Bringing Africa to Lehigh

Bruce Whitehouse, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Global Studies Program, first visited the West African country of Mali in the 1990s. During his initial stay there as a Peace Corps volunteer, Whitehouse became interested in culture and the way society was changing. He became an anthropologist and has been studying Mali ever since.

When Whitehouse joined the Lehigh faculty in 2008, he didn’t have much company as a scholar doing research in Africa. Now, things have changed.

“It was kind of lonely here on campus,” said Whitehouse. “Just in the last six years, we’ve seen this vibrant family of scholars who are now doing research on the continent, and it’s wonderfully affirming for all of us.”

Whitehouse joined several members of that vibrant family in a roundtable discussion Nov. 19 as part of Lehigh’s First Annual African Conference. Organized by faculty in the Africana Studies Program, the dialogue provided the opportunity for faculty to share their research and provide information about student opportunities for internships and study abroad in Africa.

“Most of the times we say things like we want to put Lehigh’s footprint on the African continent,” said Kwame Essien, assistant professor of history. “For me, I think, we actually want to bring Africa here to this campus.”

Essien does that with his research into reverse migration, through which he examines why some former slaves decided to return to Ghana and settle there after they were freed in Brazil in the early 1800s.

Whitehouse explores marriage and marital dynamics in Bamako, the capital of Mali. He tackles the complicated reality of life in Mali, a country with a history of economic and political insecurity, asking questions such as “How do young people make decisions about getting married when unemployment is so high, when they’re not sure what tomorrow is going to bring?”

Kelly Austin, assistant professor of sociology and director of the Health, Medicine and Society Program, studies international health aid in the Baduda region of Uganda. Austin’s research examines the work and impact of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that offer volunteer medical opportunities to undergraduate students.

Susan Kart, assistant professor of art, architecture and design, uses the lens of culture and cultural production to examine Senegal, West Africa, and its transition from colonial rule to independence as well as its post-independence movement.

Kart’s emphasis most recently has been on found-object projects and “looking at how these found objects play into not only the contemporary discourse within African nations but also how that’s interpreted from outside.”

Todd Watkins, the Arthur F. Searing Professor of Economics and Executive Director of the Dexter F. Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation and the Microfinance Program, is interested in microenterprises and microfinance in Africa. Watkins works with NGOs and other microenterprises to try to determine how microfinance services can work for them, asking “How can you provide financial services to these people who can really use them?”

Special guest Akosua Adomako Ampofo discussed the history of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, which she directs. Her lecture, titled “Whose Unmet Need (for contraception?): Deconstructing Received Concepts,” followed the roundtable discussion.

Lehigh faculty members shared their enthusiasm for cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“The challenges are so intertwined disciplinarily,” said Watkins. “If we’re doing our jobs right, studying these problems and studying these opportunities in whatever context they are, there’s no way we should not be talking to each other.”

“You don’t find this [type of collaboration] in many schools,” said Essien, adding that the group seeks to identify and collaborate with faculty members in other programs who are studying topics related to Africa.

The faculty members encouraged students to explore opportunities in Africa through Lee Iacocca International Internships, Strohl Grants, the Baker Institute Startup Internship Grant Program, and independent research opportunities. All of the professors have at some point included students in their field work in Africa and all urged students to get involved.

“As an American culture, we tend to be a very isolated culture,” said Kart. “I think it’s really important to get out, to see the world, to be a part of the world, especially for your generation. It’s going to be very important to know the world in which you live more directly.

“Travel with us,” she said. “Come to where we work, do these really interesting projects and form these long-lasting professional partnerships so you can truly be that global citizen.”

This event was sponsored by the Health, Medicine and Society Program; the Humanities Center; the department of history; the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program; and the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs.



Story by Kelly Hochbein