Department ofHistory

Neal Sobania

Neal Sobania


253-535-7410 (office)



African History with a particular focus on Ethiopia, and Eastern and Southern Africa ,as well as visual culture, museum studies, and the use of photographs as historical documents.


Ph.D., University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies), 1980


Neal Sobania has extensive experience in living, working, and conducting research in Africa that began as a freshly minted college graduate with his assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia. He is the author of Culture and Customs of Kenya (Greenwood, 2003), a broad introduction to the rich cultural, geographic, ethnic and linguistic diversity of this vibrant country, and a major contributor to the research and catalogs of Painting Ethiopia: The Life and Work of Qes Adamu Tesfaw (2005) and Ethiopia: Traditions of Creativity (1999) that accompanied the traveling national exhibitions of the same names. Additionally, he has curated museum exhibitions, including at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian), filmed and written short documentaries to introduce Africa to broader audiences, and had his photographs exhibited and published. He is presently completing the manuscript of a book on contemporary painters and painting in Ethiopia, with the working title, Icons of Devotion/Icons of Trade.

Prof. Sobania has also had a significant career as an international educator. He has held many elected positions in both regional and national organizations. In 2006 was the recipient of the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) and in 2009 led the effort that resulted in PLU being a recipient of the Sen. Paul Simon Award for Internationalizing the Campus from NAFSA: Association of International Educators - the first private school in the west to be so recognized.

Neal Sobania was on leave for the 2012-13 academic year, which included spending the fall in Ethiopia, where he completed the research and wrote draft chapters for a book on the place of contemporary Ethiopian church painters and painting.  Paintings cover the walls of Ethiopian churches from floor to ceiling and have played a vital role in the teaching and sustaining of the faith in this country that has been Christian since the 4th century.  An article related to this research appeared in "Icons of Devotion/'Icons of Trade: Creativity and Entrepreneurship in Contemporary 'Traditional' Ethiopian Painting," with Raymond Silverman, African Arts 42 (1) Spring 2009: 26-37. Sobania expects the manuscript to be completed by the beginning of fall term 2013.  Other research and publications on Ethiopia include an ethno-historical study of silver and goldsmiths.  His next project focuses on paintings found in Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora churches, including churches in the Northwest.  As a scholar of Kenya, Sobania's research and publications--based on the on the extensive collection of oral traditions and remembrances--focus on ethinic identity and formation of pastoralist societies in pre-colonial nothern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. His publications on this present the history of these herding peoples frm the perspective of the rural areasup, rather than from the capitals of Nairobi and London down. His most recennt is "The Formation of Ethnic Identity in South Omo: The Dassanech."  The Journal of Eastern African Studies, Vol 5 (1) 2011: 195-210.  Other recent publications include entries in the Encyclopedia of National Dress, Vol 1, Greenwood Press, 2013; the Dictionary of African Biography, Oxford University Press, 2011; and in the New Encyclopedia of Africa, 2nd Edition, Gale Group, 2008.