Skip to main content

Expanding Duke's Presence in Africa

The two-year old Africa Initiative is raising interest on campus and on the continent

Anthropologist Charles Piot kept hearing stories of Duke faculty members unexpectedly crossing paths in Africa with other Duke faculty carrying out research there. The map above explains why this happened so often.

Read More

Launched with less fanfare than most of Duke's other global efforts, the university's two-year-old Africa Initiative now counts more than 100 scholars doing work on the continent, a sign of interest that is strong and getting stronger.  The level of interest surprised even Piot, who has taught about Africa at Duke for more than two decades.

"We knew faculty all over the campus were involved with Africa, but we didn't know the extent," said Piot, who along with Dr. John Bartlett was the first co-chair of the Africa Initiative.  This semester, historian Karin Shapiro is filling in for Piot while he is on sabbatical. "But when President Brodhead went to visit John and his work in Africa in 2010, things converged, and the African Initiative soon was born," Piot said.

With annual funding of $100,000 from the Provost's Office, the initiative is raising the profile of African studies and research. It's become a place where faculty can challenge themselves and stretch their learning, where a historian of Nazi Germany can organize a conference on China's growing influence in Africa. Here are seven ways the initiative is having an effect both on campus and in Africa.

A Two-Way Street


One goal is benefiting Africa by providing research and educational opportunities for young African scholars at Duke. At the faculty and post-doctoral level, in 2013 the initiative supported three African visiting scholars, including Lanto Harivelo Andrianandrasana (pictured right), a Madagascar scholar who collaborates with Duke Lemur Center researchers preserving biodiversity in the Antanetiambo nature reserve.  The initiative also collaborated with the Institute for Advance Studies in Princeton to provide a Duke fellowship to an African scientist.

In addition, the initiative facilitates collaborations between university faculty and African scholars brought to campus by other Duke units.  This past fall, former Nigerian Minister of Health Muhammad Pate (pictured below) gave a talk on global health and met with students through the initiative.

Charles Piot: "I want this to be a two-way exchange. I want to Africanize Duke's campus, bring over people for training programs.  Duke Medicine is already doing this.  [Former Duke Provost] Philip Griffiths at the Institute for Advanced Study contacted [current Duke Provost] Peter Lange about his RISE network that brought over scholars from Africa.  He was looking for another partner. We were able to collaborate last year to bring one student over from Zimbabwe and we hope to do so again this year."


What happens when you hold a public discussion between a leading scholar of African literature and a researcher of the biology of gorillas? That's the question one of the initiative's "salons" attempted to answer.  The events pair researchers from different fields in conversation with each other.  When biologist Susan Alberts and Ian Baucom of English came together, nobody knew where the discussion was going to go.

Ian Baucom: "What the salons showcase is there are a series of research questions on Africa that in surprising ways cross disciplines and cross them in ways that are characteristic of Duke. The collaborations play to the university's strengths.  It's not unusual at Duke for someone in the humanities and the biosciences to be in conversation. The discussion with Susan was fantastic because she is an amazing scholar.  She talked about primates, but in the humanities, one of the things we talk about are the boundaries between human and non-human life. We ended up having a very rich conversation at that meeting point."

Classroom Education

The initiative hopes to increase the number of Africa courses and provides small-course development grants designed to encourage interdisciplinary courses.  Some courses even involve partnerships with African institutions.  Among last fall's grants were courses that developed a digital humanities database for narratives of HIV/AIDS in Africa and a biology and global health course on disease and development.

Charles Piot: "One thing we found is for all of this faculty research interest, there aren't a lot of Africa classes. When you do offer them, they fill up.  A lot of these courses get 60-80 students in every class.  Five years ago, you wouldn't get that at Duke."


Islamic educators on campus
 Duke President Richard Brodhead talks with African educators from Islamic institutions of higher education at an October 2013 conference held at Duke and supported by the Africa Initiative. 

The initiative fosters collaborations in part by providing research grants with an emphasis on interdisciplinary team-based projects. In 2013-14, some of these funded projects studied ethical, legal and policy issues related to genomics research in Africa, connections between health and academic excellence in rural South Africa and the contributions by and challenges facing Islamic institutions of higher education in Africa. Small grants for student research projects are also available.

Ian Baucom: "When the initiative sends out research requests, it specifically asks for projects that draw strength from different schools and institutes.  That's very different from the typical model where you may bring together an anthropologist and a historian, where the research may be strong but predictable.  We're asking Duke faculty, if you are in literature, to pose research questions where you need someone from medicine or global health or ethics.  Africa needs that kind of collaborative expertise."


Much of the research has a strong service component, from Dr. John Bartlett's work with HIV patients in clinics in Tanzania to the WISER student project promoting women's education in Kenya or the Divinity School's project on justice and reconciliation in the Great Lakes region in Central Africa.

John Bartlett: "What we're learning is if you want to make a dent on health issues, you have to go at it with a comprehensive concept.  If you want to be a healer, you can't be one without looking at the social, cultural and even spiritual context of disease.  That's true of AIDS. This initiative gives us the opportunity as healers to work with a diverse group of scholars to have a greater impact.  We can bring creativity to the issue and look at health comprehensively." 

John Bartlett in Africa

Pictured, Dr. John Bartlett, Dr Tom Gorrie. and his wife Margaret meeting with a doctor at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in Moshi, Tanzania.

Rethinking Area Studies

During the Cold War, the U.S. government funded area studies programs in American universities as a way of promoting a better understanding of the world as the United States grew into an international power.  But the template for Area Studies hasn't changed much in the six decades since.

Charles Piot: "I came out of area studies.  Classic area studies was created after World War II and was largely housed in the social sciences, with a few humanities.  It never consisted of people in the sciences or the professional schools. With this initiative, we want to reach beyond the social sciences.  It's a big, visionary impulse.  We are trying to reinvent what areas studies looks like."


Duke is interested in China.  China is interested in Africa.  The Africa Initiative faculty want to capitalize on that shared interest. They took a successful first step this past May with an international, multidisciplinary symposium on "China's Presence in Africa." Faculty speakers looked at how this growing Chinese influence is shaping political, economic and social trends on the continent.  In a way that is distinctive to Duke, the workshop gave the organizers -- demographer Giovanna Merli, German historian Claudia Koonz and environmental scientist Erika Weinthal -- a chance to stretch their expertise.

Claudia Koonz: "Neither Erika nor I had worked on Africa before, but a great thing about Duke is you are encouraged to try different things.  We first met as part of the [Franklin Humanities] Borderworks Lab. I study Nazi Germany, and I know a lot about genocide.  Erika knows a lot about water and climate.  We both have assumptions about our fields that we wanted to test in a different place and that's how we got interested in East Africa and the Africa Initiative.

"Through the Africa Initiative we met Giovanna and learned about her work on China. In Africa, China has such a huge footprint, it's in the news all the time.  But in the rush to generalize, too many reports forget to differentiate among the very different, low profile Chinese projects tailored specifically to each of the 54 African nations.  In the workshop, I compared U.S. to Chinese aid in three different settings, one a country modeling itself on China (Ethiopia), another modeling itself on the U.S. (Kenya), and one that has been without a true state for years (Somalia).  Once again, it was all about testing our assumptions in a different setting. I learned a ton."

Nigerian minister

Former Nigerian Minister of Health Muhammad Pate speaks with scholars during a talk sponsored by the Africa Initiative.