Africa in Our Lives: Selah Agaba

23 January, 2015.
“I am excited to work with the community of people doing work all over Africa. I am especially excited to restart our Outreach Scholars program and help shape what the new version–Outreach Scholars 2.0, if you will–is going to look like.” – Selah Agaba (Photo by Catherine A. Reiland/UW-Madison)

While settling into her position as the African Studies Program’s outreach assistant, Ph.D student Selah Agaba shares her enthusiasm for education, outreach and Madison’s bike paths.

Field of study: Anthropology and Educational Policy Studies
Hometown: Born and raised in Mbarara, Uganda. Boston and Madison are beginning to feel like home, too.

What brought you to UW-Madison?

Dr. Nancy Kendall and Dr. Claire Wendland! I started and stopped versions of my current program a couple of times at great institutions because I had not found advisors that not only understood my interests but were also excited about them. Both of my current programs are wonderful, but my advising team is phenomenal and I came to UW-Madison to work with them. Oh, and of course for the snow–how could I forget the snow!



What is your favorite activity around Madison?

Getting onto the bike trails–I completely adore riding my bike around Madison. I learned how to ride a bike here, so it will always be a favorite.

What are your favorite pieces of literature?

Play: Betrayal in the City by Francis Mbuga
Poem: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
Novel: Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan
Essay: “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift

How did you first get involved with the outreach at the African Studies Program?

I actually researched the African Studies Program extensively before I applied for the outreach assistant position because I wondered what “Africa” looked like at UW. I was pretty excited about what I saw. I remember going through the profiles of the Africa at Noon presenters, and I could not believe the breadth of content and specializations that there were! I was also excited to learn that Dr. Neil Kodesh was the director; I had come across his profile earlier when I was looking for UW people who do research in Uganda. I enjoyed his book and his correspondences with me even before I enrolled. I think, like most researchers, I worry about how we represent people, societies and topics–especially those that have been vandalized by previous scholarship. I really liked what I saw before I came and I like it more now that I have had time to interact with it at a deeper level.

What outreach activities are you looking forward to in the coming year?

I am excited to work with the community of people doing work all over Africa. I am especially excited to restart our Outreach Scholars program and help shape what the new version–Outreach Scholars 2.0 if you will–is going to look like. Cultivating a supportive community for our scholars, working with schools, reconnecting with scholars that have since moved on… I am really excited about all the possibilities.

What inspired your studies of Africa?

I heard once that you can only know that which you love and that to research is to know deeply! Also doing research is an intense and often isolating and draining process; I cannot fathom how anyone that did not seek to understand something that they love would go through that process. I have lived and worked in Uganda and a little bit in Kenya and Rwanda.  They are home, they are my source of passion; they are where I have chosen to live, love, and learn.

Briefly tell us about your work, as it relates to Africa:

I study adolescent sexual and reproductive health. Most of my work has been around maternal health and I am going to continue on that path for my dissertation.

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

I think the first thing I would say is ask yourself why you’re interested in studying Africa, and then consider the answer and if you are able to live with your answer and defend it to yourself and others–or at least start working on it. I think we all have to continually remind ourselves that our work is simultaneously about us and not about us; the work itself is discovering which is which.

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

Oh my goodness! I taught a primary two class in Kampala for 2 years, and on any given day, I would have about 106 students. The youngest was seven and the oldest was about 13 years old. I thought I had it tough. Then, one year later, I was doing my masters in public elementary education and student teaching a 4th grade classroom in south Boston. I had 21 students in my class ranging from nine to 10 years old–I don’t know how I got through the first week! I know my strengths and weaknesses better because of these two experiences, and I believe I am a better teacher for it too.

What career do you see yourself having 5 years from now?

That’s a daunting question for a first year doctoral student! In five years, give or take a couple, I see myself running a unit that bridges the Ministry of Health to the Ministries of Education in Uganda. That unit does not currently exist, by the way, so it will take a minute to get it approved and established. And then I will run it.


Profile produced by Meagan Doll.

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