One of the areas I look to is the cultural. If I focus on the government, I can literally tear my hair out. In a sense, if you have such despair politically and economically, you expect people to be going around with long, dour expressions. How come when you go there, there is such vitality and people are laughing? It's at that point that you begin to look at what keeps people going: the social values, the connectedness. Even though things are bad, they are able to establish these networks of kinship, of friendship that allow them to look after others. Those are things that are relevant for all people regardless of cultural specificities.

Professor Nkiru Nzegwu, Chair of Africana Studies Department, BUNkiru Nzegwu, a native of Nigeria, is the chairwoman of Binghamton University's Africana Studies Department.

"But it's shocking that with the amount of communications we have, it is as if we are still living in the 15th century. People tend to not know as much about many other places.

That's not to say that there aren't people who know, who take delight in traveling and getting to know different people."

Audio excerpt of the interview.

By Brian Liberatore (Saturday February 4, 2006)

Nkiru Nzegwu, a native of Nigeria, is the chairwoman of Binghamton University's Africana Studies Department. The department is one of the oldest of its kind, having been established in 1969. Since its inception, the department has changed from Afro-American Studies to Afro-American and African Studies; it became Africana Studies in 1994. The department crosses all disciplines.

Nzegwu hopes to create a doctorate program within the department, further establishing BU's Africana Studies Department as one of the most significant academic recourses in the region.

A Press & Sun-Bulletin reporter sat down with Nzegwu recently to talk about her experiences at BU and her perspective on the region and the world.

Q: What was it like growing up in Nigeria versus your experiences here in Binghamton?

A: Binghamton is rather rural. I grew up in cities. It was quite a shock coming here, giving up all the perks of city life. But Binghamton does have its advantages, especially in regards to the university and the opportunity to do the things I've been able to do.

Q: Acute poverty is a pervasive problem in Nigeria. What has caused that?

A: The problem with Nigeria is the problem of oil, petroleum. As opposed to it being a gift, a wonderful recourse for economic transformation, it has become a curse. The main consumers of the oil, which happen to be the industrialized countries, want to get it at its lowest cost. So part of that has political and economic effects. A government that is favorable to interests of oil will not necessarily be interested in the lives of people.

Q: What can be done?

A: One of the areas I look to is the cultural. If I focus on the government, I can literally tear my hair out. In a sense, if you have such despair politically and economically, you expect people to be going around with long, dour expressions. How come when you go there, there is such vitality and people are laughing? It's at that point that you begin to look at what keeps people going: the social values, the connectedness. Even though things are bad, they are able to establish these networks of kinship, of friendship that allow them to look after others. Those are things that are relevant for all people regardless of cultural specificities.

Q: Binghamton University's Africana Studies Department is one of the oldest in the country. Can you tell me a little bit about the history?

A: It began straight as a department. Many other places started as a program and then later were given the status of departments. But Binghamton from the onset started as a department.

Q: What is the significance of that?

A: It does indicate a commitment by the university to give it the status of an academic department with all the institutional trappings that come with that.

Q: What does the department focus on? What are the courses of study?

A: The defining characteristics would be peoples of African descent. But in terms of disciplines, you have history, you have philosophy, you have art, you have literature. It's a whole range of disciplines focusing on the production — intellectual, artistic and critical production — of people in different countries in different geographical zones. It's pretty much focusing on the entire world.

Q: I have heard criticism that African studies are often overlooked. America's high school education system is often deemed Eurocentric. Do you find this to be true?

A: My children went to school here, so I have a sense of what is studied in the high schools. In the high schools, there is literally nothing about Africa. When you do come across Africa, it is usually that they're living in trees. It's a well-kept zoo.

When you look at some of the text that is in the primary schools, in the high schools, it does not serve the American students very well.

Q: As globalization spreads and communications make the world a smaller place, do you feel a more global understanding of society becomes more important?

A: It's incredibly important. But it's shocking that with the amount of communications we have, it is as if we are still living in the 15th century. People tend to not know as much about many other places.

That's not to say that there aren't people who know, who take delight in traveling and getting to know different people.

But there's equally a lot of people who don't know. Let me take the typical whipping horse: the media — the "world news." The main news (in America) starts in New York and ends in California. And then we do Iraq.

Q: Can you talk about the future of BU's Africana Studies Department?

A: In a way, it's kind of a political thing that was created to deflect the student activism of the '60s and the '70s. But ever since then, it's grown into a formidable academic field.

There's a whole range of scholarship that is coming out of it, and there is increasingly a whole lot of young people that want to specialize in these areas.

Originally appeared in Press & Sun-Bulletin. Photo by Chuck Haupt.


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