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Africa Week celebrates cultural past, future goals

Jenn Metz | Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Notre Dame and the Congregation of Holy Cross have long histories with the African continent – and this week’s Africa Week events are intended to both reflect on these histories and look toward the future.

The week features events including an African Mass, a panel discussion on microfinance in Africa, a Theology on Tap about the Church in Africa, a lecture by the deputy ambassador of Ghana to the U.S. and a commemoration of the Rwandan genocide – along with several opportunities to enjoy African food, dance and music.

Africa Week is designed to offer a more positive view of the continent as one that is changing and developing, and to also raise awareness of its current problems.

“Certainly, Africa has more than its fair share of struggles,” said Notre Dame Millennium Development Initiative Director Father Bob Dowd. “However, the media often reports only the bad news out of Africa, and this often gives people without a direct experience of Africa an overly negative image of the continent.”

Adebola Giwa, a member of the African Student Association, said he believes “not only the campus but the entire country has a misconception of Africa. They picture war, famine, genocide … we want to show the good, positive side of Africa with a wonderful culture, a different side as opposed to what is seen on the news.”

Changing the misconception

Like Giwa, Dowd said it is important to realize there is more to Africa than its problems.

“While taking the problems that Africa faces seriously, because they are our problems also, Africa Week provides the Notre Dame community with a chance to appreciate the good news out of Africa and African achievements,” he said.

In order to stimulate appreciation, the groups who put together Africa Week – including the African Student Association, the Africa Working Group and the Africa Faith and Justice Network – must first promote awareness.

Africa Week is meant to highlight different issues pertinent to the current social, political and faith situations in Africa, and ASA president senior Tunde Disu said the different groups each tried to emphasize different aspects of Africa. The ASA wanted to celebrate cultural heritage, and the AFJN wanted to draw attention to the genocide in Darfur and its effects on the African people, he said.

“[ASA’s goal] is to bring to light and celebrate the culture, the history of Africa,” Disu said.

An international student originally from Nigeria, Disu became involved with the ASA because it allowed him to gain “a second family” while away from home.

“It’s a comfort to be surrounded by people with the same cultural background,” he said.

He said he hopes students participate in the week’s events because they are a chance for people to get to know more about Africa.

“Africa is a big continent, but its cultures are completely different … when people think of Africa, they think of forests and animals, but the whole continent is not like that. I hope that we can get rid of that misconception,” he said.

The week can “give [students] a better world view and get them thinking with a more international perspective,” Disu said. “By becoming aware of what’s going on can make them appreciate what they have.”

Notre Dame, the CSC and Africa: A brief history

Father Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, first sent priests and brothers to Algeria in 1840, a year before sending them to America and Canada. Since then, the University has maintained close ties to the continent.

Father Paul Kollman said University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh helped to set up a university system in East Africa with money from the Ford Foundation. The Congregation of the Holy Cross has been present in Uganda and Ghana since the 1950s, and later in Kenya and Tanzania.

In 2003-04, the University co-hosted a conference called “A Call to Solidarity With Africa: Americans and Africans in Dialogue About Africa’s Promise, Needs, and Image.” The conference was established after the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter entitled “A Call to Solidarity with Africa,” written in hope that Americans realize the African reality.

Nigerian-born Father Paulinus Odozor, a Notre Dame priest and professor, played an integral part in coordinating the conference, which included American and African speakers in its two parts. The first segment was held at the University in September 2003, and the second in Nigeria in January 2004.

The University sent 32 members of its community to Nigeria for the conference, Odozor said. These students and faculty members, including Odozor and Kollman, joined 19 others from across the nation to participate in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for dialogue.

The September portion of the conference featured His Excellency Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, president of Nigeria, as the keynote speaker.

