Monday, November 19, 2012

November has been my month

If there is a month that has allowed me to smile and be grateful it is November 2012. I am not talking about my personal life, no, that has been very good, my family is healthy and doing well in their various activities. I thank God for that. It is my professional side that has been really good. It started with my last few days of my time in Senegal where I was directing an institute on research on children and youth in Africa where the laureates were so kind and said how much they had learned from me and how I had shown them humanity. I was just trying to be myself and yet that seemed to touch a nerve for many of them who said I treated them as colleagues, something that they are not used to in their own universities. There were 14 laureates representing Senegal, DRC, Benin, Togo, Angola, Kenya, Nigeria, and Cameroon (3 had their PhDs, 10 were PhD candidates, and 1 was an MA candidate). You can see the whole team on the picture on the left where I am with the laureates and the staff members from CODESRIA.
The other highlight came a few days later when I received news that a proposal I had prepared along with a colleague seeking funding for a conference I am hosting at Calvin College in Internationalizing Christian Higher Education had been funded. You can see the conference announcement here:
At the American Anthropological Association meetings this past week (November 14-19) I was grateful to receive an award for "Outstanding Leadership and Scholarship in Africans Studies and Anthropology" (see trophy on the left) and then an honorable mention for my book "Reversed Gaze" from the Elliott Skinner Book Award for 2012, meaning my book was second to the winner (see certificate on right above and the cover of book below it). You can also read excerpts from the book here
This has been a good month indeed. I am a very grateful person!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

AAA in San Francisco

I am in San Francisco to attend the 111th annual meeting of the American anthropological Association. I have been attending these meetings regularly now since 2003 and I am kind of getting meeting fatigue. When I started attending I was all excited about listening to paper presentations and learn what new trends there are in our discipline. Today that excitement has dwindled and when I arrived yesterday and picked up my registration material I went through the program and there was nothing that struck me as exciting except the meetings I am involved in as president of our association (Association for Africanist Anthropology). As I was lying in my bed in my room I remembered an invitation to attend the inaugural AAA panel organized by the program chair Dr Carolyn Rouse of Princeton. I am glad I was able to attend because the panelists talked about the language of race in the just concluded electioneering process in the US. Thereafter I joined fellow members of the executive program committee for this year's meetings at a small reception in Carolyn's suite and met new folks and learned a little more about humans including the intriguing projections of what would happen if New York was flooded and the Japanese nuclear reactors failed. These scenarios were margined and presented publicly but when the actual disasters hit nothing had been done to prepare for them. I also learned about the complex lives of hunter gatherer societies that were involved in agriculture and trade in earlier centuries before reverting to hunting and gathering. This approach of course challenges what had been assumed in the pad about hunter gathering as the relics of our Stone Age economic practices. It is exciting to be at the AAA after all but I am finding that excitement outside of the regular paper presentations. I will try to go to a few presentations especially the ones where the presenters talk about issues relating to children and youth in Africa. So more next time.

Friday, October 26, 2012

TABASKI in Dakar, Senegal

As an Abrahamic faith tradition, Islam celebrates a day in October just about the end of Hajji (pilgrimage to Mecca) to commemorate Abraham's sacrifice when God provided a ram instead of his son. In Dakar this was celebrated on Friday October 26, 2012 and it was a big public holiday. Yesterday (Thursday October 25) the was quite deserted as the usual traffic jam we notice at 5:00PM were absent. There were billboards advertizing spices for Tabaski with a picture of a ram in them and wondered what it was all about until someone explained it to me. Well I was lucky to have a friend I met here in Dakar in 2008 who now works with CODESRIA and invited me to his house where I was able to see the entire ceremony and enjoy grilled meat with him and his family. You can see me happily getting ready to start feasting on grilled mutton on the picture on top left and the ram from which the meat came here on the top right. I had read about this celebration when I was an anthropology graduate student in Illinois in the early 1990s but the area of focus was Morocco. We had so much to eat that even as I write this at 8:15PM I am still so full. We started off with the first round of meat which was grilled liver and ribs then after having our fill we waited a few minutes and had Senegalese tea which has tea, sugar, and mint (my friend made it a little light knowing I was not a pro at it). It is supposed to assist in digesting the food which is a good thing because three hours later there was set another big tray of meat with french fries, baguette, sauted onions with olives, lettuce, soft corn and some cucumber and fresh tomatoes. After this second round we had another round of tea then some fruits (apples, bananas, and oranges) as we watched National Geographic featuring all kinds of snakes with narration in French. Watching teh whole process of Tabaski from slaughtering the sheep to skinning it and preparing it and then having it was a real treat for me and I am grateful for such rare opportunities.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Dispatches from Dakar

