Africa in Our Lives: Amy Stambach

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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