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The following interviews and contributions were originally published on our BIGSAS blog. The blog has been deactivated since. Formatting, style and pictures were adopted from the original blog posts as far as possible. In some cases format and pictures had to be altered to be compatible with this website.

Interview with BIGSAS Junior Fellow Thierry Boudjekeu on his passion for classical music, his career goals, and the relationship between the African and the European continent (22.12.2021) 

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The name is probably well known among Bayreuth students: Thierry Boudjekeu. Born in Cameroon, he came to Bayreuth in spring 2015 for his master’s degree in “Etudes Francophones” and has been a BIGSAS Junior Fellow since December 2019. In addition to many other interests, such as his involvement as president of the Model African Union e.V., classical music and the associated enthusiasm for European composers play a particularly important role in his life.

Especially because of this last point, actress and presenter Corinna Binzer, who is known from the movie “Wer früher stirbt ist länger tot” (“Grave Decisions”), as well as numerous other television productions, became aware of him and decided to portray Thierry in her television format “Hinter den Kulissen” (Behind the Scenes). In this TV format of the Bavarian broadcasting organisation (Bayerischer Rundfunk), Corinna Binzer travels to places in Bavaria in search of interesting people and exciting stories. While there cannot be too much revealed yet, in addition to Thierry’s professional and personal career, his passion for classical music naturally became one of the predominant subjects during the interview. During the filming, Corinna Binzer was even able to make a lifelong dream of Thierry possible.

So what is it all about? That remains a secret for now. We probably have to be patient until autumn 2022 for the official broadcast.

For a first impression of what the episode might be about, I conducted a little interview with Thierry. Of course, we talked about Thierry’s passion for classical music, but also about his career plans and the relationship between Europe and the African continent.

Dear Thierry, as far as I understood, besides your interest in foreign languages and the history and cultural development of the African continent, classical music plays a big role in your life. Where does your interest for classical music come from?

TB: I first came into contact with classical music through our local church. In general, we always have had a lot of music in church. Especially, regional rhythms, but there are also choirs that sing exclusively classical works. I can’t say exactly where it comes from, but choir music has fascinated me since I was a child and simply made me happy. I felt the desire to become part of this group. Therefore, I started singing in choirs and listening to recordings on YouTube. And finally, I just started singing classical music.

In Germany, some parents want to actively foster their children’s musical interest at an early age, depending of course on the financial means available. In addition to a participation in choirs, they especially support the learning of musical instruments. Is there a similar situation in Cameroon?

TB: There are no music schools and, as already been mentioned, it is a question of financial means to attend lessons. For me, that was not an option, as my mother could not have afforded it. Music is much more practised in church, where you can play music yourself or attend concerts for free. Through a choir in my parish, I learned to read music and to sing my first classical works, such as Händel, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven – European classical music. Through so-called church music, I got in touch with other musical genres as well.

What does classical music mean to you?

TB: As I told you, I do not really know why I enjoy classical music so much. Music is one of the reasons that had a big impact on my decision of coming to Europe. Europe is a place which is known for its music and where classical music is very important. One gets the opportunity to meet (international) singers and share the passion for music together. When I came to Europe, I definitely had it in the back of my mind that I would be doing a lot of music. In the end, it was a bit different than I thought since studying was quite time-consuming.

I also notice during the conversation that music is already a passion of yours, have you ever considered taking this path professionally?

TB: I dreamed of it, but I did not really consider it. If I successfully embarked on the career, of course I would have chosen it.

Would you have preferred to be a singer or a pianist if you had to choose?

TB: Singer – why not? However, I have to say that I have many other goals besides music. I would like to talk more about the development of Africa, and I am currently doing a lot of work with young people and entrepreneurship in Africa. I think now is the time to pass on the experience I have gained here to the younger generation. I want the people in Africa to get something out of my experiences and I want to learn from them as well. I am no longer just the Cameroonian, who grew up in Yaoundé, but I have travelled a lot and a lot has changed in my life since I left. I would like to facilitate a lively exchange.

What is the focus of the entrepreneurship?

TB: I am a studied translator and would like to promote the learning of foreign languages. Moreover, we also want to go in the direction of agriculture as well as computer science. For instance, we want to get into app development. There are so many talents in Cameroon, and we are trying to create an incubator where all these talents come together. We have already started projects, but at present, I am still doing my PhD. Consequently, my time is limited. In the near future, however, I would like to devote more time to the projects. My base will remain in Germany, but I would like to commute more between Europe and Africa. I consider the connection between the two continents to be very important- for me, for my family and of course for the general development of Africa. It is necessary to transform and develop the relationship between these two continents, which already have a shared past.

Last but not least: What was the most beautiful situation or the most beautiful experience you have had in Bayreuth with regard to your passion for classical music?

TB: I studied at the Hochschule für Musik for two semesters and this was a great time. I had a wonderful teacher who invited me to his master class for a week in Helmbrechts where I was able to get to know other singers. It was a wonderful week that I remember fondly.

Celebrating Ramadan

Contribution by BIGSAS Junior Fellows Dikko Muhammad and Adama Drabo: A Ramadan Experience in Bayreuth (13.05.2021) 

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I was born in Germany and both my parents are German and Christian. That is why Ramadan was never a part of my own life. However, this changed at least a little bit when I moved to Bayreuth. At the “Volxküche – Food for All” we would prepare the food a bit later in the month of Ramadan so that all of us could have a meal together. That time – when community, sharing food and laughing together in a crowded room was still possible – has now become a distant memory. The Covid-19 pandemic is making life harder for all of us, each in our own way. Due to contact restrictions, the majority of Germans have realised that celebrating religious holidays communally is no longer possible in the way it was known. During this year’s Ramadan, too, Muslims had to restrict themselves and re-think the Ramadan celebration. Two Junior Fellows give their insight into the month of fasting, which ends in Germany today after 30 days.

Dikko Muhammad has already spent three fasting months in Germany. For the northern Nigerian, the experience in Germany is completely different from what he knows from his home country. Even though he feels a kind of alienation, he learns to situate himself with the resources that are available here.

Unlike in Nigeria, where there are many cultural activities around Ramadan, here it is mostly the Muslim community that provides a support structure. In 2019, for example, different members of his mosque organised meals on weekends and people ate together after praying.

Of course, this year such activities are impossible. Dikko misses his home, but he tries to stay connected through his parents who contribute to the community in his name.

Tashe – A Hausa Ramadan tradition

One of the happenings in the Hausa Land of Norther Nigeria is called Tashe, where children go from house to house to perform musical acts, using drums. There is also a comical part of it, as they mock bachelors who are in their 30s and 40s, telling them ‘to wake up, as it is already morning’. This mockery amuses a lot of people and in return – for a good show – they receive gifts, such as food and money. This tradition strengthens the friendship ties among the children, but also evidentially shows the bond between all members of the community, as everyone relishes from the entertainment.

“Le Ramadan est synonyme de partage. Il est également synonyme de développement des qualités humaines telles que la patience, la douceur, la compassion, l’humilité, l’amour du prochain en gros.”

(English: "Ramadan is about sharing. It is also about developing human qualities such as patience, gentleness, compassion, humility, and love of neighbor in general.") – Adama Drabo.

Adama Drabo also finds himself challenged to abstain from fellowship during Ramadan. It is his fourth celebration in Bavaria and the BIGSAS Junior Fellow is a dedicated Muslim. While Adama enjoys the fasting month, the praying and reading of the Holy Quran, he observed that the youth in Germany does not practice as much spirituality as the youth in Côté d’Ivoire, his home country. Before the pandemic, the Iftār (the ‘breakfast’, evening meal during Ramadan) was done in a warm and fraternal atmosphere, followed by a group prayer. However, now it is only possible to cook and eat together in twos occasionally. Praying together takes place via Zoom. Adama says: “La chaleur humaine qui accompagnait le mois de Ramadan a disparu” (English: “The human warmth that accompanied the month of Ramadan has disappeared”). Being together in larger groups is unfortunately part of this and last year’s fasting. But Adama also points out: "Et puis ne dit-on pas que 'c’est ensemble qu’on est fort?'" (English: “And don’t we say that it is together that we are strong?”).

Celebrating Ramadan in a foreign country during doctoral studies and a pandemic

Even though both Dikko and Adama have to work on their doctoral studies, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar is celebrated to its full extend, while still going on with one’s academic life. Dikko found a way to combine both; while he is praying and reading the Quran at night, he sleeps from 4 am in the morning to 12 pm mid-day. He then works on his PhD from 2 pm in the afternoon to 7 pm in the evening where he starts to prepare the food for Iftār. This schedule worked two years in a row and as Dikko says with this determination, “one could almost endure everything”.

