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Faculty Interviews

MASU asked a number of Maxwell faculty members to share the experience of how they came to the study of Africa and their current research projects. 

Professor Peter Castro, Anthropology

How did you come to the study of Africa?

I came to the study of Africa through a personal interest in the environment and people’s relationship to the environment.  I had a great professor in graduate school in UCSB named David Brokensha who kindled my interest in Africa.  He had a project in Kenya that focused on people and their interaction with trees, which I took a great interest in.

Could you describe your most current projects in African studies?

I have been working with the Near East Foundation on issues of economic recovery and peace building in Darfur.  I’ve travelled there twice recently to do training with project communities, foundation staff and performed some assessment work.  I did similar work in Mali in 2013.

What would you say are the most pressing concerns for the continent right now?

The issues of healthcare and food security are a very pressing concern right now.  However, the big challenge is finding ways for people to engage in building the sort of societies they want to live in as opposed to a development project from abroad coming in and imposing America’s vision of what African civil society should be.

What most important insight would you want your Maxwell students to take from the study of Africa?

I see my own role as a supportive one.  I hope to support my students in fulfilling whatever their vision is, so they are able to develop their own insights and understanding of African issues.  When I first travelled to Africa I had not travelled very much at all, and I appreciated that my professors gave me the space to form my own insights.

Professor Christopher DeCorse, Anthropology

How did you come to the study of Africa?

African history and archaeology have fascinated me as long as I can remember.  This interest began when my grandfather took me to the Historical Society Museum and the Buffalo Museum of Science.  I was also captivated by Louis Leakey’s discoveries on early human ancestors at Olduvia Gorge, in Tanzania that garnered international attention.  By the time I was 10 years old knew that I wanted to study African archaeology.  My undergraduate advisor encouraged me to spend time in Africa.  I subsequently went to Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer and, later, taught at the University of Ghana.

Could you describe your most current projects in African studies?

My research focuses on the impact of the Atlantic World-including the slave trade-on African societies. My recent fieldwork includes excavations at Bunce Island in the Sierra Leone estuary, which was the major slave trading center between the Senegambia and Ghana.  Bunce Island is particularly unique because it was one of the few places where enslaved Africans were taken directly from Africa to North America.  With the Sierra Leone Monuments and Relics Commission I am preparing a plan for the cultural preservation of the island.

What would you say are the most pressing concerns for the continent right now?

Healthcare is the most pressing concern.  Infrastructure is still lacking in many areas, but this concern is particularly pressing in terms of meeting basic healthcare needs. This is highlighted by the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, but basic healthcare, sanitation, and water remain unavailable in many places. I have had direct experience with some of these concerns.

What most important insight would you want your Maxwell students to take from the study of Africa?

Cross-cultural awareness.  Many people have naïve views of Africa’s past and present. The continent’s history is a complex tapestry that presents a rich history relevant to all of human kind. The slave trade and the movement of millions of enslaved Africans across the globe was integral to the shaping of the modern world.  Modern Africa presents an array of peoples, cultural traditions, and nation states.  People are different, and you have to get to know them and understand their culture, both past and present, in order to effectively interact with them.  This in-depth understanding is germane to grappling with modern problems.

Professor Audie Klotz, Political Science

How did you come to the study of Africa?

People often thought I was South African when I was younger, which peaked my interest in the country.  In graduate school I started studying food security and agricultural issues, and I took a trip to Zimbabwe which solidified my desire to study Africa.

Could you describe your most current projects in African studies?

I recently finished a book called Migration and National Identity in South Africa, 1860–2010 which explores South African immigration history over the last 150 years.  Published in the fall of 2013, the book suggests that democratization has channeled discontent into a non-racial nationalism that targets foreign Africans as a threat to prosperity, and suggests that a better understanding of South Africa’s complex segregation legacies is required in order to find a suitable government/societal response

What would you say are the most pressing concerns for the continent right now?