This is my room at the Marie Luciene Hotel in Dakar where I am staying for almost three weeks as I serve as director of CODESRIA's 2012 Child and Youth Studies Institute. CODESRIA stands for Council on the Development of Social Science Research in Africa and was established in 1973 to promote and facilitate social science across the continent. While driving from the airport Sunday morning (my South African Airways flight from DC arrived at 5:30AM) I was reminded of the many similarities one can find in African cities-stray dogs in the streets, a lot of people walking to various destinations as they weave through traffic, many old public transport vehicles where some passengers hang onto the cross bars with most of their bodies outside the vehicle, smell of vehicle fumes, and constant blowing of the horn. I also love the availability of all manner of wares on the streets, from roasted peanuts to USC football jerseys. And then there are the young ones who sit a little distance from the entrance to a popular fast food restaurant and quickly come to you with their hand out asking for some change. It is easy to ignore them but what about the older woman who crosses the street and says something in Wolof that you know is about some little food or change for her? Back in the hotel I am typing away and using some free internet from someone who has not protected their Wi-Fi with a password. You gotta love these macbooks and their ability to "smell" a Wi-Fi connection from miles away:). I am looking at the clock on my computer and it says 7:16PM and my wrist watch says 11:16PM local time which means my family in the US is just about to finish their dinner or probably coming from a volleyball practice while I am just about to get into bed and think about some intelligent things to tell my 15 colleagues from ten different African countries about trends in research on African children and youth. I think it's time to say bye bye.......

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dispatches from Chennai

It's 5:00pm August 15 in Grand Rapids and 2:30am in Chennai India. I have just arrived for a week of meetings. I was met by our Asia/Oceania regional director of IAPCHE who made sure I was settled in my hotel room. Then I found that I could use my old iPhone and get wi-fi at the hotel so that's good as I needed to do some things via Internet before my three hours of sleep.
My first impressions of Chennai are a sense of the familiar. Reminds me of Dar Es Salaam, Mombasa, and Dakar--the warm humid coastal weather as well as the many cars and motorbikes and people late at night. Even the layout of the city reminds me of many cities in East Africa (see picture above). The taxi that got us to the hotel reminded me of the experience of driving in Nairobi, always blowing the horn, driving at high speeds between cars and motorbikes, and trying to avoid stray dogs in the middle of the city. In other words I am quite at home here. Given the long history of Indians in Kenya and much of East Africa, I found myself quite attuned to the cuisine--mostly rice, some type of flat bread (chapati, roti, paratha, or nan), curries, and sweet desserts made from rice. What was familiar and yet a little different was the constant blaring of horns from motorbikes and vehicles. As I asked around I was told that drivers are actually expected to blow their horn as a way to signal that they were passing or cutting across the road to go to the next lane. In fact this is expectation is written on some trucks as I discovered (see picture on the left). I also noticed that a lot men have moustaches and women have long hair. But the highlight of my trip has to be the hospitality and formality of the people I interacted with. This is very much the kind of cultural practice I am used to--where you address someone with their last name and use their professional title, standing when speaking to someone, and even standing when someone of higher social status enters the room. From Chennai I flew to Goa, a city that was a Portuguese settlement for many years and still shows some of the cultural influences in its architecture as well as names of streets and buildings. Goa is also a tourist destination and many items are expensive and every other vehicle I saw was for tours. Nonetheless it was in this space that we spent four days with College principals from Christian institutions in India talking about leadership issues in the 21st century. Fascinating time and place. I am definitely hoping to get back to India and for a longer period so that I can visit many states and see more areas of the country.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Getting Ready for India

