Doing African Studies

[Image - Doing African Studies]

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. Political, cultural, environmental, health and infrastructural challenges offer students and their teachers an arena to test their knowledge, tenacity and 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 or creation of some 40 countries; 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."

Communication across disciplines concerned with Africa has always been fluid. Political scientists, engineers, anthropologists, linguists and historians all deal with the structures and legacies of colonialism.


Richard Roberts, Professor of History and director of the Center for African Studies.
Photo: L.A. Cicero

"Decolonization created African studies as a deeply engaged project," said history Professor Richard Roberts, a specialist on West Africa and director of the Center for African Studies. "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."

Social justice

Stanford's Center for African Studies was founded in 1965. As elsewhere, African studies has been closely linked to issues of social justice: decolonization, the diaspora, the U.S. civil rights movement and South African apartheid and, more recently, development, genocide and disease prevention. All have provided researchers and students with possibilities to make a difference.

"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. "It's no longer just students interested in politics; today we have students from engineering, medicine, law. They're all involved."

There has been an enormous upsurge of student interest over the past decade. For one thing, it's easier and safer to travel to Africa now. And AIDS, 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 many students, all of whose projects end up, to some degree, multidisciplinary. They seek to make a difference.

Public health projects


Jeremy Weinstein
Photo: L.A. Cicero

"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, have received funding from the Presidential Fund for Innovation in International Studies, administered by the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies, for their project "Combating HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa: The Treatment Revolution and Its Impact on Health, Well-Being and Governance."

Over the past three years, Stanford researchers and colleagues from Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana have developed an interdisciplinary project through the Southern African Treatment Research Network to study the impact of antiretroviral therapy on drug resistance in the region.

"The challenge of AIDS and infectious diseases on a global scale needs to be addressed one person, one pathogen and one project at a time," Katzenstein said.

Another interdisciplinary grant, from the Woods Institute for the Environment, has funded two assistant professors of civil 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. Davis also works on a similar water project in Tanzania.

A different sort of medical project, the Stanford-South Africa Biomedical Informatics training program, brings together scientists and physicians from Stanford and the University of the Western Cape who work in biomedical research, especially HIV informatics. It is led by Russ Altman, chairman of the Department of Bioengineering.

In Human Biology, Robert Siegel, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, teaches about health and development in Tanzania and leads three-week student workshops there. Similar seminars on community development and public health in South Africa are taught by Timothy Stanton, director of Stanford's new center in Cape Town.

"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."

Among the student-led organizations involved in Africa are FORGE (Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment), which works with refugees in Zambia, and 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.

Biodiversity projects

Stanford environmental projects are also making a difference in Africa.

Researchers from the Program on Food Security and the Environment, including Weinstein and economist Rosamund Naylor, are studying the food and crop crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. The group is especially interested in linkages among food, political crises and global warming.


Marcus Williams, ’09, an international relations major, took this picture of Joshua Harder, ’08, a political science major, and a young friend in Tanzania in 2006.

A Woods 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 threats with disastrous natural, economic and societal consequences.

But biodiversity is not only about flora and fauna. Archaeologist Lynn Meskell, a professor in the Anthropology Department, has worked in South Africa's Kruger National Park and is organizing an interdisciplinary team of researchers and students to work in Mapungubwe National Park. In her view, archeological heritage, landscape, history and political power are interwoven. Understanding the past, particularly how 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.

A laboratory for politics

Opposition to authoritarian regimes, corruption and human slaughter in Africa also have mobilized students and faculty members. Weinstein is studying political transparency in the Ugandan parliament. The project includes a campaign to mobilize Ugandans to text-message about their elected representatives' performance. The Law School runs an international community law clinic in Ghana, and Roberts is editing a volume on domestic violence and the law in Africa.

And just as with public health programs, students are organizing around political issues. The Stanford branch of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, or STAND, helped push the university to divest endowment holdings that could be seen to help fuel the genocide.

The continent is in many ways a laboratory, a place unique on the globe for studying political processes. Naimark said, "The evolution of apartheid is an incredible laboratory for historians. It was a political situation that grew over time in the most fearsome way, and the world lived with it."

Supply and demand

In the past several years, five new faculty members have been hired. Still, Stanford can't keep up with student interest.

A shortage of course offerings is one of the African studies program's biggest worries.

"For Stanford to make a meaningful contribution, we need strong area studies," Weinstein 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; it's 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. The center has launched a campaign to raise private donations to guarantee that instruction and resources meet student demand. Priorities for the future include new faculty positions and a three-quarter core sequence of courses.


A Tuareg windscreen from Mali, made of leather and reeds.
Courtesy Cantor Arts Center

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; and the University Libraries, whose African curator, Karen Fung, earns praise for her web pages (used nationwide) and her collaboration with faculty and students.

Stanford also owns an important range of African maps, and the Hoover Institution has a huge collection of primary documents, thanks largely to Fung.

Development careers

Six years ago David Abernethy, professor emeritus of political science, launched a development careers discussion group to help students interested in African studies continue their work after graduation.

"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 from Kiva (online microcredit), the Global Fund for Women, Volunteers in Asia, venture capital funds, the World Bank and the U.S. 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, earned a Harvard MBA and an MA from the Kennedy School, worked at the Treasury Department, did 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 metallic ore 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 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!"