Watson faculty fellow Jennifer Johnson introduces new initiative: Africa speaker series

October 7, 2019

Associate Professor of History Jennifer Johnson, and newly appointed Watson Faculty Fellow, has written extensively on issues of nationalism, decolonization, humanitarianism and public health. This Fall, she launches the Africa Speaker Series, providing more opportunities on campus for discussion and learning around these topics.   

Q: We understand that the Africa Speaker Series is new this year; tell us about its genesis?

A: The Africa Speaker Series originated from an idea I cultivated at Brown. I wanted to merge my teaching and research interests and facilitate opportunities for scholars, whom my students read, to present their work highlighting Africa’s most critical current issues. I wanted to include some overarching themes in the Series that merge with Watson’s focus on development and governance as well as important topics like gender, education and humanitarianism. Two programs focus on Sudan, whose recent political, ethnic and humanitarian crises have garnered international attention.

The Africa Speaker Series builds on the Africa Initiative, the newest of Watson’s seven geographically-focused centers or initiatives.

Q: Who are the presenters; what they will discuss?

A: On Tuesday, Oct. 8, from 5-7 p.m., Nada Mustafa Ali, lecturer of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, College of Liberal Arts at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and Khalid Medani ’87, Graduate Program Director and associate professor of political science and Islamic studies at McGill University, will present a contemporary analysis of Sudan’s current situation. Watson’s Africa Speaker Series and Center for Middle East Studies will co-sponsor this presentation, “New Voices from Sudan,” which was organized by Anthropology Professor Lina Fruzzetti.

Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a world-renowned expert on Sudan and the Horn of Africa, examines the questions of political responsibility for famine and potential criminal culpability for perpetrating starvation in his presentation, “Starvation Crimes in the Horn of Africa,” which is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 22, from noon-1 p.m. His book, Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, focuses on concepts addressed in my current introductory course, “Humanitarianism and Conflict in Africa, History 1080.” 

Marie Grace Brown, a cultural historian of the modern Middle East, will speak from a historical perspective with her Monday, Nov. 11 noon-1 p.m. presentation, “Setting up House: Bachelors, Domesticity and Mobility in Imperial Sudan.” Brown’s most recent book, Khartoum at Night: Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan, thoughtfully examines questions of gender and empire.  

We anticipate that the Series, which we hope continues through next spring and beyond, will offer debates and active conversations.

Q: Who is your primary audience and what motivated you to launch the Series?

A: While undergraduate students at Brown are our primary audience, the Series should appeal to graduate students, faculty and the larger Providence community who have an interest in Africa.  Students have been active drivers of the tremendous interest in more courses and programming around Africa. That student-driven push relates to Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University (DIAP), where everyone at Brown is thinking about how to be more inclusive with concentrators, programs, etc. It’s meant to expand the scope of what we study and what we consider significant.

Q: Tell us about your research and teaching at Brown; how do they complement the Series?

A: I focus broadly on Africa, and more specifically on North Africa. I’m currently working on a book, State Building After Empire: Health Care, Family Planning, and International Aid in North Africa, and I am always trying to find ways to bring themes and topics I’m studying – including questions of nationalism, public and humanitarianism - into my classrooms. Not only does it help me expand my own research, it also helps students grapple with these complex issues. I see the Africa Speaker Series as complementing my own research and teaching while, hopefully, facilitating student learning that broadens their perspectives about Africa.