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American Magazine


Into Africa

Youth haul water around Freetown, Sierra Leone, on carts built of scrap wood.

Youth haul water around Freetown, Sierra Leone, on carts built of scrap wood. In an upcoming publication, Susan Shepler looks at the “bearing boy” phenomenon and how it fits into the economy. (Photo courtesy of Betty Press)

Africa, even in the last decade, was not a place where many students went to study abroad or intern. A tough place to research, it was always a bit in the scholarly shadows.

That’s no longer the case, particularly at AU, where a growing number of courses and faculty members focus on aspects of the complex continent.

A. Carl LeVan, who studies Africa and teaches at the School of International Service, thinks it’s no accident that the boom in interest coincides with a wealth of new data. “We have information about Africa, and access to people and politicians and histories and data, that were inaccessible even 10 years ago,” he says. “We’re better equipped at a scholarly level to answer the questions we’ve always been asking.”

Faculty have done research all over the continent, including Malawi, Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa. The Council on African Studies, chaired by LeVan, has identified at least 20 faculty members across AU with research interests in Africa.

There are alternative breaks to Africa, study abroad programs, and an increasing number of internships. LeVan’s undergraduate course, Civilizations of Africa, collaborated across the miles with a class at ABTI-American University of Nigeria, with students reading the same assignments, posting homework on a joint blog, and engaging in lively debates.

At a recent organizing meeting on Africa studies, some 50 students packed the room. Many had traveled or worked in Africa already; others planned to go. “That’s momentum,” says LeVan. “That’s excitement. That’s energy.”

The people in the next pages are contributing to the momentum as scholars, students, and alumni. They know what it is to work, travel and do research in the vast, diverse and changing continent. — Sally Acharya

Pete Muller, CAS/BA ’05

Pete Muller, CAS/BA ’05 (Photo courtesy of Pete Muller)

Following the Lead

Pete Muller (Uganda, Somalia)

For journalist Pete Muller, CAS/BA ’05, it’s all about the story. And that pursuit has already taken him far from AU. Just days after receiving his degree in history, Muller took a job as a journalist for a Palestinian news agency. “Journalism and documentary work seemed like the logical thing for me to do,” Muller says.

Most recently, Muller’s work led him to Uganda and Somalia. As a correspondent for Glimpse, a magazine and Web site supported by National Geographic, Muller traveled to Uganda to document the return of millions of refugees to their homes after more than a decade of internment at internally displaced persons camps.

Muller covered a group of refugees in northern Uganda. Their backgrounds differed: some had been fighters in the rebel army, some members of the government’s army, and some apolitical refugees. But they had one thing in common: billiards. This eclectic group had banded together to form a billiard team.   

Unexpectedly, the refugee teammates also developed deep bonds, looking out for one another by dividing winnings and resources.

“I’d go and take photographs of these guys,” says Muller, “but I spent 75 percent of my time getting to know them, interviewing them formally and informally, [getting] a sense of their personalities, background, and circumstances—finding out what led them to this pool hall.”

Muller’s work with the refugees led to a contract with the Danish Demining Group to document traditional and alternative mine clearance programs in Uganda and Somalia. In addition to removing mines and unexploded ordinances, these programs provide locked storage devices for weapons and implement social programs to diminish the status of firearms in the culture.

Muller says his study of history informs his work. “The topics of war, uprising, social movements, and sexuality defined my course of historical study at AU and generated a deep curiosity in the modern aspects of these issues,” he says. “Through a combination of photography, text, and audio recordings, I hope to illustrate broader issues through individual stories.” — Anne Lacy CAS/MFA, ’09

Adapted from CONNECTIONS, Fall 2009, College of Arts and Science. Photos courtesy of Pete Mueller

Susan Shepler and her research assistants spent months traversing countries in West Africa. That team consisted of, from left, Shepler, Wusu Kargbo, Sia Mani, David Mackieu, Nathaniel Boakai, and Fertiku Harris.

Susan Shepler and her research assistants spent months traversing countries in West Africa. That team consisted of, from left, Shepler, Wusu Kargbo, Sia Mani, David Mackieu, Nathaniel Boakai, and Fertiku Harris. (Photo courtesy of Susan Shepler)

Lost and Found in West Africa

Susan Shepler (Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia)

Africa is rough terrain for a researcher. 

It’s not just the sketchy roads, sweltering heat, or threat of disease in much of the continent. It’s also the comparative lack of data. Information is hard to come by. Records are often minimal and unreliable.

Susan Shepler knows this well. Back in the 1980s, she was a Peace Corps math teacher in Sierra Leone, and developed a love for the region that turned into an academic passion. She has logged many miles in West Africa as a scholar and program evaluator, often spending months at a time in the field.

Her most recent project is a window into the challenges of studying Africa and a glimpse into how it’s changing.

