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Longman Takes the Helm at African Studies Center

Agenda: Raise profile, tap into local immigrant communities


Timothy Longman takes over as new director of the 56-year-old African Studies Center. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The office still has that new car smell. The paint is fresh, and the sign on the front of building has yet to include the name of the program.

The African Studies Center not only has new digs, it also has a new director. Timothy Longman, who hails from Vassar College, where he was an associate professor of political science and Africana studies, takes over the venerable program from Interim Director James McCann, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history, who will stay on as associate director of development. The center, which opened in 1953, recently moved down the street to 232 Bay State Rd. and now occupies the fifth floor and part of the fourth, opening up more lecture and classroom space, among other things.

Longman, a CAS visiting associate professor of political science, developed a keen interest in the continent when his Protestant pastor father hosted many Africans in the family home over the years. Longman’s academic specialialty is state-society relations, as well as human rights and justice issues. In 1993, he found himself living in Rwanda, a year before the genocide that saw the minority Hutus slaughter as many as a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates over a 100-day period. He returned to the country the following year as head of the Human Rights Watch office. He recently published Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2009), which argues that Rwanda’s churches became complicit in the genocide because of their historic links with the state and their engagement in ethnic politics.

BU Today discussed with Longman his plans for the center, trends in African development, and the legacy of Rwanda’s genocide.

BU Today: What is your vision for the African Studies Center?
The center has a long tradition. It’s well respected within African studies circles and seems to function pretty well, so coming in from the outside, I wasn’t asked to fix anything. I was brought in to come up with some new ideas and perspective. In some ways, the African Studies Center is the proverbial light kept under a bushel. The program, frankly, could be better known to a wider audience. I don’t think most people at BU realize we have one of the premier programs in the country, and one of the oldest. So my hope is that we can raise the profile, not just within BU, but within Boston.

I also think there are ways that we could be more connected to Africa. BU has a lot of study-abroad programs, but right now we have just one school-year program in Niger and a summer program in Senegal. So I’m going to encourage us to have more connections.

Why should BU students care about Africa?
Africa is one of the places that is a bright spot for the future. There’s been a lot of focus on the negative about the African continent. One of the things we can do is contextualize the problems that do exist, and also help people realize what’s going well in the continent and the potential for development. It’s rich in natural resources. It has extraordinarily vibrant cultures and people who are resilient and creative and engaged. I think it’s very helpful for students to realize we have wonderful resources here. For students and faculty, we can really provide a strong basis of knowledge of Africa.

How do you plan to attract more African students and faculty?
As a center, we already have a number of African faculty and graduate students. Coming from the outside, I’d say that BU as an entire campus could do better on diversity issues. There’s a large black population in the Boston area, both recent immigrants and African-Americans. The city has a lot of African immigrant communities. The Cape Verdean community is very large. There are large Senegalese and Ugandan communities. Our center could be a place that could reach out to those communities, and be one of the engines to promote diversity at BU. For example, we’re developing an undergraduate major in conjunction with the African-American Studies Program. Both of our centers have tended to focus on graduate studies. I think now there is a realization that if we really want to cultivate the next generation of scholars in African and African-American studies we really need to start at the undergraduate level.

The United States is turning to Africa for more of its oil, as much as 25 percent some experts predict. What does this mean for the continent?
There’s a tradition of exploitation of Africa. It’s very easy, if you don’t understand the continent, to contribute to ongoing exploitation. There are a lot of resources in Africa, and in general African societies don’t benefit much from the mining of those resources. They’re increasingly discovering oil in Africa. As they do that, it’s important for us to think about the impact of our presence there. A lot of American oil companies have been involved in Nigeria, and there have been some very negative impacts on the environment and the local populations.

There’s also been a lot of focus on the mineral coltan, which is a major component in electronics, particularly in cell phones and computers. It’s something that’s been mined quite extensively in Congo, and the mining practices have been quite bad. That’s the kind of thing we want to raise awareness about. You might not realize the connection that you as a consumer in the United States have to Africa, that your cell phone may use coltan that has been mined with near-slave labor.

In your book, you talk about how and why the churches were involved in the Rwandan genocide. What conclusions do you draw?
What I found was that there was a long tradition of close relations between church and state, where the churches aligned themselves with the government to make their work easier in the country. They played ethnic politics. When the Tutsis were in charge, the churches aligned themselves with the Tutsis. When the Hutus took over, they aligned themselves with the Hutus. What’s even more important is that the churches became sites for politics, places where people struggled for power themselves, because churches in Africa are major institutions. They run hospitals, they run schools, they have assistance for the poor, they give a lot of jobs, so competition within churches becomes political. Part of the competition was ethnic competition and that lent itself to churches becoming involved in the genocide. When you have churches encouraging ethnic politics within their own ranks, it seems natural for Christians to believe their involvement in the genocide is consistent with church teachings.

What’s the scene in Rwanda today?
There’s lot of coping. There’s not a lot of active violence, but it’s a very authoritarian society. There’s a government, made up most of Tutsis, that’s been suppressing ethnic identity for understandable reasons. They feel that ethnicity has caused a lot of trouble. They’re urging people to just identify as Rwandans today. The problem with that is it doesn’t allow people to talk about the real ethnic conflict that still exists. I worry that the government is suppressing conversation in a way that’s not healthy. Rwanda still hasn’t thoroughly dealt with its past yet. Unfortunately, the government has been promoting a very singular vision of the past and expecting everyone to go along with it. They haven’t really been encouraging open conversation about what went wrong in the country.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


One Comment on Longman Takes the Helm at African Studies Center

  • Annette Zaale Champney on 10.05.2009 at 9:43 am


    Welcome Prof. Longman:
    I like your vision of raising the profile of the African Studies center at BU and the community at large. I hope BU as a school willl increase some partnerships with different African programs all over the continent.
    Hopefully, raising the profile of the school will help BU students learn that Africa is not only this ‘failed” continent that they need to save but will be able to learn of uniqueness of Africa and its potential as a partner in global issues.


    Annette Zaale Champney
    Ugandan working at SMG

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