I know that from an outside perspective in Germany Ramadan appears to be a time, where people ‘must feel weak’. “They don’t eat during the whole day! How can they go without water for so many hours!!!” – being confronted with such kind of conclusions can be quite annoying for those who celebrate Ramadan. Most outsiders don’t understand that the time of fasting is felt as a power that lifts one up, that gives strength and perseverance. And taking a look at other religions, fasting is an essential part of them as well, even though the practice of it has taken a back seat.

Dikko summarises: “This kind of experience brings the people together and creates solidarity among people. We share the pain and the joy together. That is how unity is created”. Because, Dikko learnt from his own neighborhood, that fasting is also about: “everyone sharing the hunger of the poor and at the end of the day, everyone enjoys the privilege of the rich”.  Adama adds that the Muslim community in Bayreuth, at the university and at BIGSAS is a very diverse one, where brothers and sisters from other cultures add a richness to the celebration or Ramadan. One of Adamas current projects is to connect BIGSAS JFs and alumni of Muslim belief and share their experiences on solidarity in their own community and beyond.

While I sit in my flat writing on this article, someone knocks at the door. It is 8:30 in the evening and a delicious smell hits my nose. When I open the door, I see my neighbors from Syria who hold a plate full of rice and vegetables in their hand. “For you”, they say, “it is Ramadan, enjoy”.I smile and say thanks, when Mohammed says: “Ah wait, I forgot the meat…., now you can eat!”.

The Quran says that the hand that gives, is the hand that receives. While sharing and solidarity is seen as important features in most religions, Ramadan makes it even more visible. And caring for others, will eventually lead to your own success and happiness.

Happy Eid al-Fitr!

Dikko Muhammad is a BIGSAS Junior Fellow in African Literature, with his PhD project titled: Female Voices in Northern Nigeria: An Exploration of Nature, Activism and Identity Politics in the Poetry of Nana Aishatu Ahmad, Angela Miri, and Maria Ajima. He is currently Junior Fellow representative.

Adama Drabo is a BIGSAS Junior Fellow in African Linguistics, with his PhD project titled: Marqueurs discursifs et pragmatèmes dans le français en Côte d’Ivoire : Une analyse empirique de dƐ, kƐ, tchô et toi aussi. He submitted his thesis a few weeks back and currently prepares his defense for later this year.

Interview with BIGSAS Junior Fellow Joh Sarre: I've never been bored (22.04.2021) 

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When Joh Sarre came to Bayreuth for a doctorate in April 2014, it was not only a new beginning, but also a reunion. The university had already won Joh over ten years earlier. Shortly after graduating from high school, Joh came to the university in 2004 to begin the – then relatively new – bachelor’s degree in Culture and Society of Africa. A six-month volunteer service in Tanzania – where Joh (admirably, quite incidentally) also learned Swahili – had awakened a deep interest in and attachment to East Africa that Joh maintains to this day. Subsequent stays finally also created the idea for Joh’s bachelor thesis on religious choral music in Tanzania.

“Get away and do something different”

After graduating from university and working as a ski instructor and at the GIZ, the wanderlust bit Joh that eventually led Joh to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. There, Joh completed a master’s degree in cultural anthropology and development sociology. In Nepal, Joh researched perceptions of democracy for the master’s thesis: “But I then realized a lot what it was like to be limited to the people I could speak English with – knowing how naturally and immediately I could connect with people in Tanzania because of my language skills.”

“Somehow East Africa again”

Joh then spent three years working on a political science project in Berlin, including case studies of water and sanitation in Kibera, a neighborhood of Nairobi. Despite the more fruitful exchanges between disciplines, Joh missed guidance for the own doctoral work: “I frequently had to defend my understanding of anthropological work against the political science way of working.” However, fate was to hold Joh’s hand.

“Back in the lap of ethnology and African studies”

While still in the bachelor’s programme, Joh worked as a student assistant for Erdmute Alber, who was then a junior professor of ethnosociology and now holds the chair of social anthropology in Bayreuth. She contacted Joh at just the right moment with the possibility of doing a PhD in Bayreuth. In 2014 Joh’s return to the alma mater and the intensive work on the dissertation project to place. Through Joh’s previous research in Kibera, an interesting research question about belonging, (ethnic) difference and home developed.

“What does it mean to be Nubi in Kenya?”

Kibera is often pejoratively referred to as ‘Africa’s largest slum’. About 250,000 people live there. Even though Kibera is often perceived by outsiders as nothing more than problematic, Joh observed that many people call it, against all odds, home. Joh was particularly interested in the Nubi people here, who call themselves the ‘indigenous people’ of the slum: “I wondered what it means to call a place like Kibera home. What is home? Who belongs where? And wanted to formulate a critique of the idea that you can and must always belong to only one category.”

“I like to have one leg to stand on and one leg to play with”.

Because in the same way, Joh also does not want to fit into a single category. Joh’s diverse interests, skills and experience clearly reflect this. That is exactly what colleagues and friends appreciate about Joh, as ‘doctoral mother’ Erdmute Alber made clear in a short speech after Joh’s defence: “She always felt I had one foot in and one foot out and always on the go, always had many feet in many doors. I think that illustrates it very nicely."

“I want to leave everything open”

In the same way, Joh approaches questions about future plans and does not want to be tied down to one direction. Through Katja Günther’s and Ingrid Scherübl’s writing ashrams, however, Joh discovered an interest in consulting and coaching writing projects: “I kind of feel like I’ve always learned writing through trial and error. I try it one way and then another. I want to look more closely at scientific writing, which is really our main activity as scientists: What are we even doing?” Even though many of the courses have been canceled due to the pandemic, Joh plans to teach writing classes and supervise various writing projects in the near future. In primary position, however, stands the publication of the own dissertation.

BIGSAS Time – Not in the quiet chamber Already during the writing of the dissertation, Joh realized how important the exchange with colleagues was. In a BIGSAS peer-reading circle and in Erdmute Alber’s writing workshop, Joh repeatedly received feedback on the own project: “It was important for me not to write the dissertation alone in a quiet room and only get feedback when it’s already finished.” BIGSAS will miss Joh’s enthusiasm and energy. In 2015, Joh was a Junior Fellow Representative along with Sarah Böllinger and brought forward many valuable ideas and suggestions, such as participating in the Maisel Fun Run. Joh appreciated the opportunities and freedom to get involved: “It was great fun and I’m really grateful to BIGSAS that there was always an open ear, no matter what crazy idea popped into my head.”

Defence in lockdown

Despite this positive experience, the end of Joh’s time at BIGSAS was not initially under a good star: “I was at a lot of defences, where we always supported other Junior Fellows, and then I got the news: You’re going to have to defend in a total lockdown now.” However, even though that was a low blow for Joh, everything went smoothly at the defence and the evening held another surprise: Junior Fellows friends organised a digital party, inviting relatives, friends and companions from Germany, Kenya and all over: “It was nice that this made it possible for many to participate who otherwise would never have been able to be in Bayreuth on a Wednesday evening.” On behalf of BIGSAS, I wish Joh all the best for the future (and hopefully another 1000 legs in 1000 doors). We all hope that this was not the last Bayreuth saw of Joh.

Interview with BIGSAS Junior Fellow Catheline NyabwengiWomen as violent actors (22.02.2021)

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Catheline Nyabwengi joined BIGSAS in winter 2020, making her a relatively “new” Junior Fellow. Even though she is in the earliest stages of her dissertation, she already has an interesting story to tell. Her academic endeavour took off when she was writing her master’s thesis about the history and transformation of the Chinkororo Movement – a violent group formation in Kenya. In the course of her master’s thesis, she had a realization that brought about the idea for her doctoral project.

Where are the women?

“While analysing my data, I realized that women were rarely featured in the perpetration of violence and security in the country. So, I started making my own observations.”

She started to notice different treatment at entryways and security checkpoints, as she was rarely searched. On the other hand, most men face serious frisking. Additionally, male security personnel dominated the work force, with only a few women working in such jobs. She began to follow the Kenyan public and international discourse. She found that women were majorly represented as either victims of violence, in need of protection or coerced and manipulated into committing violent acts. While this could explain the difference in perception and the absence of women in security jobs, an important question arose for Catheline: Does this match with reality?

