Africa in Our Lives: Leif Brottem

The African Studies Program is excited to (re)introduce Professor Leif V. Brottem. Leif is a faculty affiliate at UW-Madison for the 2021-22 academic year, and an alum of the Geography Department at UW, where he worked with Professor Matt Turner. He is an Associate Professor at Grinnell College and teaches courses in Global Development Studies and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). His research focuses on the intersection of democratic decentralization and climate change adaptation in agrarian West Africa.

Tell us more about your research.

I study rural livelihoods in Mali, Benin, Chad, and some of their neighboring countries.  I focus specifically on how people and groups, including livestock herders, use mobility to access the resources they need.  Livestock herders rely on moving their animals to access water and pasture during the rainy and dry seasons, but other groups are highly mobile as well.  For example, artisanal gold mining is a very important source of income for young men and women in the region and they travel hundreds of kilometers to reach mining sites.  Mobility is a fascinating topic to me because it is connected to people’s identities, how they find belonging in different communities, and, of course, it is very influenced by changing environmental conditions.

How do you feel your work in African Studies adds to the field of Geography?

Mobility is a central theme in the discipline of geography and I believe there many examples from sub-Saharan Africa that are generalizable and applicable to other regions.  People are adapting to climate change all over the world but they have different opportunities and constraints depending on where they live.  For example, migration flows towards North America and to Europe garner a lot of media attention and are often portrayed as “climate migration.”  But, for example, it is very expensive to attempt travel from, say, Mali, to Europe so it is also made possible by rising incomes and expectations.  Those who lack the money to make such a trip are more likely to head to the gold mines. 

You have an impressive resume pre-graduate school. Does your experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin (2002-2004) and work in politics and sustainability influence how you think about your work in democratic decentralization, climate change, and West African rural communities?

Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin was incredibly valuable for me and continues to be a source of insight as I continue to learn about West Africa and its people.  The first democratically-elected local government took office while I was there in 2003 and I worked closely with its officials so I gained firsthand exposure into the decentralization process.  At the same time, my friends who farm cotton were coping with volatile global prices and land scarcity.  Being able to spend two years living and working with those people, who I am still in touch with, was a profound experience and inspired me to pursue a PhD.  By maintaining those relationships, I have been able to stay engaged with the region and the changes that have occurred there, including the ongoing political instability in Mali, where I did my dissertation fieldwork ten years ago.  

What is your favorite class to teach?

I teach an undergraduate seminar on fragile and conflict-affected countries, which focuses on peacebuilding and post-conflict interventions in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali.  It is my favorite class because of the enormity of the humanitarian challenges in those countries, of which students in the U.S. tend to have limited exposure.  Most of what they know comes from highly mediatized accounts so it is gratifying when they able to do deep dives into the histories, cultures, and incredible people of those countries.  This year I taught it during the attempted overthrow of the U.S. Presidential election results so we had lively conversations about whether the United States should be considered a “fragile” country in terms of its political system.   

What is one goal that you have for your undergraduate students at UW and Grinnell?

My goal for undergraduates at UW-Madison, Grinnell College, and everywhere else is to expose them to the endlessly wonderful pursuit of knowledge about different countries and cultures.  This is even more important—one could say it is dire right now—than when I was an undergraduate during the 1990s, a quaint time compared to what we are going through right in the early 2020s.  I’m grateful to all my teachers and mentors who taught me how to be curious and how to take risks in the pursuit of knowledge.  That curiosity and sense of wonder still guides me today, even as I prepare for a trip to Benin next month.

Outside of academia, what are some of your hobbies?

I like to play different sports with my kids, including soccer, basketball, and cross-country skiing.  If I have a free afternoon, I like to get out on my bicycle or visit an art museum.  I’m a big fan of both the UW Chazen Museum of Art and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMOCA). 


Produced by Carly Lucas