Africans in Academia: A Faculty Discussion

On Friday, Nov. 15 the Bates African Club produced a roundtable discussion entitled “Africans in Academia”, which hosted Professors Patrick Otim and Abraham Asfaw as speakers. The professors discussed their journeys into he academy as East African scholars.
Otim, who is an Assistant Professor at Bates and has taught at the college for several years now, had a non-linear trajectory to entering academia. Born in Northern Uganda, Otim originally had plans to pursue law, but was accepted into the prestigious Makerere University in Kampala for history, instead – a subject which was not taken seriously compared to other classically pre-professional tracks like law or medicine.
“In Uganda,” Otim remarks, “[history] is what they would call a ‘flat course’. It’s not a serious course, you know? It’s not a serious course in the sense that it’s not a professional course… So I was just going to have a degree, and that degree is probably meaningless. And so what do you do with that?”
At Makerere, however, Otim excelled as a student, and began his own column for the national newspaper, gaining the attention of the publication’s editor.
“He called me to his office, and I did not even have the transport money to go to his office once I got his letter. So he sent me the money to go to his office. So I went to his office and he said: ‘I like your writing. Are you really writing these things?”
With only months left until graduation, Otim was offered a position as a war correspondent in his home village in Northern Uganda. After covering the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in Northern Uganda for a year, he worked for a refugee organization aiding victims of war. He then received an invitation for an interview at the University of Notre Dame to pursue a master’s degree in Peace Studies. He “reluctantly” enrolled, doubting his prospects in academia.
When his advisor at the university asked if he was pursuing a PhD, he was befuddled by the question; having known few PhD’s during his upbringing. “So she said: ‘You should consider doing a PhD.’ Being a Ugandan, you know, you always have to respect authority. As a young man coming from Uganda I’m like, I’m going to apply [for a PhD] not to offend this woman.”
At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Otim tracked the histories of pre-colonial intellectuals in Northern Uganda. He was offered a position at Bates before completing his dissertation.
Asfaw, who hails from Ethiopia, is a visiting Assistant Professor of Economics at Bates. His venture into academia, like Otim’s, was also an unorthodox one. Now a scholar of healthcare economics, Asfaw had failed the ninth grade. After this setback, Asfaw took his academics seriously, and soared in mathematics.
“I went to university, I did well… Sometime after that, I worked for a bank. I worked at a bank for about six months, and then another job came… They paid more, so I switched there.”
Asfaw received his bachelor’s from the University of Gondar, and his master’s degree at Addis Ababa University, where he also served as a lecturer. Receiving encouragement from friends and family to continue his academic career, Awfaw moved to Dekalb, Illinois, to receive his doctorate in economics at Northern Illinois University. “My experience was great. I did very well in many ways. You know, passing the exams, writing the papers. That’s why I managed to be a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University.”
For Asfaw, both Bates and Maine itself were especially uncharted territory.
“I had never heard of a state called Maine,” he laughed. “I was in [the United States] for almost seven years, and I really didn’t know about Maine… I told my dad, I got a job… He asked me: ‘Where is Maine?’ I told him, it’s somewhere near to Boston. He knows Boston, so he said, ‘ok, ok.’”
Both professors, while enormously satisfied with their experiences at Bates, touched on certain difficulties regarding their migration to the U.S. more broadly.
“I do know my accent is different,” said Otim. “And there are places I go to in the U.S., where I know I will have problems. Or if I am on the phone with the insurance company, that’s a problem.”
Asfaw spoke to the struggles of raising a family in a culture different than the one in which he was brought up. “I have my own family here. That’s actually the toughest part. I have two children, and one of them is going to school. Finding [friends] is very difficult… In Ethiopia, I wouldn’t even have to arrange that for him”
The most valuable aspect of working at Bates, argued Otim, were the ways in which it enabled him to impact others. “It’s put me in the position to help other people… I feel that’s the most fulfilling part of the job. Being able to see somebody struggle, and be able to help that person. My daily struggle, I shouldn’t have to see another student having that struggle. It was hard.”