Women as violent actors

Going back in history, she found proof that women have been actively participating in violent acts and a lot of terror attacks in Kenya. This triggered her to draft a research proposal, through which she would gain an informed point of view that could help her distinguish the myth from real histories. Her goal is to challenge the prevailing notion of women participating in violence as being victims or coerced actors. Her purpose is to ultimately influence Kenyan interior security policies:

“If we are not treating all members of a society as equals in security aspects, we are producing gender blind counterterrorism strategies that are incomplete and unsuccessful. Because we treat women as intrinsically vulnerable, we are concealing a very important part and actor in society.”

She suggests a change in perception. Instead of putting women in the periphery of the public sphere and as passive beneficiaries of policies that they did not take part in making, which do not ultimately help them. She wants to include women in peacekeeping, conflict resolutions and integration processes. This is also, why she centres questions about women as violent actors: How are they recruited, treated and how do they fight?

Studying historic sources in archives and literature, as well as conducting in-person interviews with female members of violent groups, she has received unique insights and a platform to connect. But:

“Security is …sensitive”

Her sample groups consist of former members of terroristic groups in Kenya like Al-Shabaab, Mungiki and Gaza. This is naturally a highly sensitive topic of national interest. Catheline has received multiple threats, emotional and physical harassment and is often regarded with suspicion. Because kenyan society has established security as a male territory, she is also confronted with irritation and disbelieve, why a woman would be interested in these topics. Altough she is aware of the ethical challenges her research topic entails, she tries to free herself of any pre-emptive notions and biases:

“This allows me to ask productive questions. It is all about a normal friendly conversation… You cannot put yourself above them.”

Dangerous field

These field trips require her to put herself in harm’s way: Even though the Kenyan government assures amnesty to members who have come forward and surrendered, most people do not trust the national security sector. This mistrust leads most former fighters to remain in hiding. On one side, they are unsure of being forgiven, if they present themselves to local security officials. On the other hand, they fear repercussion from members of their former group that might have followed them. This means that any access to a conversation with them is restricted by caution and distrust: No phones, no recorders at the meeting point – mostly without any of her friends and sometimes family knowing Catheline’s location or whereabouts.

“My husband though supportive of my career path, does not love this line of study because of the risks I have to endure. But you have to wear courage. After all, if you don’t do it, who will?”


Her research has given Catheline thick skin – emotionally and mentally. It gave her the courage to put herself out there and open her own YouTube Channel, where she discusses and shares her opinion on everyday concerns on security in Kenya. With the hopes of being involved in policy making in her country, she plans to return to Kenya at the end of her PhD. She has visions about setting up a research and publication centre concerning terror and violence in Kenya. In December 2019, Catheline won the 3rd position in United Nations Counter Terrorism Challenge where she in collaboration with Grace Atuhaire presented a policy proposal for online community policing. In May 2020, they also won the 2nd place in an essay competition from “The Policy Corner”, where Catheline together with Grace wrote “Restoring Trust and Building Bridges: Addressing Online Radicalization in Africa”. Her future sure looks bright!

For now, she is one of the newest additions to the Junior Fellow group of BIGSAS and is happy about the community, overlapping projects and different points of view she is gaining through the interaction with other fellows.

“For me BIGSAS is all about the network, the platform and the scholars from diverse backgrounds. But also, about the continuous guidance I receive, because a PhD is a process not an event. I appreciate the understanding, that we are different students, from different background, facing different challenges.”

We wish her all the best for her doctoral project!

Interview with BIGSAS AlumnuEmnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis: A Passion for Higher Education (08.02.2021)

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Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis is an Associate Professor of Higher Education Studies at the University of Johannesburg. He has been researching higher education issues in Africa since 2006. He completed his PhD at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, where he worked as a researcher since 2015. His research focuses on South-South partnership models, regionalisation and internationalisation of higher education in Africa, decolonization debates and economics of higher education. He did his joint master’s degree in Higher Education Studies at Oslo University in Norway, Tampere University in Finland and Aveiro University in Portugal. He is certified in two advanced level research trainings in higher education in the Netherlands at the Centre for Institutional Cooperation (ICIS) Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam; and training on Leadership and Management of Higher Education Institutions in Maastricht School of Management. Prior to his position at Bayreuth University, he was Head of the Quality Assurance Office, Head of Department and team leader at Mekelle University, Ethiopia. He has published a number of articles, book chapters and books on higher education issues, particularly theories of regionalisation, student mobility, cost sharing, harmonisation of higher education systems and decolonization debates in Africa. Currently, he is working on higher education transformations in Africa.

Emnet Woldegiorgis planned to pursue his doctoral degree in Europe. While he was browsing the web, he came across Bayreuth University and realised that the university in Bavaria would be a great fit. He was drawn to the interdisciplinary approaches of various institutions and never regret his choice of moving to Bayreuth. Even though Bayreuth is quite small, “it is a cultural melting pot with a rich history that attracts scholars from a wide array of backgrounds which exposes one to different ways of living that one wouldn’t otherwise have had a lived experience thereof”. Even the extracurricular activities persuaded Emnet to participate in a whole lot of events. The many festivities that Bayreuth city, the university and other organisations had to offer would complete Emnets time in Upper Franconia. There would be the Afro-Carribean Festivals, events at the Iwalewahaus or even string of concerts and performances by an assortment of artists from all parts of Africa and beyond. He was even drawn to the world-renowned 19th-century composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner whose operas are performed to much fanfare at the annual Bayreuth festival (Bayreuther Festspiele). It is the composition of Bavarian and cosmopolitan offers that complement the academic endeavors of many international academics. 

Being an academic in Bayreuth

“The cosmopolitan appearance and posture of the institution supplied one with fertile ground to explore research topics while taking an innovative approach. The sheer interaction with other young scholars in itself enriched one’s life experience”. 

It is not just the University of Bayreuth that offers many all-embracing encounters, but the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, where Emnet completed his doctoral studies together with several other scholars. He says: “BIGSAS provided full support in terms of academic activities including research, field work and the organisation of conferences, workshops and colloquiums”. Being part of a network at the University, Emnet strengthened his effort of pursuing the profession of being a researcher, while his own network grew intensively. By pursuing his passion, he met several other scholars in academia as well as established researchers, scientists, policymakers and even politicians. “I started publishing academic works while there, it was the springboard from which I presented my various works as far afield as the US, Canada, parts of Asia including Japan and of course Africa”. 

Even though there were also some challenges, such as learning the German language or feeling homesick in his first months in Germany, Emnet would always advise someone to go for a PhD. “I believe the PhD path is a profound journey of research and deep learning experience. I have derived great fulfilment in the course of reading and doing research at Bayreuth, which can never be replicated elsewhere in my academic lifetime”. Of course, conceptualising a research topic, deciding on a topic, formulating research questions, thinking about the right methodology and obtaining data from potential respondents may also present difficulties along the doctoral journey. Also, Emnet was hagridden by confusion and frustration during his studies. He changed and reformulated his research questions, methodology and theoretical framework a number of times. Still, he concludes: “the learning experience equipped one with the requisite skills to embark on a large scale research, accompanied with many benefits and opportunities”, for him  those centered around meeting people from the African Union, Association of African Universities and other big regional organisations. 

After BIGSAS – what happened and where is Emnet now? 

Towards the completion of the PhD there was a vacancy for a post-doctoral research position at BIGSAS for which Emnet applied. For three years he worked on a concept of partnership in higher education looking into different models of partnership between African and European universities. Born out of that endeavour was a book published in 2019 in collaboration with a colleague. The whole effort sought to forge partnerships in a practical and sustainable way which led to applying for European Union funding to establish student mobility between the participating universities in Africa and Europe, Germany in particular. The European Union provided funds to support the initiative. Directly after that programme he was recruited, still within BIGSAS, and became a research fellow within the African Cluster Project which was doing research on Academic Freedom in Africa. This stint lasted 6 months at which point he considered the move to South Africa after securing the position of Associate Professor of Higher Education at the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies (AMCHS) at the University of Johannesburg.

What made him choose AMCHS as his next destination?

