Pritchett leads African Studies Center
By Tim Stoddard
Traveling through Zambia and Lesotho in June, James Pritchett met with SPH students and alumni working in BU-sponsored AIDS and malaria programs. He was impressed by their efforts to fight the diseases, but also heard a familiar refrain: “To a person,” he says, “they told me, ‘I wish I had taken advantage of the strong resources that BU has in Africa to prepare myself culturally for what I would find here.’ Their problems in the field never centered on a lack of knowledge of epidemiology or biostatistics — it was their lack of cultural knowledge of the area in which they were operating.”
SPH students in Lesotho, for example, were helping the government write national guidelines for a voluntary AIDS testing and counseling program. “There’s nothing that’s touchier than trying to advise people about AIDS in Africa,” Pritchett says. “It gets you all wrapped up in people’s notions of sexuality and identity, and if you don’t have a sound grasp of their culture, you’re not really in much of a position to advise.”
Pritchett, the new director of the African Studies Center, is acutely aware of the need for clearer cultural understanding of Africa. His research has focused on the impact of colonialism on traditional African societies, and the damage inflicted by westerners imposing their ideas — even the benevolent ones — on Africans. Pritchett, who is a CAS associate anthropology professor and associate provost for Intra-University Programs, wants to help a wider range of BU students develop an African perspective of Africa. “My goal is to bring the professional schools at Boston University into more productive engagement with African studies,” he says. “I’d like to see a strengthening of the center’s base in the social sciences and humanities, but we also need to reach out and see new programs combining African studies in law, medicine, and business.”
While Pritchett is primarily concerned with advancing African studies at BU, as associate provost he’s also working to strengthen other areas of cultural expertise, such as a soon-to-be-launched Islamic Studies Center. “I think that people really should spend more time studying the culture of the place in which they intend to practice their profession,” he says. “We’re using Africa as a model because we have a lot of Africa-related resources on this campus, but I think the same would be said for someone coming to Boston University to study business and going on to work in Japan. While they’re here, they should take advantage of courses on Japanese culture. In an increasingly globalized workforce, cultural knowledge of the place where one works is nearly as important as knowledge of the profession itself.”
Over the past 50 years, the African Studies Center has become a national resource for the study of Africa. It also has a broad reach across departments and colleges at BU. Faculty from the CAS departments of anthropology, history, economics, and political science have offices in the center, which occupies the fourth floor of 270 Bay State Road. But there are also a growing number of faculty at COM, SPH, SMG, and SED who are addressing African issues in their research and teaching.
At the School of Management, Pritchett says, faculty are researching issues related to values and tastes of African consumers. “How do you pitch products in different areas of Africa?” he asks. “How do you penetrate the African market? How do you persuade them to spend their disposable income, which is becoming quite considerable?” Effective advertising, Pritchett says, requires considerable knowledge of the customs and traditions of the target audience. “People in advertising sometimes need to be even better anthropologists than people like myself,” he says. “They have 30 seconds to hurl a few symbols on a screen that will persuade someone to part with their hard-earned money.”
Pritchett hopes to increase the number of African studies courses offered through COM and SMG, and to build upon existing courses at the School of Law. The need for cultural understanding of Africa is clear, he says, when it comes to legal contracts and property rights in Africa: “A lot of our western laws are about access to, control over, and what to do if someone tries to take away, your property. Most African societies don’t care quite so much about that. There are other issues that they think should be more important than property.”
While African studies continues to branch out within BU, Pritchett says that the center will continue to develop curricular and outreach materials. The center runs several dozen workshops every year for Boston K-12 public school teachers, who can earn professional development credit for learning about an array of African topics. Every summer, about 50 teachers participate in a five-week workshop at the center, where BU anthropologists, historians, and literary scholars lecture on African topics, which the teachers can then convert into age-appropriate material for their students. “Our program has been really instrumental in infusing Africa broadly into the Boston public school system,” Pritchett says. The center also maintains a substantial resource room, with more than 2,000 books, artifacts, films, slides, and other educational materials available on loan.
Pritchett succeeds as director James McCann, who will stay on at the center as the associate director for development. “The African Studies Center has a long-standing and well-deserved international reputation,” says McCann, a CAS professor of history. “Professor Pritchett is part of that past, and we are very fortunate to have his leadership as a part of our future.
I think that there are very few academics in this country with his depth of experience and vision for where African studies ought to be going. There is much we have to look forward to.”