My biggest concern is the increased militarization of the continent.  The American military is increasingly paying attention to Africa, and I’m concerned about the consequences of that.

What most important insight would you want your Maxwell students to take from the study of Africa?

I’d like my students to take away the importance of understanding what’s happening on the continent in light of the broader international context.  You have to consider Africa within the wider global environment, even when studying issues at the local level.

Professor John McPeak, Public Administration & International Affairs

How did you come to the study of Africa?

I did a study abroad program in Kenya as an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University.  While I was studying sociology I came upon the idea of culture, and decided that I wanted to see the most different cultural that I could.  Additionally, I have a memory of walking with my older sister in our hometown of Jordan, NY.  I told her I wanted to go to Africa to see giraffes, and she said I wouldn’t so maybe I have been working all this time to prove her wrong! 

Could you describe your most current projects in African studies?

I have ongoing projects in Senegal and Mali exploring livestock transhumance corridors.  I’m also working with an impact evaluation team from the Land Project studying pastoralists in the southern part of Ethiopia (Borana and Bugi).  Additionally, I’m starting work on a project with Dr. Charles Benjamin of the Near East Foundation on building resilience in agricultural systems in Senegal and Mali.  Finally, I am working on index based livestock insurance in Kenya for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab, funded by USAID.

What would you say are the most pressing concerns for the continent right now?

In my realm, food security and increasing agricultural productivity in the face of changing climate regimes are the biggest concerns.  In a larger sense, I believe managing urbanization and increasing the quality of local governance are pressing issues. 

What most important insight would you want your Maxwell students to take from the study of Africa?

I would say the importance of appreciating the people and their humor and perseverance.  I’d like students to know that Africa is an incredibly fun place to work because of the spirit of the people.

Professor Deborah Pellow, Anthropology

How did you come to the study of Africa?

I started studying Africa as a graduate student in Anthropology at Northwestern University.  Northwestern had the original African Studies program in the country, and their library continues to be the best.  It simply made sense for me to take advantage of these resources during my time there.

Could you describe your most current projects in African studies?

I’ve been working with a group of Northern Ghanaians who are the first generation of a new educated elite that has completed secondary school in the north and now live in Accra as working professionals.  I’m interested in their relationship to their homeland, and how it relates to their current lives.

What would you say are the most pressing concerns for the continent right now?

I believe the most pressing concerns are the availability of work, the healthcare system and education.  Education really goes a long way, particularly in the African context.  It doesn’t solve every problem, but it makes a big difference. 

What most important insight would you want your Maxwell students to take from the study of Africa?

That it’s a real place, and African people have real lives.  That it’s different, but no less than what we are culturally used to, and that there is so much we can learn from Africa.  Each time I travel to Africa I’m reminded of how fortunate we are, and am struck by how the people manage to survive and continue to smile with very little. 

Professor Martin Shanguhyia, History

How did you come to the study of Africa?

I was born and grew up in the rural part of Western Kenya, and it’s always been my aspiration to study the places I grew up.  As a result, most of my studies have focused on Africa.

Could you describe your most current projects in African studies?

My most current project focuses on cross boarder relations in North Western Kenya between pastoralist communities (on the Kenyan side) and those living across the border in Sudan and Uganda.  I’m exploring their relationship in terms of the environment, access to resources and conflict dynamics in a historical context.

What would you say are the most pressing concerns for the continent right now?

The most pressing concerns are the usual struggles for basic needs such as food security, drought resulting in agricultural failure, access to shelter in urban communities and access to resources.  Access to resources is a particularly key issue for pastoralist communities in Central and Southern Africa, where land reform is an ongoing issue facing the government.

What most important insight would you want your Maxwell students to take from the study of Africa?

Africa is increasingly recognized by the international community as indispensable.  Africa has recently gained significance to the global community and has become influential in the context of climate change, global politics and epidemics (Ebola).  These are international challenges, and Africa has become influential in terms of how other countries relate to one another.  All this is evidence of Africa’s critical role in international relations, global public policy, development and security.