January 20, 2010
DeKalb, Ill. — It has already been a long and cold winter, but every day is warm and sunny for Sibel Kusimba, a Northern Illinois University professor of anthropology.
Kusimba won a competitive Fulbright Scholar grant last year to teach and conduct research in Kenya. She began her work last August at Egerton University near the agricultural town of Njoro. Located in the central part of the country, Njoro is about a two-hour-and-30-minute drive northwest of the capital city of Nairobi.
“It is a perfect day, every day, day after day,” Kusimba said via e-mail. “The warm sun comes out for two to four hours a day, but mornings and evenings are pleasantly cool, and there is no humidity.”
The experience has been ideal in other ways as well for the NIU archaeologist, who has been conducting research in East Africa for the past 15 years. In Western Kenya, Kusimba is interviewing and working with potters to learn more about how pottery is used in ceremonies and feasts and as gifts in the modern age.
“Pottery is one of the most important and abundant finds on archaeological sites,” she said. “Much of what we find is fragmentary, so it is hard to interpret. By seeing how pottery is made and used in a living society, we can get ideas about how to interpret the pottery we find as artifacts on archaeological sites.”
Kusimba is comparing modern and ancient African pottery and investigating the differences between modern pottery made by men and women. She also is especially interested in ceremonial uses for pottery, which differ among various Kenyan cultures.
“For example, in Western Kenya there is a pot with two mouths that is made and used to celebrate the birth of twins,” Kusimba said. “Traditional pots are used to mark special occasions, such as weddings or coming-of-age ceremonies.”
The teaching experience in Africa has been illuminating as well.
Students in Kenya have vastly fewer educational resources than their U.S. counterparts, Kusimba said. She teaches courses at NIU in introductory archaeology, ethnohistory and the archaeology of Africa.
“I am amazed at how much Kenyan students value their education, in spite of the lack of resources here,” she said.
“Many classrooms don't even have electrical outlets, let alone smart technology,” she added. “Courses are not associated with textbooks. Instead students have just a few reference books in the libraries to consult. Yet they come in each day ready to learn. They are a pleasure to teach.”
Kusimba's teenage son, Jesse, is accompanying his mother on this Fulbright adventure. “He is spending ninth grade in a British-curriculum boarding school, and I know he will treasure the memories of this experience,” said Kusimba, who will return home in July.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright program was established in 1946 to build mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries. Award recipients are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement and because they have demonstrated extraordinary leadership potential in their fields.
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Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs