Journey to East Africa: Reflections from Professor Robyn Spencer
March 16, 2010
Lehman History Professor Robyn Spencer recounts her journey to East Africa.
5 Minutes 8 Seconds
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When I went to Tanzania, I mean, there was Mount Kilimanjaro. Just-- you know-- we were in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro. And I had grown up as such a fan of Ernest Hemingway. And I remember reading The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and all of his travel writing. And it was just a reminder that there was this tradition of-- travel writing. There was some value in putting down, our recollections, our feelings, our images when we travel.
Also, for my daughter, I felt like it would be nice for her. So every other day, she drew something, you know, (LAUGH) and I made it into a scrapbook for her. So I thought it would be nice for her to have that for posterity.
"Africa is often depicted as a continent in turmoil. Poverty, wars, refugees, disease, and despair in particular regions tend to lose all geographic specificity in the American popular imagination. As a result Africa is perceived as a country in need, rather than a diverse continent with areas of crisis. Its only appeal or attraction is perceived to be its wildlife. I just want to pose the question: why is this all we see? What of the other side? The other side is where Africans all across the economic spectrum are living their lives absent of the desire for anyone's salvation. They are surviving, strategizing and often even thriving. The other side is where Africans are working tirelessly to empower themselves on their own terms. The other side is where Africans have something to teach Americans."
"This is the Africa that I visited in December 2009. In Uganda I worked with an organization called Teach and Tour Sojourners founded by Ugandans to connect US educators to Ugandan educational institutions. TATS allows for Americans to interact with Ugandans as peers for their mutual benefit."
I had received a-- you know-- group e-mail-- sent to p-- possibly every Lehman faculty member, which, sort of, said, "We want you to come to Uganda to teach and tour, and this is what this organization is about." And after months of research and dialogue and back and forth, I decided that I wanted to go to Uganda to do some teaching-- and to meet with educators there.
"I met with faculty members and administrators in the Department of History and the Department of Politics at Kyambogo University, the second largest university in Uganda. Faculty members were gracious and interested in dialogue so I took the opportunity to simply exchange ideas with colleagues about teaching conditions at the university."
"The expectation in the US that each and every student would either purchase the books or utilize them in the library was unheard of. Students could not afford to buy the books. The library was underfunded and woefully inadequate. Professors and lecturers often scanned in sections of the readings they assigned and distributed them to the few students with email accounts. These students would then print out these copies and share with peers."
"I was touched by what I saw at this school. Faculty and students were responding creatively and proactively to challenges and shortcomings. I returned later in the week, and I donated the African American history books I had brought with me."
"Our visit to Nkumba University was one of the highlights of the trip. Despite finals, they had marshaled about 40 interested students as well as professors and administrators to listen to formal lectures. I took advantage of my largest audience of students to date to deliver a sweeping overview of black life in America. My lecture started with the American Revolution and took students through Jim Crow laws, Civil Rights and ended with Black Power and the Obamas. Some of the questions I was asked were:"
"Why does African American music promote gangsterism and drugs?"
"Why is Malcolm X forgotten while there is a holiday for Martin Luther King?"
"Who is the black American woman? What does she represent? We see her on TV, and she is being copied by Ugandan women."
"Are African Americans fundamentally responsible due to things like teenage pregnancy, laziness and the like for their own underdevelopment?"
"What does motherhood mean to African Americans and how does Michelle Obama represent it?"
"These questions posed to me allowed me to engage with popular culture and discuss historic and contemporary realities for African Americans. It was exciting to engage with students thinking at such a high level."
"My race coupled with my occupation was a source of pride unfailingly remarked upon by everyone that introduced me. Female professors seemed to be less common and students and faculty alike faltered over my oddly pronounced name and my title. Students resorted to calling me "The Lady Professor," offered with respect and admiration, but still a marked difference from how my colleague was addressed. Imagine completing a lecture on feminism and then being addressed as 'The Lady Professor.' I took it all in stride and accepted the title with humor."
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