Winter 2008 Interaction
It is said that Stanford students want to do well and do good. There is no better place for their talents, intelligence and enthusiasm these days than Africa. There, political, cultural, environmental, health and infrastructural challenges offer students and their teachers from across the university an arena to test their knowledge, their tenacity and their imagination.
African studies emerged in the 1950s along with other area studies programs, but from the start it was different. Most obviously, it coincided with the independence and/or creation of some 40 countries in the space of very few years; around 20 attained independence in 1960 alone.
“The colonial experience provides us with a shared framework,” said Sean Hanretta, a historian who studies Islam in West Africa. “Colonialism defined what it meant to be African.”
The subsequent broad perspective meant that communication across disciplines was always relatively fluid. Political scientists, engineers, anthropologists, linguists and historians all had to deal with the structures and legacies of colonialism.
“Decolonization created African studies as a deeply engaged project,” said history Professor Richard Roberts, also a specialist on West Africa. “All those new states meant suddenly there was a need for a curriculum that could supply useful knowledge, and that allowed for interdisciplinary participation there, among Africans, working together, sharing methodologies. Everything was new and fresh. In that way, African studies is different than Asian or Latin American studies. There was a need for all sorts of knowledge and collaboration right away, from the very start.”
The second defining feature of African studies is that it has always been wrapped in issues of social justice. First decolonization, then the linkages between Africa and the diaspora coinciding with the U.S. civil rights movement, followed by apartheid and the South African transition and, most recently, development, genocide and disease prevention—all have provided researchers and students with possibilities to, as Roberts says, make a difference. It was a tapestry of human good and evil, of social structures and destruction. It was a call to action. And, as Roberts said, it was a laboratory.
“Students are mobilized by the great injustices, by the fact that we have the technology to solve problems in Africa and yet the problems persist,” said Jeremy Weinstein, assistant professor of political science and director of the Center for African Studies, founded in 1965. “It’s no longer just students interested in politics; today we have students from engineering, medicine, law. They’re all involved.”
Indeed, everyone participating in things African on campus, regardless of the discipline or department, comments on the enormous upsurge of student interest over the past decade. For one thing, it’s easier and safer to travel to Africa now than in the past. And in some ways the current interest surpasses the mobilizations of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, precisely because of its wide reach. Issues such as AIDS, acts of genocide in Darfur and Rwanda, the transition to democracy in South Africa, the effects of a globalized economy and the emergence of post-colonial literary movements draw in a vast range of students, all of whose projects end up, to some degree, being influenced by the others.
Roberts, who has taught at Stanford since 1980 and has been central to African studies since then, was unequivocal: “Student interest is booming and it shows no signs of abating. There’s no single reason, but what links it all are the opportunities to make a difference.”
Public health projects
Take health, for example.
“Stanford doesn’t have a public health program, so the medical people interested in AIDS and infectious diseases come to us,” Weinstein said. He and David Katzenstein, a research professor in infectious diseases at the School of Medicine, recently received funding from the Presidential Fund for Innovation in International Studies, administered by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, for a project called “Combating HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa: The Treatment Revolution and Its Impact on Health, Well-Being and Governance.”
A grant from the Woods Institute for the Environment has funded two assistant professors of civil and environmental engineering, Jenna Davis and Ali Boehm, and their Medical School colleague Gary Schoolnik in a pediatric health project in Mozambique, where the lack of clean drinking water leads to high childhood mortality.
In the Program in Human Biology, Robert Siegel, who also is an associate professor in the Medical School’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, teaches about health and development in Tanzania and leads three-week student workshops there. Similar overseas seminars on community development and public health in South Africa are taught by Timothy Stanton, former director of the Haas Center for Public Service. Haas, in turn, offers service fellowships to students who want to work throughout Africa.
“I had a student who went to the Tanzania seminar, a medical project,” recalled Norman Naimark, director of the Bing Overseas Studies Program and a professor of history. “He told me afterward that, for the first time in his life, he understood he wasn’t the center of the world. ‘My life changed,’ he said.”
The disproportionate number of Rhodes Scholars in African studies may be linked to their experiences while on field programs. Certainly the creation of student-led organizations can: FORGE (Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment) was founded in 2003 to work with refugees in Zambia. Students on that project established FACE AIDS in 2005, which has grown into a nationwide student organization mobilizing awareness and fundraising on behalf of Paul Farmer’s public health work in Rwanda and Zambia.