I am getting ready for my first trip to southern India--Chennai and Goa--to participate in two professional meetings hosted by IAPCHE (the organization I work for). How do I prepare for such a trip? Well I have such a well organized colleague in India who has arranged my time in country so I guess I do not have to worry too much about it. That notwithstanding I still wonder what it will be like and what surprises will be in store for me. I am actually looking forward to tasting the local cuisine because of India's influence on east Africa's cuisine over the last hundred years after the British brought to east Africa Indian workers to build the Kenya-Uganda railway. It will be interesting to compare those local meals with what I am used to both here in the US and back home in Kenya. I also want to see how leadership in Higher education is experienced and expressed in India. In a country with the highest number of higher education institutions (31,324) in the world but third in the number of students in those institutions (at 14.6 million compared to China's 26.7 million and the US's 18.3 million) I am eager to see a little of the on-the-ground realities. What are some of the challenges facing higher education there and how does the leadership anticipate responding? What are some of the similarities and differences between Indian higher education and the US and Kenyan ones? Sure will be an interesting trip, I hope!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Of Child Sponsorship

During my trip to Zambia in September 2011 I had a chance to witness the challenging realities of child sponsorship programs. I was able to visit a community in Southern Province of Zambia through the networks of a local Christian NGO. On the day of the trip to the school that was part of the child sponsorship program managed by the NGO, we traveled in three Toyota Land Cruisers along with some of the program officers. When we arrived on site we were informed that we would be paired up with the sponsored children at the school so we could help them write letters to their sponsors. I remembered some examples I have had in the US where those who sponsor children in a far away place really cherish the letters they receive “from their sponsored children,” and wondered if it was okay that we would be helping the children write the letters to their sponsors.
We arrived at the school and we were soon a spectacle—all the students at the school stopped whatever they were doing and stared at the visitors. One of the teachers at the school welcomed us into one of the classrooms that had been emptied of ninth grade students who had been studying pollination and hybrid agriculture. When we sat down we were briefed about the procedure of the visit by one staff member from the NGO. He basically said that he needed our assistance in helping the kids write letters to their sponsors because the kids mostly did not speak very good English and needed some help in constructing their letters to their sponsors. Our local guide told the hosts the reason for us being there stating, “we want these students to tell the sponsors that they have seen the sponsored children. The sponsors in America want the kids to tell them if they have received the money sent to them.”
I know a little about child sponsorship because I have taught courses in community development that focus on that very issue. I remember having my students read a book by Erica Bornstein on development as implemented by faith based organizations in Zimbabwe titled “The Spirit of Development.” When they finished reading a chapter on child sponsorship they became so skeptical of the value of the program. I had to intervene and help them see the value of the program especially when it is done well and when all those that are involved clearly understand the cultural contexts within which each operates (so as to sharpen their understanding of expectations). In one such courses I remember a student asking me in class if I knew why her aunt gets letters from sponsored children that look different (like they are written by different people) and whose stories make no sense. This question came after we watched a documentary about aid in Africa titled “What Are We Doing Here?” in which one part showed children in a child sponsorship program in Ethiopia where the monies sent from abroad did not go directly to the kids sponsored but instead went to the family and community. The students felt that this kind of arrangement was unethical because the organizations ask for money on behalf of a child and then channels it to the community. The argument by the community officer in the video was that when a community changes for the better the child changes for the better. In other words the child is a part of community and she/he is in that condition of need because he/she is part of the larger system in the family and community. You cannot seek to make his/her life better apart from her community unless you take him/her completely out of her community. One the one hand the recipients of sponsorship dollars know only too well that few sponsors will give money if they are told it is to go to help a community. A child is a much more appealing “tool” to get money from sponsors than a family or community. But children are part of families and communities in which there are other members that are in need too. On the other hand sponsors want direct communication with the children they sponsor, they want to know how the money they send to the child is used and if it has any tangible results in the child’s life.
