Born in Equatorial Guinea, Dr. Stephanie Shonekan is an ethnomusicologist who grew up during the height of funk music and television shows like Soul Train and the Beverly Hillbillies. Living in Nigeria during times of dramatic change, Dr. Shonekan learned about the world through music. As a young girl she heard many types of music on the radio and developed a deep interest in music and the cultures that create it, including Afrobeat, American country and black soul among others. Now an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology and Black Studies, Dr. Shonekan has built a career in academia that combines her interest in culture with her love of music, studying identity and what can be learned through experiencing music and learning about the lives that create it. Today, her office is decorated with iconic black musicians including Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Marley – voices that echo across time, space and genre. While it can be difficult to come to an understanding of “the heart” of a culture, “music,” Dr. Shonekan says, “can take us there.”
Being a religious studies professor means that Robert Baum is frequently asked about his own religion, to which he responds cheerfully, “I’m an Evangelical Africanist,” a remark that reveals his “deep commitment to make sure Africa is included whenever we talk about the world.” Running through all of Baum’s work—whether teaching, research, or outreach—is a value on religious literacy, the desire to promote a better understanding of the world’s major religions.
Rangira Béa Gallimore has spent much of her research career speaking about the unspeakable, that is, the trauma of rape. As Associate Professor in the Romance Language department, Gallimore’s research history may be divided into two periods: pre- and post-Rwandan genocide. Her earlier work focused on African Francophone women’s writings, African women of the Great Lakes Region in the conflict and peace process, as well as the representation of African women in social discourse and the media. Following years of studying fiction, Gallimore began the second phase of her work in response to the Rwanda genocide of 1994, when the country was “plunged into a frenzy of ethnic butchery” stemming from long-standing tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups.
Like many researchers, Michael Ugarte finds his research to be rooted in his personal history. "My research is connected directly to who I am, what part of the world I come from, and where I grew up," begins the MU Professor of Romance Languages. As we sat in his tiny office, I found myself staring into the kind eyes of this gentle soul, mesmerized as he described the personal connections involved in his research.
Dr. Dietrich is currently working on a paper that examines aid and democracy consolidation in Africa. The goal of this study is to understand what conditions make foreign aid likely facilitate national transitions to democracy, and what conditions can lead to “democratic deepening.”
Dr. Shonekan tells us about her short film Lioness of Lisabi. The film is based on the life of Nigerian women’s activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and shows how Africans have driven their own social change.
Dr. Shonekan tells us about her interest in music and culture, and explains how this interest impacted her studies and lead to a career in ethnomusicology.
Dr. Shonekan’s current research examines how African youth have made musical hybrids by incorporating elements of American hip hop. Dr. Shonekan examines how this process influences the identities of young Africans, and discusses a concerning trend towards emulation.
With the kind of scale that Dr. Eggert’s projects involve, collaboration is essential. Here she describes some of those collaborations and how they work.
Baum’s current research examines the history of an indigenous African religion, especially the Diola prophets who claim direct revelation from Emitai, the supreme being. In the late-nineteenth century, prior to the French occupation, there were eleven prophets, all of them men. Since French colonization, Baum discovered, there have been 42 prophets, most of them women. Baum is examining the intensification of this prophetic tradition as it transformed from an exclusively male phenomenon to a predominantly female one.
As soon as Baum begun teaching religious studies, he found people that one of the first questions people asked him was about his religion, to which he was ready with the cheerful response, “I’m an Evangelical Africanist.” “That comes from a deep commitment to make sure that Africa is included whenever we talk about the world,” he clarifies, and he loves to share this excitement about Africa with others. “I try to stretch people…to get students to see the world in as many different ways as possible, as a kind of intellectual limbering and flexibility exercise, so that they get a broader sense of what the possibilities of being human are [and] come away with more questions—about Africa, or indigenous religions, or about religions in general.”
Given that half of Africa is Muslim, it is not surprising that Baum teaches a course on Islam. “Since 9/11,” however, his research on Islam has been in especially high demand. Living in Iowa at the time, he was asked to be on the “Iowans Respond” panel, which appeared on public television. Soon thereafter, Baum was giving lectures about Islam all around the state, and he eventually produced a DVD Abraham’s Children: The Shared Religious Heritage of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. From that point on, an important part of Baum’s work has involved outreach—helping people gain an appreciation for how much is shared between these world religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. “A lot of the tension among the three,” he notes, “is precisely because of what they share more than the issues where they differ.”