Stanford environmental projects are also making a difference.
A Woods Venture Program project led by biologist and ecologist Gretchen Daily, called “Natural Capital,” focuses on several areas of the world, among them the mountain ranges that stretch from Ethiopia to Mozambique. The area is described as a biodiversity hotspot where species extinction or endangerment, habitat loss, water shortages and deforestation are all serious threats with disastrous natural, economic and societal consequences.
But biodiversity is not only about flora and fauna. Archaeologist Lynn Meskell, a professor in the Department of Anthropology, has worked in South Africa’s Kruger National Park for the past few years and now is organizing an interdisciplinary team of researchers and students to begin work in Mapungubwe National Park. Underlying her work is the belief that archeological heritage, landscape, history and political power are interwoven, and that understanding the past, particularly in when it has been both created and ripped away by an oppressor, is a cultural process situated in a particular landscape. “Wilderness” and “nature” are terms laden with significance in Africa. Meskell is coordinating a Mellon grant to bring South African scholars to Stanford to study and work with students on heritage issues.
Tom Seligman, director of the Cantor Arts Center and himself a prominent Africanist, also promotes the need to expand disciplinary and conceptual categories when working in Africa.
“I work on biodiversity projects,” he said, “I talk to shamans and elders. But we have disintegrated and categorized the environment.” Maybe, he suggested, we can’t possibly understand what Africans—in his case the Tuareg, Berber descendants in West Africa—mean by environment.
A laboratory for politics
Opposition to authoritarian regimes, corruption and human slaughter in Africa also have mobilized students and faculty members. Weinstein, whose first book was a study of rebel violence in Uganda and Mozambique, has a project under way about political transparency in the Ugandan parliament, and one of his students recently worked on a Ugandan newspaper. The Law School has an international community law clinic in Ghana, and Roberts is editing a volume on domestic violence and the law in Africa. Larry Diamond, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is an internationally known expert on democratic development and regime change, and has participated in constitution writing in African nations.
Here, too, students are organizing: the Stanford branch of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), for example, was founded in 2005 and was instrumental in pushing the university to divest endowment holdings that could be seen to help fuel the genocide.
As Roberts says, the continent is in many ways a laboratory, a place unique on the globe for studying political processes. Naimark uses the same word: “The evolution of apartheid is an incredible laboratory for historians,” he said. “It was a political situation that grew over time in the most fearsome way, and the world lived with it.”
Supply and demand
The recent surge in student interest at Stanford unfortunately coincided with the retirement or departure of several faculty members.
“Students were leading the charge just as the course offerings were diminishing,” remembered David Abernethy, professor emeritus of political science. “So we went to the dean.”
An unusual series of searches ensued under the leadership of former Dean of Humanities and Sciences Sharon Long. Two positions in social sciences were announced, but three people were hired, two in anthropology and Weinstein in political science. An open humanities search followed. Some 200 people applied, representing seven departments, and the appointments went to Hanretta, in history, and Barbaro Martínez-Ruiz, in art and art history, whose current work, relying on history, anthropology, demography and even DNA research, traces the symbolic and artistic resonance between graphic writing systems in Central Africa and the Caribbean. He also is studying cave paintings in the African rainforest.
But even five new faculty members, plus Meskell, also a recent senior hire, can’t keep up with student demand. Working in rough environments, Roberts joked, perhaps makes Africanists likely candidates for administrative duties, a further strain on limited resources. Roberts is on leave this year, working on a book at the Humanities Center, and Martínez-Ruiz is in England, working with Stanford’s program in Oxford. Weinstein runs the Center for African Studies, and Elisabeth Boyi, an expert in Francophone literature, including that of Africa, is director of the Program in Modern Thought and Literature.
A shortage of course offerings is Weinstein’s biggest worry.
“For Stanford to make a meaningful contribution, we need strong area studies,” he said. “We need to provide the basics so we can put out a new generation of educated students. The center is a vehicle for that, but instruction, the content, is basic—the backbone.”
Traditionally, area studies programs, including African studies, received federal Title VI funds, which have dwindled. The center today is under the jurisdiction of the Division of International, Comparative and Area Studies (ICA) of the School of Humanities and Sciences, which supplies it with some funding. But Weinstein and his colleagues have embarked upon a coordinated effort to raise private donations specifically for their field so as to guarantee instruction and resources to meet student demand. A faculty retreat in the fall identified priorities for the future, among them new faculty positions and a three-quarter core sequence of courses.
