University of Wisconsin–Madison

Africa in Our Lives: Matthew H. Brown

"Be interdisciplinary. There are so many talented scholars working in so many different fields on this campus and you should avail yourself of all of them." - M. H. Brown (Photo courtesy of Brown)
“Be interdisciplinary. There are so many talented scholars working in so many different fields on this campus and you should avail yourself of all of them.” – M. H. Brown (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)

Matthew H. Brown, assistant professor of African Languages & Literature, was no stranger to the African Studies Program when he began his faculty position in Fall 2014. From attending Africa at Noon to coordinating the African Storytelling on Wheels project, Brown has always been enthusiastic in his involvement.

Field of study: African Languages and Literature
Hometown: Jefferson City, MO

What brought you to Madison?

The opportunity to work with some of the best African studies faculty in the world.

What’s your favorite part of campus?

The Terrace, no question.

What inspired you to study Africa?

A life-long interest. When I was 2-years-old, my father accepted a one-year contract working with the government of Botswana on wildlife management. He renewed that contract twice. I can’t say I knew Botswana well as a toddler, but Gaberone is the site of my earliest memories. As I grew up in the U.S., and as I heard about “Africa” in school or watched films about the continent, I felt like what I was hearing and seeing and what I remembered were quite different. As an undergraduate college student, I studied abroad in Ghana. When I returned from that trip, I knew that I wanted to make an extended commitment to learning about the politics and arts of the continent.

Briefly tell us about your research, as it relates to Africa:

I study the relationship between motion pictures and politics in Nigeria. The immediate goal of my research is to create a better understanding of the origins of “Nollywood,” the video film industry that has exploded over the last two decades; however, that immediate goal has led to deep historical research on state television and colonial cinema. Nollywood is a new chapter in the long relationship between motion pictures and the modern Nigerian state.

What advice would you gives students who are interested in studying Africa?

Be interdisciplinary. There are so many talented scholars working in so many different fields on this campus and you should avail yourself of all of them. As in any part of the world, an understanding of African politics isn’t complete without an understanding of African arts. An understanding of African health isn’t complete without an understanding of African history. Etc, etc.

How did you first hear about and/or get involved with the African Studies Program on campus?

The first social event I ever attended on campus was an African Studies gathering on the Terrace (combining my two favorite things about UW-Madison).

What ASP activities or positions have you participated in?

Too many to name! I think of my work as interdisciplinary, so I always want to know what other Africanists are up to. I’m a religious adherent of Africa at Noon. I’ve seen numerous ASP conferences come and go. I have done some outreach, including coordinating the African Storytelling on Wheels grant a few years ago. And I have helped program film series for ASP.

Brown stands at the entrance of Tinapa Studios, a derelict Nigerian government project, overgrown with grass, that has never been used by Nollywood filmmakers. (Photo by Sarah Gabbert Brown)
Brown stands at the entrance of Tinapa Studios, a derelict Nigerian government project, overgrown with grass, that has never been used by Nollywood filmmakers. (Photo by Sarah Gabbert Brown)

What was a highlight from these experiences?

The African Storytelling on Wheels project was an amazing experience. The African Studies Program provided administrative support for the program, which was grant funded. My job was to set up outreach events as Wisconsin elementary schools. At the events, UW-Madison students of African origin delivered storytelling presentations that captivated and opened the eyes of kids across the state. My favorite part of the program was driving the van in which the storytellers traveled. The excitement, as well as apprehension around using stories to teach young children about Africa often produced energetic and fascinating conversations that bounced around inside that van as we careened through the Wisconsin landscape.

What will you be working on/instructing in your new position with AL&L?

My first teaching assignments are classes developed by emeritus professor Harold Scheub. I feel honored to teach his classes, especially The African Storyteller, which has consistently been one of the most popular courses on campus for 43 years. What shoes to fill! But the fact is that I’m not filling them. I am also creating an online version of The African Storyteller, which will feature audio and video of Professor Scheub’s lectures. So at this point, I’m just helping preserve his legacy. In the future, I will be introducing new courses in African cinema and media studies to the Department’s offerings.

What is something that you are looking forward to this academic year?

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Department of African Languages and Literature, the only department of its kind in the United States. There will a number of exciting events, including a festschrift for Harold Scheub, Africa at Noon lectures by distinguished alumni, a graduate student conference, and a conference in the spring on the future of African cultural studies. I especially look forward to the latter, which I anticipate will mark significant moment in the history of my field.

Profile produced by Meagan Doll.

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