Joseph Hellweg is Asst. Prof. of Religion at Florida State Univeristy. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Virginia and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale. He has done research with initiated hunters (dozos) and on HIV and AIDS in Côte d’Ivoire from 1993-1997 and in 2002. In 2008-2009, he was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Kankan, Guinea, where he taught social science research methods. He will complete his fellowship at the University of Bamako. He speaks French and Mandenkan and eats fonio with okra sauce whenever possible.
The Other Afrik - West Africa - Guinea - Panafrica - United States - Education - Governance
In early April, two hungry students in Kankan went frog hunting at night in a nearby village. The Vice Rector for Teaching, Marcel Haba, explained to me that night is the best time to hunt frogs. In the dark one can easily blind and immobilize them with a flashlight before harpooning them. But villagers appear to have mistaken the armed young men for thieves and enacted their own vigilante justice. The students’ bodies were discovered the next day.
From October 2008 to August 2009, I was a visiting Fulbright professor of sociology at the University of Kankan in Guinea.1 Two weeks ago, I learned that a Guinean student I know well escaped with his life on September 28 from the football stadium in the capital, Conakry where government troops opened fire into a crowd and killed at least 157 civilians at a political rally. Soldiers also raped women publicly and wounded at least 1,200 people. Perhaps because of the nature of my work in Guinea, I see the crisis as one of education as much as politics. And I believe that research and teaching could have played and still can play a role in diffusing tensions.
At the University of Kankan, I taught a course on social science research methods to teaching assistants and young professors from the departments of economics, geography, and sociology. The course covered different kinds of interviewing, participant observation (living in another culture to understand it better), how to access online academic databases, and the basics of grant proposal writing. Then in late July, four of my students from Kankan and I led a five-day workshop on these topics in Conakry for twelve novice researchers. The US Embassy funded the workshops. And the researchers were recruited by Oumar Baldet, the director of the Guinean office of International Alert, a London-based NGO founded in 1986 by Martin Ennals, former Secretary General of Amnesty International.
My students and I led the workshops to prepare the participants to research issues related to democracy, national reconciliation, and peace building in Guinea. Oumar Baldet’s vision for these workshops proved prescient. All the problems he hoped students would study have come to the fore since September 28: Guinea’s history of authoritarian rule, its mining-based economy dominated by foreign interests, and its history of manipulating ethnic differences for political gain. Over the past month, soldiers have committed atrocities that the International Court at the Hague is now considering as potential crimes against humanity. China has agreed to give Guinea seven billion dollars in aid for infrastructure development in exchange for controlling rights in Guinea’s bauxite mines. And reliable journalists have reported anti-Fulbe slurs on the mouths of government soldiers.
Such problems cannot be solved until they are understood. Guinea is home to a talented pool of researchers who could help solve these problems if they only they had the resources to do so. The University of Kankan is a case in point. Because the city of Kankan lacks a public electrical utility, the university relies on a gasoline-powered generator for energy, counting on ten hours of electricity per day. Only administrators’ offices have indoor plumbing, and many classrooms have no doors to muffle the hallway noise. The library has too few shelves for its books, many of which lay in piles along the walls. There are far too few computers as well. And students receive government stipends that often fail to last the month. I cannot imagine running an American university under such circumstances. Guinea manages, but it pays a price.
In early April, two hungry students in Kankan went frog hunting at night in a nearby village. The Vice Rector for Teaching, Marcel Haba, explained to me that night is the best time to hunt frogs. In the dark one can easily blind and immobilize them with a flashlight before harpooning them. But villagers appear to have mistaken the armed young men for thieves and enacted their own vigilante justice. The students’ bodies were discovered the next day. ++++ Local police were informed, and the university provided a minibus to transport as many students as could fit in it to attend their comrades’ funeral. A few days later, students led a demonstration at the flagpole where the Guinea flag flies every day in the heart of campus. “Down with regionalism! Down with ethnocentrism! Long live Young People!” they shouted, linking their colleagues’ deaths to students’ precarious living conditions and to the fact that the murdered students hailed from a part of the country beyond Kankan, making ethnic difference a potential factor in their deaths. A week after the deaths, students marched peacefully through Kankan to call national attention to their and their dead comrades’ plight.
In response, the minister of communication, Justin Morel Junior (who recently resigned), arrived from Conakry with the minister of education to convey the government’s condolences to the crowd of students who filled the university quadrangle. Students applauded most vigorously when Minister Morel promised the state would improve their living conditions. Morel recognized the gravity of the situation. When political turmoil erupts in Guinea—as elsewhere in Africa—it bursts quickly onto university campuses, just as it did during Guinea’s general strike of 2007. Morel deftly calmed the situation with his promise. Now that he has resigned following the September 28 massacre, it is anyone’s guess as to how his reforms will occur.
As my fellow Fulbrighter in Kankan, Eva Yerende, a professor of education once told me, the history of Guinea is in many ways the history of Guinean education, and vice versa. To wit, because of the recent massacre in Conakry, the opening of the school year was postponed from early October to October 20, and the Fulbright program was temporarily suspended. As a result, I will be returning to Mali to begin a six-month extension of my grant in Bamako. I hope to bring my Guinean students to Bamako so we can offer the same workshops there that we offered in Conakry. And I hope to consult with them about their ongoing master’s degree research.
In these small ways I hope that my students and I can help assure in some measure the future of the young scholars who will provide the knowledge and insight needed to avoid conflicts, enhance cooperation, and respect difference in West Africa. I will devote my future columns to describing my stay in Mali as it progresses and to looking back on my time in Guinea and on some of the things that give Guineans reason to hope in their future. I will also offer commentary on and reviews of contemporary cultural happenings, politics, and the arts in Africa. I thank Afrik-news.com for inviting me to do so.
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