Same as Bayreuth, Emnet was attracted by its Pro Africa focus and its vision was well within the ambit of his previous studies and research so it was a natural progression. From inception the centre was decidedly Pan-African with a view to revolutionise higher education with a particular emphasis on social and economic development in Africa. The AMCHS is one of the leading research centres in Africa with scholars from different disciplinary and research areas. The centre works on challenging research questions in the area of epistemic access, the decolonisation debated, size and shapes of higher education, documenting the contributions of generations of African scholars, on digital divide, and the responses of higher education systems towards COVID-19 pandemic. The centre disseminates critical research through a book series under the auspices of the African Higher Education: Developments and Perspectives. It seeks to agitate for serious engagement by all stakeholders who are interested in African higher education. It also recognises the value of collaborations and as such fosters partnerships with organisations of a similar posturing.

More on AMCHS: What is the Institution currently working on and which projects have been completed recently? 

AMCHS has a number of projects that are in motion at present, chief among these is the Generations of African Scholars which is our flagship project and is projected to be completed in 2025 having been initiated in 2020. Alumnus Emnet Woldegiorgis is heading this project which essentially seeks to document the contribution that African scholars have made to science, innovation and technology and higher education in general. The subjects of study have been carefully selected from across the continent, and include thought leaders such as Archie Mafeje, Bernard Magubane, Thandika Mkandawire and Eduardo Mondlane (Southern Africa); Valentine Y Mudimbe, Jacques Depelchin and Alex Kagame (Central Africa); Mahmoud Mamdani , Ali Mazrui and Catherine Odora Hoppers (East Africa); Chinua Achebe, Joseph Ki-Zerbo and Kwame Nkrumah (West Africa); Samir Amin, Nawal el Saadawi and Ibn Khaldun (North Africa); and Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon and Ali Mazrui (Global Africa).

We urge fellow scholars to produce books and chapters in books on the aforementioned contributions. This endeavour will see the placement of the African voice at the centre of the solutions to African problems as it should be.

AMCHS has completed a number of projects recently two of which are: Knowledge and Change in African Universities: Challenges and Opportunities which was sponsored by the Ford Foundation. This project examines Universities in Africa on their processes from research to dissemination. The second project is: Higher Education Transformation in South Africa. The focus area of this project is the complexities and dynamics of higher education transformation in South Africa, the project seeks to rethink the transformation of the country’s higher education in the context of Africa and the global world.

And on which projects is Emnet working?

“I’m currently editing a book titled “Higher Education In The Face Of The Global Pandemic”, which brings together scholars from across Africa to examine coping mechanisms of higher education institutions and systems during the Covid-19 pandemic”. While the decolonisation debate is continuing to be a hot topic in Africa and beyond, Emnet contributed to a book published in 2020 whose title is “Decolonisation of Higher Education in Africa: Perspectives from Hybrid Knowledge Production”. The book discusses decolonisation and hybrid science and facilitating the involvement of indigenous knowledge systems in African higher education.

The argument is that the Eurocentric model adopted by learning institutions is not comprehensive and therefore calls for a unified Euro and Afro outlook in order to reach the desired outcomes. Emnet consequently has also published an article whose central question is: How can we conceptualise the debates of decolonisation in a space which has never been colonised?

A reference list of the abovementioned recent works that Emnet is involved in:

  • Woldegiorgis, E. T. (2020) Re-Thinking Inclusive Higher Education for Students With Disabilities: A Proactive Approach Towards Epistemic Access in Ethiopia. In Social, Educational, and Cultural Perspectives of Disabilities in the Global South (pp. 235-250). IGI Global.
  • Woldegiorgis, E. T. (2020). Decolonising a higher education system which has never been colonised’. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-13.
  • Woldegiorgis, E. T., Turner, I., & Brahima, A. (Eds.). (2020). Decolonisation of Higher Education in Africa: Perspectives from Hybrid Knowledge Production. Routledge.

Lastly, how is the Alumnus coping with the pandemic currently, on an academic but also personal level?

Sadly, the pandemic took its toll on Emnet. His move to South Africa couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time. When he arrived in South Africa in March 2020, the South African government announced that it would institute lockdown measures just a week later to mitigate against the yet unknown effects of what came to be a devastating pandemic. While he was new to the country (luckily, he knew Johannesburg from former visits), securing accommodation and procuring sundry supplies was challenging for him. “I was plunged into a crisis before I could obtain the necessary orientation to thrive properly”. This continued to be a challenge on a professional level as well, as he was unable to meet his new colleagues and adequately interact with them. Notwithstanding, Emnet managed to overcome these hurdles, as well as to execute and complete his assigned projects. However, Emnet received devastating news from his home country Ethiopia. His mother had passed away during a time where he was unable to leave South Africa to be with friends and family to mourn. He is now bouncing back, as is the South African routine. Emnet Woldegiorgis has already proven in the past that he can adapt quickly to new environments. His character is one of resilience, perseverance, passion and the urge to always learn something new and to take up current debates and advance them through his expertise. Despite some setbacks, Emnet has never failed to seize opportunities and, with his years of experience and contribution, has made a lasting impact on debates around higher education in Africa. 

We are excited to follow his future steps and projects!

Interview with BIGSAS Alumna Maike Voigt: West Africa, East Africa, Upper Franconia, Lower Saxony – Maike Voigt always finds her way (24.01.2021)

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After eight years in Bayreuth, alumna Maike Voigt is going back to Lower Saxony. In this interview, she tells us what she intends to do there. 

After Maike completed her Abitur in 2009, she moved to Göttingen, where she studied anthropology and linguistics. In 2012, she ventured to Bavaria and began her master’s degree in African Culture and Society at the University of Bayreuth. The chosen majors of anthropology and development policy combined topics from her previous studies with new academic challenges. An exciting aspect of the programme was also a guided teaching research, which has been an integral part of the programme for many years. Maike and her fellow students went to Togo and Benin, a “very exciting experience” that still shapes her today. 

One thing is clear: when she came to Bayreuth in 2012, she would have never imagined that eight years later she would still be enjoying Upper Franconian nature and culinary specialities – more about that later ;-).

Path to the doctorate

She really enjoyed writing the master’s thesis, as well as dealing with theories and enriching them with her own empirical data. “Working out something of my own” was ultimately an incentive to start her doctorate. In addition to the skills, she had learned and been able to try out in her master’s programme, it was also the offer of a research assistant position that encouraged her to take up her doctorate. Maike was thus able to participate in an interdisciplinary project (more information here) at the Academy for two years (under the management of her doctoral supervisor Erdmute Alber as well as her supervisor Dieter Neubert) and gain practical experience in event organisation and administration in addition to her academic work. 

Geographically, Maike moved from West Africa to East Africa and dealt with middle classes and entrepreneurship in Kenya in her doctoral research. She enjoyed the research in Kenya and found it “appealing to try something new again”.

But juggling a half-time job, research and family was a real challenge for her. While there was always a full semester programme at the Academy, Maike flew to Kenya during the semester break: “I was never really here or there. I was either busy with the next trip or already on my way back with one foot”. This was especially difficult for family contacts. She was regularly confronted with the question: “When are you going back to Kenya?” – because everybody knew that they would soon have to be without Maike for a few weeks or months. Overall, she really enjoyed her time at the Academy, where she was able to get to know many scholars from European and African countries and gain work experience that will certainly benefit her in her current position.

After eight years in Bayreuth – what will be missed?

Maike quickly clarifies: “Well, I’m only leaving partly. My boyfriend is from the region and is staying here for now”. The time in Bayreuth was wonderful, the small town has become her second home with the following result: “I speak Franconian fluently now and like to eat fried sausages”. Of course, Bayreuth also has other culinary highlights to offer, which we don’t want to omit here. Have you ever tried Franconian Sauerbraten with gingerbread sauce? This has become one of Maike’s favourite dishes and something she will certainly miss in Lower Saxony. 

But Maike, who describes herself as a “small-town person”, will not only miss the culinary delights here, but also the greenery, as cycling and hiking have also been part of her daily routine in recent years. The only shortcoming: Bayreuth is and remains poorly connected. She has little understanding for the fact that an ICE connection or a direct connection to Dresden, both of which once existed, have been abolished; this often makes the journey to and from Bayreuth very tedious. 

Of course, the alumna will also miss her time at BIGSAS very much. Although one often hears that “the doctoral thesis is written in a quiet chamber”, that was not the case at all in Bayreuth. This is mainly because BIGSAS is organised in such a way that you can constantly meet fellow students. Interdisciplinary work is also encouraged, for example in work groups. They provide an insight into the work of other academics and always allow you to get feedback. The “reading circle” work group has developed into an active group of writers who met repeatedly over several years in a writing ashram. Social activities were not neglected either. During the week, for example, they met at 12:30 p.m. for a lunch in the canteen (which brings us back to the culinary topic). Conversely, this meant that there was not only a boring daily library routine, but also constant exchange and mutual motivation. 