Being at that school in Zambia that day brought my students into a reality check. They were able to see twenty individuals struggling to assist as many kids write letters to their sponsors. I had a young girl who was in sixth grade named Steria. First of all she did not respond to my questions and kept looking away and had her hand over her mouth as she was talking to me when I pushed her to speak. I was told that in the local culture being silent is a sign of respect as was averting one’s gaze. The latter I am familiar with because it is common in many African cultures that I am familiar with where a younger person does not look an elder in the eye when talking. But here I was trying to speak with this sixth grader who could barely speak to me or speak English. I was determined to help her write to her sponsor. I had with me a pencil and a template of a letter to a sponsor provided by the local NGO. Earlier on the program officer from the NGO had mentioned that he writes the letters on behalf of many of the children. He has a thousand children in the program so far and because the majority of the kids cannot write the letters it made sense that he was the one who ended up writing to their sponsors. In my case I had to literally tell Steria what to write. At first I tried to ask her what she wanted to say to her sponsor but nothing was forth coming. I wondered what her concept of her sponsor was and if she ever imagined or even pictured what that person looked like or thought. A colleague helping a young boy next to me did not have any luck either. I think the boy ended up writing his letter in Chitonga (the local language). After helping Steria write, “My name is Steria Munsaka I am in grade six,” I asked her to write something else and she wrote “tgay seman,” telling me it was something about her teacher. I knew we were going to spend the whole day on one sentence. I had to actually show her the letters of the words I was asking her to write. I remembered our youngest daughter who last year as a sixth grader was reading books of more than 300 pages and here was a girl her age who could write nothing else in English except her name. The inequality was astounding! How does Zambia compete in the global market? I finally asked Steria to draw something to be taken to her sponsor and she drew a girl and a boy. I then showed her how to write “thank you” and asked her to write her name. That took us 40 minutes to complete. If I were to expect that each child will really write a letter to her sponsor and would need about 40 minutes then how do I make sure a 1000 of them do so in a way that the sponsors can decipher the intended messages? I know that there were a handful of students from 9th grade that were quite ready to write and did a good job but the majority were those who basically needed the letters written for them.
This scenario (which is repeated in many communities all over Zambia) forces the NGO officer to become the mediator between the sponsored child and the sponsor. And since the child does not really have any tangible relationship with the sponsor the NGO representative also decides what the sponsor needs to know about the child. I heard many of my American students trying to share with the local students some of the things they might consider sharing in their letters. They asked the local students questions such as, “what do you love to do when not in school”; “what subjects are you enjoying in school”; “what do you want to become after finishing school”; “what sports do you play”; “tell me a little about your family,” etc? These are the kind of questions an American child might consider important to answer about self but I wonder how many of these kinds of questions really are part of these local Zambian kids’ realm of experience? Given that the kids are given gifts not money because the money goes to pay for costs related to their livelihood what should they tell the donor? I asked the NGO program office later what the kids get and he mentioned that they get supplies for school including uniform and books as needed, medical care, and their families get food, cooking oil, and other things such as a mattress for the child that he/she is allowed to share with siblings.
How else do you assist a child if not within the context of the household he or she is living? Can you just buy food for the one child who is sponsored?  But that is the reality of transnational development. It is what I would call the “challenge of accountability” that requires individuals that have been sponsored to report to their sponsors what direct benefits the sponsorship has brought to their lives. It is expected that a sponsor should make sure that money given is being put to good use of the child in whose name the money is requested. However, we are dealing with two very different cultural contexts: one is based on individual autonomy and the other is based on an individual as an integral part of a community that works to achieve a common goal. Standing out in such a community is not highly encouraged or even a common reality. Given this scenario, therefore, my assumption is that to the sponsor in America it is not enough to have a member of community write on behalf of the child and say in general terms what the sponsorship has done for the child and community he/she lives in (because no one sponsors a community and yet the child exists in community). Even before these sponsored kids got to worry about their education, they would have to have their other basic needs met. Many of the children I saw in that school had signs of great economic need; many had no shoes and their school uniform was torn. The school itself has 571 students and only ten teachers (an average of 57 children per teacher) and goes up to grade nine. The classrooms had dirt floors and some had no windows or doors. How do these children really use education as their bridge from their current status of poverty?

