Duke to launch Africa research initiative

Duke's new Africa Initiative is a network that brings together more than 100 University professors doing research on the continent in a wide range of departments. The initiative has been awarded $100,000 to fund interdisciplinary projects.
Duke's new Africa Initiative is a network that brings together more than 100 University professors doing research on the continent in a wide range of departments. The initiative has been awarded $100,000 to fund interdisciplinary projects.

Dozens of professors in disparate fields are joining together to coordinate Duke’s research in Africa.

The Africa Initiative, which has been in the works since Fall 2011, serves to consolidate the efforts of Duke professors who have research interests on the African continent. Thus far, $100,000 has been allotted to the initiative, said Charles Piot, professor of cultural anthropology, African and African American studies and women’s studies, who is co-chairing the initiative’s steering committee with global health professor Dr. John Bartlett, associate director for research at Duke Global Health Institute.

Piot said the idea was born out of casual conversations with his colleagues, who were discussing Duke’s global priorities and questioning why Africa was not visibly in the mix. Throughout the fall and winter, he sought out other faculty conducting Africa-related research and heralded Bartlett’s help to gather personnel from the School of Medicine. They sought out faculty from all schools and departments who were interested in Africa and came up with over 100 names, Piot said.

“I’ve been here 20 years. I teach about Africa, and I imagined there might have been 25 [faculty],” Piot said. “We walked away from every meeting with new names.”

After perusing the Duke schools in search of interested professors and students, Piot drafted a letter to Provost Peter Lange and President Richard Brodhead, presenting his and Bartlett’s findings in Dec. 2011. The letter made suggestions for how to move the initiative forward, outlining current faculty projects taking place in Africa, as well as student involvement in study abroad, DukeEngage programs in the continent and student groups like DukeAFRICA.

“John [Bartlett] and I have found overwhelming, indeed unanimous, support for a Duke Africa initiative,” the letter read.

The initiative will play an important role in elevating Duke’s status among its peer institutions, Bartlett said.

“We have a critical mass of faculty and staff with partnerships in Africa, and providing a forum for their interaction and exchange of ideas will offer great new opportunities,” Bartlett wrote in an email Nov. 5. “To our knowledge, such a broad University and Medical Center-wide focus is unprecedented among U.S. universities and holds the promise of distinguishing Duke and its partners from others.”

The initiative has been granted $100,000 to use as it sees fit, Lange said. The money will fund 10 faculty projects from departments ranging from music to medicine, and the professors involved will present their projects at a salon to be held in the Gothic Reading Room Wednesday, Piot said.

Next semester, Piot expects to arrange several conversations between two professors from separate departments that normally would not interact and allow them each to present on their research and provide a platform for potential collaboration. The project will ideally expand beyond faculty cooperation, he said.

“A big part will involve students,” he noted. “In the last two summers, over 100 DukeEngage [participants] have gone to Africa—almost 25 percent go to Africa.” Piot noted that he personally takes a group of students to Togo every summer—his work has materialized into a recurring DukeEngage program.

At its core, the initiative will serve as a means to coordinate all University efforts involving Africa. The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, which will fund seven classes of five students from sub-Saharan Africa, will be incorporated into the initiative, although it is not directly a part of it. Additionally, a website is in the works that will list all courses being offered concerning Africa and “suggest curricular pathways,” Piot said.

“[We want to] make the whole greater than the sum of its parts,” Piot noted.

He said he hopes the initiative will allow Duke to bring more scholars and professors from African countries to Duke. He specifically mentioned Stellenbosch University’s African Doctoral Academy, which brought together students from all over the continent to study at the South African university. If Duke pursued a similar program, Piot said, the University could develop a network of Duke-affiliated scholars across the continent, furthering the inter-continental collaboration.

Duke’s growing involvement with China—through Duke Kunshan University and other ventures—may also play a role in the Africa Initiative, Piot said. “China is all over the continent,” he noted.

The initiative will require additional fundraising, which Piot hopes will add up to $1 million to $2 million. Not all funding can come from the University, however—the committee for the initiative will be responsible for doing some fundraising itself, Lange said, adding that he has been pleased with how the project has unfolded.

“It’s been partly a process of discovery and partly a process of just generating a lot of activity and innovation, so I feel really good about that,” Lange said.


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