Africa in Our Lives: Farha Tahir

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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