Professor uses Tanzanian Fulbright experience to broaden understanding of ethnic, race relations

by Sal Nudo   /   Jul 19, 2016

Having Thai food in Tanzania

Eating Thai food in Tanzania: front, Lulu Mahai and Eugenia Kafanano; back, Joseph Shengena and Helen Neville; front, Tage Biswalo

In August 2012, Professor Helen Neville traveled to Tanzania with a friend to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a mountain with one of the world’s highest summits (19,341 feet) that attracts visitors and climbers worldwide. The journey to East Africa marked Neville’s first-ever camping trip, a formidable adventure she had never envisioned doing.

As it turned out, Neville fell in love with Tanzania. The warmth of its people, the beauty of the land, and the diverse ethnic and religious groups all made the two-week visit a transformative experience on many levels.

Neville fell in love with Tanzania.

Following her mountain-climbing experience, Neville, a scholar for more than 20 years who is the chair of the Counseling Psychology Program in the Department of Educational Psychology, and whose primary area of research interest is in black psychology, felt the timing was right to apply for a Fulbright grant in Tanzania, which she was awarded.

“I realized that I could learn a lot about ethnic and race relations by exploring the history of Tanzania,” said Neville, who noted that the country is one of the few in Africa that has not experienced large-scale ethnic violence or civil war since becoming an independent nation. “As a scholar and someone committed to social justice, I’m interested in better understanding environments that promote intergroup harmony.”

Neville’s goals during her Fulbright experience were threefold: to be of assistance to the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM); to grow as a teacher and as a scholar; and to establish long-term research, practice, and training projects with UDSM colleagues.

During her time in Tanzania, Neville co-taught three courses in the Department of Educational Psychology and Curriculum Studies at UDSM, collaborating with her host, Dr. Eugenia Kafanabo, the director of the Gender Centre. She and Kafanabo organized a daylong symposium called “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls,” where local scholars and Education at Illinois graduates presented. The Education alumni who gave talks at the event were: Alexis Clarke, M.S. ’06 Ed.Psych., Ph.D. ’10 Ed.Psych.; Bryana French, M.A. ’06 Ed.Psych., Ph.D. ’10 Ed.Psych.; Jioni Lewis, Ph.D. ’13 Ed.Psych.; and Valene Whittaker, Ph.D. ’13 Ed.Psych.

Neville also interacted with Tage Biswalo, Ph.D. ’10 EPS, a faculty member in the School of Education at UDSM. Biswalo and a colleague are working in the Dar es Salaam region, renovating classrooms and creating learning spaces such as a school library and a computer/resource center.

Much of Neville’s time was spent collaborating with Kafanabo and Dr. Sharon Bethea, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, on a youth civic engagement project that involved conducting focus groups with more than 61 secondary students. Neville said the students were perceptive and able to note the larger social and political issues shaping many of the concerns they faced, including poverty and inadequate resources. Along with participating in community-building activities, the students offered a number of solutions in the realms of employment, infrastructure, education, and ethics.

Through her work in Tanzania from August 2015 through April 2016, Neville is now committed to finding ways to incorporate African—and Tanzanian when possible—scholarship and knowledge in her Education at Illinois classes and research.

Neville is now committed to finding ways to incorporate African scholarship and knowledge in her Education at Illinois classes and research.

“We are in the process of developing a cross-cultural, bi-national participatory action research project with young women at the University of Dar es Salaam and young women at the University of Illinois,” Neville said. “Our hope is that an exchange program will develop from this collaboration.”

To further the alliance, Neville’s next steps include discussing the project with colleagues in the Center for African Studies to learn how fellow faculty members on campus have formed exchange programs with African universities. She will then work with her collaborators in Tanzania to find funding to support the exchange program.

Neville said witnessing various aspects of education in Tanzania was both rewarding and trying, a perspective shared by Education scholars Dean Mary Kalantzis and Professor Bill Cope, who visited Sierra Leone recently as part of an effort to rekindle academic ties between two countries. As in Sierra Leone, limited available educational resources and external pressures posed issues for Tanzanian students, according to Neville.

“Gaining access to current books and journal articles proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated,” she said. “And for some reason, telecommunication and the Internet in Tanzania are very expensive. So it was not economical for students to even access readings online.”

Neville got creative in order to deal with the limited available resources. She searched for free online books for her class and even purchased books for students in her independent study course. Her diligence overseas will pay off in the courses she teaches in the College.

“I’m more aware of the outstanding free online resources that are available and will find ways to further incorporate them in my classes at Illinois,” Neville said.

Living in a collectivistic culture for nearly a year forced Neville to reflect on socialization and the ways that U.S. society and Western paradigms influence so much of what is done in academia. Teaching counseling theories in a completely different context allowed her to better identify and understand how such concepts are embedded in assumptions about health and healing issues that are rarely discussed in the U.S.

"I plan to incorporate these concepts into teaching undergraduate students and into my research on healing from racial trauma."

“I now have a different lens in which to interpret and critique traditional psychotherapy theories, and I have insights about how these theories can be modified in other cultural contexts,” she said. “Moreover, a whole new world about indigenous notions of healing has been opened to me, and I plan to incorporate these concepts into teaching undergraduate students and into my research on healing from racial trauma as a way to promote a positive racial identity and liberation.”