November 3, 2008

Cornellians Evaluate Progress of Africa Initiative

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In his 2006 State of the University Address, President David Skorton announced an initiative that would coordinate Cornell’s support of sub-Saharan African Development. Yet, given that there has been just one follow-up meeting held one year after its inception, some proponents of the initiative claim that the initiative has lagged in its progress.
Last night, the Coalition of Pan-African Scholars (COAS) at Cornell, the Wananchi East African Association and the Nigerian Students Association co-hosted the event, “The Africa Initiative: A Dinner & Discussion” to address the lag in the project and to suggest possible approaches that the University can take to move forward with the initiative while boosting current support for developmental efforts, academic enrichment and research.
Over 120 people, ranging from faculty, to staff, to students attended.
The audience was treated to a taste of West African cuisine and songs from Samite Mulondo, a renowned Ugandan artist and founder of Musicians for World Harmony. Playing a variety of Southeast African percussion instruments, Mulondo recalled the brutality against women and the plight of former children soldiers in the Congo, in addition to addressing the call for sustainability in Tanzania.
In her introductory speech, Makafui Fiavi ’10, director of social outreach for COAS, emphasized that the night was not held to criticize University administrators with regards to the initiative, but rather to highlight Cornell’s overall commitment to Africa and to network with different organizations on campus that share overlapping interests in Africa.
“The purpose of this dinner is not necessarily to criticize the lack of progress [towards the African Initiative]. Rather, it is to generate interest and constructive discussion, as well as shed light on Cornell’s overall commitment to Africa,” Fiavi said.
Prof. Salah Hassan, art history and director of Research at the Africana Center, spoke of the African Initiative as a plan that is still “in the works.” He emphasized that Africa “offers a debt of history and a debt of knowledge that can be cultivated.”
Another challenge to private institutions like Cornell when raising funds for African nations, Hassan said, is that extensions are almost solely dependent on the interest of alumni and donors. Hassan suggested that ultimately, there has to be more two-way traffic between African nations and the University.
Halfway through the night, the audience partook in a discussion about governance in Africa and about volunteer efforts that Africans and non-Africans alike can take up after graduation. Olutayo Akintobi grad emphasized the importance of volunteers traveling to Africa to work with Africans.
When asked about the challenges that he confronted when planning the event, Jefferson King ’09, co-president of COAS, said that it was difficult to find a speaker due a lack of awareness of the existence of Cornell’s initiative.
“It is difficult to discuss something that’s not in existence,” King said, citing a meeting he had with the president Skorton’s office and Alice Pell, vice provost for international relations, who singled out funding as the biggest challenge in achieving the goals of the initiative.
Nevertheless, King was satisfied with the diversity of participants at the event. He said that the presence of a wide range of attendees indicated that the Cornell community is capable of fostering a profitable dialogue about the Africa initiative.
Representatives from Cornell Health International, the Cornell Global Development Club, Project Kenya, and Cornellians for the Congo attended the event and spoke about the roles their organizations are playing in moving forward with the initiative.
Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67, who attended the discussion and praised it for the intellectual diversity of the audience.
“I’m fascinated. It was a fantastic way to bring faculty and students [together to talk about] important matters.” Hubbell added, “[If] Cornell can see itself as a land grant university of the world, [then] this is one program that helps it realize [that goal].”
Kathy Houng ’10, member of Project Kenya, described the event as a “real eye opener” to what other student organizations are doing.
Rammy Salem ’10 acknowledged that when Cornell students are confronted with study abroad programs in Africa, most students choose to go to Ghana and Egypt, limiting exposure to the diversity of other African nations.