Pomona Launches Eyes on Africa Initiative

With a focus on global awareness, Pomona College has adopted the artistic and cultural immersion initiative Eyes on Africa. The two-year program, funded by a $250,000 Presidential Leadership Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will feature guest speakers and artists from around the globe, each representing a unique slice of Africa’s many cultures. In spring 2015, Pomona will welcome professor Mariama Khan, former Secretary-General of The Gambia, to campus to teach a class called “West Africa: Culture, Development and the State.”

In development since early 2013, the initiative is an interdisciplinary approach to supplement student and faculty understanding of the cultural, musical and political history of the continent. Professors across the humanities and social sciences—from music to anthropology, politics to Africana studies—have shared input and resources with the program.

Program co-director Zayn Kassam, the John Knox McLean Professor of Religious Studies and a Kenya native, said that the initiative will showcase the diverse cultures of Africa.

“We hope to educate the broader campus community on issues as well as performance artists coming onto campus and to bring them together as part of this broader international engagement effort,” Kassam said. “We must bring attention to a part of the world that somehow seems to be there but just doesn’t get the attention it deserves.”

The program’s focus has two parts, one artistic and one political. Kassam said that this initiative began when Pomona President David Oxtoby suggested combining Kassam’s proposal for an artistic series on Africa with the academic speaker series on Africa that Pierre Englebert, H. Russell Smith Professor of International Relations and a professor of politics, organized last fall.

Associate professor of music Joti Rockwell, also a co-director of the initiative, spoke to the importance of understanding Africa’s musical heritage.

“There’s so much to learn, from my perspective: Just learning about music in parts of Africa is an endlessly rich thing to take on," Rockwell said. "There’s … so many musical traditions out there."

 Kurt Beardsley, the programming director of the initiative and Bridges Auditorium’s production manager, further explained the significance of music in Africa.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how important music is in those cultures, delivering political messages as well as moral messages," he said. "It’s an essential part of their heritage. [Eyes on Africa] will be an interactive opportunity for all students."

Kassam said that though the college offers a strong curriculum of classes on Africa, especially through the Intercollegiate Department of Africana Studies, only a heightened student interest will pave the way to creating an even more diverse array of classes.

For some students, that interest is already strong.

“I’m really excited for the Eyes on Africa initiative because it will present me an opportunity to be exposed to the cultures and society of the African people, a perspective often glossed over in the lens of Westernization,” Harry Choi PO ’17 said.

Pomona has already welcomed two guest speakers to campus. Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose work Americanah was the first-year book for Pomona's class of 2018, visited the college Oct. 1 and spoke about love, race and the importance of telling each person’s "multiplicity of stories."

Northwestern University Professor of Political Science Richard Joseph spoke to a crowded Frank Dining Hall Blue Room on Oct. 2. Joseph, whose work has focused largely on African politics, spoke about the Nigerian-based terrorist group Boko Haram and international responses.

According to Kassam, the initiative could not exist without the hard work of the late Katherine Hagedorn, a professor of music who worked tirelessly with Oxtoby to secure a grant for the creation of the program. After submitting the request in April 2014, the grant of $250,000 was approved this summer. 

With the necessary funds secured, Kassam is excited to see the initiative’s impact on the student body.

“Because these are non-academic events, we hope students will actually come to them, not just for the sake of entertainment, but for entertainment that actually informs them and introduces them to a whole world of very rich musical traditions and artistic performative tradition that we don’t normally see unless you go looking for it,” Kassam said.

The next talk will be Oct. 16, where Todd Diamond, from Chemonics International, will speak about “The Business of Delivering U.S. Aid to Africa” in Carnegie 109 at noon. In early November, Pomona will welcome JeConte and the Mali Allstars, a Malian Blues meets Rockabilly meets R&B group, for a series of workshops and performances, culminating with a performance Nov. 8 in Bridges Auditorium.