Friday, March 30, 2012

My Sojourn to New York

Episode 2:
After three days in Harlem I feel like I am getting a sense of the place eve though I have only been to a few locations. My highlight has to be having brunch at the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem (picture on left) which is owned by chef Marcus Samuelsonn ( who my family and I have watched and rooted for in a competition on food channel. The place was jam packed at 10:30AM and I was lucky to get a place to sit because I was alone; I was squeezed between two parties which made me feel a little awkward because I had no one to talk to and I did not wan to eavesdrop on other people's conversations. I decided to read world news from Al Jazeera on my iphone.
The other highlight was being part of an advisory group for the Museum for African Art that is planning an exhibit on African hip hop and the biggest challenge was how to plan and execute a show that tries to capture something as elusive (or is it called ephemeral) as music that changes every day (our meeting was on Saturday March 31, 2012). Do we include the debates over the origins of hip hop or the notion of African hip hop copying US artists? Do we have live music or music piped through speakers? Should we have still pictures or videos or both? Should we have images of certain objects associated with hip hop and what would those be? It is in thinking through these challenges that I think the museum staff will be able to put together a show that honors all these issues while giving audience members a slice of African hip hop as contemporary urban art form. I look forward to future conversations and to finally see the show itself. I have not been in such a meeting where the majority of the invited people were anthropologists--out of eight people invited excluding museum staff there were five anthropologists! What a delight!!!
Tonight (4.2.12) I am at the Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture talking about African hip hop along with fellow anthropologist Jesse Shipley of Haveford. Should be an interesting episode tring to gauge what the audience may be like. The education director for the museum summed it this way: "We can anticipate a range of people in attendance, from those people who have a general interest in Africa to those who are from specific African countries and know about the political climate there; and from those people who like music but may not be familiar with highlife or the current hiphop scene, to musicians who have been actively involved in the New York hip hop scene." The best way to prepare for this kind of event is to NOT prepare at all and pray that the knowledge you have accumulated over the years of studying African music and hip hop will be enough to share and not look like a fool.

Episode 1:

It's Friday March 30th 2012 and I am on a trip to New York to be part of a consultation team for the Museum for African Art's project on African hip hop. My flight was scheduled to leave Grand Rapids at 6:02PM but was delayed till 6:30PM. We arrived in Cincinnati at 7:15PM and had to wait for a crew that was coming from Chicago. Our flight that was scheduled to leave Cincinnati at 7:55PM left at 10:10PM so I arrived in New York at 12:10AM (Saturday). Since I did not have any meetings scheduled on Friday I was not worried about the delays and catching a few naps in the airplane was not so bad. Arrival at the LaGuardia airport I went for a taxi and i was one of those famous yellow cabs where the driver does not open the door for you (I guess leaving in the small cities of the midwest I can get a little spoiled). Gave the driver my directions and sat back as I watched some potpourri of NBC shows on the small television screen in the cab. A commercial for Betty White's new show of senior citizens pulling pranks on younger people was the only interesting thing I saw.
Upon arrival at my hotel (Aloft Harlem on Frederick Douglas Blvd) I walked into a reception area adjacent to a pub where loud music was playing and the revelers enjoying their drinks as the danced and sung with abandon. What a nice welcome into the city. Thankfully my room is six floors above the club and so far I cannot hear the noise. I am looking forward to a few hours of sleep and then onto our consultation meetings in the morning (oh wait it is technically morning already).