LAWRENCE – Seven students and four faculty and staff members are preparing to travel to Tanzania in August as part of a humanities-based lab titled colLAB: Bridging East Africa’s Digital Health Divide. Through the lab’s field school, participants will learn about how technology transforms health care access and capacity in rural contexts while developing their Kiswahili language skills.
The project brings together scholars from a variety of disciplines across campus, funding from several sources and partnerships with groups around the globe. ColLAB, as it is known, has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, KU’s Research Excellence Initiative, the Hall Center for the Humanities’ Research Collaborative Program and the Kansas African Studies Center, among others.
Once on the ground in East Africa, colLAB participants will partner with Mufindi Orphans, a Tanzania-based, nongovernmental organization led by KU graduates Geoff Knight and Jenny Peck. Mufindi Orphans provides social, educational and health care resources to vulnerable children in Mufindi, a village hundreds of miles inland from Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam. The organization routinely host volunteers from KU and Lawrence.
According to colLAB's co-director, Associate Professor of Anthropology Kathryn Rhine, the project was conceptualized with funding from NEH’s Humanities Connections program. This grant of nearly $100,000 requires humanities faculty to partner with counterparts in the sciences and in professional programs to design a curriculum plan that has experiential learning at its core.
“Our project connects the study of less commonly taught languages and the humanities with community health, development and medicine,” Rhine said. “It is providing us a great opportunity to build this bridge.”
In addition to founding colLAB, Rhine has partnered with the School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures to create a global medical humanities certificate program over the next year. Rhine said, “We’re going to call the certificate Health, Languages and Humanities in the World. First it will be open to undergraduate students and then eventually graduate students.”
The Hall Center for the Humanities was thinking along similar lines when it received an NEH Challenge Grant of $425,000 after raising the required private match of $1.275 million for its endowment. This funding supports the creation of scholarship that meets community needs and demonstrates the relevance of the humanities to the public’s well-being. In 2017, they issued a call for a first-of-its-kind “lab” in the humanities, which Rhine and her colLAB co-directors — Peter Ojiambo, associate professor of African & African-American studies, and Elizabeth MacGonagle, associate professor of history and African & African-American studies, proposed and won. This grant has provided three years of startup funds to implement this innovative model of collaborative research.
The Kansas African Studies Center, directed by MacGonagle, saw colLAB as a unique opportunity to enhance the African language program at KU. KASC is the recipient of the prestigious Title VI Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship program — a grant of nearly $1 million from the U.S. Department of Education to provide academic year and summer fellowships to students in six critical African languages (Amharic, Arabic, Hausa, Kiswahili, Somali and Wolof). All of the colLAB students are current or past recipients of this scholarship for Kiswahili.
This summer, lab participants have been boning up on Kiswahili (some are learning an academic year’s worth of lessons in just eight weeks through KU’s Summer African Language Institute, Rhine said) and preparing themselves for the cultural differences they will encounter in rural Tanzania. One recent group discussion in the lab’s “proseminar” centered on how to approach Tanzanians about health issues. The consensus was that straightforward questioning is not necessarily best. Rather, students were encouraged to recognize that Tanzanians typically connect their sense of personhood and identity to that of their community. Therefore, their personal health and well-being are inextricably linked to the larger group. Researchers must respect and accommodate such notions, the mentors emphasized.
Simultaneously, the students have been developing preliminary questions they plan to eventually research in East Africa. These topics, Rhine said, span “everything from how first aid is learned and taught, to how gender and gender-based violence are addressed through community-organization programs, to the ways in which the Kiswahili language is used to shape HIV prevention campaigns, and how mobile-phone apps may better help women live with HIV and improve maternal health outcomes.
“These students are going to Mufindi to immerse themselves in this organization,” Rhine said. “They will be able to spend time in the clinic and schools as well as with the NGO’s management. They will also live in the village with families. We see this as a first step for these students. Maybe they will develop thesis projects and go into graduate programs. Several of them ultimately plan to work for governmental and nongovernmental agencies that promote global health and development. In these occupations, just like in business and medicine, foreign languages and field experience are critical.”
In Mufindi, Rhine said, students “will see alumni using these same skill sets we are fostering — teamwork, project management, cultural competency and language fluency — and doing it very successfully.” Thus, Rhine said, colLAB students will have a unique experience very different from the solitary research humanities students typically carry out.
“These students will not necessarily be fluent this summer, so they will be forced to communicate and engage with the community however they can,” she said. “I think they are really excited about that. We started in January saying, ‘Your stake in learning this language is that it will allow you to do really exciting research on a topic you are passionate about. You are also going to work alongside colLAB mentors and peers who have these skills and can demystify the fieldwork experience for you.’
“So to have that support built into the research process, to have four faculty mentors from different fields who students can approach at any point to talk out their ideas, will be transformative.”
Our students, Rhine said, “want to have jobs in fields where they can tackle big questions and make a difference in the world around them. We are helping to make this possible.”
The colLAB program will continue with a second East African field school in 2019 and expand to new languages and regions in upcoming years.
Top photo: Musa Olaka, librarian for African studies and global & international studies, talks with students, including Mariah Crystal (right), who will be traveling to Tanzania in August. Credit: Rick Hellman, KU News Service