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Michigan State University Commemorates Half-Century Partnership With African Nations

In the southern African nation of Malawi, the ability to save lives by accurately diagnosing and treating malarial seizures just got a little easier. In the past 12 months, officials from Michigan State University, working under the auspices of the school’s African Studies Center, set up a malaria studies center.

At the core of the center is a CAT scan machine MSU encouraged General Electric to donate to the Malawian people. In exchange for the donation, MSU agreed to pay for the construction of the climate-controlled building where the scanner is housed. The university dispatched several experts to Malawi to teach technicians and radiologists how to use the machine. Then the university installed a satellite dish to help those radiologists and technicians liaise regularly with their East Lansing , Mich., counterparts on particularly difficult cases. Malaria kills an estimated 1.5 million people in Africa each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Malawi’s neighboring countries—Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe—have no CAT scan machines either, making the malaria center the only location within hundreds of miles capable of providing the potentially life-saving service.

The malaria center is at the heart of the kind of work MSU’s African Studies Center has been engaged in on the African continent since the center was founded half a century ago. The university is marking the center’s 50th anniversary this year with a series of events that include large photo exhibits at one of the university’s museums.

The African Studies Center is the most comprehensive of its kind. Unlike many African studies programs that are rooted in liberal arts subjects like literature and history or in the social sciences like sociology and anthropology, MSU’s center has a wide-ranging focus. It works with more than 150 faculty specialists from 45 departments throughout the university, including nursing, medicine and engineering.

The center’s activities in more than 30 African countries have included partnerships and collaborations aimed at lowering incidents of river blindness and elephantiasis. It has offered training in medical ethics. Its specialists have engaged in epilepsy treatments in Zambia and sought to treat rare forms of ulcers in Ghana. It has worked to improve teacher education and math instruction in places like Egypt, Tunisia and South Africa. It also has participated on dozens of agricultural projects.

“What Michigan State did … and what I have tried to do here is replicate the fact that Africa should be represented in every department of the university,” says Dr. Steve Howard, director of the African studies program at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

In the area of African studies, adds Dr. Mbye Cham, who heads the African studies program at Howard University, Michigan State University is the gold standard.

“Michigan State is always a reference point in terms of programs they do,” says Cham. “They are able to generate a lot of external grants for many programs.”

The center offers courses in several African languages and has multiple databases, including one for African film and another that is a directory of African colleges and universities.

Center officials say its biggest legacy may be the production of the nation’s largest number of Ph.D.s who specialize in Africa.

“We have trained so many people who are now ministers of agriculture and heads of colleges of agriculture,” says Dr. James Pritchett, who has headed the center for the past two years. “I was just in Malawi. Dinner after dinner, lunch after lunch, person after person—principals, provosts, deans—came to me saying, ‘I was trained at Michigan State.’ And now they’re sending their children.”

The center was born during a period that witnessed the independence of the majority of Africa’s 54 countries. Between 1957 and 1962, dozens of African countries gained their independence from their European colonial rulers. In 1947 only two African countries—Liberia and Ethiopia—were independent. The wave of liberation traces back to World War II.

Many European powers emerged from that conflict considerably weakened and in no position to sustain their far-flung empires.

In the years leading up to independence, many leaders of independence movements in African countries began exploring ties with American foundations and universities.

It was in the midst of this heady time that Michigan State’s relationship with Africa began. But it began almost by chance.

In the late 1950s, Nnamdi Azikiwe, a product of American universities who would become Nigeria’s first president and commander-in-chief, visited the United States to seek help in building a new kind of university in Nigeria. Unlike Nigeria’s oldest university, which had a strong focus on the humanities and medicine, Azikiwe sought to turn this proposed university to more practical disciplines like agriculture, education and medicine, which would directly benefit the masses.

His meetings with foundation leaders in New York led to a suggestion that he get in contact with the president of MSU. A relationship was born, and, over the next six or seven years, scores of MSU faculty and staff trooped to Nsukka, Nigeria, to help develop the University of Nigeria.

“More than 200 years of MSU faculty time was spent in developing the university,” says Dr. Dave Wiley, who directed MSU’s center for 30 years. “MSU people from the humanities, social science, education and agriculture were all spending time at Nsukka. They came back with lots of enthusiasm for Nigeria.”

In time the University of Nigeria at Nsukka developed a reputation as one of the great centers of learning in West Africa. But the relationship with Nigeria soured in 1967, when simmering ethnic tensions boiled over into a civil war. Nsukka is located in eastern Nigeria, the homeland of the Ibos, one of the nation’s three largest ethnic groups. After the massacre of thousands of Ibos in the Hausa-Fulani dominated north, Ibo leaders formed an independent republic named Biafra and attempted to secede. When the war ended in 1970, the victorious Nigerian government made it clear that MSU faculty and staff were no longer welcome in the West African country. The government believed that expatriates in eastern Nigeria, including MSU faculty, had been sympathetic to the secessionists. After the civil war, many expatriates, including several American and European clergy, were expelled.

Wiley jokes that the Nigerian government blamed the civil war on MSU the same way Richard Nixon blamed the Vietnam War on student demonstrators. In the late 1980s, several Nigerian government officials took steps to repair the relationship, but by then MSU had made strong inroads in numerous other African countries. The University of Nigeria invited MSU’s president to Nsukka in the early 1990s, awarding him an honorary doctorate degree. Several MSU faculty still work closely with counterparts in Nigeria but the university’s strongest ties are now in other countries.

“When we finally (got) into the 1990s, MSU faculty were working in more than 30 countries in Africa,” says Wiley.

Center officials say they are proud of the relationship they’ve had with the continent over the past 50 years. But they are quick to point out that the relationships are collaborative.

“The relationships have been reciprocal, collaborative and transparent,” says Dr. John Metzler, outreach director and an employee at the center for 24 years. Even in its earliest days, Metzler says, the center took positions that were in the best interests of Africans.

“In the 1970s one of the things we were proud of was the advocacy work we did in supporting people in southern Africa in their long struggle for independence,” he says, referring to nations like Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. “We were the first state-supported university in the United States to divest from South Africa.”

As the African Studies Center looks to its next half-century, director Pritchett says he’d like to see an even more comprehensive approach to the work in Africa, one that takes into account “unintended consequences.”

“I’m personally a bit disturbed at this development enterprise in Africa,” says Pritchett, who came to MSU two years ago from Boston University. Many development efforts from the West, though well intentioned, he says, end up creating new problems.

“For every success, I can point out probably 99 catastrophic failures,” he says. “At the highest level one needs to attack multiple problems at the same time. We need to bring in an integrated team. We need to ask questions about their cycles of activities. What do children normally do? What are the male jobs? What are the female jobs? What are the cycles of cultural activities?”

“[You] introduce new crops and new pests show up, new diseases show up,” Pritchett continues. “People are noticing now that if you plant more maize you see more malaria. Mosquito larvae love them. If they dine on maize pollen they become super strong. Every intervention has some unintended consequence.”

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