Africa a growing area of interest for IU

  • Sept. 30, 2013

By Jon Blau

When Terry Mason last traveled to South Sudan, his living space was a 20-foot shipping container. It had been outfitted with air conditioning and hot and cold water, making it notches above average standards for South Sudan’s citizens.

In Bloomington, someone might have a squirrel running over their roof, he said. In Juba, the South Sudanese capital that sits next to the White Nile, an iguana will scurry underneath a shipping container turned motel. This form of housing is common throughout the country, Mason said, where containers were a quick way to provide emergency housing for a rebuilding nation.

Working in a developing country comes with certain expectations. Mason, the director of IU’s Center for Social Studies and International Education, has teamed with Bloomington resident and South Sudan-native Julia Duany to create a program to bring educational opportunities to the war-torn country.

Through $4.2 million in grant money from the U.S. Agency for International Development, awarded by Higher Education for Development, the university will be sending IU faculty to the country to form curriculum at the University of Juba and Upper Nile University as well as provide master’s courses in education to South Sudanese women.

Africa, in general, has become a center of interest for IU. IU President Michael McRobbie recently wrapped up a two-week trip to the continent and became the first head of the university to visit Ghana and the IU-Moi University AMPATH Center in Eldoret, Kenya, one of the largest academic centers for the treatment of HIV/AIDS in the world.

One member of that delegation, Shawn Reynolds, who is the associate vice president for international partnerships at IU, made it a point to hop a plane to Juba at the very end of that trip. Mason told Reynolds he could request a shipping container with or without the iguana.

“It’s probably, of the countries I’ve seen, one of the least developed,” Reynolds said. “It’s really in transition.”

South Sudan may be one of the more extreme examples, but IU officials see potential in fostering partnerships within an African continent attempting to emerge from unrest. At a forum last week discussing the details of IU’s trip, IU’s Vice President for International Affairs David Zaret repeated an idea many academics have embraced, that with its resources and its potential for growth, the 21st might be “Africa’s century.”

But as South Sudan demonstrates, the road to prosperity is precarious. Traveling between work sites in Juba and Malakal, Mason has had to take United Nations charter flights because roads are impassable during the rainy season. When thinking about installing computers at an education center, Mason first has to figure out a way to get a generator there to produce electricity.

Democracy comes with its own challenges. Just last month, South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardiit reshuffled his entire cabinet, something Mason can at least say happened peacefully.

But working in countries like South Sudan comes with a certain expectation of volatility, he said. That’s why IU faculty, preferably more than a dozen people who have had experience in similar situations, will be working on this project, not IU students.

Precautions are taken by faculty traveling overseas, but student safety brings another set of considerations. Reynolds, as he did with South Sudan, is charged with canvassing overseas locations to make sure they are safe for student studying abroad or for faculty to set up initiatives, and there are committees that approve proposals for overseas travel.

Student safety

Zaret, after his presentation about IU’s Africa delegation, took a question Wednesday regarding students in Kenya because of the hostage crisis in a Nairobi mall this past week. He assured the audience students may travel through Nairobi on their way to somewhere else, but there is no sight-seeing. Students aren’t stationed in areas to the northeast of Kenya, which borders with Somalia, but they are placed to the west, closer to Uganda.

While touring Africa, Zaret said, it was IU’s mission to open up dialogue with different countries and their institutions to try to find suitable partnerships. They spoke with the Gordon Institute of Business Science, South Africa’s top-ranked business school, about possible exchanges with IU’s Kelley School. They also conversed with representatives of the University of Pretoria, the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and the South African Ministry of Higher Education and Training about collaborations with IU’s African Studies Program.

That dialogue continues, but Zaret danced around a question about which places might bear fruit.

In South Sudan, Mason and Duany are striving for something much more basic in a two-and-a-half-year project, but it could lay the groundwork for rebuilding the country’s education system. Mason will travel back in October to begin seminars with South Sudanese educators on creating curricula in math, English, science and social sciences. During the summer, there will be classes for South Sudanese women to earn master’s degrees in education, so they can take leadership roles at local universities.

The goal is lofty: Building an education base that could one day eradicate illiteracy in an emerging country.

“There always is uncertainty working in these kind of environments,” Mason said. “You learn to live and work on a project, knowing there is a high degree of uncertainty. But you know that if you stick with it, you can overcome.”

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.