By the way: The so-called “Schreibaschram” was made possible by the UBTGS for two days. After participating, some doctoral students adopted the concept, reconstructed the content and wrote and sat together in groups of four or five people regularly over several weeks. Following the principle of “goodbye to the outside world” (mobile phones are locked away, the internet is turned off), some Junior Fellows had great success. Maike also reports: “Large parts of my dissertation were written during the writing sessions. In addition, as a group, you are also bonded together in a completely different way”. 

Participation in various conferences, especially the ECAS in Basel and Edinburgh, were also great experiences for the alumna. The opportunity to present her own research and receive feedback allowed Maike to always work on her dissertation with motivation. In Edinburgh in 2019, for example, she presented biographies of entrepreneurs that are part of her doctoral thesis. The result: “Others found my topic really appealing, too, which is the best motivation”. 

And now it’s time to return to Lower Saxony!

The search for a job after her doctorate was not easy and “it wasn’t fun”. Maike handed in her dissertation in March 2020 and was busy looking for a job for half a year. “It was Corona, of course, so a lot of application procedures were stopped. You definitely need good stamina there”. But everything’s fine at the end of the day. Because now it’s off to Hanover to the Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung, where Maike works as an officer of the executive team. The position was newly created and since November 2020 she has been working on issues in the areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights in East Africa. She reports: “As part of my new position, I am involved in various projects of the management. One that I find particularly exciting is planning the Foundation’s participation in the International Conference on Family Planning, which is to take place in Thailand this year. Here, Foundation staff from the country offices in East Africa want to report on the projects in conference papers, and staff from Brussels, Berlin and Hanover want to establish new contacts with partners and donors. The coordination of the presentation, which also includes a booth at the fair, is now in my hands in cooperation with my new colleagues”.

We wish her much success in her new job and hope that she will continue to find her way to Upper Franconia!

Interview with BIGSAS Junior Fellow Dandara Maia: WAXATLAS – Mapping African Prints (09.12.2020)

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Dandara Maia joined BIGSAS in October of 2019. Her journey to this point could be called unconventional. Graduating 2012 in Fashion Design and working several years in the fashion industry in Rio de Janeiro, she was specialized in textile print design. But her scientific interest grew deeper and she rejoined academia: 

“I wanted to explore, how people feel, when they dress, or how they choose a fabric with a specific pattern”. 

“Fashion is a cultural performance”

She graduated in 2018 with a M.A. Visual Arts, Design, Image and Culture at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and her thesis titled: “African Prints as a Political Tool of the Afro-Brazilian Identity”. Working on how identities are shaped through fashion, she could barely touch the surface of all the themes and implications she wanted to talk about. 

In her doctorate she wanted to return to questions about the image, the textile and how they affect people. Her research destination was Lagos: a centre of the West African fashion industry, with high end couture, but also a rich culture of common tailors, that design and manufacture their clothes together with the individual they are made for. She wanted to compare this to her already made experience in Brazil: 

“Fashion is a cultural performance and also an act: You dress because you want to say and show something. I’m interested in what this something is and how it is different and similar in these two places”.

Change in Methodology

But the Covid-19 pandemic forced a change in methodology. With traveling abroad being highly restricted she faced a difficult challenge: How can I still pursue my questions? She started to focus on the visual analysis of the images and patterns of the prints. 

“Which type of things are inside the images that I could relate to how people feel about them. There is something that I can connect”. 

In the process Dandara developed WAXATLAS, inspired by Aby Warburgs Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, where he drew connections of recurring themes and motifs from the renaissance to modern times and illustrated these in compiled panels. WAXATLAS follows this concept and tries to map the traces and historical background of the wax prints that have developed in colonial times. Dandara poses the question:

“What is remaining from Batik of Java, what is coming from West-African cultures, or from Europeans who are looking to Africa, looking to Java and try to come up with something new?”

WAXATLAS exhibition

Working many months on conceptualizing and building her panels it remained a productive methodology, until her supervisor and director of the Iwalewahaus Dr Ulf Vierke, upon seeing the creative and artistic nature of the panels, suggested an exhibition: this emphasizes that curatorial work can be seen as research and research as curatorial work.

BIGSAS Community

BIGSAS and the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence provide the important fundamental structure and network for Dandaras doctoral research. The strong connection to Africa and the diversity of backgrounds, interests and ideas among the Junior Fellows make it a “perfect place to study” for her.

“I love the fact, that we are a community. Being a doctoral candidate can be very lonely – I’m not working inside a big project – I’m working alone. In BIGSAS I feel like we have such a nice community and so much opportunity to exchange – even in moments where you are not thinking, that you are talking about your research, but you are in a way. I feel home”.

Interview with Professor Dr Thoko KaimeTeaching is his Passion (03.12.2020)

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The Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies provides an interdisciplinary research setting, where doctoral students from all around the world can gain and further their knowledge in African Studies as a broad field of research. More than 80 students from 26 countries are currently pursuing their doctoral studies in various scientific fields, such as arts, political science, linguistics, geography or legal studies. With Thoko Kaime, new chair holder of the African Legal Studies Chair at the University of Bayreuth, students pursuing their interest in law can attend classes concerning the African continent. 

Thoko Kaime is a Malawian lawyer by training, who specializes primarily on public international law. His research interest concerns international environmental law and international human rights, with a focus on sustainability and governance as well as on children’s rights. His current projects are highly relevant both politically and socially. Thoko Kaime is not only a passionate lawyer, but also a dedicated teacher. Although he has worked in a consulting firm in London in the past, he found his passion in teaching. His passion motivated him to join academia, ultimately leading him to the University of Bayreuth. 

“The first duty of a professor is to teach” – Thoko Kaime

Studying law does not only mean to read a lot of books or run across the hallway of a law firm for 80 hours a week – let’s put aside the clichés – law permeates all spheres of our lives and can be linked with a multitude of perspectives in an interdisciplinary way. The interdisciplinary character of legal studies is one of the reasons Kaime came to Bayreuth. The Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence enables him to participate in interdisciplinary discussions as well as to use multiple methodologies. Approaching legal studies from a multidisciplinary point of view is a privilege Kaime is enjoying – “I am humbled to be in a space like that, where African scholars and Africanists can connect and work together”.

His chair is a platform which allows him to reach out to those who have little knowledge of African legal systems, but are pursuing a degree in legal studies. He wants to highlight the relation of both, focusing on issues such as human rights, sustainability and governance. By implementing an English Legal Curriculum students get the chance to participate in classes that deal with “domestic jurisdictions as well as examine international legal order” (from the ELC Website). Furthermore, a series on Human Rights took place in the last weeks (read more here), with a lot of different topics such as social (in-)justices or human dignity. The resonance is great. Many students, but also colleagues in and outside of Bayreuth, appreciate the work of the Chair of African Legal Studies. 

Besides his teaching activity, Thoko Kaime deals with many other pressing issues. Especially elements of energy justice and the access to it is an important matter which he pays attention to. Why is it so important? Many children don’t receive adequate education, because they don’t have access to energy and consequently also not to health services: “health workers can’t provide their service, because there is no electricity”. 

“Energy access is a human rights issue and energy justice is a key part of that”

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic many human rights are threatened. Working with Martin Schmidt-Kessel on contracts and Covid-19 on the one side, the access to energy is also an area where national African governments need to take responsibility. Let’s take one example: students who are forced to study from home, because their learning institutions shut down, need access to electricity in order to follow their studies. However, mobile data for example is quite expensive in many states. Kaime suggests that a regulatory framework must be put in place, to access the teaching material for free or a very low cost. This issue interferes with contracts that one country makes with (foreign) investors and institutions. However, the government needs to regulate their relations and manage licences. 

“We are living in quite exceptional times and there is need for some drastic measures, and those drastic measures do guarantee the continuing enjoyment of certain rights and governments should do that. Choices made by African states in relation to investment should be determined by the priorities by those African countries”.

Have African countries trusted international players long enough? Are foreign companies really supporting African economies or only their own interest?

Kaime identifies the problem in the capitalist system, where everything is based on competition. Placing trust in foreign companies often misses the point. The only development that can be observed at this point is the economic upswing of the investors themselves, but less so of the projects or governments on-site. Kaime argues that the government itself must be held accountable and presents the example of regional integration. Why, for example, does the European Union enjoy better trading terms with South Africa than Zambia or Malawi? 

