Lehigh Hosts African Conference

By Katie Howlin '16

On Thursday, February 18, the Africana Studies Program, Global Studies, the Humanities Center, and the Sustainable Development Program co-sponsored Lehigh University’s 2nd Annual African Conference. This year’s conference, titled “Establishing Lehigh Valley’s Footprint in Africa: The Role of Students and Faculty,” sought to showcase the work that faculty and students from both Lehigh and other Lehigh Valley universities have conducted. The conference began with students from Lehigh University and Moravian College showcasing their research.

Sixteen Lehigh students who spent their summer in Africa from 2014, working and conducting research with the help of programs such as the Iacocca Internship program, The Strohl Grant, and the Eckardt Scholars program shared their findings. Following student poster presentation, the guest speaker, Ron Ulrich ’67 and  Rexford Ahene, a professor at Lafayette, who gave the keynote address highlighted the significance of the conference. The evening concluded with a Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges (LVAIC) panel. The faculty from Lehigh, Moravian, Lafayette and Mulenberg College discussed areas of collaboration between students and faculty in LVAIC in the future.

Many Lehigh students presented their research and experiences from time they spent in Africa over the summer. Miles Davis ’16, Karen Valerio ’17, and Sidey Ro ’17 traveled to Ghana with the Iacocca International Internship program. Their project was entitled “Sites of Memory.” They spent 6 weeks staying in a hostel visiting the University of Ghana where they worked on individual research projects.  Though they worked on separate projects, their research was all focused on the effects of the Atlantic Slave trade.

Danielle Taitt ’16, a Science, Technology & Society major, traveled to Ghana for three weeks with a Strohl Grant. Taitt’s research “Effects of Urban Design on Culture and Social Structure in Ghana” was spervised by Professor Kwame Essien.  Taitt learned that in Ghana, even in the cities, chiefs still distribute land, which makes it difficult to effectively plan. Taitt explained how she first had to study the history and socio-economic cultures of Ghana, as history affects urban planning. She conducted interviews and surveys to see how urban planning in Ghana affected how people interacted. Taitt found that there are many cultural forces at play, and at times they become conflicting. Taitt’s project was extremely relevant, as foreign direct investment continues to grow in Ghana, and the government is trying to sell land to these private investors. This foreign aid and investment comes from the West, and so the wants of these companies and the traditions of Ghana need to be reconciled.

Hugh Bartlett ’17, a biology major and Health, Medicine, & Society and Africana Studies minor, traveled to Ghana through his Eckardt Scholars Program, Operation Groundswell and the Lehigh University Biology Department. Bartlett’s program was a six-week service learning trip throughout Ghana. Based out of the University of Ghana, Bartlett attended lectures to learn about Ghana’s healthcare system in a cultural context, and then spent time in rural areas. In the rural areas, Barlett worked to promote community health outreach. One of Bartlett’s favorite parts of the program was the opportunity to get involved in the culture, as he had ten days for free travel. In his ten days of travel, Bartlett focused on mental health, as the mental healthcare system in Ghana is severely underdeveloped. Bartlett said that in Ghana many mental illnesses are attributed to religion and spirituality, and those who are mentally ill are thought to be cursed. Barlett has plans to continue to do similar work in Uganda next summer. 

Kwame Essien, a professor of History and Africana Studies at Lehigh University, stated that the conference started as a way for Lehigh University faculty to share their ideas and expose their research to students. This year, the conference was extended to the outside community. In the future, Essien says that he and his co-organizer, Professor Susan Kart hopes to continue the conversation and continue to increase LVAIC participation. An ultimate goal of the conference would to create a common study abroad program for the LVAIC, hoping that professors, students, and departments from the various institutions could pool their resources to establish LVAIC’s footprints on the African continent through study abroad and internship programs.