The SIS professor took a half-year research sabbatical to travel across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia in pursuit of an answer to the question often posed by those who work in international development. What is the long-term result of a program in which an international nonprofit invested significant time and resources?

In the 1980s and 1990s the Inter-national Rescue Committee had trained hundreds of teachers living in refugee camps in Guinea after fleeing violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. With the conflicts over and the teachers gone from the camps, the IRC wanted to know what became of them and whether their training in teaching methods, health, and conflict resolution had been useful.Yet no one quite knew where they’d gone.

In Shepler’s hands were the names of about a hundred teachers last seen in Guinea. The best places to look for them, she reasoned, would be the countries they’d fled. That narrowed the search—to some 139,000 square miles.

Shepler’s academic research had taken her past armed checkpoints in the back country of Sierra Leone, so she was game for the challenge of riding motorbikes through Sierra Leone and Liberia and joining the crowds on local buses as she hunted for the former refugees in countries that were now at peace.

This time she worked with a team of six research assistants—some of them former refugee teachers in Guinea, some of them teacher trainers—who knew the region and its issues well. They fanned out across Sierra Leone and Liberia, tracing leads, calling each other with tips, and meeting up regularly with Shepler, who crisscrossed the two countries to oversee the team and, along the way, conduct her own interviews.

How did they fare on their hunt?

“Cell phones have made a huge difference. Everyone has a cell phone now,”Shepler says. Community ties were also still strong so friends and neighbors were keeping in touch across the miles. “One person would say, ‘Oh, this guy Sam? I think he went to Monrovia. I think this is his number.’ At the end of each interview, we’d ask for more names. But sometimes it was just a wild goose chase.”

In the end, Shepler and her team tracked down over 600 people, many of whom were still teaching.

Were the onetime refugees still using their teacher training?

In some cases, the answer was ‘yes.’ Health training had proved to be useful, as did conflict resolution training, which they were applying in everyday conflicts over things like land disputes.

Implementing the training in teaching methods was more difficult. Teachers in schools with several IRC-trained teachers had some luck in bringing about change,but for many, it proved too difficult for a single teacher to buck the system.

“The assumption is you train somebody and supply them with tools [so] they can be an agent of social change, but it’s not just knowledge that allows you to do it. There are barriers at all levels, from the ministry to the local level.”

What stood out in the interviews though, says Shepler, is the commitment the former refugees felt toward their careers. “Our findings highlighted the motivation that we too often take for granted—people teach out of a love of teaching, and a love of their community and country.” —SA

Sylvia Kalley got to know her parents’ homeland, and a lot about herself, as a graduate student whose internship in Sierra Leone was so productive she extended it.<br />

Sylvia Kalley got to know her parents’ homeland, and a lot about herself, as a graduate student whose internship in Sierra Leone was so productive she extended it. (Photo courtesy of Sylvia Kalley)

Finding Herself in Sierra Leone

Sylvia Kalley

For Sylvia Kalley, AU has been a gateway back to a world that has always been a part of her life, but which, in many ways, she barely knew.

When the graduate student won a Tinker-Walker Fellowship from the School of International Service to travel to Sierra Leone this summer and arranged field work with the help of professor Susan Shepler, she was returning to her parents’ homeland. Kalley was born in Texas, but her parents are both from Sierra Leone. She’d visited before, and had lived in nearby Mali as a Peace Corps volunteer, but working in Sierra Leone opened the way to surprising opportunities and insights.

What is it about Sierra Leone and your work there that led you to extend your stay?

Susan [Shepler] had the idea for an internship program where AU students could carry out their graduate field work there. We discussed my spearheading the project and establishing the program as my practicum, and she introduced me to the coordinator of the Sierra Leone Association of NGOs (SLANGO). I am partnering with them in setting up the internship program for their headquarters and sub-offices.

At the end of my initial 10 weeks with SLANGO, I was offered a short-term contract with the U.N. Special Court, which tries war criminals. I assist the finance and administrative officer for the Defense Office. The extension has given me the chance to explore possibilities for starting a postgraduate life here.

I am attracted to the slower pace of life. I like the relaxed atmosphere and the fact that there are very few distractions, which affords me the opportunity to really spend time with people.

I have also noticed during my stay how very American I am. I see it in my work ethic, my personal views on relationships, and the way I communicate with people.

What intrigues you the most about Africa?

I love Africa because of the people and the liberty everyone has to express their emotions. Everywhere you go, you see the passion in laughter, sadness, arguments, and love. I am intrigued by Africa because I see the potential for greatness, although that perspective requires an unbelievable amount of optimism.

How do you envision using your degree?

Because I hope to focus on social entrepreneurship, I want to either consult on private sector development with a large organization or with the government of a developing country. My long-term goal is to start my own business in Sierra Leone that will provide jobs for the unemployed while contributing to economic development. — SA