With a view to regional integration, Kaime again takes up the example of energy supply. Since 1992 there has been an energy shortage in Southern Africa, although the Democratic Republic of Congo (and its Grand Inga Dam) has the possibility to produce enough energy with hydropower to cover 120% of the energy needs in Southern Africa. So why don’t the states join as one region? For the lawyer and professor, the answer lies in the competition between the countries and the investment in projects that are supposed to remain independent. The Southern African Development Community offers an institutional framework but is currently unable to establish a sustainable connection to the region. A connection can only be initiated with a civil society which shakes up the elites of each state. For Thoko Kaime, the University of Bayreuth is the perfect place to uncover and question connections, links and intersections, and to engage in further thinking with colleagues. 

The Chair of African Legal Studies is thus a place of critical thinking, where many students enjoy an education, which leads them to be ambitious thinkers themselves. 

Interview with BIGSAS Alumnus Gemechu Abeshu: Receiving the "Preis der Stadt Bayreuth" (09.11.2020)

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Gemechu Adimassu Abeshu completed his doctoral studies at BIGSAS in 2019, after four challenging years. He is now a policy consultant working in Canada on several projects. He shares his experiences in Bayreuth and beyond during a demanding time of research, activism and family separation. 

It was during a visit in Kenya in 2014 that Gemechu heard about the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies from Prof. Dr Dereji Feyissa Dori. The professor, who also pursued his doctoral degree at a German university and is closely linked to Prof. Dr Georg Klute (Gemechu’s supervisor), suggested Bayreuth as a place for Gemechu’s future in academia. It was then in April 2015 that he was admitted to BIGSAS and started his PhD. 

Soon Gemechu started to engage in the student and Junior Fellow life in Bayreuth, attending weekly meetings, such as the “Ethnologie Kolloquium” (Anthropology Colloquium) at Iwalewahaus. The ongoing encounters supported the dedicated doctoral student from Ethiopia in following his research titled “New Forms of Power in the Afar Region of Ethiopia: The Rise of Big Men near the Ethiopia and Djibouti Border” (link). With a master’s degree in Governance and Development from the University of Antwerp Gemechu conducted research on emerging forms of political power in the Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti Border Triangle Area in combination with anthropological perspectives and methodologies.

“BIGSAS brings together Junior Fellows from multitude of African (and beyond) countries which make Bayreuth a preferred learning hub for scholars interested in African Studies programmes”. – Gemechu Abeshu

Bayreuth is a quintessential German city which I adored. The annual Bayreuth Festival “Richard-Wagner-Festspiele”, the “Oktoberfest” celebration in Bayreuth which comes with the arrival of fall season, and personally for me, I enjoyed hearing on Bayreuth city buses a chime and a recorded children voice that announces the name of the next stop. 

Mastering challenges with a head held high

With moments of achievements and progress there also came moments of setbacks. One of the biggest challenges he was facing during his time in Germany was the separation from his family. His wife and son had to remain in Ethiopia for the whole course of his studies, even though they applied for a visa in Germany. However, their application was rejected (twice) and Gemechu had to stay in touch with his family through long distance. He is not the only one, who had to study under such circumstances. Our alumnus Charles Moyo dealt with the same issue and there are many more cases. Most of us can only imagine the toll it takes on a person, being apart from his/her loved ones, let alone the missing out on each other’s lives. As an anthropological researcher Gemechu spent roughly 12 months spread over three years between 2015 and 2018 in Ethiopia. What was also meant to be a time of reunion with his family was challenged by the fact that his fieldwork coincided with a widespread political protest in Ethiopia, which began in his home region of Oromia Regional State and lasted from 2014 to 2018. While the protests led to the removal of the previous regime, Gemechu, as well as his wife, were both detained on several occasions. With such confrontations happening in his home country and being apart again when travelling back in Germany, one can only wonder how much strength a person must have to carry a burden like this. 

Starting a new chapter

After Gemechu defended his excellent dissertation in October 2019, he moved to Canada to reunite with his family. After coming to Canada, he worked as s a policy consultant, editing and publishing articles (e.g. “This Conflict is new to us: conflict in the Borderlands of Ethiopia and Djibouti”, forthcoming article on the Journal of Modern Africa Studies) and recently started a role as Research Assistant (Co-op) at Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services on researching on a project titled “impact of family loss and separation on refugee children and youth (CYRRC)” in Toronto.

His hard work is honoured with “Preis der Stadt Bayreuth”.

Even if the years of separation cannot be reversed, Gemechu receives this year’s “Award of the City of Bayreuth” as a distinction and recognition for his outstanding doctoral thesis*. In the end, his diligence and hard work under extraordinary circumstances has been honoured and he thanks his family and his doctoral supervisor for their support.

“I am honoured and humbled to be selected for the “Preis der Stadt Bayreuth”. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prof. Dr. Georg Klute at the Department of Anthropology in Bayreuth University, for his support and advice as a supervisor-father throughout the course of my PhD project. His sharp comments and suggestions were extremely instrumental in shaping the arguments and format of my thesis which led to the very selection of my dissertation for this award. It would be a discredit on my part if I fail to pay accolade to my wife – Biftu Haile by at least saluting the long and enormous sacrifices she made in terms of, not only of waiting for the husband to complete his studies and come home, but also for raising our son Naol alone as well as her relentless support and encouragement”. 

We congratulate Gemechu Adimassu Abeshu on receiving this award and wish him and his family all the best for the future.

*Due to the Covid-19 pandemic the awarding was shifted from November 2020 to summer 2021.

Interview with Valerie Gruber: Connecting Latin America and Africa (14.10.2020)

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If you take a look at the profile of our Junior Fellow Valerie Gruber, you will quickly notice that a lot has happened before she started her doctoral studies. Valerie graduated in 2016 with a Master’s degree in International Cultural and Business Studies in Passau and has spent several study-related stays in Spain, Mexico and Brazil. Finally, she sticked to Brazil, lived in ‘favelas’ and got in touch with the Afro-descendant population there. These encounters eventually led her from Salvador da Bahia to Bayreuth.

Bayreuth doesn’t have considerably more inhabitants than Passau (our alumnus Charles Moyo also studied in the small town on the border to Austria). Therefore, Valerie Gruber is familiar with quiet, neat little towns where it is easy to live and study. The difference between Salvador da Bahia and Bayreuth, however, does not pass by without leaving a trace (about 75,000 vs. nearly 3 million inhabitants). Nevertheless, her journey took her directly from Brazil to Bayreuth to explore the relations between Europe, Africa and Latin America. After holding several positions at different institutions in Bayreuth and carrying out a DAAD-funded research stay in Colombia, Valerie has now been a research associate in the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence at the University of Bayreuth for almost a year. Her project is titled: “Moral Geographies of Re-Existence: Socio-cultural Practices and Visions of a Good Life in Afro-descendant Communities in Salvador da Bahia (Brazil) and Cartagena de Indias (Colombia)”. 

While living in Bayreuth, the doctoral student travels back to Latin America on a regular basis (of course before the Covid-19 pandemic and currently only virtually). Her research and collaboration with Afro-descendant communities in Brazil and Colombia is of utmost importance to Valerie. Her time in Latin America has motivated her to complement her experiences and insights with a dissertation. Through countless dialogues, explorations and some detours, her research topic has developed organically. She now sees her doctorate “as an opportunity to formalize a project that has grown over the years”. In February 2020 she was admitted to BIGSAS as a doctoral student.

No conventional research

She doesn’t want to limit her research to common methods such as participant observation or interviews. In dialogue with local people (both in Brazil and Colombia), Valerie Gruber has begun to think things differently and has worked towards developing a collective research practice. In doing so, she focuses on two port cities which, as places of colonisation and enslavement, have taken on an ambivalent socio-political and socio-cultural role. In order to compare these multi-layered contexts, she has developed a participatory approach in collaboration with BIGSAS alumnus Dr. Gilbert Shang Ndi and the communities, with ten people each from Brazil and Colombia participating in an intercultural exchange. The two focus groups, which jointly produce knowledge and art, have already been able to get to know each other through a series of digital meetings and will (if travel regulations permit) meet in person next year.

Hence, her participatory action research is by no means a conventional approach – rather, learning with and from each other is at the centre of her project.

