Africa in Our Lives: Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell

The Department of African Cultural Studies is welcoming Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell as an incoming graduate student this upcoming fall. Rebecca graduated from the University of Oxford with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts and is beginning her PhD in African Cultural Studies from UW-Madison. Throughout the years, Rebecca has been involved in various projects such as It’s Not Us (2020) and No Justice No Peace (2015) which both explore discourse within the Black Lives Matters movement. In 2019, she researched freedom fighters of the post-colonial apartheid era in Breakfast in Kisumu, a documentary she directed and produced to commemorate her father Professor Rok Ajulu. Most recently, Rebecca has begun #MeTooSport & Beyond, a research project raising awareness about and addressing abuse and detrimental norms faced by athletes.

What brought you to Madison?

“Existing connections. Of all the programmes I looked as I was drawn to ACS (African Cultural Studies) because it seemed to seek new knowledge creation through (as opposed to by) the critical study of the peoples and cultures of Africa (and the African Diaspora). The ardent film and linguistic focus within the current faculty is also highly engaging. I felt like UW’s Department of African Cultural Studies would best facilitate my integrated approach to study within a multidisciplinary faculty; offering a richness in its interdependency which feels distinct from many other programs in the field. The extensive language offering and the opportunity to forge a closer connection with my own heritage through the continued study of Swahili is also uniquely appealing.”

Can you briefly tell us about your background and your work as it relates to Africa?

“My father is Kenyan, we come from a tribe that lives on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, I travel home to Bondo as much as I can, but my Luo definitely needs some work. I grew up in Uganda, Malawi, Nairobi, and Cape Town before moving back to the UK for school as a teenager.

My work is concerned with the collective memory of black culture and identity, how this is translated, and under what circumstances it can become changed. Through film and writings, I explore the homogenous presentation of the experience of African freedom fighters of the postcolonial era: the modulations of region, culture, tribe, sex, language, and age as deviation and The Struggle as their interconnectedness. Africa is home to me and so my work will always arise from its offerings to inform everything else.”

Can you tell us a bit about your documentary Breakfast in Kisumu?

“I wanted to be able to connect my academic work with the first story of black struggle I knew intimately: my father’s (renowned academic and political activist, Professor Rok Ajulu [1950-2016]). The film became a kind of memorialisation through storytelling, taking its cues from my first dissertation, attempting to realise the tensions I was exploring by creating an object of commemoration to speak to a (memorial) specific collective engagement. Shooting the documentary was a beautiful homecoming and sharing my father’s story at film festivals around the world continues to be strange and powerful.”

4. Due to the pandemic, what advice would you give to students aspiring to travel and work in Africa but cannot currently do so?

5. Do you think there is anything students can be doing in the meantime to prepare for or enhance their African studies?

(Answer to 4 and 5):

“Read as much as you can but more importantly than that try to create a local environment that allows you to experience African time. My father was always late and that’s a true African trope, but it covers for something much more profound. We move so slowly through our guiding thoughts even if we are moving quickly through content; when I’m on African soil I move differently through time, and a different kind of knowledge comes out of that environment. I wonder if there are ways to recreate a similar kind of learning environment while travel to Africa isn’t possible.

I would also advise students to focus on connection and community as well as storytelling and cultural literacy. African cinema is transportive and as important as its literature and talking about this in America even more important still.”

What is your favorite memory you have from your travels and work in Africa?

“Every time I get off the plane at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi I am instantly hit by a hot air that I feel in my bones—I always look forward to that feeling—and now that I don’t live there anymore I revel in the memory of it until I can feel it again.

My work so often finds me sitting down with my family in Kenya and South Africa talking about democracy, elections, and community, these are my favourite working memories: eating breakfast and talking about the politics of being African.”