha moment. I’m responding to this profile from Botswana. I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of places in East, West, and Southern Africa (look out Central, I’m comin’ for you next). And, if you do have the opportunity to travel, get outside the capital. Talk to regular people. Just like life in DC couldn’t be closer to life in Fargo, the same is true between Addis and Jimma, Nairobi and Wajir, or Accra and Ho. And take a journal. I find my best thinking happens on planes and during my travels. It’s a great time for introspection and reflection, and, in my experience, decision-making.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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Africa in Our Lives: Todd Rámon Ochoa

i Apr 11th No Comments by
Todd Ramon Ochoa

“We owe to Africa a robust and as yet unexhausted concept of affliction.” – Todd Rámon Ochoa (Photo courtesy of Todd Rámon Ochoa)

Although he stumbled upon African-inspired communities in Cuba by chance, Todd Rámon Ochoa has delved headfirst into this unique area of study, examining Cuban-Kongo praise feasts, ritual masters, and healing processes. We look forward to hearing from him as well as a diverse group of panelists this Friday and Saturday at BIG STORIES + CLOSE (UP) RESEARCH: Health and Science in the African World.

Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico, and Bridgman, Michigan
Field of study: Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies

What led you to study African-inspired communities in Cuba?

I started working on African-inspired communities in Cuba by chance. I was an anthropology graduate student studying the pervasive black markets that kept Cubans alive in Havana in the early 1990s. After some time it was possible to see that most goods and services circulated in relatively predictable ways, as a “system” you could say. Among those things that did not conform to the “black market system” were items destined for consumption in African-inspired feasts. I was drawn to this this extra-systemic logic in that it revealed so much about the black market system, the Cuban state, and commodities in Havana in general. The welcome I received by those who hosted the feasts allowed me to see that this extra-systemic logic applied to many aspects of African-inspired praise in Cuba. Eventually, I came to see that the processes of feasting and healing that are Kongo-inspired praise in Cuba offered fascinating alternatives to Eurocentric thought and being. Besides being a lot of fun, and great community, I was hooked on the conceptual offerings made by these feasting and healing processes.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I like science a lot, especially astronomy and physics. In my work, this translates into concepts that help me connect things I learn in Cuba to the lives of my students and readers. For example, when I was writing my book, Society of the Dead, I struggled to properly convey how the dead saturate everyday life for people who participate in Kongo-inspired praise in Cuba. While I was working on this problem I read about the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, which is ancient light emitted about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. The way the CMB is described by physicists and astronomers helped me find words to describe the dead in Kongo-inspired praise. The term I came up with was “the ambient dead,” by which I mean that the dead in Cuban-Kongo praise saturate the living, they are the potential that makes shapes in the world possible at all. In my theoretical work chaos theory and non-linear dynamics also inform my language choices. I hope to teach a course on astrology next year.

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

I am fortunate in that my academic career has been very exciting. Any time I am with healers and ritual masters in Cuba is very exciting. My work these days on praise feasts in rural Cuba puts me in very exciting situations with lots of extraordinary music, dancing, and impersonations of the dead. One exciting thing in writing Society of the Dead was connecting references to things “Jewish” in Cuban-Kongo praise to the Catholic Advent calendar and to 19th century Cuban-Catholic anti-Semitism in general, then figuring out how Cuban-Kongo praise and healing turns this anti-Semitism against itself.

Tell us a little bit about your current research.

I am presently working on an annual feast in rural central Cuba. This feast is for a power referred to as San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé. The power is also referred to as a “santo,” as in Catholic cosmology, and as an “orisá,” as in West African cosmology. San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé is a “santo-orisá”, a sovereign over illness, healing, and death. The feast is a very open affair, open to the whole community. The goal is to achieve the impersonation of San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé by as many of those gathered as possible, though out of hundreds present this usually means 2-3 people. To come into physical contact with San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé is a life-changing gift. I have been visiting this community for over a decade and have come to appreciate the feast for San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé as a very important instance of African-inspired praise in Cuba.

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

I like teaching Black Atlantic religions, especially in the US south. The religions of Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil are utterly novel to most students, but at the same time there are distant echoes with US African American praise styles that make students receptive. Then the poetry and emotional strength of the religions I teach takes over, and it is remarkably easy to build sympathy among the students. The African-inspired religions of Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil are always a challenging revelation to students and accompanying them through that experience is a privilege.

I also like teaching about sacrifice and its centrality in the making of sacred things.