Baum has been studying Diola religion in Africa. Centered around belief in a supreme being, Emitai, literally “of the sky,”the Diola see Emitai as “the creator of all life and the bestower of rain.” Emitai elal is the Diola word for rain, “part of the essence of God that is seen as giving life during the rainy season and sustains the Diola.” Lesser spirits deal with specific kinds of problems, including family cults (hupila), as well as cults for women’s fertility, men’s initiation, blacksmithing, fishing, and hunting. Like other religions, the Diola have a concept of judgment after death. On the one hand, Baum explains, “those people who had life-enhancing lives (who helped other people, were good members of the community and good parents) become ancestors. They appear to their living descendants in dreams and visions and are seen as living right in the village. It is said that they are so close you can feel the warmth of their cooking fires at night.” On the other hand, those people who led a destructive life, “are condemned to the bush, forced to live outside the village.”
Baum’s first book, Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia (1999), examines the history of Diola religion during the pre-colonial era, with particular attention to the impact of the Atlantic slave trade and family spirit cults. This work received a prize from the American Academy of Religion for the best first book in the history of religions.
Asked why the Diola prophet shifted from a male-centered system to female-centered one, Baum was willing to offer his preliminary thoughts. “I think it has a lot to do with the discrediting of male authority [during] the colonial conquest,” he says, as well as a series of failures, including the failure of male military victory, the failure of men to resist forced labor, and the failure of male spirit shrines and priests to repel the French, Portuguese, and British colonizers. The female spirit shrines were seen as being extremely powerful in protecting women and, moreover, women tended to stay at home with the children, becoming a source of cultural continuity. “The erosion of respect for male leadership,” concludes Baum, “had a lot to do with the coming forward of a generation of women prophets, and the lack of opportunity in the new religions of Islam and Christianity.”
Whether their work seeks to counter domestic violence and ethnic genocide, identify cancer treatments, or employ literature and music to understand humanity, these MU faculty describe in their own words why this work is important to society.
Gallimore has been drawn to Beyala’s novels because of their powerful realism, which deeply resonates with her own experience of growing up in the Congo. “When I first read her book, I was amazed. I was looking at things I had seen myself. It was a reality in Africa we cannot deny; you maybe don’t want it in writing, but it’s a reality for women. Those are the things women have to endure to survive.”
Rangira Béa Gallimore’s second book, L’oeuvre romanesque de Calixthe Beyala: Le renouveau de l’écriture féminine en Afrique francophone sub-saharienne (1997), focuses on contemporary Francophone writer Calixthe Beyala. Whereas her first book subverts “the master’s language” by using the French of the slums (les bidonvilles) instead of classic French, her second book attempts to subvert patriarchy itself. Providing counterpart to male writers “who idealized the African woman as this beautiful symbol of the earth,” Beyala offers main characters who are forced into prostitution because of sexual abuse or poverty. “It’s very clear in her writing that she’s using the female body discourse. The body in writing is exposed, it is displayed,” explains Gallimore, and indeed Beyala’s tendency to address taboo subjects has created controversy. “It was very shocking for an African woman to write such things,” yet women’s bodies in Beyala’s novels stand as a “symbol of the violated earth, of the bad and the evil” that they have had to endure through their bodies. “You cannot deny the reality of Africa,” responds Beyala to her detractors.
Gallimore speaks of the obstacles to overcome when trying to speak the unspeakable, to comprehend the incomprehensible, that is genocide. Her next book involves literary criticism as well as sociolinguistic and anthropological methods, drawing upon data collected in Rwanda as well as archival data and transcripts of the testimonies of women who survived the genocide. She has been working with an organization in Rwanda called ABASA, a group made of rape survivors. (Abasa is a Kinyrwanda word that means “we are all the same.”) Interviewing women from this group, Gallimore hopes to give voice to their stories and identify their various needs so that Step Up can try to address them.
Gallimore’s early research addressed how African Francophone writers subvert the French canon by drawing from their culture’s oral tradition to create different levels of meaning. In Gallimore’s first book, L’oeuvre romanesque de Jean-Marie Adiaffi. Le mariage du mythe et de l’histoire: fondement d’un récit pluriel (1996), Gallimore examines author Jean-Marie Adiaffi, particularly the novel La Carte d’Identité (1995). The main character in the book, who was a prince before colonization, loses his I.D. card. In the system imposed by the colonial French government, the loss of this I.D. card results in the loss of the man’s name and identity, so it becomes an allegory for the impact of colonization on the identity of the colonized.
Studying traditional healing practices in South Africa in terms of their usefulness in improving human health and treating certain diseases.
Twenty million people have been infected with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the availability of drugs and health care is far below what is needed to stop the pandemic. Responding to this problem, scientists from MU and the University of the Western Cape have joined forces. Their relationship is built on trust and about 400 visits back and forth over the past two decades.
Ugarte discusses how a better understanding of Africa has become essential to his understanding of Spain.
Ugarte discusses the relationship of various ethnic groups in Spain throughout history and how the African “Other” is absorbed in the consciousness of Spaniards.
Ugarte’s current project: Looking at the relationship between Spain and Africa from the late 19th century through the 21st century.