In addition to its curriculum, Stanford has two extraordinary assets for African studies: the Cantor Arts Center, which has a small but representative African collection, a director with one foot in that continent and an upcoming show (sponsored with UCLA) on Zambian masks; and the University Libraries, whose African curator, Karen Fung, gets effusive praise for her web pages (used nationwide) and her collaboration with faculty and students. Stanford owns an extraordinary range of African maps, and the Hoover Institution has a huge collection of primary documents, thanks largely to Fung.
A new master’s program
Hanretta referred to the present period as “the era of the NGOs,” the era of foreign policy by other means. The potential of nongovernmental organizations as motors of social change appeals to students, who exhibit a “just do it” approach to social problems.
With that in mind, the Center for African Studies is initiating a one-year master’s program that will attract people interested in policy or NGO administration and students who want a PhD but aren’t sure in which discipline. The program will have three tracks: culture and society; health, well-being and environment; and political economy and security. The first cohort has two students, and the center is hoping for five or six more in the fall.
The center’s associate director, Kim Rapp, has her hands full organizing weekly talks, finding instructors to teach languages off the beaten track and advising students on how to get travel and research funds and link up with student groups. She’s also working with the Office of Development to identify people who might be interested in helping build an endowment for African studies at Stanford. She is drawing up a list of all the African studies graduates, starting from the 1960s.
“African studies graduates don’t tend to get rich,” she noted, “but it’s a start.”
Above all, she’d like to help create a community of Africanists at Stanford. While there are people across the schools and disciplines working on Africa, it is not always easy to get them in the same room (though the center’s Africa Table weekly lunches draw a healthy crowd of around 40 people). A calendar is key, Rapp said, echoing the observation of her peers in a multitude of departments. It’s hard to know what’s going on. So she’s working on centralizing all Africa-related events, student or otherwise, and starting a newsletter.
Abernethy, one of the key figures in African studies at Stanford since he arrived in 1965, said he didn’t want to lose touch with undergraduates when he retired in 2002. He realized that his students, “the best of the best,” were in a quandary when they graduated.
“We stay away from vocational implications” at Stanford, he said. “But I was worried about the questions I was getting from my students: ‘What do I do?’ And I was clueless. All we can tell them is, ‘Go get a PhD and clone yourself.’ I had gotten them all excited about African studies, and then I let them down.”
Job descriptions rarely include things like developing innovative solutions for helping people. And they generally don’t have a salary attached.
So five years ago Abernethy launched a development careers discussion group.
“We start by marching uphill, talking about ideal jobs,” he said. “Then we march downhill, away from idealism. The jobs don’t exist. So they have two choices. Give up and go make money, or be an entrepreneur and create the job. ‘Job creation’ is the group’s mantra.
“There are four issues: you, the job, the money and the organization. ‘So let’s experiment,’ I say. Students’ eyes are wide open. They say, ‘You mean I can do this?’”
Indeed they can. Alumni and role models who have visited the group include representatives of such ventures as kiva.org (online microcredit), the Global Fund for Women and Volunteers in Asia, as well as venture capital funds, the World Bank and the State Department.
“They’re doing African studies,” Abernethy exclaimed.
Take, for example, Abernethy’s former student Chris Maloney, “a force of nature,” according to his proud professor. Maloney, ’02, an African studies and economics double major, picked up a Harvard MBA and a master’s degree from the Kennedy School, moved through the Treasury Department, did some government advising in Africa and then found himself in the back of a truck.
The Rwandan government needed advice on how to solve transport and other infrastructural problems that were hampering overseas commerce. So Maloney, working for Genesis Analytics, a consulting firm in South Africa, hitched a ride on a container truck carrying coltan, a mineral from Central Africa used in the manufacture of electronics. For 1,700 kilometers, from Kigali through Uganda to Mombasa, Kenya, he took notes. The journey in July 2007 took five days, during which he kept close track of velocity, traffic flow, stoppages, bribes, accidents (often caused by right-hand trucks in left-hand countries), bumps, border crossings, rest breaks, weather and road repairs. Sixty percent of the time, the truck wasn’t moving.
“So instead of a huge computerized study, he knows exactly how it works and how to make it more efficient,” Abernethy said. “He reported from the back of a truck. Would the World Bank do this? I don’t think so!”