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Perspective. Associate professor Joanne Lisosky shares African tales from her sabbatical.

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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 alike.

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.

Photo Gallery

View additional photographs of Professor Lisosky's amazing adventure.


Photo Credits

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 Lisosky


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