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OCS adds new program to East Africa: “History, Culture, and Commerce: Africa and Arabia”

The Office of Off-Campus Studies (OCS) has recently added a new program that sends students to areas of East Africa and Arabia such as Zanzibar and Oman.

The program—officially titled “History, Culture, and Commerce: Africa and Arabia”—was spearheaded by Associate Professor of History Thabiti Willis and is slated to occur in the spring term of 2020.

Willis described the program—and OCS in general—as “deeply committed to opportunities for students to step outside of their comfort zones and cultural [centers]; to engage other cultures on their own terms; and to grapple with the complexities of race, ethnicity, gender and culture.” He also added that it was intended to “nurture understanding of how intimately U.S., Middle Eastern and African geo-politics are intertwined.”

This year, Willis is teaching several history classes on the history of Africa, such as “History of Early West Africa” this term and “Colonial West Africa” in the Spring Term.

The prerequisites for the program include a demonstrated interest in Africana studies along with a recommended 100-level history or Africana studies course.

According to its page on the OCS website, the East Africa program aims to highlight the interactions and experiences of people in the region.

“It highlights the role that these peoples have played in the development of a distinctive set of trading and familial networks, maritime and musical cultures, laboring and ruling classes and migration patterns,” the page stated. The program offers “deep and profound engagement with the past and present.”

The program allows students to research and write about such topics—including, as a part of that research, conducting interviews to participate “in the performance of culture and practice of heritage [and to] question the ways that knowledge has and continues to be cultivated, disseminated and internalized.”

In regards to the program’s importance, Willis called it “pioneering.” In addition, he said, “it’s cutting-edge. It’s timely. It challenges the area studies model that sees Africa and the Middle East as two different areas of intellectual and geo-political significance. It also invites OCS and Western study abroad programs to nurture partnerships that benefit them within their own non-Western neighbors.

“It also exposes students to places that are vastly underrepresented in American popular culture and intellectual circles and yet have deep and profound histories,” Willis added.

Willis also ran an OCS program in 2012: “Afro-Arab Women’s Artistic & Radical Expressions” (AWARE). The program, on its website, stated it “looks at the history of Afro-Arab women as agents of change shaping and responding to the broader world around them. AWARE features performances and presentations that showcase the creative talents and activism of young Afro-Arab women.

“It highlights how these women reflect on cultural, religious and social expectations placed upon them as they seek to actively shape the world around them.”

OCS Director Helena Kaufman added that “OCS is interested in developing new programs in areas of the world and areas of the curriculum that have been underrepresented at Carleton—this is one of our strategic goals.”

Jeff Snyder, the director of Africana studies at Carleton, said, “Professor Willis’ new program represents a unique opportunity for students to visit and study highly significant sites that are often overlooked in study abroad.”

The program, which has the duration of a Carleton term, includes three classes: the 200-level “Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean,” “Heritage in Africa and Arabia” and “Critical Historical Research Methods.”

Among the many learning goals of the program are the aims to learn about “the importance of a cultural and commercial gateway linking Africa and Arabia to the broader Indian Ocean and Western Worlds” and how to “develop an acute awareness of some of the ways that race and culture are understood in different national contexts.”

On the whole, Willis voiced that he hopes the program promotes and communicates “an intimate understanding of just how distorted are the views of Africa and Arabia that circulate in popular culture and many intellectual circles [and] the historical construction of race and ethnicity and how complicated the varied meaning, enactment and lived experiences of blackness are.”

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