Last semester’s Notre Dame Forum, entitled “The Global Health Crisis: Forging Solutions, Effecting Change,” once again directed campus focus to the problems in Africa. At the end of the forum, University President Father John Jenkins, who traveled to Uganda earlier this year, announced the University’s involvement in the Millennium Villages Project through the creation of the Notre Dame Millennium Development Initiative, in hopes to combat poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Graduate student Andrew Namanja, one of the ASA vice presidents and a native of Malawi, said, “With [Jenkins’] trip to Uganda, a spirit of Africa awareness has been [created] this academic year.”

Africa Week events

The week’s events so far have been very successful, according to ASA members.

Giwa said the African Mass Sunday in Pangborn Hall was very full and that chairs had to be brought in from the hallway to give everyone seats. Monday’s fireside talk featured storytelling, which Giwa said imparted “a deeper understanding of African culture.”

Organizers and faculty members are placing the most emphasis on two events: Thursday’s talk, “Ghana before and 50 years after independence,” by Irene Addo, Deputy Ambassador of Ghana to the U.S., as well as Saturday’s Africa Night.

Namanja said Ghana “pioneered the movement for independence in Africa.”

“The talk will discuss before and after the independence of Ghana and analyze where Ghana and Africa as a continent stand 50 years later,” he said.

Odozor also highlighted the presence of the Deputy Ambassador of Ghana, emphasizing the pan-Africanist vision put forward by the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah.

“He wanted to have a united Africa, an idea that was before his time … an Africa where everyone of African descent would have a home,” Odozor said.

Giwa said Africa Night is an opportunity to see the “other Africa” and how it affects U.S. culture. The night will feature drummers, storytellers, the First Class Steppers and Project Fresh, a breakdancing group that will perform to Nigerian hip-hop.

“Most people don’t realize that Africa has a developed, popular culture,” Giwa said.

Kollman and Odozor will present Theology on Tap: The Church in Africa tonight at 9.

Graduate student Francis Isaidoo, an ASA vice president, said the proceeds from the week’s T-shirt sales, which are available in LaFortune and the dining halls, will benefit a relief service program for HIV/AIDS.

Africa and Notre Dame today

Though events like Africa Week raise awareness and offer new views of the continent, those involved with the project say the challenge faced by the University today is how to offer students more avenues for academic and service projects in Africa.

Kollman said he hopes the week will help in “inspiring students to want to know more about Africa and go there.”

Professor Naunihal Singh has taught an African politics class for the past few years. When he first offered the class, there were 20 students enrolled, but the numbers have climbed in recent years, he said.

“There is a demand among students for courses and service opportunities,” Singh said.

Singh, who has traveled to Africa many times, said he tries to incorporate his own personal experiences into his classes to make things as concrete as possible for his students.

“It is important when learning about a place that is very far away and very different to try to ground that information as much as possible,” he said.

His classes are not about “Africa as an abstraction, but about how [the continent] really is,” he said.

Singh said he believes part of the increasing awareness among students comes from Africa’s place in American pop culture, with movies like “Blood Diamond” and “The Last King of Scotland,” and Madonna and Angelina Jolie’s much publicized African adoptions.

“[The DeBartolo Performing Art Center] also makes a difference, showing African and Africa-related films and presenting African performers,” he said.

Singh also attributes a Catholic angle to this awareness, citing the 2003-04 “A Call to Solidarity With Africa” conference as a turning point in students’ involvement and interest in Africa and the problems faced by the continent.

Nicole Steele, a senior who spent last summer in Uganda and a member of the AFJN, was involved in some of the planning of Tuesday’s panel on microfinance in Africa. She has also helped coordinate the Gulu Walk to raise awareness about conflict in northern Uganda and a discussion panel on the genocide in Darfur.

A member of the Student Advisory Council for the Notre Dame Millennium Development Initiative, Steele said she has “definitely noticed a greater interest in Africa.”

“Notre Dame students can do a lot of good in Africa, but there’s also so much that we can learn,” she said. “I really believe that the more we are exposed to and interact with African culture, the fuller our own lives will be.

“It’s wonderful that so many organizations have come together to make this week happen,” she said. “It’s a great example of how different groups of people can unite in celebration of a beautiful continent.”