Issues of re-existence and ‘buen vivir’ (good life) are discussed

Valerie Gruber has been part of social and cultural projects in Brazil and Colombia for years. Working together, they ask the question: “How can the arts stimulate social transformation?” And: “What can the various communities learn from each other in the pursuit of a good life?” In this context, the traumatic past of enslavement as well as the current experience of social inequality and racial discrimination is of particular importance. The selected partner organisations, Grupo Cultural Candilé from Cartagena and Rede REPROTAI from Salvador, make use of artistic forms of expression such as music, dance and poetry in order to preserve their history and cultural heritage and, at the same time, rethink their future. 

These forms of art, pedagogy and communication are also an important part of the virtual exchange, which currently takes place every two weeks via video conference. Although field research had to be postponed, the ongoing dialogue is already a complete success. Every meeting ultimately revolves around the question of re-existence in its various forms and manifestations.

“How can art and culture stimulate socio-spatial transformation and how can people enjoy a good or better life in their communities?”

The meetings take place in Portuguese and Spanish. Although sometimes everyone understands each other quite well, a translation is needed for deeper discussions. Valerie is in charge of translating, which means that “mental digression is not allowed” ;-). But the meetings are a lot of fun and one can already see the effects of digital networking. In a WhatsApp group, the members of the participatory action research programme exchange ideas on a variety of topics. In addition, language courses were organised so that the participants can understand each other better. The Brazilian group members have already been successfully implementing community-based tourism for several years – an area from which their Colombian fellows want to learn. Through all these encounters, visions of a ‘better life’ are revealed.

Project is the focus of attention 

Her PhD is obviously important to the Junior Fellow. In the end, however, her studies should not only result in a book.

“I’m not doing the dissertation because of the title, but because of the project. The doctorate is an ideal opportunity to do exactly this – knowledge co-production is combined with a socially responsible and artistic project. And it was always clear to me: either this project or none.”

The limited freedom to travel is not easy for Valerie either, and when asked what other activities are left to do when not being able to travel to Colombia or Brazil, the PhD student replies with a smile: “I love water – even rivers and lakes”. And the access to nature is of course an easy one here in Upper Franconia. She also loves dancing. Salsa has become her passion – and she not only enjoys it in Latin America, but also in Bayreuth and the surrounding areas. In addition, drawing is an activity that helps Valerie to clear her mind.

“Sometimes I get up and know: now I need a red chalk pencil and paper. Then the picture almost draws itself. It comes from inside, I don’t plan that, you could almost close your eyes and the picture emerges. It is something that needs to get out”. 

A side project of Valerie Gruber, Diana Mignano, Gilbert Shang Ndi and Cláudio Manoel Duarte de Souza is their website “DjumbaiALA – Africa and Latin America in Dialogue”. And of course, a quiet spot like Bayreuth also invites to write articles or book chapters. 

But even though “you can find water, dance and life here”, Valerie is already looking forward to traveling back to the communities where it never gets boring.

Interview with Kamel Shaden: The Power of Social Media (01.09.2020)

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It was during her bachelor studies at the October University for Modern Sciences and Arts in Egypt (in mass communication with a major in journalism) when the Arab Spring started to emerge. Studying in Egypt she was able to witness political participation of her fellow Egyptians. That’s when she decided to focus on social media as a starting point. In conversation with Junior Fellow Shaden Kamel.

In times like these”… how often have we heard this sentence lately and used it ourselves? Covid-19 is interfering with a great deal of research. Travelling is only possible for some tourists. Many African countries remain closed, and there is still no getting in or out in many places. So, what’s there to do when it comes to research where physical interaction is necessary? Shadens research focus lies on social media and participation in the digital environment. In times like these, such research is a step ahead. The Junior Follow can continue working on her dissertation from Bayreuth, despite her terminated field trip to Cairo due to the pandemic. While she focused on youth in her bachelor’s degree, she focused on the news framing of political actors on international websites in 2011 and 2013 in her master’s degree. She received her master’s degree in media and global communication, which she did at the University of Helsinki in Finland, in 2015. Afterwards she went back to Egypt to teach at her BA university for three years. Women’s political participation, agency and usage of social media in these periods (during the revolutions in 2011 and 2013) has inspired her to want to research how women reflect agency and use social media in the everyday life (e.g. show case struggles, connect to find solutions, jobs etc). Since 2019 she has been part of BIGSAS and has been working extensively on the topic of women empowerment.

Facebook groups as a place of empowerment 

“Looking at how people incorporate the media in their everyday life and what possibilities it could give them is worth looking at, because it is impacting many people” 

Facebook has become an indispensable part of many people’s lives. And even if there are some who have already deleted their account or at least paused it, for many users it is still one of the most important digital platforms for their everyday exchange. With an account on Facebook, one inevitably ends up in Facebook groups, which can revolve around any topic. Whether large or small, closed or open, there are hardly any topics that go unnoticed. Shaden Kamel also focuses on Facebook groups that contribute to the empowerment of women in Egypt. In doing so, she examines how exactly support between women takes place, for example by helping each other as entrepreneurs. But not only the exchange about business or career is at the forefront, also normal conversations between women, e.g. about motherhood or alike. There are no taboos here and for many participants such groups offer a safe space to talk freely. However, research online is not as easy as one might think. The Junior Fellow has to get to the bottom of questions whether all profiles are real profiles. In conversations with her interviewees, it often emerges that founders of Facebook groups need to be careful who is approved to the group, by making sure to investigate whether potential members’ profile are fake or not. There are also some challenges in terms of researching content in private Facebook groups, as they are also a platform of public communication once you become a member. Especially when it comes to women’s practices on social media, discourse about gender roles, women’s struggles and rights is becoming more and more prevalent and important. The PhD student is more than passionate about the topic of her dissertation. Her joy is noticeable in the conversation, something she would like to share with more colleagues in Bayreuth. In her bachelor and master studies she found herself among like-minded people. At BIGSAS and the University of Bayreuth, there are fewer people who deal with social media and civic participation. 

Bayreuth – a place for new ideas and perspectives

But the student also enjoys life in Bayreuth. Especially the quiet atmosphere appeals to her. The comparison to Cairo or also Hurghada, where she lived for some time, is of course noticeable. Shaden says that the advantage of BIGSAS is the international exchange. Here, she can develop her own thoughts and gain new perspectives and ideas. At the same time, this is also challenging, as she wants to find resonance with other colleagues for her research. In the end, it is the interdisciplinary approach that distinguishes the research at BIGSAS and to which Shaden also contributes with her work. 

By the way: Shaden is also running as Junior Fellow representative for the upcoming semester. 

Here is why: “I hope to organise more meetups with Junior Fellows to exchange their experience in methodology, and their field work, as well as meetups and workshops with post-docs and alumni. Also, once it becomes safe to arrange, I’d love to plan some fun trips.” 

Interview with Charles Moyo: Follow the Fellow​ (13.08.2020)

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Charles Moyo completed his doctoral studies in 2019 and went back to his home country Zimbabwe. The Alumnus is now based in Zambia, working as a Senior Associate for the RHOMA Foreign Relations Institute. He describes the challenges he faced during his doctoral studies in Bayreuth and the transition into the job market.

Charles was a master’s student at the University of Passau when he heard about Bayreuth in 2013. One of his professors was organising a seminar with colleague Prof. Dr. Dieter Neubert on “Development Strategies in Kenya and Thailand”. Students from the University of Bayreuth came to Passau and Charles, in return, went to Bayreuth with his classmates. That is where he got to know the university and the city. At the same time, the then MA student met former Junior Fellow of BIGSAS, who gave an insight into the graduate school. Nevertheless, BIGSAS was quickly forgotten and only over a year later did it return on his radar. When he applied for his doctoral studies (read more about his PhD project here), he became a Junior Fellow at BIGSAS in 2015.

Bayreuth – small city with a cosmopolitan vibe

Charles liked the size of the city very much. Although Passau has even fewer inhabitants than Bayreuth, it is mainly the cosmopolitan nature that characterises both the city and the university. The alumnus enjoyed his time at cultural institutions such as the Iwalewahaus. A highlight for him was an exhibition on Zimbabwean sculptures. The fact that he was able to encounter a piece of home more than 8,000 kilometres away was “great moment for me to experience Zimbabwean culture outside Zimbabwe”. BIGSAS is also cosmopolitan by nature – a place where opportunities for networking and cultural exchange exist. His fellow students and the staff “made me feel like home and we ended up being like a family. BIGSAS was not only limited to academic business but also had a vibrant social life”.

