A New Master's in African Studies

Rod Searcey

In the 1960s, lessons learned from the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the decolonization of what was then called the Third World drove a generation of young scholars to the African continent.

“Vietnam, especially, made us realize that America was engaged in social engineering, but that we knew nothing about the culture and society [of Vietnam], and therefore whatever plans we had, had a disconnect between policy and reality,” says history professor Richard Roberts. “Those of us who were aware of these issues realized we needed to know more about the world.”

Today a new generation of Africanist scholars is converging on the field from a new direction. “It’s very gendered, with the vast majority being female students,” says Roberts, who directs the interdisciplinary program in African studies. “Many of them are drawn because they’re interested in health-related issues, particularly women’s health.” Roberts ticks off the topics his students have looked at: women’s vulnerability to sexual predation; early childbearing, which can result in disabling fistulas; and the mother-child transmission of the HIV/AIDS virus through breastfeeding.

At present, the program in African studies offers students the opportunity to specialize in the field, but doesn’t grant degrees. That will change in September, when graduate students will be able to apply for a new, one-year master’s degree program. Their advisers will include the seven Africanist faculty members who’ve been hired since 2001—in anthropology, political science, history and art. Languages available for study include Arabic, Swahili, Hausa, Chichewa, Amharic, Tigrigna and Twi.

Roberts spent a week in Cape Town, South Africa, in September, talking with university administrators about setting up an overseas studies campus there, to tap into the long history of exchange Stanford has had with the University of the Western Cape and the University of Cape Town. “We’re proposing that we would encourage courses Stanford faculty would offer, to be co-taught” with faculty at the two universities, Roberts says. “We want to mix it up, and not be an island.”