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

Any undergraduate interested in studying Africa will find universe upon universe of puzzles and marvels to engage. Africa is enormous beyond comprehension, fractal in its complexity, and astonishing in its beauty. Africa and Africans will never let a student down.

Why is the study of health and science in Africa important?

One reason is that healing is a vast topic that encompasses biomedical as well as social affliction. We owe to Africa a robust and as yet unexhausted concept of affliction, which allows researchers across disciplines to address healing practices in great variety. Affliction includes physical illness, emotional loss, misfortune, and debt, among many other sufferings people confront. To study the genealogy of “affliction” as it appears in the scholarship on Africa is to simultaneously to study the limits of the biomedical sciences in their aspiration to corner the market (sometimes literally) on the concept of “healing.”

Give us a teaser for your presentation at BIG STORIES + CLOSE (UP) RESEARCH: Health and Science in the African World:

I am giving a presentation about an old doll’s head that made a profound impression on me in Cuba.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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Africa in Our Lives: Julie Livingston

i Mar 18th No Comments by
The second of our featured BIG STORIES + CLOSE (UP) RESEARCH presenters, Julie Livingston did not initially foresee an academic career. She shares with us how a course on Africa changed her mind, and how her research on African health and systems of thought has developed since.

“I like teaching about the human body, because everyone inhabits one so we have some core basis from which to think about what makes us human amid all our tremendous diversity of shapes and sizes.” -Julie Livingston (Photo courtesy of Julie Livingston)

“I like teaching about the human body, because everyone inhabits one so we have some core basis from which to think about what makes us human amid all our tremendous diversity of shapes and sizes.” -Julie Livingston (Photo courtesy of Julie Livingston)

Hometown: Boston, but I have been living in New York City for the past 15 years.
Field of study: History and Anthropology of the Body, especially in southern Africa

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

I was a pretty disaffected student when I was in college. I actually failed out for a brief period. But then in my senior year I had to take a course about Africa as part of a distribution requirement and it got me so excited that I took another, and soon I was hooked.

Tell us one surprising fact about you.

I swear a lot.

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

I don’t know if it is the most vivid, but this is a memory I revisit almost every day. One time when we were living in a peri-urban village in Botswana, my then-husband and I had each separately purchased a loaf of bread. So we had two loaves in our kitchen. As we were making our way through one, the other was going stale and about to turn moldy, so I threw it out. A friend who was over at our place for a visit saw an entire uneaten loaf of bread in our garbage and was profoundly disgusted. She called that waste of food evil, and gave me a serious (and in retrospect badly needed) lecture. I try never to waste food anymore. Of course, we are now learning how my friend’s ethos about food is so critically important for our current ecological crisis.

Tell us a bit about your research in Botswana.

My past research has explored the ways that people experience bodily vulnerability and how they manage and make sense of those experiences. I am interested in how people take care of one another, and also what happens when they don’t. I am also interested in African systems of thought. I have written about disability, aging, HIV/AIDS, and chronic illness in Botswana. My most recent book was set in a small cancer ward, where I followed patients, their relatives, nurses, and doctors as they tried to cope with a rapidly emerging cancer epidemic. Currently I am working on a new book that tries to understand the relationship between economic development in Botswana and planetary ecology.

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

I like teaching about the human body, because everyone inhabits one so we have some core basis from which to think about what makes us human amid all our tremendous diversity of shapes and sizes. And because the body is the vehicle of perception, and site of vulnerability and care.

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

Absolutely study Africa! Africa is an incredibly diverse, fascinating place. It is at the center of so much of our world, both historically and today, and studying Africa has the potential to blow your mind. It is a place of tremendous creativity, in literature, dance, music, but also in agriculture, ecology, religious practice, and economic and political philosophy and organization. Yet unfortunately the continent is poorly understood by many Americans. Many Americans, even those who travel there, tend to think of Africa mainly as a site of need or lack, of suffering and deprivation, and by extension Africans as objects of their own help and/or expertise. This is a real shame, because as a result many Americans miss the chance to learn from people there. If you study Africa, you get to open your imagination to all kinds of knowledge and possibility.

Why is the study of health and science in Africa important?

Science and medicine are important in all places, because they are part of how people organize power and knowledge, and how they attend to problems and plan futures. Medicine and science are always a part of how political power is both wielded and subverted. This is no different in Africa than elsewhere.

Give us a teaser for your presentation at BIG STORIES + CLOSE (UP) RESEARCH: Health and Science in the African World.

I will be looking at a photograph of a rainmaker in Botswana from nearly 100 years ago as a way of thinking about lost ecological knowledge.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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