Into Africa

Courtesy Iowa State University

Like hundreds of Stanford students in the early 1960s, Mike Warren eagerly signed up for the Peace Corps after graduation. Unlike most volunteers, his two-year assignment led to lifelong attachments. When Warren died in Africa on December 28, 1997, at age 55, of thrombosis, he was a chieftain in Ghana and Nigeria. He was also an Iowa State University professor and research center director who had made enormous contributions to international development.

"I wasn't all that sure what was in the deep end of the pool that I was walking into," Warren said of his Peace Corps experience in a 1995 interview with Stanford. A biology major, he taught high school science in central Ghana and spent weekends exploring the countryside and making friends with herbalists and healers. During one of these excursions he met his future wife, Mary, granddaughter of a chieftain in Nigeria. He also developed a fascination with anthropology and linguistics. And he became a keen student of the folk knowledge of the local people -- something routinely ignored by development agencies at the time.

Warren gained fluency in several African languages and earned a PhD in social and cultural anthropology from Indiana University in 1974. He joined the faculty of Iowa State University in 1972 and taught more than a dozen courses while conducting field work in development projects around the world.

"Long before it was fashionable to incorporate cross-cultural materials in the classroom, they were standard fare in Mike's offerings," says his ISU colleague, professor Michael Whiteford, noting that Warren also regularly took students with him to Africa.

Warren's research centered on non-Western knowledge, in areas from agriculture and ecology to medicine and management. His goal was to preserve indigenous know-how and apply it in cost-effective, sustainable development projects. In 1987 he founded the Center for Indigenous Knowledge for Agriculture and Rural Development at Iowa State. Over the next decade, the center grew into a worldwide clearinghouse with 30 branches.

A crusader for development strategies based on local priorities and resources, Warren produced 29 books and manuals and gave more than 200 lectures around the world. He and his wife spent part of each year at their home in her native Ara, Nigeria, the first of four communities to make him a chieftain.

He is survived by his wife of 31 years, Mary, and their daughter, Medina.