Africa in Our Lives: Kevin Wamalwa

Kevin Wamalwa is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and African Cultural Studies. He was a Mellon Public Humanities Fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year, and he is currently a Teaching Fellow for Africa 277: An Introductory Survey. He was also a Fulbright Scholar at Bluefield State College in West Virginia prior to joining UW-Madison. His research focuses on resource-based conflict and post-violence memory. Currently, he is writing a dissertation on embodied memories of violence in which he explores situated understandings of victimhood and villainy in Mt. Elgon, Kenya. Kevin is also a Swahili poet and songwriter, and his works have appeared in various publications.

What has been your experience in teaching African 277?

It has been a fulfilling experience. Starting this fellowship as the inaugural Africa 277 Fellow for the Introductory African Survey course in the summer of 2021 was timely for me. It came when I needed such experience in my teaching since I anticipate completing my PhD and will be looking for an academic job. I have had the privilege to experience a wide range of teaching approaches from some very experienced faculty members on campus. As the lead instructor of Africa 277 this summer, I have lined up exciting topics from many experienced Africanist professors on campus and some of my own. I am sure students will enjoy learning about Africa. The course covers many lectures and materials, including early life in Africa, slavery and slave trade, colonialism and independence struggles, the intersection of mourning and art, popular culture, the environment, and others.

How do you incorporate your research and creative initiatives into your teaching?

I draw quite a lot from my research in my teaching, particularly on topics related to Kenya’s colonial history, ethnicity, and conflict. My academic background is in linguistics and Swahili literary studies. I have written and published many Swahili poems and short stories and am currently working on a novel. Therefore, incorporating these experiences and knowledge into my teaching often comes seamlessly. For the love of Swahili literature, I have also guest-lectured on early Swahili literature and the development of the Swahili novel in several courses in the African Cultural Studies Department.

Tell us about your experience pursuing a joint PhD degree in Anthropology and African Cultural Studies.

I think my joint degree in African Cultural Studies and Anthropology is new, maybe the first on campus, and is a unique combination. But it has been both challenging and fulfilling. It was challenging for me, especially when I had to complete all my PhD requirements – coursework and prelims – in both programs separately! I am glad that I completed that stage. Overall, it has been an exciting experience to bring my literary and humanities approaches to anthropological writing. Being an anthropologist and African Cultural Studies scholar makes available to me a wide range of academic tools and methods—ethnographic, literary, and so on—for more engaged scholarship on socio-political issues in Africa and the world.

 What are your research interests, and what are you currently working on?

My research interest is in resource-based conflict and post-violence memory. I returned in August 2020 from my ethnographic research in Mt. Elgon, where I lived for ten months, engaging with the residents who experienced the four-year ethnic violence between 2005 and 2008. I am currently writing my dissertation on embodied memories of violence in which I explore situated understandings of victimhood and villainy in Mt. Elgon, Kenya. I examine how people remember their traumatic past and how they have redefined their perspectives of victimhood, survivorship, or villainy in an environment where tension and fear still linger in the air. I have also been interested in how histories of land-related ethnic conflicts, autochthony, and memory intersect with environmental problems, including degradation and catastrophes. My recent publication, titled “The Problem of (un) Belonging: Memory, Land Conflict, and Environmental Degradation in Mt. Elgon, Kenya,” addresses these linkages between land, autochthony, environment, and memory of place (home).

Congratulations on releasing a new song. Tell us more about your creative work.

Thank you. Yes, I have been writing and singing church music for many years. I started way back in high school, where I wrote songs and performed them during school functions. I have found myself doing so many things, singing, storytelling, singing, and writing Swahili fiction—most of the time to express ideas and deep feelings that I cannot speak. Singing or literary writing is therapeutic for me. So, I have tons of songs, poems, and stories that I have not published for several years.

It has not been easy balancing between creative work and academic pursuits. I feel like I exist in three different worlds or selves (academic, literary, and now an emerging gospel music venture) in which I am still working on a more fluid co-existence. While fiction and poetry complement my academic writing in many ways, my music genre still seems to be a newcomer that has yet to find a home.

Tell us one thing about yourself that most people do not know about?

It is hard to figure out just one thing that people do not know about me. Maybe this one; I am the second born of the seven siblings in our family. Or: I worked in a bank as a credit officer before coming here for graduate school.

What are your future plans? 

For now, I am focused on writing and hoping to complete my dissertation this fall.

Published by Cecilia Kyalo.