Further highlights were also the numerous lectures, conferences, workshops or colloquiums he visited during his time at the graduate school. It was also during these events that he met Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Wole Soyinka as well as many other filmmakers, artists, novelists, academicians. 

KHG and KAAD as important support

“The biggest challenge during my PhD studies was the distance that separated me from my family. I was away from my wife and two kids and it was not easy.”

Charles shares this dilemma with many other former and active Junior Fellows. It poses a great challenge when part of one’s family lives in the home country and oneself tries to gain ground in a foreign place for a few years. The only way to overcome this distance is through digital communication, at least for a few hours a week. When Charles travelled to Zimbabwe for some field research for his dissertation, he was able to celebrate a short reunion with his family. Contact with other international students was therefore particularly important to him. The Catholic University Community (KHG) played a decisive role in this, where he found many friends. Additionally, he co-organised various events at the catholic institution, such as the Africa Culture Evening. 

Financing his doctorate was also not always easy for the alumnus. After a one-year scholarship, Charles needed new financial support. When he finally became a scholarship holder at The Catholic Academic Exchange Service (KAAD), he could not only feel financial relief, but found another important family for him. He was able to attend numerous events and get to know cities inside and outside Germany (you can see Charles on one of his travels on the cover picture).

The time after BIGSAS – reunion and realignment 

Returning to his family in Zimbabwe was one big relief. However, due to the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe, he decided to move to Zambia. There he founded the RHOMA Foreign Relation Institute, an international affairs policy think tank in Lusaka. The institute’s main focus is the promotion of Zambia’s development through the promotion of foreign direct investment, tourism, private sector development as well as promotion of peace and security. In order to achieve its objectives, RHOMA Foreign Relations Institute works closely with the Zambia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, business sector and diplomatic missions accredited to Zambia. As a Senior Associate Charles does not only consult the Institute on its endeavors but is also the chief editor of a new magazine called “The Diplomatz Magazine”. While establishing a new institute into the international landscape is demanding enough, the Covid-19 pandemic is also affecting the work of Charles in a big way. Potential partners cannot be met, meetings are restricted, and no public events are possible at this point of time. Due to the social distancing measures he and his team members are currently working from home. 

We all hope that this pandemic will soon be subdued – for all of us to return to normalcy and for Charles and RHOMA Institute to pursue new projects! We wish him good luck and all the best!

Interview with Lena Naumann: Pulling the Strings (22.07.2023)

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If you take a look at her biography, you will recognise two influential elements – on the one hand, her place of study and her life in Bayreuth; on the other hand, her passion for a variety of cultural, artistic and music-related projects. Today in conversation: Lena Naumann.

Bayreuth was actually not the first address Lena had imagined for her Bachelor’s degree. But a few years later, the Hessin (Hessen is a federal state in Germany) can still be spotted in Upper Franconia. After her bachelor’s degree in African Languages, Literature and Art, she spent a good half year at the Goethe-Institut Nairobi and since 2010 she has been working at the Iwalewahaus which was founded by Ulli Beier in 1981. In her Master’s degree Culture and Society of Africa – with a focus on anthropology as well as art and curation – she was often the only student in her department. However, this did not dampen her motivation, because after an internship at the Landesmusikakademie in Berlin, where she organised the music festival ‘Klangwelten’, she returned to Bayreuth, to the archives of Ulli Beier. One of her bigger projects so far was to digitise the inheritance of the founder of the Iwalewahaus and prepare it for a transfer to Oshogbo. While for some people the scanning and sorting for hours sounds rather like a monotonous task, for Lena it was the “best job ever!”, because she was able to work intensively with original photographs. Following in the footsteps of Ulli Beier, she also got hold of material on Susanne Wenger, who is now a big part of her dissertation. 

After her employment with Iwalewahaus in 2016, she was offered a research fellow position (Volontariat combines practical and theoretical education/work) at the institution and was able to gain further practical experience as a curator. Since then she has been active in various positions. As a junior researcher she was part of the research project African Art History and the Formation of a Modern Aesthetic under the direction of Nadine Siegert and travelled to Nigeria for the first time.

“I was then at the ‘Sacred Grove’ of Oshogbo for the first time – and it blew me away, because the artist Susanne Wenger, who also had herself initiated as a Yoruba priestess, was active there. This encounter…, there are incredibly great sculptures, sculptures, shrines, which she has restored, with the New Sacred Art Movement… it was the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. It was really a spiritual experience”.

The doctoral student, who is doing her doctorate at the Iwalewahaus under the supervision of Dr. Ulf Vierke, discovered her passion for art right at the beginning of her studies at the University of Bayreuth and has continued and deepened it continuously. Since April 2019 she has been a Junior Fellow at BIGSAS.

Following the tracks of the New Sacred Art Movement 

It was in Nigeria that Lena came in touch with Susanne Wenger – the first wife of Ulli Beier and a well-known artist from Austria. Here she got to know the New Sacred Art Movement, an important art movement in Nigeria, which she wanted to study from a scientific perspective in the future. 

Although the trained curator loves her practical work in cultural and cultural-scientific institutions, she wanted to “enter into the scientific discourse”. This paved the way for her doctorate. For the Junior Fellow, it is important to discover what the art movement contributes to the canon formation of Nigerian modern art. Furthermore, Susanne Wenger, who emigrated to Nigeria as early as 1950 and worked as an artist there, is very much at the forefront of the movement. The Austrian not only founded the art movement there, but also had herself initiated as a Yoruba priestess. Lena’s emotion, ambition and eagerness of contributing to the scientific discourse and also of diverting attention away from the biography of an individual person (Susanne Wenger) can ultimately contribute to the historiography of Nigerian art. Although the doctoral student was still in Nigeria in February 2020 to hand over the inheritance of Ulli Beier, the Covid-19 pandemic did not leave her unaffected. Read here what she had originally planned. 

A Passion for Puppetry

Even though Bayreuth is a rather small town, Operla is (still) unknown to many residents. ‘Opera??? The ice cream spot next to the canal?’ – no ‘OPERla’, the small magical puppet theatre in the Steingräberpassage. For Lena it was a coincidence to discover the small theatre in 2014, where among others, operas by Richard Wagner are performed. Although the doctoral student already had a great affinity for theatre and was also actively involved in the international Atelier-Theater in Bayreuth, she had no experience whatsoever in puppetry. 

“I can really get enthusiastic quickly, and once again it was a lucky coincidence in my life, which also had a significant influence on me. I am not a Wagner fan, but I heard this music and then I saw the performance… it is amazing how you can ( display ) this mighty Wagner with these little puppets and everything is somehow so light and can be seen with a twinkling eye. I really liked the fact that this is followed with some seriousness, but just doesn’t take itself too seriously”.

Coincidence became enthusiasm and enthusiasm turned into passion. Lena was determined to learn the puppet theatre – one of the oldest arts – and learned her dexterity in workshops and through much rehearsal. In the meantime she has “played her way up”. In addition to her activities at Operla Lena produces a short version of the opera Hänsel und Gretel with her friend Steffen Riess, who is a producer and musician. The play is intended to be performed in kindergardens, schools or residential care facilities. The special feature: there is a mobile stage that can be driven and used anywhere. Although the puppet theatre is often seen as a niche, the response from the audience is always positive – a visit to the enchanting Operla is therefore definitely worthwhile. 

Another passion: art and music

The fact that art is a large part of Lena’s life becomes clear in numerous facets of her daily activities. Her many completed and active projects at the Iwalewahaus show that the curator makes herself quite indispensable. One of her projects deals with musical treasures from the Iwalewahaus archive. The ‘Music Archive Listening Session’ always takes place twice a semester. In addition, the ‘African Beat Night’ contributes to Bayreuth’s party scene. Both events are curated by Lena and her colleague Alexandra Kuhnke. 

Collaboration with international artists is very important to the doctoral student; Bayreuth offers plenty of space and numerous networks for this purpose. 

Currently Lena was able to organise an exhibition with artworks by Nuno Silas (here in an interview with Africa Multiple), Master student ‘African Visual and Verbal Arts’, at Atelier RW44 – one of the few art spaces in the city. At the vernissage on July 02, 2020, she emphasises the importance of art, especially in times of Covid-19, when the art and culture scene has to fight for survival in many respects. The exhibition ‘the intensity of identity’ curated by her can be visited until the end of September (opening hours will be announced on the usual channels).

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