Africa in Our Lives: Erin Johnson

Erin Johnson (x13) did not expect to produce a collection of watercolor portraits when she left campus to study abroad in Kenya. With majors in Art and Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies she explores the intersections between art and advocacy in Latin America and Africa.

Image of Erin Johnson
“College is the time to really explore what you are passionate about.” –Erin Johnson (Photo by Catherine A Reiland/UW-Madison)

Majors: Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies, Art, and a Certificate in African Studies
Hometown: Middleton, Wisconsin

What inspired you to study Swahili?

I wanted to study Swahili because I decided to study abroad in Kenya. Although many people in Kenya speak English, I felt it was important to be able to speak some Swahili so that I could communicate with anyone who didn’t speak English, and to show a curiosity and respect for the language and cultures in Kenya. I felt I would be able to connect with people on a deeper level if I knew some Swahili. It also came in very handy at my internship site in southern Kenya.

What is your favorite Swahili word or phrase?

“Shagalabagala.” It means chaotic, messy, or disorganized.

Tell us about your study abroad experience in Kenya.

I was studying with Minnesota Studies in International Development (MSID) through UW-Madison’s International Academic Programs. For the first half of the program I lived in Nairobi and took classes on international development, country analysis of Kenya, the educational system of Kenya, and Swahili with the other students in my program. My professors were so interesting and engaging, and I learned a lot. For the second half of the program, I lived in Kajiado, which is about 1.5 hours south of Nairobi. There I interned at the Kajiado Adventist Rehabilitation and Educational Center for girls who have been forced into either female genital mutilation or early marriage. As an intern I ran the school library, taught classes, and supervised students doing their daily activities. My time at the center inspired me to start writing and illustrating the book, a work-in-progress at the moment.

How did you get connected to your internship site in Kenya?

At the beginning of my study abroad program, I talked to the MSID Staff about my interests, and what I would like to get out of an internship. The staff had a relationship with the Kajiado Adventist Rehabilitation and Educational Center, and they connected me to the internship there! The MSID staff was so receptive to my interests that made finding an internship easy.

Tell us about your portrait project. How did you get started?

Well, after working for the center for a couple of weeks, I was very impressed with how it was run. The staff was so dedicated and the girls seemed to be doing really well. One day while meeting with the center’s assistant principal, he told me about some of the income-generating activities they were initiating in the hopes of becoming less dependent on aid from well-wishers. After careful analysis the center had produced proposals for a variety of income-generating initiatives including a bakery, bee-keeping, and bus rentals. Of course, they need start-up money for those projects, so I was inspired to think of ways to raise awareness and funds to help them with these activities. That’s when I had the idea to start the portrait project. I thought that making a book of portraits accompanied by the stories of the girls at the center would be a way I could use my art to help the school raise funds to start their income-generating activities.

Image of Erin Johnson with students
Surrounded by books in the school’s library, Erin Johnson (BA’13) works on a watercolor portrait as some students look on at the Kajiado Adventist Rehabilitation and Educational Center in southern Kenya. November, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Erin Johnson)

How did you select the medium of the portraits?

Honestly, watercolor pencils were the only art supplies I brought with me to Kenya!

What advice do you have for first-year students at UW-Madison?

Get involved in any activity that really interests you. College is the time to really explore what you are passionate about. Don’t hesitate to get involved in something that is totally different than what you expected yourself to do.

What are your next steps after graduation?

I’d like to work for some sort of non-profit organization, so I’m looking into job opportunities! I’m open to moving anywhere in the country, which is exciting. I will be around Madison for the summer, working on finishing my book!


Profile produced by Catherine Reiland.

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