Africa in Our Lives: Rachel Silver

Rachel Silver is a joint-degree doctoral candidate in Anthropology and Educational Policy Studies. She talks to African Studies about her research on adolescent pregnancy and school dropout in Malawi, and the challenges and rewards that accompany fieldwork.

Rachel Silver. (Submitted photo)

Field of study: Anthropology and Educational Policy Studies
Hometown: Originally, Houston, Texas; now I live in Brooklyn, New York

What brought you to Madison?

I came to Madison to pursue a PhD in Educational Policy Studies. I was drawn to the strong Comparative International Education program and faculty. Once at UW, I started to take courses in anthropological theory, and decided to go for a joint PhD. I have had a fantastic experience in both departments.

What inspired your interest in Africa?

I did a gap year program in Western Kenya between high school and college. It was a fantastic immersion experience from which I learned a tremendous amount. During undergrad, I was able to watch as the community in which my college was (and still is!) located experienced significant demographic change, with a large number of Somali refugees choosing the town as a site of secondary resettlement. I became very interested in their journeys across the diaspora, their experiences in local schools, and the challenges they faced during resettlement more generally. I ended up taking part in a multi-sited ethnographic project that led me to the Dadaab refugee camps on the Kenya/Somali border.

How do gender and sexuality intersect with educational policy?

Formal schooling has always been a gendered project. That is, students go to school and learn something about gender and sexuality—either through the formal curriculum, or from the informal messaging that they absorb about what kind of behavior, dress, etc. is appropriate or regulated. These gendered messages intersect with messages about race and class. In Africa, missionary schooling carried, from the start, a gendered program, namely to shape masculinity and femininity among colonial subjects in particular ways. Today, development projects also incorporate gendered components, enacted through policy and programming. They might, for instance, seek to expand girls’ access to education, promote gender equality, eradicate “harmful cultural practices,” etc. At the same time, a range of actors and institutions continue to transmit messages about appropriate sexuality and behavior through pedagogy and curriculum in schools on a day to day basis.

A comic book promoting abstinence, produced by a local NGO, the Girl’s Empowerment Network. (Submitted photo)

Tell us a little bit about Malawi’s 1993 and 2016 Readmission Policies, and how they drive your research.

In 1993, Malawi became the first country in Southern Africa to institute a policy regarding the re-entry of young mothers, banning the permanent expulsion of pregnant girls from school. The policy, deeply controversial at the time, was born out of the sustained activism of elite stakeholders within the Ministries of Education and Gender, and grassroots advocates who worked as part of an eight year, multi-million dollar USAID-funded girls’ education project. Because of the policy, pregnancy was “no longer the end of everything” for adolescent girls. Yet over time, Readmission Policy has largely failed to get young mothers back in schools. My dissertation project looks at the policy—which was under review by Malawi’s Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology in 2016—as sociocultural practice informed by a diverse stakeholders’ viewpoints over appropriate sexuality for girls, and the appropriate relationship between sexuality and schooling. I treat the policy as a node through which to examine why so few young mothers return to school, and to interrogate longstanding frictions around production, reproduction, and the constitution of power in development. I was able to gain unique access to the government-level, policy-review sessions taking place in 2016, where elite stakeholders discussed the possible parameters for a new policy behind closed doors. I paired this experience with a school-based fieldwork component.

Sunday shopping with her daughter, Olivia, at the Zomba market. (Submitted photo)

What is the most challenging aspect of your fieldwork?

The most challenging—and rewarding—aspect of my fieldwork was moving to Malawi with a family. I considered on a daily basis how best to be fully immersed in my project, while at the same time being a present parent and partner. Of course, this question is not unique to fieldwork! I think the second part of my answer would have to do with the nature of multi-sited research. I struggled with deciding where, exactly, I should spend each day (I had three major sites), and how best to manage the desire to be in multiple spaces with multiple groups of people at one time.

What lessons from your field research can you apply to education in the United States?

First, the close connection between adolescent pregnancy and school dropout is a global phenomenon. Examination of the perceived incompatibility between student-hood and motherhood in Malawi helps illuminate the nature of barriers to school re-entry for young women worldwide, including in the US. Second, my dissertation offers a new vantage point from which to contribute to an ongoing conversation on the complex relationship between fertility, sexuality, and schooling. Finally, the project helps bring critical attention to the limited and limiting ways in which girls are discursively deployed in mainstream development and education policy, making room for more nuanced accounts of their actual lives.

What have you learned through performing educational consulting in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Malawi?

This is a hard question, because each project has taught me quite a bit about both the content of education projects occupying attention among development circles, such as the challenges to early grade reading in rural or multilingual contexts and the process of doing development work. Consulting for a large NGO offers a crash course in funder-NGO-government relations, and the limitations and opportunities of conducting applied research.

Where would you most like to travel?

Another hard question! In Africa, I’d love to go to Senegal—I haven’t been to Dakar beyond the tarmac, and have spent limited time in West Africa. In the world? Southeast Asia. Finally, I have a long-standing goal to backpack in Glacier National Park.