Our Stories

Bringing Africa to Willamette

The African continent comprises 54 countries, each with a unique history that has shaped its languages, ethnic makeup and cultural traditions. Yet many Americans tend to lump all the nations together under one giant picture of "Africa" -- a picture that, unfortunately, often includes only negative stereotypes about poverty, war, disease and lack of progress.

"These negative images are not benign -- they harm the continent," says Joyce Millen, assistant professor of anthropology. "Most countries in Africa are growing and experiencing a renaissance, yet due to the continual bad rap the continent gets in the foreign press, potential investors and trade partners fail to see the enormous promise in particular countries. Most people are surprised, for example, when they learn that Africa's major cities have modern, sophisticated architecture, industries and telecommunications systems."

Educating others about the true nature of the continent and its diversity is the goal of a growing celebration at Willamette called Africa Week. For the past two years, the University hosted one day of Africa-related events, but with increasing interest among students and faculty, the program expanded this spring to an entire week.

This year's activities included screenings of films about Africa, a workshop exploring the resilience of Sierra Leonean women and the creativity of young African musicians, discussions on African sculpture at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, and presentations by students who have studied abroad in South Africa, Ghana, Egypt and Uganda. The campus community was able to taste African cuisine all week in the University's dining facilities and peruse an African market on the final day.

"We want people to celebrate the diversity of Africa's nations, and not just think of the continent as one country," says Kelsey Walsh '09, one of the organizers. "We're lucky to have professors like Amadou Fofana [assistant professor of French] and Joyce Millen who care about teaching what is good about Africa."

The most interactive and visual event of the week was the creation of a giant Africa puzzle map. Groups of Willamette students from residence halls, sororities and Tokyo International University of America each were given blank puzzle pieces representing all the countries in Africa. The challenge was to research ethnic makeup, geography, history, political movements, languages, natural resources and other attributes that make each nation unique. The groups decorated their pieces to reflect their newfound knowledge, and all the pieces were put together to form a map of the continent that is 15' by 15'. They also created posters that displayed at least 20 facts about each country.

The colorful map -- which included drawings, photos and paintings of everything from flags to topographical features to literary and language references -- drew numerous admiring comments from the students, faculty and community members who viewed it. Three groups received awards for their work: Most Educational went to the piece representing Chad, created by Pi Beta Phi sorority; Most Creative was given to Madagascar, made by students living on the third floor of Matthews Hall; and Most Beautiful went to Nigeria, created by students from the first floor of Lausanne Hall.

Organizers hope to extend the learning beyond Willamette by making the puzzle available to other Oregon schools.

"Willamette has a lot of interest in Africa, and I think the fact that events went so well this year and in previous years attests to that," says Ben Clanton '10, another organizer. "Many of the stories you hear about Africa involve issues like HIV/AIDS, or crises in areas like the Darfur area of Sudan, but we want people to know more about the positive aspects of the continent and the people."