Akshay Sarathi is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology and successfully organized the October Maritime Cultures on the East African Coast conference, sponsored by the African Studies Program. The African Studies Program caught up with him after to hear about the event, his work in archaeology and the Seafaring in East Africa (SEA) Project.
Hometown: Bangalore, India
What brought you to Madison?
The university, with its amazing program in archaeology. The Anthropology Department at UW-Madison is pretty amazing. There are many scholars who are interested in subjects related to my own, and they have been really helpful. My advisor and I share methodological interests, so it’s a perfect fit!
How did you first hear about/get involved with the African Studies Program on campus?
After my first year in grad school, my research interests crystallized and I began to identify myself as an Africanist. As I knew that UW-Madison had a good African Studies program, I found out about it online and began attending the Africa at Noon series. This was in 2013, and I haven’t looked back since.
How did you decide on East African maritime cultures as a conference topic?
Indian Ocean trade and commerce was always a fascination of mine, and what attracted me to Africa in the first place was the rich Indian Ocean culture in East Africa. However, I discovered that very few people were actually interested in East Africa’s entanglements with the Indian Ocean. So, I decided that one of the best things to do would be to hold a conference to bring people interested in the subject together. We need more people talking about this topic to create the exchange of ideas necessary for a discipline to progress.
What was a highlight from the event?
There are too many to count! I think the biggest highlight of the conference was everyone’s ability to critique without being mean. It’s not a specific event that I am thinking of, but more a sense of audience participation at the end of every lecture
What inspired your studies of Africa?
I really wanted to study the maritime cultures of East Africa. This region has long been a critical player in the Indian Ocean world, but it has not received the scholarly attention that it deserves. Therefore, I thought I could make a productive contribution to African as well as Indian Ocean studies if I studied the Swahili Coast.
Briefly tell us about your work, as it relates to Africa:
I am a zooarchaeologist, which means that I study the remains of animals at archaeological sites to understand how humans interacted with them, exploited them, lived with them, etc. I am currently excavating a cave on the island of Zanzibar. This cave was occupied by hunter-gatherers for thousands of years, and they have left the remains of countless meals in the cave. I identify these remains to try and understand how maritime adaptations developed on the Swahili coast.
Tell us about the organization you’ve created:
In 2014, I began the Seafaring in East Africa (SEA) Project, to study the origins and development of seafaring in the region. I hope that this project one day blossoms into a multidisciplinary venture that brings together experts from around the world to study the region. The primary aim of this organization is to encourage collaboration not only between scholars, but also between scholars and local communities in Africa.
What advice would you give students who are interested in studying Africa?
Try to abandon your preconceived notions of what Africa is and who Africans are. You’re likely to meet people in Africa to whom you would seem very privileged. Keep in mind that privilege and attempt to relate to people on their terms rather than yours. This will get you far in African studies.
What would you like to do after graduate school?
I would most like to teach and research at a top university. This is assuming I find a job at one, though!
Where would you most like to travel?
I really want to visit every country in Africa. There is just so much cultural diversity on the continent, and I would like to experience all of it.
Profile produced by Meagan Doll.
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