Summer break and the incredible experiences traveling students and faculty embark upon remains among the most exciting and useful aspects of life in any university. Rarely does the opportunity come up to hear about the experiences of others, however: a gap the event “What Did You Do Last Summer?” aimed to close. Sponsored by the African and Afro-American Studies Department and moderated by Professor Faith Lois Smith, the experiences of six Brandeisians were highlighted: two undergraduates (Jessye Kass ’13 and Kylie Vallario ’12) and four professors (Jane Hale, Richard Gaskins, Ibrahim Sundiata, and Pashington Obeng).
As participants reflected in discussion later in the event, the notion of narrative as understood by one’s self and by others played a large role in the events of the summer. The speakers noted the inherent difficulty in contending with different narratives, particularly when tied to being a traveler in a foreign land.
Jessye Kass, who visited Ghana for the third time this summer with the Sorensen Fellowship Program, founded her own non-governmental organization based around art therapy in rural villages. In particular, she brought up the issue of the conflicting aims of anthropology and social justice in difficult situations, since anthropology stipulates detached observation and social justice demands intervention.
She was followed by Kylie Vallario, who spent time studying race and human rights with a focus on public health in Salvatore, Brazil. The necessity of striking a balance between one’s sense of self and cultural understandings were emphasized in her talk. She relayed tales of the conflicts she observed on the topic of academic discussion about religion as well as regarding the question of asserting feminism in a culturally appropriate manner.
Professor Hale traveled to Haiti and Lesotho this summer, and broadened the discussion to address a myriad of situations across the globe, including her past experiences in Senegal. She emphasized that it is people who make places what they are, and advised future study abroad participants to meet local people (to not only socialize with expatriates). Along the same lines, she described the worthiness of learning at least the greetings in the local language, for the sake of both communication and respect for the culture.
Having led the Summer 2011 Brandeis in The Hague program, Professor Gaskins offered another perspective on the notion of narrative through his experiences with the International Criminal Court. There, different local, global, and foreign perspectives compete and attempt to combine to create a solid position through the proceedings. He described the complexity of the issues debated with regards to both the background of the trial and its impact on the local community in the present and future. He ended by noting how small one’s perspective is without multiple sides of an issue, an essential idea applicable to not only law but also life.
Professor Sundiata first explicitly brought up the notion of narratives when discussing his recent travels in Ghana, related to collective and individual memory. Specifically, he discussed Elmina Castle – one of the most prominent slave trade forts in Ghana – to illustrate the idea of competing narratives. He discussed: heritage tourism, the problems of being a tourist in a place of pain, and the sincerity of a docent during his tour of the castle (who made a point to avoid sensationalism). These stories raising the issue of competing, conflicting, and equally valid narratives to prominence.
Finally, Professor Obeng spoke of his time in India with two undergraduates from Harvard and Wellesley, and the problems with simplistic or one-dimensional views of situations. He discussed this in relation to race, caste, and disenfranchisement in India, pointing out the lack of a single root cause of marginalization, despite the many factors leading to it.
After further discussion regarding experiences and reactions to their own and others’ travels, the event wrapped up with speakers giving advice to those studying or traveling abroad now or in the future. Of the advice given, two sentiments in particular stood out. First, Professor Hale stressed the importance of traveling with the ability to fail: she advised that people know when they travel that is failure possible, and everything will be all right if they do. Second, Kylie Vollario stressed the importance of keeping an open mind not only about the culture one is visiting, but also about one’s self. Only by pushing ones boundaries can the culture and situation be experienced fully.