Africa in Our Lives: Sam Allen

UW-Madison senior Sam Allen has never taken the conventional path when it comes to his education. The Geography and International Studies major managed to integrate his passion for Swahili with a career path in the Army. He shares what inspired him to study the continent, his takeaways from his time in Tanzania, and his favorite Swahili phrase.

Field of Study: Geography, International Studies, African Studies (certificate)
Hometown: Appleton, WI

Sam near the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro the week before his studies in Tanzania began. (Submitted photo)

What brought you to Madison?

Aside from the vagaries of the college admissions process writ large, I didn’t see the need to move to a coast to receive a world-class education. The gorgeousness of campus and liveliness of student life, combined with Madison’s role as a locus of government and culture, pushed me over the edge.

Were you interested in Africa before coming to UW-Madison?

My parents traveled through the continent for a months-long epic journey shortly before having children, and I grew up listening to their stories from the trip. Far from a basic backdrop on which they projected their own lives, the Africa they knew was in a constant state of change variously thrilling, daunting and awe-inspiring. My mental imagery of Africa was an archetype for my sense of fascination. However, these stories could have remained just stories if not for the opportunities I found in college.

What inspired your combination of majors?

Both Geography and International Studies are useful for explaining differences among people and nations across the globe. But more importantly, these fields of study deal with the most tangible stuff that goes into these differences, namely environment and political institutions, and how they can be changed. The “so what?” factor was very important to me in deciding majors, and I found Geography and IS as useful not only in interpreting the world but changing it.

Sam with fellow cadets and Angolan military officers at the Instituto Superior Técnico Militar, the country’s military academy. (Submitted photo)

How does being a cadet in Army ROTC relate to your interest in Africa and African Studies?

The Army is my raison d’être for pursuing African Studies, the impetus for turning an interest into a career path. Perhaps what keeps most people from pursuing their dreams is a perceived lack of purpose, the feeling that their passion doesn’t quite square with the “real” world. As a freshman, I too feared I would fall into that malaise. So I can’t quite describe my feelings when I read that the Army considers Swahili, among other African languages, “Critical” to its operations, offering numerous study abroad, scholarship and career opportunities relating to it. I’ve been to Africa twice under ROTC, been on scholarship to study Swahili for two years and met role models and mentors who have helped me tremendously along the way. For an organization that has already given me such purpose, that it also empowers me to study what I care deeply about has been an incredible feeling.

What is it like to study Swahili at UW-Madison?

Liberating. I studied French an embarrassing amount of years in middle and high school, and still struggled to string together basic sentences, much less polished, accented ones. And yet in two years at Madison I’m proficient in Swahili (I can still improve in many areas, but am fluent in most conversations). This is for two reasons. One, as opposed to other language programs which focus on test-taking and worksheets (which can be BS’d fairly easily), Madison goes for the jugular and focuses as much as possible on conversation. Two, Madison has a large and excellent African Studies / African Cultural Studies community, full of excellent teachers, speakers, events and students. This makes studying Swahili fun, but also gives it an added meaning and human dimension that studying alone can’t provide.

Sam with an Angolan military officer. (Submitted photo)

What’s one of your favorite Swahili words or phrases?

I’d heard that Tanzanians have a reputation for being formal, best met with a proper “Hujambo/Sijambo” greeting. So I was shocked to ask one young Tanzanian man how he was doing and get the response “Poa kichisi kama ndizi ndani ya friji.” Literally: “Crazy-cool like a banana in the fridge.” Needless to say, that became my response whenever anyone asked how I was doing.

Tell us about your study abroad program in Tanzania. What are some of your most vivid memories?

I applied to a Project GO (“Global Officers”) scholarship to study Swahili in Tanzania via James Madison University, and was accepted for the summer of 2016. This Department of Defense program prepares the next generation of officers with skills in languages critical to the military’s global missions. Most students on this study were cadets, coming from all branches of the military and universities throughout the country. While Swahili was emphasized, we also studied environmental and geographic issues as we travelled throughout the country.

As far as memories, what could top the 24/7 unlimited alcohol cooler at the Kubu Kubu camp in the Serengeti? Still, others include: riding a motorcycle through the savannah to make it to my Maasai host father’s compound before nightfall; kayaking in the Indian Ocean and stumbling upon an island restaurant; talking with the porters in Swahili all the way up Kilimanjaro; snorkeling with parrot fish off of Chumbe, Zanzibar; canoeing Lake Victoria on our way to a local fish market; and making lasting friendships with the other cadets on this study.

If you could bring one piece of your life in Tanzania back to Wisconsin, what would it be?

We were mostly cadets, at similar points in our lives and interested in roughly the same things. But these similarities (and living in close-quarters) had ways of magnifying the differences in our views and personalities, leading to some of the most interesting and intense discussions I’ve ever had. Nothing avoided scrutiny or discussion, and this hyper-awareness made me feel rooted in place and in the moment. It’s this feeling, not only the sense of rigorously preparing to change the world, but being with the best people to do so, that I would bring back.

What advice would you give first-year students at UW-Madison?

Go to your professors’ office hours. Specialize in a field of study. See speakers, go to conferences, get internships and travel. In the liberal arts, you will vacillate between feeling like a philosopher-king and feeling indistinguishable from someone who could have just read Wikipedia instead of shelling out for a college degree. At your worst hour, you will think of three things to avoid feeling like the latter: your relationships, skills and experiences. Do you work with people who make you the best version of yourself, and whom you trust to evaluate your ideas and progress? Have you put effort into a can-do skill that sets you apart from others and makes you eminently useful? And do you possess firsthand knowledge that can’t be found online or in books, that enhances the acuity of your worldview? These tangibles are the force behind your college degree, and act as stamps of quality to both yourself and any potential employer or superior.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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