Lisa Maria de Sousa Dias’ Insights on Teaching and Researching Forced Migration in Africa

Lisa In Manica province during fieldwork in Mozambique

Could you share more about what led you to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science at UW-Madison?

Like so many others, my journey hasn’t been a linear one. As an undergraduate student at Mount Holyoke College, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in medicine or public health. But then on a whim, I took a course on International Human Rights with the incredible Professor Jon Western, who very sadly passed away a few years ago. That class opened my eyes to a whole new world and sparked a deep interest in issues of political violence, human rights, and justice. I also had the opportunity to work for various organizations and on research projects in Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique. These experiences inside and outside the classroom made me deeply curious to better understand how people live through and survive violent conflict and displacement, interests which eventually brought me to UW-Madison.

What motivates your interest in Africa and questions of forced migration?

My interest in questions of migration stems in part from my own personal background. With parents who were born in Kenya and Angola, but whose own family came from Zanzibar and Goa, and who left Africa during decolonization and settled in Portugal, my worldview has been indelibly shaped by migrations. My current research focuses on issues of forced migration and refugee return in Africa. Though voluntary repatriation is considered the preferred solution to refugee crises by state and international actors, we have often obfuscated the lived experiences of those most affected. My dissertation juxtaposes the varied experiences of displacement and return of Mozambican refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) and examines the consequences for notions of home and belonging. Ultimately, my dissertation aims to deepen our understanding of experiences of displacement and return and unsettles how we typically view the refugee/IDP binary.

This Teaching Fellowship collaboration between the African Studies Program and International Studies invited you to design and teach your own course. Could you share some insight into how you envisioned ‘Refugees and Forced Migration in Africa’?

When I first came across this exciting opportunity, I knew that I wanted to design a course that centered the lives of refugees and forced migrants in Africa. Indeed, while the vast majority of the world’s displaced people live in the global South including in sub-Saharan and North Africa, research and conversations on refugees and forced migration tend to focus on the global North. Grounding the study of refugees in Africa provides a critical vantage point for better understanding the lived experiences of those affected and exploring debates about borders, humanitarianism, encampment, and identity. In this discussion-based seminar, students critically examine theoretical debates through a series of empirical case studies from across the continent and engage with material from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, political science, critical geography, sociology, history, and legal studies. Importantly, throughout the semester, students interrogate the coloniality and eurocentrism embedded in concepts, institutions, and technologies deployed in the contemporary management of (im)mobility.

What are the key learning outcomes you hope students will achieve by the end of this course?

My ultimate goal is that students leave this course with an expanded capacity to critically engage with questions of forced displacement. I highlight two more specific learning outcomes here. First, I strive for students to build the conceptual and analytical tools to examine how power configures migration policies and realities. In this vein, students learn to situate existing understandings and responses to refugees and forced migrants within broader political and historical processes, consider the responsibilities of state and international actors, and break down the logics and limits of existing solutions. Second, I aim for students to deepen their knowledge of what it looks like and means to be forcibly displaced. To do so, students engage with material and discussions that complicate reductionist and dehumanizing portrayals of refugees. Centering the lived experiences of those forcibly displaced invites students to understand displacement, home, loss, coping, and belonging from the perspective of those most affected.

What has been a highlight of teaching this course?

During a class visit to the Chazen Musuem

A highlight has been witnessing students critically interrogate assumptions underlying the representation of African refugees in popular culture. Earlier in the semester, our class got the chance to visit the Chazen Museum (led by the fantastic student tour-guide Nathan Baker ’25) and discuss various pieces by African artists that depict themes of war and displacement. This visit was part of a larger unit where students examined the eurocentrism and coloniality present in narratives and images that circulate in the public imagination. This unit culminated in a written assignment where students were asked to examine how a piece of African art of their choice reinforces, complicates, or challenges dominant portrayals of displacement. Reading their essays, I was struck by their original and insightful analysis as students grappled with possibilities for decolonial imaginings and representations of human mobility.

How has teaching this course contributed to your personal and professional growth?
I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to teach this course. In addition to reaffirming my love for teaching, it provided an invaluable opportunity to develop myself as an educator. I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging in meaningful discussions with students and witnessing each of their intellectual growth over the semester. At the same time, this experience has been a challenging one and has pushed me to grapple with questions about my teaching philosophy and pedagogical approach. I’m very grateful for my conversations with Katie Jensen, Aleia McCord, Erica Simmons, and Scott Straus in the early stages of building this course. Each of these people created space for me to imagine what I really wanted this course to look like and what I wanted students to get out of it. This semester I also had the opportunity to participate in the Discussion Project. The tools and strategies I learnt about how to lead high-quality and inclusive discussions have been immensely impactful for how I approach teaching.


During a class visit to the Chazen Musuem
During a class visit to the Chazen Musuem