Historians look for artifacts of the past and oftentimes we use written documents, but I examine societies that recorded events through oral traditions and material culture.

Cymone Fourshey

In her Pop Culture of Africa course, Professor Cymone Fourshey reminds students that popular culture isn't new — people have produced it for hundreds of years. She starts the class with an oral tradition epic and then grounds it in historical context.

"There were written documents and monuments that support these accounts," she says. "We look at what the epic is trying to tell us about society's values and how the people wanted to memorialize themselves as opposed to how outsiders might depict them. Pop culture is about resistance and challenging the status quo."

With this foundation established, students begin projects using primary sources and historical analysis to show change over time. They choose topics like rap music in Tanzania or fashion in Namibia to explore how pop culture influences and reflects what people value.

Fourshey creates opportunities for students outside class as well — from writing and publishing encyclopedia articles to using historical archives to traveling to Maine to do internships with East African immigrants.

In 2016, Fourshey took one of her international relations students to Tanzania, a country central in her research. While she advised her student's honors thesis about the relationship between China and Tanzania, she conducted her own research for a book she's writing about Bantu Somali migrants granted citizenship in Tanzania and histories of hospitality in the southwestern part of the nation.

"Historians look for artifacts of the past and oftentimes we use written documents, but I examine societies that recorded events through oral traditions and material culture," Fourshey says. She uses historical linguistics to better understand social and economic institutions dating back to 500 B.C.

"They mostly used oral methods for passing information from generation to generation, so in terms of hospitality, I'm looking at words surrounding greetings and food, and what words they use for strangers, guests and visitors," she explains. "In southwest Tanzania, which has witnessed a great deal of migration over the past 2,000 years, they have tried to find ways in which to incorporate outsiders in order to develop themselves."

Fourshey also received a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant to study the social, political, economic and institutional authority women have held in central and eastern Africa.

"Part of their worldview was that you needed to build broad networks and redistribute wealth," she says. "It creates security because your security is dependent on other people being secure as well." Her transnational research team is traveling to Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Mozambique as they continue their work.

Posted July 2018