UW News

April 3, 2003

Program on Africa joins Jackson School

Eritrean poet Hidaat Ephrem — a staff member in the School of Music — will recite a poem for peace to open a celebration from 5:30 to 7 p.m. April 3 in 317 Thomson.  The occasion is the launching of a new era for the UW’s Program on Africa.

That’s when the 4-year-old Africa program officially moves to the Jackson School of International Studies, where it will join the widely known programs that study nearly every other major region of the world.

“This is truly exciting in terms of rounding out our worldwide coverage,” said Jackson School director Anand Yang. “It also is exciting in terms of making new kinds of connections, and in how it can help us diversify the school.”

Surviving as a grassroots project hidden away in Mary Gates Hall with virtually no budget, the Program on Africa nevertheless has managed to draw hundreds of local African immigrants each year to lectures, concerts and readings by the likes of award-winning Somali writer Nuruddin Farah and South Africa’s J.M. Coetzee.

It has proved equally popular with UW students, who routinely over-enroll the 20-some interdisciplinary classes on topics that range from patriarchal structures in African literature, to marine resources in Senegal, to AIDS in Kenya.

Yang intends to preserve that variety under the Jackson School wing, while gradually building the Africa program into a worldwide area-studies leader with a focus on the Horn of Africa. Washington state is home to one of the highest proportions of immigrants from that region, including people from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan — a population well-documented by Program on Africa students who two years ago conducted an extensive oral history of local African communities.

Undergraduates now can minor in African Studies, but plans are to eventually expand this option, in conjunction with American Ethnic Studies, into a major in African and African Diaspora Studies. Yang views that linkage as giving the Jackson School opportunities for studying the African American experience and attracting more students and faculty of diverse ethnic backgrounds. The Jackson School and the international studies field, Yang said, currently do not reflect society’s diversity.

Even before the move from Mary Gates Hall to 302 Thomson, the Africa program drew notice for such innovations as simultaneous courses at the UW and in Africa using the Web and videoconferences.

But the exploration of Africa has gone way beyond the “virtual” kind. Former program assistant Kirsten Marshall traveled through Senegal to do research on women and music and to study with a master of sabar drumming. Student Suzanne Wilson went to Kenya to help children with AIDS, a project that has grown into a fully funded nongovernmental organization that employs other student volunteers.

“We have a particularly committed bunch of students, who do incredible things in Africa that make a difference,” said Sandra Chait, the program’s associate director.

Gretchen Kalonji, the program director and a professor of materials science and engineering, said she is keen to open even more opportunities in Africa for UW students. One exchange program already is under way at the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa, and more are being negotiated in Eritrea, Namibia and Mozambique.

“We envision an undergraduate experience in which each student is involved in a focused research internship in Africa, as part of the core curriculum for the major we hope to be able to offer,” Kalonji said.

That will build, she said, on the model the UW Worldwide program developed with Sichuan University in China.

“The Jackson School offers a great home for the Program on Africa,” Kalonji added, “in its support for these new approaches to linking undergraduate education to multidisciplinary, collaborative research.”

Although the financial future of the Africa program is far from secure, the goal is to expand and deepen the University’s commitment to a faraway, varied and rapidly changing continent.

“To be honest,” Chait said, “the Jackson School is where people expect us to be.”