African Tales: Stories from sabbatical
By Joanne M. Lisosky
One of the many rewards of teaching occurs
when a former student reminds you of something you taught her
or him. Just a few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Graham Johnson
’96 and I were discussing the state of the world and our
part in it. When he asked about my sabbatical plans, I told him
I would likely work in a local newsroom, which would provide hands-on
experience to help me replenish my classroom stories. Graham disapprovingly
remarked that there were more absorbing stories across the globe
than just across town. He reminded me I had taught him to seek
the difficult stories – the stories that needed telling.
He said a sabbatical was a gift that allowed me to learn as well
as instruct. Thus, as the student became the teacher, I thought
about where I my expertise might be useful and where I could find
stories to help me better understand the world.
Former graduate school contacts led me to
the regional director of UNESCO,
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
My enthusiasm to make my sabbatical matter landed me a volunteer
position in the UNESCO Nairobi office from September to December
2002. At my UNESCO post, I met the chair of the Mass Communication
Department at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and was
subsequently invited to serve as a senior specialist Fulbright
in her department the following April.
I learned early in my travels that one of
the most endearing qualities of life in this part of the world
is that people are valued more than possessions. I learned how
to receive and offer the typical African greeting which includes
a wide smile followed by a firm grasping of the visitor’s
hand, held tightly in the greeter’s two hands and shaken
vigorously. As a mzungu (Kswahili for white person), I was a rarity
in Eastern Africa and because of this I was treated with extreme
care and regarded with a modicum of curiosity. Small children
along the road often waved and shouted at me, “Hey mzungu!”
As I learned, I also taught. I shattered many myths about wzungu
(plural) by demonstrating that all Americans don’t think
It was easy to tell and gather stories there
because English is the official language in Kenya and Uganda.
It is usually a person’s second language after a local or
tribal tongue. I learned about tribal tradition first-hand when
Lydia, one of my friends from UNESCO, invited me to be a delegate
for her brother at his engagement-dowry negotiation. Lydia’s
family belonged to the Kikuyu Tribe, one of the largest in Kenya.
On a sunny Saturday morning, Lydia, her husband, son, and I drove
two hours outside of Nairobi to attend this traditional event
along with about 50 family members of the future bride and groom.
African tradition calls for such an engagement
meeting to arrange the fee the groom’s family must pay to
the bride’s family before the wedding can occur. I was considered
an honored guest and when I was introduced, applause erupted from
both camps. I learned later a Kikuyu proverb that considers visitors
to be like a river; both come and go, yet both are essential to
a rich life. After four hours of sometimes heated negotiation,
it was determined that Lydia’s family would pay 100 goats
or about 150,000 Kenya schillings (roughly $2,000) and five cases
of soda to the bride’s family. A fine of 30,000 schillings
was imposed because the bride was pregnant. The ceremony ended
with porridge being served and both sides singing “Amazing
Grace” in their native language. I saw how integral tradition
is to people’s lives in this part of the world. Nearly all
the people I met in Kenya and Uganda were devoted to their families
and their traditions. I am grateful they were willing to share
these favored gifts with this me.
Because I traveled by myself, my family and
friends were often concerned about my welfare. But my stories
about being afraid involved no acts of terrorism or violence that
some feared I might encounter. If fact, my two hair-raising stories
might have caused a slight panic to a single woman traveling alone
any where in the world.
On a scorching October day, I attended ceremonies
at the University of Nairobi, where 3,000 students were scheduled
to graduate at an outdoor stadium in the center of the city. After
four hours in the sun I glanced at someone else’s program
and surmised the event would last at least another four hours.
I had already heard my friend’s name announced, so I decided
to leave. I was aghast when I stood up and found myself in the
middle of the largest mass of humanity I had ever witnessed.
I estimated a half-million people were milling
around either sitting in the chairs, on the ground or standing
in small groups waiting to hear the name of a friend or relative
who was taking a bold step toward success. The crowd was so dense,
I could find no clear exit. I literally had to thrust myself into
a standing crowd and try to maneuver toward the street. Another
woman followed and pushed me from behind. We snaked through hundreds
of people. I walked several blocks through downtown Nairobi before
I found cab with familiar markings. It was the first and only
time I sunburned during my travels. My friends at the office were
surprised by my crimson face the following day and had a chuckle
at my expense.
Soon after, I traveled with five friends
to Mombassa for a long holiday weekend on the Indian Ocean coast.
During our final hours in Mombassa, Ada arranged for a woman on
the beach to paint a henna tattoo on my arm with a toothpick.
My friends were jealous because the dark brown henna stood out
well on my pasty, white skin. The tattoo was purported to last
for three weeks. But after four weeks, it started to turn more
red than brown, and it became inflamed and blistered. I woke up
one night imagining a lecture I would deliver about the dangers
of contracting deadly infections from henna tattoos in Mombassa.
The next day I visited the dispensary at the U.N., where I was
told I had an allergic reaction to the medium the woman used to
paint on the henna. The doctor also told me to brace myself for
a permanent, albeit artistic, scar as a result of the reaction.
Fortunately – or unfortunately – the only thing left
of my tattoo is this story.
Before this sabbatical journey, I felt such
a distance from Africa, both literally and figuratively. I realize
now that many of the stories told today about Africa don’t
characterize Africans as individuals – but in aggregate
numbers of hungry people or warring factions. I feel enormously
fortunate to have met individuals during my time in Africa, to
have shared laughs with my African friends, to have learned about
traditions and values unlike my own, yet, in many ways similar.
Admittedly, life there is different, but many aspects far surpass
our lives in the developed world. And now I have these and many
more stories to prove it. Thanks, Graham.
View additional photographs
of Professor Lisosky's amazing adventure.
Courtesty: Joanne Lisosky
Associate professor Joanne Lisosky, left, shares a laugh with
her friend Nasra Abubakar. Nasra had just given Joanne one of
her traditional Somali dresses and the two were posing for this
picture when Nasra's mobile phone rang. Photo courtesy Joanne